Okay, I'm not going to take up a lot of your valuable time with a string of excuses for why, exactly, I've neglected this blog for an undisclosed number of months. Suffice it to say a few keywords: "Baby". "Pesach". "Bat mitzvah for my daughter". "Life". "Overwhelmed". There. Short, sweet, and to the point.
And then there's always that perfectionism thing. Like, "Hmmmm....I'd really like to start up that blog again, but the first blogpost back after such an extended leave has to be really AMAZING! Ugh. I don't have anything that amazing to say. Oh well, I'll try again...tomorrow. Uh, make that a month from now. THEN I'll REALLY have amazing things to write!" :-) Sound familiar, perhaps? Well, guess what? Today I celebrate freedom from perfectionism. I don't have anything particularly amazing to write about, but I'm blogging anyway. Just because.
Actually, today I'd like to talk about my closet. Yeah, the overstuffed, underappreciated, cramped space in my home that I turn to in abject worship each and every morning, with the heartfelt prayer, "Dress me!" Well, something like that at least. Now, my closet features matching hangers. Yup, all matching. None of that motley collection of cheapo store hangers that you begged the saleslady for before she snatched them away, or those half-broken plastic things that your neighbor was throwing out. All MY hangers are a velvety beige, really quite pretty. For those of you who know me, you're already getting little sensations that I'm foreshadowing something here. I mean, my house is pretty rugged; my fashion sense is confined purely to my own attire and possibly a slight influence on my children's. If I had a top 100 list of priorities, Matching Hangers would probably be, like, number 19959, right below designer toilet paper.
My mother-in-law bought me those hangers. Yup, one visit she decided that wouldn't it be nice if all my hangers matched? I nodded my head and said thank you very much. And now all my hangers match. Thanks, Mom! Okay, Riva, what's your point? My point, my friends, is this: Raise your hand if you've heard your fair share of Wicked Mother-in-Law Takeovers. Y'know, the kind that always start with, "You'll never believe what SHE did this time." There's this acrid, nauseated, cynical, totally unmistakable emphasis on the "she" that there's no doubt in ANYONE'S mind about who, exactly, SHE is. She's that evil nemesis who comes into your home and begins, immediately, to, gasp!, CLEAN UP! SHE organizes the linen closet. SHE grooms the children and makes them wash their hands. SHE takes over your kitchen, your laundry room, your, eep, bathroom! Isn't it just horrible?
It's actually quite wonderful. Out of the Wicked, Critical Mother-in-Law Takeover, you get: a neat, organized linen closet, a surgically scrubbed bathroom, well-dressed, well-fed kids, and more tips and tricks than you've get reading Ann Landers for five decades. Even better, you get a happy, contented mother-in-law who feels so good to be able to help out! And, if you're me, you get matching hangers! :-)
The magic is in the perspective. It's the loud, rude voices clamoring in our heads and hearts that get in the way of us enjoying the perks of mother-in-lawship. It's not about THEM; it's about US! She thinks I'm a slob! She's just trying to show me what a bad housekeeper I am! Look at how she disapproves of my mothering! I'm such a neb! Those voices are all OURS. They seep out of our insecurities, fester and swell, until we project them onto others. They obliterate the good and turn everything sour. An offer to help becomes a point-blank rejection. A loving smile becomes a contemptuous, patronizing glare.
Methinks the key lies in challenging these negative voices. Maybe my mother-in-law is just trying to give me a well-deserved break. Maybe she's trying to keep herself from being bored. Maybe SHE'S trying to prove herself to ME by cleaning out my closets!
When my mother-in-law visits, I put my raging, self-deprecating thoughts on hold with this very powerful, very compelling thought: She's saving you a mint in cleaning help. Feel free to wallow in your miserable thoughts of being less-than and judged another time. For now, just shut up and enjoy. You have new HANGERS, for goodness sake! Adorable!
Funny thing, women, no? We're so...female. We like jewelry and clothing and purses and...helping people.
Do you detect a faint note of...cynicism, perhaps? How astute! Okay, here's the scoop: I was out with hubby when I spotted an able-bodied young man, struggling valiantly against an enormous load of cartons on one of those wheeled things I'd call a dolly if it didn't sound quite so...girlish! ;-). Well, what's a girl to do when she sees a fellow human in distress?
"Help him!" I commanded my husband.
I mean, he was really struggling.
Tell me something: If you were a woman, struggling to move some heavy boxes, and a passerby moved in to give you a hand, what would you do? Smile with relief and say something polite like, perhaps, "Thank you!"?
OR WOULD YOU GIVE THE GOOD SAMARITAN A DIRTY LOOK THAT SAID, "SCRAM!" AND GRUMBLE, "I'M FINE!"?
"What did you think, Riva?" My husband gently snorted. "You insulted him!"
