Thursday, February 9, 2017

It’s Snowing, and I Have a New Website

It’s my favorite kind of morning. Snow is falling. Upstairs, my boys are sound asleep, happy to have the time off from school. I’m off, too, and these extra hours are a gift, wrapped up with the silence unique to a day like this. I’m sitting here with my coffee – one eye on the computer screen, the other watching everything go white outside the window.

Though I feel especially peaceful when it snows, it is still with butterflies in my stomach that I share the exciting news that my website is live. Take a look and let me know what you think.


It’s as if I gave birth to a baby and she’s crawling around on the Interweb.

In fact, so many analogies to childbirth come to mind, I could go on and on – the months’ long gestation period and the labor pains and the feelings of gratitude and accomplishment that it’s finally out there. I’m now looking forward to watching her grow and hope you’ll join me for the ride.

The website is the new home for my blog. The current blogsite, which has been faithful to me since I began blogging in late 2011, will be retiring to a warmer climate, where she’ll finally catch up on her reading.

To keep receiving these posts via email, please be sure to sign up with your email address on the new site.*

In the spirit of Tu B’shvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees, I thought I’d share my latest essay, in which I confess my jealousy of trees, which get to stand tall – far from the chaos down here. http://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/our-lives-as-a-tree/

Looking forward to seeing you over on the new site and to keeping in touch.

Merri


*If you’re reading this on the new website, then you’ve already signed up and you’ve also made my day. Thank you! 😃

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A Meditation on Laundry


Of all the practical aspects of parenting, laundry has always been my nemesis. Babies produce record-breaking amounts of it, and I found it impossible to keep up with the soiled onesies after the arrival of my firstborn. That the laundry room in our apartment building opened after I left for work and closed soon after I got home didn’t help. Nor could my husband, then a resident on 72-hour shifts with furlough for showers and rest.

The laundry multiplied, of course, with the arrival of our other boys, though by then we had moved across state lines to an apartment building with a washer and dryer in each unit. I wrote odes in my head to those mechanical wonders and the joy their 24-hour availability brought me, especially since my workday had lengthened to include a 3-hour round-trip commute. Still, I struggled to balance our family’s need for clean clothing (and towels and linen) with my own need to sleep.

As it turned out, the end of the spit-up stain era was just the beginning. The boys’ attire grew larger, their activities more efficient at attracting hardcore dirt as they advanced from toddling to Little League. Meanwhile, circumstances beyond my control ushered me into a lower-key, less gainful career. There were days when doing laundry provided me with an endless cycle of busy work to help me through a difficult period of transition. More often than not, however, it was a reminder that in the process of redefining myself professionally, finding meaning wasn’t going to be easy.

Years passed, and the boys each reached the age when they could – or should, as many suggested to me – do their own wash. I wondered when, if they leave the house at dawn and return after dark, with only a short window for dinner and homework. Because I freelance mostly from home, the chore continued to fall to me.

But around the time my eldest was ready to go for his driver’s permit, laundry had become a source of household conflict, and a metaphor for the many distractions that have kept me from moving forward with pursuits of my own. Neatly folded shirts and pants would sit in baskets for days, and inevitably, clean and dirty clothing would end up comingled. I’d want to shout, to remind everyone that I’d done that laundry when there were other ways I could have spent my time.

The moment had come, both for them and for me. I decided that regardless of their schedules, the boys would have to do their own laundry as a prerequisite for taking the wheel of my van. Like walking and learning to ride a bicycle, driving would put them one step closer to full independence. Laundry in its way would, too, even if it wouldn’t take them to faraway places.

The count was two sons doing laundry on their own, one to go, by the late spring last year. They were all feeling carefree in that pause between the end of school and the start of their summer plans. For most adults, of course, life isn’t divided in that way. Work weeks blend into one another, regardless of the season, and it is other obligations, not only the laundry, that keep me from writing for longer periods of time.

