Category Archives: Family

A Kindness

Today I am recovering from strep throat. Yesterday I was sicker than I have ever been in my life, lying in bed mostly sleeping and when I was awake, feeling all sorts of uncomfortable. Early in the day it occurred to me that as the mom in the family, it is often my job to take care of others when they feel badly. With my feverish mind leading the way, I started slipping into self pity. “No one will take care of me!” Then I asked my husband for help and he stayed home from work to manage the kids and give me the TLC I needed.

But surprisingly, another person stepped up to the plate. My son Sage, who is eight, feigned illness to stay home with the rest of the crew (my five-year old has strep too) and so he was around watching me get sicker over the course of the day.

At first he would come periodically into my room to say hi. Then he wrote me a get well note. Finally he provided his favorite teddy to keep me company. At about five o’clock he came back to see how I was doing and offered to take my temperature. I suggested he read to me. He picked out a couple of books from the kids’ book basket in the hallway and sat next to me on the bed reading. With my head on the pillow I listened with my eyes closed, occasionally opening them to watch him read.

I was comforted by the sound of his voice, the earnest expression on his face as he concentrated on reading aloud, and by his presence. In Judaism it is considered to be a good deed (a mitzvah) to visit the sick. In this essay on the Jewish way of healing, the writer talks about this important teaching.

A fundamental feature of Jewish spiritual healing is bikur cholim (visiting the sick), which responds to two of the greatest burdens of contemporary life: isolation and lack of community. At a time of illness, bikur cholim offers us the comfort of human connection and interdependence, a sense of community we so desperately need.

The mitzvah of bikur cholim helps fulfill the obligation to “love our neighbor as ourself,” and it is required of every Jew (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah: Laws of Mourning, ch. 14). Like comforting mourners and performing other acts of kindness, bikur cholim brings goodness to the world (Avot de Rabbi Nataii 39:1).

With Sage there reading to me, I could feel that there really is a difference in being alone with an illness and having someone there as you go through it. The whole experience is less dark, less frightening. It is a true act of kindness and I was grateful for it.

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Actually, Carpe Diem

In the last few days I’ve noticed more than a few mothers that I am friends with on Facebook linking to aHuffington Post essay by Glennon Melton titled “Don’t Carpe Diem.” The writer is a mother of three young children and she talks about the unease she feels when older people encourage her to enjoy every moment of parenting because it all goes by so fast.

Every time I’m out with my kids — this seems to happen: An older woman stops us, puts her hand over her heart and says something like, “Oh, Enjoy every moment. This time goes by so fast.” Everywhere I go, someone is telling me to seize the moment, raise my awareness, be happy, enjoy every second, etc, etc, etc.

I know that this message is right and good. But, I have finally allowed myself to admit that it just doesn’t work for me. It bugs me. This CARPE DIEM message makes me paranoid and panicky. Especially during this phase of my life – while I’m raising young kids. Being told, in a million different ways to CARPE DIEM makes me worry that if I’m not in a constant state of intense gratitude and ecstasy, I’m doing something wrong.

Melton writes well about the difficulties of raising kids, the frustrations and exhaustion, and she ends with an eloquent description of those few moments throughout a harried mom’s day when she pulls back and sees the beauty of her child’s face or feels the gratitude for the bounty she has in love and resources. It’s worth reading the article if only for the last few paragraphs.

But when I got to the end, I wondered if she’s missing the point the older women are trying to make. While they may be saying, “Enjoy every moment,” maybe they really mean, “Be with every moment.” Live it. Step into the unpleasantness of your child crying. Feel the pressure of a messy house, a meal to make, and a diaper to change. Hear the sound of your child laughing. Savor the relief in the walk around the car from buckling your child’s carseat to your driver’s door.

I think people tend to give this carpe diem advice to parents because the ever-changing nature of life is so apparent and so poignant when it comes to childhood. Our children start out as tiny babies and become people who are bigger and stronger than us. In the beginning they are helpless and dependent for their survival, but eventually they leave our homes and fend for themselves.

Maybe the old ladies are saying, pay attention to it because if you don’t you’ll feel like somehow you missed it. “It all goes by so fast.” Those women are speaking from the other side. They are saying, “Live it now, because it isn’t going to stay this way forever. And once it is over, it’s over.”

Sometimes I want to stop life from changing. The other day we discovered that my five-year old has his first loose tooth. My eight-year old congratulated him by saying, “That’s great! Soon you’ll have beaver teeth like me.”

