Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Time to Change

I’m not so good with change.

Sure, I can be spontaneous and go with the flow in the day-to-day living of life. Yet when it comes to my appearance, I get, mmm, too comfortable. I’ve had the same haircut for decades and prefer the coziness of a worn-out sweater to a crisp new one. When my favorite lipstick color was discontinued, I bought all the tubes left on display, fearful I’d never find another to love.

But this summer, even I knew it was time to shake things up. I got a different haircut and tossed (most of) my expired cardigans. Throwing caution to the wind, I brought some color into my mostly black wardrobe and chose a new lipstick, which, frankly, suits me better than my old one.

The need to overhaul the look of my blog took longer to sink in. I started blogging in 2011. The first installments were meant to be companion pieces to my decoupage art website. In a very short time, however, the blog took on a life of its own and has continued to evolve over time. I’ve enjoyed every moment, but still, never gave any thought to changing the appearance of the blog site itself.
Until this past spring.

I’m so grateful that kind and supportive feedback began rolling in then. I received advice, guidance, and suggestions from friends, readers, and two fellow writers I’ve never met in person, but have befriended through Facebook. Luckily, no one beat around the bush. The bottom line was this: Love the content, but the blog look needs a total makeover.

I’m a good listener and agree that it’s time for a change. I’m excited to share that I’m in the process of building a new site with the help of my brother-in-law, a website pro who is very patient with me, even when I ask a million questions. The site will be home to my blog, but will also give me a place to feature the essays and other writing I publish elsewhere. Please keep an eye out for an email from me (soon, I hope!) with the link to the new site.

In the meantime, I’m happy to share my latest column in the New Jersey Jewish News, with some thoughts on my recent visit to Israel. http://njjewishnews.com/article/32673/exit-ramp-lost-and-found

I’m so glad our paths have crossed on these pages. Thank you all for keeping in touch.


Friday, November 11, 2016

At the Gym, So Too in Life

I’ve been going to the gym regularly – nearly every morning except Shabbos – since the Monday following last January’s blizzard. Once, working out was something I rarely thought about, and then, only with dread. Now, it is something I think about all the time, something my body actually craves.

Oh, sure, there are physical benefits, like fitting into my old clothes, and health perks, like steadily lowering the numbers the doctors fuss over. There are other things, too – improved memory, strength, energy, and mood. But what keeps me coming back day after day is the crowd.

We, together with our instructors, are a heterogeneous bunch, those of us who attend more or less the same classes on the same days. We are a mix of colors, worldviews, ages, backgrounds, professions, nationalities, and more. We are married, or not. We have children, or none. Our body shapes and our training goals differ. So do the injuries and bruises we nurse. Our attire ranges from my skirt and long-sleeves to those cute, skimpy yoga outfits beyond my reach. Our personal stories vary also, as does the baggage we schlepp to the gym and confront once again when we head out the door, back to our regular lives. In short, we are a microcosm of the rest of the country.

We may not think too much about our differences, though pretending we are all the same would make no sense at all. Appreciation for the many human variations is a strength – a kind of poetry, even. It offers us a window onto other cultures and ways of thinking and lifestyles. G-d loves diversity, said Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in a talk I heard last year. We are all different, he added, yet we are all formed in His image. At the gym, we blend those differences around a common goal: to grow stronger with each passing pushup, to improve the health of the bodies we’ve been granted tenancy of while we are here on earth.

In class, we sweat and bench press and squat, becoming a community in the process, noticing if one of our number is absent, offering mutual support. We encourage one another to be kind to ourselves, to overcome at times when we feel broken and defeated by the state of our bodies. And no matter what else we’re all about, we keep one another coming back so that we can keep moving forward in pursuit of our goals.

On the morning of the presidential election, I decided to delay going to the gym until the late afternoon, when I suspected I’d need the release of kickboxing to get me through the long, tense night ahead. The past months of the campaign have pained me, especially the way we’ve hardly listened to one another, so divisive the discourse has become, sometimes even around our Shabbos tables. Those of us in class that day talked about how we hoped we were nearing the end of that long haul, that we would be able to put it all behind us just as soon as the results were in.

