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.

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.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

In the Driveway of Childhood

It’s funny what makes me cry. This week’s trigger was a stack of neatly folded polo shirts. And a travel iron. The travel iron really did me in.

My son kept looking up from the clothing labels with his name on them, offering me his warm, quirky smile before telling me to stop being weird. That no other mothers get like this, that none of them cries when their children leave for a year in Israel.

I texted the mother of a friend of his, and asked her how the packing was coming, and how she herself was holding up. The response was what I expected: She’s sobbing in her cubicle at work. Her officemates are concerned.

I got a text from a friend cautioning me about the scene at the airport, with moms bawling and fathers blessing the offspring who won’t be at the Shabbos table with them for a year. That made me cry even more.

My son finally said I should do what I’ve got to do, and left me to my tears.

While we were shopping, ticking off the last items on his packing list, I caught a glimpse of him when he didn’t notice. I thought of the driveway at the house we lived in when we relocated to Massachusetts during the year I was in the third grade. It was the second to last one on the block of a growing development, after which were only grassy fields and dirt road. We faced a beautiful, tree-shaded lake and picked wild blueberries from the bushes that grew among the birch woods filling our half-acre backyard. But what I remember most is the driveway.

In my eight-year-old mind, its stretch of blacktop went on forever, inclining up from the curb before turning like a bent elbow, levelling off as it approached the garage. I found paradise racing my bicycle around its expanse in fair weather and sledding down its long hill in the winter. When we returned to New Jersey, the driveway of my memory dwarfed – in both length and gravitas -- the one at our new house.

I drove to the Massachusetts house decades later on a whim. It looked exactly as I remembered it, though the development carried on as far as my eye could see. What struck me, though, was the ordinariness of the driveway. It wasn’t particular lengthy or steep, its curve equally unimpressive. But the reality did not diminish how much pleasure I took in the extraordinariness I saw in it as a child, though I had a good laugh at the trick time and perspective had played on me.

Apparently, they play the same one on mothers. I am looking at my son, now old enough and responsible enough to spend a year abroad without me, yet what I see is an infant so small he surely just arrived in the world.

I rarely think of the hard moments that have come since his birth, the unpleasantries that once appeared outsized enough to consume me, but have since faded into brief anecdotes, either humorous or harrowing. Watching him pack, I’m not thinking about his croup or his meningitis scare or the day he escaped from his car seat while we were driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, or the time he refused to get into it outside the La-z-Boy store and we sat in the parking lot for over an hour until he screamed himself to sleep on the curb, or the early teenage years, every minute of them.

I list my parenting regrets in my head, then brush them off because they are a waste of time without the possibility of time travel. Grateful that our battles have been minor ones, I decide most of them come down to me having been too strict about things I now know don’t really matter. Yet there’s something I recall so vividly, it remains unaltered by time and perspective. It’s a what-if-I’d-done-things-differently too loud to ignore.

On maternity leave after a full trimester on bed rest, I couldn’t wait to get out of the house at night when my husband returned home from his pediatric residency shifts every 72 hours. I’d throw a winter coat over my pajamas, hand my first-born to his father, and head out to the two nearby establishments open late at night: a CVS, where I’d buy a Diet Dr. Pepper, and the laundromat, the only warm place with a bench to sit on while I cleared my head.

In retrospect, it sounds pathetic, possibility a bit nuts, but those nighttime outings taught me a lot about myself. As much as I love my children, I realized early on that I need time to breathe by myself, to find space beyond career and home and parenting in order to survive. When I returned to work, however, guilt consumed me and I forgot all about oxygen. Nothing to regret, but something to rectify.

As we weigh my son’s duffels to ensure they do not exceed 50 lbs., I’m thinking it’s time to weigh what I should do next. As he spreads his wings, I’m ready to do the same, to open myself up to long-forgotten possibilities while I continue to raise the two ducks still at home, and to envision what my life will look like when they, too, leave the driveway of their childhood behind.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Solace of a Library

The brick-faced library of my childhood takes up a lot of room in my memory.

It’s mostly because of the books, but it isn’t only because of the books. As a girl, I was always on the lookout for the solace of hiding places and found it nestled among the titles on the library shelves. More than once, the library saved me from sinking into self-pity, the enormous blue globe in its lobby spinning with the possibility of better things to come.

