Musings on My Old Friend

 

Last night I had a dream about an old friend.

Leah and I became close friends on my first day transferring in to a new school in the fifth grade. The only person who chose to sit next to me at lunch, I was forever grateful for her. Leah had a hard life for a 10-year-old, with her father recently dying of cancer and her mom remarrying a Sugar Papa. But, you’d never know it.

Leah was raised in a super-strict household with lots of rules and little flexibility. But, she didn’t care. She was full of life and spunk always “effing off” her step-monster when he left the room, flushing her okra down the toilet when her mom went to work ou’ or sitting in the formal living room (a huge no-no) when her parents were out for the evening.

Her house is where I first learned about, tasted and subsequently vomited, macrobiotic diet. Leah’s older sister taught me the phrase “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips”. Hers was the first house I realized what eating disorders could really look like. I didn’t realize it at the time, but her Mom was grooming Leah to become a wife. “Whaaat boy will want you if you fatten up on that junk?” she’d often be heard saying in her heavy New York accent.

Leah’s house is where I would go to escape the chaos at my house, as her siblings had all grown up and left the nest. She was a lone survivor. Often spending hours in her room, we’d dream up our fancy filled adult lives, try on her clothes and pretend we lived anywhere but Far Rockaway, NY.

At 19, her strict family insisted Leah go get a husband. In an arranged marriage, after 4 dates, (he’s not that bad, she’d tell me after date 2. I think I can learn to love him, she said on date 3) Leah married a man a few years older than her. I attended their wedding, just like she would mine, a few years later. It was my first friend’s wedding- small, intimate and missing any aspect of the romantic love we had dreamed up all our lives. It was actually one of the saddest things I have ever attended – watching a lamb to the slaughter with a heavy, draped cloth over her face.

Leah and I stayed in touch for a time after her wedding. She was actually happy, she would tell me. Living in a very right-wing Orthodox Jewish community in Boro Park, NY, Leah was surrounded by families of 6, 7 or even 8+ children.  Trying to stay thin so her husband would stay interested, she would have me visit only when he wasn’t home. He doesn’t like me to be distracted when he’s home, she would tell me rushing me back on the train.

After 4 years of no children arriving for her and her husband, Leah called me one morning after months of silence, hysterical crying. Her husband had informed her that with no children they would have to get a divorce.

She was devastated. I was relieved to get my Leah back.

I had only recently become a married woman and was completely confused about Leah’s situation. I did not know how or what to do to help her. She went back home to her mother’s home, her step-monster now dead.

I called a few times, but her Mom would tell me she was ‘unavailable’ so I figured she needed her privacy. But, weeks, than months went by with no returned calls. As quickly as she came back, she left my life again.

A number of years later, with the invention of Facebook, I looked her up. Up popped Leah’s profile, with a smiling, beautiful face I recognized. Excited to hear from her, I messaged her and waited. About a week later, Leah responded with one sentence. “Call me.” And, put her phone number.

My heart beating out of my chest, I quickly ran to the phone and dialed. I couldn’t wait to hear her voice and relive our old memories. More importantly, I wanted to see how she was doing. Leah’s so resilient, I am sure she’s amazing!, I would tell myself periodically when I thought of her.

A woman’s voice answered the phone after a number of rings. It wasn’t Leah. I asked for her and she put my on hold. I heard a lot of voices in the background. I assumed after all these years, maybe she had remarried and these were her children or something.

“Hello?” It was her!

I quickly bombarded her with a million questions. She began to laugh and told me her story.

After Leah’s forced divorce she had a mental breakdown. Needing to be medicated and calmed she was required to move into a mental institution in New York. She lived there for one year and then moved into a halfway house for women back in Brooklyn. The phone number she provided me with was her halfway home. She had been living there for over three years now, she explained. She had high hopes of soon getting a roommate and a place of her own.  She told me some horrific stories of abuse in the mental institution and a sexual relationship she carried on with a much older man prompting her to get moved to this all women’s home.

As I wiped the tears from my cheeks, I could not believe what I was hearing. My beautiful friend, so full of light and spunk, now living in a halfway house in Brooklyn. I was furious with her family, furious with the world and wanted to scoop up Leah and run away.

We chatted a few more minutes about my life and she said her phone time was up and she had to go. I never heard from her again.

I dialed that number a dozen times and no one ever answered. Her Facebook account still active, but never used. Her old home number disconnected. And, now she’s lost to me.

