Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Grace Period

Shabbat #20 - Holy Cow!

Guests: Jen and Matt and daughters H. and G., Jodi and Trevor, son B. and daughter T. All preschool parents. Ben was smitten (again) with a fair-haired six-year old guest.

Menu: Blue Cheese-Encrusted Filets with Port Wine Sauce, Spicy Creamed Spinach, Herb Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Blueberry Cheesecake with Lemon Curd

What I Learned:

On Thursday I got a one-line email from an old law firm colleague.

Think about you and glad you are doing well.

My first thought?


That if I responded to this message every person I had ever emailed -- regardless of their "state of being" -- would automatically receive this odd congratulatory note of sorts.

After all, had she not read the paper? While I had moved from a complete mess to relatively high functioning, the adjective "well" struck me as a bit, um, premature.

Or was it.

I know I've written a lot about my running. Marathons in particular. And yes. I watch enough Oprah and, more recently, Dr. Oz to know that it's a bit of a control issue. But there are also upsides apart from the physical benefits. Like the post-marathon grace period.

I'll explain.

When a runner meets another runner one question nearly always ensues. Are you training for anything? In St. Louis terms it's equivalent to Where'd you go to highschool? Not meant to be a means of sizing up your new acquaintance, but rather a way to gain a quick perspective. Do they race? What distance? Are they doing a race you've done? But just like the high school question, it's also one that can invoke anxiety? What if there's nothing on the race calendar? Then more questions ensue. Did you just finish a race? Still recovering? Or the really loaded one ... what's next? A sign that what you've done is not nearly as significant as what you plan to do.

Also a sign that your grace period is up and it's time to set a new goal.

Which brings me to the benefit of running marathons. Some view the completion of a marathon as a formidable exertion worthy of a month or two of recovery. An obligatory grace period to the question Are you training for anything? Running a marathon every six months or so means that I am nearly always within this grace period. If I am feeling slow and sluggish, I can respond that I've just run "X Marathon" (which is also a handy cover to my slow(ing) pace). If I'm feeling spry (and speedier) I'll share my future race plan. Either way, my anxiety over the question is all but eliminated. I perpetually straddle the "what I've done" and the "what I'm planning to do" answering as my mood suits.

But life's not always that easy.

On Friday the chatter around the table turned to how we met our spouses. Steve recounted (for the umpteenth time) how we had met as I dropped (for the umpteenth time) clarification.

Him: I asked her to go see Phantom of the Opera - box seats.

Me (yelling from the kitchen): Box seats, SIX WEEKS, from the date he was asking.

Him: I knew she couldn't say no.

Me (still yelling): I had him confused with another guy. An Italian.

And so proceeded the 411 around the table.

Then the conversation turned. To occupations. In talking to Jodi earlier in the evening, I knew that she and her husband had not followed Steve's story. So I braced myself. For the practiced answer that Steve would give. Having watched the answer unfold in company without a background on our situation I knew what was next. The awkward silence. Sometimes followed by the "oh you're the guy" light bulb moment. And nearly always a few questions ranging from the perfunctory to the pointed.

But that's not what happened.

For the first time, finally, someone (other than me) said it.

So what are you doing next?

And just like that our life -- or at least to the extent that it existed around that table -- moved from what he did to what he would do.

His answer? While not nearly as practiced, it was the makings of a new goal.

And an end to the grace period.


As for that congratulatory email .... whether I was "well?" Maybe it wasn't so premature after all.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Do Over

Shabbat #19

Guests: On the eve of my sister-in-law Tami's bat mitvzah, the family ... Tami, Brian, Alan, Carol, Pam, Mel, Melissa, Mark, David, Amy, Phil

Menu: a la French bistro en Glencoe, Il, c'est magnifique!

What I Learned:

Why? Why? Why?

The three opening words of Cal, a 76-year old bar mitzvah.

Why would a 76-year old guy decide to go back and do over what had been done some 63 years ago?

