Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Doing God a Favor

Oh, hello. It's just me, coming back to earth. I've been on hiatus, in my own little world. First came weeks of living on pins and needles, waiting for baby to appear. So many "false starts" kept me entrenched in a mindset of imminent childbirth that I couldn't focus on anything else. I didn't want to talk to anyone, see anyone, do anything that required any degree of concentration since I knew that any second now, I'd be interrupted again by a contraction.

Then, finally, he came. When he was ready, he was ready and it was fast, intense. And I have the blessing of family who will drop everything and come help me, and a community who will keep meals coming every single day...and I thoroughly enjoyed my two-week babymoon. All hell may be breaking loose elsewhere in the world, but ensconced in my corner bedroom, I kept the world at bay and just stared at my baby as he slept, as he ate, as he tried to figure out all these strange new things his body was supposed to do. 

But the time has come - I knew it would eventually - and I have to transition back to the "real world". The world where I'm supposed to do my own laundry and cook for my family and take care of all my kids and basically stand on my own two legs. I'm venturing out slowly, blinking in the bright light, and realizing that just as I stepped back from the world in degrees as I got closer to delivery, I will return to it in degrees as time marches forward. And the question is, what am I bringing with me? What memento am I bringing back from my journey?

As I lay in bed recovering, I read a wonderful book by Rabbi David Aaron, "The God-Powered Life". He expressed the very lesson I'd been learning in such a beautiful way:

To serve God is to imbue each moment with the presence of the Great I. God wants to be present in the here and now, and our job is to serve God in that desire. In other words, we should ask ourselves: "How can I serve God right now?" If right now I imbue this moment with God's wisdom, I am serving the Great I. If right now I am with my son, I should see this moment as an opportunity to show him love and thus serve God, who is the source of all love. It's not my love. I didn't invent love. I didn't create love and I didn't give it its power and meaning. Love did not start with me and love will not end with me...

My service to God - who wants to be present in this world right now - is to bring his love into this moment - or his compassion and justice if that is what he wants of me in this moment. This is the secret to living a full life: a life of holiness. We should not be living in the past of for the future. The goal of life is to be fully present in this moment, serving God - here and now - in spreading and sharing his love and goodness. 

When the days of make-up-your-mind-already labor dragged on, I panicked. "Why isn't it progressing? Why isn't my body getting this baby out?" The only method I found for keeping the sense of overwhelm at bay was to pause and ask myself, "What is it that G-d is asking of in this moment? How can I serve Him right here, right now?" Instead of seeing anything other than labor as an inturruption, a distraction, I wanted to see it as a special request from Hashem. 

"Would you please lay on the couch and snuggle with your three boys for Me? Thanks..." 

"Your husband is being extra patient; would you please give him a sweet smile and some encouraging words for me? Thanks..." 

"Your little baby needs to be warm and safe inside you right now. Would you please just love him and send him messages of peace and acceptance right now? Thanks..."

I failed at least as many times as I succeeded in trying to be mindful of the purpose in my moments. Then for-real labor happened. And I thought to myself over and over, "Stay in the moment. The only thing he's asking of me right now is to embrace this one contraction. Just this one." And for awhile, I danced my way through them with my husband and my mother as partners. Then, it was like my body said, "What the heck, let's just get this over with!" and the monster contractions came hard and long and left me barely enough time to catch my breath before the next one roared up on me. And then it became a long blur of yelling and silence, pushing and squeezing, holding my breath and breathing. And some subconscious presence that could sit quietly on the sidelines and observe told me, "You're not handling this as well as cooly as I thought you would. What happened to all that what-is-Hashem-asking-of-me-in-this-moment?." I only felt my calm return in the seconds before he was crowning, as my body stretched beyond and beyond and beyond and then just a little big more and then I was totally surrendured, dreading the pain, but moved by an unexplainable force to barrel my way straight into it anyways since I could see the light on the other side and it could only get better after this...

And then they passed him to me - "Take him! Take him!" - and I reached down and grabbed him and held him to me, happy and completely in the moment. All the discomfort and pain of pregnancy and labor are behind me, irrelevant. All the years of blood, sweat and tears that will come with raising him are in front of me, irrelevant. The only thing that I see at that moment is him, ten pounds of newborn sweetness.

Today is Tammuz 17th, that window in time where the Jewish people historically have had to reckon with the consequences of their periods of straying from the service of Hashem. The period of scripture that is read during the afternoon is from Isaiah 55 and it begins, "Seek God where He can be found. Call to Him while He is near." Erica Brown writes a beautiful thought on this verse:

Seek God before life gets difficult, when God is reaching out to you, do not wait till things go wrong. There are always moments of tenderness in a relationship that should be enlarged, leveraged, expanded. Respond to those moments. Sometimes we let go too soon. We had the chance to say something that needed to be said, and the moment presented itself, but we let it go. There was a kind word or a compliment that should have been uttered, but wasn't. It's true in sacred times with others and also with God. There was a word of praise or gratitude we could have said in our tefillot, prayers, that we let slip away, or an apology that might have brought us closer to God, but we weren't seeking and so we lost it. If you're not looking then you won't find God. 

