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Doing Good

12 Feb

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When the world seems to be falling apart, it is comforting to see the people you love trying to put it back together. One of those people is my son.

He’s a quiet kid. He’s shy and unassuming and once you are lucky enough to get to know him, he’s hilarious and kind and genuine. He still needs to work on the regular teenage stuff like being nicer to his brothers or answering me in a more patient tone. But all in all, he’s a truly fine human being and I am honored to have the privilege of being his mom.

In the fall, my son participated in a Midnight Run. Together with his friends and our synagogue he collected necessary every day items we might take for granted: soap, pillows, a warm jacket. On a cold November night, my son and husband drove into New York City and handed out jackets to the homeless. They helped people find the right size coat, the color they preferred, and ultimately the jacket that would keep them the warmest. They handed out jackets until there were no more jackets to hand out. But there were still people who were cold.

A few weeks later, I saw a segment on the news about a company in Michigan called The Empowerment Plan that was making jackets that converted to sleeping bags. The labor hired to sew these jackets is sourced exclusively from homeless shelters. These women are trained and given skills that will hopefully allow them to find full time employment. It was an incredible story to behold. I told my son about the jackets and he began an online fundraiser via Crowdrise to raise $5240 (the cost of 50 jackets plus shipping to NY), so he could continue to help keep our city’s homeless a little warmer.

With the help of many friends and family, more than $6000 was raised allowing for the purchase of nearly 60 coats. And on a cold January night, our family and my parents loaded the jackets into two trucks and drove to Hebrew Union College in The Village to distribute the coats to those patronizing their soup kitchen.

As we unloaded the coats onto a table and started demonstrating them for the people there, a small crowd began to gather. A very tall man was the first person to take a coat, explaining how happy he was because he has not been able to find a warm jacket that fits him in years.

We met a man named Matteo who sleeps in his van and was grateful to now have some semblance of a bed. He marveled at the utility of the jacket and how it was an item fashioned for those in need with respect for those in need in mind. He thanked my son and began to cry.

When a woman named Fatima saw the jacket, she broke into a wide smile and laughter, confiding that this was something she could really use. Her joy was palpable. She took a jacket and returned 15 minutes later just to talk to my son.

“You did this? How did you do this?”

My son explained his fundraiser. Fatima began to cry.

“I can’t believe you did this. You’re only 16. Do you know what you’ve done?”

And then she asked him for a hug. And they embraced.

When the shift was over only 5 jackets remained which we donated to the soup kitchen. Several hours later, after eating dinner at a local restaurant, we started walking back to our car. On the way, we passed Hebrew Union College. Outside was a man in a lawnchair, laughing with his friends, and wearing one of the jackets we gave him earlier that night.

Things have certainly come full circle. To have begun the Midnight Run program in our synagogue and to have ended this coat drive in the basement of a seminary was a beautiful living brush stroke of tikkun olam: repairing the world.

And the world is indeed in need of repair.While the country’s delicate seams have been mercilessly ripped apart, small acts of kindness, like this one, are the thread we all need to sew us back together. Because regardless of where we live or what we own, people are people are people. And yes, you do things for other people. You do it because it is the right thing to do. You do it because you can. You do it because you can make someone’s life better, even if it is just in the smallest way, like a giving a stranger a fresh bar of soap. But you also do it because it makes you feel better too. And it feels good to do good. It does.

My son may not always be the type who sits on my lap to hug me, or who holds my hand while I’m driving and rests his head on it, or who comes into my room to hug and kiss me as a study break. But I hope he is. I will never be too old to accept any of those expressions of love.

Soon my son will be going off to college. When he leaves the home in which he has grown up, I wonder if he is ready for what the world will throw at him. But mostly I want to know that he is a good person. That I am sending my best work, a really good human being, into the world. That he will love and be loved. That he will be kind. That he will help those who need it. And that he will be good. And he is.

My son is already repairing this world, doing great things, and giving back. He’s going to make his mark on this world. In fact, he already has.

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The Luxury of Watching Our Kids Dream

27 Aug

 

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My son is curled up beside me. He cannot sleep. This is the second or third night in a row. Always the same. He cannot sleep. He nestles in next to me, his head fitting perfectly in the spot between my neck and my chest, his legs wound around mine so many times I wonder if they are boneless. Within minutes, his breath deepens and slows. He is asleep.

I wonder how much longer it will be that I can provide this instant consolation for him. How much longer that he will let me. How much more time do I have of the luxury of watching him dream.

