Birthday wind.

3.2.17

Today the wind was incredibly strong.

It was so strong that it woke me up at night. The leftover autumn leaves rustling, the trees howling.

The wind was so strong that even my heavy, black trench coat flapped up and down, exposing my legs to the winter cold.

It was so strong that as I traveled the 10 strides between the car and the door at daycare, my baby instinctively nestled into my neck as soon as it hit her chapped, rosy cheeks.

The wind was so strong that the cardboard and plastic bags that sat in our porch recycling bins were found donning our winter green grass and covering the flower beds where spring blossoms are already blooming.

Today is my birthday.

I awoke this morning to messages of love and happiness: wet kisses from my children; text messages, chock-full of emoticons; private messages through Facebook; emails; phone calls; cards in the mail; thoughtful gifts and gifts of the heart.

Whenever I heard from a particular person, I paused and thought about the relationship that I had with them. We might have connected through high school majorettes, or perhaps at a college fraternity party. We might have a shared history of love, of loss, of family, of joy. Whatever our connection, I thought about the impact that this person had on my life. And I said to myself: I am who I am because of you…and you…and you. Thank you.

Like the strong wind on a cold winter’s day, I cannot help being influenced by each person that is blown into my life. The ebbs and flows of my cell phone notifications, with one more message, with one more contact of admiration showered me sporadically throughout the day, like the wind blowing back-and-forth. What would I do with these messages? What do I do with life’s messages? How do I deal with the strong wind?

Because my birthday is at the beginning of March, the weather is always unpredictable. Sometimes the flowers have already blossomed and sometimes there is snow on the ground. Sometimes I am wearing my bulkiest winter coat, sometimes it’s so warm I can almost wear white – even before Memorial Day.

My birthday wind teaches me to be flexible.

I never know when I go to sleep the night before my birthday what the weather will be like, who will contact me, who will remember me. But I am ready and open. I can be influenced by each person’s love, to be receptive of their kindness, to be walking with life’s strong winds, instead of against them.

I cry at the thought of people calling religious organizations and nursery schools with bomb threats. I am angered when I think of people painting swastikas on buildings and defacing tombstones in cemeteries, full of the souls of people who once were.

But today is a day that reminds me that I cannot push against the madness in the world around me. My birthday is a blessing to call me back to me. It’s a reminder of my former self that was crafted by so many of you. And, it’s an invitation to my future self to not push against the hate and the pain, but to embrace the possibility of hope for a better tomorrow, for what could be or might be.

Friends, family: I thank you. I love you. You have made me me. When I don’t like me, don’t worry, I won’t blame you. But when I love me, I will indeed thank you.

Birthday wind: thank you. I don’t always like you. I sometimes resent you blowing in my face, especially when I have no choice or when I least expect it. But thank you for the challenges you give me. I am me and I will be a better me in the year to come, because of you.

Sanctuary

After dropping my daughter off at daycare yesterday, I drove into the city. I was asked to sit on an interview committee for a rabbinical school candidate and I happily obliged. I rarely get into the city these days but when I do, it’s chock full of memories of the six years when I lived there.

As I crossed over the GW Bridge, I was brought back to the time when I used to say “hello” to my leftover IVF embryos that lived in a Manhattan fertility clinic freezer – even when I had already moved to Long Island. I always found it fascinating that perhaps the genesis of a second child resided there in the city, without me. Those embryos never helped me conceive a child, but there’s something about crossing the GW that always brings me back to those thoughts.

As I sped down the Henry Hudson, Route 9A, I noticed that I had one hand on the steering wheel and one hand holding my travel tea mug, sipping my milk and Truvia-infused decaf tea (I like it the British way). I was instantly taken back to the first time I ever drove on this highway – it must have been about 15 or 16 years ago. Back then, I held onto the wheel for dear life – it was my 1996 bright blue Neon, I think. My how times change.

As I took my exit off the highway, more memories flashed through my mind. Memories of my days in school, of pushing a granny cart to Fairway to buy some overpriced, fresh produce. Memories of when I would move my Saturn from one side of the street to the next, just to avoid paying for parking.

