Saturday, March 31, 2012

Living the Chicken-Eyed Life

My mother reads the New York Times, and for many years she used to cut out articles she loved and save them. One year, she gave me as gift a folder with thirty or so of her favorite essays from the NYT Journal. These days,she reads the newspaper on the kindle, and there are no more loose pieces of magnificent journalistic writing floating about the house. Instead, my mother points me out to links on the internet. “You have to read this,” she explains. And sometimes, like this morning, I do.

Chickens on the Loose.” That’s the name of the Verlyn Klinkenborg editorial, recommended by my mother, which I read this morning. Even before delving in, I loved the title. I had chickens in my coop for more than a year, and then they stopped laying. I read somewhere that they can stop laying if they are afraid, which I considered could be the reason, given the owl, coyote and mountain lion prowling around my house. Having chickens was fun, not just because of the fresh eggs, but also because of their view of life. As Mr. Klikenborg says about his brood, chickens have boundless optimism, “the world seems perfectly adjusted to their expectations.”

How amazing is that! I can see Mr. Klinkenborg’s chickens running around his yard, pecking here and there, searching for grain and worms. Their world is a world of abundance, ask and it is given, search and the worm is there. They come to the door of the house, he writes, and look inside, “first with one eye, then the other,” and he explains, “they live in a monocular world, after all.” I knew just what he meant about the chickens tilting their heads as they looked at him, but what did he mean by monocular world?

Monocular Vision, according to Biology Online, “is a type of vision found mainly in animals with eyes placed on opposite sides of their head.” This has advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, these animals’ eyes work separately and they can see more than one object at a time. On the minus side, their depth perception is limited and they can’t judge distance very well. Mostly predators have this type of vision, and chickens, whether we think of them as such or not, are a predator to the worm and to little flies. How cool is this? Chickens have more than one perspective of the world and less depth to what they see. Maybe that’s what gives them their innocent trust in the world.

I am so different, continually judging the depth of impact for every single occurrence in my life. I look every which way, miss more than half of what is going on around me, and then over-think it to death. Perhaps it is time for me to learn something from the chicken, the wonder of discovery, the possibility that a worm hides behind every leaf, and the philosophical (yet careful) acceptance of danger nearby.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Pathetic Incident of the Spoon at Lunchtime

Two weeks ago I sat on the rug at the Cambodian Buddhist Temple in Rochester and watched Dar being turned into a monk: his head shaved, his clothes set aside for orange robes. At the corner of the room a huge TV screen hung next to large golden statues of the Buddha. A computer, printer, and large stacks of printing paper sat on shelves. One of the monks checked his iphone, sent a quick text. Incense burned, filling the room with its sweet scent. Dar knelt in the middle of the row with his brother, brother in law, nephew and a cousin. The monks chanted the guttural sounds of Sanskrit, instructing the five new monks when to bow down and touch their foreheads to the floor.

Safe home earlier this week, I sat over coffee with a friend and found myself expounding yet again how difficult not touching Dar for twenty-something hours had been for me. I handed a spoon to my friend to demonstrate how I resorted to tricks in order to feel that Dar and I are at least touching the same object. My friend laughed and returned the spoon. “In orthodox Judaism,” she commented, “you couldn’t do that.”

I’ve always known that orthodox Jews do not touch women other than their wives, and that they do not touch their wives around the time of menstruation. But touching the same object? How can that be a sin? My friend had grown up in an orthodox family, however, and her authority seemed indisputable. A quick internet check revealed much more about the prohibition of touch: Orthodox men and women indeed cannot touch or handle the same object. Nor can they eat from the same plate, serve each other food, or sleep together. I don’t think I could survive that. I believe in Gretchen Rubin’s “hug more, kiss more, touch more” rule of happiness, and in my relationship with Dar (and with my family and friends) I religiously follow it.

The spoon was all his sister’s idea. At luncheon on the second day of the funeral weekend, we waited for the eight monks (the three real monks and the five monks for a day) to finish eating first, as required by tradition. From where I sat at our table I could not see Dar and vehemently complained about the injustice. “You can have him hold one side of a spoon while you hold the other,” Mouly slyly suggested.

I was tired and irrationally mad at Dar. I was angry with him for agreeing to be a monk, for feeling bound by those rules, for leaving me by myself at night and sleeping at the temple, and for looking so incredibly cute in his bald head and monk’s robes. As he came by our table, I thrust the spoon at him, and he instinctively took hold of the other side. We were both holding the same spoon. And according to the Jewish law, there was touch.

And let me tell you, it was not enough.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Cinderella's Modern Dream

I will always remember the first time my daughter watched Disney’s Cinderella. She was sitting on our couch at home, her eyes glued to the TV screen, and on her face stretched an expression of deep longing. She might have been no more than two. I looked on in dismay. I admit I am often appalled by the mistakes I make as a parent, some of which I had no idea would be a mistake until I see the results. As I gaped at Eden’s wide-eyed admiration of Cinderella marrying Prince Charming, I could not believe I had been guilty of such a horrifying mistake. Here I was, teaching my daughter at the tender and impressionable age of two, that nothing in life matters more than catching a man.

Feminism is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the theory of the political, social and economic equality of the sexes” as well as “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” Though I might not call myself a feminist -- I do not actively pursue women’s rights, nor do I feel particularly discriminated against as a woman -- there is one aspect of traditional literature which I dislike: that the girl almost always gets together with a guy by the end of the story. Why, oh why do so many novels, whether it be romance, adventure, dystopia or fairy tale, have to have a love story as part of their plots?

