Friday, March 27, 2015

I Love Making Pesach. Really. Yes, Really!

It’s not a very popular thing to say, and some might argue that it calls into question my grip on sanity. Yet here I go anyway: I love preparing for Pesach.

Now hear me out. Like everyone I know who is Jewish and Pesach-observant, does not go away to family or a fancy hotel for the holiday, and does not have a full-time housekeeper, I find the prep enormously taxing. The shopping is just more of the same.

But the pre-chag intensity gives me a chance at a fresh start, and that makes all the hard work worthwhile. While I relish the exterior changes the holiday brings, especially the pristine emptiness of a newly-cleaned refrigerator, what I love most is the interior transformation that comes with it– the way the chametz-filled closets of my mind and my soul get the same detailed overhaul as the pantry.

As I clean out the cabinets, I often strike up a conversation with G-d to talk through what’s been troubling me. I cast off old grudges here on earth while I’m at it. The result is a spiritual decluttering that parallels the physical removal of chametz from our home and it feels really, really good.

We are cautioned to distinguish between Pesach cleaning and spring cleaning, and to search for chametz, not schmutz. Even if we stick to those distinctions, the day is short and the work is plentiful. But I’m no longer reckless about it like I was when I was younger, staying up all night to clean for days at a stretch and then sleeping through the first seder.

And how do I manage now?

I delegate what I can and I don’t waste time on things that drag me down. I keep my expectations of family participation realistic, so there’s no resentment brewing alongside the chicken soup. My husband, G-d bless him, washes out the garbage can, a job that makes me gag. My sons surprised me last year by taking more initiative in the cleaning and by groaning less about it. I’m hoping for the same this time around, but I’m not hoping too hard.

I also ignore what I don’t want to see, like “Countdown to Pesach” emails, which seem to shout, not encourage. Instead, I embrace the ones that give me non-toxic methods for scouring my oven, an uplifting d’var Torah on the meaning of redemption, or a new, sure-to-wow recipe. Otherwise, my route to Pesach rarely wavers. I stick to the same plan and shopping list year after year. Though it doesn’t make things easier, it gets me where I’m going – on time, intact, and awake.

Thinking for myself despite generally held wisdom, like when I tackle the kitchen before setting out to de-chametz the rest of the house, makes all the difference because it’s what works for us. With bread products gone from the culinary command center, crumbs are less likely to show up in the den. (My sons, as old as they are, still walk around with cheese crackers on their person at all times, may my future daughters-in-law forgive me.)

After all of the heavy work is done, I haul out the cooking gadgets once used by my grandmother and great-grandmother. A hand-turned egg beater and a sifter keep me company while I mash and chop, reminding me that I’ve simply taken my place in a long line of women who made it through this daunting challenge and came out stronger for it.

And then, the final hurdle before candle-lighting: feeding three hungry boys on the eve of the chag, almost-men who could, if left unchecked, eat in a continuous loop throughout the day. For nearly an hour, time stops so I can fry 5 pounds of schnitzel and the same quantity of potatoes. I call my sons down for lunch so they can embrace our traditions with a full stomach and soak up my love.

A clean house, a cleansed soul. Family on their way to our home for seder. Candles glowing on the sideboard. Knaidlach afloat on a chicken soup sea.

Whatever it took to get here, it was worth it. And that’s good enough for me.

Dayenu.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Hopscotch, Anyone?

One of the things I miss most about being a little girl is scampering around on the playground. I soared down that slide like nobody’s business and more than once – 3 times to be exact – fell off the monkey bars, tearing open my chin. I even have the scars from the stitches to prove it. But the freedom I felt there was unparalleled and, as I recall, well worth the wounds, though my mother might not agree.

Hopscotch was one of my favorite playground activities, in great part because it was something I was good at. Who knew then, in my innocence, that it would provide the perfect metaphor for my adult life? From this vantage point, it seems that grownup time is marked less by months and years than it is by the jump from one intense period to the next, with only rare chances to set both of my feet on the ground.

