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Letter to an Old Love

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“We’ve got an old love.”

It’s true. I’ve known you more than half my life.

I remember when I first met your family, for the I-think-we-are-going-get-married interview. Your grandma, who by then was not leaving her apartment too often, came to Sunday brunch at your mom’s house.  She sat across the table from your cousins Harry and Sally, and discussed in Yiddish whether I was a suitable match for you.  I struggled not to let on that I understood a few, key words of their conversation.

I think it was after we had eaten, when I was in the kitchen with her, that Mom told me, “Honey, I’ll always take your side.”  But that might have been after we got engaged.

Shortly after we married, you adopted a standard response to the question, “What do you call the rabbi’s husband?” It always gets a laugh. I am smiling as I type these words—even though I’ve probably heard that joke more than fifty times—because, really, I’m the one who is “lucky.”

We were married almost ten years when you first played this song for me.  I remember thinking that it wasn’t your typical type of music—more country/folk than classic rock or classical—and that we didn’t actually have an old love yet.  Still, I played the CD until it wore out, and every time I heard Neal & Leandra singing I thought about our future together.

As you celebrate this milestone, the age of counsel—not yet “old age” or the time for “whitened hair,” according to the rabbis of the Mishnah—my wish for you is that you retain your sense of humor for the second act, the time for old love. We can’t know what’s ahead, but I expect we’ll need to laugh at ourselves even more than we did in the first act.

“We don’t know just what’s in store,

But in spite of all of this,

I don’t love you like I did,

Why, I love you so much more.”

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Hiding in the Basement

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I’m not really hiding…just sitting down here. I came downstairs to throw a load of laundry in the dryer and decided to stay.

It’s cool and damp, and a faint odor of clay permeates the air. Camp art adorns the walls–what’s left of them after the flood remediation team visited.

Thinking that I might find inspiration and relief from the distractions upstairs, I brought my writer’s notebook and three pens with me. They sit, undisturbed, on the corner of the wedging table while I tap the keys in front of me. My wrists rest gently on the canvas, and the scratching sensation is not unpleasant.

Periodically, I look up at the mural on the wall. It has been nearly a decade since my hevruta (friend & study partner) visited to celebrate our completion of the first order of the Mishnah. Even then, as my scholarly head was immersed in the study of text, my artist’s heart was drawn to the pottery studio.

I asked one of my Rabbinic Literature students, who had also taken a class in Cartooning, to draw the scene of the Bikkurim in outline so that our guests could contribute color using oil pastels. I remember that some of the adults hesitated; perhaps someone had told them, when they were children, that they weren’t “good at art.” I encouraged everyone to spend a few minutes playing before the formal lesson began. I believe that we adults benefit from finding outlets for our inner children. If creating art is a vehicle for opening our hearts to the beauty around us and expressing the beauty within us, then we are all “good at art.”

My fingers are still on the keyboard but my eyes rest on the mural. I am lost in memory, breathing slowly, inhaling the inspiration I have found in the basement.

2,000 years ago, my ancestors brought the first fruits of their harvest to Jerusalem in celebration of the pilgrimage festival of Shavuot. Today, I dedicate the fruits of my labor to the Jewish people. And I pray for the inspiration and wisdom to continue working–and playing in the basement–for many more years.

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Losing at Scrabble

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When my children were younger, I liked to read parenting books to learn the latest theories of psychologists and educators about raising healthy and happy kids.  Generally, I gravitated to those who promoted discipline—logical and natural consequences—over punishment, and those who believed that the acquisition of new skills and mastery of skills—rather than excessive praise—fostered self-esteem.  As a teacher and parent, I was a fan of Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards.

In this recent New York Times article, Matt Richtel explored the views of experts on competition.  He quotes Kohn as citing evidence that competition is “destructive” and a “toxic way to raise children.” He also quotes President Obama as having delivered the following advice to interns: “When you all have kids, it’s important to let them win…until they’re a year old.” I was intrigued by this article because I have always played games with my children, games in which there is a winner and a loser.  Games are excellent teaching tools; they allow people to acquire skills of both the intellectual and emotional variety.

Mostly I love playing games with my children because it provides me an opportunity to revisit the games of my childhood, which I regard as a perk of parenthood. As a wordie, I prefer Scrabble and Boggle to Yahtzee and Stratego, but through the years I have willingly attempted whatever games my children desire. Of course, I always emphasized the importance of good sportsmanship and cooperation in our play.

But I never let my kids win.

When my son had not yet acquired the fine motor skills to write quickly, I modified our Boggle games to allow for a fairer fight. When he was younger, I never penalized him for his creative spelling in Scrabble.  Now, at age ten, he regularly trounces me when we play games. He has even beaten me in Hebrew Scrabble, despite my greater fluency and superior skills in that language. Whether he wins or loses, he invariably extends his hand to shake mine and says, “Good game.” I am always sure to display my “agony of defeat” with great humor.  The truth is, I am not-so-secretly delighted that my children have bested me.  Isn’t that evidence of my success as a parent?

Reading Richtel’s piece, I was reminded of my spouse’s consistent reaction to the parenting books that I encouraged him to read over the years of our raising children together.  After reading a few chapters, he would say, “This expert has never met my child.” He’s right. Parents are most successful when they are authentic. I hope that, by competing with them, I have instilled in my children the value of fair play and the joy of mastering skills through playing—and winning—games.

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