Sunday, November 29, 2009
Friday, November 20, 2009
Sig Other is a chivalrous man. And so, when a reader of my blog made a comment to him that I wrote as a woman who clearly had never birthed children of her own, he took offense on my behalf. It was very sweet of him. The statement was made, as I recall, as an observation about a certain lack of warmth that this reader equated with an unused uterus (or at least unused as far as reproductivity is concerned). And Sig Other took offense because the statement felt like an insult.
But whether it was meant to be or not, I take no such offense at the comment made by a woman who doesn’t know me. It is true that my uterus is not well used. And it is true that I am sometimes warm and sometimes not. But I have never thought to equate warmth (mine or any one else’s really) with motherliness. I know some women who have birthed quite a few of their own young and are still quite chilly. And likewise, there are women I’ve known with no biological issue who are warm and cozy. I consider myself a member of neither category. I consider myself a person who loves the children in her life and doesn’t give much consideration one way or other to their origin.
Perhaps this is tradition in my family. I had two great aunts – one from my mother’s side and one from my father’s – who were childless. One, I would say, was tragically so. The other, not at all. Both were diminutive and both had careers far more successful than most women of their generation. And both were well loved.
First there was Great Aunt Henny. Henny was a seamstress and worked for Bob Mackie at the height of his career. She would fly to Vegas and onto movie sets to fit glittery dresses onto the svelte figures of Cher, Diana Ross and Carol Burnett. She was married to Uncle Max. I loved Max because Max had a little poodle named Shoo Shoo and because he would bring us pepper beef and pastrami and because he was generally a delightful great uncle. But I was a little, little girl. And what I didn’t know is that Max was an alcoholic. And a cheater. And a louse. Max was also sterile (the least offensive of his negative attributes). And he failed to share this fact with Henny until just before their wedding night. She was stunned and devastated and called my grandmother (her sister) who told her it wasn’t too late to call it off. But Henny was ashamed and embarrassed and worried she’d never find another man. And in the end, Henny decided that she was better off with a cheating drunk than with no man at all. She had no children but treated her two nieces and grandchildren as her own. She sewed for us and doted on us and worried about us. And asked nothing in return. I remember going to visit her in the hospital as she lay dying. She was 68 pounds – a frail bag of skin and bones – and she had no real idea who was in the room with her. I was there with my sister and my aunt and two cousins. And though she couldn’t tell you any of our names, still she knew she was surrounded by family. Finally, at the very end, she seemed at peace.
And then there’s Rose. Rose is still alive and in her 90s and sort of fabulous. Rose never had children. And Rose never married. Rose was one of the first female vice presidents in the advertising business and every time I watch Mad Men I imagine her as a prettier, less awkward (and certainly less Catholic) version of Peggy – ahead of her time, navigating the waters of abject chauvinism and ballsy feminism. Rose was also little (although never fragile) and a natural redhead until well into her 70s when she lied about her age so she would not be forced into retirement. Rose took a class at Hunter (her alma mater) every semester and a trip somewhere interesting in the world once a year. She went to the opera, the symphony and the theater every chance she got and took a bus to every single destination. She now lives in a retirement home in the countryside where she is looked after by my cousin who lives nearby. But I remember almost a decade ago having lunch with Rose in a little bistro around the corner from her New York apartment. It was fall and she was wearing her jaunty beret. She told me that the only real downside of getting older was that she had to find new friends – all of hers had died. And so now she was cultivating a new group of pals – much younger – all in their seventies. And she told me if she had it to do all over again she would have had children.
Two childless women on either side of my family. Both terribly influential in my life. Both for entirely different reasons. Rose because I admire her – admire her energy and her lust for life. Henny more as a cautionary tale – she was so kind and so generous and so deeply insecure that she could never get out from under her own self image. But both women with deep connections to children in their lives. Both women who I would think of as warm first and childless last.
I guess my point is this – it sort of depends on what you think of as childless. Rose and Henny were childless by any traditional definition of the word. They had not bourn children of their own. They did not adopt babies and raise them in their homes. But they were influential forces to us and, I imagine, to many who did not share their blood. And they were warm.
