Thursday, November 12, 2015

Owning Less, But Still Loving Plenty

My grandparents’ apartment had a maximalist décor, which is a fancy way of saying they had plenty of stuff, all of it neatly displayed. Though the quantity of those belongings outsized their book value, together they possessed a priceless beauty I’ll never forget. Most importantly, the tchotchkes were both an extension of who they were and solid evidence that they’d lived their lives as fully as their circumstances permitted.

So it was a traumatic amputation, wrought teacup by porcelain teacup, when we packed up that apartment for my grandmother’s move, years after my grandfather passed away, to one room in an assisted living. What mattered, of course, was how she had lived and loved. We knew she couldn’t take the Rosenthal cake stand with her, not to the home and not into the World to Come. But the pain came anyway when we divided up the little that remained after she followed him.

We say over and over that our possessions are ultimately meaningless, yet I believe they still hold a mirror up to our soul. What we collect and curate speaks volumes about who we are. With one glance around someone’s home, we know if she is sentimental and spiritual, and if she possesses a quirky sense of humor. We get a feel for what warms her heart and what she values, whether she travels often, and if she likes to dust.

These thoughts have been on my mind a lot the past six months. It began when I read a review of yet another decluttering book on a night I could not fall asleep. I decided to take its philosophy to heart, and to follow the steps to minimalist Zen I could glean from the article.

First, I made my way through our everyday objects, sorting and distributing and donating what we no longer use. It wasn’t easy to let go, but I even found new homes for books I know I’ll never read again. We recycled reams of documents that held no meaning or purpose, and gave away several wardrobes’ worth of clothing.

Once all of that was gone and our surfaces were clear, I could breathe easier. We had more elbow room. I was able to find whatever it was I needed in a cabinet without removing its entire contents. I even located all the little keys to a stash of padlocks we were ready to toss.

Then the time came to look at the other things in abundance here – the mementoes, the souvenirs, the treasures inherited from family, the ephemera, the silly objects that once meant something to me and, to be honest, looking at them now, still do. What belongs to my husband I will let him reckon with one day when he’s ready.

In our den, scattered among the books on the shelves, are decorative wooden boxes filled with items whose bounty well exceeds their book value. The plastic boots worn by my Barbie dolls. The mold of my teeth made by my orthodontist. Miniature musical instruments and a cache of ticket stubs. Wooden nickels. The keychain my husband gave me in lieu of a ring when he proposed, the one that still makes my heart thump when I hold it in the palm of my hand.

It is unlikely any of it will ever mean much to anyone else, but I can’t help worry that our boys will one day toss it all willy-nilly, cursing me under their breath for having saved such a useless quantity of the past. I would like them to choose a few things to hang onto, if only to remember me by. But my deepest hope is that they will take some time to sort through the whole lot, and to consider the stories behind each item, or at least the story they come together to tell about me.

For now, though, it is neat and self-contained. Besides, I do the dusting, so who is going to say boo? None of it is bothering anyone. I’ve already de-owned plenty, but I’ve resolved to hang on to what’s left for as long as I can. If the decluttering books advise that we keep only what we use and love, then I’m guilty only of loving more.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Worry Is Belief

When I can’t clear my head or something heavy weighs on my heart, I try to go out for a walk around town. I steadily pick up the pace while singing to an upbeat 80s soundtrack, and find it helps to flush out what’s clogging my mental and spiritual pipes. I return home a calmer, more peaceful person for the exercise.

Yesterday was one of those days that called for a walk. But I rushed out the door without my headphones, an oversight I realized once I was already too far from home to turn back. I had to come up with another way to pass the time, so I began sorting everything on my mind into folders.

I made files and sub-files, and filled them until they were teeming with what I need to take care of and what I wish I’d done differently and what I fear I may never accomplish and the fact that the world seems to be nearing its end and questions about whether I eat sufficient greens and drink too much coffee and if I remembered to put the whites from the washer into the dryer before I left the house. Then it dawned on me, as I grouped them into broader categories, that there was really only one: Things I Worry About.

There’s no point in itemizing them all here, lest you think I’m a frantic worrywart. But tell me, please, which worries I should drop from the list. The big ones, or the little ones that add up to far more than the sum of their parts? The ones about health or peace of mind? Concern for my son in yeshiva in Israel or for my other boys, stateside? Fret about my immediate family or the trials and tribulations of our people?