Though I went on to log untold hours in the libraries at university and graduate school, I never took comfort in them the way I did in the library growing up. And it was with guilt, as if I were betraying a lover, that I left the library behind as an adult, becoming a serial buyer of books instead.

I did make a brief return to library life when my sons were little. We would sit together cross-legged on the children’s room floor, reading until our toes tingled and it was time for dinner. Yet, as soon as they aged out of story hour, our visits turned into hasty pop-ins in search of a title they required for school and nothing more.

Once, I considered showing the boys the library I remembered, but courage failed me in the end. I feared the view through my adult eyes would tarnish the nostalgic vision of my youth. I worried, too, that my sons would shrug, unimpressed, and mumble, “It’s just a library,” wounding me in a way they would not understand.

This summer, we hardly speak the same language. My eldest is preparing to leave the nest, my middle is asserting his adolescence, and my youngest is regrouping after a rough year of school by building electronic devices I can’t pronounce. The emotional charge of this trifecta has drained me spiritually and physically, choking my ability to get much of anything done. I meet deadlines by keeping bat hours, writing late into the night. My days, however, are spent adrift in thought, with little to show for my exhaustion.

At first, I cleaned my way through the house as a distraction. I decluttered closets in an attempt to clear my mind. For a brief spell, I even kept ahead of the laundry curve.

But as a person who measures her value by how much she produces in a given day, I was at a loss. Housekeeping did not fill the void. No matter how hard I tried to adjust, to love what is, I fell into a funk. When my husband, not unkindly, told me to get over it, it dawned on me that the library might once again offer salvation.

I began visiting several mornings a week, planting myself at a table with a pile of books, and returning in the evenings with my laptop to write. These visits carved out purposeful islands of time, and I knew they were working their magic because the laundry was piling up and I didn’t care. I crocheted something for the first time all summer, wrote a bit, weeded the backyard garden, and to my husband’s delight, smiled.

Our library isn’t the library of my memory, and I’m no longer looking for a place to hide. Like I did when I was young, though, I keep coming back for the books. But not only for the books, because on the shelves, among the graphic novels and the trade fiction, I have tracked down a part of myself that had been missing for a while.

Turns out you can go home again. The library will be waiting.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Much Ado about a Door

I never expected that our front door would ever matter much to our boys.

Until recently, they ignored it entirely. Even several years ago, when we gave it sudden flair by dressing it in a lovely red called “Claret” and adding bling with a doorknocker I’d picked up on a trip to Budapest, they hardly noticed.

As for the door itself, we once would’ve gambled that the heavy wooden panel – installed in 1957 when the house was built – would outlast us here. But the past winter was harsh and the door lost much of its functionality to the elements. For starters, the door became difficult to open. Cold air, however, rushed in unimpeded through large cracks in the inset panels. Others might’ve replaced it without a thought, but we decided, stubbornly, to take up the challenge of fixing the door instead.

My husband, donning his macho man-about-the-house work clothes, wood-filled and spackled. I selected a deep green shade of paint hailed by designers in the stack of decor magazines on our coffee table. Our door was going to make a statement.

Alas, my selection was better in theory, or perhaps on bigger, fancier houses, or maybe just on those glossy magazine pages. It was bad enough that the paint went on like molasses, but the dark shade highlighted every drip, which then reflected off the glass of the storm door. I tried to ignore these little details. But day after day, the boys told us that the color also gave the slightly creepy illusion that the door was always open and I had to agree with their assessment.

My husband, not wanting to repaint, insisted he liked it, and that it didn’t matter to him what the boys thought of it since they aren’t interested in our opinion of their haircuts. Still, all three of our sons commented on the door’s putrid shade several times a day, and eventually wore their poor father down. I bought a new color, left the can near the front door, and that was that.

The problem was we could not get away with painting directly over the green, which had dried tacky to the touch. Besides, the paint was now so thick the door wouldn’t open at all. We needed to sand back to the original layer – three coats down by our best estimate – before we could do anything. It would take a lot of work, but talk of heat guns and power tools inspired the boys to volunteer. In the end, though, it was my eldest with time on his hands who put in the bulk of the elbow grease.

