Finding myself in the Middle East

Monday, January 31, 2011

Good Enough Redone

“I don’t think that it needs to be cleaned under there. No one is going to see under there,” I addressed the headless torso lying halfway under our car. The torso slid out and became my husband. He struggled to his feet and dipped the sponja cloth back into the bcket full of soapy water. He was humming. His eyes were bright with religious fervor. He dived back under the car. I guess the difference in our approach to cleaning the car is in our relationship to the car. I would consider cleaning it a chore. My husband looks at it as bathing his firstborn child. When he washes his car, angels sing.

I don’t really understand the love between a man and his car, but I do understand getting lost in the desire to do it right, especially if it’s something that you love. As a teenager, I loved writing, I loved reading, I loved acting. Journals spilled out of all my desk drawers, filled with my poems and angst-filled prose. I read 20 books a week, and I was always the main part in any production. I spent years of my life practicing my lines in front of a mirror.

I never really thought about how I would be as a mother. I was never the kind of girl who drew pictures of herself in wedding gowns and had all of her children named before they were born. When I thought about it at all, I assumed I would be good enough. I was raised well; I could get away with it. I did not count on not wanting to get away with anything.

When my oldest daughter was born and they placed her on my chest, over my heart, the first thought that sprang to my mind was, it’s you! I didn’t realize that it would be you! And my whole world changed, and narrowed. I worked at home, to be near her. I catered while pregnant with the next one, letting her play with the eggshells and her own set of bowls and spoons on the floor. When my next daughter was born I babysat, her with the others. When my third was born, my husband’s business took off, and in my spare time, with him on my lap, I try to make something of my writing.

The problem is, raising kids is not washing a car. Although my husband, who watched the skies open up 2 hours after he finished rubbing the car down with a diaper, would disagree with me, in general, a physical thing that one wants to get finished, gets finished. Kids don’t get finished. Kids don’t even really sleep. And a victory of one day does not a victory of two days make.

Like the other day. It was going to be sweetness and light and honey and a thing of beauty and a joy forever in terms of the absolute amazingness in which I was going to be as Mommy. I would start off by singing "Good morning" to my precious progeny when they entered my sleeping haven. Then I would give them breakfast as I smoothly floated about the immaculate apartment, gathering things up for gan and preparing perfectly balanced lunchboxes. The baby, already (mysteriously, now that I think about it) fed, would gurgle happily on his mat. Angels were going to sing, too, I think.

The problem started at 4:30 AM. The day, that is, started at 4:30 AM. The girls were up and eating yogurt before the sun even got its pants on. 4:30 is not really my hour of glory, I must admit. I prefer to spent it drooling on a pillow, truth be told, but I stumbled out of bed and took a deep steadying breath and pulled out the coffee.

"Good morning, girls! Who want to get dre--Coco-pop, off the baby. Who wants to get--"

"Ima! Can you pour us orange juice and also I spilled my yogurt on my shoes."

"Ima, Princess doesn't let me use the glue."

"Ima, Coco-pop is using the big scissors and I told her you don't let and she didn't listen."

"Ima, Princess pulled my hair!"

"Ima, Coco-pop is yucky!"

"Ima, the baby is crying."

So he was. And so were they. And there was a huge pile of laundry that I forgot to fold from last night that was being used as--well, not exactly sure as what, but it entailed the used-to-be-clean articles of clothing being dragged through puddles of semi-dried yogurt.

I tried. I did. But at the end of the morning, the apartment is in shambles, my nerves shot, and Coco-pop went off to gan in tears. I'm afraid I said something to the effect of, "She gets it from your side," in rather a hiss when Outdoorsman came home for breakfast.

After I put the baby in for a nap and started seeing which items of laundry could be salvaged I sat down to two cups of coffee and sighed.

Why can't I pray and aim for a GOOD morning? Why does it have to be perfect or nothing? Why does my home have to be immaculate, my writing perfect, my children doting and sweet? And I see the same look in Princess' eye when something doesn't go her way--okay, might as well let it all out. Day's ruined anyway.

