Counting our Blessings on the Last Shabbat of Summer Vacation

Happy Labor Day weekend!  Every year, I anticipate Labor Day weekend with both a smile and a bittersweet taste in my mouth.  It always brings some kind of fun celebration, but in so doing it marks the end of summer (a particularly big deal for those of us who live in New England).  Unlike last year, when the Jewish New Year collided with the start of the school year, we still have a few weeks to go before Rosh Hashanah.  But for parents of school-aged children, Labor Day marks a transition into another kind of new year.  A new year of earlier school day wake-ups, school uniforms to keep clean, and new groups of teachers, parents and children to get to know.

We have had a lot of fun this summer.  It was Ruthie’s first summer at real “big kid” day camp, and a huge developmental period for Chaya.  We had a great vacation in Maine, and a lot of weekend adventures.  We made wonderful memories with family and friends.

As I prepare to for this last summer weekend, I thought I’d take a moment to count some of the blessings of the summer, and think about how I might carry them into the next three seasons.  Here are some things I’ll remember:

  1. Every once in a while, its okay to stay up late to sit around the campfire, or run around like crazy monkeys with a gaggle of cousins.
  2. Every once in a while, it is good to go to bed early to make up for the late nights.
  3. Try not to sweat the sand in the bottom of the backpack.  It is a measure of how great the day has been.  And as long as you are careful it won’t ruin your plumbing.
  4. Similarly, relish the mud on your face.  Cake some more on, while you are at it.
  5. Never underestimate the power of a breath of fresh air.
  6. Don’t let the rain scare you from going outside.
  7. Every nook and cranny can be a stage for singing “Let It Go,” as long as you have a vision for it.

Those are a few of the gifts from our summer.  What are yours?

Mourning, Consolation and Joy

The night before I left for my family vacation, I paid a shiva call to a friend who had just lost her sister.  In the middle of my visit, a rabbi friend-of-the-family led those present through the first night’s shiva minyan.  Before we began the Mourner’s Kaddish, the rabbi explained that this night was a very special Shabbat.  It was Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation.  After the somber observance of Tisha B’Av, Shabbat Nachamu begins seven weeks of consolation, of shifting from mourning to comfort as we clear our minds and prepare for the New Year.  It was a beautiful frame to put around this heartbreaking time, and gave those of us present a sense of purpose in being with my friend’s family in that moment.  It also fortified me as I prepared for my annual trip to the Maine lakes, a trip that my Mom organized for 29 years, including 2012, the year she, like my friend’s sister, lost her life to cancer.

When I arrived at the lake, I sensed so many things that were missing, so many things to mourn.  The plastic bins she packed neatly with games and crafts were missing, replaced by a mish-mash of last-minute items I had thrown into canvas bags.  There was an empty seat around the campfire, and no easel set up on the dock, waiting for a sunset to paint.  When I think of my mom in Maine, I see her smiling in the oversized neon green and blue plaid shirt she inherited from an old high school friend of mine, and her laughter echoes off of the lake.  There are so many ways in which she is not there, and I mourn them all each year that I go up without her.

Sisters discovering a new farm for picking blueberries together. Credit: Eliza Berman

But this year I carried the rabbi’s words about Shabbat Nachamu with me, and tried not to look back quite so much.  There were consolations and small comforts all around me if I opened my eyes to the present.  The beauty and tranquility of the lake are gifts that live on.  My Dad, siblings, and our kids and partners are still a family: a family that treks hours through weekend summer traffic to be together, to cook hot dogs on an open flame and then to find a new stone to overturn – a new farm to visit, or a new craft project to undertake.  I can see a paintable sunset and relish it, even if I can’t paint it like my mom could.  My nephew, whose entire life began after my Mom died, is making his way fiercely in the world and reminding me of how much of life remains for all of us to discover.

And then I found another new joy that surprised me. My girls are becoming friends.  Not in the way it’s been, where I can get Ruthie to distract Chaya with a book while I change my shirt, or where the girls sit beside each other at the table but interact on separate mental planes. A real friendship is blossoming between them, one which is uniquely theirs, and in which I am only a supporting character.  While we were on vacation, they created their own games together, skipping rocks in the pond side-by-side and enlisting my sister and me for hours of “beauty salon” activities.  They sought each other out to try new jokes and held hands in the backseat of the car.  And there was nothing as consoling as this friendship, which has to be one of parenthood’s greatest gifts.

One of my favorite Jewish notions is that of sacred continuity – that we must remember our past in order to best be in the present and plan for a better future.  Shabbat Nachamu is a bridge from a recollection of loss to an appreciation of what is around us. During my week on the lake, I made a small pilgrimage over that bridge. And with the New Year approaching, I will carry the clarity I found in Maine and continue to seek out consolation and joy.

A Walk in the Woods, A Conversation About Life and Death, A Moment of Connection

A nurse log in the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska.

I have a talkative family. Mostly, our everyday conversations are about routine topics such as schedules, work, food, sports, and updates on family and friends, but there are moments when we have rich conversations about meatier subjects such as ethics, history, faith and fate.

