A GREEDY LITTLE SOUL

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Incredibly, she never missed a single day. Every single day I was away at camp there was a letter from my Mother waiting for me at mail call. Not once in five summers did she miss, not for me nor for my two sisters. She was, in fact, so concerned about us receiving daily mail that she actually started sending the letters before we even left home. Every summer evening she and my Dad drove ten miles to Birmingham to send out the mail. The post office was open late there. This was nice, of course but not a totally selfless act. Being out meant that my Dad might as well get some ice cream.

My Dad, whose voice was always hovering in the background of my Mom’s letters, actually sent his own letter to us once. He laboriously scratched out a few sentences on a page, used his pocketknife to cut it neatly into pieces and addressed three separate envelopes set to wing their way to Camp Walden. We had to find each other and put it together like a puzzle to read it. He was pleased.

Sometimes we sent letters back. We had to. If you didn’t hand in a letter three mornings a week you weren’t allowed into breakfast. Or so rumor had it.

Receiving an actual letter from someone today is as rare as spotting a harvest moon.   But I remember the pleasure of being able to identify people just by seeing their handwriting on an envelope. It was fun to think about just why someone chose a particular stamp. And there was always the delicious dilemma about whether to rip the envelope open or extend the mystery by opening the letter later. No matter if what was written was effusive or efficient, when I really think about it they were not letters so much as little gifts, something to hold, refold, and sometimes to cherish. Rants on reams of onion skin paper to stay in touch with friends overseas. Goofy cards doctored with bad poetry to soothe everything from a bad day to a sick day. Letters that sometimes took days and days to write to make sure something was said just the way one wanted to say it.   The relief and sheer pleasure of a long awaited response.

In thinking back it was not so much what was being said in a letter that mattered but the physical letter itself that counted. A letter proved that someone had not just thought of me, but had actually taken time to say so. The letter that I could hold in my hands proved it.

So here we are all these years later, starry-eyed and jazzed in a communications Wonderland. Like everyone else I constantly draw my phone out of my pocket and with a few quick swipes, am instantly in touch with practically anyone at any time. You bet that’s thrilling too. I wouldn’t give it up for the world.  Being in a communications Wonderland is especially wonderful when those we love most are often so physically far away.

But the truth is some of us are more quietly deliberate thinkers.   That can make instant responses of text and email, even phone conversations, pressured and terribly difficult sometimes. And of course, once something is said there’s no snatching it back. There are times when forty characters can be as crystalline and precise in expression as a haiku—others when a few more syllables might be needed to avoid utter misunderstanding and misuse.

I remember the beautiful, even curves of my Mother’s handwriting. The tight spikes of my Dad’s printing. The big balloon letters of my old friend Helene. The quirky print of my friend Ruth. The controlled scrawl of my husband.

Here I am though, as always, loving the rhythm and feel of my fingers flying over a keyboard. To some of us it’s sheer music. Leroy Anderson (go listen to “The Typewriter”) thought the same thing.

I adore Blackwing pencils. I’ve experimented with fountain pens. But as I’ve mentioned before, I’m left-handed, and I smear when I write. But that doesn’t have to be the case. The way I figure it, if Django Reinhart could use his mangled left hand to become a master of Jazz guitar, with a little effort I can manage the far simpler task of not dragging my hand through pencil lead or fountain pen ink. No excuses.

So here’s the plan. I’ll hang on to the cell phone, to email, to texting. But I can stretch and I can do more, I can really write with pen with pencil with paper. It doesn’t have to be often. But it can be once in a while. I can give myself the pleasure of writing. I can give someone else the gift of a letter.

I’m a greedy little soul when you get right down to it. I want to create lasting connections in any way I can. I want the people I love to know it, without any question in their minds. But here’s the thing: I’m greedy for all of us. Grab a pencil and write. And trust me about the Blackwings. Those pencils practically write for you. Just get them started. “Half the pressure, twice the speed.” Have fun. Let’s all keep an eye on our mailboxes.

WITH LOVE AND AFFECTION

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Every morning it’s the same.

An over easy egg, a slice of Tuscan Pane, a squiggle of olive oil, a twist of salt and another of pepper. An entire pot of French press coffee doled out half a cup at a time. It has to be drunk very hot. Always the same diner cup.

30 years – over 10,000 eggs.

