10 December 2015

On (C)Hanuk(k)ah (For Judy)

So I have an admission to make:

I have always secretly wished to be Jewish.


It started when, during my young Baha'i upbringing, I learned about the major religions of the world (We also learned about those unnamed Messengers from prehistory of Whom we have little to no information.  The Baha'i understanding is that God has never left anyone alone - ever - without guidance, in the whole world for all of time.  So, that covers all the bases.).  In children's classes, we learned about Noah, Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and the Bab (the forerunner to Baha'u'llah) and of course Baha'u'llah (I can remember the names in this order because there's a sweet children's song about it.).  The Baha'i Faith is very clear that each of these special People - we call them Messengers of God - was sent to humanity throughout time to teach the people about God.  The cultures and times in which They appeared necessitated variations in the Teachings They brought forth, but I learned from a very young age that no religion is better than another, and all teach messages of love and peace.  It is human distortion of these pure and divine Teachings that create the disunity and confusion that we see today (and have seen throughout history).  Baha'u'llah is the latest of these Teachers, and His Message for all of humanity (essentially) is that of peace, through justice and unity.

It's a long intro, I know, but I wanted you to get a sense of things.

Anyhow, learning about the history of religion as a six-year-old was exciting, because it removed any barriers to friendships that I may have had.  I understood as a child - a capacity which most children have - that some people were unkind to others for rather silly (and often unchangeable) reasons:  race, gender, religion, class.  And so this fundamental teaching made it clear to me that any sort of disunity based on these criteria was essentially made up, and - in a word - not cool.

When I first realized that I had a friend who was, in fact, Jewish, I was super-excited!  I had been to a synagogue once, and it has been a memorable experience.  Our extended family was predominantly Christian (my parents were the real rebels of their families, becoming Baha'is in their early twenties (ish - don't quote me on that)), so I was familiar with churches, but a synagogue was cool.  Then there was the Torah, and how it had to be hand-written and if anyone made a mistake he had to start again.  And how the Jewish Sabbath was not on Sunday at all but on SATURDAY and how some people who were Jewish couldn't even use umbrellas on the Sabbath (I learned that once while driving in Cleveland with a friend and seeing a girl walking home in the rain and offering her an umbrella, which she almost took, but then realized that she couldn't - I was proud of her for being so devout!).

But the best part for me was all of the ritual!  Baha'is don't have really any ritual at all, which is fine, but to my young and order-desirous mind, rather annoying.  My parents often changed things up for our Holy Days, and for Ayyam-i-Ha, our gift-giving time, it was always a different thing.  Which I really disliked.  I wanted the SAME THINGS to happen EVERY TIME.  Christmas and Easter were the big Christian Holy/holidays and there was something so comforting about looking forward to the same thing each year.  And then there was Passover and Chanukah for Jewish folks, and Eid for Muslim friends and... well, those were the only ones I knew about.  A friend in high school once invited me over for Passover and I LOVED IT.  Seriously.  There was a special plate and all of these different foods on the plate and each of them symbolized something different and it was so freaking awesome.  And there were special stories and words in Hebrew!  I was cross that nothing like that ever happened for our Baha'i Holy Days.

SO - boy, this is taking a long time - when, as an adult(ish) person, I was married and Nathan and I became good friends with some Baha'is in Chicago AND we learned that their family was JEWISH AND they invited us over for HANUKKAH, I was OVER THE MOON.  Because I had never been to Hanukkah and there were dreidels involved and chocolate geld and I was already ready to go.  Adam Sandler had educated me about Jewish celebrities, and I knew a little bit about Kosher laws, and also presents.

Our dear friends invited us to celebrate with their mom Bobbe and their Aunt Judy.  We were to go to Judy's house and make latkes and eat brisket.

Guys.  Brisket is amazing.  And don't get me started on latkes. 

When we arrived at the condo in the northern suburbs of Chicago, the hallway smelled delicious.  Once inside, we were greeted with the warmest love and hugs.  Judy and Bobbe were in the kitchen shredding onions and potatoes, and the oil was warming in the pans and there were so many things to DO!  I could HELP!  I donned an apron and got to work.  There was ritual and food!  Perfect!  The condo was brilliantly lit from top to bottom with both Christmas and Chanukah decorations (Judy's dear husband, Len, was Christian), and we all ended up smelling like we worked in a fast-food joint, from all the frying oil.  We learned about the miracle of the oil (which is why we were making latkes), and why there are eight nights of Chanukah, and we felt a part of a larger and ancient human story.  And Judy - she was a perfect blend of love and generosity and teasing sarcasm.  She made us feel at home at once, and we felt to be perfectly fit in the puzzle of the family gathering.  Plus, she got us presents.

From that point (nine years ago!) until today, we have celebrated Hanukkah with our friends.  They are our family, and it was cemented through Judy's love.  Olivia was just a baby at the first Hanukkah, and we soon welcomed our friends' son, and then Elsie.  Each year, the children would look forward to going to Hanukkah (which was an actual place - Judy and Len's house), and even when we moved to Indiana, we drove up to Chicago for the party.  It was only two years ago, when Judy suddenly passed, the weekend before our trip, that we missed it.  Eleanor had just arrived that summer, and this would have been our first big trip after her arrival.  She had never met Judy, at least on this plane, and when I got the call from our friend, I was shocked, and then - once it had set in - absolutely heartbroken.


