Post #71: Shehechyanu Moments

FullSizeRenderAnxious and jittered I shudder through my days, fizzed and cocktail shakered from top to bottom. Splash me out into an iced goblet, gussy me up with a speared pimento’d olive, a square of sugar, a paper parasol. Ready to go.

Right the ship. Hold fast. Steady on.

I cling to my books like talismans and like life preservers. I carry them from room to room, sleep with them under my pillow, hide them in my purse. Richard Jefferies, Mary Webb, W.H. Hudson. Jean-Henri Fabre. Like a hummingbird dipping it’s beak full of floral nectar, a line or two gleaned as I wait for the morning announcements. a page absorbed while standing in line for a sandwich. A few more inhaled as I wait for a train.

Then too I peep through windows, hoping to catch a sparkling glimpse. Leaves shimmying on their branches undulating with the wind? An elegant caddis fly hovering just out of reach? The shiver of air left by a bird in flight?

A few moments. Just enough. But never enough.

In the classroom we talk about Marcus Aurelius, the man who so beautifully explains himself to himself in Meditations. The book that was never meant to be read has been read a million times over, over the centuries. Do your duty honestly and faithfully. Be virtuous. Aim for tranquilly. Live— and live for the moment.

To be aware and in the moment is essential, as we steer our course. But to remember? We have the right I think to choose our moments. To grab at the happy ones, allowing the others to recede and creep back to the shadows, leaping from peak to peak and from joy to joy.

Once upon a time I had a favorite prayer, one I only heard once a year. First night of Chanukah, the third prayer. The gorgeous chant for that prayer always made my heart soar and my spirit sing.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned that the Shehechyanu is not meant for just once a year.
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam,
shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh.

Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of all:
for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this season.*

This season, or this moment in time. Or in other words, one is blessed to recite the Shehechyanu at so many happy moments in life. At a holiday that comes around once again. When you see a friend that you haven’t seen in such a long time. When someone you love achieves something never achieved before.

Life is filled with Shehechyanu moments waiting to be experienced and savored again and again. Here’s wishing for many Shehechyanu moments for each of us.

*translation from http://www.reformjudaism.org

In honor of JRF

Post #59: Spin

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First set your feet firm.  Grasp the steel curves in your hands and get ready to push. Push hard! Legs pumping pumping pumping  as you run fast, faster, fastest, around and around and around! Just when you’re about to be swept off your feet jump up!  Up! You made it. You’ve earned your moment, your ride.  Lay back, close your eyes and spin. The Merry-Go-Round.

Open your eyes and you’re just where you were, of course. Or are you? 

Spin

Outside the big sunflowers turn and turn, their faces following the sun.  It’s late afternoon and I’m staring out the big picture window, the one shielded by a thick opaque yellow shade.  It’s has  a tiny tear, proudly,  neatly scotch taped together. The rays feel so hot that they seem to melt through the window, sizzling the squares of carpet like toasted s’mores.

I ache to get a better look outside.  But as I lift the thick vinyl shade the tiny tear tears a bit  more. I should be sorry and stop but I can’t stop,  I don’t stop at all.  I love the feeling of the tear slicing upward, up and up.  I can feel the power of the rip the in my little  hands. 

When it’s over, I can’t fix it. I am sorry, so sorry.  Really I am.

Spin

My bow is bouncing through Leroy Anderson’s Fiddle Faddle, my fingers skittering over the strings of my violin like jackrabbits bounding through the woods.  The notes scatter through the air with wild abandon, flying floating, fleeing every which way, everywhere at once.  Can you keep up?  Can you catch up?  Let the notes grab you and hook you, and seep deep inside you.   Oh! Come along with me. Together we can fly!

Spin

I am sitting across a restaurant table from a man in an elegantly cut suit, owlish glasses balanced on his nose, gentle, dreamy smile on his face. The man in the Arrow Shirt ads come to life. He has ordered a gin and tonic.  I find myself ordering the same.  He chuckles, I laugh. He leans back. I lean in.  When he orders Mahi Mahi,  for reasons unfathomable I squeal, dolphin like.  Agh!  Why oh why did I do it?  But somehow he laughs sweetly and in turn I simply sigh. He thinks I like him. And I do.

Spin

On a Little League field, compact as a candy box, a tousle-haired boy bunts, then freight rains it for first. Safe!  A blink and he steals second. A breath and then he steals third!  A  teasing tiptoe from third base.  Do it! Come home!

With each spin of the Merry Go Round the memories swirl in my head.

One day, full of myself and of rhyme and before I know it, the joyful words cascade from my tongue:

“The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things. Of  shoes—and ships—and sealing wax— of cabbages — and kings—. And why the sea is boiling hot—and whether pigs have wings.”

—The Walrus and The Carpenter, Lewis Carroll

My son is nearby.

“I love that,” my son said wistfully.  “You know it?” I said wonderingly.  “Of course,” he replied.  “You always recited it to us before bath time when we were small.  We loved it. You remember.”

But I didn’t remember. I didn’t remember at all.  I feel a rising panic in my chest. How could I have forgotten?   Was I spinning too fast? What am I missing?