A sweep second hand watch belted to my right wrist, and rolled inward, just like my Dad. We are both left-handed. Our watches are timed to the second. Eyeglasses are polished and secured firmly around my ears. I sleep in my glasses. Every night. It doesn’t matter that in the dark there is nothing to see. But in daytime, when the sights around me become too harsh, sometimes I’ll take my glasses off for a few moments and let the hard edges of the world blur into gentle softness.

Flaubert said, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you can be violent and original in your work.” Aside from the fact that I take issue with Flaubert’s somewhat patronizing view of the bourgeoisie, I clearly have embraced the “regular and ordinary.” For me, an egg and a perfectly timed watch are both touchstones and a rubric for the day, armor to protect myself from the unknown events that will surely come to pass. As for “violent and original,” even the word “violent” makes me tense. And I do find originality a bit of a fuzzy concept. I prefer to think that creation is something that is always enriched and textured by links to thought that both precedes and often surrounds creators. Maybe that’s why so many people who are so celebrated for originality feel as if they’re frauds. They’re not frauds—they simply are attuned enough to be part of the process.

But to return to the idea of “regular and ordinary” rhythms as a thrum through our days. Every so often there’s hard driving, guilt inducing article lashed out to the world on the steady, regular daily schedules and habits of either highly successful people or downright geniuses or more likely an envy-inducing combination thereof.

These are very Flaubert-like humans:  They wake early, go for long, bracing walks in all weathers, eat sparingly. Not to be overly critical but it’s rare to note that they rarely seem to spend their quality waking hours on little mundanities such as grocery shopping, house cleaning, cooking, and childcare.   I will be honest: I actually like the mundanities,  (I am a bourgeois to my soul, Flaubert!) I embrace them. There’s a fine sense of completion when I manage to fold a mountain of laundry or wrestle a mass of disparate ingredients into an edible dinner.

These small adventures are not for the faint of heart nor are they for everyone. But do I kind of like the thought of Dickens ambling through Target, Beethoven comparing jars of marinara at Trader Joe’s or Flaubert violently shoving a vacuum cleaner around the living room.

The order of my life does two things for me: it allows me pockets of calm. And gives me the possibility of safety.

I desperately need both. Genius or not, don’t we all?

I’m prepared then as well as I can be for real hurts, even the awfulest ones, where you lose a much loved companion. It happens. Of course it does. That carefully constructed structure, my egg, my watch, my grocery shopping, my rhythms, my whatever, is put in place to guard against inevitable pain. There is always happiness too, I revel in it, but I am always prepared for anything else. In this case, “anything else” will happen here soon.

And so in my pockets of calm I smile and remember. I think about one who really knows how to appreciate a good deep sleep. One whose generous heart has welcomed a lot of competition onto his beloved home turf.   One who (almost) uncomplainingly shares all the choice cuts as long as he is always is served first and rather fittingly gets the lion’s share. One who has managed to make all of us certain—in a million little ways– that we are each deeply loved. We adore him. He’s done good.

I don’t know for sure about Heaven. I cling to the idea of the Rainbow Bridge. I want so much to believe in both. All I know for sure is that memory is a powerful thing, a beautiful thing, an amazing thing that can and should infuse and enrich each and every day.

Okay enough. It’s funny. You never know where any conversation will lead you. I was comparing favorite Twilight Zone episodes with one of my sons recently. I’ll save my list of classics for another time. But he mentioned one of his favorites as Nothing in the Dark, starring a very young Robert Redford. The episode concerns an old woman who is terrified of dying. It’s never fair to spoil a Twilight Zone episode and I’m not about to do that here. But he did remind me of a key line from the show.  “What you thought was the end is the beginning.”

I hope that’s true for Big Nick when his time comes. I hope it’s true for all of us.  True for all those we cherish.

With love and affection, Big Buddy.

HOLIDAY

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In keeping with my utterly indoorsy nature, I’ve found the best way to stay warm and content in the freezy cold during the holiday season. Beaches are lovely, but sausaged into a bathing suit I am not, ski slopes are inspiring but steep. I’ve been around a while. I know what I am doing. I am happiest and safest basking in the warm glow of the TV. It pays to be picky though. This year I went on holiday with the movie Holiday.

