When the day turns itself around

There was nothing poetic about this day. Nothing lyrical or dramatic. And this account of this day is none of that either. Sometimes, though, a messy reflection on a mess of events is the right way to remind yourself that nothing is exactly as it seems.

Like this day.

Judging by the start of the day, it was going to be long. Long and tiring. And potentially annoying. And definitely a little frustrating.

I woke up congested and exhausted. I’m not sleeping enough because I’m balancing the demands of two jobs right now. I am working all of the time, tethered to my email, worrying if I’ll miss a message or drop a ball. And our whole family has been sick, starting with my little daughter and working its way to me. As the other patients are on the mend, albeit with runny noses, I have been taken down by a sinus cold. I won’t ever be able to show a correlation between my lack of sleep and the strength of this sinus cold but I have a hunch that if I was sleeping more, I might be feeling better.

I remember nothing of my shower except that I didn’t want it to end. As I fixed my hair, my daughters woke up and wandered into my bathroom, acting like little sweethearts until we asked them to get dressed. Big sister whined about dressing herself, something she is fully capable of at almost six years of age. She wanted me to pick out her clothes. And little sister insisted on wearing tights with a dress. The whining and the fussing with tights pushed me closer to the edge.

Dressing a preschooler in tights is a special form of torture. Hell, putting myself in tights is pretty uncomfortable so trying to squeeze them into their little tights is a parenting feat. After trying on two pair of tights, rejecting them as she went (one was too itchy and one was too bumpy), she rejected the dress and tights concept entirely. At this moment, I started to wonder if the day was going to go my way or not. It was only 7:45am.

On the way downstairs to the kitchen for breakfast I remember that I left a leg of lamb to defrost on the counter. In my fatigue last night, I left the frozen package wrapped in butcher paper on the naked counter with nothing beneath it and walked into the kitchen to find a bloody mess, literally. Lamb blood pooled on the counter, dripped onto the floor, and ran under the refrigerator. I yelled for my husband who came down to feed the girls breakfast while I mopped everything up. I disinfected the area, washed hands, and quickly prepped the meat for the crock pot. Mixing together cumin, garlic, salt and paper, I hoped this dinner would turn out okay because I had no back up plan.

Miraculously, we managed to eat breakfast, pack lunches and backpacks. After weeks of being tightly wound and over-organized, we apparently fell apart last night, leaving all of the school prep for this already harried morning. I hustled  little one out the door and buckled her into the car.

The short drive to our Jewish Community Center to drop off little sister at preschool took three times as long because of a blinking red light at a huge four-way intersection. When I arrived at the JCC, I lost my temper searching for parking. We’ve had so much snow and parking is tight in this lot anyway. I completely lost my temper, however, when I missed on parking spot after spot because one particularly selfish parent parked in the fire lane and lurked until a space vacated–something I never do. I eventually settled for a spot in the far reaches of the parking lot and rushed my little daughter along and because I was rushing her, she tripped and fell. As I stared at her dear little face full of crocodile tears, I was immediately full of antipathy for that parking lot lurker. What makes people think they’re so special that they shouldn’t have to circle the parking four times like I did before parking in the outer reaches of the universe? I have a little one, too. I know it’s cold out. My shoes aren’t exactly comfy bedroom slippers. But I parked where I could find a spot fair and square. Deal with it.

I dropped my little daughter off, ranted to the preschool director about the parking lot, apologized for ranting, and trekked to my car. It’s not even 9am and I’ve had enough of this day. I call my husband to tell him how annoyed I am and at the end of my voicemail message I start to tear up. I’m crying and it’s not even 9am.

I call my work colleague after leaving my husband that teary message and she talks me down. Husband calls back and I tell him to delete the message. Then I drive 50 minutes to work where a big day awaits. There is a big budget announcement at the state legislature and it is my first day doing a quick analysis of the plan. Plus I’m prepping for a big meeting on the following day. Needless to say, I’m anxious and nervous. I grab a coffee (my first of the day) on the way into the office and after one sip, I feel calmer.

For the entire day, I am lost in my work. I am entirely focused on what I am doing. I’m learning new things, getting confused and unconfused, asking questions, stumbling through. I snuck in an afternoon coffee to fuel the second half of the day. It was a busy day full of questions and chatting and working and at the end of the day, I produced something. It’s a satisfying feeling to spend a day in the company of other people, working collaboratively and having something to show for it at the end of the day.