In a world where warmth and kindness are scarce enough commodities, I’m not sure that fertility and gestation should be the final arbiters of what makes a mother. Nor am I sure that being “childless” is any kind of insult at all. I am not bothered by a comment made by a woman I don’t know. I’m not bothered by whether I seem like a person who has birthed her own young. And I’m not sure we should live in a society that judges the value or warmth of a woman by the yield (or lack thereof) of her reproductive organs.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
The strange thing about being a Jew is that you can be an agnostic or even an atheist and still call yourself a Jew. I’m not sure this holds true for Catholics or Protestants or Mormons or Muslims. I’m going to guess there are not a lot of folks wandering around calling themselves both Catholic AND atheist in the same breath. They might say they are lapsed Catholics or were raised in the Catholic church and left. But it doesn’t feel like there are a lot of Catholic atheists hanging on to the “Catholic” part.
I was not raised in a religious household. We celebrated Hanukah as a consolation prize to being screwed out of Christmas and periodically I would go to my grandparents’ house for Passover. I liked the food. I knew my father hated religion and my mother opposed it as a polarizing force but was somewhat less reactionary in general.
So how did I, a lapsed atheist, sometime agnostic but always Jew, end up with a rabbi? How did I find myself, at the age of 43, a person with a rabbi I call my own? It began with Sig Other, of course. Sig Other desired an experience of Jewish life, for himself and the children, authentic enough to exercise both the intellectual and the traditional. For me, the bonus was a rabbi who is young, who was not raised religiously but came to her Judaism later in life, and for whom an absolute belief in God is less important a requirement for her congregants than the desire to learn about, be aware of and engage in the world around us. Her brand of Judaism hovers somewhere over the chasm between conservative and way-out, hippie-dippy, drumbeating, left-wing progression. Hers is a community dedicated to social justice and diversity.
The weirdness of saying a sentence that includes the phrase “my rabbi” is not lost on me. I’m not a person with a rabbi. I’m not a person who had even met any rabbis for the first three decades of my life. But then I met Rabbi Mark who is B’s rabbi. He and I would have coffee every now and then and he gave the eulogy at my great aunt’s funeral. And through Sig Other, I met Mendel, the Hassid who won’t shake my hand but is warm and friendly nonetheless. And then charming Rabbi Seidler-Feller who came to the door in a white kittle and wrapped me in a huge hug the first time we met. And then, finally, I met Rabbi Sharon Brous. And because of her, I can say sentences that include the phrase, “my rabbi.”
My rabbi is young. And my rabbi is a woman. The latter thrills me. The former periodically makes me uncomfortable. I have a distinct awareness of the fact that I have a decade of life experience greater than that of my rabbi. But so too am I aware that my rabbi has wisdom of text and of history that I could never approach. My rabbi, in spite of (or maybe because of) her age, has a depth of empathy I will never access. This is the rabbi who calls to check on the health of the children, the rabbi who called when Sig Other’s father died and two months later when my stepfather passed. This is the rabbi who married us. This is the rabbi who will preside over the bar mitzvah of Child Two.
My rabbi doesn’t make it easy. Her brand of Judaism comes in a shiny wrapper promising joyous music and an open community. And all of promise is fulfilled. But underneath the pretty paper, just past the joyous melodies, you’ll find a firebrand of a leader – a rabbi who cautions us against complacency and urges us all to look around at the world as it is and make it our responsibility to help it become the world as it should be. And this is also the rabbi whose husband asks for the recipe to the fig and feta salad and who asks if she’s wearing the right outfit on various occasions. She is friend, scholar, advisor, leader and little girl all at the same time. This is the modern rabbi. And I am thrilled to be able to call her, my own.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
We don’t pay much attention to the homeless in L.A. Not really. Maybe they’re not paid much attention in any city in the world. But it feels like Los Angeles is the place where a person is least likely to really pay any attention at all to a homeless person. We don’t spend much time on our own sidewalks. We’re in our cars, not pounding the pavement. So it’s easy to drive by and not pay attention. We, the privileged few in the vast fortunate desert of Southern California, pay attention to those we know. We pay attention to the Jews. We pay attention to the cancer-stricken. We pay attention to the gays (although clearly not enough or I’d have many more weddings to attend). We pay attention to rare diseases that tragically visit the lives of the rich and famous. But we do not pay attention to the homeless. After all, we don’t know those people.