I still think about her from time to time and I have this recurring dream, like I did last night. We are at a lake house, which looks just like her old childhood bedroom. We are in fancy outfits, pulled from her closet, and we are chatting with glasses of wine about our lives. The couch is soft and comfortable and she looks so happy. But, then it all changes and we’re suddenly in her kitchen and Leah has a glazed, scary look in her eyes. I wake up.

I pray for Leah, that she has found peace and happiness. I think about her often and send her good wishes and good health. Leah made my first day in a new school a happier one. Leah made my empty middle school angst full of fun, adventure and a whole lot of F-Bombs when things got rough. Leah made my breakups in high school and my unrequited crushes seem like glamorous stories from another world she could never be apart of. From midnight sneaks into the junk drawer she had hidden in her dresser, to prank phone calling the neighbors, I will never, ever forget you –  wherever you are :)

Peace Starts in the Kitchen

 

I recall our good friend talking to my husband and me, years ago, about the concept of ‘Shalom Bayit’ (creating calm & peace in the home). As he walks out to Synagogue on the first night of Sabbath or a holiday he waves at his wife covered in food stains and flour while screaming at their over-screen-timed kids and says, “Shalom Bayit”.

Ever since that half-truth, I have dedicated myself to trying to create a home where true calm and peace exists – even in the kitchen.

When I first became a wife and mother the thought of holidays and hosting scared the crap out of me. I would take my cooking plan, break it down into a shopping list that was combed over three times, shop, stock and do a 1-day cook-a-thon to offer my guests and my family the freshest of food. I had not learned how to bake ahead and freeze, how to organize prior and I did not even have the extra space necessary to do so anyway. I would call people to invite them, pit in stomach, hoping that they would shoot me down and I’d get “credit” for the invite. But, alas several accepted. And so, the chaos would begin.

This sort of lifestyle of standing, cooking, baking, stirring, chopping, kneading and then collapsing consumed my holidays and exhausted me as I sat at our table. Coordinating food that went well, ensuring I had all the cooking or baking ingredients prior (which I never did) and that my guests ‘matched up’ with one another. I was both catering company and full-time mother, none of which I felt I was doing well.

Half asleep that first night and too tired to enjoy the myriad of songs and projects my children made – I would blearily clear the table, wash my dishes and fall into bed. Finally, I would wake up from my cooking stupor around Day 2 or 3 of a holiday – far too full and just when everyone else was petering out.

Much as a metaphor for my life, I have learned the art of planning ahead to enjoy the moments at hand. I have also learned to R-E-L-A-X.

Company doesn’t have to match, exactly. Menus can be yummy and healthy, but not necessarily fancy.

Now, I allow my plan to consume me in small, manageable bits per day leading up to the holiday. I have yearly Excel spreadsheets that I add or subtract to on a whim. Shopping lists are printable and easy to access. I have been blessed with a larger fridge and freezer that can hold premade meals, I am no longer embarrassed to serve my guests. I do not always make impressive desserts that take hours of prep so I can hear those beloved words “I can’t believe you made this!” I no longer need those accolades to ensure a good meal was had by all -except an exhausted me.

Validation of a job well done comes from my sitting at the table and taking in my family, my friends and my guests.

I laugh, out loud, when I read articles in magazines or watch tv cooking shows where they talk about hosting “dinner parties” and the stress that comes with that. We Jewish women have been hosting dinner parties, lunches and brunches for days at a time, with panache, class and wonderful food since the dawn of a refrigerator. It’s for many a no-brainer and, yet for many still a huge source of stress and exhaustion.

I implore my fellow Domesticated Goddesses to stop, drop and rest. There is no point to impressing your guests if you are too tired to enjoy the fruits of your own labor.

Raise your hand if you went all day cooking without feeding yourself a thing. Raise your hand if you ignored your children because you were in the kitchen all day prior to a holiday. Raise your hand if you barely had time to hop in a hot shower last holiday. We’re all guilty and we’re all tired. This cannot be what was meant to be for a holiday.

Holidays are a beautiful, special and delicious time – but, it’s not supposed to be all about the food. It can’t be all about the food. If you don’t have the luxurious extra fridge or freezer, pare down the menu. Love the people at your table enough to spend time with them. Most of all, love yourself enough to remember the point of it all…

The Guilt of Gratitude

About a year or two ago, I read a book called, The Happiness Project. I am sure you’ve seen or heard the hype surrounding this larger-than-life experiment in gratitude. At first, gratitude came easily to author Gretchen Rubin, a sarcastic and often silly women looking for the more in life we all seek. Then, as gratitude’s time-tested experiments and real-world crap collided, things became more desperate and difficult for Gretchen. And, as in all books with a happy ending, she discovers sticking with gratitude in a multitude of ways really does bolster your happiness quotient.