I’d already voted earlier in the day at our nearby polling station, which happens to be our son’s former elementary school. It is a cheerful place decorated with motivational signs about striving and staying positive, about being a good citizen and working hard. How apt, I thought, not just for the students, but for those of us who’d come to do our civic duty and exercise our privilege as citizens. Yet as a person of faith, I reminded myself that the election results, whether we perceive them to be our doom or our salvation, are part of a bigger plan our mortal eyes cannot see.

That does not mean our hands are tied. We have a role to play, even those of us who spend our time in the shadows, far from public service. For as it is at the gym, so it goes in life. We humans possess enormous strength and potential. Let’s use it to create an atmosphere of kindness, to coalesce into a community that pushes against the tide and fights the current unraveling. Because at the end of the day, no matter our background or our politics, we have to live with one another. Whether it is in peace is entirely up to us.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Tishrei Takeaway

One year, my son decided to have friends over for his birthday on a Shabbos afternoon. Unfortunately, he broke his arm while playing before the boys arrived and instead spent the day in the ER.

Because it was Shabbos, we were unable to call everyone and let them know the change in plans. So my husband went with the birthday boy to the hospital, while I stayed home to greet our guests. Once here, the boys partook half-heartedly, awkward in the absence of the man of honor. It was still a party, but without the typical frolicking, it boiled down to the essentials. The boys came, ate cake, and went home, happily admiring the contents of their goodie bags.

Curious, I thought, that this memory came to mind as the recent season of Jewish holidays neared its end. It made me grateful that we’d enjoyed a people-filled, busy, multilayered kind of Tishrei, not a condensed, pray-eat-move-on-to-the-next-thing version of the holidays. But it also made me wonder what the takeaway was.

Not enough brisket, I joked to myself, disappointed that I couldn’t eke another family meal out of the leftovers. Serious rumination, however, resulted in two better answers, valuable lessons for the year ahead.

First, there were the delays that kept me from getting to shul early on day one of Rosh Hashana. Silly things – my shoes chafed and I had to head back home so I could change them, I lost my wrap and had to retrace my steps to find it, I’d forgotten to put the lunch meal to warm in the oven. By the time I reached my seat in the pew, I was anxious and frustrated. Yet it was only because I’d gotten there later than I’d planned that I was able to focus from the get-go – no catching up with friends in the lobby, no daydreaming, no counting the pages until the end of the service. I just immersed myself in the task at hand, making up for lost praying time.  

Then there was the blessing and shaking of the lulav and etrog in the sukkah. The etrog was beautiful, both in shape and color. My husband called it “our nicest etrog ever.” But what struck me most was its abundant fragrance. I kept asking myself whether it was particularly strong this year, or if it was the first time I really took notice. I especially loved how the aroma lingered on my fingertips long after I returned the fruit to its storage box.

While I did a lot praying and celebrating over the past few weeks, most of it will soon blend seamlessly with my memories of other holiday seasons and recede entirely from view. But these reminders – to make the best of things when life derails my plans and to take time to savor the gifts that come my way – are lasting standouts that I hope will give me perspective throughout the year ahead.

As for the etrog itself, once it dries, I will add it to the bowl we keep on the piano, filled with more than a decade’s worth of etrogim. I marvel that although they have lost their color and fullness, they have retained their beauty and a specter of their scent, despite the passage of time. It is that lovely aroma that is my favorite Tishrei takeaway, the sweet treat that will carry me forward until we come around this way again.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Butterflies in Elul

The other night, my freshman was busy picking out his clothes for the first day of school. He was that typical mix of nervous and excited most kids are before the undeniably huge leap to high school. Still, he seemed ready for this next stage of his life and the possibilities that await him – even for the long bus ride, the long day, and the long hours of homework when he finally gets home.

I had butterflies in my stomach, too.

It’s a fact that I get emotional about these big moments in my children’s lives. I’d be lying if I were to deny my concern about how my son is going to manage this transition, and I’d also be lying if I were to say I wasn’t leaping four years ahead in my brain to what will, by then, be our empty nest.

But what really got my attention the other night was a realization that Elul – which I haven’t been thinking nearly enough about – is a lot like the night before a new school year begins. I distinctly recall that unsettling feeling from my own experience. Every detail became outsized as we approached Labor Day weekend. Even the process of shopping for school supplies was fraught, as if the choice of backpack could either ensure or derail my social and academic success.