My friends have children going off to college. They are decorating dorm rooms, setting up proper desks, buying school supplies and filling meal cards, all the while trying to forget that their kids are leaving the nest and learning to fly on their own. It is hopeful and heartbreaking and wondrous and devastating all at the same time. I have watched these kids grow up; they are not even mine and still, I am struggling with the passage of even their time. Because soon, it will be my kids. I know that that is years away for me but I also know the way time works and that I have seemingly months. It is like trying to reverse the mileage on your car but there is no such magical gear and it is inevitably impossible. And at the same time, it is Life. And it is good.

He grabs a lock of my hair and rolls to the right. He is content. And so am I. And again, I watch him dream. Because I still can.

Swinging the Bat

13 May

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I do not know how you measure success.

Is it wealth, fame, good health, love, all of them, none of them. I don’t know.

Maybe it’s just making an effort you thought you could never make.

My son is on his school’s baseball team. I am not betraying him when I tell you he is not the best athlete on the team. But he loves being on a team and part of a team. Recently, my mother told me she had a conversation with my son about his method of playing. In essence, his approach was to never swing with the hope of getting walked to first base. This was heartbreaking to me. I was also unaware of it because he instructed me not to attend any games because he was mainly in charge of keeping the bench very warm. Although I am not exactly athletic, I confronted him:

“You need to swing the bat. Even if you miss. You still have to try because you will miss 100% of the balls you don’t swing at.”

I am not sure if he was frightened of the speed of the ball, the shame of an earned strike, or just simply taking a chance. He promised he would try. And with that, he was able to allow someone else to keep that bench warm, at least some of the time.

Academically, my son is, for the most part, thriving. He has recently struggled, however, with a couple of subjects and was less than thrilled about grades he received. I’m not exactly sure, though, that he was swinging the bat at those plates either. We had multiple, similar conversations about the importance of making an effort, trying your best, aiming for a hit instead of a walk. I’m not sure how many of these talks sink in or how many translate to the Charlie Brown teacher language of “WOH WOH WOH WAH.” My expertise and life experience are not impressive to him. It seems not to matter that I have already lived all the days he is living. He probably just wants me to stop talking. Oh well, too bad. It’s my job.

This combination of some poor grades and baseball ineptitude was starting to wear on his confidence. I cannot blame him though, again, he wasn’t actively participating in his own life enough to change his situation. It is hard to watch your child struggle with self-doubt and think you can give them all the tools and praise needed to remedy it, but it is, ultimately, up to them to cure their problems themselves.

Yesterday, on one of spring’s most beautiful days, and with my son’s blessing, I finally attended a baseball game: my son’s team’s last home game of the season. My son was at bat. He swung a few times, accruing two strikes. His team and coach continued to call his name, encouraging him. On the final pitch, as the wind blew its warm, gentle breeze over the field, I sat in a lawn chair and watched my boy make his very first hit. It was solid. It went to third base, and he made it to first base safely with his team cheering him on. And later, during the last inning, and only minutes after my husband arrived, we both had the privilege of watching our son make his second hit, into the field, right over second base. Again, his team cheered. And so did we.

While I have been largely focusing on the importance of his school work, perhaps excelling here, on a baseball diamond with friends and teammates, is just as important. He needs to feel good about himself in all arenas, and those two hits, likely inconsequential to most kids on the team, were home runs for all of us.

Had my son not swung, he never would have hit those balls. He never would have known what the impact of the ball against the ash in his hands would feel like. He never would have known that he too could create that familiar “crack” symbolic of a hit. He never would have known the joy of hearing his friends and teammates root for him and the thrill of reaching first base because he proactively earned it as opposed to watching for the pitcher to err. He never would have known what it was like to cross home plate on that beautiful spring day, the completion of the story that began with his first hit. This type of knowledge he gained is every bit as useful and meaningful as the type learned from a textbook. If not more so.

Maybe success is just swinging the bat.

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An Open Letter To My Son

19 Mar

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My Sweet Son,

I know there are things you are anxious to try: things that your friends might be doing; things that are wrong. Please wait.

You may not realize it but you are still a child. You have your whole life ahead of you to do grown-up things. I know you may think you’re ready for these things. You are not. You only get one childhood. You should live it as a child.

I wonder if you also know how dangerous some seemingly innocuous things might be. Perhaps even lethal. There are multiple reasons why some activities have minimum legal age limits. One good reason is because your mind and body are not mature enough to handle them. You should respect that. And while we’re on the subject, you should respect girls too. Listen to what they say and remember to be kind always.

It is ok to say “no.” Don’t let anyone ever make you feel like you are lesser than they because you won’t try something stupid. If you say no and that person gives you a hard time, you should lose them as a friend because they are not your “friend.” A true friend would never do that.

