Venting In The New Year

Venting In The New Year

dryer

I’m not a fan of resolutions. I rarely bother, mostly because I don’t like to set myself up for failure. But I did have a short list of things I wanted to accomplish this past year.

Top among them was learning how to clean out the dryer vent. I don’t mean the easy, everyday removal of lint from the collector between loads. I’m talking about the opening of the relevant dryer parts, hardware and all, in order to extract every last piece of fuzz, or at least the areas the vacuum nozzle could access.

I know, I know. Not exactly a spiritual Everest, or the stuff meaningful personal growth is made of. Still, it was important to me, for reasons ranging from home safety and dryer efficiency to personal skill-building and a sense of homeowner empowerment.

Two weeks before Rosh Hashana, my husband and I set aside an hour on his day off. We try our best to have some kind of an adventure that day – to reconnect amid the chaos of our obligations by exploring a small town or park in our tiny state, or if time is really limited, just finding a new coffee shop for catching up over a latte.

Instead, we lugged the vacuum cleaner down to the laundry room and got to work. He usually tackles this chore alone, but I was insistent he teach me this time. To my surprise, it was a team-building exercise par excellence, a chance to laugh at ourselves and test our patience for one another, like when I lost the screw to reattach the vent cover and my husband only shrugged, even as he struggled to find an exact replacement so we could put the dryer back together. Still, our sole disappointment was that we couldn’t spin all that lint into gold.

The timing of the lint clearing struck me as opportune in retrospect. We’re in the season of the clean slate – of starting fresh, of committing to doing better, and of growing in meaningful ways. What, after all, are the words of atonement we will utter between now and Yom Kippur but a venting of our sins, a shedding of our misgivings and regrets? We clear them out the best we can, whatever we have the strength and time for, whatever we have the spiritual wherewithal to access. And from there we aim to start again.

I have not yet set new goals. It seems too lofty to aim for a lint-free year, to think I might keep my slate clean for that long. Something more tangible and possible will come to me in time, I assume. For now, I’m just trying to focus on the self-reflection Yom Kippur requires of me, the sukkah decorating, and the making of the many, many festive meals we’ll consume over the next few weeks.

May the days and the year ahead be filled with blessing for all of us.

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

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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

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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.

 

A New Driveway, and a Mensch

steps

Our driveway had been falling apart for years, crumbling to the point that when the landscaper rode over it with his mower one day, concrete pebbles flew everywhere and shattered my windshield. My husband and son mixed fresh concrete in an old dish bin and patched up the driveway as an activity. Their efforts weren’t going to win any beauty pageants, but it entertained them for a while and stabilized the driveway enough to get us through the following winter.

When the concrete disintegrated entirely thanks to the ice, snow, and salt this year, we began to fear it would collapse under the weight of our cars. The time to deal with the problem had come, our dread of the cost and the attendant aggravation notwithstanding.

I’m no fan of construction. I’m still recovering from the work we had to do when we moved into our fixer-upper more than a decade ago. Still, this experience was the loudest, messiest, and most frustrating of all. To put it mildly, the crew weren’t a courteous bunch, neither in their conduct while here nor in the way they left detritus behind. I spent the better part of three days cowering in my living room while they shouted at one another, expletives and all, the stress filling my shoulders and back like the asphalt in our driveway.

That said, we had chosen this company because the owner promised to fix the wobbly brick steps leading to our front door as well. The member of his crew who patched them arrived hours before the others each morning, his gentle dog in tow. He focused on the task with care and pride in his handiwork. He was kind and soft-spoken, polite and thoughtful to us, and he appeared to be the peacekeeper among his colleagues. He even came back after the job was already finished and paid for, just to check that the mortar had set nicely.

Once he’d gone, I returned the pots of our container garden to their perch on the brick landing. I looked out at the driveway and found myself praying that this new asphalt incarnation will hold up, that we won’t need to do this again for decades. One day, though, we’ll have to redo the steps. They are sturdy, but they aren’t going to win any beauty pageants and they won’t last forever.

I thought then of Pirkei Avot’s (Ethics of the Fathers) wisdom: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” And I’m grateful to the mensch who patched the bricks together for us, who bought us some time and made it possible for our guests to arrive here safely this past Shabbos.

Wishing you all a peaceful week.

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Why I Love the Annual Library Book Sale

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Every spring, I look forward to the book sale at our local library with a consuming sense of anticipation.