Wearing a ventilation mask, he used the heat gun to strip layers of paint, one after the next for a total of six – six!!! Patiently, he sanded and primed, taking periodic breaks during which his siblings briefly took up the work. I’m delighted to report that one week later, the door now sports a lovely shade of blue and a new duck-shaped doorknocker. Like wrinkles, vintage nicks and pings give the door character.

That we rescued the door is its own reward, but it also seems to be a kind of repayment for its many years of service – protecting us, and separating our public and private lives. It has witnessed so much of our family history in this house, watching our comings and goings, greeting our guests, and seeing us off to work, school, and everything in between. Now that it’s fixed, it has returned to the business of keeping out the elements as well.

A door is more than a way in and out. It marks time, too, recording not just the past and the present, but also, G-d willing, what lies ahead: the future in which we will continue to raise the boys behind its protective wooden panels, and one day, build a magical palace here for our grandchildren. And as my husband likes to say, we pray this will be the door that will keep us warm when we grow old and wrinkly like two dried up raisins, which probably sounds cuter in Croatian.

The door is a part of who we are. Replacing it was never really an option.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Of Pomp and Circumstance

Each June, the same sweet scene plays out in nursery schools across the country.

To the sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance” or something more festive, little girls and boys find their spots in dollhouse chairs at the front of their classroom. The audience beams as the children perform a repertoire of songs from the school year and the teacher speaks about the class’ mastery of shapes and scissor skills. The program concludes with the awarding of diplomas, after which the children smile for pictures and doff their mortarboards, a move they’ve rehearsed for weeks.

It’s the kind of ceremony designed to pull parental heartstrings. Though our knees stiffen in the same tiny chairs occupied by our offspring, we do not complain, for we are enjoying the performance too much to notice. We may even cry a few tears, a mix of happy emotion and awe at the hasty passage of time. After all, just yesterday these preschoolers still slept in a crib.

I remember the first graduation I attended for my eldest when he moved up from the two-year-old class to the two-and-a-half-year class at his preschool, a slight progression which nonetheless merited paper caps with tassels and a collation buffet of juice and cupcakes. Though part of me wanted to believe the whole enterprise was silly, the teacher snagged me with an adorable invitation I could not refuse. I dressed my son in a fancy outfit, a button-down shirt with shorts and suspenders. In my memory, he appears preciously grown up, though in the photos he looks more like an extra in The Sound of Music.

That event and the preschool graduations that followed were schmaltzy, but you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone in attendance at any of them who didn’t love every minute. What I know now, which I did not grasp then, was the fact that those graduations were far more than the photo-op floorshows they appeared to be. They had a deeper layer of meaning humming beneath the surface, one I didn’t recognize until many years later, when my eldest son’s high school graduation date stared at me from the calendar.

Preschool graduations are practice runs for all the ones that come after, not for the children, but for the mommies and daddies and grandparents and guardians in the room. They glimmer like crystal balls, giving us a glimpse into a future when the pomp and circumstances will be big and real, testing our parental mettle for the day when we have to let our children move on, not into the next classroom, but out the front door and into the world.

At the graduation this coming Sunday, I expect to be a sobbing mess, which is why I’m writing this now. But please don’t mistake my emotions for sorrow. I know it’s all a blessing. Moments like this make it easier to forget the bumps we hit along the way, the challenges we presently face, and the worries about future unknowns. As my son, who towers a full head above me, embarks on the next leg of his journey, we as his parents step into uncharted waters, too. I pray that we will all have the wherewithal to steady our ships.

Our children may be ours, but they never belong to us. We must love them and raise them to belong to themselves, and when the time comes, we must let them go, our eyes never losing sight of them.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Bird Watching

Somewhere along the way, we became bird people.

We don’t have chicken coops in the yard, though that’s something I think about often, maybe for when we’re empty nesters. What we do have is multiple bird feeders outside the kitchen window, enabling us to watch the avian comings and goings the way we once viewed television.

The enterprise began when my youngest expressed an interest in birds. As his fixation waned, my husband adopted the hobby. Now he begins his day by looking at the feeders, asking, “Where are my little birds?” He even believes that our large maple tree survived Hurricane Sandy more or less in tact because it is from its limbs that we feed our feathered-friends.

Though I was the last to get on our bird wagon, I have come to love them, too. I watch them as I brew my morning coffee, smiling at them as we take our breakfast together. After years of patience, I exulted in the arrival, at last, of our first goldfinch this month.