And just as it was on the playground, real life hopscotch is best played with others. To share the intensities in our lives – the big challenges, the blessed celebrations, and the lifecycle events that merit space in the shul bulletin – is to fortify our friendships. It gives us the platform upon which we perch everything else – the birthday gatherings, the Shabbos meals, the quick calls to see if the other needs something from the market.

In friendship, what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours. We hop with an open heart between one another’s milestones. We dance arm in arm in celebration, send lasagnas back and forth in crisis, and mourn together in loss. We do the hard stuff for one another because we want to. It is way more than a tenet of the social contract. It is the gift of balance in an unbalanced world.

Wounds make their mark too frequently, not only on the news, but in our own communities and in our own lives. They come in all shades of black and blue, from the sad to the tragic, from the irrevocable to the sorts that will, over time, heal themselves. If we’re smart, we learn the lessons to dance harder at a simcha and to savor simple, everyday pleasures.

We aren’t on the playground anymore, and we know well enough that we’re rarely handed the chalk and given the chance to draw the squares on the pavement by ourselves. Instead, life unfolds on its own: our parents age, our children G-d willing grow up and move on to the next wonderful stage of their lives, wrinkles form, some of our parts begin to sag. All the while, we hop from the highs to the lows and back up, and then back down again, because that’s what there is.

When the rare period of calm comes, short-lived though it may be, we should grab on tight. It’s a good time, within those lulls, to be grateful for the comfort we get from the people we love, and in the simple knowledge that we’re not hopping around alone.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Mezinka Dance, Round #1

I’ve been busy making the bar mitzvah that came and went last Shabbos. The preceding weeks were a maelstrom of preparation and I was nervous I wouldn’t get to everything in time. But of course, it all came together at the last moment, and the simcha raced towards its finish line in what felt like a matter of seconds before disappearing into the vapor of happy memory.

The usual presumptions of disaster haunted me as the day approached, and a few things – all minor in retrospect – did go wrong. For starters, my gas stovetop blew up as I brewed the chicken soup. The musician for the melave malka cancelled on Thursday night, and it turned out that the tablecloths I’d selected were the wrong shape and size.

I’m a girl who pays close attention to detail, even when it comes to the quotidian. Still, I had no intention of losing sight of the forest for the elaborate centerpieces I’d crafted. I had myself a good cry and allowed each of these distractions to resolve themselves.

This bar mitzvah was a biggie. It was our youngest son’s, the last of three. How had we’d gotten here so quickly? I envisioned sitting with a wreath on my head for the traditional mezinka tanz (dance) at his wedding. I rarely drink, but I needed a little claret to take the emotional edge off.

Here was my baby, about to become a man. I wanted the day to be meaningful. I wanted it to be about all the wonderful things he is and about the long, often turbulent journey of this particular, out-of-the-box 13-year-old, who has never had the luxury of taking anything for granted.

On the Shabbos of the bar mitzvah, there was no blizzard. The temperature was just above freezing, reasonable for the long walk to shul. None of my other supersized worries came to fruition either. My son had nursed a sore throat all week, but did not develop laryngitis. Despite his fear of public speaking, he did not refuse to get up there and do his thing, though he asked if he absolutely had to go through with it when I woke him up that morning.

He read his Torah portion slowly and clearly (flawlessly, if I may be so bold), and he himself could not believe what he’d done. He looked, as the tailor fitting him for his suit predicted, “sharp up there on the beamer” (my son may never call it the bimah again). I sobbed. I’m sorry. I just could not help myself.

During a break in the action, I asked a friend to handle the distribution of the candy bags we’d hurl at the bar mitzvah boy when he completed the haftarah. I nervously asked her again during the next pause, then once more. She humored me, though my nudging was never about the candy. It was about holding my breath and praying that the details would anchor an ethereal moment in the tangible world so that I’d know for sure it was true.

By then, my stove top had been replaced and the caterer had figured out how to make a small rectangular tablecloth fit a large circular table. Our musician had designated his replacement. Honestly, none of it made much difference.