Young adult literature today abounds with strong heroines: Calla of the Nightshade Trilogy, Katsa of Graceling, Elisa of Girl of Fire and Thorns. I might not be crazy about The Hunger Games, but Katniss is a strong, capable woman, a born leader. All these young heroines are upstanding examples of the strong woman. Gone are the damsels in distress, weak and fragile maidens. Instead we find girls who are leaders, warriors, hunters, all of whom are intelligent and physically strong.

But despite the independence of each of these literary girls, their respective novels include love plots which are nearly as important as the main action, and -- spoiler alert -- other than Elisa who at least at the end of book one finds herself standing alone at the head of her nation -- each of these female leads ultimately attaches herself to a boy. I wonder, do our novels still send a message to young female readers that no matter how many achievements they attain, still none is more important than that of catching a man?

To come back to my two-year old daughter, gazing starry-eyed as Cinderella marries her prince, perhaps I could argue that it is in our blood, in our nature as women, to yearn for love. Perhaps no matter how many Elisas triumph over their enemies alone, our wish as women is also to establish a family and a home? And I wonder, is it that bad to teach our children the importance of connection, love and intimacy? In Hebrew we say, "It is not good for man to be alone." There is little doubt in my mind that being alone is also not that great for a woman. In the end, I do believe, love conquers all.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

It Must Be Love, Love, Love

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between distance and love in these past few weeks that Dar spent mostly away from home. I realized that after more than a year together, I was still very much in love. I had butterflies at the expectation of seeing him and still felt a surge of gratitude for every look of his eye. Being apart, I was surprised to discover, made me love Dar more.

The internet is overflowing with beautiful quotes about distance and love. Roger de Bussy-Rabutin, a French memoirist (and by his very French-ness an expert on love) said, “Absence is to love as wind is to fire; it extinguishes the small and kindles the great.” The romantic poet Khalil Gibran stated, “And ever has it been known that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” More recently, inspirational author Richard Bach wrote, “Can miles truly separate you from friends? If you want to be with someone you love, aren't you already there?”

I grew up believing that proximity is important for love. Mothers’ and children’s hearts, my mother explained when I was young, are connected by a string which tugs at them painfully if the distance between them grows too great. When I left home at eighteen and enlisted in the Israeli army, the five thousand miles from my parents stretched that string nearly beyond bearing The experience affected me so greatly that I now have little tolerance for separation. I dislike being far from anyone I love. I miss the kids when they are at their father’s and my family and friends in Israel. I see my parents at least three or four times a week and call them on the phone every day, sometimes twice. I like the stability of presence, being together, companionship. I like the security that comes from knowing a person I love is near.

And yet here I am, claiming that being apart from Dar has made me love him more.

Two years ago, my cousin and I visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and we stopped to look at the site of the mysterious petroglyphs which the old Hawaiians carved into the lava as it cooled. As I walked through the lava desert, the voice of Pele, goddess of the volcano ,sounded deep in my love-longing heart. “You will have great love,” she promised me, and a year later I met Dar.

These past few weeks made me realize that opening my heart to love and to the pain of separation increased my inner awareness of love. Absence touched my heart, spanned the distance between me and Dar, creating both suffering and joy, promising happy reunions and teary farewells. Maybe the Buddha’s first noble truth should not be “Suffering is,” but “Love is.” I like that better, though I could argue that suffering and love are at once opposite sides and the same side of the symbolic coin of life.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Chasing Life Bubbles

A moment I remember. Rain drizzling. Mud swirling round my feet. We are dragging many parcels out of the Roatan vacation rental and into a taxi van. I squeeze in the back with the children, waiting for Dar to hurry in from the rain. Instead, he turns to the driver and introduces himself, finds out the driver’s name, his son’s name, shakes both their hands, explains where we want to go.

A moment of courtesy. So simple and real, and yet a revelation to me. In my eyes, the taxi driver was a means to an end. I wanted to get out of that resort, and he was literally the vehicle taking me away. To Dar, however, the taxi driver was a fellow human being with whom he was going to spend some part of morning and who he therefore wanted to get to know.

A moment of insight. My heart told me that I wanted to go through life meeting people in the same way, reaching out to each individual as equal in importance: a stewardess taking my ticket to scan, a waiter serving me a meal, a friend I meet for a gossip-laden lunch. Catching a person’s eyes, asking a meaningful “how are you?” and really pausing for an answer have gained me feelings of closeness and appreciation from a seat mate on the plane, a fellow writer in a conference, and the checkout lady at the grocery store.

A moment of contact. I follow my path in life, meet other people, and my bubble of life touches theirs and then separates, departs. The longer I linger with every encounter, the more I am part of the myriad puzzle of life. Each contact opens an opportunity for knowledge, for growth. I ask myself, “is there something I can learn from this meeting, from this homeless man on the street or the old lady who began talking, clearly in need of some loneliness relief? Was there a point to the irritating girl who tried to convince me to donate to Greenpeace and wouldn’t let me go?”

A moment of gratitude. Sometimes that’s all, and everything, I can reap from this touching of life bubbles. A feeling of well-being, of inter-connectedness with others on this world. An awareness that kindness exists, generosity, good humor. The realization that I am not so different from the mother of the little boy who is screaming and crying and kicking his legs on the floor of the department store, from the frustrated little boy himself, or from the saleswoman behind the counter who pretends not to see the chaos unfurling right there before her eyes.

Amazing how we are all one and we are all unique. All interesting and worth getting to know. All worthy of being loved and listened to. The garbage collector, the mortuary manager, the dog walker and policewoman, the president of the USA, the bus driver, the computer guy in the next cube. Me and you.