During that very brief window, my boys were all home, their beds all occupied. My nest and my heart were full with the rarity of it, and these facts combined to create a new distraction. Overwhelmed with emotion, I couldn’t stop myself from offering to do their laundry.

I stood over the washing machine, a bottle of Shout in my hand, listening for the silence I know will come when they move on to the next stage of their lives, leaving behind the echo of their childhood. I suddenly felt ashamed to have let the small stuff – that Everest of laundry and who knows what else – detract from my gratitude for having them in my life, even on the hardest of hardest days. I set the cycle to warm and turned on the machine, understanding that these are not blessings that come to everyone, nor are they gifts to be squandered.

I can’t say for sure I’ll ever finish writing my book or if, in the end, I’ll look back with satisfaction on what I have created during my second career. But I hope that God-willing, my boys will go on to have laundry relationships of their own, as it should be, and that I will not be washing their clothes forever. When that time comes, I will neatly fold up the memories of running a launderette in our basement, keeping them out on a shelf where I can reach them, and I’ll let the thrum of the washing machine play like a lovely old song I can’t get out of my head.

Monday, January 9, 2017

My Year in Books 2016

My life travels from book to book. I finish one and pick up the next. Still, I have never before kept track of what I’ve read. I’ve only just read.

What changed? For a while, friends had been asking if I wouldn’t mind sharing my reading list, but I didn’t have one. My friend Nina, who has long kept an annual list with pithy reviews, also inspired me (check out her favorites from 2016 http://ninabadzin.com/2016/12/24/top-5-books-2016/). And so my own year in books was born last January, a list that includes a very brief summary and, sometimes, a few thoughts, too.

I don’t plan my reading for the long haul. It simply unfolds as I go. On this year’s list, there are titles I first read as a girl and chose to revisit with grown-up eyes, as well as classics I hadn’t read before. There are books I stumbled upon in unlikely places and books I purchased soon after folding up their reviews. Sometimes, it was the right book at the wrong time, or maybe it just wasn’t for me at all, and I’ve left off titles I put down at the gate. I didn’t love everything on the list, but I never failed to love the process. Alas, there were so many books I did not get to read because 2016 ran out of time.

My favorites? Oh, I’m terrible at picking favorites of anything, especially books. I can only say that Amy Gottlieb’s The Beautiful Possible and Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow are the books that will stick with me most from this year, and I’m already rereading the latter because there are clues I missed (well that, and I have a crush on Count Rostov).

Though I read mostly fiction and memoir, I loved Daniel James Browns’ The Boys in the Boat, about the 1936 US Olympic rowing team. I feared the topic would fell me, but Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air was everything the hype promised. Of the books I reread after years of distance, Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter remains one of the most powerful, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch is the classic that filled a 900-page gap in my reading history. And the last book on the list, Gavriel Savit’s Anna and the Swallow Man, finished just hours before the ball dropped, will, I think, haunt me for a while.

And now, on to 2017. So many books, only 365 days.

Wishing us all a year in which to worry less and read more! 

Merri

My Year in Books 2016


1. Malcolm Gladwell. What the Dog Saw 
Essays. Particularly liked the one about hair coloring ad campaigns.

2. Alice Hoffman. A Marriage of Opposites
The fictionalized backstory on Pissaro, with beautiful imagery.

3. Louis de Bernieres. Birds Without Wings
Intriguing love story set against modern-day Turkey’s emergence from the Ottoman Empire.

4. Paul Kalanithi. When Breath Becomes Air
Beautiful, devastating, difficult – a must-read about living life and approaching death.

5. Elizabeth Gilbert. Big Magic
Encouraging for someone pursuing the creative life.

6. Marilynne Robinson. Housekeeping
About loss and survival and transience.

7. Julie Schumacher. Dear Committee Members
Hilarious novel in letters of recommendation. Particularly humorous for a former English major.

8. Patti Smith. Just Kids
The evolution of an artist, mostly through the lens of Smith’s relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Touching, poetic language.

9. Ian McEwan. The Children Act 
Though I loved Atonement, this one unsettled me (which is probably what draws others to his writing). I had to stop midway.