What did matter, however, was my son and the Torah portion he’d spent an entire year mastering. And the moment when he stood next to his brothers, one after the next, as they each had an aliyah. It was also about the love packed into our crowded shul, and the way our family simcha became a communal event that expressed our gratitude not only to G-d, but to everyone on earth who’d helped us reach that day.

I recited the Shehechiyanu and meant every word. That night, I watched from the sidelines as the men danced with my son. I loved the way he beamed in time to the music and how much he enjoyed each second of the action. I, meanwhile, did one of heck of a mezinka dance in my head.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Please Don’t Change

For many years, our yard has served as a rest area for a family of deer. Every morning they dine here on the grass and leaves, do their business, and nap before moving along to a different spot in the neighborhood. They gaze at me quizzically when I try to scare them off. I swear, they think their names are on the deed to the property.

They were only three when they arrived here one spring, but have since grown to seven, a formidable number of wild animals to have in one’s yard when one doesn’t live in the outback. They ravage my garden and have made me Lyme-phobic. Still, they are – invited or not -- a constant in our suburban lives.

On a recent morning, I stared out the window while the coffee brewed and sensed instantly that something was missing. It took a while to figure out that it was the deer. I scanned the yard. They were not beneath the swing set, their usual hangout, nor were they near the shed, where they like to nosh on the brittle weeds.

It’s not that I missed them, but their absence from our landscape didn’t feel right. The Jewish mother in me even felt a twinge of jealously: Is it possible they’d found better snacks elsewhere? For a moment, I worried they’d met the tragic end I secretly wished for them when they first snatched possession of the yard from my boys.

I was relieved to notice them sprawled out about 15 feet from the house, resting on the soft layer of snow that had fallen in the night. Still, silent, like figures in a diorama. Their fur, Papa Deer’s antlers, and all seven pairs of pert white ears faded from view, camouflaged behind bare branches of shrubbery until their bulging eyes gave them away.

I heard a familiar bark. Gadget, our friends’ enthusiastic dog, was out for his pre-dawn stroll. Lucky guy, his animal instincts pointed him directly to where the deer were. He was ready to go -- to play, to run, to dislocate them from their perch -- but they weren’t giving him the time of day. Excited by the sudden appearance of something else and the breakfast awaiting him at home, Gadget moved on.

But I couldn’t get past the moment I thought the deer had disappeared. They’ve driven me nuts for nearly a decade. I curse them under my breath every time I pick up their droppings and assess their damage to my garden. Then I don’t see them one morning and decide something is amiss in the universe?

It took a while to own up to it, though I knew all along why it bothered me. I often struggle when faced with changes that affect the backdrop to my day-to-day. I want the comfort of what I love or at the very least, what I know, even if that means deer in my yard.

I’m not asking to stop time, or to go back in it, though I admit I sometimes wish I had the power to do so. For starters, I’d relive the days when Petak’s had a sweet potato knish on its menu. And I do believe that change can also be good. I’ll take world peace. I’ll take a raise. I’ll take a smaller dress size. Bring on more happy milestone moments, like weddings and births.

Otherwise, I’d prefer if things stayed put so that I don’t spend time questioning why they didn’t. I’d like my boys to stay little, though they already aren’t. I don’t want to get older or greyer, but when I do, I want my husband to continue looking at me the loving way he does, even when I’ve grown all wrinkly like a dried up apple at the bottom of the fruit bowl.

I’m just saying that it would be nice if there were more constants, more immovable bits on our personal horizons to spare us from disappointment and the need to readjust our range of vision.

I was relieved to discover that someone was listening to me. The deer were back in their usual spot the next morning. If they move again, I’ll fetch Inspector Gadget to find them for me.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

On Reading Books and Reading Boys

I’ve been hiding behind the pages of a book since I first learned to read. Even now, when I’m well-ensconced in middle age, I turn to books for escape and comfort, peace and quiet, and a way to avoid things I don’t want to do. Some days, books even provide the oxygen I need to breathe, and they only expect me to care for their spines in return.

