Saturday, June 4, 2016

Perfectly Imperfect

A few weeks ago, I attended a local Jewish women’s conference entitled Idealism v. Realism. I’d waffled for days about going, worried I couldn’t carve out the time. But on the morning of the event, I learned that a good friend was moderating a breakout session and I wanted to participate. The nearby library book sale offered added incentive. I threw on a clean skirt, averted my eyes from the weed-like overgrowth of paper and laundry, and left the house.

The room was filled with busy women, most of us working moms eager to let loose a little in the discussions. After my friend’s powerful presentation, I stayed for the next one, too, moderated by another savvy woman I know from the community. She offered lessons to share with our daughters, aimed at teaching them to differentiate between real and ideal as they become wives and mothers and professionals, flailing around in the water like most of us do, trying to strike a balance, whatever on earth that means.

Because I have only sons, the takeaway for me was what resonated with my own day-to-day, and perhaps what I will share with future daughters-in-law, if they are inclined to hear my thoughts on such matters. Mostly, it was a reminder that striving to make the ideal of doing it all a reality almost always comes at the expense of something – our relationships, our happiness, or our overall well-being.

Something has to give, wherever we need it to. Takeout is fine. So is turning down community volunteer opportunities when our plates are full and throwing clutter into shopping bags before guests arrive for Shabbos lunch (save the nice ones for these occasions). Overextending ourselves and trying to be perfect in all things – or in anything, for that matter – is the EZ pass lane to burnout.

Perfection matters in some instances, of course, like when performing open-heart surgery or framing a new house. But most of the time it doesn’t. There was a humorous moment during the session when the moderator and I broke into a rendition of “Let It Go.” Sorry, Elsa. We’re coopting it. It’s the perfect anthem for the imperfect-is-more-than-good-enough philosophy.

Imperfect is, however, what’s expected of the goods proffered at a library book sale, versus the pristine editions one hopes to score at an auction, or the too-high a bar we sometimes set for ourselves. I considered this as I entered the library, excited about the prospect of finding a new stack of reads. When buying used books, I’m rarely bothered by a roughed-up cover or even notes scribbled in the margins. After all, these are signs that the book has fulfilled its purpose and has been well-loved in exchange.

We’re not much different. Life isn’t meant to be airbrushed. It’s meant to be lived. Our scuffs are valuable evidence that we’re doing just that – loving, working, parenting, praying, preparing and eating a delicious meal or keeping busy with whatever hobbies and books and chores fill our days. Our nicks and pings only make us more interesting.

I’d arrived at the book sale in its final hour and the pickings were slim. Still, I found a few titles I look forward to reading, also a volume for a friend, and others for my boys. When the volunteers announced that we could fill a tote bag for $5, I felt like a kid in a candy shop. I rummaged through a large box stashed beneath a table, in which I discovered an old siddur. Its enamel binding is chipped, its clasp is missing, but the flowers etched into the cover are preserved and the pages are intact.

I hugged the siddur to my chest, unable to believe the serendipity or the luck. But surely it was also a sign that we ladies in that breakout session were onto something. The siddur is lovely and well-loved, perfect in its imperfection, the best lesson of the day.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

What Happened When He Came Home

My son recently came home from yeshiva in Israel for a short visit over the holidays.

As one of his younger brothers observed, “He does nothing wrong because he’s away.” What he meant, of course, was that what I couldn’t see from across the ocean didn’t bother me. There was little left to quibble over anyway, what with him out of the range of maternal pestering about chores and homework and daily responsibilities. It was up to his roommates – if they
cared at all, if they weren’t messier – to keep him in order.

Now that he was heading home, though, I worried. He’d tasted freedom and independence – semi-independence, really, since he’s still on the payroll – and nine months of coming and going as he pleased. But we still had to parent, not exactly as we had before he left for Israel last summer, though not the same as we’d done while he was abroad either. The balance had changed. We needed to reset the rules.

