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.

A BETTER DAY TOMORROW

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I hate the word but truly that’s what I am. At least about this. And since this essay is about words, let’s just do it, shall we? Just say it.

I’m a really awful prig. Thankfully not about everything. Really, I can even sit through most R rated movies like a big girl with hardly a raised eyebrow, good for me. But I am prig nonetheless. I am a word prig.

I’m not actually one of those tightly-wound grammarians self-righteously correcting complete strangers when they trip up on their tenses. My use of proper grammar, while decent, is what I would consider a work in progress.

But I am a lover of words. I love how they sound when spoken honestly and with conviction. I love the voices in my head when I read, which can sound like everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to Ella Fitzgerald to my mother, depending on what I’m reading. I love using them, choosing just the right one with the elegance and panache of Audrey Hepburn knotting a scarf around her neck. I love how certain words have a caress, others a rumble, and still more a resonance.

And like many lovers of words I am actually not a big talker. I think this is because choosing the right words takes time. Choosing the right word can be like trying to find just the right perfectly-shaped leaf on a windy fall day.

I’m a prig too, because I hate swearing, but not because I think swearing is a bad thing. People get mad, they have a right to get mad and they certainly have a right to express it. But that’s where things have gotten sticky. Let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s call a word a word.

When I was a little kid at summer camp we loved to swear, we lived to swear. We could find a way to squeeze swear words into the most innocuous sentences imaginable. !@#$% pancakes for breakfast again? Is it !@#$% sunny today? Want to play !@##$% jacks with me? Over and over and over. Just saying things we weren’t supposed to say felt fantastic. Empowering. Pleasantly bad.

Everyone was doing it so everyone did. And then we stopped. We did not stop because we were evolving into polite little humans. We stopped because by the time we returned home the swear words had lost their fangs. Say @##$% enough times and it’s boring, it just loses it’s power to shock. There were so many more creative and interesting ways of doing that.

Constant swearing is like starting in a bag of stale jelly beans. They’re awful, they’re unsatisfying but you keep plowing through feeling that if you keep going you’ll be sated. Never works. You’re just left with an empty bag and a sickly-sweet coating in your mouth.

That obviously wasn’t the taste I wanted on my tongue when I had little kids at home. Or on my lips with the children I work with at school. But there was still the fear of knee-jerk swearing in front of them. And so I worked up some milder alternatives, training myself so these would be the first words I’d grab for in tense moments: “Phooey” “Dang” “Crumb” and so on. Said with appropriate fury or conviction, as is the case, they usually work just fine.

This is true except when I’m almost hit by some self-absorbed woman in an SUV, careening haphazardly out of the local gourmet store, with a latte in one hand, a cell phone in the other. I am totally off the wagon here, so to speak, and fling swear words out like useless cannon fodder. But it’s utterly frustrating. The swear words I’m spitting aren’t ugly so much as impotent. No matter the awful words I’m saying, I am not actually saying what I want to say. Not getting the reaction I want to get. That’s the worst. No wonder swearing matches so often escalate to chaos like teetery tower of Jenga.

Using exactly the right words, quietly and with dignity, can truly quash complete fury though. I’ve seen it.

Ages ago when I lived in Brooklyn I was heading into the subway station during rush hour. A woman was standing at the token booth, furiously screaming every vicious epithet imaginable at the clerk. It wasn’t clear what sparked her anger but she was completely letting loose. When she paused for breath the token clerk said calmly, “I’m sorry, madam. I hope you have a better day tomorrow.” End of conversation. Game, set, match.

We all yearn to be understood. I don’t want to carelessly use words as mindless weapons. If I do, then how is anyone going to truly believe me when I say that I care or that I love them?

THE RIGHT THING AT THE RIGHT TIME

College applications, rife with their convoluded secret codes of “EA” “ED” “Restricted EA” and so on have nothing on the real tension and drama of high school senior year: coming up with a cogent yearbook quote. After all, this mouthful of words is supposed to be not just the summation of who you are but a glimpse who you hope to be.

