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.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

What Happened When He Came Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

The airline attendant asked, “Two passengers?”

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 8, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Kindness of Strangers

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

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

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

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

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

“He will be fine,” he said.

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

“Because he has you.”

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Blanket Measure of a Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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