Friday, March 23, 2012

On Wings of Exhaustion

My title this morning is literally true. I am sitting on an airplane heading to Phoenix, with a clear view of the plane’s wings out my window. And I am exhausted. I’m tired because I woke up at 5am San Antonio time, which is 3am California time and 6am New York time, and I don’t have a clue which time zone my body is in anymore. My weariness stems from physical causes and from the emotional toll of last weekend’s funeral and being separated from Dar on and off for four weeks. Cumulative tiredness.

Yesterday I walked around the Riverwalk. I started in downtown San Antonio, walking by the many restaurants, clubs, and cafes, and turned south toward the missions. The sun shone brightly, and after a while I removed my jacket. I was happy I had the forethought to bring a light shirt and less thrilled about having forgotten my sun screen. The park surrounding the Riverwalk is lovely. Trees, shrubs, and lawns glowed green to perfection against a clear blue sky. Butterflies fluttered like colorful flying flowers and birds chirped in the trees. Heaven.

Near King William neighborhood the houses turned to old Southern homes with huge balconies and porches and front yards beautifully-groomed. I discovered Mad Hatter’s Cafe and ordered myself some tea, sitting down to write my blog. When the waiter arrived with my teapot he explained that I must pick my own cup from the many cups and saucers, each unique, piled on the shelves.

For lunch I sat above the river in a partly shaded patio. I watched water taxis gliding below, filled with tourists, and couples meandering hand in hand in the romantic pathways. I walked north for over a mile, enjoying the waterfalls that many hotels built flowing into the river and which I later learned add oxygen to the water. I watched the ducks and cormorants diving into the murky river to catch whatever food there is in there for them to eat. For a while, all yesterday, I felt renewed, rejuvenated, fresh.

And then I had to wake up this morning to get on the plane, and blah, I’m tired again.

But maybe not. Maybe the light blue and white skies outside of my oval airplane window fill me with energy, and the brown and green  squares of agricultural, the lines of rivers, ridges, roads and the rounded lakes that create the landscape below inspire me with wonder, a longing to explore, the pull of adventure. And suddenly I’m not tired at all.

The world is spreading its pink rounded edges before me, full of possibility and promise of a new day. I am grateful for being here, for experiencing the miracle of sunrise, for taking deep breaths and being able to write to you. I don’t know what the rest of my day holds, but this is how I’d like live it: with gratitude, love and attention to the moment. I’m excited to be going home.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Feeding the Children, or Is Preventing World War Three Necessary?

It didn’t take me long to discover that my two kids require feeding when I pick them up from school. Even when I lived in Palo Alto, and home was about ten minutes away, they couldn’t wait. Eden especially, if I don’t catch her the moment before irreversible sugar-low crabbiness, will refuse to eat and make it complicated to bring her back to an agreeable (read: manageable) mood.

I have taken to bringing with me sandwiches, fruit, candy, cookies, cakes. For a while the kids loved bagels with cream cheese. Then it was pretzels from Esther’s Bakery. Uri had a donut period. Apples came and passed, then came back again into fashion. Popcorn. Girl scout cookies. Baby carrots which Eden devoured by the bag. But every so often I’d bring something they didn’t care for, and thunderous silence battered me from the backseat.

I wondered, am I feeding the children into pleasantness? I sometimes offer a treat when they are upset, but even as I do, I cringe. I can’t believe I’m teaching my kids that food can cheer them up. Yes, eating is enjoyable and fun, but I’d like my kids to have other methods to relax. I’d like to argue, however, that more than a calming after a long day eating binge, the after-school snack is an important transitional aid, shifting the children’s focus and energies from school to home.

For the past few weeks I’ve participated in a parenting class through Hand in Hand. Hand in Hand philosophy says that a parent needs a place for releasing the emotions that parenting brings, a listening partner that gives whole-hearted support and no criticism. The idea is that in order to really listen to and be there for our children, we parents must be listened to in our turn.

According to Hand in Hand, children need tantrums in order to let go of feelings and upsets. In the last class, we were talking about tantrums that happen during transitions, and how sometimes it is good to leave some time to allow the tantrum to happen. I instantly thought about the moment of school pick-up. I’ve been hurrying the kids away from school, giving them their food in the car in order to be on time for our after-school activities, but perhaps I could plan for a few moments to sit and have a treat at school. Then again, I can’t say I’m eager for tantrums in front of all the other moms....

Without doubt, this parenting business is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. At so many turns I hit a wall, and so often I feel like any choice I make will be a bad one. However, just as I feel better after I cry, perhaps so will the kids. And after their tantrum, maybe they’ll finally have their snack, become grounded again, and we could move on to have fun.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Where Adventure and Home Meet

I love adventure. The idea of hanging on a rope between heaven and earth, holding onto nothing but steep, slick rocks delights me. I like to go far into the wilderness, sleep in a tent, discover new paths, light a campfire, and shiver as I bravely slide into a freezing lake. The lake especially is a challenge, because I don’t like to be cold, but the exhilaration I feel swimming surpasses most of my life’s greatest joys.

At the same time, I am a home body. I dislike leaving my routine. I’m not flexible in uncomfortable situations, and I like to have my own way. I get upset if I don’t have space to write, and I‘m attached to my quiet morning time eating and reading. I easily get overwhelmed and anxious in unfamiliar places, and if I don’t eat on time or enough I can get moody, headachy and unpleasant.

Paradoxical me, living with a dual temperament in one body, with one part that craves excitement and danger, and another that requires safety and routine. An odd combination, seemingly impossible to bridge. And yet, somehow, I have been straddling these lines for forty years, exploring the world’s wild places but also making myself a home where, despite the abundance of wildlife and trails all around, I rarely set foot outside.