My husband and I laughed, but I could feel a sharp pang of not wanting his cute little baby teeth to come out. There’s nothing in me that wants my little one to change. It’s not up to me, though.

So actually, I will try to carpe diem as much as I can.


Worry

Once again, I have entered stormy waters. Life changes and suddenly it becomes difficult to pass through whatever is occurring. In my twenties, I experienced the painful ending of a relationship and sensed for the first time what it meant to ride along in rough seas, holding on to the sides of my rickety boat, and hoping not to tip over. I made it. Now again, I find myself struggling for steadiness.

We all experience this; it is life. People get sick, jobs are lost, and in my case, my child needs help. I want to preserve his privacy so I won’t talk about what is happening with him. This post is meant to look at how my inner life responds when my outer life is difficult.

Outwardly, I am taking care of business. Making decisions, getting educated, and trying to act in his best interest. Inwardly, I am grieving. I feel sadness, which in terms of mindfulness, is an emotion I can hold. But what is most difficult to manage is worry. I feel mindfulness slipping away from me because it is overpowered by my thoughts. The Buddhists call it restless mind. “Restlessness is agitation,” say Arinna Weisman and Jean Smith, in their book, The Beginner’s Guide to Insight Meditation.

Restlessness seduces us into thinking that if we are restless enough, we will somehow make things better. It never occurs to us that being agitated or worried contributes nothing at all to improving the situation. Agitation just breeds more agitation.

That is the seduction of worry, at least for me. It seems that if I worry, I am holding on to the situation. I am fixing it by holding it. But I think that really I am just exhausting my energy like a mouse on one of those insane exercise wheels.

The writers suggest trying to see anxiety as the hindrance restlessness. “We learn to trust that if we let go and direct our minds back to our breath or the posture of our bodies, such as sitting or standing, we become much more effective because we develop steadiness of mind, which sees clearly what needs to be done.”

Seeing clearly what needs to be done is exactly what I am after right now. It is the reason I am worried. I am not sure what to do. In writing about acceptance, Joseph Goldstein, a respected Buddhist teacher in the West, says that struggle comes from not accepting what is present. In each moment, accept what is happening without wishing to change it in any way. Just to see it clearly.

In Mussar, we are learning about silence, both in restraint of speech but also in contemplation. “The soul needs silence as the body needs sleep,” it says in the book Everyday Holiness. “Sleep to refresh; silence to cleanse. Sleep to dream; silence to awaken to the deeply real. The Talmud points to this in saying, ‘There is no better medicine than silence.'”

In my morning meditation I am trying to allow my worrying mind to quiet down and to listen to the silence within me. My day is noisy. My mind is noisy. But there is this space that is silent and I am grateful that I can rest there momentarily.


The Ogre In Me

It all started on Saturday morning when I woke up in the worst mood. I came downstairs to join my husband and children and couldn’t stand any of them. My older son wanted to tell me everything he had thought or done since he woke up and every ounce of my being wanted to shout, “Be quiet!” My younger son came running to me for shelter from his older brother’s taunts and I tried to squirm away from his clutches. I warned my husband of the clouds over my head and he knew enough to steer clear of me.

I tried to use some Buddhist teachings to get me out of the funk. “I’m getting attached to my thoughts. Just let it go and let each moment be what it is.” Problem was, each moment was more annoying than the one that came before it. “I’m adding fuel to my own suffering. This is about me, not them.” None of it was working. I knew I was toxic to be around so I decided to clean the house.

All day I cleaned the house. You might think, “That’ll do the trick!” I thought it would. I still felt grumpy, but the house looked spiffy.

We went out that night with friends and I forgot about my bad mood. We had a great time. The next morning, the ogre in me was back. Sigh. We spent most of the day at a cyclocross bike race at a park in our neighborhood. My husband and kids all raced and we set up a tent where we grilled sausages, cooked frites, and drank beer. My husband is really into bike racing (check out his awesome blog) and this day in the park was his birthday party.

At one point during my husband’s race, while me and the kids and a bunch of friends stood cheering on the sidelines, my younger son started doing that charming testing thing that three year-olds do. It goes like this: I say, don’t go over the line onto the course. My son dips his shoulder under the tape that is strung from pole to pole along the edges of the race course. I say, don’t do it. He does it with his toe. I say, do you want to go sit in the car. He looks at me. I say, don’t. He waves his hand under the tape. And so on.