For any of you who aren’t familiar with this 1938 George Cukor directed gem, Holiday is one of the best pairings of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. A quickie synopsis: Cary Grant (Johnny Case in the movie) plays a hardworking young man who meets and falls in love with a woman named Julia Seton, (NOT Katharine Hepburn) on his first ever vacation, is smitten, and immediately proposes. Once back in New York he’s invited to lunch and is stunned to discover that he’s about to marry into one of the wealthiest families in the city. His fiancée Julia, however, is determined to impress her austere and humorless father and propel Johnny into the stratosphere of the family business. It would appear this self-made man is about to hit the jackpot. But here’s the twist: Johnny Case, a man who has been working constantly he says “since he was ten years old” wishes to retire early and work late. He wants to enjoy life while he’s young. He’s amassed a small sum for this purpose. His fiancée is appalled. Luckily for him (and the movie) her sister Linda, played by Katharine Hepburn, is entranced.

Pleasures of watching Grant and Hepburn aside, I’ve nurtured what I thought was the central conceit of this movie–retire early and work late— for a lifetime, ever since first saw it when I was about 14. I mean really, how appealing to retire and enjoy life first and work later? Except that gung ho and hyped up even then, I didn’t do it. Immediately after college I hopped a plane to New York and shoe horned myself into a publishing career. Screeched to an about face to stay at home with my sons. Was grudgingly transformed into a PTA guru. Unexpectedly tripped into a teaching career. Cut forward many years. Here I am. Based on what I thought was the premise of this movie; I’ve been aggressively working through my youth and should be deeply unhappy. But most assuredly I am not.

Here is why. Let’s retell the story.

In college I studied what I loved best, majoring in art history, immersing myself in not just the beauty of the works, but seeing the world through the prism of artistic creation. When it was time, I took those visions, those viewpoints and made them work in the work world helping to create titles involving everything from science books to cookbooks, how-tos to children’s books. It was my choice to stop work and stay at home with my boys. I consider myself lucky to experience the joy of being invited to share rice crispie treats and juice boxes under the secluded sheets of a table fort.  I am proud of (sometimes) saying just the right words to make a roomful of tired and hungry 5th graders reach inside themselves to think things they’ve never thunk before.

So really. Have I been working the whole way through, or have I really been on holiday the whole time without even realizing it? Either way, why stop?

I get to be wrong here. In spite of my longstanding love for this movie, it’s not really about retiring early, working late at all. It’s about doing things that you love, if you are especially lucky, with the person or persons you love. Sometimes it’s about inventing and reinventing yourself if life’s path zigs where you expected it to zag. It’s about perspective.   It’s about finding a way to enjoy life.

An old friend once admonished me: “Do something kind for yourself every day.” Go on. Do it. Happy Holidays and Happy and Healthy New Year to all.

THE CLOTHES WE WEAR

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It was late at night on the subways, on a route I knew so well I could subconsciously feel the number of stops and know exactly when to stand for the exit tunnel up to home in Brooklyn. The car was practically empty. My bag was cradled in my lap. I was reading. I was always reading. Which meant that I was always looking down. The train jolted and I looked up to see a teenaged boy now sitting directly across from me in the otherwise empty car. A minute later I felt another kid sit down a seat away from me. A stop or two later the train bumped again. Two more teenagers were now standing on either side of the exit doors. There were four of them, all in hip-hop type clothes, covered in gold chains, who appeared to be surrounding me in an otherwise empty subway car very late on a Tuesday night. My stop was still far away. When the train pulled into the next station and the doors squealed open I shut my book, looked them in the eye, wished them all good evening. Then I walked calmly off the train. They were surprised, taken aback.   Politeness and decency does that to people sometimes. Not always. But sometimes.

In my earliest Girl Friday days, my voice still pitched high and twanged with the Midwest, I worked in the rabbit warren-like offices of the renowned A.A. Knopf. The Editor-in-Chief at the time was the legendary Robert Gottlieb, widely known as one of the most brilliant and most powerful people in book publishing. It was a fun place to work, for a lot of reasons. There were the free books (ostensibly to offset the awful wages) and the ongoing adventure of elevator roulette. The doors would slide open and famous people would pop out, everyone from Julia Child to Bob Dylan to then Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Welcome to our world. At some point in time Bob got fed up not just with suits and ties but kind of with getting dressed in general. He made a point of wearing the same pants every day. At first it was for a month but then he kind of got into it and it went on for a lot longer. But his frumpiness was about more than him not wanting to bother any more. I remember him saying it was an experiment. What it was, really was an unspoken challenge to everyone he met. How would he be treated? Would he be regarded as eccentric? Would those who knew him treat him as respectfully? Would he be treated well by people who didn’t? Would he be scorned? Ignored? Would people go beyond caring about what he wore to truly engage him? As it was, the most powerful editor in all of book publishing was often taken for a mailroom staffer. New authors, even famous ones, beware.