And for that matter, what would drive five other women -- all in various stages of motherhood -- to become bat mitzvahs?

They are the Am Shalom 2010 B'Nai Mitzvah class ... affectionately dubbed "Cal and His Gals."

And as I settled into my front row seat in the Am Shalom sanctuary last Saturday I thought I knew. A 37-year old bat mitzvah myself, I had stood where they were about to stand nearly three years ago. Motivated by motherhood. Inspired by children of friends I had watched experience the rite of passage. Eager for a new intellectual challenge. I expected to feel nostalgic as the women recounted the difficult balance of weekly Torah study and child care. The recorded prayers played endlessly in cars in the hope that the Hebrew would magically be ironed into memory. And I would share a connection with my sister-in-law and the other four women in the b'not whom I had never met. A commitment to something greater than ourselves to guide us through the perils of parenting and beyond.

And I did.

What I wasn't expecting was a 76-year old bar mitzvah. A man. Twice my age.

My first thought?


As I thought back to my b'not and our study with our rabbi - Rabbi Susan - I had a hard time imagining a man in this very female mix. What similarities would we have shared in our discussion of Vayetze, Jacob's Ladder? And what about the discussion in the temple lobby before our weekly meetings? Surely this man, with his mop of white hair, would not have been interested in the banter of thirty-something females ... chasing kids, celebrity botox,the tastiest frozen foods at Trader Joe's.

But from the moment Cal took to the dias I knew I was wrong.

They were lucky.

And so was I.

My words cannot begin to do justice to Cal's story or his delivery that day. But I will do my best to recount. Cal became a bar mitzvah at 13. His most vivid memory? The blue and white bar mitzvah cocktail napkins. No epiphany of manhood. Or added weight of responsibility that came with an independent Jewish identity. In fact, he didn't even have a service. Or read from the Torah. (Neither are required by Jewish law to attain the status of bar mitzvah.)

In 1960 Cal became the custodian of a Torah. A Torah from Russia passed down through the generations of his family. And he treasured it. But at some point he concluded the only way he could truly honor his legacy would be to read from the Torah as a true bar mitzvah.

And read he did.

From that very Torah that he inherited fifty years ago.

His voice ringing out in the sanctuary with the enthusiasm of a 13-year old and the insight of his 76 years.

After the service my sister-in-law told me that Cal had not originally planned to participate in a group service. And that only days before the b'nai mitzvah he had a devastating loss in his family which, perhaps, may have made him reconsider moving forward on that day at all. But on both counts, I feel blessed that he did.

I didn't get to talk with Cal about his experience. Or his study. So I don't know for sure the message he intended his story to convey.

But this is the message I took from it.

In life we don't always get it right the first time. Whether it's because the time isn't right or we have simply fallen short. But if we are vigilant and look for opportunities, sometimes life gives us a do over.

Like a bar mitzvah 63 years later.

And for someone like me looking through the lens of a life sprinkled with more than a few broken promises, shortcomings and regrets, that's a pretty hopeful message.

Mazel Tov to my beautiful sister-in-law Tami, Laura, Yumi, Beth, Jill


... Cal.

Kavanot - 11/10/07

My kavanot from my own bat mitzvah on 11/10/2007 - Central Reform Congregation, St. Louis, MO:

In our Torah portion Va-Yetze, Jacob left Beer-Sheba and set out for Haran. Unlike his grandfather Abraham, he was not searching for God or traveling in response to G-d’s request. In Jacob’s case, G-d was silent. Jacob left Beer-Sheba for reasons that we can all probably relate to … his family relationships were the pits, he was looking for love, and he needed a job.

On the first night of his journey Jacob lays down to sleep and has a dream that a ladder drops down from the heavens. And then G-d stands beside him and makes him great promises about all the lands that will be his. And G-d promises Jacob that he will be with him. And Jacob responds like many of us might have. With skepticism. So much so that he makes a deal with G-d. “G-d, if you remain with me through my travels and I return home safely then you will be my G-d.”

