Friday, December 5, 2014

A Very Loud Quiet

I’ve noticed lately that a lot of my parenting time is spent, as it has been over the years, thinking about what drives me crazy, and I’ve been working out whether that’s an entirely bad thing.

When my boys were small, their simplest actions made me smile. The way they offered to share a chewed-on teething biscuit or how they’d run to me when I arrived to get them from nursery school. I never minded the poop or the spit-up or the waking up at all hours. Or even the smell of Balmex. They were part of the package of unconditional love.

And yet, as they got older, I developed expectations, and therein lies the source of my troubles.

It was clear early on that my sons were not the fastidious types when it came to household chores, no matter how often I sang the Barney “Clean Up” song. Even in adolescence, they leave a mess in their wake, despite my repeated exhortations to pick up after themselves.

I fear what their future roommates will think of them and what my future daughters-in-law will think of me. I’m forced to cling to the thread of optimism offered by more experienced parents, who assure me that the boys will mature out of this era of sloth and that they are really not unique among their peers.

For now, their towels pile up on the bathroom floor. Their clean laundry gets mixed in with the dirty because that’s easier than putting it away. And my favorite infraction: If a teaspoon of milk remains in the bottle, you have technically not finished it, which means the next guy has to remember (but doesn’t) to tell Mom, who does the food shopping but does not have telepathy.

This litany of complaints ran through my mind last week as I cleaned the house for Shabbos. My eldest was in the shower, blaring the Bluetooth waterproof speaker we got the boys last Chanukah. He had been using some other gadget to play music from his iPhone, positioned precariously on the back of the toilet. We knew it was only a matter of time before that ended badly.

His playlist is an eclectic mix of current music, and he listens to it at a volume that essentially pipes it throughout the house. I get it. I remain a music-loving teenager at heart.

On that particular afternoon, though, the music was slightly louder than usual when my husband came home from work. In a rare moment of forgetfulness about the pop bands of his own youth, he called out to the teenager, asking him to lower that “terrible” song, which wasn’t terrible, just, well, youthful.

Generally, I’m the one who forgets they’re still kids. My husband is the cooler parent who would serve them ice cream for dinner every night. Yet I suddenly turned into the laid-back mama and he turned into a serious father sitcom version of himself.

“Let him be,” I said. “Next year when he’s away in yeshiva in Israel, we will miss every sound he makes.” We shrugged, laughed, and let the music play on.

I had a vision of our empty nest. There’s time yet, years even, until that’s a full reality, but the idea of it made me sweat.

As a result, I’m trying to turn a blind eye to the mess and to our home’s imperfections. It does look fine most of the time. Not ready for a photo shoot, but fine. The boys will tell you that I’m the only one who would notice dirty socks on a bookshelf anyway. This doesn’t mean I’ve stopped cleaning -- I’ve got to stay ahead of the curve – but we’re arguing about dirt a lot less.

These days, when I get in the car, I turn on a station that plays the music I hear night after night from the shower instead of my usual playlist. Because I have through osmosis memorized some of the lyrics, I sing along as I drive to the bus stop to pick up the boys. They are mortified when they pile in and notice that I’m listening to the songs of their generation, more so that I know the words.

They click off the radio.

I turn it back on.

There’s only so much quiet a mother can take.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Wisdom in Falling Leaves

As a little girl, fall was always my favorite season. I loved that the trees looked like enormous red and yellow lollipops and that the air tasted of cinnamon. When the leaves turned brittle and fell to the ground, I walked back and forth over mounds of them, just to hear their comforting rustle beneath my feet.

I still like fall best, though what I now treasure most about it is its unwillingness to waste time. Fall knows exactly what it must do and gets on with it. It’s a period of transition. It’s about endings. But it is mostly about those leaves and our fragility. I can’t help but wonder whether the trees process the loss as they strip their color, whether they mourn what once was, whether they ache with the melancholy wrought by the shorter days.

For six years of falls, in the weeks before frost blanketed the grass, I walked with my youngest son to school. Each morning, we stopped in a nearby field to pick through the patches of lingering summer clover. We looked every day until we found a rare four-leaf specimen, the sign of a lucky year ahead. Later, we pressed our find into an album, labeling the date, and discussed how, when it comes to grades, you have to work hard for your luck.

The ritual helped him adjust to the new school year, but I knew that the autumn would come when he’d be too old or too embarrassed to sit on the grass with his mother. I clung like a barnacle to his willingness for as long as it remained within reach.

When he moved on to middle school last year, I started driving him in the mornings and we had to search for our clover on a Sunday instead. By this fall, however, he was already focused on other activities. He’d outgrown clover-picking altogether, quietly moving on to adolescence during this season of transitions. Our ritual ended without a sound, just as the leaves began to drop silently from the trees.