Not knowing what to expect with the day’s work, my husband was picking up our kids. I couldn’t bear a second trip the JCC in one day. I hustled out the door around 5pm and drove 50 minutes home, listening to podcasts and trying to calm the thoughts running through my head.

Finally home, I walked in to the house to the smell of lamb. My husband was standing in the kitchen unpacking backpacks, the girls were watching a show in the other room, and we had a minute to talk to each other. I made couscous, the girls came into the kitchen and we ate dinner together. Unlike several other dinner episodes, they actually ate some of their dinner (the lamb is only a big hit with the adults but they at least try a few bites and don’t complain). After dinner, big sister opened her Valentine’s Day cards from school–she was out sick last Friday and just picked them up in school today.

The kids dilly dally before bedtime and eventually get into bed, falling right asleep. I ran one last errand to get milk, wandering the aisles of the grocery in the sweatpants I slept in the night before, grabbing a few forgotten items and enjoying the quiet. Back home, I settled on the couch to clear out my inbox(es) and catch up on anything and everything.

I might be tired but I feel really good about this day. I just can’t believe how different the beginning of the day felt. I don’t know if I turned the day around or the day turned itself around. Either way, I am happy to go to bed exhausted and calm.

And tomorrow, we start all over again.

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A long, awesome, exhausting week of firsts (and lasts)

A few months ago I wrote about the intersection of first days and last days and the odd, comforting, uncertainty of being in-between. When the academic year began, I did not know what to expect. Beginning my fifth year of teaching, I was juggling three different courses and embarking on a job search. I was writing about the pitfalls of looking for a non-academic job and I was working on my blog. I hardly knew how fall semester would end.

And it ended amazingly. Even though I felt like I was managing a series of fire drills, I was lucky to land an interview for a position I really wanted, and later in the semester that organization offered me a job. Halfway into the year and my “last days” story was coming together.

Except that I have one more semester.

Our family trip to Disney World during the second week of January could not have come at a better time. I needed the distraction from impending chaos. After we settled in from a week of Disney magic, I faced a new round of first days: first day of my last semester teaching (at least for a little while) AND first day at my new job (where I’ll work part time hours until May).

My first days were exciting and anticlimactic. The professor me kicked off two classes and met fifty new students. And the next day, the policy analyst me trekked to my new job where I met new colleagues. On my second day of teaching, I settled in to my new routine and tied up as many loose ends as I could. On my second day of the new job, I arranged meeting after meeting with new colleagues, bathing my organs in coffee, scratching notes in a little black notebook, frantically trying to keep up with email messages.

The week ended and all I wanted to do was sleep.

When the adrenaline from a week of meal planning, household maintenance, navigating a new commute, and endless evening in-boxing finally faded, I passed out on the living room couch watching Mad Men on Netflix, sleeping for three hours before even considering a move from my couch to my bed.

I can face fifteen more weeks like this one, feeling wound so tightly with little space to breathe. It was a week of feeling so capable and sure of myself one day and inundated the next. Mostly, though, I felt on my own. The kids bookended my working hours with sweet cuddles in the early morning hours and complete frenzy over dinner. I barely had a full conversation with my husband about anything. Any words we did exchange were about the kids behavior or our impending new car purchase (also happening this week). These feelings of isolation will pass as I adjust to a new schedule, new routes, new information.

I cannot fathom facing fifteen weeks of feeling mediocre at everything I do, though. A seasoned colleague once told me that balancing parenthood (motherhood specifically) and academia would make me “pretty terrible at everything.” I rejected the notion out of hand but now I feel the weight of this idea–that I’ll be pulled in many directions at least for a few months and something has to give. Or worse, that I can’t hide the frayed edges.

Yet in a week of chaotic days, we had so many bright spots. Our perennial late sleepers miraculously awoke thirty minutes earlier each day, allowing for extra quality time in the morning and avoiding our usual mornings of prodding/begging/rushing out of the door. We ate real food for dinner every night because of my meticulous meal planning. I even squeezed in thirty minutes of exercise while I waited during ballet carpool at the JCC.

Sure the house is covered in dust and the laundry hampers are overflowing. Sure, my kids are stir-crazy and seem to have forgotten their manners. Every day. All the time. Sure, I didn’t know we were out of hoisin sauce for my plan on Wednesday, and had to make not one but two stops to find a jar on the way home. Sure, I mistimed my commute home on Friday and called in another mom to cover my youngest at preschool. It was not a perfect week, but what week is, really?

