It Was My Birthday, Even If I Didn’t Eat Cake

I’m not a fan of birthday cake, not even the icing. Buttercream or ganache – it doesn’t matter. I’d much rather have a tuna melt on whole wheat with a little coleslaw on the side, even if tuna melts are not a birthday tradition.

This rarely goes over well since everyone else seems to want to eat birthday cake. When I say there’s really no need for a trip to the bakery or to the market for Duncan Hines, they look at me askance, as if my preference were some kind of heresy. Since I don’t want the bad karma, nor do I want to deny them the opportunity, I embrace the cake ceremony nonetheless, making a wish and blowing out the candles with a smile on my face, keeping the visions of melted Pepper Jack to myself.

My lack of affection for the cake notwithstanding, I am a big fan of birthdays.  Yes, they mean I’ve aged another year. The child inside me jumps up and down anyway, relishing the good wishes and the cards and the little surprises, even the princess birthday balloon my husband places in the bathroom so I’ll see it first thing in the morning.

Oh, sure. I wouldn’t mind if new grey hairs would stop appearing on my head like dandelions on the front lawn. And yet. We humans get only two modes – stop and go. I’m grateful when the tally of my years on earth continues, thank G-d, to add up.

When one of our sons turned 12, I drove to his school to drop off a tray of cupcakes, which he requested for a class celebration. Someone in the office remarked with knitted brow that he was really too old for a birthday party, as if there were an age cut off for enjoying cupcakes, if cupcakes are your thing.

You’re only too old for a birthday celebration when your time is up, I mumbled under my breath, articulating for the first time what I’ve felt all along.

Still, her remark and her underlying judgment chafed the whole ride home. I wrote her a pleading email to say there is too much tsoris in our world. What’s wrong with the boys enjoying a few cupcakes and wishing a friend Happy Birthday? Besides, I added, how do you teach a child to appreciate the blessing of time without also encouraging him or her to celebrate its march forward? She agreed and said she’d never really looked at it that way before.

This past week, we celebrated my birthday by taking a long walk in the park and stopping for lattes on the way home. All the while, I waved to the little girl jumping up and down inside me, still glowing from the princess balloon that greeted her earlier that morning. At long last, I felt comfortable enough in my own skin to say I’d prefer we didn’t have cake.

Years have passed since that incident with my son, who still likes cupcakes, as it happens. Everything I believed that day holds true now. I feel it with an urgency, an immediacy that at first surprises, then steadies me. A birthday is an opportunity to express gratitude, and I’m thankful to be here.

Now please pass the coleslaw.

Photo credit: Robyn Lee

Please Don’t Park Here

 

Each time I have to park my large minivan somewhere in this great, densely populated state of ours, I become more and more convinced that my brain resembles a suburban parking lot.

First, there’s the long-term parking. I keep the happy memories at the front near the exit, where I can back them out easily. The other ones sit deeper in, towards the rear. But the valet guys sometimes play a practical joke on me and switch things around. I can’t do anything about that because they’re the ones with the keys.

There’s so much I have to keep straight that the daily parking deck is always packed all the way up to the top level. I have to squeeze in everything I need to remember and take care of, and all the topics I want to write about and the work I have to get done, and of course, the questions and existential crises about whether my life has meaning and am I a good mother. Oh, and the worrying about big ticket items that really matter and the molehills that don’t and whether I should have guests for Shabbos, and if so, how many side dishes are enough. Those things are also looking for space.

Sometimes, sewage backs up in the laundry room sink and family issues arise at the same time. At others, I feel overextended by having to manage what feels like everything, while also processing someone’s well-meaning-but-not-really remark about how tired I look. When those things pull up in search of a spot, my head isn’t sure where to park them. But these are the SUVs of brain space, bullying everything else out of the way, and their arrival sends the valets into a tizzy and they announce they’ve had enough and go on their break. While waiting for them to return to sort this all out, general functioning shuts down. It’s impossible to maneuver around all of that and still get anything else accomplished. Before long, though, we’re up and running again.

On the other hand, when good news arrives, though there isn’t enough room left to park a unicycle, there’s suddenly parking in the awkward corner between the support poles, even in the reserved spots usually taken by extremely important matters. The same is true during a true medical or other kind of emergency. It’s remarkable how even a crowded brain can make room.

No matter what’s happening, regardless of what kind of day I’m having, there’s a ruckus in there. My husband jokes that even when I’m sleeping, he can hear the noise from my responsibilities and thoughts and worries clanging against one another, jockeying for priority position in my frontal lobes.