Why can't I aim for a decent start and for everyone to be mostly happy? I can't sing first thing in the morning anyway, I would scare small sparrows out of the lemon trees. I see it in my children when they don’t understand something on the first try, the frustration and the automatic reaction to give it up as a bad job. Why do something if you can't do it perfectly? Is this what I am passing on to my kids? Don't bother if it's not going to be guaranteed perfect?

Tomorrow, I will be pretty good. I will be good enough. And the good-enough angels will sing, in my glorious morning voice.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mothers And Daughters

She started off in a rush of words. "I don't want you to think that I'm crazy. And my family is all functional and everything. And I love them. They love me. And my mother only wants the best for me. Just so you know. And if you have to go or don't want to talk to me, then it's fine, I just thought that maybe because you're here, and you don't mind, right?"

I don't mind, I reassured her by my smile and setting down my teaching bag. I don't mind, and I have time for you, and I am sure that your family is beautifully functional and loves each other very much. I do not make judgment calls, and of course, I am here to talk to anyone who wants to talk to me. I said all that by patting the bench next to me, but she wanted to stand. I stood up, too. Slowly. I was very tired. My bus passed by in front of us. There would be another in fifteen minutes.

"It's just that my being thin and stuff is really important to my mother. We always eat totally healthy at home and she packed our lunches even when there was school lunches so it would be perfectly balanced. She's always working out and I also did, but here in seminary it's really hard. Because everyone eats junk and it's weird hours and there's no gym nearby. I gained a bunch of weight already, and now my mother is coming to visit for midwinter and she'll totally flip."

I glanced at her discreetly. She was objectively thin. I told her so. Her eyes told me that she too thought she might be okay, but her mouth said, "it's just that she worked so hard to keep us all in shape and I don't want to let her down."

Yesterday morning, Coco-pop said to me, "I have teeny tiny freckles, Ima, right? Like you." She beamed up at me and I beamed down at her. And you have my flash-in-the-pan temper, too, I thought, and my ability to completely mess up simple instructions to due space-cadet tendencies.

"Who made you so cute?" I asked her.

"Hashem. And also you," she said.

Five minutes later her objections to the clothing that I had chosen for her woke the upstairs neighbors. The upstairs neighbors are my landlords. We are so getting evicted.

I once played a character in a play who turned out to be going through life in the shadow of her mother's approval, and wasn't quite sure who she herself really was. There is no relationship as complex, as beautifully and painfully intertwined as that of a mother and daughter.

A second bus passed, and I glanced at my watch. The girl jumped and said, "You have to go, right? I'm so sorry that I took up so much of your time."

"Not at all, really, it was my pleasure. Listen, I think that you look just fine. And I think that you think so, too. But if you do want to lose the weight that you gained, you know that guilt from your mother--however well-meaning she is," I said over her protest, "will not work for you."

"Why not?"

"Because you were out of the house for what, five months? And you gained. What will happen when you leave her house for good?"

Her mouth open and closed, opened, and closed. "But I..."

"You need to think about what you want."


I gave her my number and got on to the bus. As I stepped on and handed my card to the driver, I heard her whisper, "But I don't know what I want."

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Hear me Roar

It was one of those moments where everything I had been saying to myself--and to others, for years--finally dripped down from my brain to my heart. I believe I can even call it an epiphany.

It happened while I was walking to--well, we're not supposed to talk about it, but I need to in order to tell it over properly--the mikve. I had just checked myself from head to toe, as we are supposed to do, and I was thinking about that inspection as I walked briskly in the cold, dark evening, head down so as not to meet anyone's eyes. I look okay, I was thinking, but I would love to lose five more pounds. I stopped my thoughts in their tracks, ashamed. This was not what i wanted to be thinking of on the way to the mikve.

Then suddenly, I felt my feet, walking firmly on the ground. I felt the shock of the sidewalks' impact travel up into my legs, into my thighs, into my hips. I looked down at the space that I was occupying, and I thought, yes. I take up space, yes I do. And that's good. That's good, because I matter. I am a woman, I matter, and I take up space. I occupy this square on the sidewalk, and everyone has to walk around me. And that is how it is, and that is how it should be.