Still, we talk all the time, and for that I consider myself blessed. Lately, we’ve spoken about how there are things that may never make sense in our curious world, how there is love and hidden wisdom behind G-d’s plan, and how none of these facts excuse a seventh grader from doing his homework.

It takes nothing more than reading the news each day to fully grasp how little we understand of the Big Picture. On the morning of the Har Nof massacre, I shared the painful story with my son when he stumbled down to breakfast. His reaction was blunt and full of sadness. “How the heck do you expect me to go to school and pretend that everything is normal when it clearly isn’t?”

“Because that’s what we have to do,” I told him.

I never try to hide my tears from my boys, though I do have to fight the inclination to curl up into a ball. I want more than anything to help them see the good in a world whose light seems to dim with the passing days. After all, life goes on, even as we mourn, even as we try to comfort those facing irrevocable losses, even as we pray for G-d’s justice.

There is a profound intelligence to the unfolding of the seasons. Spring emerges hopefully from the chill of winter, hesitating from bud to blossom. It melds with summer before drying up on its way into fall, where we are reminded of the fact that all life is fragile. But this autumn, more than ever, we need not look at the falling leaves to know.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Fear of Flying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, kapow.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

In Awe of the Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My Elul Yard Sale

Every fall, I’m drawn to the community-wide garage sale like a fly to honey. You never know what you’ll find at these things, and I love the thrill of the search. They also allow for a bold kind of people watching that wouldn’t be socially acceptable among living creatures. You can stare all you want at the stuff on the tables without being creepy, and there’s an awful lot to learn about folks by examining what they’ve owned and used, but want to unload.

There’s an array of human emotion out there on those tables, too, in the backstories about the outgrown toys, the mismatched silverware, and the silly tchotchkes that sat in cabinets for ages and are now on offer for $1 firm. I often leave with an item just because I want to conjure up an entire tale about it in my head, though the buyer’s remorse is inevitable once the story has been told.

This fall, however, I decided not to go.

If you were to land suddenly in my living room, you’d see that I run a pretty neat shop. Yet my shelves and closets are full, in some cases teeming. Guilt, gravity, and denial account for a large percentage of what is here. For a while, though, I’ve been craving a less cluttered existence and a house that contains only what we need and love. So back in May, I decided to pare down once and for all.

I got started in earnest when the kids finished school, spending countless summer hours combing through our stash. By the end of July, I’d already filled 19 bags of clothing for Lupus, whose truck arrived at 7 a.m. one day to cart it all away. That was easy. Most of it didn’t fit.

Things with sentimental value that we just couldn’t use anymore were harder to part with, though onward I marched. I posted items for free so frequently on the community board that people asked if we were moving. We gave our son’s motorized toy bike to friends with young grandsons, to their utter delight. Someone else claimed our unused stroller for a family in need, while the rest of the first round of clearing out went to our shul, which participated in the town-wide garage sale.

The slow reclaiming of space has been wonderful, as has been stumbling upon some lovely old pieces I won’t be parting with in this process. I found the oddball assortment of Barbie accessories from my childhood (including her Nancy Sinatra boots), a lovely cup and saucer I bought in Vienna, my great aunt’s college ring, and plenty of other little bits I inherited from long-gone relatives I never knew.

I could argue a great case that overseeing this repository is a good thing, not an attachment issue. At some point down the line, someone may be glad I’ve kept what I have. After all, antiques and heirlooms are generally considered fine collectibles and the items from our family are an invaluable link to our past. Still, one of my sons once asked, “Can’t we own anything that wasn’t old first?”

One day, may we please G-d live to 120, the boys will have to make decisions about what they value in this house. It won’t be pretty. I have more than once witnessed the consolidation of a lifetime’s worth of goods. It can be tear-jerking and painful. I’m mindful of that all the time. In fact, that’s part of the inspiration for this whole decluttering business in the first place.

My delightful grandmother was the tchotchke queen. The triage – what stayed, what went, and to whom – was an emotionally fraught process when she moved into an assisted living and then again when she passed away. We each took what was dear to us, but the rest wound up in bags and boxes. In the end, we can’t take it with us to the next world, and no one else has room to take it either.

When my husband’s great aunt was 94, she had me write my name on Post-It notes and place them on the items I wanted after her passing. In her loving yet pragmatic way, she tried to ease the process of dispersing her belongings, so she lived with those yellow papers dotting the shelves of her apartment until she died two years later.

Yes, this business of stuff is tiring on so many levels. I can imagine the cursing under my sons’ collective breath when the time comes to tackle what their father and I have squeezed into this house. I hope I’ll continue this healthy, periodic review of our things. But there’s no way I can toss all of it, and yard sale or not, lovely items find their way in all the time. On the upside, we can’t easily reach the attic, so they won’t find any surprises up there.

