Finding Good Things In The Last Place I Thought To Look

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)

A Clear View onto a Summer’s Day

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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.