These thoughtful discussions are never planned, they happen organically. But while the timing of them is unpredictable, I have noticed that they tend to take place in three locations: in the car, around the Shabbat table, and in nature.

Maybe these conversations happen in these spots because we are relaxed, our minds are cleared of to-do lists, and our hands and eyes are freed from electronics. Or maybe the settings put us in a contemplative mood. Whatever the cause, I cherish these opportunities to connect with my family, and especially my son Sammy who is about to enter his preteen years officially.

In these magical moments, my husband and I get to hear our son’s thoughts about life, values, God, and spirituality, and our son hears the same from us. Depending on the themes we’re discussing, we weave in details about history, Judaism, books, science and other relevant topics. Because our son is present and engaged in these conversations, he absorbs and is more receptive to the information being presented.

On a walk in the Vermont woods during our recent summer vacation, the subjects of life and death came-up. I pointed out a nurse log on the side of the path. A nurse log is a decomposing tree trunk that provides the moisture and nutrients necessary for the growth of new plants. We learned about them last summer during a hike in Alaska.

As we looked at the log, Sammy said that all living things, including people, are like nurse logs. He explained his theory of what happens when people die and are buried. He said that as the bodies decay, nutrients are added to the soil, the enriched soil nourishes the growth of new life in the form of plants.

I thought his idea was quite logical, in line with Sammy’s often scientifically oriented thinking. Then he said, “But the question is, do people live on in some way. What happens to a person’s soul?”

I explained that many Jews believe we live on through the legacy that we leave behind – our family, reputation, work and good deeds. Sammy acknowledged that this was one way–a tangible way–to think about living on, but that wasn’t what he was talking about. His thoughts were metaphysical in nature.

He said he believed that when the body decays part of its soul moves into the plant that grows from the soil that has been nourished during decomposition. When an animal eats the plant, it absorbs the soul. In this way, the soul moves up the food chain eventually reaching another person.

My husband and I listened intently while Sammy shared his ideas. We were fascinated by how he easily his mind moved between rational and mystical thinking, and how he interwove concrete and abstract concepts.

I shared with him that the idea that the soul moves through different realms after death is present in Judaism. “Really?” He said.

“Really. Some Jews believe that when they recite the Kaddish for a loved one who has died, it lifts the soul of the deceased from one spiritual world to another moving it ever higher each year that the Mourner’s Prayer is said.”

“Wow. That’s pretty cool,” Sammy replied. He then added, “Don’t you love when we have these kinds of conversations? I mean we were talking about a nurse log and now we’re talking about the soul.”

My husband and I do love these conversations as much as Sammy. They are unlike our everyday parent-child interactions. There is no nagging, admonishing, reminding or repeating. We appreciate these small opportunities to build connection and family intimacy because, in our hyperscheduled, too-busy-for-downtime lives these moments aren’t always easy to find.

Happy Second Birthday to My Little Dancer

My little Chaya turned two this month.  Two is a lot of fun. She is developing language at lightening speed, and even though I feel that Eric and I already know her better than anyone else (except, I must admit, her sister Ruthie), it feels as if I get to meet her anew every time she throws another new sentence together. She is just learning how to make a joke, and she loves figuring out how to make us laugh. She is firmly committed to figuring out her place in the world, which sometimes means she shows a glimmer of a “terrible two’s” tantrum, and can be a bit bossy, but overall is just a fascinating study in human development. And on that note, in honor of her birthday, I wanted to share a little story of a deliciously 2-year-old thing she did at Shabbat this month.

A few weeks ago, we were stuck in the throes of a typical Friday night. The girls were both exhausted, and attempting to eat their way through the kitchen cabinets in a race against my ability to get a balanced dinner on the table. Eric was home just a few minutes past his planned arrival time, which was hardly a disaster but meant the dog still needed to go out and the table wasn’t really set. I could hear the sound of chaos in our dining room, and was trying to figure out how to transition us into a peaceful welcoming of our Friday night.

I decided to try something different. Instead of attempting to commandeer everyone into their seats at a nicely set table, I waited until everyone was in the general vicinity of the dining room, made my Shabbat-commencing-confirming eye contact with Eric, and lit the match for the candles. Aha. I had everyone’s attention. I lit the candles, covered my eyes, and began to say the blessing.

Just as the blessing came out of my mouth, Chaya started to dance. I gave up on peeking and just uncovered my eyes. We all looked over at our smallest family member, who was watching the candles with a huge grin on her face, dancing to the melody of the blessing.

It may be a little trite, but this two-year-old was trying to tell us that Shabbat is something about which we should be dancing. More than that, it felt like a bit of a parenting victory. I often feel like when I start a ritual I never know how long it will take to stick, or even if it will stick. This goes across the board, from something as big as Shabbat or as small as teaching the girls to put their clothes in the hamper when they’re dirty. When Chaya danced, it felt like I wasn’t teaching her about Shabbat – she got it, and in her own way, even better than what I tried to teach her.

I doubt Chaya is going to dance every week, or even that I can transition our house from chaos to commonality every Friday like I did that week. But I am thankful for a two-year old who teaches me to see things in new ways, and whose gifts to me will always outnumber what I give to her.