Adventure is where I challenge who I believe I am. Sometimes I discover that I am capable of so much more than I thought, and other times I smash into a wall of limitations and weaknesses. When I climbed Mount Shasta five years ago, I leaped over the barriers of cold wind and darkness and found within myself the strength to keep moving and the knowledge that I can reach the summit. When I first arrived at Paradise to climb Mount Rainier, only a few months later that year, I grew overwhelmed by fears and found myself declaring defeat and retreating home without even trying.

In Kauai a few months ago, my creativity blossomed. Nothing, not heavy rain or Dar’s disability at the time could mar my enjoyment of the island. I wrote. I ran. I swam. I had endless patience to walk with Dar as he hobbled along on his crutches. But on Roatan, a Honduran island with every promise of heaven, I felt trapped, stressed and unable to handle any of the discomforts of the trip. Nothing, not our beautiful rented house, the promise of kayaking, or the glorious jungle could relieve the tension headache from hell that I had.

Perhaps it is time for me to stop defining success in adventure by whether I followed through with my plans and start appreciating that I left on adventure in the first place. I travel into the world, secure in the knowledge that I can always return home, my safe base from which I can challenge myself farther and to which I can return to lick any bruises to my courage. Like a baby who peeks out of her mother’s skirts, testing the waters. That’s how I am.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Life-Changing Love -- A Blog in Memory of Born Hay and in Love to His Family

Ten days ago, Dar’s father passed away in Rochester, New York, and last Thursday I flew up there to participate in his funeral. The trip caused me a lot of anxiety. I worried that instead of supporting Dar I’ll end up a burden for him, and, since I am not naturally very social, I worried about spending so much time with little known family and friends.

Most of all, I dreaded the twenty four hours in which Dar was going to have to be a Buddhist monk to honor his father. This pretend-monk business included fasting, sleeping at the temple, and a required shaving of his head. On Friday, after the shaving and donning of orange robes ceremony, all I could think of was how handsome my man looked as a monk. But then it hit me. For nearly twenty-four hours I was not allowed to touch him or really talk to him. He was taboo, this handsome orange-clothed monk.

Thank the Buddha for Dar’s sister, who took me in hand and dragged me with her from temple to hotel to funeral home to restaurant to hotel to funeral home to crematory to restaurant and to hotel again over the next twenty four hours. Ever practical, brimming with an incorrigible sense of humor and an ability to make the best of everything, Mouly cheered me up and made fun of my separation anxiety from Dar at the same time. If we weren't at a funeral, I’d be tempted to say that I had a good time.

I almost burst out crying when my monk came in for the morning service and sat two rows in front and across from me in the funeral home chapel. I barely kept my seat at the restaurant reception a few hours later when he came in and sat with the other monks (his brother, brother-in-law, nephew and cousin were all pretend monks, and there were three real Buddhist monks). When he finally came back in his regular clothes on Sunday afternoon, the dam burst. I missed him so.

Today I'm back home and eternally amazed by how easily I bounce back, no matter how weary, depressed or overwhelmed I am. Food, sleep, a good shower, and I’m back to my normal self. And now I’m free to appreciate just how well I got along this weekend, how despite my antisocial nature I talked to everyone and feel very attached to Dar’s family and many of their friends. I discovered this weekend that I can be much more social than I thought.

A life-changing weekend, highly affecting, that brought into my life many new people to love. Dar and Mouly both said that their father valued family first and foremost over everything else in his life, and so I feel sure he would have approved and appreciated all this love.

Friday, March 16, 2012

How the Woman Eclipsed the Rake

A week ago I finished reading Sarah MacLean’s Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, and I’ve been raving about the novel to everyone. Most of my friends refuse to listen after my first sentence identifies this book as a romance, but see, this novel -- though a romance -- is one of those really great books which I don’t just read, I live.

Chapter One finds Callie sitting on the shelf: at 28, she’s an old, plump maid and nobody asks her to dance anymore. She sits with the other unmarried ladies and suffers their comments, like this one from her Aunt Beatrice: “Have you considered a diet of boiled eggs and cabbage? I hear it works wonders. Then you would be less... well, more.”

I don’t think Aunt Beatrice would have appreciated the direction in which Callie takes her suggestion to be “well, more.” Callie makes a list of projects which she would like to try: kiss someone passionately, watch a duel, learn to fence, smoke a cherut and drink whiskey among others. And she sets out to accomplish her list, finding an unexpected ally in confirmed rake Gabriel whom she had always loved from a distance. As you can imagine, Gabriel assists her with the fulfillment of her dreams while punctuating each of their adventures with a lot of excitement of the bedroom kind.

The kissing scenes in this novel are fabulous, each different from the one before. I got swept off my feet, left swooning, lost in the atmosphere of the book. The ballroom, the secret corners, Gabriel’s bedroom with the piano inside where he secretly plays to himself. I could see Callie and Gabriel from across the room, partially hidden by dancing couples, kissing passionately in an alcove. Blush. Swoon.

I always loved a rake. William Blake commented on Paradise Lost that “Milton was on Satan’s side and didn’t know it?” I loved Satan! And the devil’s in a rake, right? Rakes are dangerous and sexually thrilling. Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century British Lit is teeming with libertines: Lovelace in Richardson’s Pamela, Don Juan, Willoughby of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. The poet Lord Byron was a well-known playboy.

But in Nine Rules I fell in love with Callie. Gabriel is mysterious and desirable. He understands Callie and though he sometimes complains, does not prevent her from trying to fulfill her list. But he is just a sidekick, important to the novel only in as much as he supports Callie’s bid for adventure. Throughout the novel Callie shines, like a bright light that leads the way, freeing up herself and the other characters from the one-sided norms that rule their society, gently, kindly, peacefully without unnecessary noise, declarations or speeches.