Sheesh, the list goes on and on.

To worry, one might say, is to lack faith, and there are grounds for that argument. Yet I don’t debate G-d’s master plan, whose wisdom exceeds my capacity for understanding. Nor do I doubt His thinking, though sometimes, when this mere mortal cannot wrap her head around some of the craziness going on out there, I respectfully request a little insight, though I wonder what stops me from pounding my fist and demanding a full explanation.

It is precisely because of my faith that I worry. Tradition teaches us that our human purpose is to partner with the Divine in Tikkun Olam, in making our broken world whole. Looking around, how could we not notice how fractured our world is? And yet, contrary to the cutesy home décor signs at Marshall’s, worrying isn’t necessarily a waste of time. It can be a motivational kick in the rump, getting us off the spiritual couch and empowering us to take what’s in pieces and puzzle it back together.

At least we – worriers and non-worriers alike – can try, chipping in something to the effort. A few words of prayer. A small act of loving kindness. A handful of coins for charity. Exhibiting patience where we usually lack it, like biting our lip when a relative insults what we’re wearing.

None of it is a guarantee that we’ll swing the pendulum away from what we fear or what pains us, nor will it assure us global or inner peace. I know, too, that it will not make my worries disappear, nor obviate the need for my frequent walks. It will, however, bring positive energy into our lives and into our world.

And that can’t hurt.

Monday, October 19, 2015

First, Take Care of Your Feet

On the eve of Shemini Atzeret, I surveyed the disarray in our kitchen and panicked as the clock raced towards candle lighting. Chicken soup sputtered on the stovetop. Challah dough rose on the counter. It looked like yom tov and it smelled like yom tov, but I’d been shaken to distraction by the terrible news out of Israel and had only just begun to prepare.

I was considering whether to order takeout when I glanced down at my tired, bedraggled feet. For a full month of Jewish holidays, I shopped, cooked, baked, and cleaned in an upright position, and my less than lovely paws – bunions, calluses and all – were the worse for wear.

I desperately needed a pedicure. The brisket and kugel would have to wait.

The funny thing is that pedicures are an indulgence I’ve never enjoyed, one I avoided for years. But because I insist on wearing flip flops everywhere, my husband began nudging me to take better care of my feet. When I ignored his subtler hints, he bought me gift certificates to a nail salon and I’ve gone regularly ever since.

I have yet to fall in love with the experience – I’m too ticklish for the buffing process, find the massage chair a kind of torture, and hate sitting idle for so long – but I’ll admit, finally, I’m happy with the results. And yet, I easily pushed off last month’s appointment, claiming I needed the time in the kitchen to prepare for the holidays.

Why then, I wondered as I drove to the salon, did I insist on going on the very eve of the festival, when the day was short and the work still long?

Moments after I slid my feet into the warm, soapy water, a very tall man in possession of the answer sat down in the chair next to me. Judging from external appearances, we had little in common – we hailed from different backgrounds, for starters, and he hadn’t left any unfinished yom tov cooking at home. But when he kicked off his shoes, he revealed an enormous pair of worn-out feet that mirrored my own, the size differential notwithstanding. I stared at our separate sets of soaking toes and knew they were cut from the same cloth.

I smiled at him. He grinned back.

“You gotta take care of your feet,” he said to me, “whatever else you’ve got going on.”

More enthusiastically than I would have expected, I told him I couldn’t agree more.
“Sometimes,” I added, like a sheep newly returned to the flock, “the feet get to go first.”

He nodded before putting on his headphones. I rested my head on the back of the chair, forgetting about what had to be done at home, glad that my son in Israel was safe in his yeshiva for the holiday, not out meeting friends in town. I even dozed for a spell, awaking to the thought that I’d done well coming to the salon that afternoon and letting the potato kugel wait until later. After all, these feet are the pedestals that keep me upright, even on days when the news makes it hard to breathe, let alone stand.