The varieties and their diverse coloration paint our view, and in little bursts, the sky comes to life as the birds fly hither and thither, in groups or on solo flights. My eyes light up when they scatter throughout the maple tree like holiday ornaments on the branches, and I adore listening to the woodpecker, whose sounds remind me of click-clacking knitting needles.

Mostly, though, I learn from their instincts. I harbor deep-seated frustration with the squirrels, those furry rodent gymnasts who circumvent the baffle and hang upside down on the feeder, stealing from someone else’s plate. But when that happens, the birds patiently wait on the ground beneath, eating what falls as the squirrels, who lack table manners, drop their scraps below.

The birds are resourceful, too. They build fine homes without the benefit of a Home Depot, spinning twigs and branches and dried up ivy spindles into a comfortable penthouse in which to hatch their offspring. There’s something truly magical in watching them feed their newborns, dropping the bits they’ve scavenged into the babies’ open beaks, their heads tilted back in anticipation.

On the other end of the lifecycle, my husband has had to give more than one bird a heartfelt burial over the years. But we’ve also found nests in our trees, and once, when we still lived in an apartment building, in a planter on our terrace. We had the privilege to do the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird after consulting with our local rabbi, and the process represented a powerful yet wrenching moment of separation for me at a time when our boys were still quite young.

As it happens, we also have plenty of bird tchotchkes throughout the house, including ceramic ones – one for each member of our family – that dangle from the chandelier. The acquisitions began after my mother-in-law passed away. She used to call my husband “her little bird,” and I buy a new one each year on her yahrzeit as a way to honor her. It took my husband a good while to notice, but they are gathering in number, and I do worry that over time our house might come to look like the avian wing in a natural history museum.

Still, there’s nothing like the view outdoors, of the birds in their natural habitat. It’s reassuring on a winter morning, when everything’s painted white and only bare-limbed trees stand tall, to spot a cardinal appear out of nowhere to grab a bite from the feeder, and then again in spring, when the birds return in large number, and we cannot keep the feeders full for long.

I enjoy their music and their grace, but mostly, I admire their determination and sense of purpose, and the gentle way they sail through the air, and the fact that they can fly at all.

And some days, after I’ve fed my own offspring and straightened up our nest, I want nothing more than to take flight with them, looking down on the blessings below.

Friday, April 17, 2015

A Life in Lists

A friend lost her father a few months ago. She and I met through our sons, who have been friends for years, and became better acquainted while logging hours in the Little League bleachers. Our lives intersect, but when she suffered that loss, I realized I didn’t know her that well. We’d never had a heart to heart, spent much time together socially, or discussed our families, so I did not know what to expect when I went to pay a shiva call.

During the visit, she talked about her father in a way that deeply touched me. She admired how, to the best of his ability, he’d kept at the life he wanted to live despite the multiple medical derailments he faced in the years before his death. She even discovered a list of professional to-dos scribbled on a magazine by his bedside table in the rehab facility.

For days, I could not get our conversation out of my mind. I later sent her a note to tell her how it had affected me. I hoped that the warmth of paternal tenderness she felt would continue to embrace her as she mourned him. I also shared the fact that my own father had long ago distanced himself from me, and how that wound had left behind a scar that periodically rubs at me, like an old sports injury before a storm.

Her reply has stuck with me since. She told me that there are things in my life she wishes for, though the specifics did not matter. It was the big picture she painted for which I’m grateful.

Neither of us had written from a place of envy. We did not begrudge one another anything. As our thoughts crossed through the ether in that moment, we simply laid out on the table what we were each missing, staring together at the raw open space in front of us.

We are all human, no matter how hard we try to be otherwise. Which means that sometimes, we want more than, or other than, what we have. Our circumstances are what they are, the way G-d mapped them out for us. Some of us embrace our lot. Some of us struggle to accept it. Some of us simply acknowledge what is and isn’t there.

But our longings, like any other emotion, are an inextricable part of who we are. In a way, these absences are what make us whole, motivating us to plod on in order to fill in as much of the emptiness as we can. They push us to succeed professionally, to be better spouses, parents, children, and friends, while encouraging us to find meaning in our encounters with the world around us.

