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 d├ęcor 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.