The cusp of a new school year also offered me the chance to figure out my personal growth agenda for the next ten months, to try to change the parts of me I didn’t like, and to attempt to alter my position in the high school food chain. I’d convince myself that this would be the year when I’d finally like science. I’d stop wrestling with math and just do the darned work. I wouldn’t let anything anyone said – teacher or student – bother me. I’d get comfortable in my own skin.

Unfortunately, change does not come easily – not to an adolescent and certainly not to an adult who has been nursing the same faults and insecurities for decades. But every year, Elul gives us another shot at it.

It is a time of both reckoning (hence the butterflies) and possibility for us mere mortals, with our good moments and others we’re not so proud of. We cannot alter the essence of who we are any more than I, a mere 5’ 1 ¾”, can suddenly turn tall, just like my backpack did not get me picked first in dodgeball. Yet the shofar wake-up call can help us focus our energy where it is able to make a difference: acknowledging where we’ve strayed and working on becoming a better, more positive version of who we are.

The morning after my son had so carefully chosen his shirt and set off on his new adventure, I watched from the front window as the bus drove off. For a fleeting moment, I wanted to go back in time and redo high school with the wisdom I now have about people and the world and myself, but quickly scratched that idea. I’m far better off where I am.

I am grateful, though, that Elul gives us this opportunity to embrace a fresh start every time it comes around. It is a blessing and a gift to reach the New Year. I am ready for the long hours and the hard work. And I am eager for the possibilities.

Shana Tova u’Metukah!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Pause Button

These are the things I loved most about the summers of my youth.

A clear-cut delineation between time zones. School ended and vacation began, as if we hit a pause button on our obligations. Only on Labor Day weekend, when we drove to the outlets in Pennsylvania for marathon wardrobe shopping, did I begin thinking about school again at all. I was a good student and liked learning anything that wasn’t math or science, but I treasured a demand-free summer like everyone else.

Endless hours to read. I devoured stacks of books in the long hours of daylight. It was over the summer that I transitioned from the children’s room to the young adult section, and from there forayed into the shelves with grown-up fiction. Neither the librarians nor my parents seemed to notice the titles under my arm, giving me implicit license to read whatever serendipity brought my way.

Independence. On days I didn’t go to camp, I came and went without checking in too often with anyone. Sometimes, my best friend and I walked into town, where we explored the knickknacks at the pharmacy and bought gifts for our mothers’ July birthdays. Mostly, though, we would ride our bicycles along the bike path, stopping to gather wildflowers that were probably weeds, and sharing secrets. I had a watch, but I don’t remember looking at it often.

Calories didn’t count. Nor did cholesterol. Early on a summer evening, my family occasionally drove to an ice cream barn a good half hour, maybe 40 minutes away. We didn’t speak much in the car. But the scenery was rustic and beautiful, and I was happy to stare out the window in silence, alone with my thoughts. The ice cream scoops were so large I rarely finished my cone. The only other problem was deciding which flavor to choose.

Nostalgia for that pause button of my childhood has hit me, as it does every August in the final weeks of the season. And yet, my current pace is more or less business as usual, with breaks I can count on one hand.

Alas, grownup summers are not the carefree ones of our youth. Adulthood is a big blurring of time lines, making it harder to disconnect entirely from work and responsibilities, even when we have the opportunity to do so. Rather than idling, many of us are planning for next steps – buying school supplies and sending in reservations for Rosh Hashana seats at shul. And our worries rarely melt with a scoop of pistachio ice cream in the setting sun.

Tonight that bothered me. A lot. So I paused. I offered the kids ice cream for dinner and made sloe gin fizzes for me and my husband. We stood outside watching the fireflies and counting the stars and our blessings, feeling like we’d gone back in time. I let the sultry air fill my lungs as new dreams poured into my head. Here’s to them being enough to carry me through into autumn.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Best of Arrangements

In a few months’ time, G-d willing, I will celebrate 50 years on this planet. Well, that’s what the calendar and my birth certificate have reconciled. In my head, I’m still 27.