I’ve tried to put into the words the excitement I am feeling over this new opportunity. I’ve tried to put into words the jitters I have about my teaching. And no words came. I tried to blog about how I was feeling the night before classes started and then the night before the job started. And I couldn’t.

I just feel proud and nervous. There is no more elaborate way to say those things.

And even though it’s too early to tell, I also feel some relief. This professional move marks a new chapter in my life, and it’s a huge personal transition for my family. Two years ago I was finishing my dissertation, hoping I could find a position that tapped into my research and teaching skills for good work. I might feel nervous but those nerves will dissipate over time. And I might feel proud but I feel pretty proud most of the time.

Really, I just feel supremely lucky for any long, awesome, exhausting week of firsts and lasts. Because if my weeks were short, awful and easy, life would be pretty boring.

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2014 fades into the background and then it’s 2015

New Year’s Eve has come and gone in the way most years end with the world humming along, quietly, then with a great crescendo, bang, it’s over.

The end of the year is all about the holidays, celebrating each other, giving thanks and appreciation. In focusing on other people, we sometimes lose ourselves, a sense of ourselves, forget to take care of ourselves. And this is just what happened to me. The run up to the end of the year was a flurry of school activities, shouting at friends across the parking lot while wrestling the kids into car seats, road tripping with my daughters, and furiously cooking for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

And on the fifth day of the new year, the last day of their winter vacation, something strange happened.

I just got this weird sickness. It started out at night when I felt queasy and by the next day, I was unable to muster any strength at all.

It didn’t help that on the fourth day of the new year, I decided to go to an exercise class after a long hiatus. At first, I was unsure if I felt achy from muscle fatigue or if I was coming down with something. By late morning on that fifth day, I was sure that I was sick.

It became clear that I was going to be no help to anyone that day. Maybe we had all been out for bagels in the morning but my husband could tell I didn’t feel well and needed to sleep. He didn’t bother me.

So I slept for hours. All afternoon. Clad in my comfiest clothes, I tossed and turned in our flannel sheets, in between fits and starts of sleep I wondered the last time I took a real nap. I regretted that this might be the only true nap I’ve taken in months. I slipped in and out of sleep, the bedside lamp bright on my husband’s side of the room.

My girls came in and out of our bedroom, looking for attention, a cuddle, any sign of life.

My husband fed the kids lunch after shoveling the slush off of the driveway. He took the big sister to a playdate. He baked with little sister. He puttered around the house.

Hours passed and eventually it was dinner. My cheeks were warm with a little fever so I left bed to take some Advil. For the first time all day I wasn’t queasy, but I barely wanted to stand up. Husband fixed dinner and I listened to snippets of their dinner chatter from upstairs as I had listened to the lunch conversation. The girls seemed a little more intent on eating but by now, they were concerned. Why hadn’t I joined them for two meals? For a Sunday, this was a little uncharacteristic.

They took a bath and husband reassured them that they could come in and see if I was awake once they had their pajamas on.

The bath drained, one at a time the girls filtered in, asking, “Mommy, do you feel better?”

My kindergartener looked so sweet and nervous. I don’t think they have ever seen me sleep this much during the day. “I feel a little better,” I lied. “Don’t worry, I’ll feel better in the morning.” I hope.

After a day of sleep and no food, I felt empty. I stayed horizontal. As bedtime edged closer, the little one threw a tantrum, screaming for different pajamas. I eventually hobbled in and cuddled her. Little giants eventually fell hard into bed.

When it was quiet, I crept downstairs to make myself a slice of toast. Spread with butter, it tasted divine. I retreated to our bed and snuggled back into the sheets.

This day was a total wash. The last day of winter vacation and the last Sunday before we take a trip next week, I had so much planned. But what I needed to do was sleep. And not because I was tired, but because I was sick.

I’m never quite ready for a new year, the next phase of the year, and I felt frustrated at having forfeited a perfectly fine day in the world in bed. Except it wasn’t just any perfectly fine Sunday, it was the last Sunday before the real work of 2015 began. I didn’t feel ready to hurtle headlong into 2015–this last day of vacation was the remainder of 2014 for me, really.

On this Sunday, I was holding on to the little and big things that happened to us last year. My dad got married. My older daughter turned five and started kindergarten. My little daughter turned three and has blossomed into this incredible person. I started to do some freelance writing. I told a story at a public storytelling event. We took our first family trip to the beach. I found a new professional opportunity. We celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary.