What is it about an offer of assistance that ruffles those male feathers so easily? Is it better that he grunt and groan and move the ten-ton box himself? Does that affirm that latent masculinity so prized and...fragile that it crumbles in the face of a little help? Interesting, cuz G-d, who actually created men, commands us, in the book of Shemos (Exodus): "When you see the donkey of your enemy collapsed under its load ... you must raise it with him." Notice that last word: "HIM". As in, uh, a guy. Full of that wonderful, capable male pride that gets our men in and out of all sorts of messes--single-handedly, thank you very much.
So the next time I see a guy who looks like he could use a hand, I will not make the same dumb mistake I made last time. Instead of expressing my annoying female nurturing instinct, I will walk on stoutly by and let those male muscles handle everything with aplomb. Hey, come to think of it, I may even throw on an extra carton or two. Just to up the ante. Wouldn't that feel good!
My neighbor had an urgent request of me early one morning. "Please," she asked breathlessly, "Can I wash my windows?"
No, she is not co-dependent. :-) She is my upstairs' neighbor and when she washes windows she WASHES WINDOWS! We're talkin' buckets and buckets of water thrown at the window until it's sparkling--water that will ultimately land on my patio, which is located right under her windows.
Why is she washing her windows so thoroughly? you might ask. Well, even if you may not ask, I sure did. It isn't even Pesach yet!
"Riva," she gave me a scornful look. "Didn't I tell you my mother-in-law's coming for Purim? I couldn't possibly let her see my windows the way they were--they were horrible!"
When my mother-in-law comes to visit, I make sure the floors are passable, the guest room's clean, and there's a good meal ready for dinner. But windows? Never occurred to me! The mother-in-law factor was cited later that day yet again, by a friend who shared that her sister was coming over to consult with her on...what to make for her mother-in-law for Purim!
Am I out of touch with MIL etiquette? (And she doesn't seem to mind it one bit!) Do YOU wash your windows when your mother-in-law comes to visit?
If you saw him screaming like I saw him screaming, you would also stare--no, gape!--and hide your eyes in disappointed disbelief.
You would also grab your child with that firm, horrified look that said, "What a nut! Let's get away from him!" and walk away, sneaking a backward glance at the way his eyes bulged out and his voice shook the neighborhood.
"Doesn't he have any shame?" you might say, aloud or to yourself. "To yell like that? And at a young child no less!"
The boy, caught in the crossfire of the angry, bellowing voice, doesn't know whether to laugh or to cry. He stands, almost transfixed, by the raging, smashing anger as the words crash down upon him.
"You leave my wife and kids ALONE! Do you hear me?"
It looks like any moment now, those trembling hands will reach out and strike the slight boy whose eyes are slightly widened now, maybe anticipating the blows.
You would also wonder at the unchecked anger, at the hostility and venomous words.
But I don't.
I sigh. His wife and children are regulalry singled out for mistreatment. He fights an uphill battle every day. For acceptance. For tolerance. For respect. This boy is just one in a hundred boys who has hurled sticks and stones and ugly words. The roiling rage today is just a vented slit in a pot filled with steam that has been simmering since this shaking, aching man met and married the noble woman I am proud to call a friend. Whose skin is black like a midnight that cannot ease into dawn. Until we all wake up.
I met a woman who recently delivered at a natural birthing center, in a pastoral setting (ie. not a hospital), who went home three hours after giving birth to bond with her other children, and she described her experience as serene and immensely spiritual. She also does yoga.
I gave birth in a hospital--albeit naturally--where I stayed for three days wonderibg how in the world I would manage when I got home. I've endured a total of one yoga class my entire life.
I met a woman who wears blazers, pencil skirts, and silk scarves everyday, and patent leather shoes. And it's not a job requirement.
The only blazers I own are collecting dust in my closet and if I wore a scarf it would be of the woolen, outerwear variety.
I met a woman whose house is prepetually clean and she loves spending all afternoon playing with her children.
My house is perpetually messy and I never feel like I've played with my kids enough.
Well, today I got hate mail.
Not exactly HATE mail; more like, STRONGLY DISLIKE mail, as in "Your serial story, Charades, stinks." It's par for the course, and I've, sniff, dried my tears and will, sob, carry on with my life as best as I, hiccup, possibly can under the circumstances. Okay, seriously, though, it's fine; everyone's entitled to their opinion and this is what writers contend with all the time. The reason I raise this is not to complain about negative feedback; it's to point out a really fascinating observation I've made lately.
There's a psychology to everything--to the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the things we say and think. It's nifty being married to a psychologist because my husband often shares with me the psychological side to things, but my mind tends to gravitate to psychology as well.
When I set out to write Charades, I wanted to explore a new genre: mystery. I've never written a mystery before and I thought it would be really neat. Aside from the fact that I needed to have my main character disappear in order to deflect attention away from a very sensitive topic, abuse, I thought it would be fun and intriguing for people to be kept wondering, as the story developed, Where is Mottie Schneider?
