How To Walk Humbly From Purim to Pesach

It was the morning after Purim.

After making myself a cup of coffee, I took my regular seat at the dining room table, hoping to write. At the very least, I wanted to preserve the kernel of an essay that had popped into my head the night before.

I cleared a space for my laptop by pushing back the remains of the Mishloach Manot packages that covered the table. But as much as I tried, I could not write. Not a word.

I was too distracted by the assortment of colorful containers and clever themes, the bright ribbons and festive gift bags, the towering boxes filled with candied nuts and dried fruit, the baked goods, wine, and chocolate. The display was a visual picnic. The risk to my healthy eating regimen notwithstanding, I could not look away.

Of all the ritual obligations of Purim day, the exchange of food gifts is my favorite. I love having a reason to make something fun for our friends. On the receiving end, I treasure the variety, as well as the thought folks put into the planning and distribution.

Still, as with so much else in Judaism, it’s the spirit of the mitzvah that matters most, not the beauty of the package or the creativity of the contents. Generosity and friendship go into the giving along with the treats. It’s equally important to remember that this bounty, dare I say excess, isn’t to be taken for granted.

It strikes me each year how the two holidays that start with a P (or a peh in Hebrew) not only fall just one month apart on the Jewish calendar. They also share an essential mitzvah:  the giving of tzedakah to those in need. On Purim and Pesach, we only fulfill our own holiday obligations once we’ve made sure others can as well.

While traveling between the two Ps, ridding our home of chametz, I try to hold this close to my heart. The cost of making Pesach goes up year after year (Does anyone else remember when the butcher gave out shank bones for free?).  Many families, sometimes folks we least suspect are in need, aren’t sure how they’ll put the basics of the seder plate on the table. Because we may have no idea who among us is struggling, we’d do well to be sensitive as we shop, refraining from participation in the public chorus of kvetching about the rising cost of brisket.

As for our formal Maos Chittim donations, we can make them early to organizations like a local Tomchei Shabbos, the Masbia Soup Kitchen Network, or a shul matzah fund. They are all especially busy as they scramble to meet the needs of Jewish families in the approach to the holiday. Buy two of something while out food shopping for Pesach and donate the second to a kosher food pantry, checking with them first to see what they need most. Or get creative in taking the edge off Pesach prep for someone who needs help in ways that aren’t financial.

Make good on the Pesach cleaning in the meantime. Donate unused chametz to a local food pantry or soup kitchen that services a non-Jewish population. Or follow the example of the Greenbergs. They make a huge Kiddush Hashem by collecting Purim leftovers from members of our community, then repackaging them as gifts to a veterans’ home, a shelter for women and children, and an after-school program.

One thing we can all do, no matter what’s on our plates as we travel from Purim to Pesach, is to make extra room in our hearts while we’re clearing out our freezers and cabinets and at our tables when we sit down to the holiday meals.

Kindness begets kindness.

Let’s fill the coming weeks with as much of it as we can and may our seder tables teem with blessing.

 

 

On Being Silly

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The word silly has been with me for as long as I can remember.

I’m sure I acquired it as a child when an adult took issue with my foolish behavior or set me straight on something I naively said. Silly stuck like glue, tinged as it was with embarrassment.

No one defined the word for me. No one had to. Ridiculous. Without common sense. I intuited from the tone in those adult voices that silly wasn’t a good thing to be.

Lately, though, I’ve found myself acting in a manner some might consider silly. For starters, I’ve been dressing up my Lord & Taylor goose. The photo above features Taylor in the red beret/scarf combo I crocheted for her. I’ve prepared a Purim costume for her as well, though I’m keeping that a surprise for now.

My friend Techiya inspired me to pose with statues and public art, whenever the opportunity permits. Here I am during a visit to the beautiful grounds of Duke Farms in New Jersey.

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These are just two examples. I assure you that my silliness continues to pick up steam at a steady rate.