It was amazing that this woman, who had unquestioningly embraced our family (with all of its diversity - and when others might have cast judgement or glanced awry or even asked unwanted questions about race/religion), had exited the world so quickly.  She had wrapped our Chanukah presents only the day before she passed, and made sure that all of the tasks were finished before she resigned from this life and entered the realms beyond.  She had made sure that we felt loved and accepted just as we were.  She touched my heart more deeply than I had realized - this woman whom I had known only for a few years, and whom I only saw annually - and, upon reflection, I realized that it was because she had loved me.  Unconditionally.  And had accepted me - all parts of me - in the same way.  Never once did she criticize me for my appearance or my choices.  She understood that life was life, and we all travel through it differently.  She offered advice when asked (and sometimes unasked), but with a love and humor that was so different than the seriousness to which I was familiar.  She loved my children and looked forward to showering them with love and chocolate and presents when we visited.   She had even purchased a gift for Eleanor in advance of our visit.

She had personified the love of her Faith, and included me in it. 

She had made me Jewish.


We celebrated as a smaller group later that season, without the brisket.  We started up again last year, this time at Bobbe's house, and Len and our framily (friends/family) came, and made gluten-free latkes (don't worry, we made regular ones, too).  It was different, but the familiarity and connection which had been forged in the heart of Judy's home had bonded us.  We ate too much, laughed a lot, and left smelling of latkes.

This year, we will miss it.  In over nine years, we will not be home for Chanukah. 


This morning, I saw a comic on Facebook that made me laugh.  Santa has just come in the door, where a family is seated around the table, a fire burns brightly in the grate, and a Menorah shines from the mantel.  Santa mumbles, "Oops... wrong home!"  The father gestures to Santa and says, "Forget 'wrong home!'  Get in here before you freeze your tuchis off!  Sit... sit!  I'll put on some coffee!"  I laughed out loud at this and began to share it, and then realized that this man in the card - it was Judy.  Reminding me that she loves me, and that I am always welcome - like Elijah the Prophet, during Seder, for Whom we open the door. 

"When there is love, nothing is too much trouble, and there is always time." -'Abdu'l-Baha

Happy Chanukah/Hanukkah everyone.

14 November 2015

For the Mothers

"The mother bears the troubles and anxieties of rearing the child,
undergoes the ordeal of its birth and training.
Therefore, it is most difficult for mothers to send to the battlefield those
upon whom they have lavished such love and care.
Consider a son reared and trained twenty years by a devoted mother.
What sleepless nights and restless, anxious days she has spent
Having brought him through dangers and difficulties to the age of maturity,
how agonizing then to sacrifice him upon the battlefield!
Therefore, the mothers will not sanction war nor be satisfied with it.
So it will come to pass that
when women participate fully and equally in the affairs of the world,
when they enter confidently and capably the great arena of laws and politics,
war will cease; 
for woman will be the obstacle and hindrance to it." 

20 May 1912
From a Talk at Woman’s Suffrage Meeting at the Metropolitan Temple,
Seventh Avenue and Fourteenth Street, New York
 (Emphasis added)

I have been thinking so much about the suffering in the world.  Our transition last year from cozy Bloomington, Indiana to sprawling New York, New York was full of turmoil, and I have noticed that my levels of anxiety are much higher than they have ever been.  Concern for my children, my spouse, and myself increased simply by living and moving in this City - and, once that subsided, due to familiarity and routine, a series of life-related issues periodically cropped up, just to keep me on my toes (downstairs smoking neighbor, trouble with the landlord, mice, roaches, leaking ceilings, dwindling dollars - you know, the usual).

All of these are triggers for my anxiety, and sometimes full-fledged panic attacks, and all are rooted in the primal fear of death.

Now - I'm not against death.  I understand that it's a natural part of life, and I've been with those who were transitioning out of this life and, I believe, into the next.  And I get that people do it every day, and mostly for completely normal and natural reasons.  So that's cool.  Only not for me.  And not right now.

And not for the scores of those who die at the hands of others.


I've been reading a lot of L. M. Montgomery, not just her Anne books, but others as well.  She lived in Canada during the turn of the last century, and through the first Great War.  And she iterates time and again that "war is a thing of the past."  It is so interesting for me to see this sentiment raised - and raised again in her books written after that First World War - that this had been a war about justice, and, once it had been fought, there would be no need for further wars.

I don't want to get into the politics of war.  I don't profess to be a scholar in this area by any means, and this is not the platform for discussing strategies and pontificating about why this or the other thing happened.  I support and respect those who choose to serve in the armed forces, and even more those who serve because they feel as though they have no other choice, because that is an entirely different kind of bravery.

What I do want to talk about are these words - written by a woman, almost a century ago - who BELIEVED that there would be no more wars.  That the horrors of that Great War would have sobered the conscience of the world that humanity would grow through it's turbulent adolescence and deal with future problems with the calmness that comes with maturity.

Granted, there was a lot of work yet to be done.  The fundamental recognition of the oneness of humanity - which I believe is essential to the establishment of peace - wasn't even close to being accepted.  There are lots of references In Montgomery's works to what I will delicately call "other people" (read: not of European descent), and this of course arose out of that old manifest destiny clap-trap, which we are still hanging onto in bits and pieces today.  But that's another lecture for another time, and several anthropology courses as well.

But she wished for peace.  And I know why.


As a mother - or, really, as any compassionate human who appreciates the value and fragility of life, but I'm stating specifically as a mother, because that's what I am, and that identity is central to my current argument.  (However, I'm not excluding you, fathers, aunties, uncles, grandparents, sisters, brothers, surrogates, and any other title you wish for yourself.  Just to be clear.) - I have enough to worry about.  I don't have time to add "fear of imminent death" to my list.  My primal instinct is to protect my children and allow them to grow.  Added to that is my learned desire to raise children who will contribute to human society in a meaningful way.