So yes, I know this is a romance, and you, my dear reader, might be thinking that romance equals junk. But this one romance features the inner diamond of a woman in a way many novels try to and fail. And it is worth the time.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Criss Cross Apple Sauce

A few years ago, I worked for six months as a teacher’s aid in first grade. The desks in the classroom were arranged around a central area rug, and the teachers often collected the children there to read or teach. I thought this system was great, creating a much more interactive and active environment, though for me, sitting slumped forward and cross legged for half an hour or more caused some back ache.

While teaching on the rug, the kids were expected to sit still and listen. There was to be no touching each other, no playing with their hair, and no tying and untying of shoelaces. Tough rule, I thought, and nearly impossible to keep. When I was six and in first grade, we sat at our desks and studied during all school hours, but no one ever told me that I was not allowed to draw. I happen to concentrate best when I am doodling, and all through my school years, from elementary school to business school, I filled my notebooks with little flowers and shapes.

Keeping a child utterly still and at attention can be as hard as getting the earth to stop moving. What’s the chance that I could convince the world to criss cross apple sauce for a long period of time? One day, when my writing flows, everyone is home, happy, and healthy, I would just press the pause button and order this great big rock to stop. No more transition periods, no more need to adjust to changes, no reason to say good bye to anyone I love. Scary idea, isn’t it? Because then there would be no growth, no travel, no possibility of reshaping life.

And yet I yearn for stability. Transitions make me unbalanced, and I stop writing. Not writing upsets me, and makes writing even harder, rattling me more. And suddenly there is no end in sight.

Whenever I feel ungrounded like that, the solution that presents itself is practicing meditation. And I’m back to criss cross apple sauce and no moving! For a while, I managed to meditate for fifteen minutes twice a day. I have a hard time sitting still. Thoughts creep up constantly, harassing me. My skin itches and my legs fall asleep. But then, once I’m done, clarity suffuses me. I’m a new woman.

I read once about a man who complained that he has no time to meditate. The Dalai Lama responded by asking: do you have time to breathe? And I realize, as I am writing this, that there are many constants in my life. The beating of my heart. The rise and fall of my breath. The blink of my eyelashes as they keep my eyes moistened. And other, imperceptible happenings, like the never-ending growing of my hair or the flaking off of skin cells.

Amazing, isn’t it? Noticing my own breath, a kind of meditation, can give so much calm. It really does. Now I just need to remember that next time I feel overwhelmed by changes.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

My Favorite Things Winter

Outside my window, rain drizzles onto the wood of the deck. The sky today is grey, overcast with wet clouds. The world is reclaiming its greenness after a long bout of sunshine. Today feels like the beginning of winter, but the date is March 13th. Daylight savings time has began. Passover, the Holiday of Spring, is three weeks away, and the first of the Hebrew month Nissan, traditionally considered the first day of spring, will be bursting upon us in eleven  days.

The weather forecast calls for rain for the next week, and I am glad. I’ve seen the reservoirs drain not so slowly over these dry few months. We need the rain. We need the water sipping into our soil, feeding bulbs and seeds, bringing new growth to life. And this year, not just because of the shortage of water, I’ve decided that I love winter. I will no longer sing songs that ask the rain to come back another day.

Israelis, living in a country often beset by long periods of drought, sing a welcoming tune to the rain:

Rain, rain from the sky
Voice of many water droplets
Pitter patter, pitter patter
Clap your hands!

I love the grey air and the promise of rain. I love how clean everything smells. I love the green grasses and shrubs that pop up around my trees and the new leaves that decorate even the oldest and most bent oak in the yard. I love how my creek, ever dry during summer, fills up and begins to flow, and the banana slugs that slither under rotting old leaves and over slick rocks. I love staying in bed a little longer, reading a book, listening to the rhythm of drops on the sunroof in the living room.

It is music. It is life and nourishment. Such a precious gift, this rain.

It is easy to appreciate the rain now that it is scarce. I wonder what I’ll feel another year, like last year when the clouds rained and rained. A plant needs sunshine to make food for its cells, and I must have sunshine to smile, cheer up, feel well. Days after days of rain depress me. Too much grey bows me down.

My favorite are days when the sun peeks through the clouds and a rainbow spreads from one edge of the world to another, promising an end to the flood. In my heart I keep this promise, that there can be no huge spanning rainbow without rain, no pots of gold, bluebirds and dreams coming true. But for now, I can bear the dark clouds. I need no sun to brighten me up today. It is not flooding at this moment, just drizzling a slow but steady pour of water we desperately need. I want no end for it yet. I long for the gift of more rain.

Rain, rain, please stay. And come again for many days.

Monday, March 12, 2012


In January I started worrying about my birthday. In the past, I made it a rule to plan my birthday, not waiting for anyone else to remember the date and put a party together for me. This suited me on several levels: I did not want to be disappointed and I knew myself as a reluctant receiver of surprises. I’m high maintenance with regards to parties and birthday celebrations. I like everything to be just right.

On my 38th birthday I invited my friends to a day-long birthday bash with catered food and a jumpy house for kids. There was one year when I handed out goody bags of chocolate truffles to all guests. Another time I invited my girlfriends to dinner at a restaurant, all expenses paid. And on March 9th mornings I set up that fabulous surprise table for the kids and decorated the house.

This year, on my 40th birthday, I was in for a surprise. Literally. When I mentioned to my boyfriend that my birthday is coming and I’m going to start making plans, he answered, “Leave your birthday to me.” Just like that. I was rendered speechless. He wanted me to surrender control??? To let go of the reins I had held so tightly for so long? But what if I’m disappointed? What if I end up not liking what he had planned?

