Merri Ukraincik

What To Do About The Granny Squares

I did not crochet these granny squares.

Two years ago, a friend’s mom offered me a bag of wool when she was relocating. Turns out that one bag was really two large storage bins and two industrial garbage bags filled with beautiful skeins of wool in assorted colors. I was pleasantly shocked by the bounty of it.

“Hang on. There’s more,” she said, heading back to the car while I stood there with my mouth open.

She reappeared, this time with four garbage bags she refused to let me carry. They teemed with granny squares, all made by a friend who was also downsizing. Together they decided I’d figure out what to do with them.

The wool was a boon. I’ve transformed most of it into afghans, baby blankets, and hats, and my friend’s mom gets nachas from the photos I send her of my handiwork. The nearly 1,000 granny squares are another story.

Though I devised all sorts of plans for them, I followed through on none. When our basement flooded last year, the bags came untied and the squares floated like lily pads on the rising water. I gathered them up after havdalah, washed them, and restashed them in bags with a better seal.

Yesterday I decided to reclaim the space they take up in the basement while giving the squares a purpose in the world. I was going to start the first project I have in mind last night, then thought better of it, figuring I might feel compelled to complete it, which would distract me from Shabbos preparations today. I’ll begin tomorrow night or on Sunday instead. Watch this space for all the things I come up with.

But as I prepare for Shabbos, I keep thinking how freeing it is to put away our pens and brushes, cameras and crochet hooks, to power down our laptops and phones, and to tell the voice in our heads, the one driving us to always produce and create, “Hey! It’s time for your Shabbos nap!”

Because it is in the Shabbos rest we take from creating that we nurture our creativity most – by connecting with the source of it, with the Crafter of Crafters who endowed us with it in the first place.

Wishing everyone a Gut Shabbos! May we treasure the separation between the sacred and the everyday that enables us to rest now and make beautiful, productive, lasting things in the week ahead.

Gut Shabbos!  Shabbat Shalom!

Merri

 

My Year In Books 2019

(Image: My favorite postcard from the Strand Bookstore)

I aim to read 50 books a year. It’s a goal that doesn’t always happen. I’m disappointed to say it didn’t in 2019, though I managed to read more than I did in 2018 (here’s that list).  Still, all of this reflection makes me realize how envious I am of my younger self, the one who had the luxury of lazy afternoons that left me time to devour entire stories in one bite. 

My biggest pitfall this past year was struggling for too long with books I didn’t connect with  – either because they were the wrong titles for me or it was the wrong time in my life for them or some other reason – instead of giving up on them earlier. I’ve decided to include them here anyway, even the ones I didn’t finish, in part because I use this list to remember what I’ve read. Also, there are several children’s/middle school chapter books on the list, most from my childhood bookshelf, that I reread for nostalgia’s sake. Sometimes, they are exactly the thing an adult needs to read.

I did not have one absolute 2019 favorite, but rather a handful of books I either loved (though sometimes love isn’t the right word) or felt were deeply moving, including a few I reread after a pause of decades. There were two great short stories I also want to mention here – Amor Towles’ new The Line and Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, published in 1948 in The New Yorker, though its lessons are more relevant than ever.

Looking ahead to the new decade, I plan to read Erika Dreifus’ poetry collection Birthright, W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Daša Drndić’s Doppelganger, and Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, for starters. So many other books await me in piles here  – finds from the library book sale and the bookstore run I made with a gift card. There will be others, too, whatever a friend will inevitably lend or gift me, titles I’ll learn about through book reviews, and whatever my book club decides we should read together.

After all, a growing pile of books is always good thing, however it comes together. I’d like to think that’s the secret to living forever. Keep acquiring them and then stick around until we’ve read them all.

But for now, here’s a look back on my Year in Books 2019. As always,  please share your recommendations in the comments, or email me at merriukraincikblog@gmail.com.

#1 Gourmet Rhapsody – Marion Barbery

I feel terrible admitting that I could not finish this book since I loved Barberry’s Elegance of a Hedgehog, but I stopped around page 50.

#2 Asymmetry – Lisa Halliday

This book comes together in the coda. It’s clever, but it asked so much of me and was so pretentious I didn’t enjoy it.

#3 A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf

I last read this in college, but this line resonated especially now “… give her a room of her own and five hundred a year…” and the freedom to write.

#4 Labyrinth of the Spirits  – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I loved Shadow of the Wind and was really looking forward to reading this. But I didn’t get through it.

#5 The Upstairs Room – Johanna Reiss

Reiss’ account of her experience hiding with a non-Jewish family in Holland during the Holocaust. (For middle school +)

#6 Queen of the Night – Alexander Chee

A novel about 19th century Paris and opera that was sometimes wonderful, sometimes too dense and complicated.

