In Praise of the Dictionary

 

dictionary

When I teach writing to young students, one of the first things I tell them is that I keep a dictionary by my side when I read. I do this for one simple and obvious reason:  so I can look up the meaning of words I don’t know.

The surprise in their eyes is priceless. At first, they can’t believe it’s true. There are those among them who are convinced that adults are familiar with every word in the English language. I guess some folks are, but I assure them the average human – even a well-read one – is not.

I explain that this habit of mine goes beyond the necessity of understanding what I’m reading. I happen to enjoy learning a new word or reacquainting myself with an old one I haven’t used in a while. Keeps the mind supple. It also gives me the happy glow you get after a good meal.  I want my students to get excited about it, too, so they’ll see the looking up of words as a means to broadening their horizons. That’s why I tell them how much I love dictionaries, which are all over our house – on bookshelves and the table next to my bed, even near the cookbooks in the kitchen. They are my constant companions because reading is something I do in all sorts of places.

I’m aware that some of the dictionaries in my stash are outdated, like the  Webster’s I bought in college and the American Heritage edition I acquired for my last full-time job. That’s why I got myself a new one last year. It’s heavy and lovely and a number of the definitions have tiny pictures accompanying them. I keep it on the coffee table in the living room. But I haven’t recycled any of the old ones. I can’t seem to let them go. I like to suggest to my students that they treat themselves to a nice one, too.

Yes, I say to them, “I know the standard English dictionary is available online.” I also know that as vast as it is, it takes up no room that way, which would free up our coffee table for other things, like coffee cups. When I must, I avail myself of the resource, like when I’m reading in a doctor’s waiting room. It would be impractical to carry a dictionary with me wherever I go.

But the cyber edition is just a means to an end, while a paper dictionary has endless potential for serendipity. Only within its pages can you stumble upon the word chantey (a sailor’s song, sung while working) out of the corner of your eye while looking for the meaning of chapman (chiefly British usage, a peddler). It’s delightful when this happens. I could get lost in the Cs alone.

Mostly, I love that dictionaries allow us to hold the diversity of our language in our hands, laying the vast quantity of words out before us, like a Viennese table with a million plus treats to choose from.  I share this thought with my students, hoping they’ll catch my enthusiasm. I promise them that growing the number of words in their vocabulary gives them enormous power to frame their world (Which way do I turn to save the universe?), not only the practical ability to share their specific feelings about their new baby nephew (I am besotted with you.) and homework (I’d like to defenestrate my textbook, but won’t.).

Besides, there’s always a new word to learn – slang or technical jargon,  words borne of world events and cultural watershed moments. I tell them it’s good to keep abreast of change. We humans are forever creating language, helping it to evolve and grow. It’s kind of a superpower, really. I suggest that they read more about that in Andrew Clements’ chapter book Frindle. I read it with my boys when they were young and am grateful I did. It’s still one of my favorite stories from their childhood.

When they’ve finished Frindle, I encourage them to open a dictionary – not in their servers, but in their hands – at home, in the library, or at school.  Smell the ink on the page. Then, I tell, them, behold the low-lying fruit and grasp at all the delicious words they can.

Finding Good Things In The Last Place I Thought To Look

shoes

It’s the season of atonement, the days spanning from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur.  I should probably be writing to you with thoughts about the holidays, but at the moment, I’d prefer to talk about Walmart instead.

I’ve never liked Walmart much, in great part because it’s enormous. Yet where we live, it’s the only general goods store open until midnight, which comes in handy at 11:15 p.m. when one of your children mentions in a casual manner that he needs a hard-to-find school supply for the next morning. And sometimes it’s helpful because I just need to get out of the house, to clear my head late at night when everything else is closed.

Two years ago, I made a hesitant peace with Walmart, not that I was trying, nor because I embraced the fact that you can buy underwear, craft supplies, snacks, bug spray, and spackle under the same roof. The reason was that yours truly inherited a wicked pair of bunions from her grandmother and has a very hard time finding a comfortable pair of shoes.

It was completely by chance that I discovered Walmart sells a good pair of flats. I was driving to a meeting when I realized I’d left the house in flip-flops without more professional footwear to change into. There was no time to return home, so when I spotted Walmart on the horizon, I pulled in and headed to the shoe department at the back of the store. The only other option on my way was a supermarket.