10. Judy Blume. Blubber 
First read this in grade school, and I’d forgotten how mean the girls in the story are. Still the best book I’ve ever read about bullying.

These next three I took out of the library for one of my sons, but I ended up reading them.

11. Barbara Stok. Vincent
Graphic novel about Vincent Van Gogh.

12. Mike’s Place
Graphic novel about the bombing of this Tel Aviv club.

13. Stan Lee. Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible
Graphic memoir of the comic book artist’s life.

14. Penelope Lively. How It All Began
About the Butterfly Effect on some folks in London.

15. Penelope Lively. Making It Up
Stories that consider her life, if it had taken her in different directions.

16. Daniel James Brown. The Boys in the Boat
The story of the US rowing team leading up to and during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Powerful metaphors, and who doesn’t love a victory over the Nazis?

17. Lois Lowry. Number the Stars
Story of rescue in Denmark during the Holocaust. Perfect entrée for young readers to begin a discussion about doing the right thing, despite the risks.

18. Shuleem Deen. All Who Go Do Not Return
Wrenching memoir about Deen’s leaving the Chasidic fold.

19. Thomas Hardy. Far From the Madding Crowd
A girl ahead-of-her-time girl trying to manage her own farm and juggle multiple suitors. A classic I rushed to read before the film came out (haven’t seen it yet).

20. David Arnold. Mosquitoland
The heartbreaking odyssey of a young girl who hops a bus when her family falls apart. YA

21. Amy Gottlieb. The Beautiful Possible
An almost-mystical story of love and marriage and faith and turmeric. Lyrical and lovely.

22. Monica Hess. Girl in the Blue Coat
About the Dutch Resistance during World War II. YA

23. Kent Haruf. Our Souls at Night
Real, sad, short, and touching.

24. Tom Hart. Rosalie Lightning
Graphic memoir about how the author and his wife cope with the loss of their daughter. Powerful if you can, too raw if you can’t.

25. Jumpa Lahiri. Unaccustomed Earth
For days after finishing this collection, I couldn’t get three interconnected stories out of my head.

26. Roz Chast. Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?
Graphic memoir about caring for her aging, then dying parents. Heartfelt, honest, not easy to watch, but brilliant.

27.  Anna Quindlen. Plenty of Candles, Lots of Cake
Wonderful memoir about the blessings of getting older. This book inspired me to try standing on my head.

28.  Anna Quindlen. Miller’s Crossing
A novel about family secrets.

29. Sarit Yishai-Levi. The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem
About several generations of a Jerusalem family plagued by a curse that makes them resist love and consumes them with their own refusal.

30. George Eliot. Middlemarch
Shame on me for waiting so long to read this classic, though its 900+ pages make it a worthwhile commitment.

31. Carson McCullers. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Another book I decided to reread. Compassionate, intense lens on the spiritual isolation that is part of the human condition. Astounding, left me breathless.

32. Elena Mauli Shapiro. Rue 13 Therese
A novel set in Paris during World War I.

33. Marilyn Hagerty. Grand Forks
Dining reviews by the restaurant columnist for the local paper.

34. Frederik Backman. A Man Called Ove
Everyone needs an Ove in his/her life.

35. Mimi Sheraton. The Bialy Eaters
Short history of the bialy.

36.  Dai Sijie. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
About the power of forbidden literature in Communist China.

37. Gordana Kuic. Scent of Rain in the Balkans
Part of a very popular series about the history of a Sephardic Jewish family, though misinterpretations of Jewish tradition affect the plot.

38. Pamela Gien. The Syringa Tree
About a childhood during South African apartheid. Stunning, powerful. I sobbed through the final chapters.

39. Talia Carner. Jerusalem Maiden
About love and being true to one’s own artistic light.

40. Lucette Lagnado. The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit
Devastating memoir that evokes the elegant Cairo of the author’s youth and her family’s change of fortune when they are forced to leave Nasser’s Egypt.

