Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Fear of Flying

For 13 years, I flew like a bird. I did so with such frequency that I earned platinum status with my favorite airline, and I delighted in the perks, like an annual courtesy upgrade to business class and preferential boarding. I enjoyed venturing from place to place and seeing the world. I especially loved wearing those free socks during the flight.

I’m vertically challenged, but I never felt cramped, even in steerage class. I only minded the occasional neighbor who smelled of vodka. Sure, I spent hours delayed in airports, mostly because of the weather. But really, who minds waiting while they de-ice the wings of your plane?

It was my particular career in the nonprofit sector that obliged me to globetrot and I both needed and wanted to work. My travels took me across Central and Eastern Europe mostly, beginning in the early post-Communist era. Locals would tell me without irony that my ubiquitous smile singled me out as a foreigner, but I couldn’t help myself.

Each place I visited offered a smorgasbord of adventure. I listened to conversations in languages I didn’t understand as if at a concert. I decoded native culture by observing the footwear, the supermarket shelves, and the demeanor of hotel desk clerks. I rose well before my earliest meetings to explore each city, and never felt bolder, freer, or more at peace than I did on those trips.

I also found meaning in what I did, which in great part involved visiting elderly Holocaust survivors in their homes. I gathered heart-wrenching stories too plentiful to count and amassed a stash of crocheted doilies, because the folks we visited often refused to let a guest who’d traveled so far leave empty-handed. They pulled their handmade creations out of bureaus, even off the arms of their sofas, pressing them into my hands.

I met them in their community kosher canteens as well, and in their wonderful company, I first sampled hot fleishig borscht and varenikhes. The latter were a bite of Gan Eden, dough filled with meat and flavors of the past. Once, when I waxed poetic to one of the cooks, she packed me a jarful for the road. Still today, if I close my eyes, I can taste them, though I never succeeded in replicating their magic at home.

But nothing lasts forever. Outside forces gradually eroded my love affair with work travel. The first chip in the veneer occurred during a winter road trip across the bumpy Romanian countryside in an ancient, unheated Lada, a journey that had never before bothered me. This time, though, I was pregnant with my eldest and quite morning sick. I turned monstrous shades of green.

With the arrival of our boys, being able to come and go required increasingly complicated choreography. Friends and neighbors pitched in, and I reciprocated in kind. Grandparents helped out, too, filling in the hours when the daycare was closed and my husband was at work. Still, it took an enormous leap of faith to step onto a plane, knowing how easily the entire childcare support system could collapse.

I endured a percussive throbbing of guilt in my brain during long flights, while the search for child-friendly souvenirs consumed any rare free time abroad. Work travel, once beloved, began to represent an unbreachable distance from my boys. I was too torn to carry on, so I drew my working mother line in the sand. I negotiated for an on-land writing-centric position and began the slow and steady end to my career as I knew it.

For a long while after, I had brief flickers of nostalgia that caught me off guard. I’d made myself fully available to my family on these shores, but I feared for the wellbeing of my open-minded global outlook and for my sense of wonder and curiosity, which, if left unfed for too long, might all wither.

Then came September 11. I was pregnant with my youngest, unable to get back to the suburbs that evening from the city. I wasn’t in Albania, yet I was still light years away when I needed most to be home. The world I longed to explore each corner of had become meaner and scarier. There was also my new fear of flying. For a brief period of time, I wished I didn’t have to leave the house.

Just as the US stood ready to invade Iraq in 2003, I had the opportunity to join a weeklong professional development program in Argentina. Here was my chance to visit a country I wanted to see, to step again into the wider working world, all while putting my wings back into the sky. But I imagined wartime airport closings keeping me in Buenos Aires for months. I decided not to go. Was this rational? Of course not. Then again, so much of mothering defies reason.

Time passed. I eventually agreed to family vacations that necessitated air travel, including one that used the last of my globetrotting frequent flyer miles. That gave me a wonderful sense of closure, while conquering – for the most part, anyway – my fear of flying.

