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!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Pause Button

These are the things I loved most about the summers of my youth.

A clear-cut delineation between time zones. School ended and vacation began, as if we hit a pause button on our obligations. Only on Labor Day weekend, when we drove to the outlets in Pennsylvania for marathon wardrobe shopping, did I begin thinking about school again at all. I was a good student and liked learning anything that wasn’t math or science, but I treasured a demand-free summer like everyone else.

Endless hours to read. I devoured stacks of books in the long hours of daylight. It was over the summer that I transitioned from the children’s room to the young adult section, and from there forayed into the shelves with grown-up fiction. Neither the librarians nor my parents seemed to notice the titles under my arm, giving me implicit license to read whatever serendipity brought my way.

Independence. On days I didn’t go to camp, I came and went without checking in too often with anyone. Sometimes, my best friend and I walked into town, where we explored the knickknacks at the pharmacy and bought gifts for our mothers’ July birthdays. Mostly, though, we would ride our bicycles along the bike path, stopping to gather wildflowers that were probably weeds, and sharing secrets. I had a watch, but I don’t remember looking at it often.

Calories didn’t count. Nor did cholesterol. Early on a summer evening, my family occasionally drove to an ice cream barn a good half hour, maybe 40 minutes away. We didn’t speak much in the car. But the scenery was rustic and beautiful, and I was happy to stare out the window in silence, alone with my thoughts. The ice cream scoops were so large I rarely finished my cone. The only other problem was deciding which flavor to choose.

Nostalgia for that pause button of my childhood has hit me, as it does every August in the final weeks of the season. And yet, my current pace is more or less business as usual, with breaks I can count on one hand.

Alas, grownup summers are not the carefree ones of our youth. Adulthood is a big blurring of time lines, making it harder to disconnect entirely from work and responsibilities, even when we have the opportunity to do so. Rather than idling, many of us are planning for next steps – buying school supplies and sending in reservations for Rosh Hashana seats at shul. And our worries rarely melt with a scoop of pistachio ice cream in the setting sun.

Tonight that bothered me. A lot. So I paused. I offered the kids ice cream for dinner and made sloe gin fizzes for me and my husband. We stood outside watching the fireflies and counting the stars and our blessings, feeling like we’d gone back in time. I let the sultry air fill my lungs as new dreams poured into my head. Here’s to them being enough to carry me through into autumn.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Best of Arrangements

In a few months’ time, G-d willing, I will celebrate 50 years on this planet. Well, that’s what the calendar and my birth certificate have reconciled. In my head, I’m still 27.

I’m grateful for all the big ticket blessings in my life. But I also savor the details – the large shade tree outside our kitchen window, the finches that nestle in its branches, my coffee press, and the classic rock station that perpetuates this time warp in which I feel younger than I actually am.

Over the years, I’ve made progress on stomaching large problems when they tumble into my path. I’ve also learned to be thankful when the challenges are small. I confess, though, that I sometimes struggle to discern the difference between the two, and I often wonder if my faith is up to the task of accepting what is beyond my control.

With a milestone birthday coming up, I’ve been thinking about these spiritual conundrums as well as the more practical issue of how to mark the occasion. Family and friends kindly ask how I’d like to celebrate. A party? An outing? A spa day? I’m embarrassed I don’t have the answer yet. I would love to do something special. I just haven’t figured out what.

My great aunt once told me a joke about two elderly women who attend a flower show. One says to the other, “You know, we’ve never done anything crazy. What are we waiting for? Let’s streak through the show!” They agree and embark on their dare, ultimately winning Best Dried Arrangement.

Don’t panic. I’m not streaking anywhere, nor am I planning anything wild like bungee jumping over Victoria Falls or swimming with the sharks in Fiji – no judgment if that’s your thing. But while I’m still figuring out how to celebrate my 50th, I’m taking an essential lesson from those two gals at the flower show.

There are so many things I’ve never experienced – classics I’ve never read, cuisines I’ve never tasted, local places I’ve never visited, everyday adventures I’ve never had. Now is as good a time as any to rectify as much of that as I can. And while few of these individual things are cool or dramatic, they are collectively the gift I wish to give myself.

I hope you’ll share this with me, letting me know what else I shouldn’t miss out on. After all, our time here is limited, but our possibilities for delight and wonder shouldn’t be.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

That Word

For years after we moved to the suburbs, I would joke that on any given day, I’d likely encounter more wildlife than humans on the street. Except for Shabbos, when the Sabbath-observant community walks everywhere, we live in and out of our cars. That has changed over time. More and more folks are now traveling on foot, but there aren’t the crowds pushing their way down the avenues that I still miss from the city.

What I long for are the exchanges that take place when so much humanity travels through an urban neighborhood at once – the nods, the looks, the brief words passed back and forth, the moment you notice someone’s carrying the same obscure novel you are. Not all of the encounters I had when we lived in the city were meaningful or pleasant, but the conglomerate created an atmosphere whose pulse energized me.

To my surprise, the supermarket stepped in to fill that gap in our suburban world, not in number but in spirit. Especially when I first began working from home, struggling not to feel isolated, the aisles became my avenues. There I connected with people outside my usual circle – folks who are darker, lighter, more devout, non-believing, with backgrounds like or unlike my own, with sheitels and tattoos and nose rings and their own stories to tell. And I loved it.

At least until a few days ago. It had been one of those afternoons when everything came together, tricking me into thinking I had some control over the universe. I was out running errands, ticking things off my list at an impressive pace. The vibe was good. I was the boss.

And then I heard that word.

I was on my way out of the store where I’d gone to get greens for chicken soup when I found my way blocked by two well-dressed young women. I smiled at them.

“Excuse me,” I said.

They did not move.

I tried again, still smiling. Again, no response.

Third time’s the charm, I reasoned, as I offered the plea once more, this time a little louder and a little firmer, but still with a smile. Finally, the women looked up at me and shuffled silently to the side. I thanked them, and as I was about to pass them, one turned and served me the B word.

I froze, incredulous. Wow, I thought. Wow. I mean I’ve encountered the occasional snappy cashier and a fellow customer teeming with criticism of my parenting, but this was a whole different level of wow. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

I took a deep breath, determined not to acknowledge the barb. Still, I couldn’t get the sound of that word out of my head. I felt like I needed to shower. I hadn’t done anything to warrant it, not that it would’ve been okay for her to say it if I had. I kept reminding myself how oblivious and rude the pair had been as I tried to exit the store. Should I have waited all afternoon while my produce went limp? Did that really just happen to me?

For the rest of the day, I struggled to make sense of it. I wondered why one word – that word – from a stranger had cut so deeply. It followed me into the next shop and then shadowed me at home. It distracted me from cooking and gnawed at me later at the gym. I couldn’t push-up or sweat it out of me or cleanse myself of it with 16 ounces of citrus-infused water. It clung to me like ivy.

It could have been a lovely encounter, if only the women had looked up and chuckled, “Oh, sorry. We were lost in conversation.” I would have understood. I would have appreciated that two friends had gotten caught up in their stories, far from the chaos of our harried, screen-centric lives.

When I found myself still bothered by it this morning, I decided it was time to make lemons into lemonade and to move on by finding some message in the moment. I would never hurl that expletive at anyone, but I resolved to take care to sweeten the words that do exit my mouth. I tried, too, to figure out what I’d tell those women if we were ever to meet again. I might tell them about the harm done. But mostly, I hope I’d find the courage to say how much I wish things had gone otherwise.

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.