My husband and I strategized, agreeing to give him a wide berth. We let him borrow the car whenever he wanted it, asking only how far away he was going, when he’d be back, and that he refill the tank. I made his favorite foods. We savored every moment he chose to spend with us rather than his friends and I tried very, very hard not to hover.

As his brothers predicted, I was so happy to have him home, I let almost nothing bother me. After all, he was helpful. He ran errands and lifted heavy objects for me. He was a pleasure to spend time with and wanted to talk about big existential questions and The Future. That did not, however, excuse his growing piles of laundry that eventually got on my nerves, though a part of me wanted to be able to ignore them.

The day he left again was surreal. He was excited about going back to Israel, to his friends and to his learning. It was I who would feel the change, who would sense his absence. So we did normal things to pass the time. He went to the dentist and picked up his suit from the cleaners. We stopped for sushi and snacks for the plane. And then I drove him to the airport and stood with him as he checked in.

The airline attendant asked, “Two passengers?”

“No. Just one. Just my baby,” I said, letting that slip out before I could stop it. I noticed with relief that my son wasn’t rolling his eyes.

The attendant paused. “My baby,” she said, “is 38. But she’s still my baby.”

After he checked in, we chatted as we walked towards security. He worried that his luggage wouldn’t land with him in Tel Aviv, which it did not. I was more concerned he’d be waylaid in a foreign airport if he missed one of his connections. That morning, I’d suggested, as I suspect all Jewish mothers do, that he pack a change of clothing in his carry-on just in case.

“It’s fine, Mom,” he said, sweetly, patiently. And I, knowing my place, held my tongue.

We hugged goodbye, while he reminded me that he’d be home again in six weeks. I took a step back and watched him walk away, aware that he was simply setting out to live his life. He was moving forward, not leaving me behind. This is what’s supposed to happen, I repeated to myself under my breath. And that, I suppose, will make all the difference.

Friday, April 8, 2016

How Those Countdown to Pesach Emails Gave Me an Unexpected – and Somewhat Embarrassing – Aha! Moment

It’s inevitable. Right after Purim, all the wonderful kosher food blogs and Jewish websites I subscribe to begin their barrage on my inbox. One month until Pesach! Are you ready? or something of that ilk appears in the subject line, and from there, the daily tips, countdowns, and reminders follow, tracking the moments until the arrival of the Big P.

I know they are doing what they should be doing this time of year. Still, the notifications make me nervous, though the emails surely contain great ideas, like tips for cleaning an oven without poisonous chemicals and delicious set-it-and-forget-it recipes. For the sake of my sanity, I don’t even read them.

Let me say up front that I love Pesach. Once I’m in the groove, I enjoy the preparation, too, even the hard labor and the cooking for a crowd. What I can’t abide is any external pressure, like those emails and the one-upmanship conversations I get cornered into at the market. It makes no sense that I let any of it bother me. I’ve been making Pesach in my own home for more than two decades. Yet the word countdown sends me into a tizzy, nearly convincing me that this will be the year I won’t be ready on time.

The daily emails fulfill their good purpose: to get folks into the spirit of the season and to make the inherent tasks more manageable. But for me, they only feed the neuroses I have to fend off while preparing for this holiday. I know there are freezers out there that will fill up with Pesadik cooked briskets and kiwi ices long before I’ve tackled my shopping list, and that’s fantastic. What I need are reminders that it’s okay to live in my own Pesach time zone, that it’s fine for me to get there whenever I get there because I will, in fact, get there before we sit down to the first seder.

This year, just two days into the countdown launch, I was already on edge. It was morning, and I was engaged in my usual dawn exchange with one of my sons. He had lingered in bed for too long and once up, was doing everything but getting dressed. Frustrated, I began repeating the refrain, “If you don’t hurry up, you’ll be late for school.”

At first, he shrugged me off with teenage annoyance. Then instead of the usual “Leave me alone,” he burst forth with a shout.

“Counting the minutes isn’t helping! You’re only making it worse!”