As I’m busy cleaning, I can’t help thinking that Elul is a lot like an annual town-wide garage sale. Together as a community, we clear out the clutter in our hearts and minds, laying everything on the table so we can take stock of what we’ve done over the past twelve months. There’s plenty of doer’s remorse, and we wish desperately to return the ugly bits to where they came from in the first place. But there they are, exposed, and we cannot turn back time.

We’re lucky, though, that we do this each year, this taking out of boxes and bins in which we’ve stashed what we don’t want to think about. With it all splayed out in front of us, we can clear the decks, ready to start fresh, hopeful that we won’t make the same mistakes again: the foolish deeds, the words best left unsaid, and the moments we’re not very proud of at all.

But there are also items we’re happy to cling to, and we need to value those, too. Those are the keepers, the ones we want to make a habit of, the collections we want to put away somewhere safe from year to year, the ones that make the cut. The ones we want our children to find when they clear up after we’re gone, delighting in the fact that we didn’t toss everything.

A sweet and healthy New Year to everyone! Shana Tova!

Monday, August 25, 2014

The More Roads We Travel

I was born wanting to go places. My mother reports that I toppled my cardboard bassinet in the newborn nursery while thrashing around. She believed I was trying to break free. I walked too early as well, and had to wear special shoes affixed to a metal rocking plate because my legs were not yet strong enough to carry me.

But I also traveled in the conventional sense with my family. I remember our drive to Florida, specifically drinking orange juice at the state welcome center and throwing up as I stepped off the Mad Tea Cup ride at Disney. I recall the trauma of getting lost once while away, though I’m not sure where we were when it happened, and taking photographs of my feet on the beach in Caesarea during our first trip to Israel.

When I was old enough to travel on my own, I seized any opportunity to explore locales both nearby and far flung. Luckily, my husband shares my sense of adventure. In the early years of our marriage, even when we lived on a shoestring, we still found a way to go places. We occasionally went abroad, but mostly went to off the beaten path spots close to home and checked out as much of our own city as possible.

And then we had children. Their blessed arrival cut nights out down to zero, and we were really fine with that. But we agreed that we would not suppress our wanderlust, no matter how complicated traveling with the boys might get.

We flew together to Croatia to visit family when our eldest was 8 months old. A year later, I made the same trip alone with my son. My back ached as I carried him, his car seat, the diaper bag, my carryon, and my purse onto the tarmac to board our connecting flight from Zurich. Yet I delighted in the experience of being there with him, even as he soiled his diaper just before takeoff to the chagrin of the buttoned-up business man to his left.

In fact, experience has been the point from the beginning. We wanted to pass along our curiosity to our sons, and we believed that travel was the ticket to ensuring that their world view broadened beyond their own four squares. Besides, it gave us an excuse to continue prioritizing what we loved. We went wherever and whenever we could. But when we couldn’t go far away, we took the boys on closer adventures, like the gorges in upstate New York or to a zoo the next state over.

About ten years ago, we happened upon the idea of an annual road trip across the US. A road trip’s flexibility appealed to us as a young family, especially the way it allowed for spontaneous stops along the way. As a new American, my husband wanted to see his adopted homeland and its northern neighbor. To my own shame, I’d been to Albania, but had never been west of Madison, Wisconsin.

The decision launched what has become the defining experience of our family life. We’ve piled into our minivan nearly summer since, with the exception of our trek to Seattle (we flew on expiring miles) and two road trips in tiny cars while visiting relatives in Europe. We’ve gone as far and wide as Vancouver, BC and Maine, Mt. Rushmore and the Green Mountains, Disney and Amarillo, Texas. Our goal is to visit all 50 states and the 10 Canadian provinces (maybe even the territories, too). We’ve made it to 38 and 6, respectively.

Loved ones and acquaintances alike often wonder how we’ve managed with our noisy, messy brood in the car. After all, they’ve seen the boys in action out of the car. Portable DVD players – since replaced by Apple products – always helped, as did rattles, action figures, crayons and activity books when the boys were much younger. We’ve never underestimated the busy potential of a crunchy snack, and we’ve often pleaded with G-d to please, please, please make the boys nap.

We’ve managed potty training, scream-inducing ear infections, precarious car seat escapes, stomach bugs, sibling rivalry, teenage orneriness, and a flat tire on the NJ Turnpike. There have certainly been “Don’t make me stop this car” moments, yet I always say these trips are like childbirth. The gross and the horrible recede from memory once we’ve pulled back into our driveway.

In the days before our recent trip to the Canadian Maritimes, we had to face the hard truth about our minivan. It has given its all for 12 years, but it was no longer up to a ride of several thousand miles. The boys are also growing up and we don’t know how much longer they’ll be able or willing, given their own lives and plans, to come along for two weeks each summer. Perhaps the van’s retirement was a metaphor for the end of an era.