At some point, I asked my eldest, the only one I suspected might remember, if it was rough for him those years when I traveled for work. He looked at me puzzled, and asked, “You did?”

This past week, I went to Virginia to address an amazing group of Jewish women, all activists in their buzzing community. It was to be a one-day jaunt, and my husband convinced me to go. Everyone – friends, family, even my children – all said not to worry, the boys are older now. I did not board the plane easily, but I enjoyed every moment of the event, especially the warm reception, the post-speech hugs, the sisterhood, and an early morning coffee with old friends.

And then, kapow.

I turned on my phone to find a curious text from a friend. Every fear I’d suppressed in agreeing to travel far from home washed over me again. I called my husband, who delayed telling me that our youngest had fallen between two sets of bleachers at school, possibly breaking his knee. “You weren’t supposed to know yet.” Our wise child had begged the nurse not to call his mother. My husband, who was already on his way to work, turned around and picked him up instead.

I sat in the airport, awaiting my return flight, delayed by foul weather, the lack of a plane, the lack of a pilot, and finally, the absence of a crew. It gave me plenty of time to beat myself up for not being home. I tried to find souvenirs for the boys, though there was nothing really. In the end, while ordering my second latte, I purchased a Charlotte, NC “Here You Are” mug at Starbucks. For some reason, I told the barista it was a guilt gift.

I didn’t present it with enthusiasm, but the boys questioned why I needed to buy them anything at all if I was gone only one day. They aren’t little anymore, they reminded me. I tried to explain how hard it was to have failed them by putting my career and myself first for 25 hours, by not being the one to pick my wounded son up from the nurse that morning.

In his inimitable way, my eldest told me get over it, and I knew he was right because it didn’t feel like a slap at all. It was said with the kindness and understanding of a boy on the cusp of adulthood, a son giving me license to be myself. A son who next asked if I thought my presentation had gone well.

I made myself a large coffee in that Starbucks cup the next morning. Because Here You Are isn’t a mug series or a city. It’s peace of mind.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

In Awe of the Moment

Twice, I didn’t make it to shul on Rosh Hashana.

The first time, I’d herniated a disc while putting the holiday turkey in the oven. My husband ended up handling the chore himself, taking full credit – with a wink -- for preparing such a tasty and tender bird. A friend stopped by to blow shofar. I nibbled on challah and some dark meat. Otherwise, the holiday passed uneventfully, lower back pain eclipsing my disappointment.

During my second stay-at-home Rosh Hashana, I was pregnant with my eldest and confined to bed rest. For months, I lied flat, too uncomfortable even to read, watching the same loop of shows on the fledgling Food Network, followed by Oprah and the 5 o’clock news. It was all mind-numbing, but I kept my eye on the prize of the baby pickling inside me.

When the holidays approached, however, I naively assumed I’d be able to waddle over to shul. It was the start of the year in which I would become a mother and I couldn’t imagine missing the ritual fanfare. But no begging or cajoling could sway my obstetrician. He permitted me to light candles, and then it was back to the couch.

I spent the days worrying, as I’d done each day of my bed rest, and – for everything, but mostly for the wellbeing of my unborn son -- I beseeched
G-d. But they’re called the Days of Awe with good reason. The moving score, the scenery, the powerful soliloquies, and the costumes – oh, that sea of white kittels on Yom Kippur! – create a powerful sense of drama, helping us get into the spirit. Though I had plenty to fear, I just wasn’t feeling the awe in my living room. I missed the familiar melodies, the hypnotic sway, the rabbi’s message, and most of all, the echo of the shofar blasts in the sanctuary.

So it was an interesting thing this year when, just days before Rosh Hashana, I found myself struggling to get into the High Holiday groove and considered, for the first time, opting out of shul. I’d hit a funk, mostly over everyday challenges that had accrued into a daunting bowlful. I convinced myself that I’d be too distracted during the long service and that it would be wrong to sit there, my mind racing with off-topic thoughts.