#7 Good Omens – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

Though I usually love every word Gaiman writes, it just wasn’t the right time for me to read this. I’m going to try it again in 2020.

#8 Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk – Kathleen Rooney

I loved this novel about a successful female advertising writer and poet in 1930s New York, and how the city changes in the background as she ages.

#9 Yellow Star– Jennifer Roy

The story, told in verse, of one of the 12 children to survive the Lodz Ghetto.

#10 If You Want to Write – Brenda Ueland

A fascinating exploration about art and the independence of spirit.

#11 Trieste – Daša Drndić

This historical novel is raw, experimental, mythical, and one of the very best books I’ve ever read about the Holocaust.

#12 The 100 Most Jewish Foods – Alana Newhouse

A collection of food essays with delightful illustrations and recipes.

#13 Survival in Auschwitz – Primo Levi

A re-read for me, but it was as powerful the second time around. Please read this book if you haven’t already, or if it’s been too long since you last did.

#14 Victoria – Daisy Goodwin

Historical novel about the young queen.  An afternoon diversion.

#15 Seedfolks – Paul Fleischman

A sweet, short book for young readers about the lessons of a community garden.

#16 The Caine Mutiny – Herman Wouk

One of the first post-WW II novels to describe the horrors of the Holocaust to American readers.

#17 The Known World – Edward P. Jones

Historical novel about freed slaves who became slave owners. Some of the jumping back and forth in time was confusing, but an interesting read.

#18 The Book of Dirt – Bram Presser

This wonderful novel is a love story and a survivors’ story and a grandson’s quest to connect the myths and missing pieces of his grandparents’ lives.

#19 Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine  – Gail Honeyman

I adored everything about this book, Eleanor especially.

#20 Morningstar: Growing Up With Books – Ann Hood

A lovely collection of essays about the books that moved the author as a child/young adult. This resonated deeply with me.

#21 Tzili The Story of a Life – Aharon Appelfeld

A stirring, haunting fable about a young girl who survives the Holocaust.

#22 The Breadwinner – Deborah Ellis

For young readers, about a young girl who helps care for her family in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

#23 The Lover – A.B. Yehoshua

Deeply moving story about the complicated layers of Israeli society at the time of the Yom Kippur War. Alas, the last time I read it I was able to do so in Hebrew.

#24 The Good Daughters – Joyce Maynard

Really enjoyed this novel about a mistake that entwines two families. The presentations of farm life are lyrical.

#25 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon

A mystery narrated by a teenage boy on the autism spectrum.

#26 Lilli de Jong – Janet Benton

Story about a woman who gives birth at a Philadelphia institution for unwed mothers in the 1880s.

#27 The Weight of Ink – Rachel Kadish

A beautiful, sweeping historical novel about two women and the sacrifices and choices they are compelled to make.

#28 Becoming – Michele Obama

Really liked this memoir, the first half more than the second.

#29 Love That Dog – Sharon Creech

A lovely story about a young boy who finds his voice, thanks to the help of a teacher and a dog (for ages 8-12, but really anyone).

#30 The Pushcart War  – Jean Merrill

Classic satiric novel (ages 10+) with a David v. Goliath theme. I reread my own copy from childhood when I found it on the shelf. Relevant as ever.

#31 The Glass Menagerie – Tennessee Williams

Found this classic play on the shelf, too, and decided to reread. Heartbreaking and powerful.

#32 Holiday Tales of Sholom Aleichem: Stories of Chanukah, Passover, and Other Jewish Holidays – Selected and translated by Aliza Shevrin

What fun!  Best to read as the holidays come up in the calendar, though I read it straight through.

#33 Liar & Spy – Rebecca Stead

Fun spy novel set in New York. For middle schoolers.

#34 Never Let Me Go – Kashuo Ishiguro

A dystopian novel set in a boarding school in England. Brilliant writing, but creepy.

#35 Heads You Win – Jeffrey Archer

A friend gave this to me. A suspense novel that spins on the flip of a coin. Not my usual genre, but a fun distraction.

#36 The Other Wes Moore – Wes Moore

True story of two different men with the same name and entirely different fates.

#37 Someone Knows My Name – Lawrence Hill

Moving historical novel about a girl, taken from her African village and sold into slavery, who becomes a voice for the British abolitionist movement.

#38 The Other Side of Everything – Lauren Doyle Owens

Crime drama set in a suburban housing development. Didn’t grip me.

#39 Stardust – Neil Gaiman

What I wouldn’t give to spend 5 minutes inside Gaiman’s brilliantly creative head. A fairy tale with a beautiful love story at its heart.