I turned onto Riverside Drive and remembered all the Shabbat walks I took, visiting Riverside Church, running in Riverside Park. As I approached the seminary, I asked myself “should I just pull into the garage or should I make a loop and see if there is any street parking?” I did a loop. It didn’t help. Rarely does, but worth a try.

After parking my car, I realized I had about 35 minutes before my meeting. I’m never this early. What would I do for 35 minutes? Would the seminary’s Wi-fi password be the same, now five years later? How many emails can I respond to in 35 minutes? After a pit-stop to the restroom, I found myself magnetically-drawn towards the Women’s League Seminary Synagogue. It was empty but somehow when I walked in, it instantly filled me up.

I took a seat in what was my normal seat back then – in the back row, closest to the person leading services, on the right side of the aisle as I faced the ark. I sat down. The cushion on the chair was significantly more worn than the last time I sat there. I set my bag down on the chair next to me. I sighed and instantly, began to cry.

This was my sanctuary.

This was the place where I had said Kaddish for a year after my father died. This was the place I led a full version of the service for the very first time, where I delivered my Senior Sermon on “Letting Go.” This was the place where I had witnessed numerous friends welcome children into the covenant of the Jewish people, where my friends showed me their sparkling engagement rings in the beautiful lighting of the sun, where I prayed for a child for myself, day after day, month after month. This was my sanctuary. My, how I have missed you.

I looked around the room. That menorah on the right side – with the tilted candle holder on its far left – still there. That schtender – the podium where people stood to lead services – still there. Those antique-scalloped light fixtures that ironically looked like treif (unkosher) shellfish – still there.

What were not there were all the memories that I have created since then: the birth of two girls, two job relocations, new sorrows, new joys.

I said to myself: “So much is the same, but so much is different.”

So much is different because I am different. I was not tempted to daven (pray) the traditional prayers. Instead I closed my eyes, breathed in and then let out a deep sigh. This is where the past can help heal the present. My body became a sanctuary within a sanctuary.

Later that day I attended services. When it came time to say Kaddish, I said it for my father – not because it was his yahrzeit (the anniversary of his death), but because it just felt right. And then I heard the most powerful Senior Sermon from one of my soon-to-be colleagues who shared about his own struggles with infertility and how we find comfort in others during times of darkness.

His words echoed through me and gave me inspiration and groundedness. It was nice to be a Jew in the pew and allow someone’s spiritual message to penetrate through to my heart.  I thanked him later. Sometimes people will never know how much their words mean to you.

This was my sanctuary. It was. It has been. And I suspect it will always be. But not because of the place that it is physically, but because of the place I allow myself to be there spiritually.

Hallmark Card for Me

I bought myself a birthday card today.

This is not something that I normally do, but something that was a no-brainer for me to do, at least today. I suppose there are a couple of reasons why I bought it.

Let me start here: My birthday is not until March. And it’s January. I am never this well-prepared. (Except for that time I planned my daughter’s February birthday party in December because I was expecting a second baby in January – but that does not count). However, buying a birthday card two months in advance? The only other time I do this is when it’s for someone else.

The card caught my eye in the check-out line at the grocery store. After I read it, I said to myself, “I love that message.”  And then I did it. I did what I would normally do. I said to myself: “who can I get this card for?”

For the very first time in my life, my answer was “me.”

The truth is this: who knows where the hell I’ll be in March. March feels like eternities away in my world right now. But at least if my January-self could send a message to my March-self, then for sure, this would be the message I would want me to hear.

I looked at the price.

$6.99.

Are you kidding?

I’m the type of woman who cuts coupons and always knows where the best deals are for certain products. $6.99? I could get a Subway value meal for less than that. But…I bought it anyway. Because…

I am worth it.

If I can’t spend $6.99 on a Hallmark card to love myself then who can? Then who will?

Truth be told: it’s not the card that matters – at all. But it’s the conversation that I had with myself about the card. It’s about practicing self-love and self-worth through the card.