As a mom, I still had role-modeling obligations, so I proceeded with my routine, hoping to get in the mood. I rose early to wake my husband for morning selichot. I made sure the boys had clean pants, pressed shirts, and new shoes. I made a brisket and I wrote out two lists: one of blessings for which I’m thankful and a second, which was more of an “All I Want for the New Year” sort of thing. I figured that if I went to shul and if my mind wandered, those lists would keep me anchored.

Meanwhile, G-d, who notices everything, had a plan up His sleeve, a gentle push to get my mind on track. When I lit candles to usher in Rosh Hashana, I reacted the way I did around fire only once before: at a Shabbaton when I was about twelve, mesmerized to distraction by the largest havdalah candle I’d ever seen. This time, I became so entranced by the flames that the hard bits – the ones insisting I couldn’t possibly do the Days of Awe well right now – melted. I couldn’t get to shul fast enough the next morning.

It was there that memories of those two less than spiritual Rosh Hashanas came flooding back to me, like a wagging finger. Perhaps, I thought, it’s because I’d dithered away so much time over the preceding few days when I should’ve been more focused on repentance. Or because an emotional year lay ahead -- a son’s graduation, another’s bar mitzvah – and I should’ve been more cognizant of my blessings. In the end, the reasons didn’t make a difference. What mattered was that I was there.

When the shofar-blowing began, I could not believe I’d actually considered skipping shul. I felt the adrenaline rush in my chest. The opening blessings, like the gun shot at the start of a race, gave me a quick, stark reminder of how lucky I am to have made it around another lap.

As I often do during the shofar blasts, I closed my eyes and cried, a primitive response to their raw, emotional power. I believe that each of us hears what we need to hear in those sounds. To me, they were a call to be present: in that moment and in all the moments to follow. Mostly, though, they were shouting at me to listen to what G-d was trying to tell me all year.

Which, I believe, is this: I don’t have to be reflective all the time, though reflection has its hour, especially during the Days of Awe. But to be successful at this being human thing is to show up in body and spirit, and to savor life in whatever quirky package it arrives.

Sometimes, it means to swallow hard and mine the depths of my tolerance. At others, I know it means to laugh, like when holiday guests – for whom I’ve prepared multiple dishes to accommodate their various dietary requirements -- eat everything else instead, leaving behind an untouched pan of flavorless chicken and unseasoned potatoes. But everything happens for a reason, even if that reason is to ensure that there are no margarine and brown sugar-fueled apple kugels leftover for me to nosh on once they’ve gone home.

Laugh I did ten days later, too, when I arrived in shul on Yom Kippur drenched from head to toe. Though I’d donned a raincoat and boots for the 1.5 mile walk, my outerwear was no match for the downpour.

In the ladies’ room, I joined other women shaking off their wet coats and restoring order to their outfits before heading in to pray. They gasped politely when I asked if they thought I could, in my obviously saturated state, enter the sanctuary. They agreed I could not, consoling me in the face of the obvious, assuring me that I’d soon dry. Still, I savored the camaraderie – we all joked about the storm’s impact on our appearances -- even as I worried about contracting pneumonia.

I was about to give up and head home when another woman arrived. She took one look at me and offered me her pashmina, which she’d brought along because the shul temperature is arctic on Yom Kippur. When I demurred, she insisted. I asked, “What if you need it?” She replied, “We’re both here in the shul. I’ll find you.” Indeed, we were, and although my clothing didn’t dry at all, the shawl and the kindness that came with it kept me anchored where I needed to be.

Here we are, the first days of Sukkot already behind us, the last days fast approaching. But even as we head back into our kitchens for this round, even as we kvetch – with a wink -- about shopping and preparing, even as we wonder where on earth we’ll put another bite of honey cake if we’re to wear our dresses again, I’ll rejoice to have been in the moment for every bit of this long stretch of holidays.

For as long as I can, I’ll cling to the warmth of that pashmina and the flicker of the Rosh Hashana candles. I’ll find ways to keep the echo of the shofar in my ears. After all, there’s a long winter ahead.