Here is mine:

“Men in history lose their centering in eternity when they grow anxious for the outcome of their deeds.” Huston Smith

Mmmm. But “anxious for the outcome” was exactly what I was. And so after a very interesting zig-zag through a number of years I became the very thing I never thought I’d be. I am a teacher. This was not a plan. Nor was it a calling, at least one I was aware of. But sometimes a path zigs in just the right direction, even if that isn’t the direction one was expecting. For someone who habitually kept eyes on the outcome, teaching anchors me firmly in the moment at hand.

I am witness to some remarkable things as the accidental teacher. Come with me and see some of what I see.

***

The kids are all together, waiting for the signal to send them shuffling off to class. They mostly roam as tiny, laughing packs, bouncing off each other like pinballs in an arcade game. But there are always one or two kids who stand apart and on their own, glued to the wall.

Finished with snacks and with nothing to do but circle the room, a group of cool boys lights upon one of these solitary kids. To grown up eyes they’re including him, how nice it is that they’re talking to him. But that’s not what’s happening at all. If you look closely you’ll see they’re not smiling but smirking. They’re not talking but taunting. You’ve got to admire their technique: it’s not what they’re saying but how they are saying it.  It’s a lot of “heeeeyyyy great shirt with all those stripes” or “Have you ever actually counted the freckles on your face?” Or “What is that thing that you’re reading?” It’s clear too that the solitary kid doesn’t want to talk to them. He looks uncomfortable. Panicky. Almost desperate. He tries to move away but they keep moving with him. Then they are all called to class and it’s over. But it happens the next day. And the next. It’s a game without an ending.

Until one day it’s different. The solitary kid comes into the room and finds the pack of boys before they find him. He doesn’t look for a safe corner—he actually walks right up to them. They are not expecting that. But there’s no drama. He says hi and offers some of his bag of gummy sharks. They take a few and then he just walks away. Completely off guard, the pack leaves him alone that day.

The kid makes a point of saying hello to that group of boys every day before going off by himself. Sometimes he offers candy, sometimes not. But now they leave him alone. Game over.

***

They were a great class and they had a great plan. Annie, one of the quietest girls in our room was having a birthday. The others decided they would surprise her by shouting “Happy Birthday” when she came through the classroom door, sing to her, ask her what she was going to do after school, make her the star for the day. Just before class started one of the girls ran into the room in a near panic. “We can’t do this,” she said. “I just saw Annie in the hallway and said ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. She looked really terrified. She’s so shy that if we  a big deal it will be too much for her.” Class went on as normal. Annie looked relieved.

***

He’s the kind of kid who walks into walls because he’s always so preoccupied about whatever it is he is thinking about. Even so he looks up and makes a point of saying hello to the same red-headed kid whenever he passes him in the hallway or sees him in the library. Never misses. One day, a guy grabs the kid and asks him why he bothers saying hello to this boy with the red hair. “You’re an idiot,” the guy says, “That red-headed kid won’t ever answer you. Don’t you know he’s autistic?” The kid responds, “Yeah, I know that. And I also know he’s a person.”

***

The classroom is not a fairyland and there are times when it’s hard for moments like these to rise above the chaos. But things like this do  happen all the time. The other kids are watching. They’re learning.

People wonder how teachers can bear to teach the same lessons for so many years. The answer, of course, is that we never do. Lessons are like paintings.   Paintings aren’t ever complete, are never static—they are always shifting with the responses of different people, creating and recreating something fascinating each time.

Teaching brings me right to the moment at hand. The kids I teach are not focusing on encapsulating their lives in a yearbook quote or contemplating their centering in eternity. They are just living and like so many of us,trying to do the right thing at the right time.

 

THE COLOR OF YOUR EYES

Some of the best things in my life almost never happened.

So there I was, nervous as all get out but attempting nonchalance by leaning against the cinderblock walls. I was waiting for my youngest son as he finished his first day of preschool.