For a book lover, it offers the best of all worlds. It takes place at the library, for starters. Since I was first let loose in the children’s reading room as a little girl, I’ve treasured a library’s comforting, book shrine atmosphere and the rapture-inducing scent of so many books in one place. Those feelings have only intensified over time. But as an adult, I’ve also come to appreciate the blend of humanity that congregates around a shared affection for the written word. That blend comes together for the book sale, too.

Sometimes, I discover more than just books on the sale tables – wonderful surprises secreted between the pages, gifts unwittingly left behind by the previous reader for the enjoyment of the next. Dog-eared corners. Handwritten notes in the margins. Bookmarks, photographs, a newspaper clipping. I even found a recipe tucked inside a book jacket once. I flip through the books, not exactly looking for these souvenirs, though certainly pleased when they reveal themselves. They leave me curious. How many readers have encountered this book before me? And after I’m done, after I’ve donated it back to the library for next year’s sale, how many readers will follow?

Library book sales offer all the physical satisfaction of live shopping in a bookstore, the tactile engagement Amazon denies me. Yet book sales are easier than both on the wallet. Every genre is there for the taking, and the books cost no more than a few dollars apiece. I have patience, though. I wait until the final hours of the book sale weekend when I can snag an entire tote filled with books for just $5. That’s a lot of reading without having to do any math. I bring a pretty large tote without shame. On Monday, they give away whatever they don’t sell anyway.

What I love most about book sales, though, is the serendipity. I rarely arrive with a specific list of books I’m looking for, and I come too late to score the hot titles everyone else wants to buy. I prefer to leave it all to chance, hoping I’ll stumble upon a diamond in the rough. This year, I got lucky. In the fiction tent, I found Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, which I’ve wanted to read for a while. From the Judaica section, I took home a stack of S.Y. Agnon novels, all hardcovers in English translation. And my diamonds: a gorgeous Collier’s World Atlas circa 1941, filled with countries that don’t exist anymore, and a book of vintage prints that highlight the most picturesque spots in the United States.

The backstories are wonderful, too – the conversations that spring up between shoppers, all looking for a little book love. When I went to the book sale last month, I bumped into a few friends. We compared finds, agreeing to a book swap after we’ve read them. I exchanged recommendations with a couple I’d just met near the biographies. And there was the brief dialogue I had with a tweed jacket professor type, who quipped, “I guess we’re both looking for the steamy romance novels,” as we stood near the classics. His girlfriend called him a “book snob.” He winked at her, proffering, “That’s right.” I decided not to get involved.

And with that, I was done. I chose to leave the last spaces in my tote empty, though on my way out I picked up a small volume of Abraham Lincoln’s wisest sayings because, why not? I could carry no more.

What a luxury, I thought, savoring the satisfaction of the hunt while cataloging my bounty in my head. I turned towards home, wondering where I would put it all, already daydreaming about what I’ll find next year.

A Pear in Bondage

Pear, Light, Shallow, Depth Of Field

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I was in the supermarket a few weeks ago, picking up the ingredients I needed for a salad recipe I was eager to try. The line was long. Luckily, I wasn’t in a rush that day.

A woman of a certain age was standing in front of me. As her groceries made their way towards the cashier, a pear separated from the pack and its stem became trapped in the conveyor belt. Working gently, I detached it, keeping the stem intact.

“Excuse me,” I said, returning the pear to its owner. She had no idea it had run amok, and seemed delighted to have it back.

“Thank you!”

“Your pear was stuck, but now it’s free,” I added.

“You’ve liberated my pear? Well, I guess the women’s movement isn’t dead after all!”

We both savored the cleverness of her reply.

I loved this exchange. It had charm and wit, reference to an important social issue, the opportunity to return a lost object, the connection between two women of different generations, and the sweetness of a particularly fulsome pear. I wanted to hug this woman and tell her she’d made my day, but I feared the groans from a long line peopled with folks already getting antsy. So I just thanked her for giving me a great story to tell as she went on her way.

Last night, while washing the laundry, my sweater sleeve got stuck in the dryer door. Gently, I worked it free without tearing the wool. As I headed back upstairs, “You’ve liberated your sweater? Well, I guess the women’s movement isn’t dead after all!” came flying out of my mouth.  I couldn’t help myself.

I laughed, and it made me wonder about all the different reasons God puts people in our path – to comfort or challenge us, befriend or upend us, bless or befuddle us. But in that moment it dawned on me that sometimes, the best reason – maybe even the only reason – is to give us a good story.  And on most days, that’s more than enough.

P.S. Check out my new essay on The Wisdom Daily http://thewisdomdaily.com/why-i-honor-the-souls-of-our-belongings/.  Please like and share!