Books also give me a choice: to be myself, or if I’d rather, to be someone else. I get as close as possible to acting in a way I never would, to engaging in conversations I’ll never have, and to nibbling on forbidden fruit without the consequences. For the duration of their pages, it’s as if I exist in an alternate universe, where I live a life not my own. But books can only bring us near an actual experience. They cannot escort us across the border.

I think on some level, I always knew it was an opiate I sought on the shelves of the public library, but I had no name for it until I learned the word vicarious in middle school. The teacher wrote it in chalk on the blackboard and lights went off in my head. Vicarious made sudden sense of my world.

If only my sons were books I could read. A series in three volumes, all annotated.

So much of their thinking and doing is a mystery to me, though I do understand a lot of it after all these years of mothering them. We are programmed in unique code, and according to Jewish law, obligated in different ways. Sometimes, we speak our own dialects. In the thick of those discussions and disagreements, I wish I could step into their sneakers and be who they are, just long enough to figure out how to get things right with them more often.

Nothing else could bridge the divide in full, a reality I grasped during my older boys’ bar mitzvahs. A hollow knob, the tiniest bit of emptiness, began floating around inside me as my sons read from the open Torah. It did not diminish my joy or my pride in them, but it reminded me that no matter how closely I stood to the mechitzah, I was only watching from the bleachers.

Now that my youngest is about to put on tefillin for the first time, I sense the knob moving around again. I needlepointed the bag in which this almost-man will store them. I’ll watch with amazement and gratitude when he wraps himself in the straps. And yet, I’ll be an onlooker living the moment vicariously, a tourist who can get only so close to the cordon around the exhibit. This part of him and of his brothers will remain elusive.

I could ask the boys what it’s like for them to place the bayit (box) on their heads and be bound by the yoke of heaven. I can inquire how it feels to connect with G-d in such a physical way each morning. But I’ll only get what I usually get when I ask my teenagers these sort of probing questions, if I get a response at all: “Oh, I don’t know, Ma.”

I plan to try anyway, because a vicarious moment, when it is actually happening to someone for whom we’d step in front of a moving train, can be fulfilling enough. I’m their mother after all. I’m bound to intuit correctly some of the time. And if I get stuck, I’ll imagine that I’m holding a wise and beautiful story, and at least my heart will understand what I’m reading.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Very Loud Quiet

I’ve noticed lately that a lot of my parenting time is spent, as it has been over the years, thinking about what drives me crazy, and I’ve been working out whether that’s an entirely bad thing.

When my boys were small, their simplest actions made me smile. The way they offered to share a chewed-on teething biscuit or how they’d run to me when I arrived to get them from nursery school. I never minded the poop or the spit-up or the waking up at all hours. Or even the smell of Balmex. They were part of the package of unconditional love.

And yet, as they got older, I developed expectations, and therein lies the source of my troubles.

It was clear early on that my sons were not the fastidious types when it came to household chores, no matter how often I sang the Barney “Clean Up” song. Even in adolescence, they leave a mess in their wake, despite my repeated exhortations to pick up after themselves.

I fear what their future roommates will think of them and what my future daughters-in-law will think of me. I’m forced to cling to the thread of optimism offered by more experienced parents, who assure me that the boys will mature out of this era of sloth and that they are really not unique among their peers.

For now, their towels pile up on the bathroom floor. Their clean laundry gets mixed in with the dirty because that’s easier than putting it away. And my favorite infraction: If a teaspoon of milk remains in the bottle, you have technically not finished it, which means the next guy has to remember (but doesn’t) to tell Mom, who does the food shopping but does not have telepathy.

This litany of complaints ran through my mind last week as I cleaned the house for Shabbos. My eldest was in the shower, blaring the Bluetooth waterproof speaker we got the boys last Chanukah. He had been using some other gadget to play music from his iPhone, positioned precariously on the back of the toilet. We knew it was only a matter of time before that ended badly.

His playlist is an eclectic mix of current music, and he listens to it at a volume that essentially pipes it throughout the house. I get it. I remain a music-loving teenager at heart.