I know you are bound to make mistakes in life and it is my job to let you fail and make them. It is the only way you can learn. But you are too young to make some mistakes you may be contemplating. You are too young to pay the price of such errors. You are too young to learn these lessons. Trust me. I am your mom.

Most important, if you do make some wrong decisions, or if your friends do, your father and I will always be here. We respect honesty and will always have your best interests at heart. If for any reason you feel you or a friend is in jeopardy, please call us at once, even if you are unsure. I am more concerned about the safety of you or a friend than lecturing you on a rule you may have broken. I promise.

I’m not going to tell you about the innocent days of my youth when none of this existed and everyone just rode their bikes around until they left for college. That did not happen. There were plenty of ways for kids to get into trouble, just like there are now. And I’m not going to tell you about the car accidents, hospital admissions, and deaths of people I knew who made such decisions. They speak for themselves.

I’m just going to tell you that I get it. That I’ve been there.

Life is full of crossroads. No matter which ones you may reach, I am always here to guide you and to love you, even if you make wrong turns along the way. But please, do not make those turns just yet.

Love always,
Mom

Shared Moments

8 Nov

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A few days ago, I wrote a post about a moment I was lucky enough to share with my son.

It was moving and special and wrought with emotion. It was also ours.

That post, for whatever reason, did not save. And perhaps that is because some things are meant to be kept as gifts just for ourselves.

Unplugged

3 Nov

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When my husband and I got engaged, he wanted to keep a kosher home. It was important to him and he had grown up that way and that was fine by me. We spent an inordinate time searching the inventories of several stores covering Manhattan and Long Island to find two sets of every day dishes and two sets of silverware. We finally settled on a white Wedgwood pattern that I have never liked and which I have also used as grounds to hurl empty threats of vegetarianism at my husband.  So imagine my surprise, when we set up our tiny New York City kitchen as newlyweds, my husband ordered Won Ton Soup and took out a “meat” bowl in which to eat it.

The pork dumpling in the designated kosher meat bowl event may likely have been the deciding factor upon which we practice Judaism. Kosher but with exceptions. We are spiritual yet lazy. Devoted yet lapsed. We are, regrettably, high holiday Jews.  Shabbat dinners fall by the wayside as takeout is ordered and everyone spends the night warmed by the glow of their Apple devices. Promises to do more and do better evolve into catching up on programs stored on our TiVo while my Shabbat candles remain sadly unlit. Again.

When I think of my mother, I often imagine her lighting the Friday night candles, a paper towel on her head as a makeshift act of respect, offering up a silent prayer to God. When I reflect on my grandfather, I picture him draped in his tallis, wearing tefillin, and dovening in a corner with his timeworn siddur.  Jewish holidays with my family and extended family permeate my entire childhood. Seders, break fasts, horas and menorahs create a vivid Judaic tapestry on which I was raised. While I emphasize the importance of Judaism to my sons — specifically, that they know where they come from and that they be proud Jews, and, importantly, that it be part of their fabric as well — I am not doing enough. I am failing my children as a parent and as a Jew.

Last weekend, my synagogue along with synagogues all over the world participated in the “Shabbat Project” in which Jews were encouraged to experience Shabbat in the traditional fashion that it so deserves: no electronics; no driving; no shopping; and most of all, no smartphones. I was committed from the start. I could not wait to unplug and refocus on what really matters: the people in my life, not the things we have.

While we did drive and use lights (because we live too far away from our temple to walk and because we ease into things slowly), we otherwise powered down as a family. The weekend began with a service and a Friday night dinner at my temple that hosted 600 people including my family, my parents, and many friends. The following day we spent in the park, talking to friends, watching the kids play, and looking at the faces of my sons. As we walked from the park back to temple, I listened to the animated stories told by my kids — really listened to them. There were no distractions other than the birds and a passing breeze. What a gift it was to concentrate on my own life rather than my battery’s life. It was nice to feel the sun on my face and linger in 1997 or 1979 or any year before the advent of  the oversaturated techonological market that is slowly killing necessary human interaction. A literal juice cleanse for my soul. We ended the day at a Havdalah service at my synagogue, as my sons battled to hold the candle and smell the spices.

As we drove home, I turned on my phone. Lo and behold, I missed 74 messages from retailers wanting to sell me goods at discounted prices. Delete. That  night we made a decision: we are going to celebrate Shabbat with a family dinner and the shutting down of all devices on Friday nights. On Saturdays we can return to being those high holy Jews we have mastered. Baby steps. But for now, we are concentrating on loving the things that can love us back.