41. Vanessa Diffenbaugh. The Language of Flowers
About a damaged young woman who discovers her ability to communicate through flowers.

42. Celeste Ng. Everything I Never Told You
About a Chinese-American family and the fragility of happiness.

43. Daniel Silva. A Death in Vienna
My husband is a huge fan of Silva’s books, so I finally read this one about the death of a Nazi hunter and the search for his killer.

44. Geraldine Brooks. Caleb’s Crossing
Touching story of two free spirits and their quests for knowledge at a time of ignorance and social limitations.

45. Amor Towles. A Gentleman in Moscow
This wonderful story about Count Alexander Rostov, sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to house arrest in an upscale hotel, cast a spell on me.

46. Ilse Koehn. Mischling, Second Degree
The memoir of a German girl with a partial Jewish heritage (unbeknownst to her), who becomes a leader in the Hitler Youth. One of the first Holocaust-era books I read in my own youth.

47. Elana Ferrante. My Brilliant Friend
I tried three times, most recently with my book club. I feel like something’s wrong with me that I couldn’t get into this bestseller.

48. Elana Ferrante. The Beach at Night
Fable for children, a short read. It would have terrified me as a child.

49. Zdena Berger. Tell Me Another Morning 
A remarkable autobiographical novel about the friendship that enables three young women to survive the depravity of the concentration camps.

50. Curtis Sittenfeld. Eligible.
A fun, smart retelling of Pride and Prejudice. Exactly what the book doctor ordered this December.

And I snuck in two more on the last day of 2016.

51. Minka Pradelski. Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman
Engrossing tale about a German Jewish woman who travels to Tel Aviv to fetch an inheritance, but falls into the magical story about a town in pre-war Poland (and sadly, its destruction).

52. Gavriel Savit. Anna and the Swallow Man
An otherworldly story about a young girl from Krakow, whose intellectual father is taken by the Germans in 1939. She happens upon a mysterious gentleman, who helps her survive the war.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Time to Change

I’m not so good with change.

Sure, I can be spontaneous and go with the flow in the day-to-day living of life. Yet when it comes to my appearance, I get, mmm, too comfortable. I’ve had the same haircut for decades and prefer the coziness of a worn-out sweater to a crisp new one. When my favorite lipstick color was discontinued, I bought all the tubes left on display, fearful I’d never find another to love.

But this summer, even I knew it was time to shake things up. I got a different haircut and tossed (most of) my expired cardigans. Throwing caution to the wind, I brought some color into my mostly black wardrobe and chose a new lipstick, which, frankly, suits me better than my old one.

The need to overhaul the look of my blog took longer to sink in. I started blogging in 2011. The first installments were meant to be companion pieces to my decoupage art website. In a very short time, however, the blog took on a life of its own and has continued to evolve over time. I’ve enjoyed every moment, but still, never gave any thought to changing the appearance of the blog site itself.
Until this past spring.

I’m so grateful that kind and supportive feedback began rolling in then. I received advice, guidance, and suggestions from friends, readers, and two fellow writers I’ve never met in person, but have befriended through Facebook. Luckily, no one beat around the bush. The bottom line was this: Love the content, but the blog look needs a total makeover.

I’m a good listener and agree that it’s time for a change. I’m excited to share that I’m in the process of building a new site with the help of my brother-in-law, a website pro who is very patient with me, even when I ask a million questions. The site will be home to my blog, but will also give me a place to feature the essays and other writing I publish elsewhere. Please keep an eye out for an email from me (soon, I hope!) with the link to the new site.

In the meantime, I’m happy to share my latest column in the New Jersey Jewish News, with some thoughts on my recent visit to Israel. http://njjewishnews.com/article/32673/exit-ramp-lost-and-found

I’m so glad our paths have crossed on these pages. Thank you all for keeping in touch.

Warmly,
Merri 

Friday, November 11, 2016

At the Gym, So Too in Life

I’ve been going to the gym regularly – nearly every morning except Shabbos – since the Monday following last January’s blizzard. Once, working out was something I rarely thought about, and then, only with dread. Now, it is something I think about all the time, something my body actually craves.