The cool moms, to a woman clad in variations of the right workout gear, were all animatedly chatting. I longed to be animatedly chatting too but rarely managed it. I was usually uncomfortable because I could never figure out the right thing to wear at the right time or say the right thing at the right moment. To be fair, the women seemed nice. They probably were. But at that moment those women felt as distant and as unapproachable to me as the perfectly coiffed celebrities in People Magazine. This is a magazine, by the way, I profess to hate but will always read if a copy is in front of me.

As I was counting the minutes until my escape, I spotted a woman I’d seen earlier in the morning. We’d been at the elementary school helping set up the book fair, but we were rushed, we were working and we hadn’t actually met. I was sure she wouldn’t recognize me. If she did I was sure she didn’t want to bother talking to me. And so, not to humiliate myself, I pretended I hadn’t seen her. Like a little kid, I was actually staring at my shoes.

But then there were four shoes in my lowered field of vision, not just two. It was that woman of course. She said she saw me this morning at school and she also had a son in the other preschool class. She was going to take her son back to work at the elementary book fair in the afternoon. She asked if my son and were I going back there too.

We were. I said I’d meet her there. But the little boys hadn’t had lunch. So I didn’t head straight to the school. I went home. I packed two lunches: one for my son and one for hers and headed back over to the school to meet her. She reached out—I reached back.

This is the story of how I almost missed meeting the person who became one of my closest friends. And because I was so desperately shy, my son almost missed meeting the little boy who became, and still is, his best friend.

***

I was hot, grubby, and seriously underdressed when I got the call at work.   There was a dinner party at some elegant spot on the Upper East Side. The person on the other end of the line was actually begging me to come to this dinner. I was clearly a last minute fill in—she denied it. She applied some serious pressure—naturally I caved. There was no time to go home to change.

I arrived at the restaurant early, but couldn’t make myself walk through the door. I circled the block once. Then twice. Then again and again and again. Panic was rising with every circuit. I was going to bail out on this thing. I could feel it.  A million excuses crowded my brain I but couldn’t figure out which one sounded most plausible. At last, my immense sense of guilt about sneaking away overcame my immense sense of panic.   I pushed myself through the front door and was directed to a long table. There was one chair left and I slid into it. I found myself seated across from a tall, thin man with distinctive horn-rimmed glasses and a very kind face.  He was nice. In fact, he was much more than that. Had I used but one of my many excuses and headed back to Brooklyn I would have missed meeting the man who would eventually become my beloved husband, my soul-mate, the excellent and deeply caring father to our three sons and numerous cats.

***

Some of us are born knowing how to make small talk seem effortless, know when it’s proper to kiss on one cheek or two, know how to look people in the eye and really listen to what they’re saying.

Some of us are not.

I was lucky twice and who knows how many times more. But how many connections had I missed by not reaching out? What had I missed? Who had I missed? And then I realized an extraordinary thing.

I never knew the color of anyone’s eyes. I couldn’t know—how could I if I wasn’t really looking at them, focusing on them?

So I forced myself to look up and really look at people, not just at who they appeared to be but who they really might be. You can tell by the eyes.

A long time ago a woman reached out across a hallway to me and became my friend. A man with a kind face reached out to me across a table and became my husband.

It’s my turn to reach out first and wait for the reach back. When I really look in people’s eyes what I most often see is kindness.

 

 

TRAVEL DIMES

Stuffed into three or four drawers and crammed into my glove compartments are dozens and dozens of sealed envelopes. The envelopes are empty save for a single dime in each. They’re important, so I keep them safe.

I find myself thinking about the dimes and what they mean to me every September as school starts again. After a whole summer at home with little kids, it’s hard to blame anyone for feeling exhausted and even little euphoric. But for a lot of people behind the exultation of sending kids back to school is a niggling sense of uncertainty. We want them to go, but really are they going to be okay? How will we know? What do we do? Are we doing enough?

Fear and uncertainty can make people, even devoted and loving parents, do strange things. I’ve seen parents who anxiously interrupt their children’s classes in the middle of the day with a surprise treat to parents who literally stop traffic at school to nimbly leap from the drivers seat, do an end run around their car just to plant a kiss on junior’s cheek. Or parents whose concern for their offspring is so great that they actually hide in the bushes to observe recess.