I felt my pulse pounding, I heard my breath whistling in and out, even saw it in the cold air. I felt alive, I felt powerful, I felt like I did not need to be 18 years old again. I did not live in the shadows. I was not a shadow.

And I want to write about that even as it slips away from me, about my one brief shining moment when my heart and my brain met.

For a moment, I felt beautiful.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Getting There and Rain

Today, I got dressed in my most conservative outifit (i.e. The Conservative Outfit) (i.e. the only one I own) since I am teaching my healthy body image course in a seminary (and since it's a three part series, I might have to consider getting another outfit or two before the girls think that I have a closet full of identical outifits like a superhero) (although that might be kind of cool)--

and then draped a scarf across it since I was feeling a little bloated.

Hypocritical much?

Can I teach something that I do not always embody? Short answer; yes, I can. I am an actress and a writer, so that is what I do. (I'm actually in a play right now, playing a charator that is not like me all. She is spacey, overly dramatic, and a little self-conscious. Oh. Wait.)

Long answer; I have come so far in this, and I will one day really personify it all. Every day I work on it; sometimes I fail and sometimes I make myself proud. It's just like any other yetzer hara, isn't it?

And: would you all like to read my first attempt at fiction for adults--and will soon be published? You guys get a sneak preview because you are all awesome.


It had even been funny a couple of hours ago, her husband pretending to be the water carrier in a shtetl while he put a bucket under the leak in the ceiling, but now she was tired, and the rain was coming down so hard that it was bouncing off the bottom of the bucket and hitting the edge of her bed and splattering the pillow. Should she turn, so that her head was at the foot of the bed? But wasn’t there something about not having your head facing the door? She remembered it vaguely, maybe an older brother had told her that when she was little, and it was something scary. She breathed heavily, exasperated, and moved her pillow over a few inches. If this room wasn’t so small, she could move the bed over.

The baby started crying, a wheezing, painful sound. He had a bad cold, and it probably sounded worse than it was. She slid out of her damp bed almost gratefully and went to check on him. He had bright spots of color on his cheeks, and he felt hot to the touch. She ran to get the thermometer. 101.6. Was she supposed to give him Tylenol? The book said that babies this age could get a fever that could shoot up really fast. She looked at the side of the Tylenol bottle. Under 2, consult physician. She glanced at the clock. 2:45 AM. If I was in America…her thoughts trailed off, but she was picturing her old pediatrician, and how her mother used to call him at the slightest hint of an emergency. There was no one like that here. Should she just half the dosage of the 2 year-old? She closed the bottle. She’ll just rock the baby to sleep, and call the doctor in the morning.

A half hour later, the baby’s screams were turning into hiccups and he finally fell asleep. She took his temperature again. 101.8. That’s not so high, she told herself as she shuffled back to bed. She had forgotten about the drip. Half of her pillow was wet, and she felt tears prickling at the corners of her eyes. She was so tired. She curled up on the dry half of the pillow and glanced at her sleeping husband. If I kick the night table really hard, he’ll wake up. The thought shocked her. Why would she want to wake him up? There was nothing they could do about the drip right now.

The baby woke up again just as she was finally drifting off. She stumbled out of bed and stubbed her toe on the night table. Tears rose instantly, and she blinked them back. The baby was burning up. 103.5. Oh, that’s not good, is it? She took the Tylenol. I’ll half it. I’ll half the dosage. Then I’ll stay with the baby a while and make sure it’s okay.

The baby drifted off and after a few minutes of watching him breath, she drifted in a dreamlike haze back to her bed. She lay down, her back to the spreading wetness, trying to ignore the tap, tap, tap of the water hitting the bucket, hitting her bed, hitting her pillow. She drifted off, only to be startled awake from water hitting her face. She must have turned in her sleep. “This bed is too small!” was that out loud? Her husband’s eyes opened for a second.

Why hadn’t he called the landlord? Why did they live in such a small, dinky, drippy horrible apartment in a country that doesn’t have doctors that you can call when your baby is sick in the middle of the night? She started crying again, and this time, she let the tears flow down her cheeks unchecked. Like this is going to help, a small voice inside her noted wryly, but the rest of her didn’t care. It was so cold here, and that was probably because of the hard stone floors. She remembered the blue carpet in her room growing up, and how she used to lie on it, on her belly, to study or read a book.