In the hours that followed the birth, I reflected back on that final hour of labor and I found myself brooding a little, disappointed in myself. I wanted to be so much more collected, more mindful. I wanted to be aware in those most difficult moments that even then I could do something to serve God, but it seemed like all I could think - when I even could think - was that I wanted it to be over. "Did I let You down?" I asked G-d. "I really wanted to do You proud."

And then I remembered two moments near the end of labor.

I had pushed hard several times, but couldn't feel anything happening. A haunting familiarity, the cell-deep memory of my first two births and hours of pushing without any apparent result, brought my panic to a head and I lost it. "I can't do it! I can't do it! GOD, PLEASE HELP ME PUSH THIS BABY OUT!"

Only minutes before, in one of those blink-of-an-eye breaks in between contractions, I had the weird sense that my perception of Hashem was coalescing with the Engineer's strong presence. I was so overcome with all the love I felt was being spent on me. I wrapped my arms around the his neck and just said over and over, "Thank you, thank you, thank you. You are so amazing. So wonderful." 

Two ends of the spectrum, the high and low of my labor encapsulated. And when I reflected on those two moments, I felt the answer to my question. "You did do Me proud. You did."

My mother always said something along the lines of, "When you are sick or tired, the stuff that comes out lets you know where you are really holding." Labor, with it's accompanying pain and unique exhaustion, brought out my most elementary fears and doubts. But it also revealed that the lesson I tried and tried to learn during the challenging days leading up to labor had penetrated deeper than I thought it had. Even without having my higher cognitive abilities at my disposal...I responded to those moments in labor where I could express awareness of Transcendence intersecting with the primordial experience of childbirth. In spite of my fears and doubts, an extra helping of godliness made in into the world. 

So, here I am now, coming back to earth, being reintroduced to a world that is so full of competing demands that it's easy to lose sight of the opportunity in a single moment. But I'm making it my mantra. I'm practicing taking a deep breath and seeing that each moment brings me a special request for a favor from Hashem. Some of those requests will accompany situations that make me doubt that I can hold it together, like when Mr.Curious is trying to pour himself a glass of milk from the full gallon jug while Orange and Green are testing out their pugilistic skills on each other and the baby is fussing to be picked up while the phone is ringing with the Engineer needing to talk to me. And some of those requests will accompany situations that make me wonder how I could ever miss it? How could I ever forget that there is a Father Who loves me when I look at my new baby nursing, staring back at me? 

Each moment, pregnant with meaning, giving us an opportunity to bring to reality Hashem's deepest wish to dwell with us. The moments can so easily pass by with their potential unrealized, and the remedy is in the prophet's message on this fast day, "Don't let the opportunity pass...seek Him because He's waiting to be found in this very moment."

Thursday, May 22, 2014


I'm to the point where people hardly see me anymore. Instead, they see a huge belly waddling towards them, bleary-eyes peeking out from above, swollen ankles balancing careful - awkwardly - below. And I'm getting just a little bit tired of all the strangers saying, "How much longer do you have to go?" and "Boy or girl?"...not because I don't appreciate their desire to connect, but because I ask myself these questions on an hourly basis and it would be nice to have some variety in my existence.

The thing about being pregnant is that, I'm displaced from my own body, sharing this very limited space that I have in the universe with another human being. And every day, he (or she, no predictions here) compacts me into a smaller space to make room for his growing self. With every passing day, as his lungs develop, mine don't have quite as much room to inflate. As he stretches his growing limbs, he inevitably steps on my bladder, or some other internal part that one takes for granted as being off-limits to anybody other than oneself.

If it was just about sharing latitude and longitude, maybe I could show greater fortitude. But the thing is, it goes way beyond that. My entire concept of myself is as dramatically altered as my pregnant silhouette in a way that is very difficult to explain. I don't have the same mental capacity, the same emotional stamina. In some ways, my internal world is as totally unfamiliar to me as this body that the two of us are now inhabiting.

Thirty-seven weeks pregnant.

And it's day thirty-seven of the omer today. There has got to be a connection, but my sleep-deprived brain struggles to make the leap. My omer counter tells me that today's sefirah (emotional attribute) focuses on restraint within bonding. Setting limits on how much you intertwine yourself with another human being. Something down deep gasps, "How?!" For nine months, there has been no such thing as setting limits or drawing lines. In these months, there is absolutely no "me". Only "us".So today, is there any way for me to find the balance of restraint within bonding, or is this just a period when balance is thrown to the wind and and I have to say, "I'm all in. Let all lines be happily erased and let me cease to struggle against the fear of losing myself in the bog of prenatal hormones."