You know, no big deal.

That is a tall order, to which any parent may attest.  And it is often complicated by the trials of life:  worries over money, change in housing, normal developmental growth, health concerns, family stress - I could go on and on.  These are expected hurdles that arise throughout life.  The way that I teach my children to meet these challenges will shape they way they move in the world as adults.  And I put a lot of thought into these seemingly trivial concerns.  But then, what if we add the fear of death into the mix - add the stress and anxiety that go along with concern for survival?

That humans in this day are currently struggling with this - and at the hands of other humans - is simply not acceptable.

It is not acceptable.

It.  Is.  Not.  Acceptable.

(I'm totally serious about this, but am imagining Supernanny Jo Frost saying this, whilst gently putting humanity in the naughty chair.)

I'm writing this several times, in case you might think that it could be acceptable.  But it's not.  At all.

Think about all of the other stuff we've got going against us.  I'll help you with some ideas in a handy list form:

1.  Hurricanes!
2.  Tornadoes!
3.  Earthquakes!
4.  Droughts!
5.  Floods!
6.  Volcanic Eruptions (don't think that only people who live in Hawai'i are prone to this - if the Yellowstone Supervolcano goes, we're all in big trouble)!
7.  Environmental and other Natural concerns (I'm leaving that vague enough for you to use your imagination about it)!
8.  Germs!
9.  Clumsy Accidents!
10.  Getting lost in the woods (just ask Elsie about this)!
11.  Bad driving!
12.  Glaciers!

Well, maybe not glaciers.  Depends on whom you ask.

And we are really quite puny and defenseless, when it comes down to it.  We don't even have any real functional fur.  (Also depends on whom you ask.)

So, you can imagine that mothers have a lot to worry about.  We are hardwired to be completely invested in our children's survival.  Even to the point of our own detriment.  We've got a lot to think about, and many "survival plans" to work out in our heads.  I have several "Plan A/B/C" for every option listed above.  And my heart and my head can't add any more - but I have to.  Because I see these in the news every day.  In Kenya, in Beirut, in France, in the United States - everywhere - people are making poor decisions and harming themselves and others.

I don't have time for that.  Nobody's got time for that.  Just in case you thought it was a good idea. 

It's not.

And I always think of the mothers.  Mothers weeping.  Mothers worrying.  Mothers separated from their children.  Mothers whose hearts are aching, whose hearts are breaking.

And for me, this is so beyond politics and religion and countries and money and power.  Because this is fundamental.  This is the root of humanity.  The mother is the heart of humanity.  Every mother who loses a child, in any way, can attest to the depth of this ache.  And when I see these things in the news, I become those mothers.  No, really.  That's how human brains work.  We see things happening, and our brain, on a primal level, thinks that those things are happening to us.  We can reason that they aren't, but I've watched enough Brain Games with my kids to know this.  It takes all of my energy to convince myself that it's not happening.  But still the ache remains.  Because it IS happening, to some mother somewhere.  And I'm not okay with that.  Because I'm not here to let life happen.  I'm here to be a helper.


What if we used all of our brain-power for the benefit of humanity?  I mean, let's just imagine that every human who is born into this world has access to education.  And that no differentiation is made based on any external and unchangeable characteristics - i.e. each person is seen as a noble human being.  And that each person was able to pursue those innate gifts and talents with which s/he is endowed.  Not that there wouldn't be ANY challenges - we grow from challenges, as we can see in the natural world as well, where plants need wind to strengthen their stalks - but those challenges wouldn't be such massive and unmanageable things like war or famine or fear of imminent death.  Just think about the advances we all would enjoy!  Mozart would have nothing on the prodigies of today, nor Shakespeare, nor even Einstein.  Our collective thoughts and passions for our respective arts and sciences would cause humanity to be able to bravely and gracefully address those things that we can't control in the natural world, like diseases and natural disasters.  

Like cancer.  

Guys (again, also gals, but I don't want to detract from the drama).  

We could cure cancer.


So mamas, I'm thinking of you.  All of you.  In our seven billion selves, how many are mothers?  I'm thinking of all of you.

And I know.  It hasn't all happened to me, but I've felt as if it has.  I've imagined it, and, in doing so, I've experienced it.  I've heard about your suffering, and I have felt some of it.  A fraction, maybe a drop, but I've felt it.  I've cried for you and your children.  I've stayed awake all night worrying with you.  And I've been doubled over in pain over you.  I know.

And this beautiful world - this mother - is in labor - she is in the throes of those searing and intense pains - and little by little, these old ideas that divide us are being shed, and we are coming closer with every contraction to bring forth new ideas and beliefs that unify us.  Because we really are all one.


I wanted to close with this (rather lengthy) passage from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha, who - if you aren't familiar with the Baha'i Faith, is the son of Baha'u'llah, the Founder of the Baha'i Faith.  It was written around one hundred years ago, but many of the themes shared are applicable especially today.  

There are also several grammatical and historical references which find their roots in that it was originally written in a language other than English, which has no gender-neutral pronouns, particularly when referring to the Divine.  So, there's that.