For me, this book was just meh. Gretchen seemed trite, often times rude in her quest for trying out different sides of gratitude. But, in general I believed in her message – taking time to find the good and being grateful for it will lead to an overhaul in your general view on life. Since reading that book and really since Oprah coined her phrase ‘gratitude journal’ years ago, I’ve often tried to incorporate more thankfulness into my life.

When times were bad and paychecks lean, gratitude for loves in my life got me through. When I suffered loss or pain, focusing on my multitude of gifts (like coffee) and amazing children cheered me up. And then, as all good things were going great – gratitude somehow, someway transitioned into another beast altogether- guilt.

I am not certain when this happened or why. But, suddenly we finally had a savings account for the first time in our lives, our family was growing up and sleeping through the night (!), my business was booming and it finally seemed like everything was in synch. I was overwhelmed with so much gratitude that I looked around at others less fortunate and felt tremendous and utter shame.

Why should I deserve so much happiness? What have I done to deserve a great home, healthy kids and a giving husband? Was I any better than others dealing with loss, divorce or sick children? Of course, the answer – a resounding no – I was no more deserving and no better than anyone else. I was just luckier in the draw in that particular part of my life.

I think back to a time when I was young. I went to an elementary school in an insular and strict private school environment that taught the mantra ‘You will get what you deserve’. I grew up believing that breaking any rule would bring an onslaught of hellish fire and I may be struck by lightening at any moment. Skip a class? You will get expelled. Eat on a minor fast day? Your stomach will surely hurl itself into oblivion. This led to an onslaught of fear and loathing both for my little world at school and contributed to my heightened anxiety as I was growing up. I never wanted to do anything “wrong” (by whichever standards I was following) or make a mistake for fear of what may lay in wait.

In my mind it was simple –I f you were good, good things happen to you – if you are not good, well watch out…

But, as I became an adult and saw the world around me make plenty of good or bad choices the ultimate question came to the forefront – Why do bad things happen to the good people? It made no sense.

Then, I read another book, this one much more meaningful to me than the Happiness Project – The Garden of Emunah (Belief) by Rabbi Shalom Arush.

This book, while also at times trite and flowery, became an unbelievable reminder that if you sort of ‘go with the flow’ of life you can’t feel slighted, angry, sad or depressed. It’s just life. Not better than someone else’s, not worse. It’s yours and yours alone. It has really helped my perspective in realizing that its a waste of time to feel guilty for the gifts of my life. I shouldn’t walk around apologizing that I have health or happiness. I also shouldn’t feel angry when it doesn’t go ‘my way’ because truly it is going my way, I just don’t realize it at the time. It’s just the Plan.

I make the choices that contribute to the path my life of course, but ultimately health, happiness and love are all very changeable and in an instant. I am trying hard to focus less on being thankful and more on thanking those around me and of course, the Guy Upstairs. I am working hard on recognizing the Plan versus feeling that I somehow did something intrinsically amazing or horrific to get there. It’s my Plan and I’m sticking to it.

Happy New Year, all. May We All Be Inscribed in The Book of ‘Good Plans’ Until 120.

We Are Who We Are…Until We’re Not

How many times in your life have you heard, ‘Well, we are who we are’? This phrase is meant to excuse behaviors, rudeness, inabilities to try to change. It has become a go-to for so many of my friends or family members and often times, myself.

We are weeks away from a special time in Judaism – The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. I do not typically write about my religious perspective, my inner inklings on my personal relationship with G-d or my doubts and fears about life in general. In fact, the past few years were spent very angry, frustrated and tired of trying to form that relationship that did not come so naturally to me.

I ‘did my time’ in synagogue or at home praying. Words in a book coming from lips naturally as they have so many times before. Easily losing my train of thought, wandering to meals I had to serve to company or children I had to care for soon. I just was in a sort of rote haze that couldn’t be lifted. I felt as though my spiritual life had been reduced to a series of menus, coordinated shopping trips for perfect shoes and outfits with little time or inclination for feelings. Lists that needed to be prepped and adhered to – checked off one-by-one became my norm for the holidays. But, this year things feel differently.

I just moved to a new home only a few blocks away from my old one – and I sort of feel a rebirth. “Change your place, change your luck”. This saying, rich in Jewish roots, holds the ideology for my current place down to a ‘T’.