I celebrated those events and accomplishments in the moment but I wanted my year in review, a chance to reflect, to make some resolutions. 2014 didn’t feel fully closed out. And now the new year has materialized and I feel like the account on 2014 is still open.

That last Sunday taught me something though. We don’t get to choose which days we forfeit or which days just never materialize. I may not get the perfect start I want or need, but I have to keep life rolling along.

And it will roll along. 2015 is off and rolling and I don’t want to be left behind.

At least I’m well rested.

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I need a little Christmas right this very minute…

By the end of the academic and calendar year, I am burnt out. I might be independently driven on most days, but as the end of semester to do list starts to pile up, and as people start decking their halls, I want to hide from the growing stack of papers on my desk.

For the past two years at this very time, I have been grading until the bitter end, and this semester, juggling three classes and four sets of final papers, is no exception. I recently admitted to myself that I am not a starter, so getting the grading boat out of the harbor was no easy feat.

I finally buckled down and slogged through my students’ work. Teachers like to complain about grading but I typically find grading fulfilling. Some students ignore your advice, your assignment, or perhaps the entire course. But many actually listen, and because I ask most of my students to write a short note about their work, I get to see how they’ve internalized what they’ve learned. Reading their work this semester took time, but I felt proud of what they accomplished.

So here we are on December 23rd. The grading is done, the comments and feedback returned via email to my students and the grades posted. And because the holidays are upon us, I shall hear very few quibbles about their marks (I hope).

I am spent. Out of energy to do anything.

I did the dishes, folded some laundry, cleaned out my work bag. I look around my house where I know we have neglected everything and I wonder where to start. In these moments where I have pushed everything off and been swallowed up by work, I hardly know how to claw my way back to reality.

The joy I feel in finishing the work is overshadowed by the reality that life goes on. It is so anticlimactic.

As I resist the urge to draft a new checklist, I’m diving headlong into the next few days. All I can think to myself is that I need a little Christmas, right this very minute because on Christmas everything stops. On Christmas, if only for a little while, everything gets quiet.

I’m trying to get swallowed up in the quiet, in the nothing of the next few days. Not celebrating Christmas is delicious because it means I get a break too–a break with few obligations. The checklist will be there tomorrow. The responsibilities will be there tomorrow, too.

For tonight, I’m going to try to rest easy.


Posted in academia, everyday life, higher education, holidays, lessons learned, new year's eve, teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

I reject the Mensch on a Bench and you should, too

There are many things about Christmas that perplex me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t love the Christmas season. And I primarily love this most wonderful time of the year because I don’t celebrate Christmas.

I have no halls to deck, no lights to hang, no tidings to send. Somehow, though, as everyone else is decking and lighting and sending their tidings, it is impossible to avoid being swept up in a tornado of good cheer—that is, of course, if you can tune out the commercialization of every possible facet of the celebration. For a few weeks, the world feels like a giving, thankful, bright, happy place, and I love basking in its glow. Despite the shopping, cooking, decorating madness, as an outsider, it feels like people are trying to help other people.

December always brings the Hanukkah/Christmas cage match. Hanukkah is not the same as Christmas, and I never pretend otherwise. It is not the holiest of days, nor the apex of spiritual celebrations. I have always enjoyed the fact that Hanukkah is a minor festival, and ever since I was small, I felt completely satisfied with spending a week lighting candles, singing blessings, giving gifts, frying latkes, and reminding ourselves about another religious miracle.

But each year as my kids grow older, I face new questions and confusion about holidays and our religious identity. Now that my oldest is in public school, I am getting an earful about Christmas traditions of her friends. She’s already complained that she doesn’t hear “Hannukah music on the radio” and that more people celebrate Christmas at school. Their questions force me to think about the religious tenets that matter to me and compel me to make meaning for my children, to help them make sense of the world that is full of lights and trees and especially elves.

I know the Elf on a Shelf is a relatively new Christmas tradition for some, and last year more than any other year on social media, I could not escape photo after photo of these elves on shelves. I attribute the uptick to a confluence a few factors including the aging of my friends’ kids and the availability of social media for sharing everyday life. The elves hang from the chandelier, drink the family’s juice, play in the toy box, leaving reminders to the children that they are under a watchful eye. They create mischief and children must follow several important rules so as not to wreck Christmas magic (and ultimately, their Santa spoils, right?).