Back home, I put the brisket in the oven and set to grating the potatoes. My feet, I noticed, looked healthy, pretty even, in my flip flops. Meanwhile, a silly refrain ran through my head – healing soles, healing souls – even as the worry retook its place beneath my skin.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Sukkah and the Unicycle

Soon after my husband and son #2 spent the day putting up our sukkah, I turned to my youngest and asked for his help with the decorating. His reply was one of the craziest excuses I’ve ever heard, and that’s saying a lot. The boy has cooked up a few doozies in his day.

“I can’t. I have to build a unicycle,” he said, half listening to me because he was busy making plans.

Though I should have known better, I assumed he was pulling my leg. I mumbled thank you very much without bothering to suppress my sarcasm and went off to hang the decorations alone. But the distinct buzz of power tools, followed by the smell of smoke, interrupted my draping of faux greenery around our little hut. Wonder Woman-like, I flew down off the ladder in search of the source.

I found the garage door wide open, my son kneeling on the driveway while he dismantled his old, broken bicycle with his father’s Dremel.

“What are you doing?” I asked in the way I do when I’m not sure I want to know.

“I told you. I’m building a unicycle.”

“Oh, yeah. That.”

“Believe in me, Ma,” he said, giving me his signature earnest look.

Of course I do, and I reminded him as much. Because this wasn’t the first encounter of its kind, I was also able to maintain calm, gently cautioning him to do his best to keep out of the ER. He grinned, pointing to his safety glasses before sending me back to the sukkah, where I thought less about the decorations I was duct-taping to the walls and more about my son’s sense of purpose. I admit, too, I was happy he wasn’t playing games on the computer.

For him, there will be only the success or failure to transform his defunct bicycle into a functional unicycle. He will likely not recognize the inherent meaning in the process or the bravery at the heart of creative gumption, or even the risk to his self-confidence. I, however, have witnessed all of those things and it’s been remarkable to see the elbow grease he’s devoted to this challenge nonetheless. If he succeeds, I’ll cheer the loudest. If he fails, I’ll console him with complete attention, but failure will not diminish the value in his mother’s eyes of the undertaking itself, nor will it convince me to order a unicycle for him from Amazon, because that is miles away from the point.

There is cause for optimism in his progress. He labored for hours the first day, until black grease stained all the creases on his hands. Though he has caved to occasional moments of frustration since, rubbing his brow in fear of defeat, he has found the courage to keep at it with new wisdom from YouTube and tools borrowed from our friends. He’s now in the home stretch, with plans to bring the almost-unicycle to a friend who owns an auto body shop, where he will weld the final bits together under the owner’s supervision. Until it’s done, we will not know the verdict, but I will join him in believing until the last moment. After all, both the sukkah and his unicycle are constructs of faith, requiring us to notice the complicated nuances and the wonder in the simplest of things.

We have a hurricane coming, so I stole peeks through the slats of our sukkah’s roof as often as I could today, when there were still pockets of dry on a calm, but wet day. Against the darkening sky, I listed what worries me, and what I fear in the world: the disappointments, the possibilities for disaster, the dangers we cannot see. As the slimmest rays of light beamed their way in, I was reminded, too, of what can go right, of how each of us can shine our own way, and of how much of life is devastatingly beautiful.

And I thought to myself: You know what? Putting up a sukkah every fall may be among the highlights of our year, but once in a lifetime, everyone should build a unicycle.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

In the Driveway of Childhood

It’s funny what makes me cry. This week’s trigger was a stack of neatly folded polo shirts. And a travel iron. The travel iron really did me in.

My son kept looking up from the clothing labels with his name on them, offering me his warm, quirky smile before telling me to stop being weird. That no other mothers get like this, that none of them cries when their children leave for a year in Israel.

I texted the mother of a friend of his, and asked her how the packing was coming, and how she herself was holding up. The response was what I expected: She’s sobbing in her cubicle at work. Her officemates are concerned.

I got a text from a friend cautioning me about the scene at the airport, with moms bawling and fathers blessing the offspring who won’t be at the Shabbos table with them for a year. That made me cry even more.

My son finally said I should do what I’ve got to do, and left me to my tears.

While we were shopping, ticking off the last items on his packing list, I caught a glimpse of him when he didn’t notice. I thought of the driveway at the house we lived in when we relocated to Massachusetts during the year I was in the third grade. It was the second to last one on the block of a growing development, after which were only grassy fields and dirt road. We faced a beautiful, tree-shaded lake and picked wild blueberries from the bushes that grew among the birch woods filling our half-acre backyard. But what I remember most is the driveway.