Recently, I decided to look up the exact meaning of the word, curious if I had it right all this time. Merriam-Webster defines the adjective silly as foolish, weak in intellect, indicative of a lack of common sense or sound judgment. The adverb means in an absurd or ridiculous manner.

Well, I don’t believe I’m being any of those things. Quirky, yes. Spontaneous, sure. And certainly fun, at least I think so. Maybe even (a bit) eccentric. But I’m convinced there’s nothing foolish going on. I see it as a breath of fresh air, the lightening-up of an adult life that requires so much seriousness of me and demands my constant attention to responsibility, time management, bill-paying, housekeeping, rule-abiding, meal-prepping, and maturity.

With that in mind, my husband and I posed for this photo, inspired by Grant Wood’s American Gothic, the counterpoint to the formal shot we took the same night.

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We are the guests of honor at our shul’s upcoming dinner and the committee needed a  portrait to feature with our bio in the journal. We briefly considered using this one, but silly didn’t seem to be the look the committee was going for.  It’s still our favorite image from the photo shoot, however.

For now, back to adulting I go. But I hope to continue embracing the good that lies at the heart of silly, to keep taking these short breaks that let me feel I’ve unshouldered some of my real-life obligations, albeit fleetingly. After all, I’ve been sitting at the grown-up table long enough to know that serious will be waiting for me when I get back.

The Sound of Silence (in My Head)

I needed a break. A little getaway. Nothing exciting. Just some quiet and a change of scenery. The chance to work on my book, read, sleep late (at least past 6 a.m.), crochet, drink beautiful lattes, and stare at the ceiling if the mood struck me. I didn’t want to travel far, just far enough that I wouldn’t bump into anyone I know. And I wanted to go alone.

I told my husband, “I need to clear the noise in my head and write,” laughing as the words exited my mouth, filing the idea under Science Fiction/Fantasy.

When he asked me, “Why not?” I listed the myriad reasons – our complicated schedules, seemingly endless obligations, and all the stressors that were cluttering my head in the first place.

Days later, I discovered a folder marked “Margaritaville, PA” on my laptop, papers with my hotel reservation (thank goodness for points!) and a few suggested local attractions inside. For the record, there is no such place as Margaritaville, PA. I first read the location without my glasses on and the name stuck.

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Knowing what a luxury it was to carve out this window of R & R, my first getaway like this in 25 years, I was excited to go, grateful, too, that my husband understood why I needed to be by myself in a place where I’d hear mostly silence. Soon enough, though, I wondered who I thought I was to take this time away.

Still, I proceeded with the plan, borrowing Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own from a friend. I hadn’t read it in years, but I recalled Woolf’s proposal that in order for a woman to devote herself to the craft of writing fiction, she must have a room with a lock on the door, meaning unfettered time and space to do so.  Though the book was published in 1929, many of its ideas still resonate (for proof, check out all the Post-Its on my friend’s copy), far beyond Woolf’s specifics about women and writing and fiction.

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Woolf would surely agree that the everyday encumbrances of the modern era devour our time and energy, leaving us with little opportunity for intensive focus on our creative pursuits and interests or our other ambitions, whatever they are. It’s okay, important even,  to take a break here and there from our obligations to rediscover who we are deep inside and get our spiritual juices flowing.

As I packed to leave for this self-styled retreat, I asked a friend to make sure I got in the car. I was afraid guilt would change my mind, that I’d give up on the idea of Margaritaville, PA. Going was a much belated leap of faith in myself, and I’ve returned sold on the importance of short escapes, even if all we can manage is an hour or two in which we do nothing but what nurtures our souls. We need to steal moments whenever we can, locking the metaphorical door behind us.

While I was away, I met a friend for coffee and did some shopping. I read and slept and crocheted. I even stared up at the ceiling now and again. And I wrote, scribbling far more than I would’ve at home in that same window of time. Mostly, I embraced whatever it was I felt like doing, allowing myself to be in the moment while gathering stories along the way.