Like Jacob, my motivations for traveling on an AJC trip to Israel in the Spring of 2004 were far from spiritual. My son was 1 ½ and I wanted to get away with my husband. A 10-day trip to far off places was just the ticket. Sleeping in with Steve, lingering over exotic meals, having a few too many glasses of wine and not having to worry about taking care of a toddler in the morning. Heaven. Oh … And somewhere in between I would fit in a few visits to the requisite holy sites.

We spent 4 days in Israel. I saw the sites, ate falafel and generally continued to feel the same way that I had felt about the importance of religion in my life for the last 30+ years. I hadn’t set foot in a church by choice since the mid-70s. When I had to go I watched the clock – even during weddings. My great miracle of Christmas had more to do with vacation days and holiday parties. My religion – to the extent it existed – was a bit more personal. I prayed to myself at night. My Christian friends will know it … “Now I lay me down to sleep” followed by my list of people I wanted to bless … including “Brownie” the neighborhood stray dog and “Chip” my first boyfriend in preschool. Some habits are hard to break.

Our next stop on the AJC trip was Morocco. We arrived on a Friday night. I was exhausted and nauseous from the sweaty van trip into Casablanca. An avid fitness freak in need of a fix, I was also enormously disappointed by the state of the hotel gym which held one decrepit stationary bike. We were scheduled to attend a Shabbat dinner at the home of a local Jewish family. I didn’t want to go. Steve convinced me that I should by promising that they would probably have all of my favorite foods … couscous, olives, cheese. So I rallied and went.

What I saw when we arrived was truly something out of a movie. Women dressed in sparkling robes, food for as far as the eye could see, the finest linens. These were some folks ready for a party. As we sat down to dinner, the men toasted one another with glasses of whiskey as their wives rolled their eyes and kibitzed with one another. But something happened that night. Sometime between the fish course and dessert a ladder dropped from the heavens. I listened to the stories of the slow death that Judaism was suffering in Morocco. Jewish graveyards being relocated to make way for Muslim monuments, synagogues closing one by one, and Jewish children leaving the country for a better life in Europe. I was sitting among, perhaps, one of the last generations of Jews in Morocco and they were doing everything they could go keep the religion alive.

That night Steve and I returned to our hotel and made a promise. If the Jews of Casablanca could go to such great lengths to preserve their religion, we could surely manage to have Shabbat dinner once a week as our little effort. But like Jacob, I was skeptical. Dinner at home every Friday night? What about happy hour? I’m not even Jewish! But Steve was. I had seen the way that he had been moved during our trip. I saw a deeper side of him than I had not known before. So I committed.

We went home and had our first Shabbat dinner. I think I even made a brisket. And slowly a richer life began to unfold for us.

We hung the mezuzah we purchased while we were in Israel. I lit the candles each week and read the prayers. Ben became the official Shabbat match extinguisher. Then I started to study. On my own at first and then with Rabbi Susan and the B'not. I converted. I even moved the date of my visit to the mikvah up before my due date so Sarah would have a Jewish mother. And the day of my conversion, I took Ben into the bath with me and we dunked together as I said the prayers with Steve as my witness.

While my journey may have started because Steve is Jewish, this is not why I am here today. This is why. When we hung the mezuzah, G-d got his foot in my door figuratively and literally. I felt G-d as we sat as a family each Friday night -- talking about the good things in our life and watching Ben take joy in his little victory of getting the match blown out. I knew G-d was with me each time I walked into the temple for a meeting with Rabbi Susan and my five new friends and finally did not feel uncomfortable in a spiritual place. And I saw G-d in the soft golden glow that surrounded Ben as I lifted him from the water that day in the mikvah. I will never forget that moment.