Oh, sure, there are physical benefits, like fitting into my old clothes, and health perks, like steadily lowering the numbers the doctors fuss over. There are other things, too – improved memory, strength, energy, and mood. But what keeps me coming back day after day is the crowd.

We, together with our instructors, are a heterogeneous bunch, those of us who attend more or less the same classes on the same days. We are a mix of colors, worldviews, ages, backgrounds, professions, nationalities, and more. We are married, or not. We have children, or none. Our body shapes and our training goals differ. So do the injuries and bruises we nurse. Our attire ranges from my skirt and long-sleeves to those cute, skimpy yoga outfits beyond my reach. Our personal stories vary also, as does the baggage we schlepp to the gym and confront once again when we head out the door, back to our regular lives. In short, we are a microcosm of the rest of the country.

We may not think too much about our differences, though pretending we are all the same would make no sense at all. Appreciation for the many human variations is a strength – a kind of poetry, even. It offers us a window onto other cultures and ways of thinking and lifestyles. G-d loves diversity, said Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in a talk I heard last year. We are all different, he added, yet we are all formed in His image. At the gym, we blend those differences around a common goal: to grow stronger with each passing pushup, to improve the health of the bodies we’ve been granted tenancy of while we are here on earth.

In class, we sweat and bench press and squat, becoming a community in the process, noticing if one of our number is absent, offering mutual support. We encourage one another to be kind to ourselves, to overcome at times when we feel broken and defeated by the state of our bodies. And no matter what else we’re all about, we keep one another coming back so that we can keep moving forward in pursuit of our goals.

On the morning of the presidential election, I decided to delay going to the gym until the late afternoon, when I suspected I’d need the release of kickboxing to get me through the long, tense night ahead. The past months of the campaign have pained me, especially the way we’ve hardly listened to one another, so divisive the discourse has become, sometimes even around our Shabbos tables. Those of us in class that day talked about how we hoped we were nearing the end of that long haul, that we would be able to put it all behind us just as soon as the results were in.

I’d already voted earlier in the day at our nearby polling station, which happens to be our son’s former elementary school. It is a cheerful place decorated with motivational signs about striving and staying positive, about being a good citizen and working hard. How apt, I thought, not just for the students, but for those of us who’d come to do our civic duty and exercise our privilege as citizens. Yet as a person of faith, I reminded myself that the election results, whether we perceive them to be our doom or our salvation, are part of a bigger plan our mortal eyes cannot see.

That does not mean our hands are tied. We have a role to play, even those of us who spend our time in the shadows, far from public service. For as it is at the gym, so it goes in life. We humans possess enormous strength and potential. Let’s use it to create an atmosphere of kindness, to coalesce into a community that pushes against the tide and fights the current unraveling. Because at the end of the day, no matter our background or our politics, we have to live with one another. Whether it is in peace is entirely up to us.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Tishrei Takeaway

One year, my son decided to have friends over for his birthday on a Shabbos afternoon. Unfortunately, he broke his arm while playing before the boys arrived and instead spent the day in the ER.

Because it was Shabbos, we were unable to call everyone and let them know the change in plans. So my husband went with the birthday boy to the hospital, while I stayed home to greet our guests. Once here, the boys partook half-heartedly, awkward in the absence of the man of honor. It was still a party, but without the typical frolicking, it boiled down to the essentials. The boys came, ate cake, and went home, happily admiring the contents of their goodie bags.

Curious, I thought, that this memory came to mind as the recent season of Jewish holidays neared its end. It made me grateful that we’d enjoyed a people-filled, busy, multilayered kind of Tishrei, not a condensed, pray-eat-move-on-to-the-next-thing version of the holidays. But it also made me wonder what the takeaway was.

Not enough brisket, I joked to myself, disappointed that I couldn’t eke another family meal out of the leftovers. Serious rumination, however, resulted in two better answers, valuable lessons for the year ahead.