Or maybe...this is a chance to re-explore where the lines that demarcate "myself" from "everyone else" actually lie. Maybe what I think of as "me" is really just another layer of my shell. Maybe "me" is something deeper than my body, deeper than my feelings and thoughts...Maybe the real me is even deeper than all of these layers and my task for today is to just stop freaking out about how much I feel like I'm losing touch with my body, my feelings, my mind...and to chose to identify with the true "me" that has never, for one second, lost its connection with the Source. Maybe for me, my restraint within bonding is to recognize that this complete sharing of my existence with another person is limited, but that Him sharing His existence with me...that's forever.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Visit with the King

When we bought our tickets to Israel several months ago, it was a leap of faith...and to cushion a possible fall we combined our ticket purchase with cancel-for-any-reason travel insurance. With my Dad's condition an unknown from day to day, we weren't sure if we would want to be out of the country for nearly two weeks. As the weeks got closer, and there were no hospitalizations or major turns for the worst, I began to just barely entertain the notion that we wouldn't have to cash in on that superb travel insurance. Maybe, just maybe we would be able to go.

And then, it happened. I sniffled a little as I drove off and left the kids with doting grandparents and I thought as I drove four more hours alone to the airport that there were still so many things that could go wrong that would prevent us from leaving. I had to find a place to park somewhere in the city and take a shuttle to the airport, hauling both the Engineer's and my own luggage. I had to make it through security not totally sure if I had even brought along the correct paperwork for our paper-less tickets. I had to find the Engineer somewhere past security, assuming his plane hadn't gotten delayed due to the storms over New Orleans. Finally I was standing in line at the ticket counter, feeling intimidated and overwhelmed because being such an infrequent flier I have never checked myself in before. The airline checker-iners looked so unsmiling and unfriendly, except for one and I found myself asking G-d, "Couldn't You please time it so that I end up in her line?" The next thing I knew, she had climbed over the luggage counter and walked over to me, still several people back in the line and said, "Are you ready to check in, ma'am? Please follow me."

It's then that I remembered a beautiful thing I heard in a shiur once: anyone who makes it to Israel does so only by special invitation of the Holy One. It's His place. Not just another state on a happenstance piece of soil. The state is a separate miracle, a story of kindness in it's own right. But the ground itself - that space - maybe it's some kind of different spiritual dimension and you can't just buy a ticket and go. You have to be invited. I felt then that it was as if a cosmic Caretaker said, "It's ok. I've got this. Just sit back and enjoy the ride." I felt as if I was handed a gilt-embossed invitation...and that He even sent the limo to pick me up. I floated through security and chirped to TSA that I would rather a pat-down than walking through the machine that makes you glow in the dark and two uniformed agents led me to a private room and gave me something that honestly felt like a pre-flight massage while we all giggled about babies and pregnancy. I found the Engineer, found our gate and the trip was as smooth as could be, with my pregnant body keeping me constantly entertained by the baffling effects of high altitude travel.

We were hosted by the Engineer's twin brother and his wife and they were absolute dears to give up their comfy bed for us. My two nightmare-inducing fears prior to the trip would be that I would never be able to get comfortable enough to sleep and that I might run out of food - illogical since I was surrounded by kosher restaurants of endless variety. But I was amazed to find that wherever I laid down to catch a few winks - on the floor of the airport, on the ground in the Negev, on the foam mattress of a Jerusalem apartment, or in my brother-and-sister-in-law's bed - I slept as soundly as if I was at home (which is to say, not really soundly, but enough that I felt sufficient energy to power me through the next day).

Thanks to the convenience of a rented car, we jetted around to our heart's content. We went to Sfat and walked up and down it's stairs and hills until our calves burned. We hiked down Mt. Arbel, camped in the Aravah, and sloshed through Hezikiah's tunnel beneath the streets of Jerusalem. Our time was limited and we knew it, but there came a moment when I just needed to stop and breathe. It was a great vacation...but if I was here by invitation of the King, then what did He want from me?

Rosh Chodesh Adar and the Western Wall was packed on the women's side. I wriggled my way as close to the wall as I could and davened ma'ariv one row back. When a space cleared, I stepped up and there I was, feeling suddenly lost for words amongst so many women who seemed to know just what to say. 

"What should I say? What do you want from me? The last time I stood here I was so full of questions and confusion and I felt then like this Wall was here to keep me out."

"And this time? What is the question in your heart now? What presses against all the seams, wanting to burst out?"

"I want to know why You invited me here. What can I get here that I can't get anywhere else?"

A quiet moment and I lay my forehead against the smooth stone. Maybe, maybe I'm not here to get something at all. Maybe it's to do something for Him. 

Then everything and everybody faded away and I felt a gentle whisper resonate through my whole body: "I'm glad you came to see Me."