My teaching today is for everyone, not just our Jewish guests. And it is this. Keep an eye out for dropping ladders. Avoid the urge to be skeptical. Crack the door open for G-d or whatever higher power or thought moves you. My wish for you is that in doing so your life will be a little richer too.

I would be remiss without making a few personal mentions. I want to thank Rabbi Susan and the B'not for all that they have taught me … particularly Kara who openly shared her experiences with me. Kara – I think a ladder may have dropped down on the kibbutz that day in Israel.

To all my guests today - particularly my non-Jewish friends many of which have never been to a synagogue including one who affectionately referred to this night at my baklava. It means the world to me that you are here tonight.

Finally, to my husband of 11 years as of yesterday. My service is dedicated to you. Thank you for your support and love everyday and for my two miracles – Ben and Sarah. I love you with all my heart.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Crib Note: Bar/Bat Mitvahs ... Not Just for 13-Year Olds Anymore

Bar and bat mitzvahs are the coming of age ceremonies traditionally reserved for 13-year old boys and 12-year old girls respectively. (Though girls in the U.S. were not traditionally encouraged or permitted in some cases to have a bat mitzvah until the early 70's.) These events, often the capstone to years of study, mark the moment when young men and women formally accept responsibility for their own Jewish identity. The transition includes the young person being called to read from the Torah during a synagogue service. A celebration with family and friends often follows.

A bat/bar mitzvah service is open to all members of the congregation. But, if you're not Jewish and are lucky enough to receive an invitation to attend it's something you won't want to miss. Each bar/bat mitzvah is assigned a portion of the Torah and shares their own teaching on that portion with the congregation. A teaching that never fails to inspire. But it's the parents' blessing at the end of a service that nearly always brings me to tears. Listening to a parent describe a lifetime of memories at the very moment that their child is literally walking into adulthood -- especially when you have watched that child grow up yourself -- is precious.

These days the transition is no longer reserved for boys. Or 13-year olds.

The b'nai mitzvah I attended this past weekend for five 30-something mothers and one strapping 76-year old fellow -- affectionately dubbed "Cal and His Gals" -- was proof.

Proof that it's never too late to mark a moment ... even when it may be a smidgen too late for a rollerskating party.

*Props to Am Shalom in Glencoe, IL for its ongoing Adult B'Nai Mitzvah classes (See Not in Chicago? Ask your rabbi where you can find an adult b'nai mitzvah class in your community.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Shabbat #18:

Guests: Megan and her 4-year old son L. And Dane. Megan and I practiced law together at a large firm after we graduated law school. She wised up more quickly than I did following her passions instead of the mighty dollar. But I got there eventually too.

Menu: Roasted Corn & Lentil Salsa, Grilled Steak & Portabella Fajitas with Chimichurri Sauce, Drunken Peppers, Fiesta Salad, Polvorones de Canela (Cinnamon Cookies) with Coconut Sorbet

What I Learned:

On Friday night I was sitting out on my patio turned preschool parking lot when Batman crept around the corner. Okay. So it wasn't exactly Batman. It was L. Dressed as Batman. Full-length cape and all.

In tow? Megan and Dane. It didn't take more than five minutes of casual introductions before Dane began singing Megan's (well-deserved) praises. That L. had wished for a Batman cape. That Batman capes aren't so easy to find in months that don't start with "O." And that Megan had in fact stitched up the very cape that Batman -- I mean L. -- was sporting.

I'll be the first to admit that the cape demonstrated a fair bit of seamstressing prowess -- from the bright yellow felt bat emblem stitched on the back to the drawstring around the collar. (My rendition would have most certainly been fastened with a safety pin. Or duct tape.)

But Dane sang on. Even though Megan and I both knew. There was nothing particularly heroic about cape-making. Moms make things work. That's our job. And when we can't buy capes, we make them.

So our children can be superheroes.

And the irony of it all? This is what our children teach us to do.

