Friday, December 13, 2013

The world in which we live

A few days before our daughter was born, we saw the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed. My husband and I remarked on how she was entering a world without bin Laden in it. What else would we know that she would not experience? And, what would she see in her lifetime instead?

Today, I drove my daughter to daycare with her 5 week old brother in tow and the news was full of stories about the one year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The world in which our children live does not have Osama bin Laden, for years the face of terrorism and unexpected violence. Yet, now it has a different face--the anonymous, unknown perpetrators of violence in movie theaters, workplaces, and schools. I think many of us would agree this is a much scarier world. For reasons that defy our understanding, seemingly normal people turn to guns and take the lives of innocent people--adults and children.

How do we approach such a world? How do we help our children to cope with this reality? For now, my children are still too young to know about such things, but that time will soon end. I want to be able to help them channel their fear and confusion into action--that they will not only know how to keep themselves as safe as possible in the event of the unthinkable (whatever that may be), but they will also know how to write and call their legislators and advocate on issues of guns, violence, and mental health support. I pray they will draw strength from being surrounded by a community that is committed to creating a safer and better world for all people.

Tonight, as Shabbat comes and we offer our prayers for our children, asking God to bless them with peace, may we envision a world where all children will be safe, be loved, and know wholeness and peace.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Is there only one blessing?

This week's Torah portion, Toledot, is truly a cautionary tale of parenting. Forget the akedah, the binding of Isaac. Although it is scary, I don't think most of us are in danger of offering our children up to God as burnt offerings. This Torah portion, the story of Rebekah and Isaac and their sons, Esau and Jacob, actually involves things that might happen today.

From the beginning, we learn that Isaac prefers Esau and Rebekah prefers Jacob. This eventually leads to Rebekah encouraging Jacob to deceive his father and take Isaac's innermost blessing, the one intended for Esau. When Esau comes in for his blessing, Isaac discovers he has been deceived. Then come some of the most painful words in our Torah, "Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too!" as Esau wept aloud.

How terrible it would be to only have enough blessing for one of our children, to not only show preference, but when asked, have nothing left to say to our other child. This is why this parasha is so painful--it plays out the fear that parents have limited love and blessings for their children. We fear this as parents, we fear this as children. As I sit here, 36 weeks pregnant with our second, this weighs on my mind. I, like many parents about to have a second child, am trying to envision what it will be like to welcome a new child who isn't my first. Will I be able to appreciate him or her or will I only compare to the older sister? As is very normal, we wonder about having enough love. Yet, everything I read, everyone I talk to, says yes--the minute you see your second, you love him or her unconditionally and beautifully. The transition is different: the first child makes us parents, the second (and third, fourth, etc) child makes us more of a family.

And so, I offer this blessing for those of us parenting more than one child:

O God, give me the strength and wisdom to be the best parent I can be.
Help me to see each of my children for the unique and special creations they are.
Guide my eyes to look at each of them differently, in a way that honors them as individuals.
Guide my tongue to speak to each of them uniquely, in the way they will best hear.
Guide my ears to listen to each of them intentionally, hearing what they are saying without judgment or comparison.
Guide my hands to offer love and compassion, giving them the care they need to feel most loved.
Help me to discover the many blessings I have within as a parent so I can share them freely and lovingly with my children.
May our family be blessed with an abundance of love, freely given and received.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Minivan Question

About two months ago, we started to realize that the arrival of our second child meant that one of our cars, the little Corolla, was probably not a practical car for our family (my CRV is doing fine). Thus began the conversation about the minivan, something which I have found is dreaded by many people. Minivans do symbolize suburbia, lots of children, "mommy-ness" in a way that SUVs don't. And, here's what I have learned in the process:

-Considering a minivan asks you to determine how important vanity is...said a different way, how far are you willing to go for style over practicality? The car companies know that for many families, style is worth a lot. This is why an SUV that seats 7 or 8 will likely cost more for the same features than a minivan. It is also why the base model of most minivans have more features than the base models of other cars (XM radio, etc). I would compare this to shoes...I have a pair of 4 inch black patent heels that are adorable. I paid a little extra for the style, when I could have found a less expensive pair of black shoes. They make me feel great, but only work with certain situations. When I wear them, I can't comfortably carry my daughter! I also have a pair of black flats. They are nice enough, maybe even a little stylish when dressed up correctly, but are the shoes I wear when pregnant or in need of comfort. In fact, there is rarely an occasion for which these shoes would not work. To buy a minivan is to say that practicality has won. It is giving up the pumps and putting on the flats. Fortunately, the car companies have made minivans look sleek enough and put enough features that it feels like a pair of flats and not like really unfortunate sneakers!