First, there were the delays that kept me from getting to shul early on day one of Rosh Hashana. Silly things – my shoes chafed and I had to head back home so I could change them, I lost my wrap and had to retrace my steps to find it, I’d forgotten to put the lunch meal to warm in the oven. By the time I reached my seat in the pew, I was anxious and frustrated. Yet it was only because I’d gotten there later than I’d planned that I was able to focus from the get-go – no catching up with friends in the lobby, no daydreaming, no counting the pages until the end of the service. I just immersed myself in the task at hand, making up for lost praying time.  

Then there was the blessing and shaking of the lulav and etrog in the sukkah. The etrog was beautiful, both in shape and color. My husband called it “our nicest etrog ever.” But what struck me most was its abundant fragrance. I kept asking myself whether it was particularly strong this year, or if it was the first time I really took notice. I especially loved how the aroma lingered on my fingertips long after I returned the fruit to its storage box.

While I did a lot praying and celebrating over the past few weeks, most of it will soon blend seamlessly with my memories of other holiday seasons and recede entirely from view. But these reminders – to make the best of things when life derails my plans and to take time to savor the gifts that come my way – are lasting standouts that I hope will give me perspective throughout the year ahead.

As for the etrog itself, once it dries, I will add it to the bowl we keep on the piano, filled with more than a decade’s worth of etrogim. I marvel that although they have lost their color and fullness, they have retained their beauty and a specter of their scent, despite the passage of time. It is that lovely aroma that is my favorite Tishrei takeaway, the sweet treat that will carry me forward until we come around this way again.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Butterflies in Elul

The other night, my freshman was busy picking out his clothes for the first day of school. He was that typical mix of nervous and excited most kids are before the undeniably huge leap to high school. Still, he seemed ready for this next stage of his life and the possibilities that await him – even for the long bus ride, the long day, and the long hours of homework when he finally gets home.

I had butterflies in my stomach, too.

It’s a fact that I get emotional about these big moments in my children’s lives. I’d be lying if I were to deny my concern about how my son is going to manage this transition, and I’d also be lying if I were to say I wasn’t leaping four years ahead in my brain to what will, by then, be our empty nest.

But what really got my attention the other night was a realization that Elul – which I haven’t been thinking nearly enough about – is a lot like the night before a new school year begins. I distinctly recall that unsettling feeling from my own experience. Every detail became outsized as we approached Labor Day weekend. Even the process of shopping for school supplies was fraught, as if the choice of backpack could either ensure or derail my social and academic success.

The cusp of a new school year also offered me the chance to figure out my personal growth agenda for the next ten months, to try to change the parts of me I didn’t like, and to attempt to alter my position in the high school food chain. I’d convince myself that this would be the year when I’d finally like science. I’d stop wrestling with math and just do the darned work. I wouldn’t let anything anyone said – teacher or student – bother me. I’d get comfortable in my own skin.

Unfortunately, change does not come easily – not to an adolescent and certainly not to an adult who has been nursing the same faults and insecurities for decades. But every year, Elul gives us another shot at it.

It is a time of both reckoning (hence the butterflies) and possibility for us mere mortals, with our good moments and others we’re not so proud of. We cannot alter the essence of who we are any more than I, a mere 5’ 1 ¾”, can suddenly turn tall, just like my backpack did not get me picked first in dodgeball. Yet the shofar wake-up call can help us focus our energy where it is able to make a difference: acknowledging where we’ve strayed and working on becoming a better, more positive version of who we are.

The morning after my son had so carefully chosen his shirt and set off on his new adventure, I watched from the front window as the bus drove off. For a fleeting moment, I wanted to go back in time and redo high school with the wisdom I now have about people and the world and myself, but quickly scratched that idea. I’m far better off where I am.

I am grateful, though, that Elul gives us this opportunity to embrace a fresh start every time it comes around. It is a blessing and a gift to reach the New Year. I am ready for the long hours and the hard work. And I am eager for the possibilities.

Shana Tova u’Metukah!