Oops, I thought, swallowing my words with a proverbial dose of bitter herbs. I knew exactly how I must sound to a guy who has never once been late for school. I apologized, put my tail between my legs, and resolved to keep my countdowns in my head, even in the moments when it’s really, really hard to do so. I’ve since woken him up each morning with nothing but a time check and a weather report, crawling back to the kitchen to prepare his lunch while sipping my coffee in silence.

Later, I turn on the computer, girding myself because I know what I’ll find. But those well-intentioned emails and I have reached détente, and I’m learning – slowly – how to keep them from rattling me. After all, I owe them a debt of gratitude now and it would be in bad faith not to read them. So I open them up and say with a wink, “I know exactly how you feel.”

Wishing all of you a worry-free Pesach preparation and a wonderful holiday, however you celebrate it. We will be zonked, but we will get there.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Kindness of Strangers

During my six-month stay in Budapest more than two decades ago, the elegant Mrs. Szeifert presented herself as my resident Jewish grandmother. From her perch on high heels, she fussed over me, teeming with warmth for this stranded expatriate who was not only far from home, but didn’t speak any of the local language.

I enjoyed her companionship and particularly adored her expressions, all delivered in Hungarian-rhythmed English. When she was busy, she would say she was “running hither and thither.” And when she heard unpleasant news, she’d announce, “It absolutely cannot be. It must be something other.”

Sadly, what must not be is. What we could never imagine happening, or happening again, is unfolding in the headlines before our eyes. While I pray that the world will come to its senses and set itself right – that I’ll awake in the morning to find that the mess we’re in has been folded up and tucked away – it seems less and less likely with the passing of time.

I’m not a fan of the phrase “Everything happens for a reason.” Still, I believe G-d has a master plan, even when the wisdom behind it eludes me. Letting go of the illusion that I have any control would come as a relief, though alas, a leopard cannot change her spots. I worry. A lot. To keep it from consuming me, I move from distraction to distraction, prowling for embers of good wherever I can find them. And sometimes, they appear in the unlikeliest of places, like at the pharmacy the other night.

I had to run there as it was closing to pick up a prescription for a family member who had not been feeling well. Worry wasn’t my undercurrent that evening. It was front and center, and as a result, I wasn’t my usual put-together self. Still, the young pharmacist did not rush me when I couldn’t find my insurance card, though I’m sure he was eager to close and head home. Nor he did appear frustrated when I gave him the wrong birthdate for the patient. At some point, he looked up to ask me what was wrong, and I told him, limiting myself to the one thing relevant in the moment.

“He will be fine,” he said.

“How do you know that?” I shot back, gently.

“Because he has you.”

For an instant, time stood still in my corner of the world. Nothing crooked was straightened, nothing broken was fixed, the reason for my concern did not dissipate. Yet the pharmacist, whether he knew it or not, had prescribed exactly what I needed, and in his subtle way, helped the blanket of unease slip from my shoulders and fall to the floor.

I didn’t believe the patient’s recovery would have anything to do with me, nor did I think that my worry would stay away for long.  But in that slim window before it returned was a reminder to do more than brood while waiting for change to arrive from above. Healing words – and when they fail, compassionate silence – can provide a powerful balm in the interim.

A week has passed since that exchange with the pharmacist. Yet what he said continues to echo in my ears and calm me, especially now that my worry is chomping at the bit to return with a vengeance, thanks to the latest headlines and the fact that the patient has not yet recovered. When it comes down to it, though, there’s far too much out there we will never control. All we can do is pray and cede the rest to G-d.

In the meantime we can be generous of spirit, to those we love and to total strangers we meet at the drug store. I brought the pharmacist a challah this past Friday afternoon to thank him for his words, and as we stood there, both of us with gratitude in our eyes, I could tell he didn’t have too many of these moments at the office.

I believe, perhaps naively, that these little exchanges of kindness offer some hope for a peaceful resolution to the mess we’re in.  At the very least, they are the tiny specks of light flickering in the darkness.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Blanket Measure of a Life

I recently finished crocheting a large afghan, a project that took me several months to complete. Because life is busy, I had to sneak in stitches whenever I could, most often in the school carpool line. I felt lucky for every one of those therapeutic, creative moments, and as always, excited about crafting something with my hands.