Letting go is my lifelong challenge, and so I promptly let go (as much as I could), and allowed Dar a free hand, only making sure once in a while that he’s still on top of this important task. And the weeks passed. February almost ended. March loomed in the doorway, sunny and bright. And though Dar had asked if I wanted to go to Hawaii or perhaps Morro Bay for my birthday, no word was said about my gift, my party. Nothing moved.

Behind the scenes, however, and out of my direct line of sight, plans were blossoming. My best friend initiated the wheels for a surprise party, put together by the world’s most unreliable keepers of secrets, complete with food, decorations, cakes, a saxophone performance, and two uncoordinated but perfectly identical gifts.

The girls' beautiful cake
The surprise didn’t happen quite as expected (see above, unreliable keepers of secrets), but there was plenty for me to be surprised about. My niece and my best friend’s daughter baked me a cake and decorated it themselves with a stunning display of intricate flowers, rambling leaves, and cute little forest animals. Dar ordered a huge and beautifully decorated Purim birthday cake that was gluten and dairy free and very yummy. He and my dad both printed out a collection of my blog posts till March, using the painting from the blog as a cover, and I got to do my first signing for everyone! I also received four boxes of chocolate as gifts!

The perfect birthday! I felt surrounded by love. Amazing how losing just a little bit of control can give so much back. I might be able to get used to that.

Thank you, dear organizers and dear guests! Lots of love back.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Birthday Wishes

I woke up this morning and wished myself a happy birthday. There were several messages on my Facebook timeline wishing me a happy birthday. Just as the kids and I were leaving for school my grandma called to say happy birthday, and right after I dropped them off I noticed three texts: happy birthday, happy birthday and happy birthday. Not a moment later a friend called out to me through the car window: “Peets?” Sure. Why not? Coffee for my birthday.

So many ways we have of interacting with each other. Internet-based social networks, telephones, text messages, actual written-on-paper letters, and face-to-face communication (yes, we do that too!). We move farther away from each other but stay in touch, closer than we were ten, twenty, thirty years ago. I remember when I was eighteen and in the army and spoke only once a week on the phone with my parents. Phone calls were expensive!  I remember calling Israel on holiday evenings and how the phone lines were so busy that we’d try again and again to get through. I remember when we didn’t have computers, and television was black and white, and there was only one channel in Israel.

I’m old, people! The world has changed so much in my lifetime. There was no internet when I was born! No facebook. No twitter. No blogs. We didn’t have a pool in the back yard, and my parents drove a Citroen. We went to school on camels, and there was no microwave. And I’m kidding about the camels, but we really didn’t have a microwave. I remember when my dad bought my mom the first toaster oven. And then the second and the third....

But inside I still feel fifteen. I feel young and vibrant and full of energy and a curiosity to learn and grow. I feel unsure about everything from whether to get on pinterest to how to raise my children to be competent adults. I still dislike to do the laundry and clean the house and struggle with the writing. And sometimes I still doubt what I want to be when I grow up. If I ever grow up.

Life is not quite what I thought it would be from all the books I’ve read. It’s very, very strange, confusing, surprising, and sometimes full of joy. Stuff doesn’t ever happen the way I plan or expect it to. And I’m hardly ever bored. Or calm. But I am often very happy. And there’s always the hope for more happiness to come.

So here’s my wish for my 40th birthday. Did you guess already what it is? My wish is to write more. I want to write more! That’s what I’m going to whisper to the candles when I blow them out. That’s what I ask before I go to sleep. I want health for me and my family. I want love and happiness. But writing -- that’s my innermost wish. I want my writing to flow.

Happy birthday to me, friends! May your day shine today.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Purim, a Feminist Holiday

This morning I had a light bulb moment (in the dark, too!) -- Purim is in honor of a woman! I hadn’t noticed that before. As a child, Purim celebration centered round dressing up in a costume. At school in Israel we’d have a carnival where each classroom hosted a different booth. There would be mazes, scary houses where you’d need to crawl under blankets and ropes, and simpler fishing or bag toss booths. My mother and her best friend made our costumes together: a mushroom one year, witch in sixth grade. My sister, I remember, was queen of candy one year and my brother an egg that didn’t want to be an egg (based on a beloved Israeli picture book).

When I grew up, I read the story of Purim in the Book of Esther, a scroll which is considered part of the Scriptures. As I reached the end, I was shocked. I hadn’t realized that the celebration of Purim was in honor of the salvation of the Jews and the massacre of their enemies.

I should have known. I mean, thinking about it rationally, Jewish Holidays tend to celebrate either an agricultural event or a victory in battle. Hanukkah, the holiday of lights, commemorates Jewish victory over the Greeks. Passover celebrates a victory over the Egyptians. And both have their share of blood and gore. But somehow for Purim, a holiday of dressing up, celebrating, getting drunk (yes, it’s actually recommended in the scroll to get drunk) to be tied to this massacre of enemies! It seems so inappropriate.

But this morning I thought about Esther. An orphan, she is taken out of her uncle Mordechai’s house and chosen of all the girls in the kingdom to marry Ahashverosh, King of Persia and Media. A true Cinderella story. Except the story does not end there. An evil councillor to the king, Haman, is angry that Mordechai will not bow before him and decrees that all Jews will be killed. Mordechai, fortunately, has Esther well-placed within the king’s house and requests her help. Esther risks her life to approach the king without him asking for her, and is rewarded with his favor. She asks for the king’s help saving her people, and he agrees.

So Purim is a feminist holiday, celebrating a strong, smart and brave woman! Yes, I always loved Bar Kochva, the leader of the only successful Jewish revolt against Rome. I admired the Maccabis, Yehuda, Shimon, Yehonatan. And none is more awe-inspiring than Moses as he strikes the water of the Red Sea with his staff and the sea opens before him, letting the Jews through from slavery to freedom. But none of these holidays is led by a woman. Really, even on Purim Mordechai breathes down Esther’s back, claiming the glory. But it’s Esther, a young girl in a strange and unfamiliar palace where she clearly does not belong, who turns the tide and saves her people.