Also, there are some triggers for those with anxiety, so don't go there if you've having a rough day.  I just want to be gentle for the mamas.  <3 p="">

And it's also "Lord"y and "God"y and, if you aren't a big fan of that, just look at the social aspects.  For all my atheist/agnostic friends out there.  There's enough in it for everyone.  :)


"O ye lovers of truth, ye servants of humankind! Out of the flowering of your thoughts and hopes, fragrant emanations have come my way, wherefore an inner sense of obligation compelleth me to pen these words.
"Ye observe how the world is divided against itself, how many a land is red with blood and its very dust is caked with human gore. The fires of conflict have blazed so high that never in early times, not in the Middle Ages, not in recent centuries hath there ever been such a hideous war, a war that is even as millstones, taking for grain the skulls of men. Nay, even worse, for flourishing countries have been reduced to rubble, cities have been levelled with the ground, and many a once prosperous village hath been turned into ruin. Fathers have lost their sons, and sons their fathers. Mothers have wept away their hearts over dead children. Children have been orphaned, women left to wander, vagrants without a home. From every aspect, humankind hath sunken low. Loud are the piercing cries of fatherless children; loud the mothers’ anguished voices, reaching to the skies.
"And the breeding-ground of all these tragedies is prejudice: prejudice of race and nation, of religion, of political opinion; and the root cause of prejudice is blind imitation of the past—imitation in religion, in racial attitudes, in national bias, in politics. So long as this aping of the past persisteth, just so long will the foundations of the social order be blown to the four winds, just so long will humanity be continually exposed to direst peril.
"Now, in such an illumined age as ours, when realities previously unknown to man have been laid bare, and the secrets of created things have been disclosed, and the Morn of Truth hath broken and lit up the world—is it admissible that men should be waging a frightful war that is bringing humanity down to ruin? No, by the Lord God!
"Christ Jesus summoned all mankind to amity and peace. Unto Peter He said: ‘Put up thy sword into the sheath.’ 1  Such was the bidding and counsel of the Lord Christ; and yet today the Christians one and all have drawn their swords from out the scabbard. How wide is the discrepancy between such acts and the clear Gospel text!
"Sixty years ago Bahá’u’lláh rose up, even as the Day-Star, over Persia. He declared that the skies of the world were dark, that this darkness boded evil, and that terrible wars would come. From the prison at ‘Akká, He addressed the German Emperor in the clearest of terms, telling him that a great war was on the way and that his city of Berlin would break forth in lamentation and wailing. Likewise did He write to the Turkish sovereign, although He was that Sulṭán’s victim and a captive in his prison—that is, He was being held prisoner in the Fortress at ‘Akká—and clearly stated that Constantinople would be overtaken by a sudden and radical change, so great that the women and children of that city would mourn and cry aloud. In brief, He addressed such words to all the monarchs and the presidents, and everything came to pass, exactly as He had foretold.
"There have issued, from His mighty Pen, various teachings for the prevention of war, and these have been scattered far and wide.
"The first is the independent investigation of truth; for blind imitation of the past will stunt the mind. But once every soul inquireth into truth, society will be freed from the darkness of continually repeating the past.
"His second principle is the oneness of mankind: that all men are the sheep of God, and God is their loving Shepherd, caring most tenderly for all without favouring one or another. ‘No difference canst thou see in the creation of the God of mercy’; 2 all are His servants, all implore His grace.
"His third teaching is that religion is a mighty stronghold, but that it must engender love, not malevolence and hate. Should it lead to malice, spite, and hate, it is of no value at all. For religion is a remedy, and if the remedy bring on disease, then put it aside. Again, as to religious, racial, national and political bias: all these prejudices strike at the very root of human life; one and all they beget bloodshed, and the ruination of the world. So long as these prejudices survive, there will be continuous and fearsome wars.
"To remedy this condition there must be universal peace. To bring this about, a Supreme Tribunal must be established, representative of all governments and peoples; questions both national and international must be referred thereto, and all must carry out the decrees of this Tribunal. Should any government or people disobey, let the whole world arise against that government or people.
"Yet another of the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is the equality of men and women and their equal sharing in all rights. And there are many similar principles. It hath now become evident that these teachings are the very life and soul of the world.
"Ye who are servants of the human race, strive ye with all your heart to deliver mankind out of this darkness and these prejudices that belong to the human condition and the world of nature, so that humanity may find its way into the light of the world of God.
"Praise be to Him, ye are acquainted with the various laws, institutions and principles of the world; today nothing short of these divine teachings can assure peace and tranquillity to mankind. But for these teachings, this darkness shall never vanish, these chronic diseases shall never be healed; nay, they shall grow fiercer from day to day. The Balkans will remain discontented. Its restlessness will increase. The vanquished Powers will continue to agitate. They will resort to every measure that may rekindle the flame of war. Movements, newly-born and world-wide in their range, will exert their utmost effort for the advancement of their designs. The Movement of the Left will acquire great importance. Its influence will spread.
"Strive ye, therefore, with the help of God, with illumined minds and hearts 
and a strength born of heaven, to become a bestowal from God to man, 
and to call into being for all humankind, comfort and peace." 
- Abdu'l-Baha

15 June 2015

Long Day

Today started out well.  Nathan is finally home from all of his travels over the past eight months, and I was looking forward to mapping out the next week or two with him over a leisurely breakfast.

Children, however, intervened.

It seemed as though everyone woke up in a cranky mood today.  Maybe it was the weather.  Needless to say, halfway through preparing breakfast, a baby needed to nurse, a six year-old was absolutely starving, and a nine year-old was already having some alone time.  Oof.

Nathan has a deadline on Wednesday, so he headed out early to write, and I drafted a lovely list of things to do.  I started in on them right away, and, having called to reinstate our car insurance (we will be driving around the Midwest this summer), I called the bank to release a hold on our online account (one too many password tries had locked me out).

At which point I found out we were $250 overdrawn.


Apparently, the fancy mobile deposit system neglected to deposit a $200 check last week.  So that - with all the overdraft fees - accounted for the lack of money in our account.