Sometimes life is stale. Sometimes we are stuck in a rut – even spiritually. I had been asleep at the wheel, letting my children, my community and my family guide me. Packing up my life, taking stock of what needed to be kept and what needed to be tossed, was an entirely cathartic and spiritual experience for me. Realizing the tremendous gift of the ability to move into a more spacious home for my family. Allowing myself to see the multitude of ‘stuff’ we collected over the years that needed to be purged from our lives – keeping only what was important. Able to take in years of memories, pictures, albums full of love and joy, sadness and loss – truly, it has been an experience.

Then, learning to fall in love with my new surroundings as I fumble in the night to remember where light switches are located. Finding a new rhythm in my spaces. Experiencing new emotional connections with my family in this shared weird experience of moving to a new home. I find that this year, finally, I am tuning back in to my spirituality.

A few weeks ago we had our Mezuzahs checked. They were down from our old doorways and over ten years old, so we figured it was a good time to start fresh and new. Surely, I was convinced that some would need to be replaced. Oddly enough, every one but the front door Mezuzah that already existed on the new home, was found to be Kosher and in-tact. Once we replaced that one and hung up our old Mezuzahs with the blessing – I felt that finally the time had come to reconnect.

I have felt nothing short of gratitude since the day we moved. For the new neighbors who have welcomed us to the block, old friends who have helped us transition only the short move away, for the ability to do what was necessary for our family’s growth after 2 years looking. So, now full of gratitude (the true antithesis of anger) I am ready to accept some spiritual responsibility for myself. It is time to let go of any old-resentments or guilt and time to move towards a renewed relationship on my own terms for the coming year. I used to make a list of my goals for the year, feel immediate guilt at not attaining them and then frustration that my quick spiritual high became a rapid, disappointing low. So, no goals, no expectations, no disappointments. Just openness, acceptance and lots of efforts to take in whatever is supposed to come next.

Wishing all of my friends, family and new readers (thank you!) a Happy, Healthy and Healing New Year.

Learning From Your Children

In sending off my son to his year abroad and with his 18th birthday coming this week, my mind has been swirling with many thoughts and memories. In all this nostalgia I have come to a realization – our children teach us nearly as much, if not more than we teach them.

I have had many conversations over the years with one of my best friends about our two oldest. As I’m 2 years ahead of her in parenting, I have discovered that much of parenting children is figuring out their ‘story’. They don’t come with a chapter list or a prologue or any much direction at all. It is often up to us to wait and see how they act, how they interact, how they grow. You have an image in your mind how you’d love them to turn out and then, surprise! They make different choices, don’t like what you expect them to and of course, they reserve the right to even change those things you thought you’d figured out.

My confident oldest has taught me tremendous patience and understanding. Living life with a non-conforming attitude he has always been his own person. So wickedly smart, he often has proven my wrong on more than one occasion. A practical, minimalist personality – my oldest has tenacity and dedication to living life to its fullest without hesitation or anxiety.

My next in line, beautiful and sweet has taught me that you should never underestimate your child. She had always been a shyer, quieter little girl. She barely said a word until 3. She did not speak much at school to the point where I had her teachers log when she did actually speak. I have a notebook filled with one-word answers and short questions to prove to myself there was nothing wrong. I had expected that when it came time to speak at her Bat Mitzvah she would shy away from the opportunity. Surprisingly, she stepped up to the plate. She prepared a beautiful speech delivered with such poise and confidence both my husband and I were blown away.

Our middle daughter, the one with the dimples that could make any heart melt, has taught me empathy. In the third grade her teacher called me with a lump in her throat as she read a beautiful letter my daughter had written in class. The assignment was to share what one would do with a million dollars. My daughter wrote that she would give it to a little boy in the first grade that she barely knew. She wanted to give it to him because he has autism and she wanted him to buy new toys and things that would make him happy. She notices when others are sad and feels deeply.

Our baby. Our precious icing on the cake, has taught me that no matter what the ‘norms’ are you can and should buck them. A raven haired and green eyed beauty that has a passion for Tonka trucks, race cars and Ken dolls seems to be the life of the party with the boys in Kindergarten. While I spent much of preschool a nervous wreck that she wasn’t wearing sparkles and pink like the other little girls, I have come to love her will to do what she loves – regardless of what a ‘pink toy aisle’ represents for the girls.

These are just the very tip of the iceberg, of course. Parenting is a constant teaching tool that doesn’t end when they leave the nest. I am now learning how to let go, give space, step in as needed and love from afar. I am excited to see how parenting will continue to grow and change and affect our lives. In the meantime, I’m just sitting back and enjoying the textbook lesson by lesson.

 

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