If you're interested, I found this Haaretz article on Purim as a feminist holiday. It's in English.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Conflict Bunny

I suffer from an affliction called Conflict Aversion, also known as the Ostrich Syndrome, though I believe it’s been scientifically proven that ostriches don’t really bury their head in the sand. It is an inherited gene which I received directly from my mother, who in all likelihood inherited it from her mother as well. A conflict averse person like myself will do almost anything to avoid a conflict, allowing the other person to get away with a great deal.

The nice thing about being conflict averse is that since I never start (or continue) any arguments people tend to like to spend time with me. I’m very non-threatening, you see. The bad thing about being conflict averse is that I hardly never stand up for myself. My favorite combination of words is: “Let it go. It’s not worth it.” They’re also my least favorite words.

I live uneasily with this condition. Part of me wishes to be able to stand up for myself, for the kids, or for something I believe in. Sometimes I can feel the words I’d like to say jammed in my throat like a garrulous plug. For a moment I allow myself to wonder what would happen if I got it unplugged, but no. Better not take the chance. Instead I say to myself, “Let it go. It’s not worth it.” And somehow I make the need to speak crumble, disappear, fly with the wind of no-mind. I’ve grown good at forgiving other people, but I always wonder if each of these moments of letting go doesn’t leave a bad taste of not forgiving myself behind.

I wonder if there is a Conflict Aversion Anonymous group somewhere with a twelve-step program to overcome this fear of The Fight. Step one could be “Stare conflict in the face for five seconds before blinking.” Step two might be, “Write down all the sentences you wish you’d said to that lady with the overflowing grocery cart who pushed ahead of you in the checkout line.” I mean, seriously, that would be a beginning!

If only I could come to terms with how I am and accept myself this way, forgive myself for these perceived infractions against my -- against what, really? My honor? Dignity? No one complains about the deer running from the mountain lion, the deer least of all. Protecting oneself by escaping is perfectly acceptable for a deer. So why is it I feel that my personal boundaries are at risk of invasion because I avoid arguments? Am I making a big fuss over nothing? Keeping score against myself for a personality trait which is really perfectly fine?

I can’t say that I have an answer for any of these questions. Perhaps this is an issue I’ll struggle with till the day I die. Or maybe, in an effort to accept myself as I am, I’ll let go of the fear that being conflict averse equals passive aggressiveness and decide: me, I’m just nice.

I found a really cool blog post about lawyers and aversion to conflict. Check it out.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Hellos and Goodbyes

I used to resent the many hellos and goodbyes in my life. I felt the hole, the emptiness in the house when the kids were at their dad’s. Then, when they returned, I worried over every moment I spent away from them. I suffered under the transience of people in my life: Dar when he still had his apartment, my family and friends who live in other corners of the world.

Hello! I missed you! How are you? And the kids? And then it’s time to say goodbye. And then hello again! How are you? How’s the family? Did you end up getting that job? And goodbye again. How can I live a life when people pop in and out, when I pop in and out, the lives of everyone else? If only the kids were here full time, I thought. Or, if only Dar and I lived together. I wished for continuity, one stable person in my life to whom I wouldn’t continually have to say goodbye.

For a while, my wish seemed to come true. Dar moved in with us and, being between jobs, we spent a lot of time together. Reading my blog to Dar before posting it encouraged me. Seeing him seated opposite me at his desk anchored me to my own pursuits. Watching him planting garlic, potatoes and daffodils in our garden, experimenting with different kinds of soil and locations, created a joyful blanket of safety in my heart. Every daily exchange painted the world in hues of pink and love. My writing blossomed. Stability brought out the best in me. I could feel my creativity pouring out, secure in the happiness of having this one person who is really here for me.

But stability, you know, is fleeting. The Buddhists say the only enduring state is that of change. These last two weeks I got to say a lot of hellos and goodbyes: to family who came for a visit, to Dar who is starting a new job, to the kids as they move back and forth between houses. Yet I don’t feel either the resentment or the lack of continuum anymore. I found other anchors to depend on: my writing, this blog, cooking, my love for the children and Dar, my love for my family and friends. Love and following my dreams ended up improving my tolerance for impermanence, filling up the emptiness and holes from before.

I like to think that my life is a river. When the current is fast, it leaves little time for more than a call “Hello!” and “Goodbye!” to anyone I meet on my way. When the current is slow, I savor the wonders of this world. And more often, frightened out of my wits, I hang on to a bush (which usually turns out to be a blackberry with many thorns) by the riverside, resisting where the current wants me to go. But the river always flows on, and the scenery always changes. As I do, too. And I think, altogether, it's good.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

YES to Opportunity and Magic

A few days prior to the writers’ conference this year, I tried to decide what I want to get out of it. If I had a goal, I reasoned, I would be more likely to leave the conference a wiser woman. I could learn more about the craft of writing children’s books, meet other writers like me, perhaps get lucky and say hello to an editor or an agent, but what do I really want? For the last few months I’ve been writing a romance novel for adults -- what am I seeking in a conference aimed at children’s books?

I do have one novel for teens that is being considered by an agent, and I have been playing around with a sequel to it (playing around equals to about one hundred and fifty pages written before I got the main characters stranded on a magical mountain). That makes me count as a children’s fiction writer still, even if I am concentrating on romance right now.

