Merri Ukraincik

Trying To Do Nothing At All

Hi everyone!

It’s been a while since I’ve written and it feels good to be back with you in this space. I hope you are all safe and healthy and managing well.

This week was exhausting. Lots of doing with little progress, as if I’d been running in place.

I cooked like a short-order chef, cleaned until the house smelled of Clorox, ran the bajillionth load of laundry since we locked down, and choreographed a series of staggered grocery deliveries to arrive between now and Shavuos. One night, I colored my hair, but missed a splotch of grey. The next morning, I gave myself a mediocre pedicure. I tried to write, but instead spent two days trapping an elusive fly the size of a fighter jet that buzzed non-stop around my office. I told him he could have my chair before I gave up and left the room. I sunk a basil plant into the ground, knowing I haven’t the energy to fight off the bunnies. And after reading too many articles about the pandemic, I resolved never to leave the house again.

But more than anything this week, I was sad. I schlepped that hopeless funk around – daydreaming in mid-vacuum, worrying about the present, worrying about what comes next. I felt conquered. I cried. I wished for certainty, or at least a window of clarity, both of which seem to have slipped through my hands, if they were never mine to hold in the first place. I sat outside in the late afternoons to get some sun, to bring in a bit of light, but it didn’t help as much as I’d have liked. And I prayed, asking G-d for a lot. Maybe even a chutzpadik amount.

As the week draws to an end, I’m starting to think I’ve gotten it all wrong. Maybe sad isn’t the right word for what I’ve been feeling. Perhaps it’s more apt to call it the frustration born of trying to move forward, only to discover that all the roads are being repaved, that the map of the world has been redrawn, that we really know very little for sure. Yet my gut tells me that it’s likely also acceptance of my own very human limitations at the hardest of times.

Thank G-d, thank G-d, Shabbos is here, come to save me from myself. To remind me that I don’t always have to be strong, that I can lean into my faith to keep me standing, that I don’t have to carry the weight on my own. That it’s okay if I can’t always hold the pieces together. That sometimes, doing nothing at all is what gets you where you need to go.

Wishing you all a beautiful Yom Yerushalayim and a restful, peaceful Shabbos.

Love,

Merri

Keeping Up With Hand Cream

I bought this at Trader Joe’s back in January. I was away for a few days and realized I’d forgotten to bring hand cream. And hand cream, I know from my grandmother, is something we should never be without.

Her beauty regimen was simple, selected from drugstore stock. She assured me you didn’t need fancy-fancy, but you had to be consistent in applying your chosen unguents to keep yourself youthful. As a little girl, I’d watch her with wild-eyed fascination as she went through these paces. She never left the house without putting on lipstick. Before bed, she’d scoop Pond’s from the jar to remove her makeup, and once a week, she had her wig set at the beauty parlor across the road. I hung on her every ritual. But the only wisdom that really stuck was the one about creaming your hands. She’d say that a woman could moisturize her face all she wants, but her hands would give her age away if she didn’t tend to them, too.

Washing so frequently now, I’m finding that hand cream just isn’t cutting it. Levi says my palms, once soft, feel like sandpaper. My knuckles are scrubbed red and raw. My hands are aging before my eyes, as much as all of this is taking its toll on my soul.

But last night, after I’d done the dishes and washed down the kitchen, I picked up this tube of hand cream and noticed the tagline for the first time. “The perfect precursor to your next meeting!” Indeed, whenever that might be, I wondered, allowing myself a full-bodied guffaw.

Lately, especially in moments when fear of this dark shadow that hangs over all of us becomes sharp as a knife in my gut, I miss my grandmother especially. I conjure up her scents for comfort. Sometimes it’s her violet talc and her perfume. At others, especially on the eve of Pesach, it’s frying onions and Sanka. I realize that even if she were alive, I would not be able to visit her or feel her kiss on my cheek. The thought of it pains me because I know so many of us are now separated from those we love. So I will persist, creaming my hands as a way to cling to what I can of what life was like before.

We have arrived to Shabbos Hagadol, the great Shabbos that comes before Pesach, which for us is the third Shabbos our shul is shuttered. May we somehow find grace in this ongoing silence apart from our community, and may G-d hear our prayers to bring this plague to an end.

Gut Shabbos!  Shabbat Shalom!

Sending love to all of you.

Merri

A Tuesday with Hot Lemonade

Hi there,

Tuesday is my husband’s day off. We usually do something interesting. We go on a hike or to a museum, then grab a cup of coffee at a nice cafe. Today, and the past few Tuesdays, and all the Tuesdays to come until, G-d willing, the Coronavirus takes its leave, we are home.

This morning, I made us lattes, while he prepared traditional Croatian hot limunada for the vitamin C. We listened to our respective Daf Yomi podcasts and will find something to watch on Netflix tonight, maybe The Plot against America. In between, I’m disinfecting and laundering and getting some work done, if only what my distracted mind will allow. He’s reading and talking to medical colleagues, rabbis, and patients, learning the language of this illness while figuring out how to convey unconditionally the vital role our communities and each of us as individuals play in stanching it. All the while, I’m trying to forget that he and so many other medical professionals will return to work in the morning.

Please, if you don’t absolutely need to go out, stay home. Wash your hands. Have your groceries delivered. Get fresh air in the privacy of your own backyards or on your separate porches. Be a support to one another, for the anxiety many of us are dealing with — from fear of the illness to the angst of being cooped up at home — is a force all its own.

Did I already say stay at home?

Pray the way you would usually talk to G-d. Just do it alone.

Learn online with your chevrusa.

Read that long book you’ve always wanted to read, but never found the time for.

Finally organize your kids’ baby pictures.

Spread kindness as much as you can from wherever you’re holed up.

Call a neighbor.

Remember a neck or a polkie look great on a seder plate; don’t take risks to track down a shank bone.

Love your loved ones, those far away and the ones you’re lucky to have in sight.

Make lattes and limunada.

Dream of better things to come.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay home.

With love,
Merri

 

 

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!

 

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