In one thrift shop, I stumbled upon this sweet tableau. I am still trying to figure out what Chaim Potok has to do with St. Patrick’s Day, but there’s an essay in there somewhere. And one day I’ll write more about day two, when I returned from a quick run to Trader Joe’s to find the lobby filled with emergency personnel. A pipe had burst and the Fire Marshall had to close down the hotel, evacuating the guests and scattering us to assorted other hotels in the area.

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By the time I got home, a folder teeming with notes under my arm, it was close to Shabbos. I’d cooked and frozen everything in advance so I’d be able to hold onto that peaceful feeling heading into the weekend. But of course, within hours, all the noise was back in my head. Still, I have the memory of those few blessedly quiet days away to hold onto. They are precious, and I can’t wait to get away again.

My Barbie Camper & the Birthday of My Dreams

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The Barbie Camper is the only birthday gift I remember asking for when I was a child. Though I’m sure there were other items I requested over the years, I can’t name even one. But I wanted that camper so desperately I thought I’d explode if I didn’t get it. I still recall the feeling of urgency I sensed then, as if it were a physical thing, like a souvenir I might display on a shelf.

I was in first or second grade at the time, and I can see myself in the paneled basement of the house we lived in then. I also have a clear picture in my mind of the moment I tore open the wrapping paper to reveal the Barbie Camper of my dreams. It was Thanksgiving morning, the day we celebrated my birthday every year. Even when it wasn’t really my birthday, it was close enough.

It also made sense.  Every Thanksgiving, relatives would travel from the Bronx to our home in suburban New Jersey to eat turkey and the fixings with us. As it happened, I was born on my grandparents’ anniversary. I’m pretty sure my Great Uncle Eddie’s birthday was around that time, too. I loved that my favorite people in the world were there with me and that we celebrated our mutual happy occasions together, all the more so as I got older.

Still, the Thanksgiving on which I received the Barbie Camper had the makings of the best day of my life – until family friends dropped by early in the morning before our Bronx relatives arrived. Their son mistook the camper for a chair and, crack.  You know how the story ends. I was heartbroken, devastated, though for reasons I never discovered or just cannot recall, the camper was never replaced. Working through my disappointment enabled me to develop a grit that has serviced me throughout my lifetime, but it was a loss that made an impact nevertheless, one I still think about decades later.

I’m not interested in a Barbie Camper at this point in my life, or any camper for that matter. Better to let Barbie figure out how to park it. I have enough trouble with my tank of a minivan. It’s also likely that the camper, if it were still in my life, would’ve been sent out the door in one of my fits of decluttering by now. But for fun, I went online and was delighted to see that my memory of it was spot-on, though it’s hard for me to believe this was the stuff of my dreams.  In case you’re curious, here’s what the camper looks like.

The camper accident was the beginning of the end of my interest in Barbie altogether, the moment when I began to wish for the same simple things I still ask for each year. If my family is reading this, I’m counting on you to come through.

I’d like to ask something of all of you out there as well, if that’s okay.  In honor of my birthday this year, I hope you’ll help me bring more light, love, and healing into the world because when I turn on the news, things are looking quite grim.

Please consider giving a little tzedakah (charity) or going out of your way to do a kindness for someone. Recite some Tehillim (Psalms). Pray for the stability of the universe. Pray for the safety of Israel, that our soldiers will be unharmed in their mission to protect us. Pray for California. Make peace with someone you’re struggling with. Hug your parents and spouses and children. Make their favorite dinner. Greet the cashier at the market extra warmly. Smile wide as often as you can.

And if you’re inclined to do so, have a piece of cake or a slice of pie on Thanksgiving with me in mind. Make a blessing on it and be sure someone is there to answer amen. That’s how we make angels and we sure need more angels in the world. Move the pillows off the couch to make room for them. Invite them to relax their wings and stay for a while. Bolt the doors and don’t let them go.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’m grateful that you are reading and that you are here with me on these pages.

Wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving if it’s your thing to celebrate, a beautiful Shabbos, and a Chanukah filled with light, wonder, and miracles.

Love,

Merri

 

 

 

In Praise of the Dictionary

 

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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

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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.