She closed her eyes and pretended that her bed was her carpet, that the most that she had to worry about was getting a good mark on the history final, and she must have finally fallen asleep because the next thing she knew, the birds in the tree outside her window were chirping and the sky was bright blue, the same color as her husband’s eyes.

He was holding the baby on the couch. “Tough night?”

Her face felt stiff. She probably looked like a mess. “Yeah. The baby, the…” she listened for it. The dripping had stopped.

“Listen, I’m really sorry. I should have called the landlord last night.”

“Yeah, it’s okay. You were busy. Or I could have called him.” She could have. She wasn’t sure why she hadn’t.

“It looks like it’s going to be a nice day,” he offered.

She glanced out the window. “It rained all last night.”

“That’s good, right? I mean, that’s what we’ve been davening for.”

The coffeemaker started dripping coffee out into the mugs. It smelled so wonderful. She smiled. “Yeah, it’s a good thing it rained. It hasn’t rained so much this year yet, and we need it.”

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Beit Yaakov

I hardly ever wear shaitels, but I was wearing one now, and it kept swinging forward every time I moved my head. So maybe I shouldn’t move my head. And my hands. What should I do with my hands? After a few false tries, I clasped them together.

The minahelet was asking Princess another question. She answered in a soft, barely audible voice. “Her accent is perfect,” the minahelet informed me in Hebrew. I beamed, and then quickly rearranged my face to more demure, humble lines.

“So, what does your husband do?”

My heart sank. I had told myself that I would not lie, not even to get my daughter into school. So I had decided that if the minahelet would ask where my husband learns, I would say where he learns. But if she would ask what he does… “He learns in the morning and at night.” I paused. “And in the afternoon, he works as a kablan.” I smiled winningly. “We feel very lucky that he can learn and support the family.” I do. I think it’s wonderful. I think that it’s a dream. I wish she wasn’t looking at me like I was consorting with the devil.

“Is that enough to support the family? Just working in the afternoon?” she looked at me in disbelief.

Does she think that I’m lying, about him learning as well as working? She does. “Well, I do a couple of small things too, and my husband works late and night too, but yes, it does, Baruch Hashem.”

“What do your parents do?”

What in the world does that have to do with anything? “My mother is…” I broke my teeth for a while trying to explain what she does in small Hebrew bite sized words. I knew that I should have brought a dictionary. Finally she nodded in understanding.

“And your father?”

“He’s sick. He’s been unable to work for a number of years.” She expressed sympathy. I felt a leap of hope. Would she accept me out of pity? I have no pride. Pity is fine.

“Do you have a computer in the house?”

I was prepared for that one. “We do, but my husband needs if for work, and I need it to write. We don’t let the kids use it. So we keep it in my cheder layda.”

She cocked her head.

It took me a second. “Oh, I mean cheder shayna!” I laughed.

She didn’t.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Follow, Follow, Follow

Yesterday was a good day, and the kids told me so as they drifted off to sleep. I floated for a while on that as I hung up their towels and washed the dishes from dinner, on the knowledge that I had created something today, when the idea of tomorrow dawned on me. Tomorrow. Can I do it again tomorrow? Can I speak calmly and play with them on the floor again? Can I mediate fairly between the girls with the baby on my lap, pulling my scarf off? Can I stay calm when they don’t eat what I made and when they decide that 5:15 AM is an excellent time to start the day and spill yogurt on the fresh tablecloth?

Sometimes I feel like I'm spinning in place. Is this what I am really here for? To make dirty dishes clean and then dirty them again? To sweep against the never-ending tide of dust? To pick up the toys and then encourage the girls to take them out again? To win one day and lose the next?

Outdoorsman works very hard, but sometimes I dream about standing in front of something that I’ve built like he does and know that it’s done and will not get undone. How all powerful and G-dlike. Gaze upon my work! I have finished it and behold it is good and behold once again at how it stays put!