Take Ben. In those late night feedings -- just as he dozed back to sleep -- I would whisper to him. You saved me. Not that I thought I was destined for a miserable existence ... though given my sleep deprivation, mean case of "you can look but don't touch" engorgement, and a belly full of staples it was in fact a bit miserable. Rather, I meant that by his birth alone he had managed to deliver a life time's worth of lessons to me. About the strength of my body. And my heart. Big lessons from such a tiny little person.

Had he really saved me? Or was it just mother's intuition? Only time would tell.

A few weeks ago I received a hand-written note in the mail. (Note to self: Bring back the handwritten letter.) It was from Mary Ann. She lives down the street from us (which made U.S. Post delivery even more notable) and she's also our Parents As Teachers educator. She knows a lot about our family. She wrote that she had been following the blog and was enjoying the anecdotes about the children. But it was the closing that got me. She wrote that she hoped things in our home were as positive as I painted them to be.

Well. They're not -- a least not all of the time. Who's life is?

But it's all relative. It's what I've chosen to make of it that's (perhaps) noteworthy. And positive.

By my calculation I get about 18 years with each of my children. At least with them at home. Ben is almost six. Which means I am almost a third of the way through. And you better believe that I am not going to be wasting one moment of that time being negative.

I'm planning to spend it being happy. I'll make every moment count. I'll be forgiving. I'll stand steadfast behind the decisions that best suit my family, even when they are unpopular. I'll be grateful. When things are broken, I'll fix them. I'll take care of myself so I can take care of them. Sometimes I'll choose to be here, even when you want me there. And I will try to be the person I want my children to become. Even when it's tiring. And I think they aren't watching. And when I fail, I will get up the next day and start again.

Ben taught me to do all of these things by his arrival alone.

And maybe that's how he saved me. And us.

So to all of those mothers out there who fix things, forgive, sacrifice, are there when someone else wants them to be here, who stand steadfast - even when it's tiring. And who make capes. So their children can be superheroes.

Happy Mother's Day.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Independence Day

Shabbat #17

Guests: Shelly, Don, son A. and baby brother R. Catherine and son C. We all know one another from preschool, though up until recently most of our conversations occurred at drop off and pick up. Not around the table. Which turned out to be much more fun. Don, a man of few (albeit brilliant) words, periodically dropping lines like I play in a band. Who knew?

Menu: Antipasto Platter, Chicken Spedini, Roasted Vegetable Pasta Primavera, Mixed Greens, Toby's Whole Wheat Challah, Noci Croccante (Hazelnut Brittle) with Gelatto.

What I Learned:

Ben has known A. and C. just about as long as he has known me. At the ripe old age of five, the three have grown up together. Ben affectionately refers to them as his "best buddies" - so diplomatic in not choosing a favorite. Like a politician.

Yet, for as close as they are they only recently started having "playdates."

This is my fault.

The mere mention of a playdate used to send me into a self-reflective panic.

My initial reaction? Wow. I must really look like I am losing it if someone else is offering to take care of their children ... and mine. Quickly followed by -- Wow. If I let them, then maybe I am really losing it.

Then there was the whole issue of giving the rest of the world a peak behind the curtain.

Was I ready for someone to discover that I was not the put together mom they saw at drop off and pick up? That my day job was primarily a means of promoting personal hygiene and that without it I would nearly always be in sweaty running clothes. If the playdate included lunch, would Ben ask why his did not come in a box with a cheap toy? (Because lots of them did.) Or request ketchup. On everything. A condiment I considered both a fruit and a vegetable, depending on the day. And what about all of the other complications and struggles I carefully kept wrapped up and tucked aside.

And so our "playdates" were mostly at Nana and Papa's. And Judy's. My confidants who knew that "playdate" was code for "I need help."

Until last winter.

Over the school break Shelly called. For a playdate. And I obliged. Not because I had complete confidence that she could care for three kids at once (she is after all a graduate of MIT and Cal Tech), but because I knew it was finally time. Time for Ben's discovery of his own independence to win out over my insecurities.