But today, I paid attention to a homeless guy. He was sitting outside the Starbucks on Ventura just west of Laurel. And he had a sign in front of him. The first time I passed him, I didn’t read the sign and barely made note of his presence. I then passed him the second time and thought, “I should give that guy something.” This is not a normal thought for me. Giving money to the homeless is not my first instinct. Mostly I tend to feel frustrated that their presence makes me feel guilty. I don’t want to feel guilty. I don’t want to BE guilty. But I am. And I kept walking.
By the time we got to the car, I still hadn’t looked in that homeless man’s face nor had I read his sign. But the fact that I’d walked by twice and given nothing weighed on me. So I said to Sig Other, “I need to go back and give that man something.” We pulled out of the parking lot and I asked S.O. to drop me at the corner as he went on to his next errand. “I’ll meet you,” I said. And I crossed the street and went back to where that man was still sitting.
As I approached, I looked at him. I mean I really took a good look. He was a man without a face. A fire or some other accident had left him with a hole where his nose used to be and scars from his hairline to his chin. There were no eyebrows left and his eyes were mostly iris – very little white showed so what was left was dark and piercing. His hands were badly disfigured as well and, as he reached out for the money, it looked as if he was missing a few fingers. “Thanks,” he said. “You’re very welcome,” I said. And I turned and walked away.
I thought about him the rest of the day – wondered what had happened to him, if he’d ever been a person that did not live on the street asking for money, if he’d ever been a person with a face. And I thought about the indignity. I certainly didn’t feel terribly dignified handing over a few dollars and then going back to my comfortable life. And I could not imagine the indignity of sitting on a street corner with my back against a wall and a sign in front of me asking for money. I could not imagine the indignity that must preceed all the steps it takes to get to that place or the pain he must have suffered physically and mentally. A man with a face. A man without a home. And yet he didn’t act undignified. He didn’t bow and scrape and say “God Bless You” as thanks for the pittance I offered. He didn’t smile and wish me a good day. He just gave a simple thanks. It was, after all, a simple transaction.
I wondered, too, if the man without a face thought about me again at any point in the day. Do you think about the person handing you money or just what the money will buy? I hoped for the latter honestly. And hoped I wasn’t his only visitor that day.
Monday, November 9, 2009
Sig Other likes to be talked to sleep. His favorite thing is the snuggle up close on my side of the bed, wrap his arms around me and say, “tell me the impressions of the day.” Rarely does he actually have the opportunity to ask me about the impressions of the day because nine nights out of ten, I’m dead asleep before he turns out the lights. This is not ideal for Sig Other as he hates to be alone and, to him, being awake when I am asleep is about as lonely as it gets. But lately I haven’t slept so well. There’s a lot on my mind. So, lately, Sig Other has had more opportunity to hear about the impressions of the day.
The other night, in response to the request for the impressions of the day, I started talking about Abraham. The guy from the bible. I don’t know a whole lot about Abraham. I never read the bible or went to Hebrew school. And I am most likely way out of my depth engaging in this conversation. But I had come from a study class with my rabbi and had Abraham on my mind.
In class that evening, we were talking about the tension inherent in Judaism. And we were looking at a particular passage from the Torah, which begins with God’s inner monologue about whether or not to tell Abraham that he is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. And that’s weird enough. Why is God talking to himself much less questioning (or strategizing) whether or not he should let Abraham in on his plan? THEN, God tells Abraham and Abraham, in a display of pure hubris, challenges God. And not only does he challenge God, he WINS. And not only does he WIN, he keeps going. First, Abraham gets God to agree to save Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of fifty good men. But that is not enough for Abraham. He keeps going. What about forty, thirty, twenty, ten? And God agrees. Of course in the middle of this negotiation, Abraham does something brilliant. Abraham says to God, “I am but dust”. He basically kisses God’s ass in the middle of the negotiation and, EVEN THOUGH HE IS WINNING, he takes a moment to compliment God and acknowledge his own subservience. And then he keeps going until he gets what he wants. Fucking brilliant. Of course, there are not ten good men and so God destroys the cities anyway.