The last time I stood in that spot, I had no idea how rich and full my life would be the next time I returned. My mind suddenly exploded with pictures of the countless gifts He has given me, of all the restless questions that have been gently put to rest, of all the ways He has taken me by the hand and guided me through adventure after adventure. And then the tears came and if there had been any space between He and I, would have run it with all my might. I smiled and sobbed and stroked the wall with my fingers, feeling love oozing out of all my joints as I was squeezed back in some sort of cosmic hug. 

"Thank You...Thank you!" I must have said it a hundred times. "That's why I'm here...I just came to tell you thank You! And I love You! There's no way I can repay in in my whole lifetime all the gifts You give in just one minute. And You give without questions or conditions. Just from love. You are so kind to me. I wish I could become like that..."

And we just stayed that way for awhile, pressed together, full of affection. 

In the pursuit of a godly life, it's easy to begin to measure yourself by how well you perform...and to imagine that G-d decides your worth using the same criteria. Life can become a never-ending treadmill of "doing"...and even praying becomes more about adding to your own merit rather than whispering to G-d in the way that you would to a beloved - saying something just to see them smile. In my so-grown-up way, I've fallen into the trap of thinking that all of the favors that I receive from G-d must be paid back in a similar currency; I've to got to do Him so many favors in return. But maybe He's not really looking for that. Maybe it's more like I feel after I've made dinner for all my kids and of course I'm not looking for them to say, "Add it to my account, Mommy. I'll pay you back one day." What gratifies me the most is when they get so excited about what they see that I've put in front of them that they jump up from the table and come around and kiss me and say, "Thank you, Mommy! I love this food! You are the best Mommy ever!" Maybe G-d does all these tremendous favors for us not because He's looking to get it all paid back with interest, but because He loves to see us turn to Him with shining eyes, with a heart that wants nothing else so much as to come closer to Him.

The last time I stood at the kotel, I was so consumed with myself and with the distress of knowing that when it came to performance I fell woefully short. I found it hard to believe that He would want me there, unworthy as I am. This time, from the moment I began the journey to Israel, through every step I traversed in the country and especially that moment at the kotel, I was slack-jawed and stunned by how extravagant G-d has been towards me. The King of all Kings wanted me to come and see Him, to be at His house! And not because of any merit of mine...just because He's so unfathomably sweet and kind and giving. Because of that, I realized that unlike last time - when I stood at the kotel with so much to ask for - this time I came to say thank you.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Blessing in Everything

I have been kind of quiet lately. My world changed dramatically several months ago when I found out two things: that I was pregnant with my fourth child...and that my dad had leukemia. It's a paradox: this wonder and joy in feeling a new life begin inside me...and the confusion and fear of seeing the life of the one who brought me into the world hanging in the balance. It has left me with uncharacteristically little to say.

In the past week, I feel like that old amazement has swept over me - amazement at all those little things that make my life so full: The smiles all around as we sit outside in the sunshine and eat grapefruit after grapefruit, letting the juice run all down our arms. The coziness of climbing in bed with the Engineer and piling all the blankets on us while we watch the latest episode of Downton Abbey together. The awe that I feel knowing that there is someone out there who loves me and thinks of me whenever I pick up the phone and hear a family member or friend on the other end.

My dad got an unusually good report earlier in the week...and a more nerve-racking one today. I tracked my mood along with the reports and as I thought of my dad I wondered today:

Is this any way to live?

Is this the way to live, to know that you have to work hard if you want to stay alive? Is it any way to live, to not be able to lose sight of the next small goal, even for one second, in your journey towards healing?

The answer came clear. Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, even the knowledge of death can be a blessing because it increases the preciousness of life. You realize that days are not a limitless commodity anymore. Every time there is a report that frightens me, it makes me refocus on how I can show my love to my parents...and it sends me scurrying back to my Father in Heaven who remains constant and limitless despite all the fluctuations in life.

Tu B'shevat this week brought some beautiful reflections on what it means to give a blessing for the food we eat...and on the very nature of "blessing". Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi offered these reflections:

The main avenue for blessing during Shvat is the fruits of Eretz Yisrael, a timeless land:

(A land upon which the eyes of Hashem your G-d are from the beginning of the year until the end of the year). When you eat the fruits of Eretz Yisrael you put into yourself a piece of personal Divine guidance, a goodlook from Hashem.

How do you recite the brachah? Hold the fruit in your right hand. Look at it when you say the brachah. Inject this intention into the brachah: “I hereby intend to increase the joy with which people look at one another!” Why?