I know this relatively new tradition is supposed to be fun for children, but it seems to cause a fair amount stress for parents, working to create this Christmas magic. When I confessed my confusion (and really my mild disapproval) for the Elf on a Shelf on Facebook last year, I faced my virtual and actual friends who quickly schooled me on the enthusiasm for (and fear of) their family’s elf. Another friend pointed me towards an even newer Christmas tradition developed in opposition to the Elf on the Shelf called “Kindness Elves.” These hipster elves also move around your house but instead of asking you to behave for presents, they leave little notes encouraging children to practice acts of kindness like delivering toys to a local homeless shelter or baking cookies for a neighbor.

All of these new, manufactured traditions are commodification in the name of good cheer. I am still unclear why we can’t simply expect good behavior from our children or devote our time to helping others without the watchful eye of a stuffed toy. But, it’s not my holiday tradition.

That is, until someone went out and created the Mensch on a Bench.

If I wasn’t too fond of the Elf on a Shelf, I kept it to myself. In fact, this year, I’m even seeing a little Elf backlash, so I know I’m not the only person who finds the tradition onerous. But this Mensch on a Bench product infuriates me.

The Mensch on a Bench is the brain child of an entrepreneur who created the story of the mensch for his sons to overcome his own “elf envy.” He claims that his product will add “more funakkah in your Hanukkah.”

My Hanukkah is just fine.

And elf envy is not a thing. It simply cannot be a thing because Hanukkah is not the same as Christmas.

At first, I thought I would give the product the benefit of the doubt and I perused the website with an open mind—or as open a mind as I could muster–but I did not even make it through the PR reel. It’s so clearly a commercialized ripoff of the Elf “tradition” that I had to stop listening to TV hosts awkwardly “kvell” over this nonsense. Though the Mensch backstory is grounded in some of the traditional story of the holiday–Moshe the Mensch promised Judah Maccabee that he would watch over the menorah in the old temple and now he’ll watch over your menorah (and subsequently your children’s behavior) while you sleep–the doll comes with a list of rules that sound eerily the same as the list for the Elf on a Shelf.

Neal Hoffman, the brains behind this product, claim that it is “widely accepted in the Jewish community.” Last year, Hoffman manufactured 1,000 dolls and sold out, so this year he has the shelves of major retailers like Target or Bed, Bath and Beyond stocked with mensches. As if my holiday was not already misunderstood enough, now this absurd little man is becoming its emissary? Critics of the mensch rightfully recognize that this little, plush man represents an extremely limited view of who modern Jews are or how modern families are constructed. In my local Jewish community, I have not found a critical mass, not found one person who thinks this product is a good idea. I am appalled that anyone would spend money on this product that so transparently rips off another commercialized holiday “tradition.” (Note: I originally typed that last four words of the previous sentence in shouty-caps but self-edited because I am a lady.)

Maybe if the Mensch on a bench was modeled after an age-old Christmas tradition like some new “Hanukkah activities” I would not take such offense. I am still not crazy about the Manischewitz Chanukah house modeled after the gingerbread house or the “Hannukah bush” knocked off from the Christmas tree. These two traditions, while still slightly strange (and a little appalling), are at least grounded on old, cultural celebrations of a holy day.

This Mensch business is like a bad copy of a bad tradition.

This Mensch on a Bench manufactured nonsense tradition does not solve the problem I’m going through: how to teach my daughter to be proud of her religious faith when she is in the minority. Our Hanukkah traditions are grounded in generations of stories and suffering, and honoring those traditions is what makes us mensches. I want me daughter to know she comes from somewhere, that the people who came before her, made it possible for her to have Hanukkah, this little celebration of miracles. The Mensch puts no more “funakkah” in my holiday; in fact, it creates more stress just like the elf on a shelf does for lots of Christians.

A mensch is a person of integrity and honor.

All I could hope for in life is for my children to be looked upon as little mensches. Instead of intimidating my children into being mensches by posing some creepy doll around my house, I’ll spend my holiday season creating actual traditions with them. I’ll ask them to fry latkes, we’ll try our hand at making donuts, we’ll play dreidel, exchange gifts with our cousins, spend time at our temple and JCC, and write notes of thanks to their teachers and grandparents. We’ll keep it simple, because simplicity leaves room for honest chatter, for quality family time, and for focusing on the things that matter to us.

