Monday, February 1, 2016

You Never Know What You’ll Find in the Snow

The blizzard of a week ago already feels like ancient history, yet the walking remains treacherous. Terrified of falling but determined to get some fresh air, I strolled downtown on Friday morning despite the risks.

So many families were away for winter break that I passed only one friend entering her car – a rarity, because I usually bump into a lot of people on these walks. I confess to relishing the unexpected solitude and the emptiness, and to having the sidewalk to myself. And like a child, I enjoyed being outdoors in the cold, winter wonderland, for no matter how old I get, I still love snow’s potential to become whatever we shape it into.

In that moment, though, I was focused mostly on not falling. I carefully navigated around snow piles and tiptoed over ice patches, the weight of my grocery bags keeping me in balance. There wasn’t much to distract me, only a few brittle plants peering out here and there. So I was taken aback by the sudden appearance of a bright red spot on the horizon. I thought it was the thumb of a child’s glove emerging from the snow, but as I got closer, I saw that it was a strawberry.

It could not have been there long. It hadn’t been devoured by one of our resident wild things, nor had it bled crimson into the surrounding white.

Curious. 

I kept walking.

Around the next mound of snow, there was another.

Then another.

Five strawberries in all, as if they were trying to tell me something. I shrugged and continued home, letting the story write itself in my head.

At first, I considered the possibility that someone might have been walking a few minutes ahead of me out of my range of vision. We’d missed one another, our footsteps silent on the soft snow, our figures obscured behind the snow mounds. It seemed that the bag she was carrying had torn on one of the dried shrubs, allowing its contents to spill out and leave a trail. But the berries were too precisely positioned for that to have been the case.

I wondered if their exact placement had been the handiwork of a child instead, who fretted that the animals must be starving when the trees are so bare and the ground is blanketed. A small boy had waged a well-meaning, persistent campaign until his mother had given him the bowl of berries and he’d gone out in his snowsuit to position them just so. Yet if that had been true, he’d have been kneeling right then on the couch in his front window, waiting with anticipation for the animals to come and partake of his gifts. But the curtains were drawn on all the houses I passed on my way.

That night, my youngest son and I joined friends for Shabbos dinner while my husband and our other boys were together in Jerusalem. The berries were already gone by the time I walked over after candle-lighting, likely eaten by some hungry animal unable to believe his luck. During the meal, the hostess mentioned strawberries. I reacted with such joy, thinking I was about to solve the mystery since they lived near where I made my discovery. Alas, no. She was certain her packages were intact when she returned from the market.

It’s unlikely I’ll never know how, or why, those berries appeared in my path that morning. Sometimes things don’t happen for a reason. Sometimes, they just happen.

Still, the animal’s luck was mine, too. The serendipity of finding five bright red strawberries in the snow on a silent winter day had already found its way into the treasure chest I keep inside my head. They reinforced my belief that there are stories everywhere – a kind of magic that, like snow, can be shaped into anything we want it to be.

And that seems like reason enough.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Failure Is an Option. Send in Reinforcements.

For a good five minutes soon after dawn yesterday, I found myself staring at a blank sheet in my notebook, the one I still won’t call a 2016 daily gratitude journal. My mind ambled as it tends to when I can’t get words on the page, and it occurred to me that although we’re only two weeks into the new calendar year, I’m already on the brink of failure.

The first few days were easy. Leaving the big guns, like health and rain, to the formal morning blessings in my prayer book, I came up with other things I was grateful for in that moment of journal writing. Items ranged from my son taking out the garbage without being asked to my hot milk frother, which arrived two weeks ago from Amazon and has since elevated my coffee-drinking experience to celestial levels.

As it turns out, putting forth a daily offering of gratitude, when not relying solely on scripted prayer, is harder than I expected. It’s not that I’m unthankful. But I am struggling not to repeat myself as time passes. Like most people, I’m grateful for the same things today that I was the day before.

Yesterday was a doozy. It arrived on the heels of a weekend marked by disappointment, rejection, and a handful of other bad news. To add insult to injury, I foolishly decided to weigh myself right after Shabbos. I woke up grumpy on Monday, my pool of positive thoughts drained. Still, I refused to leave the morning’s entry blank. I stopped staring at the empty page and finally wrote: I’m not sure. I know I’m thankful, though right now, I can’t say for what. It was honest. I didn’t have the wherewithal for more than that.

I stowed the notebook near the microwave and carried on, taking mental notes when something made me smile or eased the process of tackling my to-do list or helped me forget what was getting me down. On their own, these moments lacked the cachet needed for admission to the journal, but were still due recognition. After all, a bissel un a bissel machen a gantze shissel. A little and little make a full bowl.

And so it was, too, with the teetering stack of papers I planned to sort through in the afternoon, dividing them among the many three-ring binders in which I organize my life. One for the boys, another for the house. Others for my articles and blog posts, recipes, crochet patterns, and the decorating ideas I’ll implement right after we get our Powerball winnings.

The primary tools required to manage this system are simple: a 3-ring hole punch and a pack of adhesive reinforcements. Both are genius inventions that render me awestruck every time I use them. The former is among my prized possessions, the workhorse that makes the system possible. But the latter is my knight in shining armor, galloping in to save the day, piecing everything back together when we’re on the cusp of disarray.

Or disappointment, failure, and loss. Because no matter what the movie scripts and television commercials preach, failure is always an option. Yet those paper reinforcements remind me that it doesn’t have to be an end. We can put our pieces back together, maybe even stronger than before.