Rabbi Wolbe says:"All concealment of Hashem’s Face results from a lack of brachah. So when you say, “Baruch are You,” the word “You” gives presence to Hashem, causing Him to be more present in the place where you are, giving Him thanks. And then, instead of Divine concealment, you will feel the light of Hashem’s face and His blessing for you. Then you eat it and gain everything! As Birkat Hamazon says, Hashem nourishes you,

- with grace, wth kindness,
with plenty, with mercy, with vitamins ...
Vitamin A —

—Amore; love, of course.
Vitamin B —

— Be confident
Vitamin C —

— Constellations —
mazal — siman tov u’mazal tov
Vitamin D —

—Declarations of brachah
and abundance, salvation, and renewal.
When do we ask for joy? When reciting the

"Shehakol nihyeh bidvaro,” because that brachah is about hakol — everything. We’re all
familiar with having everything but joy. There are plenty of married but miserable women. With children. And not happy. Making a living. But not happy. Healthy. But
not happy. So what’s everything worth? Shehakol — it really is everything. Have this in mind:

“Creator of the world, I want to be happy with what I have, and happy with what I don’t.”

Sometimes even sickness is a blessing because Hashem's face comes more sharply into focus. And each time I enjoy one of those picture-perfect sweet moments I hope I can reach out to Hashem and thank Him, feeling the reality that on the scales of my life, the sweet far outweighs the bitter. I hope I can transform the feeling into a bracha, and begin to see more moments in my life - even the ones that feel difficult - as being expressions of His expansive love and care.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A New Year, Seizing Opportunties, and Speeding Tickets

It was the day after all the Rosh Hashana festivities quieted down and I was on the road with the kids, halfway through a 7-hour road trip when I saw the blue lights flashing behind me. 

Okay, yes. I was going a little fast. But not faster than everyone else zooming along on the speedway. I was not too concerned. I have been pulled over before. Several times. And I've prided myself on being able to smile my way out of anything more stern than a warning (maybe it's because of the cute kids in the back saying "Hi, Mr. Policeman!"). Not this time. I got slapped with my very first speeding ticket. I eased back onto the highway, muttering to G-d, "Why today? My first day out and about in the new year and...a ticket? Really?" 

An hour later, when the blue lights were flashing behind me again, I shook my head in disbelief. Alright, it's true, I was going a little bit fast again, but that's because when I was going the speed limit, everyone was passing me! I tried to muster some charm, but he met me with a deadpan expression...and handed me a more breathtakingly expensive ticket than the first one!

I just blinked for a few seconds before finally putting my hands back on the wheel and starting off again. I'd driven this road at least a dozen times before, driving the same way I was driving on this unfortunate day. I'll admit it: I felt two inches tall. 

What I kept thinking over and over was, "I didn't do Rosh Hashana right. I missed something. He's not happy with me..."

The Saturday night before Rosh Hashana, I relished the chance to attend a late night selichot service. Held during hours when most people are usually asleep, it's a chance to begin preparing for Rosh Hashana with prayers of return. The tradition is to continue the practice of reciting these special prayers in the wee hours until Yom Kippur. I wanted to give it a shot. Sure, I knew the coming days would be busy. We were hosting for the holiday - something I was excited beyond excited to do - and coming up on three days without computer or movies or Spotify, I wanted to have other special things in place that would make the holiday pleasantly memorable for the kids. What I didn't bargain on was that my kid got sick the next day...someone else needed help with a project...the Engineer had other chores he wanted done. My carefully alloted timetable went out the window and instead of bending meditatively over a siddur under the stars, I found myself hunched over half-chopped vegetables at three o'clock in the morning the day before Rosh Hashana. 

"I'm sorry," I told G-d. "This isn't how I wanted it to be. I wanted to come close to You. I wanted to show You that I really can become a better person." 

I remembered bemoaning to my husband earlier in the evening, "I didn't do the things I said I wanted to accomplish last Rosh Hashana. I've totally failed this year."

To which he calmly responded, "But you accomplished so many other things that you didn't know you would have the chance to accomplish this year." 

And of course, he's right. The days before Rosh Hashana were a microcosm of this my year: I set lofty goals, I was able to do what I hoped to do one day out of four, and then life happened. And it handed me a totally different set of opportunities to do good, to help others, to call on G-d from whatever street corner I found myself at the moment and ask for His help. Suddenly, I didn't feel so mired in materialism anymore. The leeks on the cutting board in front of me suddenly seemed imbued with untapped spiritual potential. I had to grin, right then and there, because I knew from the deepest place in my heart that I was not standing there missing out on doing something more spiritual. I was standing there chopping for the King of Kings! I was preparing a meal in His honor and excited to be able to share it with precious children of His. This was my service! This was my selichot!

Avi Weiss said, "Good deeds may not only be the precursor to prayer, but a form of prayer itself. This may be the deeper meaning of the prayer [said on Rosh Hashana] "But as for me, my prayer is to You, G-d"  ....The way I talk and walk and conduct myself in business; the way I eat and love and interact with others; the way I treat the forlorn, the hungry, the homeless – my very being, my very essence, my every endeavor is tefilla – holistic prayer."

I told G-d in the kitchen, "This is why you should give me another year. I do sometimes fall short on coming through with my plans. I set big goals and don't always achieve them. But look at my record this past year: when life hands me an opportunity to do good, I try to seize it. There were needs that arose that prevented me from having the prayer experience that I pictured, but when an opportunity to "pray" different came along, I grabbed it."

