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)

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

wukkuans

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

IMG_3451 (2)

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 Sound Investment

eggs

A Portrait of Pesach in 20 Egg Cartons

A Sound Investment

I was at a wedding the other day when the conversation veered, not surprisingly, towards Pesach. I admitted how much I enjoy the holiday, while another woman in the community kindly disagreed. She confessed she wished it were over already and made me laugh with her description of the scene in her home. It’s so demanding, she said. What’s more, I’m a short-order cook for the whole eight days.

While I concur with her on both points, neither makes me love Pesach any less. The discussion did, however, leave me wondering why I harbor such affection for a holiday that tries the bodies and souls of those of us making it. And it’s only now, as I write from the trenches of preparation more than a week later, that I can finally articulate an answer.

To me, Pesach is magical. It has been since I was a little girl sitting by my grandfather’s side, my legs swinging beneath the seder table, and it’s a feeling that has continued to grow over time. Why? Because the holiday allows us to do something we can’t do at any other point during the year – to time travel.

Through both our storytelling and our other observances, we go back to where we came from, gleaning spiritual wisdom from our collective memory as a Jewish people, reliving the tears of our slavery, and exulting in our redemption. The holiday demands that we live in the present, too, making physical changes to our daily norms – turning our homes upside down to shake out the chametz and altering how we eat. And lastly, it leads us, with the hagada as our guide, to holy places where we can question our role in the world and define what matters to us, letting the answers determine where we go next.

This perspective inspires me to pin a lot of hope on this holiday. What we create during Pesach will, I believe, help shape how my sons think and feel about their childhood and Jewish tradition. I want them to remember with warmth and nostalgia that there was good in all that hard work, that I wasn’t just sleep-deprived and cranky the entire week before we tasted the first bite of matzah – even though I will be sleep-deprived and the tiniest bit cranky – and that there was a lot of love around our seder table.

So I plod along, talking to God as I cleanse our home of chametz and kasher the kitchen, grate the horseradish and make the boys’ favorite Pesach delicacies. The next few days of preparation will demand a lot of me, as will the holiday itself. I’ll be exhausted, to be sure. But the long-term returns, I pray, will be worth it, and that seems like reason enough.

Wishing everyone a meaningful Pesach.

Merri

P.S. To read more of more my thoughts about Pesach, check out my latest column in the Jewish Week and the NJJN,  Honored Guests at the Seder Table.

Falling Madly, Deeply in Love with the Here and Now

Displaying IMG_2972.JPG

One High Holiday morning many years ago, when my oldest was still very small, the township began to remove the massive metal plates that had been covering the gaping holes in the road outside our shul for months. My son and his posse of friends stood there transfixed, watching the trucks and the men at work. We moms all agreed we could never have planned a better activity to keep them busy for so long.

The memory is imprinted with their childhood sense of wonder, that ability to shut out everything else and focus solely on some magical thing in the present. At a time when it was so much easier to make them happy than it is now, it was breathtaking to see them take simple pleasure in learning how things worked – that, and the thundering bang the plates made when they landed on the flatbed of one of the trucks.

As I drove home the other day, I had a bit of déjà vu. Several trucks were parked across the street. One worker stood inside a cherry picker, hovering above a tall oak, while a handful of others held tethers to the tree from below.  It was noisy, and at first I was frustrated, certain I’d never be able to concentrate on a writing assignment I needed to finish. Yet to my surprise, I let it go. In fact, I found myself smiling because the sight of a huge saw and a falling tree would once have been such fascinating entertainment for my sons.

Before I knew it, I had taken my cup of coffee and opened the front door to watch them work. I kept thinking, “I’ve got so much to do,” but couldn’t tear myself away. It dawned on me that I was reliving that cherished moment in front of the shul, a scene the boys – now young men – likely don’t even remember. They are blessed, thank God, not to feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. They are of the age when they are busy enjoying the here and now, paying almost no attention to the past, and to the future only on an as-needed basis.

To say it was out of character for me to just stand around like that would be an understatement. I’m the sort to carry my worries on my sleeve, to let them keep me awake at night, to allow them to distract me throughout the day. But as I watched that tree, and then the next one, come down, I realized how much I want to take a cue from my boys and let this living in the moment thing come more naturally to me. I want to enjoy, not just accomplish, to dream more and worry less, to stop moving at such a harried pace, and mostly, to master the art of making the time to enjoy it.

I’m not expecting I’ll become a different person overnight. I admit it’s going to be a struggle, especially for someone so nostalgic yet so anxious about the future all in one package. My first move is to try silencing the voice in my head that usually hinders me, the one saying, “I’ll wait until/when/after.”

Now I’m making big plans: to return to the days of weekly dates with my husband, to shut down the computer at dinner time, to curl up with a book a little earlier each night. Let’s see if this middle-aged dog can master a few new tricks. Let’s see, shall we, if I can fall madly, deeply in love with the here and now.

Check out my latest in Tablet Lessons from Sarajevo’s Jewish Refugees and the New Jersey Jewish News The Light Between Two Angels.