And most importantly, we’ll inspire them to be mensches because acts of kindness, integrity and honor are not only for eight days of obligation in December.

The most mensch-y of mensches is a mensch even when–nay, especially when–no one is watching.

Posted in being jewish, everyday life, family, holidays, kids, parenthood, personal, religion, writing | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Thanksgiving redux

December starts on a Monday? I hardly feel caught up from the crush of work before Thanksgiving and here I am, typing this post, wondering how it became December.

That’s pretty much how I always feel about the passage of time, though. They say the days are long but the years are short.

I think it’s all short.

I started this very melancholy post about Thanksgiving before Thanksgiving got underway. I felt so thankful and also so hopeless–as though no amount of gratitude would ever chip away at the desperate things in the world. I was feeling depressed about the book I was reading for my book club (The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd–it’s really amazing and soul-crushing) and I felt awful over the decision and subsequent pain in Ferguson, Missouri. I read the post over and over again, trying to make it make sense for anyone else. And then I did what any good writer should do with something that only makes sense to them.

I slept on it.

I woke up to Thanksgiving at my in-laws house. My daughters rumbled into our bedroom and then proceeded to wake their grandparents. We ate Frosted Flakes for breakfast.

We dressed for the family football game–a tradition on this side of the family for close to ten years that I’ve been attending since I was pregnant with my oldest. The game used to take place in the palatial yard of a second cousin but the kids have grown and the crowd has grown. This year, it was at some sports complex. I felt lucky to be included and also happy to watch my little girls run around the field with their older cousins.

On the way home, stuck in traffic on route 95, we listened to the full version of Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant. Radio stations around the country play the 18-minute version on Thanksgiving and we first caught it on the way home from the football game years back. We were running late, my father-in-law and me in the front seat, my husband squished in the backseat with the girls, and we crept along, listening to the rollicking bridge of the song played over Guthrie’s narrative.

We arrived home. My mother-in-law was rightfully annoyed that we had run behind. She and I chatted in her bedroom while she stewed and I felt really daughter-like in that moment.

As the rest of the family came over, we heated the food that we cooked the day before. My father-in-law fussed over the turkey, and made a mess in his wake. We collaborated on the gravy which he presented proudly when we sat down to eat together.

Dinner was delicious and lovely. It began with the kindergarteners, my daughter and her cousin, making presentations they had practiced in school. My nephew read a story and my daughter recited a poem. Our table has changed over the years and their dear little faces making brave proclamations made me smile even if they rejected the cranberry sauce I dutifully prepared for them.

After dinner, the children played on their own and most of the adults played dominoes. The early dinner gave way to a later bedtime and eventually my eldest asked for help brushing her teeth. The cousins left, the hubub quieted, and my children drifted off to sleep, bellies full of hot chocolate, cookies, donuts, turkey and cake.

And the weekend ambled on just like that, with food and people and leisure. I learned to knit again, and after suffering through a frustrating session of casting on, the knitting and purling flowed easily. I watched a silly movie with my in-laws, snuggled on the their new couch. I talked on the phone to my sister, also at her mother-in-law’s house this holiday, and I felt like a teenager gabbing with her best friend. I visited with old friends of my husband’s who were now my old friends, too. I looked around at this family that was now my family. I felt at home.

We drove home after dinner on Saturday night. The girls were deep asleep in the backseat when we pulled into the icy driveway. We unlocked the house and carried their tired, curly heads up to their beds, my favorite parenting duty. I remember being carried in to my family home after a holiday at my grandparents’ house growing up, riding in the backseat of the Bonneville rousing to see Boathouse Row–“the gingerbread houses” as we knew them–lit up at night and then snuggling back in for the remainder of the ride across the Ben Franklin Bridge. I always felt so safe when my parents first carried then ushered me back into our house.

It was a weekend where I felt so saliently like a daughter and a mother, and rather than feel the tension between those two roles, I felt squished snugly into them.

Our Sunday at home was full of catching up and playing around. And Sunday night was a whirlwind of cooking, fixing and cleaning to feel ready to face this first Monday of December. The run up to the last month of the year makes me wonder if I’ve been asleep for weeks.

And I remembered the melancholy essay I wrote five days ago, the one I thought no one would understand. With some distance and headspace, I felt less agitated. I had struggled to capture something so simple: no amount of thankfulness or gratitude or grace will ever be enough to make others know or feel the kind of peace I feel some times.