And so, I entered the holiday with relative peace. And as I closed my eyes and let the wail of the shofar vibrate through my body the next morning, I made this my intention: "I don't usually get to chose what gets handed to me in life. You do. So I'm asking you to give me what it takes to make me into the best version of myself that I can be. Whatever it takes, bring it."

 After the holiday was over, and our guests had left and I drove back onto the highway with two speeding tickets scrunched in my hand, I gulped in a very tiny voice, "Already? Barely out the gate and you're sending hard stuff already? Why?"  I did some mental math, the cost of the two tickets equaled pretty much all of the ebay profit I had just deposited in my bank account. I felt nauseous just thinking about it. A whole month of work...waking up early and jumping right on the computer to list a dozen things before the boys woke up...forfeiting my usual learning time in order to make sure that I met my quota...

...now that several days have passed and I have had a chance to absorb the full disappointment of that loss, I think I have an answer. I've become better at seizing the chance to do good when it is presented to me. But I still have a lot of work to do in generating those opportunities on my own. 

A parable: say my personal accountant came to me and said, "Such-and-such a charity would like to know if you would donate $1000 to their cause."

"Yes!" I fist pump. "Let me sign the check!"

The next day, my personal accountant comes to me again and says, "Here is a blank check for $1000 from your bank account. Put whatever you want on the Pay-To line." 

That's when I start blowing my money. 

My days are pretty much always full. But several mornings a week, I'm given a "blank check" of opportunity. Those are the mornings when my kids don't get out of bed until 7:30am. And I'm up long before that. My best self loves to use that hour to zero in on a shiur, to talk to G-d, to think about how to adjust my trajectory in the coming day in order to point myself in a truly forward direction. But in the past month, that didn't happen once. I blew the blank check on ebay, on answering emails, on so many other things that I could have squeezed in at other points in my day. 

This is the lesson I took from my two speeding tickets (besides stick-to-the-speed-limit, DUH!). "Yes," I feel affirmed from heaven, "It's wonderful to respond positively when you are asked to do good. But its time to stop selling yourself short. You cannot only respond...when you also have the capacity to generate. I trusted you with those hours, I gave you the space to meet Me how you wanted to...and you didn't even show up. You didn't use it to propel yourself forward, you just hovered over your current holding spot. That's it. Blank checked bounced. You want to try this again?"

I do. I want another chance. Begrudgingly, I guess I should thank the highway patrol for doing it's job this time. They spurred deeper repentance than they had in mind when then peeled out after my speedy ol' blue.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Just Be

I sat on the porch of my parents' home in beautiful, remote East Texas last weekend. I couldn't hear any traffic, no crisscrossing wires blocked my view of the sky, and - unusual for August in Texas - it couldn't have been over 85 degrees. I sat back and realized that it was one of those perfect moments. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Engineer far out in the orchard picking fresh figs, the sounds of happy play wafted over from the sand hole, I heard my parents and siblings and in-laws chatting and laughing inside. I closed my eyes and a fresh breeze rustled the trees and realized, from the deepest place in me...

I was happy. 

The next moment, I was rudely jolted by a question from my conscience: "Why don't I enjoy moments like these more often?" When I sit and think about it, I know they aren't few and far between. But really, my problem is

I am busy. 

Too busy. Not always with things that I absolutely must do, or even with things I really should do. Sometimes, just busy with anything because I'm too agitated not to be. I'm told I have been this way since I was a child. Approximately three seconds after being buckled into my seat belt in our old VW van: "Can we turn the tape on?" I always have to be doing something...and sometimes doing something while I'm doing something else. Listening to a TedTalk while I'm working on ebay, crocheting while I'm listening to the boys read me a story, reading a book while I tread water (yes, really). Falling asleep used to take me hours. I couldn't just lay there and let it happen; my mind insisted and going 500 miles an hour until I hit a wall and conked out. And in this stage of motherhood, I realize that nothing threatens my happiness more than my inability to savor these little moments with my children. My need to do. something. anything. renders me annoyed at all the times that they try to distract me from my tasks with calls of "Look, Mommy!" or "Play with me?"

I thought to myself as I savored that moment on the porch sans any extra stimuli, is there anywhere that I can go where I know that I can feel the way that I do now? That I can allow myself to become a passive part of the scenery and have my mind relax and just be? 

I asked the question of my family the next day and my brother said that there are three things he is content to just sit and watch indefinitely: the ocean, the stars and a campfire. I made my list and the first thing on it was an ocean (or, in my case now, I really big lake that I cannot see across). The night sky, or a cloud-filled one during the day.

