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.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

On Reading Books and Reading Boys

I’ve been hiding behind the pages of a book since I first learned to read. Even now, when I’m well-ensconced in middle age, I turn to books for escape and comfort, peace and quiet, and a way to avoid things I don’t want to do. Some days, books even provide the oxygen I need to breathe, and they only expect me to care for their spines in return.

Books also give me a choice: to be myself, or if I’d rather, to be someone else. I get as close as possible to acting in a way I never would, to engaging in conversations I’ll never have, and to nibbling on forbidden fruit without the consequences. For the duration of their pages, it’s as if I exist in an alternate universe, where I live a life not my own. But books can only bring us near an actual experience. They cannot escort us across the border.

I think on some level, I always knew it was an opiate I sought on the shelves of the public library, but I had no name for it until I learned the word vicarious in middle school. The teacher wrote it in chalk on the blackboard and lights went off in my head. Vicarious made sudden sense of my world.

If only my sons were books I could read. A series in three volumes, all annotated.

So much of their thinking and doing is a mystery to me, though I do understand a lot of it after all these years of mothering them. We are programmed in unique code, and according to Jewish law, obligated in different ways. Sometimes, we speak our own dialects. In the thick of those discussions and disagreements, I wish I could step into their sneakers and be who they are, just long enough to figure out how to get things right with them more often.

Nothing else could bridge the divide in full, a reality I grasped during my older boys’ bar mitzvahs. A hollow knob, the tiniest bit of emptiness, began floating around inside me as my sons read from the open Torah. It did not diminish my joy or my pride in them, but it reminded me that no matter how closely I stood to the mechitzah, I was only watching from the bleachers.

Now that my youngest is about to put on tefillin for the first time, I sense the knob moving around again. I needlepointed the bag in which this almost-man will store them. I’ll watch with amazement and gratitude when he wraps himself in the straps. And yet, I’ll be an onlooker living the moment vicariously, a tourist who can get only so close to the cordon around the exhibit. This part of him and of his brothers will remain elusive.

I could ask the boys what it’s like for them to place the bayit (box) on their heads and be bound by the yoke of heaven. I can inquire how it feels to connect with G-d in such a physical way each morning. But I’ll only get what I usually get when I ask my teenagers these sort of probing questions, if I get a response at all: “Oh, I don’t know, Ma.”

I plan to try anyway, because a vicarious moment, when it is actually happening to someone for whom we’d step in front of a moving train, can be fulfilling enough. I’m their mother after all. I’m bound to intuit correctly some of the time. And if I get stuck, I’ll imagine that I’m holding a wise and beautiful story, and at least my heart will understand what I’m reading.