Merri Ukraincik

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!

Like Clay in the Hand of the Potter

Yom Kippur is upon us and I feel the weight of it on my soul. I’ve bought a brisket to prepare for the pre-fast meal and visited my grandparents in the cemetery. I’ve also typed up my lists of sins and regrets, of requests and pleas for healing and improvement, tucking them between the pages of my machzor.

As always, when Kol Nidre comes, I will sit in my designated pew and find strength in the Vidui, in the klopping of my fist over my heart. Otherwise, I will focus more on the content of my lists and the chapters of Tehillim I will recite around them than on the poetry of the prayer service and the beautiful melodies chanted by the ba’al tefillah.

Some will say this isn’t the way to atone or pray, that it is the script in the machzor that matters. But for years now, this is how I’ve come to talk to G-d in shul – as if He is there beside me, as if whatever words I can muster are the right ones, as if my tears are the most haunting of prayers.

My faith is unwavering, but more often than not, my human mind cannot wrap itself around the challenges He’s given me. So I talk to Him. Question Him. Yell at Him for not paying enough attention to me. Yell at Him for paying too much attention to me. Sing His praises. Declare my love. That’s the glue that keeps our relationship dynamic and organic and secure. And it keeps me coming to shul, too, where I lean back and feel His embrace and know that’s His answer, the only one I can hope for.

On Yom Kippur, I look around and wonder who else is asking the same, or different, questions. Though we are united that day in our singing with angels and our hopes for another year of life, we cannot know the tefillos on one another’s lips. The only truths I have are my own prayers, the holes in my heart I want healed, the longings I hope He’ll fulfill in the year ahead.

Like clay in the hands of the potter, we will step into the holiest of holy days of the year just hours from now. To get in the mood, give a listen to Rogers Park’s exquisite rendition of Ki Hinei Kachomer, or print out this Al Chet I wrote for The Layers Project to bring along to shul.

I wish all of you a Ketiva v’chatima tova. May Hashem hear our cries, grant us life, surround us with love, and redeem us from ourselves.

With my warmest thoughts,

Merri

Only Simchas? Impossible!

There is a Jewish expression “Only simchas!” or “Oif simchas!” in Yiddish. It is a wish– a blessing, really – that we should bump into one another only on happy occasions.

Folks use it as a parting phrase when they leave a wedding or a bris. They also offer it up as a balm upon hearing or sharing sad news, or when leaving a funeral or a shiva house.

I hope it isn’t heresy to say so, but this popular saying has always flummoxed me.

The optimist in me wishes that our calendars were filled with nothing but happy occasions. But the realist in me knows better. It’s just not the way of the world. “Only simchas!” can never be true.

We are mortals swept up in the circle of life. We don’t get to live forever. G-d willing, our time here on earth will offer up its share of joyous occasions and hours of blessing. But the human experience also includes inevitable moments of loss, disappointment, failure, rejection, pain, and illness, times we’d never refer to as happy ones.

So why set ourselves up for the impossible by uttering the phrase “Only simchas!” when we have the language to say something more apt?

However well-meant, why do we wish a friend something none us can ever have?

These were among the questions running through my head this past week while my husband sat shiva for his father. Luckily, I found an alternative to the old phrase in a quick look around the house.

Someone had brought over the Torah and siddurim. Men made minyan each day. Friends, family, patients, and colleagues came from near and far to be menachem avel – to comfort the mourner and show us their love. They listened as my husband shared memories. They offered words of Torah, dropped off meals, ran errands, and filled our pushkas with tzedakah (charity) that will be donated to help people in need.

So many mitzvot (good deeds) were performed in that short period of time, all to help my husband grieve and to buoy our family as we faced a monumental loss.

Rising from our sorrow was an enormous sense of gratitude for all those acts of kindness and the wisdom of the Jewish rituals of mourning, which carve out spaces in time, lines in the calendar that help us process our pain. Even when we feel most steeped in sadness, our community reminds us that we are not to bear it alone.

It’s best, then, to dispense with “Only simchas!” On both happy occasions and during periods of mourning, let’s instead say, “I am here for you, whatever life brings.” Because life will, inevitably, bring at the very least a little bit of everything. And there’s no greater joy, and no greater comfort, in knowing we have one another, come what may.

As we enter Shabbos this week, I am most looking forward to its island of peace and calm, and the opportunity for reflection as we find our way back to normal. May it provide all of us with the chance to regroup and recharge our minds, bodies, and souls, and may the week ahead be filled with love and kindness. Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

#gutshabbos #shabbatshalom #gutshabbosshorts

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Give A Little Kindness To Yourself

magnet

I recently spent a few days in the middle of nowhere on a retreat for creative Jews. No cellular service. Spotty WiFi. A detox from social media. All of this in the company of generous, warm, loving, engaging people, and really good Stumptown coffee.