I’m grateful for all the big ticket blessings in my life. But I also savor the details – the large shade tree outside our kitchen window, the finches that nestle in its branches, my coffee press, and the classic rock station that perpetuates this time warp in which I feel younger than I actually am.

Over the years, I’ve made progress on stomaching large problems when they tumble into my path. I’ve also learned to be thankful when the challenges are small. I confess, though, that I sometimes struggle to discern the difference between the two, and I often wonder if my faith is up to the task of accepting what is beyond my control.

With a milestone birthday coming up, I’ve been thinking about these spiritual conundrums as well as the more practical issue of how to mark the occasion. Family and friends kindly ask how I’d like to celebrate. A party? An outing? A spa day? I’m embarrassed I don’t have the answer yet. I would love to do something special. I just haven’t figured out what.

My great aunt once told me a joke about two elderly women who attend a flower show. One says to the other, “You know, we’ve never done anything crazy. What are we waiting for? Let’s streak through the show!” They agree and embark on their dare, ultimately winning Best Dried Arrangement.

Don’t panic. I’m not streaking anywhere, nor am I planning anything wild like bungee jumping over Victoria Falls or swimming with the sharks in Fiji – no judgment if that’s your thing. But while I’m still figuring out how to celebrate my 50th, I’m taking an essential lesson from those two gals at the flower show.

There are so many things I’ve never experienced – classics I’ve never read, cuisines I’ve never tasted, local places I’ve never visited, everyday adventures I’ve never had. Now is as good a time as any to rectify as much of that as I can. And while few of these individual things are cool or dramatic, they are collectively the gift I wish to give myself.

I hope you’ll share this with me, letting me know what else I shouldn’t miss out on. After all, our time here is limited, but our possibilities for delight and wonder shouldn’t be.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

That Word

For years after we moved to the suburbs, I would joke that on any given day, I’d likely encounter more wildlife than humans on the street. Except for Shabbos, when the Sabbath-observant community walks everywhere, we live in and out of our cars. That has changed over time. More and more folks are now traveling on foot, but there aren’t the crowds pushing their way down the avenues that I still miss from the city.

What I long for are the exchanges that take place when so much humanity travels through an urban neighborhood at once – the nods, the looks, the brief words passed back and forth, the moment you notice someone’s carrying the same obscure novel you are. Not all of the encounters I had when we lived in the city were meaningful or pleasant, but the conglomerate created an atmosphere whose pulse energized me.

To my surprise, the supermarket stepped in to fill that gap in our suburban world, not in number but in spirit. Especially when I first began working from home, struggling not to feel isolated, the aisles became my avenues. There I connected with people outside my usual circle – folks who are darker, lighter, more devout, non-believing, with backgrounds like or unlike my own, with sheitels and tattoos and nose rings and their own stories to tell. And I loved it.

At least until a few days ago. It had been one of those afternoons when everything came together, tricking me into thinking I had some control over the universe. I was out running errands, ticking things off my list at an impressive pace. The vibe was good. I was the boss.

And then I heard that word.

I was on my way out of the store where I’d gone to get greens for chicken soup when I found my way blocked by two well-dressed young women. I smiled at them.

“Excuse me,” I said.

They did not move.

I tried again, still smiling. Again, no response.

Third time’s the charm, I reasoned, as I offered the plea once more, this time a little louder and a little firmer, but still with a smile. Finally, the women looked up at me and shuffled silently to the side. I thanked them, and as I was about to pass them, one turned and served me the B word.

I froze, incredulous. Wow, I thought. Wow. I mean I’ve encountered the occasional snappy cashier and a fellow customer teeming with criticism of my parenting, but this was a whole different level of wow. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

I took a deep breath, determined not to acknowledge the barb. Still, I couldn’t get the sound of that word out of my head. I felt like I needed to shower. I hadn’t done anything to warrant it, not that it would’ve been okay for her to say it if I had. I kept reminding myself how oblivious and rude the pair had been as I tried to exit the store. Should I have waited all afternoon while my produce went limp? Did that really just happen to me?