I tried on a pair of black, faux leather flats. They had a wide toe box – perfect to accommodate my bunions – and a flexible, cushioned sole. I couldn’t believe how comfortable they were. But friends, shoes have seduced me in the footwear department before, tricking me into thinking they’re the ones. I buy them, bring them home, wear them. A perennial optimist, I’ve purchased all the fancy brands that promise comfort like you’re walking on air. Still, I’ve ended up with a towering pile of shoes I can’t wear and plenty of blisters. On my last attempt, I wore the shoes out of the mall, but my feet were in agony by the time I got to the car.

As surprised as I am to admit this, the Walmart pair was different. So different and so comfortable, in fact, that I drove back to Walmart a week later and bought the same shoes in three different colors.  My love for flip-flops remains strong and true, but I finally have options for more formal occasions since my pump-wearing days are long over.

I wore the black flats this Rosh Hashana. They aren’t fancy, but unless I tipped you off, you’d never know they were only $9.97. And I’m pleased to report that in the two years I’ve owned them, I’ve worn them to work, shul, weddings, and bar mitzvahs without a blister or cramp to speak of.

In the end, though, I’m not really writing this blog post about Walmart. It’s more about exploring opportunities to be open-minded because you never know from whence your blessings will come in the year ahead. They may be waiting for you in the last place you’ll think to look, perhaps even the last place you’d ever want to look. But you’ll never know until you try.

Wishing you a wonderful year of blessings in whatever shape and form you long for them to appear. May they reveal themselves to you with ease, and may you have the mazel to find them wherever you turn.

 

Sorry, But There’s Been a Change of Plans

roadtrip

Beach musts include reading-sunglasses, a classic, a book about the power of books, a map, and sunscreen. Alas, they remain on the dining room table.

For the past 15 years, we’ve embarked on family road trips each summer, most of them two weeks long. To anyone who asked What on earth are you thinking? as we packed three young children for a cross-country ride in the closed quarters of a minivan, I would answer that we wouldn’t have it any other way.

I always say that the trips are akin to childbirth. Messy and loud and sometimes painful, but our memories are filled (mostly) with the good parts. Otherwise, we would have gone only the first time.

My husband and I both like to travel and explore, and we are always looking for a change of scenery. We wanted our boys to catch the same adventure bug. We believed that by exposing them to history and culture, to new places and experiences, we would open their minds and instill in them a sense of curiosity. Plus, we knew this would give them plenty of fun, crazy, and meaningful childhood memories, even if they kvetched at (many) points along the highway.

We were also aware from the outset that this wouldn’t be a forever thing, that the boys would one day outgrow road trips with their parents, or they’d simply be too busy doing something else. We did a headcount before pulling out of the driveway each summer, astounded and grateful that everyone was still in the car. In fact, we kept going even after our first minivan gave out.

Last year, one son was already in college and another was working at a sleepaway camp. To our delight, we managed an abridged road trip anyway, carving out a block of time when everyone could participate despite their not-so-overlapping schedules. But this year, planning things got tricky. While we usually have our destination chosen by winter, the Triptik from AAA in hand months in advance, and the hotels booked not long after, we had nothing set until a few weeks ago.

The participants were all moving parts even then. We were now up to a college student and another on his way to a gap year in Israel. The odds weren’t in our favor. It was likely that at least one of the boys wouldn’t be able to join us. We were sad, but prepared, figuring we’d best get used to it. Yet, to our shock, we still found a few days when we could all head up north to the beaches in New England.

Days before our planned departure, the older two – the ones I thought were most likely to bail – were signed on. My husband had booked rooms, mapped our route, and found interesting stops along the way. Meanwhile, I’d begun to think about what to pack for our meals when I realized there was no way I’d be able to sit for that long of a ride in the car. Unfortunately, that recovered I’m not.

My husband and I were back and forth about whether they should go without me, but I insisted. I didn’t want to break tradition. They all needed the R & R, the worry-free hours of lazing on the beach with the ocean in front of them. Besides, if they stayed home, they’d just spend the week of vacation on their phones. Better they get some non-digital fresh air.