In my eight-year-old mind, its stretch of blacktop went on forever, inclining up from the curb before turning like a bent elbow, levelling off as it approached the garage. I found paradise racing my bicycle around its expanse in fair weather and sledding down its long hill in the winter. When we returned to New Jersey, the driveway of my memory dwarfed – in both length and gravitas -- the one at our new house.

I drove to the Massachusetts house decades later on a whim. It looked exactly as I remembered it, though the development carried on as far as my eye could see. What struck me, though, was the ordinariness of the driveway. It wasn’t particular lengthy or steep, its curve equally unimpressive. But the reality did not diminish how much pleasure I took in the extraordinariness I saw in it as a child, though I had a good laugh at the trick time and perspective had played on me.

Apparently, they play the same one on mothers. I am looking at my son, now old enough and responsible enough to spend a year abroad without me, yet what I see is an infant so small he surely just arrived in the world.

I rarely think of the hard moments that have come since his birth, the unpleasantries that once appeared outsized enough to consume me, but have since faded into brief anecdotes, either humorous or harrowing. Watching him pack, I’m not thinking about his croup or his meningitis scare or the day he escaped from his car seat while we were driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, or the time he refused to get into it outside the La-z-Boy store and we sat in the parking lot for over an hour until he screamed himself to sleep on the curb, or the early teenage years, every minute of them.

I list my parenting regrets in my head, then brush them off because they are a waste of time without the possibility of time travel. Grateful that our battles have been minor ones, I decide most of them come down to me having been too strict about things I now know don’t really matter. Yet there’s something I recall so vividly, it remains unaltered by time and perspective. It’s a what-if-I’d-done-things-differently too loud to ignore.

On maternity leave after a full trimester on bed rest, I couldn’t wait to get out of the house at night when my husband returned home from his pediatric residency shifts every 72 hours. I’d throw a winter coat over my pajamas, hand my first-born to his father, and head out to the two nearby establishments open late at night: a CVS, where I’d buy a Diet Dr. Pepper, and the laundromat, the only warm place with a bench to sit on while I cleared my head.

In retrospect, it sounds pathetic, possibility a bit nuts, but those nighttime outings taught me a lot about myself. As much as I love my children, I realized early on that I need time to breathe by myself, to find space beyond career and home and parenting in order to survive. When I returned to work, however, guilt consumed me and I forgot all about oxygen. Nothing to regret, but something to rectify.

As we weigh my son’s duffels to ensure they do not exceed 50 lbs., I’m thinking it’s time to weigh what I should do next. As he spreads his wings, I’m ready to do the same, to open myself up to long-forgotten possibilities while I continue to raise the two ducks still at home, and to envision what my life will look like when they, too, leave the driveway of their childhood behind.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Solace of a Library

The brick-faced library of my childhood takes up a lot of room in my memory.

It’s mostly because of the books, but it isn’t only because of the books. As a girl, I was always on the lookout for the solace of hiding places and found it nestled among the titles on the library shelves. More than once, the library saved me from sinking into self-pity, the enormous blue globe in its lobby spinning with the possibility of better things to come.

Though I went on to log untold hours in the libraries at university and graduate school, I never took comfort in them the way I did in the library growing up. And it was with guilt, as if I were betraying a lover, that I left the library behind as an adult, becoming a serial buyer of books instead.

I did make a brief return to library life when my sons were little. We would sit together cross-legged on the children’s room floor, reading until our toes tingled and it was time for dinner. Yet, as soon as they aged out of story hour, our visits turned into hasty pop-ins in search of a title they required for school and nothing more.

Once, I considered showing the boys the library I remembered, but courage failed me in the end. I feared the view through my adult eyes would tarnish the nostalgic vision of my youth. I worried, too, that my sons would shrug, unimpressed, and mumble, “It’s just a library,” wounding me in a way they would not understand.

This summer, we hardly speak the same language. My eldest is preparing to leave the nest, my middle is asserting his adolescence, and my youngest is regrouping after a rough year of school by building electronic devices I can’t pronounce. The emotional charge of this trifecta has drained me spiritually and physically, choking my ability to get much of anything done. I meet deadlines by keeping bat hours, writing late into the night. My days, however, are spent adrift in thought, with little to show for my exhaustion.