-A minivan invites you to realize just how grown up you have become. There are moments when I believe we stop and think, "How did I end up here?" Whether it is first job, first house, marriage, first child...we realize that we are truly adults. To test drive a minivan, let alone buying one, is an acknowledgement of a specific stage of life. Yes, we are the people with two children who need to cart around a lot of junk. We are excited by the prospect of being able to change a poopy diaper comfortably on the floor of a van, or climb in to strap a child into a carseat. And, instead of thinking of flying off to some luxurious destination, the minivan just makes us want to take a fun road trip with the kids. My husband and I looked at the van and one another and both agreed--this is where we are in life. We may as well embrace it. One day, we will be done with the minivan stage of life and I am sure that too will come with a dose of shock and a little regret.

-A minivan is full of stereotypes. On the Toyota Sienna website, it has "Mommy like." The whole "Swagger Wagon" ad campaign is a response to the assumption that minivan drivers and families are boring. A friend told us that the minivan gets no respect on the highway. When I searched Honda Odyssey v. Toyota Sienna, I found an Orthodox website where people were weighing in on this exact question. When we told people that we were looking at a minivan, they just laughed. When we said that Micah would be driving the car, they laughed even more. Under #realmendriveminivans there are only about four entries. I am proud that my husband is willing to drive the minivan and thinks it is cool to make it his own and do this for our family.

I am proud to announce that, after a month or so of research and a test drive, we are now the proud owners of a 2013 Toyota Sienna. Mini-Van Morrison joined our family on September 27, 2013, and I am sure there will be a character in this next chapter of our family's story!

Monday, September 23, 2013

From Mystery to Potential

After the Tekiah Gedolah is sounded at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, there is a sense of awe that we have come through such a day. For 25 hours we fast and focus on our mortality, our human frailty and failings. For me, I think of Yom Kippur as embracing the mystery--we think about all of the ways we could do better even in the face of not knowing what the new year will bring. We pray that it will be a good year, yet it feels tinged with desperation and longing. There is no certainty which comes out of Yom Kippur, other than whatever certainty we feel regarding our own actions.

The morning after Yom Kippur, I usually wake up elated: the hard part is done! No more looking at the same sermon text! No marathon again until next year! And then, I start into Sukkot.

Sukkot is z'man simchateinu, the time of our joy. It is a festival celebrating harvest, abundance, and the potential of the new year. While we pray for rain and think of the impermanence represented by the sukkah, the focus is on potential. The liturgy feels like we are celebrating the fertility of the year--anything is possible!

I do love having these two holidays within a week of one another because I think they represent life so beautifully. We have mystery--the unknown that carries with it anxiety and longing for goodness--and we have potential--the recognition of so much possibility at the state of a new year. Each day, we hold the fullness of potential within our hands, and pray we will be able to withstand whatever challenges come our way.

As a pregnant woman, this Sukkot does feel like a harvest festival. I walk around full of potential life, wondering what this human being inside of me will be like when s/he arrives in (God-willing) eight weeks. I also walk around filled with a sense of mystery, wondering and praying that this baby will arrive healthy and safely. There is no telling when the baby will decide to make its entrance (there is a deadline, but much can happen before then), there is no telling if there will be complications, there is no telling whether the baby will be a good eater or sleeper, and there is no certainty as to how my two year-old will respond. So, I walk around with a feeling that there is so much potential and abundance of blessings yet so much that remains unknown. In my one uterus is Yom Kippur and Sukkot rolled into one.

I do believe that we each have a choice, one that I consciously make each day. We can choose to focus on the potential for blessings and abundance, or be trapped in the mystery of uncertainty. I believe we are at our best, our most real, when we are aware of what bad things can happen but translate that into gratitude for our blessings.

There was an NPR story on the morning of erev Yom Kippur about a pediatric oncologist who works on mostly incurable brain cancers. He spoke of talking to parents when there are no more treatment options for their child. It was a tremendously powerful story and I cried while listening. Yet, I didn't shut it off, because it felt disrespectful and inauthentic to hide from the pain of others. Instead, by listening and realizing how uncertain life can be for all of us, even the youngest among us, I was grateful for my healthy daughter and resolved to continue to make the most of each day.

We are 20 days into the new year... As we consider the mystery of the year ahead, the uncertain things which could come our way, may it help us recognize the many ways we are blessed and focus us in on making the most of our potential.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

There's a Little "Disney Parent" in All of Us

We have officially entered the "princess" phase in our home. A loving gift from my mother of the movie "Cinderella" in July has yielded an obsession in our two year old daughter. She has fallen in love with the music and Cinderella--it is not unusual for her to ask questions such as "What is Cinderella doing right now?" We are excited to take her to Disneyland to see Cinderella on our next trip to visit family, and I will thank Cinderella for her help in encouraging potty training (when I found Disney princess panties at Costco, it was a great day).