Is it our children’s safety that we worry about or the uncertainty of what their lives are like without us? Because when children cross the threshold of school an amazing thing happens. Their lives become their own. Separate from ours. They deserve that.

I know the world is a different place from the days when I used to walk the few blocks to school alone. But alone I could look at things and think, even if I wasn’t thinking of anything much. Once I found a four-leaf clover but I couldn’t reach it because it was behind a fence. (It might also been a three-leaf clover and a green bug. I’m still not sure.) When I walked back to school after lunch there were days I would spend my milk money at the ice cream truck. Sometimes I would just count all the cracks in the sidewalk. Nothing earthshaking. But I was looking at the world through my own eyes and no one else’s. Everybody, even children, deserves his or her own view.

But years ago separation was a fact of life. No longer. Today we are wirelessly tethered to each other with smart phones, but really, those lines can snarl like invisible apron strings. There is no wondering any more if someone you love is okay, little trust in either them or in the unknown. We have the ability to know and we want to know now. Parents can and do track their kids via satellite. When kids are away at “technology free” camps, their parents can still “stalk” them by scanning hundreds of daily uploaded photos from the camps themselves.

Which brings me back to the dimes.

A long time ago whenever any of us would leave on a trip my little Gram would give us what she called “travel dimes”. She always said it was so we could use a pay phone to call home if we ever needed to. But we knew each dime meant that she loved us, that she trusted us, and she would always be there for us. My mother has kept up the tradition, plying me, my sisters, the grandchildren, anyone close to her, with dimes in sealed envelopes before every trip. She gives us the envelopes with the dimes and trusts we do our best to be safe.

And although a dime will scarcely buy a stick of gum today, my sisters and I also send travel dimes to those we love as they travel hither and yon. Virtual ones, sent to our children via text. They still work. In my world that quietly says what I need to say. Stay safe as you explore the world. I love you. I’m here whenever you need me. I’ll be here when you come home.

 

 

THE SELF-SERVING SERVING WOMAN

When most people are questioned about past lives—assuming they believe that kind of thing – they always seem certain they are the living embodiment of someone powerful and famous like Cleopatra or Henry VIII or Catherine the Great. They really feel that mystical connection. No one is ever Joe Schmo in a past life.

To be fair I don’t exactly think of myself in a past life as Joe Schmo either. But I can never imagine myself as titan of the past. For me the fit is maybe a wild-haired, slightly disheveled serving woman.

This is probably because that’s pretty much what I find myself doing right now: compulsively making beds better left unmade, obsessively attempting to cook exotic specialty items like mejadra and shakshuka or anything lauded on Serious Eats. I have suddenly become an avid urban hunter of stray socks and crumpled t-shirts. It’s bizarre behavior for sure. The only thing that’s changed is that my boys, usually away at school, have been home this summer. I should be quietly blissful. But really. What is with me?

Here is the joke. They are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. During the rest of the year they live on their own. They absorbed so much Food Network from babyhood onward that for them cooking is virtually instinctive. As for laundry, they figured out my big secret a while ago: that it’s actually not that hard to stuff clothes into a machine and remember to return when the cycle is finished.

But they come home and there they are. The same but imperceptibly different. Sort of like a cubist Picasso, I can almost see them shifting from as many changing angles. I’ve always known them. I should know them. But I feel so uncertain. They’ve grown. They’ve changed. How idiotic of me. How could they not? I’m their mother and I feel shy as middle-schooler at the 7th grade mixer.

Is it any wonder then that I hide behind baskets of laundry and rush to make platters of food? Is it good? Do they like it? Is there anything else they need? I am slightly ridiculous. They are kind. They don’t ask or need to be waited on but they seem to know that I need to do this. To hide a little until I can get used to them. To try to get to know them again.

And I do want to get to know them again. But I know that as soon as I feel I do the perspective will shift, as will they, and then they’ll be off.   But I’ll try again. And again. Getting to know them over and over. It’s what has to happen. It’s what’s meant to happen. You’ve guessed the only constant. Loving them always.