Yet the mystery was a very side-plot to the story; the real bricks-and-mortar of Charades is the exploration of a family looking perfect on the outside but struggling on the inside; of a therapist who can save the world but cannot save herself and her children; of turning to food to stuff down emotion; of the balance in female friendships. All these threads are woven into Charades in what I feel is a fascinating, very authentic way. And yet, today's letter-writer and some others have complained about the story saying it is dragging out, it has no action, it's "disappointing."
Well, I think I've pin-pointed why. I think I've discovered that mysteries don't work well in serialized stories the way they work in a contiguous book. Why? Because a certain type of reader will be unable to focus on the rest of the plot, honing in ONLY on the mystery. She will flip to the end of every chapter without even reading the whole story, intent only on knowing, Where is Mottie Schneider? She loses the forest for the one, suspenseful tree! And that's truly unfortunate, considering the fact that it's a wonderful, complex, interesting forest!
Anyway, that's my theory and I'm sticking to it. What say you?
Always wanted to title a blogpost with something Italian! Pass the pasta.
Anyway, I'm working on a really interesting article right now which involved my interviewing a few mothers. And let me tell you, I am blown away. The best part about my job is that I actually get PAID to be inspired and to learn new things. Imagine that!
These are not mothers in the classical sense; they are, as one woman put it, PROFESSIONAL mothers. Mothers who take their job seriously, who invest time and effort in thinking about their parenting decisions, who subdue their own inclinations, needs, and desires because they know all they've got is one shot and it's make it or break it.
I long to be like them.
One woman described how much she invests in bedtime. Now, I don't know about you, but bedtime in our house is more of a chore than anything resembling a bonding experience. But this wonderful woman utilized bedtime as an opportunity to shmooze with her kids, play games with them, spend quality time with them--she regards it as a precious time of the day. In fact, she explained to me that her philosophy (as taught by very respected educators and rabbis) is that when parents and children enjoy a close, beautiful relationship, things like discipline and complaining and hostility fall away as non-issues because mutual respect, communication, and love are the order of the day.
I love it. Now I need to implement it.
There are times, numerous times, in my life, where I have been hit with a new idea that challenges several old ideas I have previously presumed true and correct. Today is one of those times. I thought I'd share this latest experience with you and see, well, you'll see what I want you to see :-) in a moment!
It began rather innocently as I chatted with my housekeeper (a fancy way of saying "cleaning lady", no? To me, "housekeeper" conjures up images of a live-in maid in a starched apron who keeps my house spic 'n span 24/7. Reality check: think older Moroccan woman whom I love dearly, swishing around a sponja rag for a few hours a week in a vain attempt at keeping my house clean for a scant day if we're lucky!) this morning about, y'know, the things you chat about when one of you is wiping countertops and the other one is attempting to finish a chapter of her serial story (!).
And then we got onto The Subject, which means that I asked her what the custom is amongst her family and friends regarding gift-giving at simchas (happy occasions). That's when she let the bomb drop--but let me preface this a bit. My cleaner is, as I mentioned before, a wonderful middle-aged Israeli woman of Moroccan descent, which means she is Sefardic, extremely family-oriented, and probably a wonderful cook. It also means that her culture is very different than mine, just by virtue of the fact that I'm Ashkenazic, North American born-and-bred, family-oriented in a very different way (she spends Shabbos with her parents, for example, EVERY SINGLE WEEK!). In fact, the only strong similarity between the two of us is that I'm also a great cook :-). Oh--and we're both sweet (another smiley face would go here if I hadn't already used up my quota for this blogpost!).
So what's up with gift-giving in her family? I wondered. She's making a bar mitzvah in a month, so the question wasn't exactly from left-field. I just wanted to know what the expectation was as far as a gift goes since I'll be showing up and I want to be socially correct. Pretty suave, I thought. Well, let me just preface this by saying that I am accustomed to giving actual gifts, rather than money, for a few reasons. Firstly, I think it's more intimate and thoughtful. Secondly, I'm always uncomfortable with price-point; if I give 100 shekels, the recipient knows I gave 100 shekels. If they consider 100 shekels a nice amount, then I'm fine, generous, and may even be invited back to the next simcha! But if they think 100 shekels is kind of measly, then, well, it doesn't really reflect very well on me, does it?
On the other hand, if I buy a beautiful crystal dish for 100 shekels and have it wrapped gorgeously, then it has definite eye appeal and the recipient isn't thinking about the price tag and the economics of the gift. At least that's the way I look at it.