Heading in, I knew I was going to make mistakes, like missing stitches or changing color at the wrong juncture. Afghans are my favorites precisely because the gaffes rarely alter the overall appearance of the finished product. Unless I catch them right away, I hardly ever fix them. I like how they remind me that the ability to create is G-d-given, that no matter how well we hone our craft, we will never possess His mastery.

Mostly, I relish the intimacy that develops between me and whatever I’m making. An afghan and I fall into something akin to a marital routine several rows in. We learn to recognize one another’s touch, and the better acquainted we become, the more forgiving we are of our respective quirks and foibles. When I stand back, I see only a lovely picture formed by thousands of fiber pixels. The mistakes, lost in a sea of stitching, have all become an integral part of its beauty.

So it’s no surprise that I began to think about what I’d like to make next the moment I folded up this latest project. There’s something about the act of crocheting that keeps me grounded and focused, and to be honest, I needed a new activity for the carpool line.

While heading upstairs to my yarn basket, I caught my image in the mirror. As a rule, I avoid inspecting myself too closely, but for some reason, I was compelled to take a good, hard look. My body and I have been together for a while already, and there’s a tenderness between us from passing the years in one another’s company. Still, I often fail to see my imperfections in the same loving, forgiving way I do the mistakes in an afghan. How easily I forget that the lines and creases and stretch marks aren’t mistakes, but trophies, and that in either case they are the stitches that compose the full picture of who I am.

I walked past my sons’ rooms, where afghans sit folded at the edge of their beds. There are more in every room of the house, at the ready to warm and comfort us, all souvenirs of the moments in which I made them. One I finished while recovering from a hospitalization. Another on a road trip to Mount Rushmore (my husband was driving). Yet another because the pattern challenged me at a time when I needed to prove something to myself. And there are still others, swirling around in my imagination, awaiting the light of day should G-d continue to bless me with dexterity and patience.

I know that the quantity and the diversity of a crocheted afghan collection are not the standard means to qualify a life. Perhaps the idea rings folksy and naïve. But we must all find a way to account for our place in this world, and my stash, mistakes and all, strikes me as good a measure as any.

Monday, February 1, 2016

You Never Know What You’ll Find in the Snow

The blizzard of a week ago already feels like ancient history, yet the walking remains treacherous. Terrified of falling but determined to get some fresh air, I strolled downtown on Friday morning despite the risks.

So many families were away for winter break that I passed only one friend entering her car – a rarity, because I usually bump into a lot of people on these walks. I confess to relishing the unexpected solitude and the emptiness, and to having the sidewalk to myself. And like a child, I enjoyed being outdoors in the cold, winter wonderland, for no matter how old I get, I still love snow’s potential to become whatever we shape it into.

In that moment, though, I was focused mostly on not falling. I carefully navigated around snow piles and tiptoed over ice patches, the weight of my grocery bags keeping me in balance. There wasn’t much to distract me, only a few brittle plants peering out here and there. So I was taken aback by the sudden appearance of a bright red spot on the horizon. I thought it was the thumb of a child’s glove emerging from the snow, but as I got closer, I saw that it was a strawberry.

It could not have been there long. It hadn’t been devoured by one of our resident wild things, nor had it bled crimson into the surrounding white.


I kept walking.

Around the next mound of snow, there was another.

Then another.

Five strawberries in all, as if they were trying to tell me something. I shrugged and continued home, letting the story write itself in my head.

At first, I considered the possibility that someone might have been walking a few minutes ahead of me out of my range of vision. We’d missed one another, our footsteps silent on the soft snow, our figures obscured behind the snow mounds. It seemed that the bag she was carrying had torn on one of the dried shrubs, allowing its contents to spill out and leave a trail. But the berries were too precisely positioned for that to have been the case.