#40 Save Me the Plums – Ruth Reichl

A memoir of her tenure at Gourmet. My favorite of her memoirs.

#41 Frindle – Andrew Clements

My favorite book about the power of words. Reread (for the umpteenth time) when I learned that Andrew Clements had passed away.

#42 Murder in Jerusalem – Batya Gur

A well-written murder mystery with insight into Israel history and culture. Gur’s last book.

#43 Braving the Wildnerness – Brené Brown

I related to several parts of Brown’s book about the courage to stand alone.

#44 The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi – Jacqueline Park

A novel of romance and intrigue. Book one of a trilogy about a well-educated Jewish woman during the Italian Renaissance.

#45 Daytripper – Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá

Beautiful, haunting graphic novel worthy of the acclaim.

#46 The Strange Case of Dr. Couney – Dawn Raffel

Wonderful, quirky true story about the birth of neonatology.

#47 How to Fight Anti-Semitism – by Bari Weiss

Important read, especially now.

#48 The Book of Aron – Jim Shephard

Story about a 13-year-old boy’s experience in an orphanage during the Holocaust.

Here’s to what we read in 2020!

 

 

We All Need A Break Sometimes

Early this morning, I realized I had not cleared off or set the Shabbos table, which I usually do on Thursday night, nor had I made chicken soup with the greens I bought on Wednesday. I hadn’t wrapped the Chanukah gifts at one end or finished the decoupage projects at the other, and I’d failed to put away the groceries and papers in between. To boot, the cakes I baked, my only attempt to begin Shabbos preparations, had collapsed because I took them out of the oven too soon.

I was just too tired and too blah from the cold yesterday, and I didn’t want to do anything but write. Though it was out of character to let things go, I decided this was a very acceptable decision, that it wasn’t sloth or procrastination, but rather an investment in my work and word count and me, and that all of it was as important as making fresh chicken soup and challah, at least in the moment.

But I now know this to be true because I found two quarts of the former and five of the latter in the back of the freezer this morning, all of which I made a few weeks ago – for a rainy day. Because sometimes you get lucky and see your blessings staring you in the face. You feel all the goodness from on high and your faith is strong that everything will sort itself out, even if it looks different from how you first envisioned it.

You know what else? I’m going to make a brownie mix for dessert, relocate the gifts and projects to other surfaces, stash all the papers in a Marshall’s bag, and reschedule our Architectural Digest photo shoot (just kidding about that last bit). And it’s not going to bother me one bit. Really.

Sundown will come as it does each week no matter what. Our meals will be simple this time, but there will be love in them, and they will taste like wonder and miracles and the holiness that separates Shabbos from everything else. And G-d willing, we will rest along with Him from the busyness of the everyday and the business of being humans who sometimes just need a break.

Wishing everyone a restful Shabbos that allows us to forget, briefly, all the tasks that await us after Havdalah.

Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom! And a Happy Chanukah, too!

 

Saying Goodbye to Andrew Clements

fringle2

Frindle came into our lives when one of our boys had it assigned at school. It was love at first read. We would go on to enjoy many books by Andrew Clements, but I kept coming back to this one.

The story is about a boy named Nick who comes up with the new word frindle for a pen. The book’s themes – the power of words and creativity, an individual’s ability to have impact – resonate with young readers. But they have so much to say to the rest of us, too.

Around the time of my son’s bar mitzvah, I decided to write to Mr. Clements, to tell him how much his books Frindle and Lunch Money, in particular meant to this child. What I didn’t expect was a response.

Two months later, however, Clements wrote back. He told my son how much he appreciated hearing from us, especially to learn his books had such meaningful impact. He included a beautiful line about the importance of having faith and a faith-based community in one’s life. He enclosed a small note to me as well, which I keep in a treasure box.

This paragraph at the end of Frindle is my favorite. It’s in a letter Nick’s former teacher sends him when he’s already a university student and frindle has officially entered the dictionary:

“So many things have gone out of date. But after all these years, words are still important. Words are still needed by everyone. Words are used to think with, to write with, to dream with, to hope and pray with.”

Sadly, Andrew Clements passed away last week. May his memory and his books be a blessing. I did not know him, nor did I ever meet him. But he wound his way into my heart through his stories, and I will mourn all the words that were surely still inside him when he passed, taking them with him into the next world before he had the chance to share them with the rest of us.

I plan to reread Frindle (again) this Shabbos, and to think hard about words. Because our words, the ones we exchange with one another and the ones we exchange with G-d, make all the difference in this world.  And may we be blessed to remember that they have the power to change it for good.

Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

Birthday Lessons and Blessings

Though these haven’t been the easiest 12 months, I know by now that G-d doesn’t hand us a catalog and say, “Go ahead. Pick the challenges you can handle.” He makes that decision for us, just as He chooses the less demanding weights we carry in our lives.

Yet it’s up to us whether we see the bumps in the road between the smooth stretches, or the smooth stretches between the bumps. Potholes come in all shapes and depths. Some we can maneuver around with ease and others we get stuck in, as if they were quicksand. Still, Hashem often enough sends the kindest, most giving humans to pull me out, or hold my hand and talk me through until divine assistance arrives – or comfort me when it does not.

No matter how old I get, I feel 39 in my head. Sometimes, I’m sure I’m still the little girl in this photograph. Curious. Eager. Wide-eyed. Hungry to experience everything the world has to offer.

I once thought I could do or be anything, though by now, some ships have sailed. I’m getting better at accepting what will never be and cherishing what’s come instead. Determined to embrace the jiggle of middle age, I’ve tossed everything control top from my wardrobe. We don’t really have control over much in this world anyway – only how we respond to the deck we’re dealt, and how we love, show respect to one another, and fight for what we know is right.

Some of my closest friends from childhood are still my dearest. Our shared history is priceless. But I’ve gathered wonderful new friends at every stage of my life, too. They are all treasures to me.  I’m grateful to them for letting me be my quirky self and for finding a place for me in their hearts.

There are people no longer in this world whom I miss with my every breath, every single day, even as time passes. More than anything, I wish there were phones in Heaven.

I love our house, with its old furniture and worn-out bits, our books and tchotchkes, and the kitchen, especially the kitchen, which, though small, lets me bake challah and feed people I care about and cook for folks I may never meet.

I love my family. I love my tribe. But I love being a part of a greater humanity in all its diversity.

Though I miss the steady paycheck of my former career, I am blessed to be writing every day, even if some days I can only do so in my head.

Since forever, I’ve enjoyed a tuna melt and a strong cup of coffee. My grandmother (and yours) was right; health really is everything. It’s good to have a hobby or two, to know how to create something with your hands that absorbs what worries you. Though I often can’t remember where I put the car keys, I haven’t forgotten the words to my high school playlist. This is important since nothing knows your emotions like the music of your youth.

There’s little that surpasses the pleasure of a book, a hug, a deep belly laugh, or a smooth glass of scotch. I’d add a full night’s sleep, but that remains elusive.

And then there’s the grace period of Shabbos, which gives me the chance to pause, reset, and fill myself up with hope for what awaits, G-d willing, in the days, months and years ahead. It’s a gift I hope to spend the rest of my lifetime appreciating, starting with candle-lighting tonight.

Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

Always Listen To Your Stomach

Back in the early years after the fall of Communism, I lived in Budapest as the Joint Distribution Committee’s Ralph Goldman Fellow. My boss was a man named Moshe Jahoda z”l, then JDC’s country director for Hungary.

Moshe escaped with the Kindertransport from Vienna to Palestine soon after the Anschluss. But his parents and sister stayed behind, and they were later deported and murdered in Auschwitz. He went on to build a life in Israel and a meaningful career, fighting for the needs of aging survivors and devoting himself to the causes of the JDC and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany. Yet his past – and his losses – informed everything he did. 

He was a hardworking, insightful man who cared deeply for his family. His personal history gave him an aura of gravitas, though he had a wry sense of humor and a boyish twinkle in his eye that did not dim, even as he aged. He still had it the last time I saw him — during a visit to Israel not long before he passed away. 

Moshe, whose yahrzeit was observed last month, was my mentor and moral compass, both during my time in Hungary and for the next 12 years we worked together at JDC. Still, his parting words of advice on the day I left Budapest for New York in 1993 are what have stuck in my heart all this time. 

I was on the cusp of several major life decisions. Moshe knew some of the questions on the table in front of me and intuited the rest. And he understood, with his unique brand of kindness, their weight in the present and what each choice might foretell for the course of my life.

He said, “Merri, listen to your stomach, not your brain. Your intellect will convince you of anything. But your stomach will always tell you the truth.”

Life is a stretch of decision-making, from the fun choices – chocolate or vanilla? – to the more challenging ones that affect our families, health, and future. A lot of water has flown under the Danube since Moshe gave me that advice years ago, and I’ve since had to make many decisions, some that have been out-of-the-box, raising eyebrows instead of allowing me to slip under the radar. But Moshe’s words have not failed me yet. And the older I get, the more grateful I am to have that wisdom in my heart.

He’s on my mind as we head into Shabbos. May his memory be a blessing.

Wishing everyone a beautiful Shabbos. Gut Shabbos!  Shabbat Shalom!