Monday, April 23, 2012

Jewish Gratitude

Not too long ago, I introduced HaMotzi, the blessing over the bread, into my dinner ritual with the kids.  It’s informal, and I don’t force the issue when the kids have friends over or when we are out to eat. If Leah sings the entire thing with “Blah blah blah blah-blah,” I don’t chastise her.  But most nights, we manage to squeeze it in before one child or the other shoves all the broccoli into her cheeks and says “My I pls b excsd?”  

I don’t remember exactly when we started… probably not too long after the Jewish new year.  Leah usually goes along with it – it reminds her of her old Jewish preschool, and she likes to sing.  Rebecca used to roll her eyes.  I’ve persevered, ending each recitation by taking the girls’ hands and turning to each of them, saying: “Thankful for you, and thankful for you.”  We all like that part.  Since I rarely manage to get all the kid food on the table and something for myself before the girls are ready to bolt back to their imaginary Schnauzer orphan rescue squad, or whatever fantasy they’re playing out that day, it gives us just a moment to pause – together – in thanks.

A few months ago, after begrudging participation, Rebecca piped up with a zinger: “Daddy says God isn’t real.  He says people made him up.”  My first instinct was to correct the anthropomorphism – to break the association of God with maleness.  But I had to be careful here.  This was important.  There was a lot on the line: the presentation of a unified parental front, even in separation, but more importantly, my precious Sunday mornings with Leah.  Without a notion of God, I might not have a leg to stand on when it came to Sunday School for Rebecca, and out the window my Leah time would go.  Think fast, Karen.

“Well,” I began, “Daddy may be right, or he may be wrong.  I don’t have any way to tell you for sure, and neither does anyone else.  It depends a lot on how you define God.”   

Rebecca pressed on.  “Do you believe in God?”

 “I believe in something larger than our selves.  And I’m uncertain about what that is,” I admitted.  “But what I can tell you for sure that I believe in is gratitude.  We have so much good in our life that it makes me want to say thank you to someone, or something.  So when I say Ha-Motzi, it makes me feel good.  I like it.”

Rebecca paused.  “I guess that makes sense,” she finally said.  And since then, she has sung along, loudly and without objection.  Occasionally, I even get a “thankful for you” back at me.

I believe what I told her to be true.  Jewish Guilt is legendary; it is at the root of much cultural humor, about mothers-in-law offering to take the bus and children being left to stare down overcooked asparagus because of the people starving  in Africa.  More gravely, it underlies our superficially care-free liberty in the wake of the Holocaust’s atrocities.    

But guilt and gratitude are two sides of the same coin.  If you are a card-carrying environmentalist, or a mother who travels regularly for work, or (yikes) both of the above, virtually everything you do leaves a grimy residue of remorse.  So you have a choice to make:
  • You can sacrifice indulgence to tread more lightly.  To some extent, I do, but let’s face it: I’m an American.  We’re hogs.  My job requires that I fly around the globe, dress nicely, stay in hotels that insist on washing my towels every day (even if I follow the instructions on their damn ‘Because we care’ cards)… not exactly a “leave nothing but footprints” lifestyle.
  •  You can walk around with your tail between your legs, using guilt as a questionable antidote for excess.  But there is nothing I dislike more than when people excuse their actions by “feeling horrible” about them, when they know they’ll go back out and do it again the next day.  Love it, or leave it.
  • You can pry open Door #3: the one marked Gratitude.  Instead of being consumed by whether you deserve what you have, you can honor it with appreciation.  When I feel my heart sinking because I am a 10-hour flight away from a child with a croupy cough, when I buy myself something new to wear out of self-conscious vanity, when I eat a meal that would feed a family for a week in many parts of the world, I think to myself: there is beauty in this too.  And for that beauty, I give thanks. 
 My success here is intermittent and imperfect.  I still feel remorse, and sometimes I am so down on the world that I forget how fortunate I am.  And I’m not suggesting that you can justify excess simply by being thankful for it.  But still, when I think about core values, I identify more with Jewish Gratitude than with Jewish Guilt.  It feels more useful.  As a parent, it feels downright obligatory; to saddle a child with guilt that they are too young to process into anything but anger and resentment feels irresponsible.