Once I announced I wouldn’t be going, my youngest asked if he could stay home, too. It was, in part, a statement of solidarity with me. But he’s also got a lot of summer work to do and the clock is ticking. We agreed. The two of us have been toiling away at our various projects, including some adventures in the kitchen. I wouldn’t call it a vacation, but we’re enjoying one another’s company.

Am I disappointed we’re not altogether on the open road? I’d be lying if I said no. And while it would be incorrect to say there was no Ukraincik road trip this summer, it wouldn’t be completely accurate either. It hasn’t been the same for any of us. Then again, life is all about making plans and watching them change, then letting go. G-d willing, we’ll make plans again next summer. Who knows? Perhaps the stars will align and we’ll all be able to go.

Attitude and Gratitude

books

I’ve been AWOL for a month and I’m sorry about that. I haven’t been able to sit at my computer. It finally dawned on me the other day, however, that I could get writing done on my phone instead, which is why I’m here with you now.

I had surgery in late June,  which proved more complicated than either I or my doctor expected. Then came the bumps that have defined these initial weeks of recovery. There was a trip to the ER, and also, not all of my functions have been functioning as they should.

I’ve been stuck at home, mostly in bed. For someone who is always busy doing or making something, this at first felt like a period of sloth. I seemed to sleep for inordinate stretches of time, spending the rest of it contemplating my lack of productivity. I’d even begun to miss housework.

Still, I’ve tried to stay positive, developing a full repertoire of medical humor (“No, you can’t take my blood pressure. I need it.”). I’ve dressed in real clothes every morning, resisting the temptation to stay in the nightgown I slept in. But there have also been days when I’ve struggled to keep my spirits up, to not get frustrated enough to cry and scream, to give myself a break.

Redemption came once the lingering fog of anesthesia began to clear from my brain. I recognized that I could still be productive in small doses, even while stuck in one place.

Before the surgery, I’d placed a stack of books on my bedside table. Most were titles I’d picked up at the library book sale, yet hadn’t found the time to read. Friends came to visit with meals and iced coffees and generously brought me magazines and books, too, growing that lovely yet ambitious pile at my side.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve said, “If only I could lie in bed and just read for days on end.” Well, I got it. Sort of (careful what you wish for). At first, I couldn’t focus on the words and the pile gathered a thin layer of dust. But patience is a virtue and my head cleared enough over time that I could finally read.  A few of the titles will stay with me – beautifully written stories, especially Daniel Woodrell’s “Winter’s Bone” and Ann Patchett’s “Commonwealth.”

I’ve also managed to crochet plenty of granny squares with the contents of my wool stash, so many that one lucky newlywed couple is going to get an afghan. The squares are each mini-projects I’m able to complete while propped upright in bed, giving me tiny feelings of accomplishment. My real life never allows for such protracted periods of crocheting. I’m more likely to squeeze in a few rows where I can.

Then, of course, there’s the healing, my priority activity at the moment. Right now, my body has to run on slow, to take it easy if I want to get back to myself. It needs me to put my feet up and rest, and G-d clearly knows I wouldn’t do this of my own volition.

I hope I’ll be up and about soon, taking short walks around the block to get the juices flowing and sitting at my computer to write. I’ll resume my regular, hectic-paced life in time, though I suspect I’ll quickly discover I haven’t missed housework as much as I thought I did. For now, I’m just happy to have things to distract me.

It turns out this period of sloth has been nothing of the sort. It’s taught me invaluable lessons about having patience with myself, about attitude and gratitude. So I’ll take the kindness of friends, the books and the granny squares and all the silver linings where I can.

Finding What I Needed in a Thrift Shop

thriftstore

I love shopping for things I don’t have to try on – books, housewares, craft supplies, antiques. Clothing is another story. At some point, you have to get undressed and dressed again in a fitting room. I can’t be bothered, which is why I default to loose-cut, solid black dresses and matching black cardigans. I hold them up against me in front of a mirror and that is that. And I don’t do it unless I have to.

My monochromatic dressing scheme is also the result of drinking the black-is-slenderizing Kool-Aid when I was young and living and/or working for years in New York, where black is the official uniform. I can get dressed in my closet in the dark, a fact I find funny. My husband, sons, and friends do not. As a result of their intervention, I’ve let a few colors in recently. But mostly, I stick to black. It’s my comfort zone. Also, I like it.