That was Bob Gottlieb’s story. But we’ve all been there, as any of us who’ve scooted furtively to the market in sweats with our flyaway hair yanked back in hasty ponytails will agree.

I’ve never worked in retail (shopping really overwhelms me) but I know people who do. I’ve heard that staffers at fancy stores are told to always check a customer’s shoes and purse. If said items appear to be sufficiently expensive, they are customers worth catering to. Otherwise, ignore them and wait for those who have money to spend.

Clothes are transformative, expressions can be deceptive, and a bad day can skew the equation in a million different ways.   People are confounding and mysterious. I am so often on shaky ground. I feel for myself, for us all. We see someone and our senses are assaulted, our minds forced to instantly jumble together the facts before us and figure out how to respond.  Can we be blamed for clinging to the most obvious signals people (knowingly or otherwise) put out? I’d like to say “no.” But the answer is “yes.”

Years later I find that I’ve taken up the Bob Gottlieb mantle, although I’m not in publishing any more, nor am I powerful. I like staying under the radar. I carry a small microfiber backpack for a purse; I’ve trimmed my wardrobe so I can dress quietly and with great comfort. This is my choice, at least my choice for the time being. (Although I adore seeing beautiful clothes on other people. So if you’re so inclined, please keep dressing well).

Hillel said “in a place where there is no hero, be a hero”. There are so many thorny, complex issues in the world today regarding how people are perceived—and how others perceive them as well. My issues are small. I am never going to lead a charge nor carry the mantel. But there are tiny prickles of heroism too. Giving the benefit of the doubt. Going beyond snap judgments. Reaching out.

All these years later, and I still don’t know if those boys on the train meant to hurt me.

But at least I know I didn’t hurt them.

DREAM OF WHO YOU’LL BE

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I’ve fallen in love not once but dozens—no, a multitude–of times. And that devotion has been returned hundreds of times over; each time I’ve turned the pages. All of us bookish people are like that, I guess. Passionate. Committed. And in some cases, really besotted. I just am.

But let’s face it, there’s always that sense of, if not “wearing your heart on your sleeve” it’s “brandishing your book like a shield.” Like so many other things about us, the clothes we choose to wear, the cars we choose to drive, the movies we choose to watch send out signals to the rest of the world, help define us. So too with the books we read.

It’s not really fair is it? All of us deserve the right to read something junky or lascivious or mysterious or politically charged if we so choose. People’s relationships with books, no matter what they read, is a very private matter as far as I’m concerned. It’s why, in the era before e-readers, subway riders smuggled their reading material around in little blank book jackets. A modicum of privacy in a very public space. But sadder still is the opposite—people who read, or at least brandish—books that they think they look good reading.

Anyone who can immerse herself so completely in a book that walking into walls becomes a very real hazard can’t be overly concerned with looking good by reading the book of the moment. And I’m not. Which is why I read, why I’ve always read, among other things, children’s books.

For me reading children’s books, everything from The Wind in the Willows to The Seven Silly Eaters, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Quarrelling Book, from The Nutshell Library to The Big Alfie and Annie Rose Story Book (the list is endless, trust me) is not about reliving my childhood. It’s about being a glutton for good writing. And good writing of any sort is not just meant to be read but reread.

The best children’s books authors, think Margaret Wise Brown, Arnold Lobel, Charlotte Zolotow or Kevin Henkes, write poetry on a page. There can be no wasted words in great children’s books, no pandering, no puffery. It always makes me laugh when the celebrity of the moment (or that celebrity’s publicist) decides said celebrity needs to write a children’s book thinking it’s an easy fame grab. So many have done it, from Billy Crystal to Katie Couric, from Madonna to Whoopi Goldberg. They have no idea that they are wading into what is perhaps the most difficult writing form of all. The celebrity books flash fast and fizzle. The notable exception as a writer is Jamie Lee Curtis, whose quirky, funny and deeply felt books transcend celebrity. (see: When I Was Little: A Four Year Old’s Memoir of Her Youth)

Moreover, great children’s books are really written for children, without a smirk, a  hidden agenda or a knowing wink aimed at an adult audience.  I’d argue strenuously that’s even the case for the immensely complex books of Lewis Carroll, including the marvelous Alice in Wonderland. After all, Lewis Carroll himself said (in response to a letter written in 1880 about The Hunting of the Snark and reprinted in Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Snark) “I have a letter from you . . . asking me why don’t I explain the Snark?, a question I should have answered long ago. Let me answer it now—‘because I can’t. Are you able to explain things which you yourself don’t understand?”