At first, I cleaned my way through the house as a distraction. I decluttered closets in an attempt to clear my mind. For a brief spell, I even kept ahead of the laundry curve.

But as a person who measures her value by how much she produces in a given day, I was at a loss. Housekeeping did not fill the void. No matter how hard I tried to adjust, to love what is, I fell into a funk. When my husband, not unkindly, told me to get over it, it dawned on me that the library might once again offer salvation.

I began visiting several mornings a week, planting myself at a table with a pile of books, and returning in the evenings with my laptop to write. These visits carved out purposeful islands of time, and I knew they were working their magic because the laundry was piling up and I didn’t care. I crocheted something for the first time all summer, wrote a bit, weeded the backyard garden, and to my husband’s delight, smiled.

Our library isn’t the library of my memory, and I’m no longer looking for a place to hide. Like I did when I was young, though, I keep coming back for the books. But not only for the books, because on the shelves, among the graphic novels and the trade fiction, I have tracked down a part of myself that had been missing for a while.

Turns out you can go home again. The library will be waiting.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Much Ado about a Door

I never expected that our front door would ever matter much to our boys.

Until recently, they ignored it entirely. Even several years ago, when we gave it sudden flair by dressing it in a lovely red called “Claret” and adding bling with a doorknocker I’d picked up on a trip to Budapest, they hardly noticed.

As for the door itself, we once would’ve gambled that the heavy wooden panel – installed in 1957 when the house was built – would outlast us here. But the past winter was harsh and the door lost much of its functionality to the elements. For starters, the door became difficult to open. Cold air, however, rushed in unimpeded through large cracks in the inset panels. Others might’ve replaced it without a thought, but we decided, stubbornly, to take up the challenge of fixing the door instead.

My husband, donning his macho man-about-the-house work clothes, wood-filled and spackled. I selected a deep green shade of paint hailed by designers in the stack of decor magazines on our coffee table. Our door was going to make a statement.

Alas, my selection was better in theory, or perhaps on bigger, fancier houses, or maybe just on those glossy magazine pages. It was bad enough that the paint went on like molasses, but the dark shade highlighted every drip, which then reflected off the glass of the storm door. I tried to ignore these little details. But day after day, the boys told us that the color also gave the slightly creepy illusion that the door was always open and I had to agree with their assessment.

My husband, not wanting to repaint, insisted he liked it, and that it didn’t matter to him what the boys thought of it since they aren’t interested in our opinion of their haircuts. Still, all three of our sons commented on the door’s putrid shade several times a day, and eventually wore their poor father down. I bought a new color, left the can near the front door, and that was that.

The problem was we could not get away with painting directly over the green, which had dried tacky to the touch. Besides, the paint was now so thick the door wouldn’t open at all. We needed to sand back to the original layer – three coats down by our best estimate – before we could do anything. It would take a lot of work, but talk of heat guns and power tools inspired the boys to volunteer. In the end, though, it was my eldest with time on his hands who put in the bulk of the elbow grease.

Wearing a ventilation mask, he used the heat gun to strip layers of paint, one after the next for a total of six – six!!! Patiently, he sanded and primed, taking periodic breaks during which his siblings briefly took up the work. I’m delighted to report that one week later, the door now sports a lovely shade of blue and a new duck-shaped doorknocker. Like wrinkles, vintage nicks and pings give the door character.

That we rescued the door is its own reward, but it also seems to be a kind of repayment for its many years of service – protecting us, and separating our public and private lives. It has witnessed so much of our family history in this house, watching our comings and goings, greeting our guests, and seeing us off to work, school, and everything in between. Now that it’s fixed, it has returned to the business of keeping out the elements as well.

A door is more than a way in and out. It marks time, too, recording not just the past and the present, but also, G-d willing, what lies ahead: the future in which we will continue to raise the boys behind its protective wooden panels, and one day, build a magical palace here for our grandchildren. And as my husband likes to say, we pray this will be the door that will keep us warm when we grow old and wrinkly like two dried up raisins, which probably sounds cuter in Croatian.

The door is a part of who we are. Replacing it was never really an option.