Whatever “quite myself is,” I haven’t been that at all lately.   But somehow it has seemed more important than ever that I remember every single good thing that ever happened. To gather them all and keep them very close.

To forget even one, especially one that was so sweet and important to my boy, seemed a travesty, a tragedy of absurdist proportions. I hardly knew what to do, where to turn.

His voice is soft and just for me. “Of course it’s true, “he says. “And I remembered to remind you.”

Post #58: Apples and Honey

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Late Afternoon

It has gone on like this for the longest while.  I jitter crazily  from moment to moment and  place to place only to finally stumble through the front door and bumble to the kitchen.  My anxiety is rising like a kettle shriek.   A haphazard glance through the cupboards, and then,  like an out of control tobbaganer careening down a mountain, I begin. A dissonant medley of ingredients tumble onto the counter — dried pineapple?  farro? cumin? pickled jalapeños?  along with  unnerving sleight of hand involving  knives, and somehow a steaming mound of something is piled on a plate. It’s edible, really it is, or at least it should be.   I stare. Oh please. Just eat it and be done with it and let’s get moving now, shall we? I don’t have time, I never have time. Things to do, things to  do, such important things to do!

But for once I don’t do. Instead  I stop. I can’t swallow the words.

What am I doing?

Where am I going?

What am I thinking?

And truly, what on earth am I eating?

I realize that I don’t just want “something.”  What I want is something else.

And so, this evening I decide to get it.

***

Early Evening

I look in the cupboards once again. How could I have not noticed? It’s all there. Lentils and rice,  cumin and coriander, turmeric and all spice and cinnamon. The ingredients were there, right in front of me,  if only I had taken the time to put them together.  I slowly swirl them, meld them into a whole.

The onions are slivered and sliced into circles of sweetness, the rounds jump roped, piled up together in little hills and savannahs.  Why is it that slicing onions never makes me cry?

A shiver of flour then  a sizzling safflower bath.  A short paper toweled repose.  A final jumble and the whole is complete.

A mound of Mujadara. 

A spoonful, or maybe two…time to go. That was the plan all along.

Still warm and swathed in kitchen towels, I carry my prize carefully to the car, the bowl nestled on my lap.

It doesn’t spill.

They were not expecting dinner. They were not expecting me. But there it was and I was there. Their favorite. Mujadara.

They ate and ate. I simply watched. And somehow I felt full.

The meal I didn’t eat was the meal I dreamed of, the one I gave away, of course  left the sweetest taste on my tongue.

***

Just before Dawn

Oh, perhaps a bit more! Greedy thing that I am.

I wake up dreaming of something sweet. I yearn for it. I need it. I want it.  I make my way downstairs in the darkness and throw my cupboards open wide once again. I’ve been good, I  can have anything I want!

And so I do. I am craving  the edible jewels of fall. Apples. Honey Crisp.  Macoun. Braeburn.  Winesap.  Snapdragon.   This early morning, while the sun still slumbers,  I choose the best of the best.

A Snapdragon.

That should be enough, shouldn’t it?  But somehow not. I hesitate and then reach back into the tumble of my cupboard. Ah.  Of course. A jar of honey. 

I cut my apple gently into the thinnest possible slices.  I need to make it last.   Slowly I drizzle the honey on top.   And then at last, at long last,  I take a bite.  The clean snap of possibility zings and the taste lingers tantalizingly on my tongue.  I won’t forget.

A new year begins when I need it to begin. 

A SLOW, VISCOUS SIP

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I can feel them rolling slowly over my tongue like the first slow, viscous sips of The Famous Grouse. (Katharine Hepburn’s favorite tipple.) A pause and then they melt away to a pleasant tingle.

Some caress with the warmth of a beloved companion. Others pelt with the rata tat insistence of a torrent of hail. Either way, I greedily gather them up and hold them close. I want them. Knitted together like a riotous, crazy quilt that’s remade again and again.

Treated honorably and placed with care a single one can remake the world.

They are all mine. My gems, my jewels my Kingdom. But I have been known to share. Some of us do. Everyone should, albeit carefully. Handle lovingly and with care. They are so very powerful.

I know you know what I’m talking about. . A marvelous jumble, a never-ending torrent, a luxuriant cascade of what is arguably our most valuable commodity. Fill your head and your heart and your soul with them.

Words.

They don’t have to be fancy. They just have to be the right ones at the right time.

They deserve to be used for the right reasons: to reach out, to connect, to communicate.

If they are used to obfuscate, then at least let the message behind the mask be honest and kind. Some of us have our reasons.

Long ago at school we memorized list after list of them. Daunting for sure but we were not being handed an arsenal with which to go forth into battle. Instead we were being given the keys to an overflowing treasure chest to constantly draw from and replenish for always.

“Enter to learn. Go forth to serve.”

They are my joy and my path to everything: my understanding of the world, my loves, and my whole life.

There is no greater honor than finding the right one at the right time for the right person.

They are there for the taking and they are there for all of us. They are meant to be savored and they are meant to be used

wisely.

***

Note: This post is dedicated with the greatest humility and deepest thanks to the great La Rouchefoucauld, author of MAXIMS. He spoke volumes with mere handfuls of words.

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