As we have tried to branch out beyond Cinderella, I've had the opportunity to screen some other Disney movies. Someone told me that Disney isn't particularly nice to mothers, and I have to agree. If you are a stepmother, just don't watch Cinderella. We looked at Brave and Tangled--not a good portrayal of mothers. There isn't even a mother present in Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, the mother plays a passive role in Lion King, and don't even start me on Bambi. Sleeping Beauty is arriving at our home any day--I am relieved to have a movie coming that will allow me to describe the villain as a witch, rather than the stepmother!

I am not sure the fathers fare much better. Little Mermaid is scary, particularly when the king destroys his daughter, Ariel's, possessions in a fit of anger. The father is eccentric in Beauty and the Beast, needing his daughter to care for him.

Setting aside Disney's motivations...I have come to realize that there is a little "Disney Parent" in all of us. As the mother of a two year old who is verbal and independent, yet also nonrational and only two, I have moments I want to put her in her bedroom, lock the door, and put the key in my pocket just like the stepmother in Cinderella. I also, at times, want to burn the Cinderella DVD because I am tired of arguing about whether it is a "movie day," just like the father in Little Mermaid. I know that there are mothers out there who distantly push their daughters to achieve as much as possible, like the mother in Brave, or mothers who want to protect their daughters from the outside world, sometimes to obsessive extremes, like the mother (or pretend mother, actually) in Tangled.

Fortunately, my Disney parent moments are short-lived and now I have a name for them. The take-home message for me as I watch these movies is two-fold. First, watch the movie with your child! Only you can process and explain what he or she sees. Even a Disney movie, rated for children, has complicated themes and needs to be processed in an age-appropriate way. In our home, we talk a lot about "good choices" and the importance of being a good helper, something that we can glean from Cinderella without making this about stepmothers or stepsisters. Second, even on my worst days, I'm not a creepy tyrant, a baby-stealing witch, a distant queen, or an eccentric inventor (last I checked). The Disney parent reminds us that we all have moments where we aren't our best selves...and we should accept that we can't be perfect all of the time, but we are responsible for making  "good choices" with our children. In Judaism we have the idea of the evil inclination and the good inclination--never is that more apparent when dealing with a challenging parent moment (with children of any age). Said a different way, we have the choice to be a "Disney parent" or to be the best version of ourselves. Let's choose goodness and unconditional love...and pray they never make a movie about us.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

High Holy Day Sermons and Wedding Dresses

As Rosh Hashanah is now less than 24 hours away, I am moving out of the frenetic preparations into the Zen state of recognizing that the work is as done as it will be. Now is the time for review and anticipation. It is, in many ways, much like leaving the bridal store after the final dress fitting. Allow me to share with you the ways these two things--a High Holy Day sermon and a wedding dress--are similar:

-A topic is not chosen randomly, nor is a wedding dress. Each requires self-awareness and a sense of style during the selection process. Just as I would never wear a mermaid style dress (I'm just too short), there are certain topics or manners of speaking which will not be a part of my repertoire. Said a different way--know your body type, know your speaking style!

-One must get in shape to wear a wedding dress and to give a High Holy Day sermon. These things don't just happen overnight. I learned recently that brides are the most motivated personal training clients since they have their eyes on a specific goal. Similarly, nothing motivates a rabbi to research, write, and edit like the impending holy days. There is tremendous practice and time invested in these sermons, and one's pre-wedding exercise routine.

-Both are only worn once. A wedding dress is for a specific place and moment in time, as is a High Holy Day sermon. That isn't to say that the sermon cannot make a repeat appearance...but certainly not with the same crowd! A lot of time, energy, and resources are put into this one-time-only piece. After it is done, the dress and the sermon each are placed lovingly in a box to be kept for posterity.

-Both are memorable, at least for that day. I am fortunate to stand under the chuppah with many a bride and groom, and I am pleased to say that I remember many of the dresses I've seen. Yet, the dresses I remember are those that have a story, were worn by someone who I came to know and understand through the preparatory meetings, and were memorable because of the joy and intention with which they were worn. In the same way, the sermons I remember (my own and others) were those which had meaning. They spoke to a relationship between speaker and listener, they were authentic, they were intentional. Every sermon seems interesting for a time, just as every wedding dress seems to be "the most beautiful ever." Yet, we leave the synagogue and before we know it, it is in the past and hard to recall.

As an aside, another similarity in this area is that trainwrecks are memorable! No one forgets the fashion nightmare or the sermon disaster. In the age of YouTube, that is even more true.

All of this is not to diminish either the wedding dress or the High Holy Day sermon. Rather, it is a reminder that even though there are moments when each feels momentous--the most important thing in one's life to date--the reality is that they are transient. The wedding will end, the holiday will conclude, and then it is on to the next thing: making meaning out of the moments to come. Shanah tovah!