I’ve been a parent long enough that usually I can pull something besides brute force out of my bag of tricks to get us up and over this hurdle and into something more enjoyable. But not yesterday. I went into total reaction mode. Grabbed him and carried him off to another area where we were away from our friends. We didn’t make it all the way back to the car, but he got the message. He’d been removed. He was crying. I felt like crying too.

The rest of the day wasn’t quite so dramatic, but I could feel myself having little patience with pretty much everything. That night I went to bed early.

This morning started out on the same track until I was driving the kids to school when suddenly a lightbulb went on in my head. This weekend has been about the latest concept we have been studying in my Mussar class: the yetzer ha’ra. I mentioned it in another post awhile back, but this was the first time I think I’ve really experienced it. Here it is explained in the book Everyday Holiness.

We are born with free will and can choose to do good or bad, but whenever we try to do something that stretches us in the direction of good, we need to expect to encounter this inner resistance arising from the shadows. We have an inner inclination to elevate and purify ourselves – that’s the yetzer ha’tov, the impulse to do good – and what stands in our way is the built-in adversary, the yetzer ha’ra.

I think it is interesting that this tension defines the Jewish concept of free will. For me, the idea of an impulse to do good versus an impulse to do evil is a question of whether I can keep my focus on cultivating an inner life or just get swept up in the daily flow of my busy life.

Mussar teachers say it takes great strength to control the yetzer ha’ra, which by the way, is not something to be extinguished. Before now I did not understand what this meant. Now I think I do. If this mood this weekend can be understood as a manifestation of my yetzer ha’ra, then I see now the power of my inner adversary. For all the tricks I tried: cleaning, meditation, exercise, nothing seemed quite enough to overcome that grouchy, irritable, impatient side of me. To control that, harness it somehow? It’s daunting. I stand humbled, which is right where I want to be.


Stepping Up

Parenting two small children can be a most harrowing ordeal. It can also be the funniest face. Sometimes it is the softest touch. Often it is the loudest shriek. Occasionally it is the smelliest mess. And usually it ends with the most exhausting day.

Being the mother, I loom large. My hugs are potent. My approval is sought. My anger is damaging.

I asked for this job, but honestly I don’t always embrace it. I want things to be quiet and neat. I don’t want to hear small people complaining when really their life is pretty great or crying again because they banged their knee on the stool or asking me to stop what I’m doing and help them cut up a thick cardboard box so they can make a pirate ship. I just want some peace.

My reaction is to resist. Cringe when I hear them calling for me, frown when I see the mess they made of the couch pillows which are now a fort on the floor, yell when the noise gets to be too much.

Then the children are in bed and their lovely faces rest on their pillows and I am racked with guilt. I was mean about the couch pillows, I yelled at them to move it! when we were late for school, I walked away when they tried to include me in their game. I worry that I am hurting them.

In the book Everyday Holiness, it says the first leg of the spiritual journey involves the cultivation of humility. In this context, humility means “being no more of a somebody than you ought to be” or “limiting oneself to an appropriate space while leaving room for others.” It exists between arrogance and self-debasement, which are both overly preoccupied with the self. It is the first trait we are studying in my Mussar class.

I am thinking of humility as it relates to my parenting. What is the right amount of space in this context? I don’t want to be so big that I cannot allow my children to be who they are in my presence. Our Mussar group leader said maybe I need to step up to the job, which ironically I think means I need to shrink back a bit. By stepping up I will accept the reality of the situation and stop trying to impose my will on my kids.

It helps that the teachings in the Buddhist meditation class I am also taking reinforce this idea. If it’s good or bad, pleasant or terrible, show up for it. It also helps to know that even Buddhist mothers struggle with anger. In this article in Shambala Sun, Karen Connelly writes about her interactions with her toddler son.

It’s always like this. He gives me back the emotion I have just sent out to him. My reactions set the tone of the conflict to come; I am the adult after all. Drive all blames into oneself, says one version of the lojong slogan for mind-training, which isn’t a recipe for more mother-guilt but an admonishment to examine the nature of power and responsibility. I have power over my child. Yet I so easily misuse it. I do the precise opposite of that other Buddhist meditation practice, tonglen. Instead of sending out calm breath, I shoot a javelin from my mouth.

After Mussar class the other night I was surrounded by the mothers in the group. They offered me support and war stories of their years with young children. One woman said, “You never hear anyone saying, ‘Oh yeah, that was easy, raising children. A piece of cake.'” She’s right. I never do.


Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Sage is six years old. He’s a cheery fellow who has a good time wherever he goes. This past weekend he started his second year of Sunday school, where he spends about three hours at our synagogue mostly learning about Jewish holidays and the Hebrew alphabet. He’s also learned the Shabbat blessings and a couple of key prayers.

I don’t get the sense that they talk about God a lot, although of course it comes up. He’s never asked about it. Never pressed me on what it is or whether we believe in it. He never uses the term. I think the topic floats right over his head which is mostly filled with fantasies of fishing, boating, and biking.

Fine with me. I have no idea how to talk to my children about God.

Wendy Mogel, a Jewish clinical psychologist and author of the book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, suggests that parents say something like, “Just as a candle hidden from view sheds its glow all around, we can see God in God’s reflection: in the good things people do for one another, in the miracles of nature, in our ability to change and grow.”

I don’t see why those things can’t stand for themselves.

I understand that there are mysteries about life that people want explained. There is an intangible connection between human beings. Kindness, helpfulness, concern, these all strengthen that connection and that is good. Well, it feels good at least. But I don’t need to call that God. Maybe someday I will.

As for nature, it takes me two seconds to think of the “miracles” of Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti last January. Nature can be extraordinarily beautiful in ways big and small, but its forces can also be brutal and cruel. I am on this planet in awe of how we all got here, but however it happened it’s not warm and fuzzy.

Our ability to change and grow. This one holds some appeal for me. That is the nature of life, that it changes. It is impermanent, as the Buddha said.

One thing I do know is that unless I make some sense of this religion, the best I can hope for is that my kids will feel the same vague connection to Judaism that I do, based on enough time spent in Hebrew school and the enjoyment of holidays celebrated with our family. Then when they grow up, it will up to them to decide whether it matters. I fear it is not enough.


Days of Awe

Here’s what I don’t believe. Today, Rosh Hashanah, God opens the Book of Life and writes down the names of all the righteous Jews to be inscribed for another year. If you’ve been less virtuous, you have ten days to right your wrongs by seeking forgiveness from others before God shuts and seals the book. If you don’t make it in the book I don’t think it means you’re necessarily going to die, but it isn’t good. Kind of like getting on Santa’s naughty list: you don’t want to go there.

The holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – the New Year and the Day of Atonement – are considered to be the most holy in Judaism. Growing up, my family did not regularly go to synagogue to pray, but we never missed going to services during this time of year. I don’t think my parents prayed then either, but it was just what you do. We went because we were supposed to. If it fell during the week, I would miss school to be there.

Not much has changed for me since that time. Out of some mysterious obligation, I go services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, dreading the boredom and unease I feel at hearing phrases like God our Father, King, Protector, etc. Blah. I usually leave early, knowing I can call home to wish my parents a happy new year and say that I went.

But there is this: the music in the service can have a kind of transformative effect on me. I hear the same tunes or prayers sung in Hebrew that I’ve known all my life and I begin to see images of Jews in the past hearing and singing these same songs. The melodies are sad, or at least they make me feel melancholy. I think of people hiding and praying. I think of musty old synagogues. I think of the Eastern European world my grandparents came from. I am part of all that.

And so like every other year, I have made my plans to go to temple later today.

Last night I opened Anita Diamant’s book, Living a Jewish Life, to try to understand what these holidays might mean beyond the story of the Book of Life. Here’s what she had to say about prayer:

The Hebrew word for prayer, tefila, which can be translated as “self-judging,” contains the notion that prayer is not about getting God to do something for you, but is a way of affecting change in yourself, a process of meditation, reflection, and stock-taking.

With all the singing and sitting and standing that goes on, I never experience prayer in temple to be a meditative exercise. It’s a communal event, in which I check out other people and wonder about their lives, practice reading Hebrew, and periodically check the prayer book to see how many pages are left until the service is done.

Diamant says that the Hebrew word for sin is chayt, a term based in archery that means “missing the mark,” as in, I could have been kinder or more generous, but I missed the mark. Interesting concept, the mark. How do you know when you’ve hit it?

Diamant quotes Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a teacher and author. “Rosh Hashanah is about reverence and gratitude for life, the mother lode of all religious insight. Yom Kippur is about telling the worst truth about yourself, and getting new life from that.” These are the Days of Awe.

Something to think about while I’m counting pages later today.


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