At this point, I get a text from a friend asking if we could meet up today.  I looked semi-longingly at my list.  But then weighed in my mind how terrible the day would get if we didn't get out at all (all of my list items were in-house).

So we jetted out the door to meet her and her son at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  She's an artist herself, so it was lovely to go to a place and appreciate beautiful things together.

We did a little Met scavenger hunt - one of the many family brochures they have available for the public - in the Islamic Art Galleries.

Here is a photo of Elsie (on the right), drawing, and sitting next to her good friend, P, who is looking through his bag.  There is a random lady in the background, meditating or something.  She was clearly moved by the beauty in this wing.

We then took some rather hungry children outside to one of the playgrounds to eat.  But of course they did not eat.  When presented with slides and swings, who wants food?

Then the rain came.  We sat for a minute and decided it wasn't going to stop, and so gathered up ourselves, hugged our friends goodbye, and hopped on the bus.  We rode through Central Park and hopped off, bouncing the stroller down the stairs to the train.

We took the local C train all the way from 86th to 168th - the end of the line there - and transferred to the A train.  Eleanor had nursed to sleep on the C train, so we weren't in any hungry baby rush.  I only had to deal with cranky big kids, who had neglected to eat their lunches.

At 207th, we were pushed off the elevator by a cranky old man, who decided that he got preference (even though we were in line first).  I tried to take the high road, but I shot him a rather withering look.

The rain was coming down in earnest, so I took my cranky children across to C-Town grocery to get some broccoli for dinner, and maybe some ice cream.  Because I needed it.  Olivia's mood lightened a bit at the choice of ice cream, but - alas - when I got to the register, I didn't have my wallet.

Elsie lost all self control at this point, and Olivia muttered how she knew "it was too good to be true."

After hastily reshelving our items, we emerged into the rain again.  Elsie and I put up our umbrellas, but Olivia - who had very solidly decided she was going to be mad (to be clear - there was nothing precipitating this episode except a lack of lunch - no one had been mean or cross towards her at all), shunned her umbrella, and stomped quite loudly all the way home in the rain.

I got some looks from neighbors who must have imagined I was punishing my child for something by denying her the use of her umbrella.  Oy veh.

At home, I rushed to make some sandwiches.  Elsie demanded some music and Olivia slammed some doors so we would all know how angry she was.

Eleanor - blessedly - slept.

Problem #1:  The bread was moldy, and I hadn't been to the grocery (with my wallet) in a few days.
Solution:  I made pancakes.

Problem #2:  Elsie wanted music (I knew this was the case because she kept screaming and crying about how she *needed* music - more than food - for at least 15 minutes).
Solution:  Olivia stomped out of the bedroom, said "You want music?  Fine!" and proceeded to play a song on her recorder

Problem #3:  Elsie didn't want that kind of music.
Problem #4: Olivia didn't want any criticism.
Solution: I persuaded the children to put food in their mouths so no one could talk.

Oh my lord, I am so tired even recounting all of this.

At some point, one of my wonderful neighbors sent me a text and says she's making gluten free mac & cheese for dinner and asks if she can pop it in my oven while she runs to pick up her kiddos (we have a standing weekly potluck date).  She brings it down and it is nice to see an adult who is not screaming or crying.  She also brings me flowers, because she is also a mom, and she knows how it is.

Food in the oven, I try to figure out some other veg to contribute to our potluck.  I throw some lentil soup together and find some peas from the market in our refrigerator.

We tramp upstairs and I get to hang out with a sane person who can speak in complete sentences and is not asking me to get her anything.  I am able to take an artistic photo of some peas.

We talk and eat and it is lovely.

Then I have to take my children downstairs.  Elsie hides in two different places while Eleanor fusses because she is tired.  I balance all the dishes and the baby, and head to the door.  Olivia has gone ahead, and is thinking she is sneaking eating the peas as she carries them down, but I know better.  Elsie storms into the hall and accuses me - quite loudly and echo-ily - of leaving *on purpose.*  I don't deny it.

I tell Elsie that she will have some alone time if she screams at me again the hallway, because that it simply not appropriate.

We get into our house without too much more noise.

No, that is a lie.  We were very noisy.

It is now time to wash the people and put them in bed.  I proceed to do so.

Then I fold laundry and tidy the bedroom.

(Oh, and at some point earlier in the day, I recaulked the kitchen sink.  I just wanted you to know.)

We say prayers and go to sleep.

And by "we," I mean my children.

I am not sleepy, only exhausted.  So I watch a terrible mystery show on Netflix.  Then I poke around on Facebook some.  And fold some more laundry.  And nurse the baby, who finally falls asleep.

I text my best friend, who is getting ready for a big move.

Then Nathan comes home.  I tell him this same story.  He laughs.  It is good to laugh, even though it wasn't really funny at the time.  I feel better.

Then I write this post.

Now I am going to sleep.  Tomorrow is another busy day.


05 June 2015

Lists. Lots and lots of lists...

I admit it.  I am - and always have been - a list lover.

There is something so satisfying about seeing things all the messy thoughts written tidily in a row - it gives the writer a sense of control over what is an increasingly-chaotic world.

For me, a to-do list is like a budget for one's time.  A tidy reminder that - even though the tasks are endless (because, let's be honest, they never stop) - your time is precious, and how you spend it is important.  Even if it's just doing laundry.  Or writing a blog post.  The satisfaction I personally feel when ticking a box off of a list is really quite lovely.  I sometimes even put things on my list that weren't originally there, but that I did in between on en route to other tasks, just to keep myself honest.