What is it about these things that allow my spirit to just rest without any need to prove anything to anybody, least of all myself? To give credit where credit is due, it was my brilliant mother who suggested a common denominator between the environments on my list. They all are big powerful entities that just...sit there. The ocean is not like a river, busily rushing off somewhere. To the naked eye, a serene sky isn't accomplishing anything in particular. Perhaps my very busy soul is able to look into these powerful entities - pregnant with hidden energy but mostly appearing just to exist as constants rather than as productive contributors - and mimic them. In those moments, staring out over the water, or watching fluffy clouds go by, I don't have to have a book in my hand, or a project to turn to. I just feel a deep joy in being alive. And the only way I can ever think to process this is to whisper from my heart, "Thank you, Hashem." 

I took to heart the stern warning in this week's parsha - that curses befall those who fail to serve Him with joy in the midst of abundance and I realized what a self-fulfilling prophecy it is. Right now, my toes are wiggling on the edge of unfathomable abundance. All the delight I could be culling from my children stretches as infinitely as the ocean or the sky or a mountain range. And instead of letting my soul mirror the abundance, and reach up to G-d with thanks, its so easy to turn my back and squint down at the next thing on the to-do list, not noticing that gradually I'm throwing away all the blessing that could be mine and pursuing a lifetyle that instead makes me feel burned out, tired, old.

This week, I want to try something new. I cannot always run to the end of the block and stare out at the water when I feel myself building up too much steam and charging through my day, agitated. I want to be able to look at the one thing that G-d gave me that is always in my view and learn to quiet my soul by looking into it's mirror: my children. My children...with their boundless energy like whitecaps out on the water bobbing up and down; with so much undisciplined creativity splattered like clouds on the blue palette of the sky; I want to look at them and allow stop, to drink in the gift that was set right in front of me and to let the truest, most desperate whisper come from my heart, "Thank you, Hashem."

Friday, July 5, 2013

Going Camping

We decided, last minute, to go camping on the 4th of July. I wasn't feeling well, but it was a big thing on our To-Do-At-Least-Once-This-Year list and the Engineer had been under some stress at work lately, so I did as my mother-in-law frequently advises and put my big girl panties on and loaded up the car. We set off first thing in the morning, all of us plus the Engineers mom, headed to DeSoto National Forest in Mississippi. 

Questionable Decision #1 - Camping in Mississippi. In July. If you've lived in the south for any amount of time, you will probably run out of fingers on both hands counting up why this could be a bad idea. Heat and mosquitoes probably top the list. Redneck campers with roaring generators needed to keep their beers cold comes in somewhere in the middle. And the three drug busts nearby bring up the rear. 

We set up our tent the furthest we could get from the generators and headed down to play in the sand and wade in the creek. After the boys had a little nap and the Engineer built a textbook Boy Scout campfire, ready to be lit as soon as the sun started dropping, we got in the car and started off to explore a WWII POW camp in the forest to do some exploring.

Questionable Decision #2 - Trying to locate sites within a National Forest without a GPS. We drove for about 20 minutes down the main road and finally decided to just do a u-turn and head back to another hiking trail we saw on the way. Thirty seconds later, the Engineer looked in his rearview mirror and started giggling. I saw the blue flashing lights and said, "What are you laughing at?!" He pulled over and a second sheriff pulled in front of us. He had done a u-turn right before a checkpoint. And in the kind of car we drive, that looks pretty suspicious. The Engineer could hardly keep a straight face while the policeman extra-cautiously approached the car and asked for his ID before going back to his squad car and animatedly deliberating with his partner. When he finally cleared us to go, we asked where to find the POW camp and he said, "You were on the right road. Just keep going another 40 miles or so and then turn left." Forget it. 

We drove back to the General Andrew Jackson interpretive trail to walk in the steps of the American troops who marched to New Orleans to fight in the grand finale battle of the War of 1812. By now it was nearing 6:30 and we hadn't had any dinner yet. But we pulled over to the sign at the trailhead...and then tried to find the trail.

Questionable Decision #3 - Hiking with Children in a National Forest. Apparently, automated machinery of any kind cannot be used in a National Forest, including chain saws. So, when we finally found the trail after ten minutes of looking, we only walked about thirty feet in until it was so overgrown that we couldn't go any further, especially with grumpy kids just before dinnertime.

"Did you just feel a rain drop?" I asked the Engineer.

His face went serious. "Let's go back. Quick."

Questionable Decision #4 - Leaving the Rain Flap Off the Tent. We zoomed back as fast as we could. A few miles from the camp site, the sky dumped. Just...opened up and dumped. There was a collective sigh in the car. We pulled up to our camp site a few minutes later and everything was drenched. "Let's just eat dinner here, make some smores and then go home." I suggested pragmatically.

"What? Just leave?" the Engineer said, horrified by my lack of resolve. 

I tried to wring out one of the boys blankets. "My throat hurts. Orange is saying he doesn't feel well. I don't want to be wet all night."

"Let me see if I can come up with anything." And he scurried back into the tent. 

I was trying to get my wet camp stove to light when he came back, triumphant. "Two sheets and one pillow are still dry! Let's stay!" 