During that shiva call, my friend told me about her father’s remarkable professional accomplishments, and the wisdom he shared with his colleagues and with the wider scientific community. I was impressed, but I’d never be able to scratch at the surface of his research with any degree of comprehension.

I have, however, grasped on tight to the power in the to-dos he jotted down on the magazine at his bedside table. So poignant, I thought, as if his keeping a running list would keep him going, too, as if list-making were the very essence of being human.

I certainly make a lot of them. They are on notepads and torn-open envelopes all over our house, and I know I am not alone. They impose genuine organization and a comforting though false sense of control.

More than that, though, lists – the ones we write and the ones we store in our minds -- are how we chart our daily lives, and how we keep track of our failures and successes. They help us sort our hopes, plans, and secrets. They are also the tally of wounds, regrets, and loves that we scribble on our hearts.

Once, I saw those lists as mountains to scale. The more I crossed off, the more I added, and time always seemed to be running away from me. Since that shiva call, I have managed to view them for what they are: reminders of a full agenda of plans and goals both large (finish my book) and small (buy laundry detergent on the way home from work).

What I check off and what I don’t may one day define who I was and who I was not. For now, though, they are what keep me going.

Friday, March 27, 2015

I Love Making Pesach. Really. Yes, Really!

It’s not a very popular thing to say, and some might argue that it calls into question my grip on sanity. Yet here I go anyway: I love preparing for Pesach.

Now hear me out. Like everyone I know who is Jewish and Pesach-observant, does not go away to family or a fancy hotel for the holiday, and does not have a full-time housekeeper, I find the prep enormously taxing. The shopping is just more of the same.

But the pre-chag intensity gives me a chance at a fresh start, and that makes all the hard work worthwhile. While I relish the exterior changes the holiday brings, especially the pristine emptiness of a newly-cleaned refrigerator, what I love most is the interior transformation that comes with it– the way the chametz-filled closets of my mind and my soul get the same detailed overhaul as the pantry.

As I clean out the cabinets, I often strike up a conversation with G-d to talk through what’s been troubling me. I cast off old grudges here on earth while I’m at it. The result is a spiritual decluttering that parallels the physical removal of chametz from our home and it feels really, really good.

We are cautioned to distinguish between Pesach cleaning and spring cleaning, and to search for chametz, not schmutz. Even if we stick to those distinctions, the day is short and the work is plentiful. But I’m no longer reckless about it like I was when I was younger, staying up all night to clean for days at a stretch and then sleeping through the first seder.

And how do I manage now?

I delegate what I can and I don’t waste time on things that drag me down. I keep my expectations of family participation realistic, so there’s no resentment brewing alongside the chicken soup. My husband, G-d bless him, washes out the garbage can, a job that makes me gag. My sons surprised me last year by taking more initiative in the cleaning and by groaning less about it. I’m hoping for the same this time around, but I’m not hoping too hard.

I also ignore what I don’t want to see, like “Countdown to Pesach” emails, which seem to shout, not encourage. Instead, I embrace the ones that give me non-toxic methods for scouring my oven, an uplifting d’var Torah on the meaning of redemption, or a new, sure-to-wow recipe. Otherwise, my route to Pesach rarely wavers. I stick to the same plan and shopping list year after year. Though it doesn’t make things easier, it gets me where I’m going – on time, intact, and awake.

Thinking for myself despite generally held wisdom, like when I tackle the kitchen before setting out to de-chametz the rest of the house, makes all the difference because it’s what works for us. With bread products gone from the culinary command center, crumbs are less likely to show up in the den. (My sons, as old as they are, still walk around with cheese crackers on their person at all times, may my future daughters-in-law forgive me.)

After all of the heavy work is done, I haul out the cooking gadgets once used by my grandmother and great-grandmother. A hand-turned egg beater and a sifter keep me company while I mash and chop, reminding me that I’ve simply taken my place in a long line of women who made it through this daunting challenge and came out stronger for it.

And then, the final hurdle before candle-lighting: feeding three hungry boys on the eve of the chag, almost-men who could, if left unchecked, eat in a continuous loop throughout the day. For nearly an hour, time stops so I can fry 5 pounds of schnitzel and the same quantity of potatoes. I call my sons down for lunch so they can embrace our traditions with a full stomach and soak up my love.