But the destruction of Sodom is not the thing I care about. This passage alone is not the thing that haunts me. What haunts me is another passage. The passage where Abraham recognizes that the world was “created for my sake.” This is the thing about Abraham and his story that is so interesting. Abraham acknowledges on the one hand that the world was created “for my sake.” And on the other, he also admits to God, “I am but dust”. My rabbi often talks about the notion that to be a Jew is to walk around with a piece of paper in each pocket – in one pocket is a piece of paper that says “the world was created for my sake” and in the other, a piece of paper that says “I am but dust.”
Clearly, my evening class with the rabbi had my head spinning with this idea. What does it mean to live this paradox? What does it mean to be the most significant and the least in the same moment? Is this meant to be the lesson of Abraham? Maybe. “But,” I said to Sig Other as I continued on my rant about Abraham, “I don’t think is that this duality is what defines our lives as Jews. I think this duality is what defines our lives as humans. To be alive is to walk the knife-edge ridge of hubris and humility. To be alive is to be in constant conflict with overactive ego and crippling lack of self-esteem. To be alive is to be simultaneously aware of the individual vs. the social. Am I for myself or am I for you? And if I am not for myself how can I be for you? The great struggle of my adult life is to try to balance my inherent selfishness with my desire to get outside of myself and do something greater – for my family, for my community, for the world. Likewise the struggle between “I’m great” and “I’m shit” is sort of a constant.”
I paused to take a breath here – I felt I was really getting to something deep – that I was about to uncover something truly insightful about myself through the my newfound spectacular knowledge of three paragraphs of the Torah when suddenly I realized that Sig Other’s breathing had slowed and was being accentuated by an ever-so-slight snore on the inhale. I think I’d lost him somewhere between “Sodom” and “Gomorrah”. Or maybe even at the mention of Abraham. It didn’t matter, really. I would talk to him about Abraham some other time. “M,” I said, “are you asleep?” “No,” he replied in a muffled voice, “I’m listening to every word. Keep talking. Its so nice.” And I did, though I know he had no awareness of anything other than the hum of my voice.
Friday, November 6, 2009
There is nothing quite so blissful as first class on British Airways from London to Los Angeles. I especially covet flying in this direction as it means the fulfillment of my biggest fantasy – extra hours in the day! I leave at 4pm, arrive at 7pm but have an amazing, hermetically sealed ten hours. Never mind that the math is disastrous in the opposite direction. I focus on my extra ten hours with no cell service, no email access and plenty of time to read, snooze and catch up on movies. That is, of course, assuming that those around me adhere to the basic rules of flight etiquette.
The basic rules of flight etiquette, in my opinion, demand a certain kind of awareness. The traveler must realize that the sanctity of the pod creates the illusion of privacy within a somewhat public space. So in order to maintain this illusion, I believe two simple rules must be enforced. Keep to yourself. And keep quiet.
But today, someone broke the rules. There I was, bobbing along above the clouds, blissfully hovering between a script and a nap and thoroughly enjoying the downtime after a grueling 24 hours of meetings when suddenly, my bliss bubble was popped by screeching laughter from the pod behind me. A woman’s high pitched voice, piercing the solitude and violating the rules of pod travel while watching some comedy or other on her teeny tiny movie screen. “Ok,” I thought to myself, “clearly this is a one time outburst.” And then a man’s booming laugh. Her husband, in the pod next to her, watching the same movie but on a 45 second delay. For the next two hours, every time she laughed, he laughed shortly thereafter. Needless to say, neither was happy with just one movie during the flight.