I wondered if their exact placement had been the handiwork of a child instead, who fretted that the animals must be starving when the trees are so bare and the ground is blanketed. A small boy had waged a well-meaning, persistent campaign until his mother had given him the bowl of berries and he’d gone out in his snowsuit to position them just so. Yet if that had been true, he’d have been kneeling right then on the couch in his front window, waiting with anticipation for the animals to come and partake of his gifts. But the curtains were drawn on all the houses I passed on my way.

That night, my youngest son and I joined friends for Shabbos dinner while my husband and our other boys were together in Jerusalem. The berries were already gone by the time I walked over after candle-lighting, likely eaten by some hungry animal unable to believe his luck. During the meal, the hostess mentioned strawberries. I reacted with such joy, thinking I was about to solve the mystery since they lived near where I made my discovery. Alas, no. She was certain her packages were intact when she returned from the market.

It’s unlikely I’ll never know how, or why, those berries appeared in my path that morning. Sometimes things don’t happen for a reason. Sometimes, they just happen.

Still, the animal’s luck was mine, too. The serendipity of finding five bright red strawberries in the snow on a silent winter day had already found its way into the treasure chest I keep inside my head. They reinforced my belief that there are stories everywhere – a kind of magic that, like snow, can be shaped into anything we want it to be.

And that seems like reason enough.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Failure Is an Option. Send in Reinforcements.

For a good five minutes soon after dawn yesterday, I found myself staring at a blank sheet in my notebook, the one I still won’t call a 2016 daily gratitude journal. My mind ambled as it tends to when I can’t get words on the page, and it occurred to me that although we’re only two weeks into the new calendar year, I’m already on the brink of failure.

The first few days were easy. Leaving the big guns, like health and rain, to the formal morning blessings in my prayer book, I came up with other things I was grateful for in that moment of journal writing. Items ranged from my son taking out the garbage without being asked to my hot milk frother, which arrived two weeks ago from Amazon and has since elevated my coffee-drinking experience to celestial levels.

As it turns out, putting forth a daily offering of gratitude, when not relying solely on scripted prayer, is harder than I expected. It’s not that I’m unthankful. But I am struggling not to repeat myself as time passes. Like most people, I’m grateful for the same things today that I was the day before.

Yesterday was a doozy. It arrived on the heels of a weekend marked by disappointment, rejection, and a handful of other bad news. To add insult to injury, I foolishly decided to weigh myself right after Shabbos. I woke up grumpy on Monday, my pool of positive thoughts drained. Still, I refused to leave the morning’s entry blank. I stopped staring at the empty page and finally wrote: I’m not sure. I know I’m thankful, though right now, I can’t say for what. It was honest. I didn’t have the wherewithal for more than that.

I stowed the notebook near the microwave and carried on, taking mental notes when something made me smile or eased the process of tackling my to-do list or helped me forget what was getting me down. On their own, these moments lacked the cachet needed for admission to the journal, but were still due recognition. After all, a bissel un a bissel machen a gantze shissel. A little and little make a full bowl.

And so it was, too, with the teetering stack of papers I planned to sort through in the afternoon, dividing them among the many three-ring binders in which I organize my life. One for the boys, another for the house. Others for my articles and blog posts, recipes, crochet patterns, and the decorating ideas I’ll implement right after we get our Powerball winnings.

The primary tools required to manage this system are simple: a 3-ring hole punch and a pack of adhesive reinforcements. Both are genius inventions that render me awestruck every time I use them. The former is among my prized possessions, the workhorse that makes the system possible. But the latter is my knight in shining armor, galloping in to save the day, piecing everything back together when we’re on the cusp of disarray.

Or disappointment, failure, and loss. Because no matter what the movie scripts and television commercials preach, failure is always an option. Yet those paper reinforcements remind me that it doesn’t have to be an end. We can put our pieces back together, maybe even stronger than before.

Last night, over a cup of tea, I gathered up the few pleasant moments I let in through my window of blahness over the course of the day. I grouped them in my mind, because assembled, they recounted a far prettier story about one challenging, not particularly meaningful or memorable Monday in my life than their individual parts could ever tell – and together, they offered up the lines I would write this morning.