And craft is craft. Perhaps no one will teach me here to write better rolling around in bed scenes (notice the euphemism?), but I could learn about revision, creativity, and dreams. That settled it for me. I was coming to the conference to be inspired. What better goal than that? And, just to be on the safe side, I chose a secondary goal: to give twenty of my business cards away. The least I could do, since Dar printed about five hundred of them for me.

The conference began yesterday with Charlie Price, author of Desert Angel (and more). After listening to him, my first action once I returned to my room was to buy the novel on kindle. Price spoke about his creative process and how he watches the movie of the story unroll as he writes. I could see his movie myself on the page once I started reading. Price's writing is visual, raw and real. I felt connected to Angel, the main character, from the first paragraph, and I’m sure this is a book that I will write about again. I was lucky to sit next to Charlie Price’s wife at dinner and talk books and work ethics with her. That was great.

After dinner I expected great inspiration. I had heard Dan Yaccarino speak before (and I wrote about his YES presentation). But this time he surprised me. After speaking for about an hour about his success, which he attributes to his saying YES to every opportunity that came his way, Yaccarino added: “For every project you see here there are ten that didn’t make it.” I was amazed and inspired by how Yaccarino keeps challenging himself, working hard, trying new things, never afraid of being ridiculed or making mistakes. Truly inspiring.

So inspiring, in fact, that I’m writing to you this morning before I even had breakfast, so I’m going to do it now. Wishing all of us a wonderfully inspiring and enriching Saturdday!

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Beauty of Making Mistakes

A few years ago, before I realized I was writing for children, I signed up for two writing classes at once. One class was at the art center near my house and was called “Writing and Illustrating a Picture Book,” and the other at Stanford, “Writing for Children.” I always loved writing, and I had children -- I felt it would be a perfect match.

I learned two new facts about myself in those classes. The first, that I love to make art and maybe could do something about it. The second, that I am writing for children, but not necessarily a picture book. Turned out that my fairy tale about the princess kidnapped in New York City by a wizard in a flying car who saves herself and marries a chimney sweep is really a novel. I lost the chimney sweep and the saves herself by screaming the wizard into oblivion, and now, a few years and lots of sweating (and some writing) later, I have a novel.

But my novel is far from perfect. Before sending it to agents, I always reread it, and I always find lots to fix. It is never finished, never enough, never perfect. But the book holds the (probably false) promise of potential perfection. If I tinker with it enough, if I identify every little mistake, surely I could make it flawless? But in paintings? There are mistakes which drive me crazy and can never be repaired. Like the too wide left wing of the dragon from the fairytale battle painting which I painted in high school, or the bicycle in the riding down the hill painting whose frame is a W instead of a triangle and really looks weird.

But, I wonder, does art need to be perfect? Brooke Scudder, a magnificent artist (whose art always seems to me to border on perfection) and the teacher of the “Picture Book” class mentioned above, thought otherwise. “Sigal,” she said to me, “the mistakes you make in your painting will often turn out to be the most unique and beautiful parts of it.” Wait, what? That makes it sound like mistakes are a good thing! That can’t be right. Right? And yet I believe her. I believe it is the mistakes in a story or a painting (or in life) that charm me, allow me to fall in love with the humanity of the creator and the creation.

This morning I read a quote by Alfred Sisley: “Every picture shows a spot with which the artist has fallen in love.” And I instantly knew what he meant. The spot that Alfred Sisley is talking about is the mistake, the place where the pen slipped, where inaccuracies occurred, where a drop fell as the brush withdrew and another red flower had to be drawn. And this spot, where the imperfections, the fallibility of the artist shine through, is what allows me to feel empathy, to recognize myself and fall in love. To feel the art through and through.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


This morning I came by an Ella Fitzgerald quote which read: “It isn't where you came from; it's where you are going that counts.” The quote accompanied a photograph of fog misting through a forest scene with a path climbing up and disappearing into the picture. I considered the photo and the quote for a few moments. Something felt not quite right seeing them side by side. Then I realized. To me, that photo said: it is not the destination but the way that counts.

Ella Fitzgerald says that where we come from does not count, but I remember where I sat as I wrote the very first stirrings of The Princess’ Guide. Princess Anna Mara came to life just outside the doors of Ostrovsky High in Ra’anana, Israel. I wrote her story for my friends to read if they were bored during their next class. I remember my enjoyment as I wrote it, my laughter, the magic.

“It’s where you are going that counts,” Ella Fitzgerald says. But I wonder, how true is that? I used to feel that every choice I made created ripples which obliterated everything around me but that one direction I chose. Every choice was epic, unyielding, unalterable. But lately I begin to think, what if the choices I make are not as life-shaking as I imagine. What if deciding on road A does not take me that far from where I’d have gone on road B in the end? What if the destination is more or less the same, but it is the way there that counts?

I guess I am in a philosophic mood today. After all, I’m going to turn 40 in a few days and become middle aged, as my son announced. I’m allowed to be a bit more introspective than usual. It is raining outside, a soft pitter patter of rain that gently wets the ground, and the scene outside my window is not so far removed from the photo above Ella Fitzgerald’s quote. This is where I am now, on those stairs, in that mysterious forest. I’d like to believe that my way goes up that path in the photograph and not down, but perhaps up and down are both illusions, existing only in my own mind.

And at this moment in time, as I stand there on my path in my forest, I wonder if it even matters what my destination is or which direction I first came from. The only thing that matters is that I’m here now, in this beautiful place, getting a little wet, it’s true, but breathing in the fresh air that the rain cleaned with fresh oxygen exhaled by those ferns below. Can you tell I’m happy where I’m at right now? At least for today, I am.

My wishes for my birthday month: to write a few pages daily in the romance novel. To walk in the forest a few times each week. To take deep breaths. To accept what I am given with love and appreciation. To smile and laugh every day.

Do you have any March wishes?