I aspire to a life of optimism.  And perhaps a whole new stereotype for Jewish mothers-in-law in the future.  Maybe, as I am dragging my valise to the bus station, I will remember to tell my children how much I appreciate them.  A girl can dream.

Monday, April 16, 2012

What Makes a Home

Here's a recap of the 48-hour period that began just before Passover began, a week ago Friday:

Fri 5:45 PM Arrived SFO from London after two weeks overseas. 
Sat 7:00 AM Picked up U-Haul.  Threw things into boxes while friends threw boxes into truck.
Sat 1:30 PM We-hauled second load of possessions six blocks down the street to our new home.
Sat 2:00 PM Realized that, in moment of dementia, had invited colleague from work and her family to share Passover with us that evening.  Started forging canyon through mountains of boxes to get to table.
Sat 3:00 PM Opened up wallet and proceeded to empty it into Whole Foods' bank account.
Sat 7:00 PM Dinner is served.  

Kids, do not try this at home.

A week later, here we are, the girls and the cats and me, in our new place.  The box mountains are shorter, the canyons are wider, and I have broken bread with most of the appliances.  The house is wonderful.  It was very well loved by its previous owners, who gutted it, restored its Craftsman heritage, remodeled from top to bottom, and appointed it with furnishings and art and Beautiful Things that made it wholly charming.  They subscribed to magazines like Traditional Home, maintained a perfect green lawn, and hung paintings that fit perfectly above the restored wood molding.

In comparison, my furniture is feeling a little awkward about itself.  Most of the things I brought with me are cast-offs from friends; I took almost nothing with me when Ted and I separated two years ago.  I used to say that my apartment was furnished with love.  The couch, the painting over the couch, the armoire, my desk, the toybox, even the vacuum cleaner came from friends who supported me through the painful transition of separation.  I felt their love every time I sank into my worn belongings.

Now, in our beautiful new home, my beloved furniture feels a little shy.  I haven't been treating it with the same affection.  I proactively apologize for it whenever people ask about coming over to see the new place.  And I make sure everyone knows that I fully intend to replace it.

I have to pause now and ask why I am so concerned about how this house feels about me.  I paid good money for the privilege of calling it mine.  The same friends who offered up their belongings to make me a home at my temporary address will be the ones whose love will fill our new abode.  And I've been alive long enough to know that there are lovely, well-appointed houses all over the world whose residents are bitter, angry people - and that there is joy pouring out of some very modest rooms.

You'll notice that I haven't even mentioned my girls yet in this post.  After two weeks away from them, during which I missed them intensely, you would think that I would have run into their arms and not let go of them for a week.  Instead, I was so focused on moving, getting settled, and cobbling together a Passover celebration that I barely attended to their needs for the first few days back.  Rebecca let me know how inadequate my response was in the way only 9-year-olds can.  She refused to help with the move, treated our Passover guests as if they were one of the ten plagues, and complained that there was nothing to do in our stupid new house.  She did everything she could to be uncooperative and hostile, and of course, Leah dutifully followed suit.

What's most surprising wasn't her hostility or her sullenness but the fact that it took me three days to get my head out of the place where the sun don't shine and realize that I was to blame.  Kids' minds are blunt instruments.  If a house, the friends who helped us move, and some casual acquaintances who came for dinner get more attention than she does, if the only times I give her my attention are when she's acting out at dinner or when I need her to lift something, what does it say about how much I care about her?

Sunday morning, I woke with the full weight of this realization.  The girls and I went to Trader Joe's to stock the pantry.  We bought a juicer and picked oranges from our tree to break it in.  I stayed home from work Monday to get settled, but by mid-afternoon, I realized that the kids needed a break.  We left the boxes behind and went to see The Lorax and get burritos.  We laughed and hugged and talked about Rebecca's time at California history camp the week before.  I started to patch the line that had become frayed during my absence.  I crawled into each of their beds that night to reseal the bond of physical closeness. 

At the end of the day, there is no new lesson here.  My girls are my home.  My Border Collie personality makes me forget this from time to time.  But this morning, with sticky smoothie handprints all over the table  and a single electric blue sock wedged in the front door, I realized that this place is perfect - because they are here.