A clean house, a cleansed soul. Family on their way to our home for seder. Candles glowing on the sideboard. Knaidlach afloat on a chicken soup sea.

Whatever it took to get here, it was worth it. And that’s good enough for me.


Friday, March 6, 2015

Hopscotch, Anyone?

One of the things I miss most about being a little girl is scampering around on the playground. I soared down that slide like nobody’s business and more than once – 3 times to be exact – fell off the monkey bars, tearing open my chin. I even have the scars from the stitches to prove it. But the freedom I felt there was unparalleled and, as I recall, well worth the wounds, though my mother might not agree.

Hopscotch was one of my favorite playground activities, in great part because it was something I was good at. Who knew then, in my innocence, that it would provide the perfect metaphor for my adult life? From this vantage point, it seems that grownup time is marked less by months and years than it is by the jump from one intense period to the next, with only rare chances to set both of my feet on the ground.

And just as it was on the playground, real life hopscotch is best played with others. To share the intensities in our lives – the big challenges, the blessed celebrations, and the lifecycle events that merit space in the shul bulletin – is to fortify our friendships. It gives us the platform upon which we perch everything else – the birthday gatherings, the Shabbos meals, the quick calls to see if the other needs something from the market.

In friendship, what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours. We hop with an open heart between one another’s milestones. We dance arm in arm in celebration, send lasagnas back and forth in crisis, and mourn together in loss. We do the hard stuff for one another because we want to. It is way more than a tenet of the social contract. It is the gift of balance in an unbalanced world.

Wounds make their mark too frequently, not only on the news, but in our own communities and in our own lives. They come in all shades of black and blue, from the sad to the tragic, from the irrevocable to the sorts that will, over time, heal themselves. If we’re smart, we learn the lessons to dance harder at a simcha and to savor simple, everyday pleasures.

We aren’t on the playground anymore, and we know well enough that we’re rarely handed the chalk and given the chance to draw the squares on the pavement by ourselves. Instead, life unfolds on its own: our parents age, our children G-d willing grow up and move on to the next wonderful stage of their lives, wrinkles form, some of our parts begin to sag. All the while, we hop from the highs to the lows and back up, and then back down again, because that’s what there is.

When the rare period of calm comes, short-lived though it may be, we should grab on tight. It’s a good time, within those lulls, to be grateful for the comfort we get from the people we love, and in the simple knowledge that we’re not hopping around alone.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Mezinka Dance, Round #1

I’ve been busy making the bar mitzvah that came and went last Shabbos. The preceding weeks were a maelstrom of preparation and I was nervous I wouldn’t get to everything in time. But of course, it all came together at the last moment, and the simcha raced towards its finish line in what felt like a matter of seconds before disappearing into the vapor of happy memory.

The usual presumptions of disaster haunted me as the day approached, and a few things – all minor in retrospect – did go wrong. For starters, my gas stovetop blew up as I brewed the chicken soup. The musician for the melave malka cancelled on Thursday night, and it turned out that the tablecloths I’d selected were the wrong shape and size.

I’m a girl who pays close attention to detail, even when it comes to the quotidian. Still, I had no intention of losing sight of the forest for the elaborate centerpieces I’d crafted. I had myself a good cry and allowed each of these distractions to resolve themselves.

This bar mitzvah was a biggie. It was our youngest son’s, the last of three. How had we’d gotten here so quickly? I envisioned sitting with a wreath on my head for the traditional mezinka tanz (dance) at his wedding. I rarely drink, but I needed a little claret to take the emotional edge off.

Here was my baby, about to become a man. I wanted the day to be meaningful. I wanted it to be about all the wonderful things he is and about the long, often turbulent journey of this particular, out-of-the-box 13-year-old, who has never had the luxury of taking anything for granted.

On the Shabbos of the bar mitzvah, there was no blizzard. The temperature was just above freezing, reasonable for the long walk to shul. None of my other supersized worries came to fruition either. My son had nursed a sore throat all week, but did not develop laryngitis. Despite his fear of public speaking, he did not refuse to get up there and do his thing, though he asked if he absolutely had to go through with it when I woke him up that morning.

He read his Torah portion slowly and clearly (flawlessly, if I may be so bold), and he himself could not believe what he’d done. He looked, as the tailor fitting him for his suit predicted, “sharp up there on the beamer” (my son may never call it the bimah again). I sobbed. I’m sorry. I just could not help myself.