And so I read and I reread, swirling deeper and deeper into some of my favorites each time. I remember who I was when I first read those words. I think I about who I am now. Beyond that I don’t analyze. I do something much more difficult. I feel.

Find your own favorites. Read them again. Remember who you were. Think about who you are. Dream of who you’ll be. There still is no better way to do it.

***

A (very) short list of a few of my favorites:

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak

Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel

The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Marla Frazee

The Quarreling Book by Charlotte Zolotow

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

CAVIAR WITH A SOUP SPOON, MINT CHIP WITH A LADLE

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I’m in deep. Buried. Delighted. Staked my claim to the couch, right next to the mountain of laundry that might be clean, might not be (can’t remember). And it’s only page 254.

If you say you don’t know what I’m talking about I swear I won’t believe you. It’s happened to you. How could anyone miss a feeling this all encompassing delicious? In this case the volume that’s snagged me is a gigantic tome called The Green Treasury crammed with essays by some of the world’s finest natural history writers, from Rachel Carson to Maurice Maeterlinck to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Gorging on a compendium is dangerous business though. Kind of like eating caviar with a soup spoon. Or mint chip with a ladle. I’ve done both—same result. Don’t care.

At any rate, at some point during my reading revelries I was slapped with an uncomfortable realization. I love reading about natural history but find nature itself tempestuous and unnerving. I don’t go out to smell the first roses of spring nor crouch by ponds to watch bullfrogs burrow into mud. It’s cold out there. Possibly wet. Coffee can be distant. Now that I think about it, it’s possible that I am the indoorsiest person on the planet.

But I like it here. I know the terrain. Or at least I think I do. There’s a famous scene from Guys and Dolls where Sky Masterson bets Nathan Detroit that he is so oblivious that he has no idea what color tie he’s put on that morning. I tried the same experiment by closing my eyes and trying to remember which paintings were on the walls of which rooms. Low score, no curve. Do over.

So I decided to look around.

There are first and foremost a lot of books everywhere, in every room, jumbled, piled, stacked, loved. There are people who adore books who take pleasure in keeping them in stunning Dewey Decimal’d glory but I am not one of them. I actually enjoy not finding exactly what book I’m searching for immediately because then I’ll find five or six more on the way that I hadn’t expected to find. I’d never want to deny myself the pleasure of those searches.

It’s that element of surprise that I truly love. Surprise is everywhere here. Over the years I’ve stashed odd bits of tiny amazements squeezed in around and between titles. A folded popcorn container from the Michigan/Ohio State game. A rare “Trumpet Horn” harmonica. A tiny glass case sheltering the Laffy Taffy that pulled out one of my son’s first baby teeth. (Probably should get rid of that one, but not just yet).

If I stop and sniff the kitchen stills smells faintly of risotto experiments and oatmeal cookies, even though with everyone everywhere I don’t make either much any more.  There’s the teapot that was purchased by small people with dimes and dollars saved over a long long time. A big plastic cube that is filled with masses of multi-colored super balls, all purchased from the same cookie cutter Ohio rest stops over so many visits to see loved ones. A framed Blazing Saddles movie poster because I really love my husband. A gallon jug of Tabasco just because.

If there is a nod to both nature and science, it’s seen in the Wild Strawberry Wedgwood dishes in the dish rack. (Charles Darwin’s mother was from the famed Wedgwood family). In spite of their expense and delicacy these are and have always been the everyday dishes simply because they are beautiful.  “A macaroni and cheese by any other name would taste as delicious” on Wild Strawberry.

Even the drawers are crammed full of wonders. The 12 Tribes Trivet, a wedding gift from my childhood violin teacher and in all honesty the only wedding present I can actually remember. A stub of a Blackwing pencil (Half The Pressure, Twice the Speed), jewel of all writing implements. I crave them. The metallic jingle of half a dozen M discs, the kind that the Metropolitan Museum of Art handed out to patrons before succumbing to paper stickers. A Pikachu keychain. Or maybe it’s Charmander. Whatever. It was all still there.

If I felt like paying attention, I’d see dust tumbleweeds and cat snagged curtains and unmade beds. But those things can be taken care of when I choose to. Not yet. Maybe soon.