And on Shabbos, when you’d think my brain would get some rest on what should be a low traffic day, the situation gets worse. I survey everything I’ve got parked upstairs and start examining whether I’m giving G-d enough attention and my husband enough attention and if I’m focused enough – or maybe too much – on my kids. Before I know it, my head wants Shabbos to be over so I can stop thinking too darned much and return to the business of actually getting things done. I spend the last hour of what should be peace and quiet awaiting the arrival of three stars in the sky, when I’ll  finally regain a false sense of control.

Just typing this makes my brain tired.

To every problem that wants to come my way tonight, to every issue and crisis and complication, to every new task I must remember to take care of and school form I need to fill out, I beg of you. Please do not park here tonight. The lot is full and I need a good night’s sleep.

We will reopen for business in the morning.

(Photo Credit: Mike Petrucci)

Venting In The New Year

Venting In The New Year

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I’m not a fan of resolutions. I rarely bother, mostly because I don’t like to set myself up for failure. But I did have a short list of things I wanted to accomplish this past year.

Top among them was learning how to clean out the dryer vent. I don’t mean the easy, everyday removal of lint from the collector between loads. I’m talking about the opening of the relevant dryer parts, hardware and all, in order to extract every last piece of fuzz, or at least the areas the vacuum nozzle could access.

I know, I know. Not exactly a spiritual Everest, or the stuff meaningful personal growth is made of. Still, it was important to me, for reasons ranging from home safety and dryer efficiency to personal skill-building and a sense of homeowner empowerment.

Two weeks before Rosh Hashana, my husband and I set aside an hour on his day off. We try our best to have some kind of an adventure that day – to reconnect amid the chaos of our obligations by exploring a small town or park in our tiny state, or if time is really limited, just finding a new coffee shop for catching up over a latte.

Instead, we lugged the vacuum cleaner down to the laundry room and got to work. He usually tackles this chore alone, but I was insistent he teach me this time. To my surprise, it was a team-building exercise par excellence, a chance to laugh at ourselves and test our patience for one another, like when I lost the screw to reattach the vent cover and my husband only shrugged, even as he struggled to find an exact replacement so we could put the dryer back together. Still, our sole disappointment was that we couldn’t spin all that lint into gold.

The timing of the lint clearing struck me as opportune in retrospect. We’re in the season of the clean slate – of starting fresh, of committing to doing better, and of growing in meaningful ways. What, after all, are the words of atonement we will utter between now and Yom Kippur but a venting of our sins, a shedding of our misgivings and regrets? We clear them out the best we can, whatever we have the strength and time for, whatever we have the spiritual wherewithal to access. And from there we aim to start again.

I have not yet set new goals. It seems too lofty to aim for a lint-free year, to think I might keep my slate clean for that long. Something more tangible and possible will come to me in time, I assume. For now, I’m just trying to focus on the self-reflection Yom Kippur requires of me, the sukkah decorating, and the making of the many, many festive meals we’ll consume over the next few weeks.

May the days and the year ahead be filled with blessing for all of us.

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(Willing To Share) a Room of My Own (Most of the Time)

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In Paterson, New Jersey with one of my favorite poets.

 

In summer, the song sings itself.

I want to talk about space.

I’ve been thinking about it for a long while, but what got me writing about it today was a video someone posted of a Ma husky padding into a dog house in search of some quiet time. Her adorable pups crowd in with her. She turns around and walks back out as they jump playfully around her, a cycle that continues over and over to our amusement, but likely not hers.

Of course, any parent who has ever tried to go to the bathroom – or shower or nap or talk on the phone – when their children were small will relate to that poor mama husky. Even now that my boys are older, at the age of hanging out with their friends, not traipsing around after their mom, I still hear an occasional knock on the bathroom door.

But we have reached that moment of summer when we time travel back to their boyhood – when they were needier, more dependent, more aware of my presence, and all I wanted was the tiniest room of my own. Their summer plans have come to an end, school is still weeks away, and we have yet to leave for vacation. In short, they are bored, eager to fill the empty space where structure usually reigns. Suddenly, they are so aware of me, seeking me out in the places I’ve carved out for myself – to buy them new clothes, to ask me questions, so many questions, to make them dinner, and to talk about everything or nothing at all, just sitting quietly on their phones while I do my own thing nearby.

I’m so used to the emptiness that marks the rest of the year I’m not sure what to do with the noise and attention. I have to unlearn everything I’ve taught myself about independence – theirs and mine – and letting them go. I have to lose the peace I make each September with their daily disappearance and acclimate again to their constant thrum and the shadows their height and strength cast wherever they go. But also, I need to remember how to share the space I’ve found for myself while they were gone.

How quickly it spoils me, though, to have them around so much during this brief window. It tricks me into believing that this frustrating-beautiful-ridiculous chaos will last, that it won’t end when the school bus stops to pick them up after Labor Day, that they’ll always be nearby, that they’re still small. You see, my adjustment to the silence that fills the house without them has never come easily to me. On the other hand, once I find my peace again, once I reclaim my own territory in September, I’ll be hesitant to let it go when this season rolls around again.