During a break in the action, I asked a friend to handle the distribution of the candy bags we’d hurl at the bar mitzvah boy when he completed the haftarah. I nervously asked her again during the next pause, then once more. She humored me, though my nudging was never about the candy. It was about holding my breath and praying that the details would anchor an ethereal moment in the tangible world so that I’d know for sure it was true.

By then, my stove top had been replaced and the caterer had figured out how to make a small rectangular tablecloth fit a large circular table. Our musician had designated his replacement. Honestly, none of it made much difference.

What did matter, however, was my son and the Torah portion he’d spent an entire year mastering. And the moment when he stood next to his brothers, one after the next, as they each had an aliyah. It was also about the love packed into our crowded shul, and the way our family simcha became a communal event that expressed our gratitude not only to G-d, but to everyone on earth who’d helped us reach that day.

I recited the Shehechiyanu and meant every word. That night, I watched from the sidelines as the men danced with my son. I loved the way he beamed in time to the music and how much he enjoyed each second of the action. I, meanwhile, did one of heck of a mezinka dance in my head.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Please Don’t Change

For many years, our yard has served as a rest area for a family of deer. Every morning they dine here on the grass and leaves, do their business, and nap before moving along to a different spot in the neighborhood. They gaze at me quizzically when I try to scare them off. I swear, they think their names are on the deed to the property.

They were only three when they arrived here one spring, but have since grown to seven, a formidable number of wild animals to have in one’s yard when one doesn’t live in the outback. They ravage my garden and have made me Lyme-phobic. Still, they are – invited or not -- a constant in our suburban lives.

On a recent morning, I stared out the window while the coffee brewed and sensed instantly that something was missing. It took a while to figure out that it was the deer. I scanned the yard. They were not beneath the swing set, their usual hangout, nor were they near the shed, where they like to nosh on the brittle weeds.

It’s not that I missed them, but their absence from our landscape didn’t feel right. The Jewish mother in me even felt a twinge of jealously: Is it possible they’d found better snacks elsewhere? For a moment, I worried they’d met the tragic end I secretly wished for them when they first snatched possession of the yard from my boys.

I was relieved to notice them sprawled out about 15 feet from the house, resting on the soft layer of snow that had fallen in the night. Still, silent, like figures in a diorama. Their fur, Papa Deer’s antlers, and all seven pairs of pert white ears faded from view, camouflaged behind bare branches of shrubbery until their bulging eyes gave them away.

I heard a familiar bark. Gadget, our friends’ enthusiastic dog, was out for his pre-dawn stroll. Lucky guy, his animal instincts pointed him directly to where the deer were. He was ready to go -- to play, to run, to dislocate them from their perch -- but they weren’t giving him the time of day. Excited by the sudden appearance of something else and the breakfast awaiting him at home, Gadget moved on.

But I couldn’t get past the moment I thought the deer had disappeared. They’ve driven me nuts for nearly a decade. I curse them under my breath every time I pick up their droppings and assess their damage to my garden. Then I don’t see them one morning and decide something is amiss in the universe?

It took a while to own up to it, though I knew all along why it bothered me. I often struggle when faced with changes that affect the backdrop to my day-to-day. I want the comfort of what I love or at the very least, what I know, even if that means deer in my yard.

I’m not asking to stop time, or to go back in it, though I admit I sometimes wish I had the power to do so. For starters, I’d relive the days when Petak’s had a sweet potato knish on its menu. And I do believe that change can also be good. I’ll take world peace. I’ll take a raise. I’ll take a smaller dress size. Bring on more happy milestone moments, like weddings and births.

Otherwise, I’d prefer if things stayed put so that I don’t spend time questioning why they didn’t. I’d like my boys to stay little, though they already aren’t. I don’t want to get older or greyer, but when I do, I want my husband to continue looking at me the loving way he does, even when I’ve grown all wrinkly like a dried up apple at the bottom of the fruit bowl.

I’m just saying that it would be nice if there were more constants, more immovable bits on our personal horizons to spare us from disappointment and the need to readjust our range of vision.

I was relieved to discover that someone was listening to me. The deer were back in their usual spot the next morning. If they move again, I’ll fetch Inspector Gadget to find them for me.