This is especially important for me as a "stay-at-home-mom" (SAHM), even though I'm not really ever at home with these "homeschooled" children of mine.*  I think that unpaid work often is the least appreciated, even though it certainly takes as much thought and effort as paid work.  Anyone who participates in the running of a household knows this, regardless of her/his employment outside of the home.  However, as ALL of my work is unpaid, it is rather rewarding to see my efforts listed, in order that not only I, but also my family, might appreciate the work that goes on in our family.  It's like my emotional paycheck.

(*Case in point:  Today we went out to celebrate National Donut Day.  As one does, in order to learn more about culture, etc.  What started out as a quick train to the gluten-free donut bakery in our neck of the woods ended up encompassing eight hours, three ferries, two trains, a Shake Shack, a carousel, several teas for mama, and a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.  And some donuts.  Also, that was another list.)

I know that not everyone cultivates this list-making habit, and that's fine with me - I don't think that you should try to fit yourself into a list-making box if it's not your style - but if you are inclined in this direction, I encourage you to try it a little more.  Make it a little ritual - the planning of the day, the chores, the groceries, etc. - and make it special.  Drink tea or coffee in the morning while working on your list and contemplate the day.  Write with a special pen in a special book - something to place value in the work that you are setting out to do.  I find that if I know what's going on in the morning, it helps me ration my energy out for the day.  If you're a night owl, try this the night before.

In our 450 square feet, lists are the maps that help us navigate our little world.  On the bedroom door, we have three:  the "Morning Routine," the "Evening Routine," and the "Self-Care Chart."  The first two are practical steps to remind us (mainly the girls, but also myself) of the steps we take to rise into the day and ease into the night.

The "Self-Care Chart" we developed when Nathan was gone for a good stretch, and I realized that I couldn't expect anyone but myself to take care of my needs on top of those of the house and the girls.  We had a wonderful lesson together, discussing how we had many different parts of ourselves that require different care (spiritual, emotional, physical), and I enjoyed teaching the girls that to take care of oneself is one of the first ways to render service to humanity - because if you are depleted and depressed, how can you offer assistance to others?

We also have "chore lists" which work together with our "cleaning checklists."  Each room has its own cleaning routine, and its own day on which it is to be cleaned.  It is of course nice that we have such a small space - one might think there isn't that much to clean - but we still have five people-worth of things, sparse though it may seem.  The girls enjoy checking off the boxes, and it helps me to remember all of the little parts that are important to me in the maintenance of my home.  I like teaching the girls the value of cleanliness and work, and to know that there is honor and virtue in doing your best at sometime, even if it is just cleaning a toilet.

 We have our weekly menu, which is the map of our food.  This one for me is harder to implement.  I notice that my energy depletes pretty quickly on days I am at home, and on other days when I am feeling particularly drained - in both cases, I appreciate my slow-cooker, in which I can use my morning burst of energy to prepare several meals at once.  If I don't stick to this, however, it becomes a bit of a mess, what with the cost of takeout, wasted food, etc.  This is something that I find works best when Nathan and I partner together and address.  As the girls grow into more responsibilities, it is helpful to have their input as well - I hate deciding "what's for dinner" all by myself!

Along with the menu is of course the grocery list, and in New York on a limited budget, that, too is divided into separate lists for each market.  We have found that a weekly Trader Joe's run into the city - usually made by Nathan sans children - provides the least expensive basics for mostly non-perishables.  This is supplemented by a weekly Farmer's Market trip - which I either do by myself early Saturday morning when Nathan is home, or with the girls a little later on in the morning.  We purchase a good amount of veggies and local dairy, eggs, and honey (which should always be local and raw, especially if you are an allergy sufferer).  Aside from what we purchase, we also take our compost here.  Specialty items and the veg and meat we can't get at the market are purchased sparingly at Whole Foods (another Nathan-without-kids run, usually in the mornings to beat the rush).  And last-minute items are found at our local C-Town grocery, which offers a pretty good variety of things.

In the city, even taking the trash/recycling out and doing the laundry get spots on the list of weekly chores - and it's best to schedule these, in order to ensure the trash gets down and no one runs out of underwear.  We have other mental lists here, too, such as the routine when coming inside of taking off one's shoes and washing one's hands right away.  New York is a dirty place, but no one need bring that inside!

When time is precious - isn't it always? - and the pace of life seems to demand much more than in humanly possible, having lists helps to give weight to those daily tasks which might go unheeded.  Morning routines, daily chores, meal preparation/consumption/dishes, personal care time, evening routines - all of these are important parts of one's day, in addition to the external requirements of school/work/etc.  To some, the list might seem an unwanted additional task - a chore in itself.  But a little extra effort at the outset - not much is needed when establishing the daily and weekly routine - pays dividends in the future.  The development of these skills of self- and home-care soon become second-nature, so that we are better able to address other tasks and challenges in our family and community life.  Additionally, the visual reminder of the list helps others support you.  Not only can you ask someone to assist with the completion of a task, but having your friend/partner/spouse/child(ren) see your plans keeps the importance of these tasks as part of the daily dialogue in the home.  Even if it's just you - you can keep your own dear self accountable!

A little caveat here - and an admission - for all of my love of lists, I am also a great fan of the lazy day, when one tells one's list where to go, and simply lulls about reading or watching Poirot or Murder, She Wrote on Netflix.  And I don't always remember to follow my lists.  Sometimes I have two or three of these off days in a row.  Recently, I justified a week after a particularly stressful stint.  But I do know that - if I have kept up with my tasks - coming back to them won't be as Herculean a task as it have been.  No one need redirect a river to clean out the stables of our house, unless it's been a really rough week.  In those cases, the key is to not let guilt get in the driver's seat.  We are all human, and all striving to grow.  On this path of life, setbacks are part of the ebb and flow, to mix some metaphors.  But even a little step in the right direction can make a big difference - a little list of weekly chores could be a good starting point.  Even if you do them out of order, or it takes two weeks, you are developing a new skill.  And ensuring you won't be out of clean underwear.