I seem to be full of contradictions, but it’s deeper than that, more complicated. I’m trying to give the boys the room they need to find their way, while at the same time, clearing the time and space to discover my own. But I know this one thing. As summer draws to an end and these last warm weeks slip through my hands, I’m grateful that they still – sometimes – find their way back to me.

 

 

 

 

A Clear View onto a Summer’s Day

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My friend once had charming but drafty old windows above the bookcases in her living room. She set the same goal every summer for more years than she could count: to etch a pretty pattern onto the glass in order to conceal some of the cosmetic wear and tear. But real life always took over and she eventually replaced the windows instead. The etching idea never stood a chance.

My summer agenda tends to vary from year to year, though it’s constant in its length and ambition. And while most – or all – of the contents will go the way of my friend’s windows, I still approach the enterprise with the naivité of a rookie who thinks she might actually get it all done.

This summer, however, I decided to scale back expectations to one major project (making headway on my book) and a handful of smaller, manageable tasks (cleaning out the bathroom vanity and other earth-moving experiences).

First, I wrote “Make a list” at the top of my list. I got this tip from my writer friend Esther, whom I’ve never met, but know through Facebook. Her mom z”l would begin all of her own lists this way, enabling her to leave the starting gate with a sense of accomplishment. It’s a brilliant, empowering idea, and I was delighted to have one thing already crossed off before summer even got underway.

Alas, within days, the rug was pulled out from under me. I flayed the skin off two fingers on my right hand while cooking for Shabbos. The bandage wrapped over my second-degree burns left me to peck like a slow-moving chicken at the laptop keys. All of my writing plans and work obligations were put on hold for weeks, as did the making of dinner. I quickly sank into a funk from my general lack of productivity.

That is, until I started to pay attention.

While I was getting nothing done, plenty was happening. I witnessed a stunner of a double rainbow after a storm, caught a firefly, made a new friend, and took a leisurely stroll with my husband for Slurpees. I discovered that tall stems of yellow-crowned dill – grown from the seeds my hairdresser’s mother brought me from Romania – are now flourishing in my garden. I also met a charming duck in the park the other morning, who escorted me back to my car. And I’ve already found two four-leaf clover, with six weeks still to go before Labor Day.

By now, my fingers have more or less healed, though my hand-modelling career is over before it started. As for my list, I have no idea where it even is, not that it matters, really. The only things I’ve managed to cross off are “Make a list” and “Clear out the bathroom vanity.”

Meanwhile, all of this musing leads me back to thoughts of my friend, who never got to etch her windows. She has no regrets, by the way. Only a clear view onto a summer’s day.

 

A New Driveway, and a Mensch

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Our driveway had been falling apart for years, crumbling to the point that when the landscaper rode over it with his mower one day, concrete pebbles flew everywhere and shattered my windshield. My husband and son mixed fresh concrete in an old dish bin and patched up the driveway as an activity. Their efforts weren’t going to win any beauty pageants, but it entertained them for a while and stabilized the driveway enough to get us through the following winter.

When the concrete disintegrated entirely thanks to the ice, snow, and salt this year, we began to fear it would collapse under the weight of our cars. The time to deal with the problem had come, our dread of the cost and the attendant aggravation notwithstanding.

I’m no fan of construction. I’m still recovering from the work we had to do when we moved into our fixer-upper more than a decade ago. Still, this experience was the loudest, messiest, and most frustrating of all. To put it mildly, the crew weren’t a courteous bunch, neither in their conduct while here nor in the way they left detritus behind. I spent the better part of three days cowering in my living room while they shouted at one another, expletives and all, the stress filling my shoulders and back like the asphalt in our driveway.

That said, we had chosen this company because the owner promised to fix the wobbly brick steps leading to our front door as well. The member of his crew who patched them arrived hours before the others each morning, his gentle dog in tow. He focused on the task with care and pride in his handiwork. He was kind and soft-spoken, polite and thoughtful to us, and he appeared to be the peacekeeper among his colleagues. He even came back after the job was already finished and paid for, just to check that the mortar had set nicely.

Once he’d gone, I returned the pots of our container garden to their perch on the brick landing. I looked out at the driveway and found myself praying that this new asphalt incarnation will hold up, that we won’t need to do this again for decades. One day, though, we’ll have to redo the steps. They are sturdy, but they aren’t going to win any beauty pageants and they won’t last forever.

I thought then of Pirkei Avot’s (Ethics of the Fathers) wisdom: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” And I’m grateful to the mensch who patched the bricks together for us, who bought us some time and made it possible for our guests to arrive here safely this past Shabbos.

Wishing you all a peaceful week.

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