As it turned out, the middle of nowhere was the very best place for me to be, inspiring me to invest in myself, both as a writer and a human.

We were a diverse group of participants, the perfect blend in fact.  Our backgrounds varied, as did our levels of religious observance and personal stories. But there was plenty we shared, too – mostly our yearning to create however we choose to create, and to express our deepest selves in a way that feels beautiful and meaningful to us.

We coalesced around these longings, while also singing, praying, breaking bread, and sampling new outlets for our creativity. We talked deeply, both one-on-one and as a group, sitting cross-legged in a circle on the grass. And we explored our fears and dreams, connecting with one another on an authentic level that I believe will have lasting impact – in friendships, mutual cheerleading, and spiritual growth through artistic expression.

For me, the retreat came at just the right moment. I’m at a juncture in my writing, determined to throw myself more fully into my book. With that goal in mind, I recently created a permanent work area at home, a place where I can spread out my notes and keep my laptop open without having to clean off the dining room table when it’s time to serve dinner. This is a really big deal for me, a kindness to myself, and I’m hanging a lot of hope on the idea of space spelling progress.

I’m also planning a new look for my website. I want to do a better job of bringing the different aspects of my writing life together. I have a gazillion ideas, like talking more about books and experiences, linking my inspirational pre-Shabbos posts on social media to the site, and shrinking the size of my picture. I want the updated site to be a platform for us to interact more with one another as well.

With all of this in mind, I’m reaching out to ask for your thoughts and feedback. What are you looking for from the site? What’s working and what isn’t? Tell me if you share my posts with friends. Just want to say hello? That’s great, too.

Drop me a line at merriukraincikblog@gmail.com. On Friday, July 26, I’ll enter your name in a random drawing to win one of five small, but sweet prizes – the magnets featured in the photo above. My friend Rivki* and I designed them together and we think they sum it all up, like some sort of key to being a good human. Plus, we could all use the reminder to be kind and patient with ourselves.

Can’t wait to hear from you.

Merri

*Rivki will also be hosting a giveaway on her site soon, so surf on over to Life in the Married Lane and double your chances of getting this magnet to hang on your refrigerator.

For the Love of a Shoe

There was a time during my early adolescence when buffalo shoes were all the rage. I adored them. But I’d had foot issues from infancy and my parents refused to let me get a pair of wedges, certainly not after years of paying for costly orthopedic footwear. They believed buffaloes would undo the corrective work Katz’s hideous rubber sole shoes had wrought, though it’s likely the doctor had also told them as much.

I can still recall my desperate longing to own a pair anyway. I was convinced they were the secret to the insouciance all the other girls my age possessed, an aura I felt I lacked in spades. My envy was powerful, and I can reach for the memory of it as if it were a leaden, physical object I once held in my hands.

And yet, there was no moving my parents, no matter how much I begged and fought. Buffaloes remained elusive that entire spring.

One summer evening, I went with them to the erstwhile Bradlees department store. I hid some of my babysitting money in the top of my bra before we left the house, a trick I learned at an early age from my grandmother, who used to do this with her bus fare. While my parents shopped, I ran to the shoe department to purchase a pair of knockoff buffaloes in my size (Bradlees did not carry the original Buffalo brand). I didn’t even have time to try them on.

At the agreed hour, I met my parents at the exit. I tried to keep calm and casual. After all, I was hoping to pull off the greatest stealth operation of my youth.

“What’s in the bag?” they asked me. Anxious and fearful I was going to lose my only chance at those shoes, I clung to that bag for dear life, the plastic handles cutting deep into the palms of my hands.

But there was no point. The battle of the buffaloes was lost. My father walked with me to customer service, where I returned them. In a final plea, I promised never to wear them if he let me make the purchase. I just wanted to own them, like every other girl I seemed to know. Alas, I crawled into the car with tears in my eyes, placing my sadness, disappointment, and rage on the seat next to me.

I was too young to know that by fall, buffaloes would be out of style, that all I needed to do was be patient and this yearning, too, would pass.

Flash forward to this afternoon, when these caught my eye at Marshall’s. Not the exact pair I remember, but close enough. And there were others, similar styles, some with higher wedges, others lower. The new buffalo wave of 2019.

With childish delight, I tried them on, admiring how they looked. But they weren’t comfortable. I felt unstable, certain I wouldn’t be able to walk far in them. Yet I considered buying them anyway. I mean, who’s going to stop me now?

Instead, I let them transport me back in time, where I forgot that I’m middle-aged, that I have bunions, that I long ago relegated heels to the back of my closet.  And yet, it was with the insouciance of youth that I placed the buffaloes back in the box and returned them to the shelf. I took my seat at the wheel of the car and drove home with a new pair of Crocs instead, my heart happy, and my feet, too.