29 May 2015

Living Small in a Big City

This week, we are hosting The Cousins (all five of them!) and their mommy & daddy (AKA Nathan's sister and her husband) in our little one bedroom in New York City.  Add those bodies to our four (Nathan is traveling currently), and we come to a total of ELEVEN.  Eleven people in 450 square feet.  That's around 41 square feet per person.  It's been a little cramped, but we've worked it out pretty well, all things considered.

While I was having a moment of alone time (in the bathroom - the only room currently with just one person at a time in it), I was thinking that it might be helpful to share some of our family's survival tips whilst navigating the wilds of New York.  I've read lots of articles recently about "living small" and "downsizing" and "simplifying" and, while I believe these are helpful for developing new habits in daily life (or, in some cases, opening an entirely new arena of consumer products for "storage," etc.), I think many of them fail to get at the root of true simple living, which - at least for our family - is spiritual in nature.

I have lots to say on this issue, so I've decided to begin a little series on our own family's practices - or at least, *my* practices which I try to work into our family life.  Not in any way to "show off" - but in the spirit of sharing - sort of like a "life hack" series for small living on the cheap.  Also, I wanted to use as many quotation marks as possible in a single article.

To begin with, let me say that for me, the idea of "small living" and "living simply" is a bit of a loaded idea.  I've seen articles on families of 50 living in a little box and saying how happy they are (that's a bit of an exaggeration, of course), but when I see these articles, I also see the expensive storage solutions and fancy apartments (in high rises with elevators and exercise rooms and storage rooms in the basement).  These are speaking to a particular demographic, but assume that such a lifestyle is attainable by everyone (because they think that everyone lives in their socio-economic bracket).  That is always a little irritating to me because I don't live in that bracket, and I venture to guess that a majority of people also do not.  Like those "manage your money" books, which tell you to reduce things like your entertainment budget in order to save money - we don't even have an entertainment budget!

These articles go on to say how easy it is to "let go" of clutter and how doing so brings their family together.  While this may be true - we know for instance that there are links between emotional health and hoarding, as an example - it's not as simple as throwing stuff away.  For me, the issue of hoarding and holding on to "stuff" is partly a symptom of living in poverty - the fear of "letting something go" because one might need it later is very real for people who are living from one paycheck to another.  It is also a holdover from my grandmother's generation, whose parents lived through the Great Depression and therefore learned to live very frugally.  To get rid of something useful is almost a sin - someone might need it sometime!  And of course, for people who have the space, this isn't really an issue (don't worry, Gramma - I am very happy you saved all that you have - especially the clothes!).

Another layer of this issue is that consumption in our culture is highly valued.  We're are always hearing about the "new and improved" products available for our purchase, and then of course there is the storage industry, making new and fancier ways to hide the stuff we already have.  Our economy is based on consumption - which in itself isn't necessarily an evil thing - but we do know that consumption without conscience isn't the best idea.  We even have "shopaholics," who use shopping and the acquisition of things as therapy - and I must admit that I've sometimes purchased things simply because I want them, and not necessarily because I need them.

But all of these issues belie the greater problem - that we base our worth - our REAL worth - on what we possess.  Now, it may be easy to poo-poo that idea, but our culture promotes this everywhere we look.  Everyone has a "thing" (or many things) that s/he might covet - a particular car, a new dress or shoes, a fancy blender (guilty!), or an income bracket - things we say to ourselves "I will be happy when I acquire this." Even those "living simply" articles tell us that we must buy other things than the things we have to live simply and be happy.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve - but what about improving our selves - our minds, our hearts, our capacity for virtue, our discipline?  [And - before you accuse me of being "un-American" (I can hear that right now, especially on account of all the culture "bashing" that you might perceive), let me also share the caveat that I love my country, and I also love humanity, of which my country is a small part.  I am simply using my training in cultural anthropology to tease out some of the shortcoming that I perceive - not to place blame - but to address and rectify.]

End sermon!

I've already taken up a bit of space in my pontification, but I wanted to share some practical ideas before I run out of steam!  These are little idea nuggets that I have placed in the front of my mind when designing the flow of our home and household:

1.  My worth is not based on what I possess.  Of course, I have touched on this earlier, but it is very important!  The Baha'i Teachings share that our true nature is spiritual, and that our Creator takes no mind to our wealth, but rather to our spiritual practices.  Baha'u'llah says,

"O SON OF BEING! Busy not thyself with this world, for with fire We test the gold, and with gold We test Our servants."  

For me, this doesn't mean live the life of an aesthete, but to not let our possessions be the masters of us.  Our belongings are meant to improve our life - and the life of our community - not become adornments for us to lord over others.  If we use what wealth we have in helping others, then we have mastered this.

2.  I will get what I need.  This idea is a little esoteric in nature, but I believe that if I am moving in accordance with Divine Will, then I don't need to worry about not having enough.  We all know the Rolling Stones song "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and  (But if you try sometimes, well you might find, You get what you need.)"  Sort of like that.  This is the driving force as to why we are in New York City right now - we can't really afford it (we currently aren't, to be honest) - but Nathan was accepted into Juilliard.  One does not simply say "no" to a Juilliard acceptance.  So we scrimp and save (well, there's nothing to save, so it's all scrimping at the moment), we enroll in the Food Stamps program and in Affordable Healthcare, and we cram ourselves into a small one-bedroom apartment.  For some, this may seem a little nuts (of course, to others, we are living in relative luxury), but we trust that this work is of service to humanity, and so we pursue it.