And I could let this idea crush me or I could simply shine thankfulness all of the time.

And so it goes.

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I’ll say it: Halloween is not a big deal

I’ve been thinking about Halloween a lot lately because as a parent with two small children, I’ve been sucked into this nostalgia that I simply don’t share.  Growing up, Halloween was just not that big of a deal to us.

In the Leventhal house, there was no planning our costumes, no mother toiling over a sewing machine, no decorating the door and conspiring to scare neighborhood kids. It was the mid-1980’s and my parents told us that Halloween was a pagan holiday and that we didn’t celebrate it. I never fought or questioned them, and as such we have few if any photos of my sister and me in costumes, trick or treating. And neither of us is scarred by this fact.

At the time, I went to a private, Jewish school, so the idea of a school-based Halloween celebration was not something I knew or understood, and as most of my friends were spread across town, I didn’t feel left out staying home to hand out candy. And because we lived in four houses before we settled into my “family house” in the fifth grade, we didn’t have close relationships with our neighbors. There were few invitations to go trick or treating with the other kids in the neighborhood, and my mother probably felt like the whole charade was a silly, waste of time.

My mother’s disenchantment with Halloween certainly came from a place of fatigue. My mom was on her own many nights because my dad taught high school by day and community college classes at night. She couldn’t take us trick or treating AND man the house. She was supremely irritated that the public school could require costumes for a parade–I wore the same witch costume in the fourth, fifth and sixth grade parade. My sister in her little angel costume did the same for first, second and third grade. When I went off to middle school, she inherited the witch ensemble. My mother could envision no other choices, and did not entertain other possibilities. And on the few occasions that we went out to collect candy, she would inventory the spoils and trade us for the stockpile. I didn’t care too much about the candy and usually nabbed some new paperbacks out of the deal, so I was happy.

As I got older and as kids could go out trick or treating on their own, I felt a little left out of the Halloween evening plans. I lacked the creativity to come up with my own costumes and my mother was certainly no help. In college, I tried to be creative, but learned early on that clever costumes are tough to pull off. After trying out Ginger from Gilligan’s Island and Tito in the Jackson 5 (just an excuse to wear some incredible plaid pants), I did what any self-respecting co-ed would do on Halloween: I slutted it up.

Slutting it up was kind of fun (and slightly cold) if only for a night. One specific October 31st, I am sure that my vodka jacket was directly responsible for my warmth because my “ice princess” ensemble was pretty useless. There was a white boa and silver platform shoes involved, of course. Nothing clever at all.

After college, I sort of gave up. Every year, I buy one bag of candy corn and try to make it last a whole month. And I don’t think about what I’ll be for Halloween. I don’t feel deprived because I have no opinion about Halloween. I like dressing in costumes as long as I don’t have to come up with the costume ideas. I really like candy. Who doesn’t like seeing their neighbors? I just really don’t like spooky, creepy things, horror movies, zombies, haunted houses or hayrides. I don’t even carve the pumpkin in this house. I like my autumnal entertainment as benign as possible.

In the past twenty years, though, Halloween has acquired a true secular, commercial status in American life. As a child, it was easy to abstain or avoid. Now, conscientious objection looks like you’re a big party pooper. And I’m not really a conscientious objector–I truly object to Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day on multiple grounds, but Halloween is like nothing at all in my mind. I just don’t really care. And if it wasn’t for our kids, I probably wouldn’t give Halloween a second thought.

Still, I have to care or put on the mantle of caring because my little daughters know about Halloween. My kindergartner daughter has been waiting for the Halloween parade at her school. She has been doing candy corn math problems and reading pumpkin stories. Every person she meets asks her what she’ll be for Halloween. I want them to feel in the loop if they want to be, and I know that I can’t layer on my own malaise about this pseudo-holiday.

This morning, my older daughter woke up and her first sentence out loud was, “Guys! It’s Halloween today!” I imagine this is what it is like to celebrate Christmas.

So today, we’ll join up with some neighborhood kids and walk up our street and collect candy. My girls are too early to broker a true trade, so we’ll let them keep a few pieces of candy and I’ll bring the rest to my seminar students on Monday.

The only upshot of Halloween is that it helps us autumn lovers hold on dearly to pumpkins, apple picking, mulled cider, warm sweaters (if it ever got cold enough) and fall leaves, because tomorrow, Christmas will be upon us.

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