We quickly suppressed such thoughts and accepted that we were either going in my husband’s 5-seater or we weren’t going at all. Wholeheartedly, our three boys, whose legs are far longer than mine, squeezed into the back. Some of the luggage went beneath my feet in the front. It was cramped, but that did not obstruct our view of the wonderful things -- both manmade and created by G-d – we saw along the way.

Like our other trips, this recent journey offered family bonding at its best. The boys may have found a way to wrestle even while stuffed into the back seat, and they got mighty loud. But they enjoyed priceless, uninterrupted togetherness with one another and with their parents. That the trip further fed their curiosity about the world and nurtured their ever-growing sense of adventure are bonuses I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Please, just don’t ask me about the state of the car.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

No Mistakes, Just Experiments

I love the liberating sensation of being out on the wide open highway, especially when I’m driving alone late at night. It’s almost theatrical: streetlamps light the asphalt and memories of old personal dramas take center stage, edging out my usual mental clutter. Right one cue, I start thinking too much, mostly about roads not taken and mistakes I’ve made along the way.

Only the classic rock station – a pleasure I’m denied when my eye-rolling sons are with me -- keeps me from sinking entirely into melancholia. Instead, the songs provide the perfect soul-searching soundtrack and my singing takes me to a younger, unwrinkled place in time.

While on the way home from a wedding a few months ago, I was in the throes of a great song and a slightly embarrassing memory when a garden center billboard jarred me out of my flashback. The sign, which has boasted the same special on arborvitae and lawn statuary for years, offered this to ponder instead:

THERE ARE NO GARDENING MISTAKES. JUST EXPERIMENTS. 

Noooo, I thought at first. But later, I conceded that yes, in gardening, it’s true. I’ve uprooted enough unruly plants to know that gardens give us as many chances to get things right as we’re willing to give ourselves. At that moment, however, I was unable to take the message at face value. Metaphorically, the billboard was wrong.

After all, we’re human. We fill up on mistakes like we’re loading a shopping cart at the market. And in parenting, oy, all the more so! We don’t have the time to cover the moments I wish I could do over with my children. But I’ll mention here only that I’d definitely listen better to what my then young boys were shouting with conviction from the timeout chair and I’d stop myself before offering unsolicited advice to my teens on their summer haircuts.

Our wise sages and holy books teach us to forgive one another our misdeeds. We are enjoined to judge our peers favorably, to always look for the silver lining. Once a year, we spend an entire day recounting our transgressions against G-d and His creations in pursuit of a clean slate. But when we awake the next morning, we are likely to trip over the inability to absolve ourselves.

I forgive my boys quickly, and they forgive me, too, in the miraculous way you do when you love someone unconditionally, and the infractions aren’t terrible. In fact, they don’t even remember that I ignored their timeout rants for the sake of my hearing (and my sanity). I’ve continued to self-flagellate anyway, pounding away at my own heart.

But this summer, everything feels different. I go to sleep each night with hopeful prayers on my lips, only to wake up to news reports of new losses and heightened fear, as if we could ramp up our angst any more. Not even a good song has managed to numb my sadness for long. It seems like an opportune time to quit the concept of foolish regret and throw my energy elsewhere.

I, for one, believe that a garden need not be masterful to be beautiful. Case in point: the $1.60 investment in seed packs I tossed haphazardly into soil containers in May. Despite my lack of careful planning, they have still produced a lovely array of simple flowers bursting with happy colors in pot after pot along our front steps.

And yet, I have learned more, changed more, from the singular packet that produced nothing. I gave it the same watering attention as I did the others. The same sun shone down upon it day in and day out, and yet, it remains a brown jumble of empty soil. Still, I leave it there as a reminder that one dud does not diminish the glory of an entire garden nor the essential goodness of our own well-meaning souls.

It is that row of flower pots that has kept me afloat this summer, enabling me to see something splendid through the fog of my tears. I cannot walk past them without admiring their petals. I pause, too, to thank G-d for the sun and rain that made them blossom so bravely in a world turned on its head.

In this way, I stumbled upon the broader wisdom in that gardening center billboard. Human error is inevitable. Imperfection is an essential part of our fabric. “Experiment” is just code for easing up on ourselves, because our mistakes are not the problem. It is by dwelling on them after we’ve settled our debts that we keep ourselves from moving forward.

Better to spin our missteps into a series of “We tried, now let’s try again” opportunities. Even better, let’s recognize our fallibility as a fount of chances to set things right, to repair the world, or to get as close as we possibly can. Better still, let’s cherish our blessings and pray for peace, and for some peace of mind.