3.  I'd rather have a smoothly-running household (i.e. not cluttered) than a lot of things.  For me, this means prioritizing.  The more dishes I have, the more I have to wash.  My awesome cast iron sewing machine is sitting in storage, but my trusty busted Husqvarna and serger are sitting in our hall closet.  We each only have one (set) of towel(s).  Nine tenths of the girls toys are still at their grandparents' house.  We are fortunate that we have the luxury of extra space in which to hold our extra stuff until we decide to deal with it.  But I'm happy with what I've chosen to bring, and what I've left behind.  The less stuff we have, the less tidying I have to do, and lord knows I've got enough of that to do as it is.

4.  Don't let anyone else tell you what to do/stop telling other people what to do.  Ha!  I'm so tired of all of this unwanted advice - and tired of being offended by it or - on the other hand - dumping a ton of it out on other people.  I hope that you take all of this with a grain of salt - and that you take only what you find helpful and leave the rest.  Life is for learning and growing and JOY!  xoxo

15 February 2015

Two A.M.

Our apartment is hot.  Swelteringly so.  They say in New York that you have two kinds of heat settings: boiling and not working.  I am thankful that we at least have heat, but it is almost oppressive in its presence.

I consider opening the window a crack, but am too tired to get up.  That window is so hard to open, and my core muscles, after bearing three little people, usually protest when I finally have to close it again.  Additionally, I don't want to be seen - the looming 20 story building behind ours - some monstrosity built in the 1970s that sticks out like a sore thumb in the block of post-war five-floor walk-ups - stares at me with lidless windows whenever I open that window.  I usually just slip my arms around the curtain on either side and pull, hoping no one is looking out.  At 2 AM, the chances are slim, but I am more wary about those looking out at this time of night.

That window, too, is on the fire escape.  I read in our local listserve last week about someone getting robbed in the neighborhood a few blocks away and the burglar came in through the fire escape.  Ours is hard to access, but I'm always on the alert.  Moreso now that my husband is out of town for two weeks.  I'll just leave it closed.

The person next to me shifts in her sleep.  I am relieved that she finally - after struggling all night - was able to get through the congestion and nurse to sleep.  Probably only because I forced some medicine down her throat.  Our room may be hot, but little fevers burn hotter.  I am thankful for those souls who discovered ibuprofen, and I silently send a prayer their nameless way.

Now she is finally resting, and I wish I could be, too, but there is always a little sense of alertness that lingers after a midnight wakening.  She is sleeping now, but she is still stirring somewhat.  I know that I won't be able to rest until she has dropped into deeper sleep.

We share the same bed - all my children have - although the older have graduated to their own.  In our one-bedroom, though, that's not a big step.  The girls sleep on a trundle futon that slips neatly underneath ours.  I was so excited when I found it online last month - a little sense of comfort in a strange new place - I wouldn't have to fold our beds up every morning, and I could get them off of the floor.

It was never really a conscious choice - we seem to have been in small spaces for the majority of our family life.  In Chicago, we had a one-bedroom, and Evanston as well.  Once we moved to Bloomington, we expanded to fill a three-bedroom house, and only downsized this past year.  Now we are back in a one-bedroom, thanks to New York rental prices, and so our lifestyle didn't take a major hit.  Where, I ask, would we put all the beds?

My eight year-old stirs, sitting up and rubbing her eyes.  The heat has gotten to her, so I help her take off her pajamas.  She flops onto the bed again, asleep before her head hits the pillow.  I consider a pre-emptive removal of my six year-old's pjs, but think again.  Her going-to-bed was fraught with more-than-usual crying and lamentation.  Last night, she wailed that I was turning into a vampire.  Tonight, it was less dramatic - I was only going to explode - but I'm not rushing to wake that up.

It is hard when daddy leaves town.  Not only for the outright absence of another adult presence, but for the change in routine, the inability to ask simple, every-day questions to another adult.  Even questions like, "what's for dinner?"  I take care of all of those daily needs now, absorbing them into my daily routine.  I complain about two weeks, but I am really thankful that I have a partner in the first place.  Two weeks is just a drop in the bucket.  Proper dues to those parents who are single all the time.

The littlest one stirs again, flopping her legs and arms as she lays on her back.  Her nose is so snuffy that she sleeps with her mouth open for breath.  This - aside from the fever - has been her chief complaint this time around.

We've been sick since we moved here - all the new germs that a city of eight million can breed have seemed to come our way, in one form or another.  Nathan told me of a colleague who experienced a similar phenomenon.  She's a true New Yorker now, inoculated after her season of illness.  When Spring comes, I suppose we'll be able to say that of ourselves.  I am tired of being sick.

I am getting more used to this pace of life - no car, three children, getting groceries; smoking neighbor, holes in the walls, buying air filters; houses on top of one another and crammed into blocks, but unadulterated green space six blocks away.  I suppose I am feeling more hopeful - late nights notwithstanding - adapting to a new way of living.  New York is a country unto itself - noisy, raucous, yes, but also kind and community-oriented.  There are those who are rude, but there are more kind people here than I have ever met before as well.  The sheer volume alone, coupled with the fact that there are so many of us.  On an island.  We have to work together.

The tiredness finally hits me like a wave.  I feel the energy draining out of me and I imagine it flowing into my mattress, down the legs of my bed, through the floor and into the granite two stories below.  The earth will hold it there for me until I need to call it up again, in a few hours when the sun rises.  It somehow always has a harder time coming back up...