A comfortably rumpled space once filled with people. It percolates with memories, waiting for the right moment for me to flip the switch. I didn’t look at photographs as I moved through the house. I didn’t need to. I remembered everyone and everything. They’re coming home soon for Thanksgiving. I won’t be reading then. Welcome back. Can’t wait.

MAKING YOUR NAME A BLESSING

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As far as I can tell, there are no angels in religious school but there are many actual children. But that’s the thing that keeps me going. That and at any given moment one or more of these very real, very lively, very sneaker-shod little humans can spout something truly memorable out of the general chaos. Here is my view from the front of the room.

They begin by rolling in and trying to sit at the adult-sized desk/chairs that circle my classroom but we all know it won’t last. At least half of them will be on the floor shortly. And that’s okay with me. We’ve made a deal. Or if I’m extending the learning, a “Brit” or a covenant. Check my lesson plans. I’m a barely 5 foot tall adult. In the first class I purposely sat at one of the desks and showed them that my feet dangled awkwardly, just like theirs, not fully touching the floor. I could never sit comfortably at any of those desks. So my choice is to stand when I teach. Let’s play fair. They have the option of sitting on the floor. Best we can do.

The room, which stands alone down a narrow walkway is a strange, almost octagonal shape created not through any brilliant overarching design but as part of the reconfigured religious school banged out of the old sanctuary space.   I tell the kids that fact makes this room extra holy but the truth is that they always give me a squinty look when I say that. I don’t blame them. I’m pushing it. The overhead lighting is harsh and garish. There is one tiny window. The decorations are heartfelt but homely, bravely crafted by a left-handed teacher who always smears marker when she writes and never really mastered how to handle scissors. It’s 4:45 in the afternoon. Everyone is hungry. Everyone is tired. It’s time to start class. But stay with me don’t leave yet. Like a meal that begins with a pickle but ends with a slice of strudel, this story begins a bit sour but the finish is sweet.

The lesson was about Naming. In the Jewish tradition, probably in others too, we teach that each of us has three names:

*The name you are born with or the name your parents gave you

*The name people call you, nicknames and such

*The name you make for yourself.

I love talking to them about their names. Their job is to go home and find out the often complicated story behind how and why they were named. Sometimes they’re named for a beloved relative who has passed away. Sometimes they’re given a name because it’s simply a beautiful word that means something special to their parents.   I always go a little further and look up the meanings of their names, “Michael (from the Hebrew, meaning “Who is like God?) Or Zachary (again from Hebrew, “Remembered by God”). The meanings of their names are always interesting. I love seeing them see themselves through a different lens.

But really it’s the last part of naming that’s the kicker.  The name you make for yourself. How can anyone make people think good things when they simply hear your name? How can anyone make his or her very name a blessing?

It’s a complicated idea. They talked about giving charity and about recycling. They talked about buying an extra bag of groceries for the food shelters when they went to the market. All good. They were on the right track.

The name you make for yourself is so difficult because there are no lists to check off. There is no applause or gold stars. There is no finish line. What there is perhaps, after a whole life, is a memory of the goodness you’ve left to the world that can be conjured with your very name.

Making your name a blessing is so very difficult because it actually isn’t about you alone. It’s about you and how you relate to everyone throughout your life. It’s about everyone, about making the whole world a better place.

Jewish tradition speaks of the Lamed Vavniks, the 36 hidden tzadiks or truly righteous souls, who are hidden in each generation. No one ever knows who they are. But according to legend, their goodness is such that they quietly combat all evils, keeping the world whole and moving forward. They are always there, even in the darkest times. The Lamed Vavniks are never identified, even to themselves.  They don’t judge people; instead they always look to be kind.

So the kids wanted to know, where are the Lamed Vavniks? Everywhere and anywhere. A true Lamed Vavnik could be someone powerful and famous or someone you’d pass by on the street without a second look. Someone very old or someone very young. A Nobel Prize winner or a kid just struggling to read.   Someone Jewish or perhaps not.

It’s possible, in fact, that one or more of the Lamed Vavniks were even sitting in my classroom that afternoon. I didn’t know. None of us will ever know. We’re not meant to know.

So I asked, how do you make people think good things when they simply hear your name, when all that’s left is memory? How do you make your name a blessing?

It was dark now and almost time to go home. They raised their hands. “Be kind. Try hard every day to live a good life.” Exactly.