On that particular afternoon, though, the music was slightly louder than usual when my husband came home from work. In a rare moment of forgetfulness about the pop bands of his own youth, he called out to the teenager, asking him to lower that “terrible” song, which wasn’t terrible, just, well, youthful.

Generally, I’m the one who forgets they’re still kids. My husband is the cooler parent who would serve them ice cream for dinner every night. Yet I suddenly turned into the laid-back mama and he turned into a serious father sitcom version of himself.

“Let him be,” I said. “Next year when he’s away in yeshiva in Israel, we will miss every sound he makes.” We shrugged, laughed, and let the music play on.

I had a vision of our empty nest. There’s time yet, years even, until that’s a full reality, but the idea of it made me sweat.

As a result, I’m trying to turn a blind eye to the mess and to our home’s imperfections. It does look fine most of the time. Not ready for a photo shoot, but fine. The boys will tell you that I’m the only one who would notice dirty socks on a bookshelf anyway. This doesn’t mean I’ve stopped cleaning -- I’ve got to stay ahead of the curve – but we’re arguing about dirt a lot less.

These days, when I get in the car, I turn on a station that plays the music I hear night after night from the shower instead of my usual playlist. Because I have through osmosis memorized some of the lyrics, I sing along as I drive to the bus stop to pick up the boys. They are mortified when they pile in and notice that I’m listening to the songs of their generation, more so that I know the words.

They click off the radio.

I turn it back on.

There’s only so much quiet a mother can take.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Wisdom in Falling Leaves

As a little girl, fall was always my favorite season. I loved that the trees looked like enormous red and yellow lollipops and that the air tasted of cinnamon. When the leaves turned brittle and fell to the ground, I walked back and forth over mounds of them, just to hear their comforting rustle beneath my feet.

I still like fall best, though what I now treasure most about it is its unwillingness to waste time. Fall knows exactly what it must do and gets on with it. It’s a period of transition. It’s about endings. But it is mostly about those leaves and our fragility. I can’t help but wonder whether the trees process the loss as they strip their color, whether they mourn what once was, whether they ache with the melancholy wrought by the shorter days.

For six years of falls, in the weeks before frost blanketed the grass, I walked with my youngest son to school. Each morning, we stopped in a nearby field to pick through the patches of lingering summer clover. We looked every day until we found a rare four-leaf specimen, the sign of a lucky year ahead. Later, we pressed our find into an album, labeling the date, and discussed how, when it comes to grades, you have to work hard for your luck.

The ritual helped him adjust to the new school year, but I knew that the autumn would come when he’d be too old or too embarrassed to sit on the grass with his mother. I clung like a barnacle to his willingness for as long as it remained within reach.

When he moved on to middle school last year, I started driving him in the mornings and we had to search for our clover on a Sunday instead. By this fall, however, he was already focused on other activities. He’d outgrown clover-picking altogether, quietly moving on to adolescence during this season of transitions. Our ritual ended without a sound, just as the leaves began to drop silently from the trees.

Still, we talk all the time, and for that I consider myself blessed. Lately, we’ve spoken about how there are things that may never make sense in our curious world, how there is love and hidden wisdom behind G-d’s plan, and how none of these facts excuse a seventh grader from doing his homework.

It takes nothing more than reading the news each day to fully grasp how little we understand of the Big Picture. On the morning of the Har Nof massacre, I shared the painful story with my son when he stumbled down to breakfast. His reaction was blunt and full of sadness. “How the heck do you expect me to go to school and pretend that everything is normal when it clearly isn’t?”

“Because that’s what we have to do,” I told him.

I never try to hide my tears from my boys, though I do have to fight the inclination to curl up into a ball. I want more than anything to help them see the good in a world whose light seems to dim with the passing days. After all, life goes on, even as we mourn, even as we try to comfort those facing irrevocable losses, even as we pray for G-d’s justice.

There is a profound intelligence to the unfolding of the seasons. Spring emerges hopefully from the chill of winter, hesitating from bud to blossom. It melds with summer before drying up on its way into fall, where we are reminded of the fact that all life is fragile. But this autumn, more than ever, we need not look at the falling leaves to know.