I was brushing my teeth before bed last night, and I saw my face in the mirror. Usually, a slightly bewildered 16 year old peeks back at me, but this time, I saw myself. I saw my age, and the lines on my forehead that didn’t go away when I put my eyebrows down. And I realized, if I do something now, like write a book, no one will say, wow, she was so young! To write a book! What had happened to me? Where did I go? What happened to the girl with a mission, marching off to the Emerald City armed with nothing but a certainty that she was supposed to be somewhere else?

At my grandfather’s shloshim, the Rabbi said that he was of a generation of men
who, every day, for 90 years, did what they were supposed to do and did it to the best of their abilities. No fanfare, no dreams of glory, just discipline and hard work and the knowledge that you were using your talents to make the world a better place. I think that this is best personified in the two degrees that my grandfather held. One was in social work, and one in sewology. Which I don’t think is actually a word. My grandfather started camps all over the US, Canada, and Israel. He got a degree in social work to understand group dynamics and to be able to raise the bar for modern orthodox Jewish camps to a degree that had never been seen before but is now the model for camps everywhere. And the sewology degree--well, the sewers in camp backed up, so someone had to take care of them.

Maybe it's not so much about Emerald City and far more about what you can learn on the yellow brick road. And twenty washed dishes and four calls for last requests before sleep later, I knew even though it's true, I could be doing things better, I am making my own little world a better place for my little family. My grandfather the social worker and sewologist would be proud of me.

The bleach and the scrub brush were still out when my daughter, who was supposed to be sleeping an hour ago, missed the toilet a little bit. She had dashed into the bathroom just as I was giving the mirror over the tiny sink one last wipe, a faint feeling of satisfaction at a job well done in my heart. “No—“ I started. I stopped, and waved her in. As I put the cleaning products away in the back of the cabinet, I wondered what exactly I had been about to say.

This Rain that Brings you Here is Heaven Blessed

A million lifetimes ago, I drank more than a couple of screwdrivers, forgot that I did that, and took a sleeping pill before bed. I thought that I heard music and it was beautiful music, I was happy and sad at the same time, and I wasn't quite sure where or who I was for a while. I felt a glimmer of something deep and wonderful. Some sort of understanding--of what? I'm not sure--tickled at my conciousness. I felt, almost, halfway out of the dark. I woke from my closest encounter with a near death experience alive, which is definitely good.

I'm thinking about that out-of-body experience now because I'm thinking about my father. I wrote him a letter yesterday about me and the kids and Outdoorsman, just kind of catching him up on our lives since I haven't seen him in almost a year. My mother said that she'll read it to him, but I don't know if he'll understand it. It's happening so quickly, and I can't find any research about people with advanced MS losing their touch with reality, but there it is. He asks where he is, why he's in bed, and if someone wants to go for a walk with him. My father has not been out of bed in years. He talks and talks, not realizing that he can no longer make sounds come out of his mouth, not realizing that no one understands what he is saying.

Where are you, Abba? How do you feel? Are you sad, do you feel like no one understands you, that you are all alone and that everyone around you has gone crazy? You just want to get out of bed and go for a walk. Do you feel like that shouldn't be so hard for people to understand?

I think about Princess, how when she feels misunderstood, when I don't grasp exactly what she is asking of me, she cannot handle it. She tantrums. Her need to be understood and to understand is so strong that she negates herself and the person answering the question.

Are you angry, Abba? Or just confused? Do you feel trapped, panicked, misunderstood and negated?

I have watched you slowly reach this point since I was 8 years old. I was with you when you rode your electic wheelchair right into the line of traffic, hoping for a tragic miracle, and I refused to take you for walks anymore. I saw you slowly accept, I saw you become a saint, a person with no connection to anything pleasurable or physical, but listening to torah tapes and chanting shacharis with a glowing face, a holy face, a face that got thinner and thinner but never stopped smiling.

And where are you now, Abba? Maybe you are not mad. Or sad. Or even confused. Not really. Maybe you don't understand because this physical world is just not your world anymore. Maybe you are above it all, floating above it all, halfway to heaven. Halfway out of the dark.


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