Why, you might ask, didn’t I get up and simply ask them to pipe down? Why didn’t I politely suggest that they might giggle more discreetly? Or even send the steward on the cruel errand? Why? I guess in part I was envious. How wonderful to be so completely unselfconscious that you can roar with laughter in your own private bubble! How amazing to be swept away by a movie or a tv show and lose yourself for a moment or two (or in their case, ten hours or so)!
So I ignored them as best I could. I put on my own headset and popped up my own teeny, tiny screen and lost myself in Roman Holiday for the twentieth time, and wept into my mint tea and scones with clotted crème. I still believe in the sanctity of the pod but I am oddly tickled by the loud, movie-watching couple. Bon Voyage!
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Child One is feeling better. She was sick last week. Missed three days of school and a horseshow. At the first sign of congestion (accompanied by intense exhaustion), I told her to stay home. Her compliance was proof positive that she wasn’t well. Since her incident three years ago, any sign of illness is a yellow flag to all of us. Three sets of parental eyes stare warily at Child One if she coughs, much less shows signs of exhaustion, body aches or temperature. We cautiously watch her frail physique, searching for signs of recurrence of the illness that stole so many months of her 14th year. It was not a major illness this time – not something that would last for months and drain her of her energy and spirit – not something that would shake all of us to our very cores and force us to marvel at our helplessness in the face of her illness. This was just a cold. Child Two is not better. He’s on week two of some mystery illness and is weak and tired and sick of being sick. Maybe it’s a low-grade flu, maybe mono or maybe just a cold.
A cold, it turns out, does not bring out the best in me. Nor does a flu, or any kind of fleeting infectious illness. It isn’t that I’m unwilling to cater to the sick. I’m quite good at squeezing an orange, steeping a cup of fresh ginger tea, creating a tempting meal to feed the low appetite of a cold or fever and run around to find the extra blanket, the perfect pillow and a good old fashioned movie for watching. It’s just that I don’t like it. I don’t want to spend my time around sick people. I redeem no self-esteem vouchers for wiping the noses of others or mopping their sweaty brows. I take no pride in sopping up vomit. I am relatively healthy and want to remain so. The idea of spending time in close proximity to someone who I KNOW is infectious does not excite me.
I know this is not very maternal. I know it is not very nurturing. I know that a lack of desire to cater to the ill is not my strong suit. I don’t want to be around sick people and when I’m sick, I don’t want anyone around me. I don’t want someone around petting me, mopping my brow or catering to me. I look bad when I’m sick. My nose is red, my eyes are puffy and my skin lacks radiance. And I’m either cranky or weak like a kitten. Why, on earth, would I ever subject anyone, much less a loved one, to that?
I subscribe to the Ebola theory. You know what I mean – the tribal practice dictating that members exposed to the deadly virus are locked in their hut the minute they become symptomatic. If they emerge from the hut within four days (the period of time it takes the disease to run its course), they are accepted back into the community and are assumed to have built immunity. If they do not emerge, the hut is burned with the diseased inside. This, I think, is the perfect way to deal with illness. Let me go to my hut and be left alone. I don’t want anyone waiting on me.
But Sig Other does not subscribe to theory of the burning hut. Sig Other likes company when he’s sick AND when he’s well. Sig Other does not want to be alone. When he’s sick, Sig Other wants me to hold his hand and stroke his head and tell him that everything will be all right. When he’s well, Sig Other wants me to hold his hand and stroke his head while he tells ME everything will be all right.
And of course the children are not interested in the burning hut either. They like company. They like to be close. They don’t like to be alone. They want to share their snotty, sweaty maladies and are blissfully unaware of the petrie dish like environment that follows them around like Pigpen’s dust cloud. The children are germ bombs – deadly little explosives just waiting to go off. I love them. But this is fact.
I would love to be the stepmother who turns into Florence Nightingale at the first sign of a sniffle. I’d love to want to wrap the snotty little infectious creatures in my arms until they are healed. But really what I want is to lock them in their rooms and cut a slot in the their doors through which I can pass fresh juice and hot soup until they are well enough to emerge. I’ll make the soup from scratch. I’ll harvest and squeeze the juice myself. I just don’t want to be exposed to their illness. Is that so wrong?