My friend Lela, on the other hand, is a colorful, inventive dresser. She could shop in a regular store if she wanted to, but prefers the thrill of the search in a thrift store, which is where she buys most of her clothing. As a treasure-hunting sort of shopper who likes the serendipity of clearance racks and used book sales, the idea of thrift store-shopping intrigued me.

So when Lela and I met for the afternoon in her charming hometown of Doylestown, PA, she took me for coffee in the loveliest of coffee shops and then we walked down the street to In Full Swing. I thought I might add something unique to my wardrobe, something with a surprising burst of color. After all, black goes with everything.

The shop is laid out with displays of donated evening gowns, purses, and scarves, as well as circular racks of clothing for men, women, and children. For someone who has never been able to stomach the vast expanse – or the sounds and smells – of a mall, the place was perfect in size and atmosphere.

In Full Swing is a labor of love for the women who run it. The proceeds support A Woman’s Place, which assists victims of domestic violence and their children, helping them make positive, life-changing decisions. They also have a community-based prevention project that aims to break the cycle of domestic violence.

I found a bracelet ($7) on a display of costume jewelry, all 50% off that day, and a pretty, floral scarf ($8) I’ll use as a tichel. Then Lela led me to the $1 clearance racks. In no time, her arms were full of interesting pieces – sweaters and a bohemian outfit that she’d later describe as itchy.

“Even if I decide not to keep it all, it was still a donation to a great cause. Besides, each item is only $1,” she told me.

She was right. I really couldn’t go wrong.

As luck would have it, I stumbled upon a simple black dress on one of the racks. Old Navy, my size, tag on – an opportunity to replace one of the black dresses I’ve worn so often they’ve faded. The store manager pointed out the fitting room/bathroom, but you already know how I feel about that. Given the price, it was certainly worth the gamble.

An optimist, I threw the dress into the wash without trying it on first. I just put it on the next day and have worn it often since. It goes with everything. It certainly doesn’t owe me money.

I know, I know. You’re wondering what happened to my burst–of–color plan. Well, I tried. Besides, change is good, but being true to myself is, I would argue, even better.

Photo Credit: Lela Casey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yep, It’s Mother’s Day.

I do not understand the concept of being woken up to breakfast in bed. I would spill coffee all over myself and who wants to eat eggs on a full bladder anyway, and besides, I’m watching my carbs, so there go the danish and the bagel. That all said, I was grateful to find a latte and this card, which sums up so much of the experience of motherhood, sitting next to my computer when I returned from the gym this morning.

It’s always about the cards and the words for me (okay, and the coffee), as it is on most other occasions. Later, we will spend time with my mom and stepdad, and I really hope my mom likes my gift because I will never top the jumbo sudoku book I bought her last Chanukah and I know it. She likes a good gift the way I like a card and a latte, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed I chose well.

Parenting is an act of love like no other, but it isn’t for sissies and there’s no greater reminder of our fallibility and vulnerability or our heart’s capacity to expand. I say this as both as a mother and a daughter. Despite what the radio commercials say I should be doing, I began my day the same way I begin almost every other day. I threw in a load of laundry, folded another, and made the son who has school today a nice breakfast before he bolted out the door onto the bus. I am giving myself the day off from cleaning the bathrooms, however.

Even though I want to brush Mother’s Day off as a silly Hallmark holiday, I’m filled with emotion, much to my surprise. I’m missing my grandmother terribly, especially the look of pure joy in her eyes when I’d give her a handmade card and gift, and my mother-in-law, with whom we never spent Mother’s Day on the same continent, but knowing she was still here in the world made all the difference. For those of you whose moms are gone and those who longed to but never had children of their own, I imagine today brings a pain of its own and I wish that whatever you do this Sunday brings you comfort.

Lastly, I’m thankful to my aunts and the women I’m blessed to have among my sisterhood who have helped me mother my own children on days when I couldn’t physically, and to the devoted babysitters and caregivers who watched the boys when they were little, and to the nurses who got me through three difficult pregnancies and births.

It’s Mother’s Day, but it seems like the perfect day to celebrate the women in my life whom I thank in my heart the other 364, too.