Well, here's Dahlia's take: they give money. Cash. And lots of it. Not only that, but they write down exactly what amount everyone gave--and then MATCH it when they're invited to the other guy's simcha. That means that if you give me 400 shekels for my daughter's bat mitzvah (hint, hint), I will then give you 400 shekels when you invite me to your son's bar mitzvah. It's just that simple.
"And if you don't have the money, you give it anyway!" she tells me, leaning on the sponja stick.
I was really kind of, well, between being blown away and stymied (a relatively tumultuous place to be, as you might imagine!). Is that really what a simcha is? Giving a gift that is really just a credit note--an IOU until you can "pay back"? And, she informed me, even if you don't attend the simcha, you send the money by hook or by crook. In my perspective, this system would make me regard every incoming invitation like it's a bill. Can I really afford to be friends with so many people, when 4-600 shekels is considered the normal gift to give?
I realize my lovely cleaning woman's world may be a bit extreme to myself and many of you readers, but pray tell, what do you give as a gift, and how do you feel about it?
My husband is one of the wisest people I know. I guess it's a good thing that I can say that after twelve years of marriage, huh? :-) Well, he's also a really talented psychologist and that makes for lots of very interesting discussions between us. The other night, he told me such a fascinating thing I thought I'd share it with all of you. We were discussing anxiety disorders, especially in children, and how they develop and are treated. Well, apparently, a research study involving monkeys showed that anxiety runs in families (talk about yichus, lineage!). Anxious momma monkeys are more likely to have anxious baby monkeys. And guess what! Anxious baby monkeys are more likely to be eaten!
But here's the good news: when the mother monkeys did not indulge their babies' anxious behavior and reacted by pushing them to face their fears instead of molly-coddling them, the babies actually recovered and raised their own survival rates!
I found this really interesting. As a parent, I often struggle with the balance between love and discipline; when to be soft, when to be firm. Oftentimes, the most loving thing to do is to not indulge a child's wish to be held, consoled, and enabled, especially when his or her behavior is potentially damaging. Of course, even when pushing a child to face fears, it's important that parents be supportive, encouraging, loving, and kind, but sometimes, as painful as it is, to give in would be to subject the child to emotional, physical, or spiritual danger.
Have you experienced this?
Last night, while rushing to get ready for a bar mitzvah, I left my bedroom to find my daughter cowering on the couch.
"There are two scary looking women knocking at the door non-stop," she told me.
I noticed she had surreptitiously locked the safety latch at the top of the door. Warily, I looked through the peephole. And beheld a woman, dressed in a flowing caftan with two shawls draped over her head, pinned beneath her chin, accompanied by an older, shawl-clad woman clutching a young child. They didn't look so scary to me; they looked, well, unusual. I opened the door.
They asked if they could speak with me for a moment. I told them I was on my way to a bar mitzvah. They promised it would only take a short time. They were sweet and friendly and completely guileless. I smiled reluctant agreement.
The younger, heavily draped woman, began to speak. She spoke about how important it is to excel in loving each other instead of in-fighting and baseless hatred. She was sincere and straightforward. She went on to speak about the power of the Jewish woman in effecting salvation for the entire nation. She spoke, in a quietly impassioned way, about the need for the holy, exalted woman to conduct herself according to the rules of modesty, and the tragic results of breaches in tznius, modesty, that have sprung up today. She talked about the horrible sin of wearing wigs.
So I stood there, wearing my newly coiffed Shabbos wig, listening to this young, earnest woman, covered from head to toe in yards and yards of heavy fabric in 100 degree heat. And I listened to what she said, opening my mind to her words. She spoke for an hour. My daughter listened too.
Much of what she said resonated with truth. Some of it my logical mind automatically rejected; it's unimportant to repeat those parts in this post. After she left, kissing me on the cheek, I found myself turning over her emotional speech--a plea, really--to search for my truth.
"Why didn't you close the door on her?" a friend asked, when I related this incident, which left me pensive.
"Why should I close my door?" I said. "I'm always interested in hearing other opinions. Maybe there's something I need to hear from this woman, something she's been sent to tell me."
My husband disagrees. He points out--and rightly so--that wearing heavy coverings on the head and body is not an appropriate mode of dress for today's Jewish woman and that extremist views do more harm than good. I know my husband is wise and on-target and there is a lot of truth in what he says. At the same time, I am loathe to discount my last-night visitors out-of-hand. Even if they are 90% misguided, there is still that 10% I need to take to heart.
Again, there is that struggle; the struggle that I think defines all of Life, what King David referred to as the "gesher tzar me'od", the very narrow bridge. When is an open mind absolutely necessary in order to learn and grow? And when is an open mind actually dangerous because it lets too much in?
About Riva Pomerantz
I'm a freelance writer, widely published in several magazines including the internationally-distributed Ami Magazine and Mishpacha Jewish Family Weekly. Riva's work also appears on the award-winning website www.aish.com, amongst others. You can buy my books here.