So I sent him. And he came home beaming. (And if he covered his lunch in ketchup Shelly did not let on.) The next weekend I took Ben and A. to the train show. (Which I worried may have been slightly ambitious on the way there as my car filled with 5-year old animals noises - but turned out to be a breeze.) And then Ben went to C.'s house. And C came to ours.

And I was beaming too. Because I discovered (though it defies all mathematical logic) that sometimes it's actually easier to take care of three kids, rather than two ... as long as one of them is not yours. Maybe because Ben thinks it's uncool to have a meltdown in front of his best buddy. Or because his "old" toys are suddenly cool again if his best buddy deems them so.

These days it's hard to stop Ben from running next door to Keaton's or cutting through the back to Grant's. And when he's not, chances are there's one (or more) additional little people at our house.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Over Ben's fire engine bed hangs a giant bulletin board. Filled with years of artwork, ticket stubs, baseball cards, the trapping of all things boy. And a photo of the four of us at the beach. Ben clutching Steve's leg. Sarah in a sling around my chest. Just weeks old and so small only I know she's there.

On Sunday night I went to tuck Ben into the fire engine. And there he sat. A construction paper heart with a photo pasted to the middle dangled from his finger by a strand of yarn. A picture of Ben hugging A. "I love this kid," he said through his impossibly long eyelashes. And then turned to hang it on his bulletin board. From the same thumbtack that secured our snapshot. His paper heart leaving only my head peaking out from behind.

And that night as I left the room I realized that letting go of my own insecurities would not be my greatest hardship. Not even close. My greatest hardship would be letting go of him.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

PSA: The Good China is Dishwasher Safe

Last week I was asked what was the most surprising thing about our Friday night dinners. My answer? How healing it has been for our family.

But frankly, if you would have told me ten months ago that I would be entertaining in my home. Every Friday. And then writing about it. I would have told you you were out of your blessed mind. (Expletives deleted). I'll spare you the details of my vision. But trust me. It had more to do with bolting the door than setting the table.

Which got me to thinking.

Maybe there was something to this weekly family dinner. Something bigger than our family. It was such a simple, universal concept. Yet so profoundly impactful. At least for us.

So I did a bit of research. Turned out I was right.

As far as I can tell, family dinners (at least according to the research) are practically saving the world. Wanna stop your kid from smoking, drinking and abusing drugs? Serve up a brisket. Improve reading and test scores and even build larger vocabularies? Bring on the beef. One study even credits dinner at home with a feeling of greater personal success and success in relationships -- not only with your children, but your spouse.

Still skeptical?

I don't blame you.

I'm a little suspicious too. Plus, with my kids at only two and five, I'm going to need a good ten years to find out if they were actually right.

So I'm giving you a few more practical reasons ... that won't require you to wait until your kids are 15 to confirm.

Here's what's happening at our house.

1. Entertaining every week has motivated me to do things like clean that dried up spaghetti sauce off the couch.

2. Entertaining every week has also made me realize that no one really cares (or notices) the sauce. And now I care less too.

3. I learned (and confirmed) that the peels of eight potatoes cannot be digested by my garbage disposal.

4. Steve learned (and confirmed) that he can dismantle the kitchen sink, clear a clog, and reassemble pipes. (It only leaks a little).

5. I unpacked and fired up my Cuisinart food processor, Kitchen Aide standing mixer and thirty dollar digital oven thermometer. All for one meal.

6. I started using the good china. And putting it in the dishwasher. Without ruining it.

7. Ben now assumes that he gets to have a friend at dinner every Friday night. Here's to hoping he feels that same way when he is 15.

8. I have recorded almost 6 great months of family memories for my kids. Which is good since I haven't snapped a single photo since Halloween.

9. We always have good left overs on Saturday.

10. I have made new friends, reconnected with old friends. Including my best friend -- my husband.

Still skeptical?