Last night, over a cup of tea, I gathered up the few pleasant moments I let in through my window of blahness over the course of the day. I grouped them in my mind, because assembled, they recounted a far prettier story about one challenging, not particularly meaningful or memorable Monday in my life than their individual parts could ever tell – and together, they offered up the lines I would write this morning.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Start of a Resolution

I’ve never been one for resolutions, mostly because I’ve never been one to keep them. But for 2016, having missed the boat for the start of 5776, I decided to give the resolution thing another try.

Resolutions are about change, about pausing to steer our mindset and our behavior in a new direction. They are not about altering our personality, which would be impossible, or taking on something so unrealistic that we set ourselves up for failure. My previous attempts at sticking to them tanked for this reason exactly – well, that and the fact that my heart wasn’t in the enterprise from the outset.

This time, I’m going to tackle it another way.

I devoted a lot of energy in 2015 to decluttering our house, a daunting campaign to rid ourselves of the stuff that weighed us down. Our home now feels lighter, and I know I got there only because I cut the project into little tasks that I then accomplished one at a time. I’m thinking that by applying that same approach to a resolution, I stand a far better chance of success.

But which resolution should I start with and how should I divide it into smaller, manageable pieces?

Life, as it does, soon pointed me in the right direction, because when you’re looking, the blessings are often right in front of you. I attended a lecture about giving thanks, and within days stumbled upon numerous articles covering the same theme. The importance of appreciation – feeling it, expressing it, letting it warm and fill us until it alters our worldview and our approach to daily life – wasn’t a new concept, though the reminder was exactly what I needed.

One thing I read deeply moved me. Though a generic thanks is nice, a specific one is better. Essentially, this: Break gratitude down into parts. Express appreciation individually – to G-d, spouse, children, extended family, friends, and other people we know, as well as total strangers, like the ones who offer an unsolicited kindness when we’re having a rough moment. And say exactly what we’re grateful for, noting both the sublime and the everyday, from the splendor of spring-in-December weather to the fact that my boys put 80s music on my iPhone.

Armed with a plan, I picked up a notebook that I won’t call a gratitude journal for fear it will jinx me before I get started. But I hope, come January 1, to start each day by jotting down one thing, maybe two, that I’m grateful for. I know there will be times when it will be hard to see the forest for the trees. Still, this is a resolution I think I can own. After all, there’s so much to be thankful for once we decide to take notice.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Happy Weight of Marriage

On a recent Thursday, Kveller kindly published my blog post about how we are a changed household since I began setting the Shabbos table on Thursday night, rather than leaving the task to the last moment on Friday. It was my husband’s idea, inspired by Rabbi Paysach Krohn, and it’s true that his suggestion that “we” take it on really meant I’d be the one doing it.

I loved hearing from people who said that setting their tables that Thursday night had made their Friday more peaceful. Others made me smile by telling me it’s what they aspire to for their Shabbos future. Yet a number of commenters challenged me as to why the task had landed in my lap when it was my husband’s big idea. If it means so much to him, they asked, why does he not just do it himself?

A writer needs thick skin. Not everyone is going to agree with you or like what you write – not all the time and maybe not ever. But for some reason, this question got to me and I couldn’t shake it off, though I took the advice of a media savvy writer friend and refrained from getting into an extensive online discussion about it.

Still, I wanted to shout that the job had always been mine, that I’d only agreed to set the table a day early. My next inclination was to explain the intricacies of our lives, how my husband gets home very late on Thursday nights, then leaves at dawn on Friday before sliding into home plate at candle lighting. If we left it to him to set the table or cook for Shabbos, we’d be eating takeout off the paper piles on the dining room table every week – and I’d the one picking up the takeout.

I longed to add that he does do a lot of other things around here, including some of the jobs I don’t love very much, like snaking the toilet and going to Costco and taking out the garbage, not to mention all the electro-technical matters I can’t wrap my brain around and putting the cover on the grill, which I can never seem to get right. Plus, he’s handy. He fixes things.

After all of that, he’s never once said to me, “Well, if you want the deer poop out of the backyard, you should get rid of it yourself.” He just puts on gloves and makes it go away because I’ve asked him nicely (and frequently, because deer are a problem here), or more likely because he knows I’ll be much happier when the deer poop is gone.

Long ago, we sketched out team jobs that work for us, roles that shape-shift over time as we adapt to changes in our lives, our health, our children’s needs, and our careers. Without a doubt, there are growing pains that come with these modifications, just as we might feel overwhelmed when bumps in the road mean one of us has to schlepp some, or a lot of, extra weight.

What I carry around in my head, though, is the message from a lecture I attended around the time we got married. The speaker, for the life of me I can’t remember who it was, said that if both partners focus on doing what will make the other happy, the marriage will be doubly blessed, the extra blessing coming from the high we get in lifting the spirits of someone we love, a happiness that ultimately trickles down to us, too.

In the midst of the rest of the chaos of our lives, it’s what makes me rise early every morning, no matter how little sleep I get the night before, to make my husband coffee and breakfast for the road, and what motivates him to stop at the Dunkin Donuts drive-through every Friday, returning home to tell me how delicious the Shabbos food smells and how beautiful the table looks while handing me an iced latte.

Silly rituals, perhaps, but they take the edge off some of the everyday pressures that plague us all, by reminding us that behind the chores and responsibilities, we are building a life together. It’s not about the quid pro quo. It’s about love.

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.