Questionable Decision #5 - Dividing up bedding for one amongst six people. "Seriously?" I coughed. 

"Come on. We came all this way. It's not going to be that comfortable, but if we leave that's not going to be any fun either. So let's just finish what we started," he pleaded. 

"Let me think about it," I muttered. He dashed off to douse the wet campfire with kerosene. The speaker for the majority opinion inside me that said, "Come on! You're sick. You should be at home in bed under the covers!" But there was another warning voice, quieter but annoyingly persistent. "You're going to be a quitter? You're going to run to the car as soon as you get a little wet? You don't want to be that much of a baby, do you?"

So I consented to stay and the Engineer admirably did his best to give me a dry place to sit. Just as it was turning dark, three rangers, complete with a canine unit came to check on us and make sure we had paid up. I'm not sure why it took three of them to do this, unless it goes back to the kind of car we drive. But when they saw that we were a law-abiding family, they took pity on us and gave the kids some dry t-shirts that they had from a Park event. 

After smores and stories around a little fire, I tucked the kids in under their one baby blanket that I had partially dried by the fire. I stepped outside of the tent and went to join the Engineer who was thoughtfully poking the embers. "Your mom and I are going to bed."

"Ok, I'll be there in awhile. Someone needs to keep this fire company, " he said, importantly. 

Three raindrops fell on my nose before I ducked in to the tent. I had just finished making a pillow out of my extra set of clothes when a racket commenced on the roof of the tent and the Engineer was at the door saying, "I'm ready to come in now!"

And that's when we found out that our tent leaks.

Questionable Decision # what-number-am-I-up-to-now? - Taking an untested tent purchased at a yard sale into inclement weather. Our two dry sheets turned into two damp sheets and we spent the rest of the night trying to dodge puddles and drips while not finding ourselves with a root under our spines. Bleary-eyed this morning, we said to each other, "I think that was enough adventure for now." and we packed up and high-tailed it out of Mississippi. 

I couldn't help but remember that the parsha for the week detailed each of the stops that the children of Israel made during their journey through the desert. I thought back to a TED talk I watched recently of a young couple with a baby who decided that what freedom meant for them was to sell everything except what they could consolidate to two backpacks and hike through Australia. I wondered as I sat in the shade yesterday, "Would it feel like freedom to me if all I had was this right here?" When the rain came and the kid complained of not feeling well, I realized that it wouldn't. Because without material things, there is absolutely no cushion between you and the overwhelming temporal nature of this world. 

Things help to shield us, distract us from the fact that nothing is forever in this world. Central air gives us the illusion that we can live in the comfort of a pleasant spring day 365 days a year. We have a roof and electricity that can make us kind of forget that not every day is sunny and dry. We have extra sheets so that we never have to feel as if ours are getting worn and dirty. Maybe there is something about all of these helpful accoutrements that lull me into a sense of complacency. I'm comfortable. What could possibly need to be addressed if I'm so comfortable?

We are in the period of the Three Weeks prior to Tisha b'av. It's a period that hold many traumatic events in Jewish history and as a result we take action to reduce our level of comfort during these days. We don't wear new clothes, or take luxurious baths, or listen to live music or do many of those things that promote a sense of having all your creature comforts nearby. Rabbi David Lapin calls it "A Detox Spa":

Sometimes Hashem sends us the pain we need to purify ourselves with, and when He does we embrace that suffering as a gift from Hashem, an opportunity to grow, to do things differently and to detoxify...We can purify ourselves with the intense discomfort of serious Torah study, acts of Tzedaka (charity) or other actions of mesirut nefesh (sacrifices for higher cause). Redirecting our energies, investing effort for higher purpose even at personal cost and studying Torah, referred to as fire and as water, cleanse the deepest recesses of cellular memory and remove the toxins of negative energy that accumulate there...This is not a time to try escape the pain and to seek distraction. The halachot (practices) of this period are designed to keep us present in the pain and mindful of its cause. That way we can use the pain of this time to cleanse and detoxify our selves from contaminating memories, flavors of negative experiences. In this way we can come to the month of Elul, a period of Divine intimacy, somewhat cleansed, pure and ready to engage with our G-d.

The Engineer came close while we were packing up, both with damp clothes and sore backs, and said, "I hope you're not going to be all, like, I-told-you-so about asking you to stay last night."

"Don't tempt me," I slung back. And we tiredly grinned at each other because when you don't - or can't - escape the discomfort, you treasure so many little things because you know that they aren't forever. We will treasure the sweet memories of Orange calling the lantern mantles "socks"...of Green laughing hysterically over using socks and underwear as a pillow...of Baby bringing everyone graham crackers so that while we were busy eating he could stuff more marshmellows into his mouth. We will feel good about the small sacrifices we were able to do for each other. We've come out on the other side closer to each other. Maybe that's part of the point of these three weeks...