For the rest of the day, I struggled to make sense of it. I wondered why one word – that word – from a stranger had cut so deeply. It followed me into the next shop and then shadowed me at home. It distracted me from cooking and gnawed at me later at the gym. I couldn’t push-up or sweat it out of me or cleanse myself of it with 16 ounces of citrus-infused water. It clung to me like ivy.

It could have been a lovely encounter, if only the women had looked up and chuckled, “Oh, sorry. We were lost in conversation.” I would have understood. I would have appreciated that two friends had gotten caught up in their stories, far from the chaos of our harried, screen-centric lives.

When I found myself still bothered by it this morning, I decided it was time to make lemons into lemonade and to move on by finding some message in the moment. I would never hurl that expletive at anyone, but I resolved to take care to sweeten the words that do exit my mouth. I tried, too, to figure out what I’d tell those women if we were ever to meet again. I might tell them about the harm done. But mostly, I hope I’d find the courage to say how much I wish things had gone otherwise.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Perfectly Imperfect

A few weeks ago, I attended a local Jewish women’s conference entitled Idealism v. Realism. I’d waffled for days about going, worried I couldn’t carve out the time. But on the morning of the event, I learned that a good friend was moderating a breakout session and I wanted to participate. The nearby library book sale offered added incentive. I threw on a clean skirt, averted my eyes from the weed-like overgrowth of paper and laundry, and left the house.

The room was filled with busy women, most of us working moms eager to let loose a little in the discussions. After my friend’s powerful presentation, I stayed for the next one, too, moderated by another savvy woman I know from the community. She offered lessons to share with our daughters, aimed at teaching them to differentiate between real and ideal as they become wives and mothers and professionals, flailing around in the water like most of us do, trying to strike a balance, whatever on earth that means.

Because I have only sons, the takeaway for me was what resonated with my own day-to-day, and perhaps what I will share with future daughters-in-law, if they are inclined to hear my thoughts on such matters. Mostly, it was a reminder that striving to make the ideal of doing it all a reality almost always comes at the expense of something – our relationships, our happiness, or our overall well-being.

Something has to give, wherever we need it to. Takeout is fine. So is turning down community volunteer opportunities when our plates are full and throwing clutter into shopping bags before guests arrive for Shabbos lunch (save the nice ones for these occasions). Overextending ourselves and trying to be perfect in all things – or in anything, for that matter – is the EZ pass lane to burnout.

Perfection matters in some instances, of course, like when performing open-heart surgery or framing a new house. But most of the time it doesn’t. There was a humorous moment during the session when the moderator and I broke into a rendition of “Let It Go.” Sorry, Elsa. We’re coopting it. It’s the perfect anthem for the imperfect-is-more-than-good-enough philosophy.

Imperfect is, however, what’s expected of the goods proffered at a library book sale, versus the pristine editions one hopes to score at an auction, or the too-high a bar we sometimes set for ourselves. I considered this as I entered the library, excited about the prospect of finding a new stack of reads. When buying used books, I’m rarely bothered by a roughed-up cover or even notes scribbled in the margins. After all, these are signs that the book has fulfilled its purpose and has been well-loved in exchange.

We’re not much different. Life isn’t meant to be airbrushed. It’s meant to be lived. Our scuffs are valuable evidence that we’re doing just that – loving, working, parenting, praying, preparing and eating a delicious meal or keeping busy with whatever hobbies and books and chores fill our days. Our nicks and pings only make us more interesting.

I’d arrived at the book sale in its final hour and the pickings were slim. Still, I found a few titles I look forward to reading, also a volume for a friend, and others for my boys. When the volunteers announced that we could fill a tote bag for $5, I felt like a kid in a candy shop. I rummaged through a large box stashed beneath a table, in which I discovered an old siddur. Its enamel binding is chipped, its clasp is missing, but the flowers etched into the cover are preserved and the pages are intact.

I hugged the siddur to my chest, unable to believe the serendipity or the luck. But surely it was also a sign that we ladies in that breakout session were onto something. The siddur is lovely and well-loved, perfect in its imperfection, the best lesson of the day.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

What Happened When He Came Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

The airline attendant asked, “Two passengers?”

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 8, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Kindness of Strangers

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

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

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

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

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

“He will be fine,” he said.

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

“Because he has you.”

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Blanket Measure of a Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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.