I believe so many of us try to find ways of taking care of other people or worrying about other people that in the process, we lose ourselves. We forget about ourselves. And, ironically, the moment that we lose ourselves is the moment when we are inauthentic in our relationships because we lack the self-worth to be “enough” for those around us.

I love this card and its message, but as I look at the blank card staring before me, I wonder:

Do I write myself a message? If so, do I write what I need to hear now? Can I even predict what words I will need to hear then?

Or, do I leave it blank? Might the absence of words say something even more powerful?

Birth day.

I called my mother on the day that my daughter turned one year old. Decades prior, my mother had given birth as well, on the same date.

“Happy birth day,” I said to my mom.

“Happy birthday,” she replied.

“No, mom, happy birth day. Birthing day.”

My mom laughed. We had a moment. Even if it was over the phone.

I’ve always had a thing about birthdays, but it wasn’t until I was a mom myself that I really understood the miracle of bringing a new life into the world. To the person for whom we celebrate the day, the day is really about marking time, but for those of us who were around on the actual birth day, each year this birthday takes on so much more meaning. I see and feel that meaning now that I am a mom.

Just one year ago, there I was, calling our emergency “babysitter,” a family friend, to watch our older daughter as we prepared to go to the hospital.  As the doula rubbed on my back and I tried to scarf down some tapioca pudding in between contractions, I kinda knew what was in store for me, as I had done it before, but…you never know.

I remember waking up the day before, one Saturday morning, with contractions. As a rabbi, I was supposed to officiate as a student became a bar mitzvah that day, but naturally, someone else was on-call. After I woke up and the contractions subsided, I decided to head to services anyway. Hell, if my water broke or something, right on the bimah (the stage), well then…we’d just deal with it.

But that didn’t happen. My contractions went away, just for the duration of the service, then started up again after I went home. I gave birth early the next morning. Even though I was five days past my due date, sometimes things happen right on time.

On my baby’s birthday, I will always be connected to my mother and all the other mothers who experience the miracle of birth. Somehow, I don’t remember that pain. I know it was bad, but can’t really describe it in hindsight. That’s because when I look into my baby’s eyes and when she nestles into the space under my chin, I thank God for the miracle she is and I know that whatever I went through was…nothing, nothing at all. In those moments when my baby cuddles with me, my heart is so full and nothing else matters.

Happy birth day, Mom.

Happy birthing day to me.

And happy birthday to my baby.

Kaddish with the Kids

Today is my father’s yahrzeit, the Hebrew anniversary of his death. It’s been nine years. Normally, on my father’s yahrzeit, I rearrange my schedule to say Kaddish for him, the prayer that we recite on such an occasion, praising God. Normally, I go to synagogue three times: once in the evening, again in the morning, and a third time in the afternoon to ensure that I say this prayer three times over the course of the Hebrew day. Normally, this is on my calendar months in advance and I commit to nothing else so that I can spend a few minutes with dad, and maybe, if I’m lucky, a few minutes with God.

This year is different.

This year, I have chosen to do something else.

Mind you, this decision is somewhat unusual for me, especially those who know me well. During the year after my father died, I remember how I feverishly jumped through hoops so that I could recite the Kaddish prayer every single day. When I was away from a Jewish community, I had a team of friends who were near a synagogue who would say Kaddish on my behalf. (I still have their names and the dates they said Kaddish for me marked in my Bible, next to the psalm that I read instead). There were literally dozens of shuls where I said Kaddish, in several states. In the city, I would run up and down on the Manhattan A-train stairs, just to get to services on time, sometimes with just a moment to spare, sometimes even at the tail end of the prayer. Sometimes, admittedly, I would even say it on the streets of NYC when I was fairly certain that there were ten Jews around me. They didn’t even know they were participating in a minyan, a quorum of Jews necessary to recite this prayer.

I became addicted to Kaddish. I became addicted to this aspect of the Jewish tradition because my world was so torn upside down. At the time, Kaddish provided me with so much meaning and an opportunity to heal. Sure, it was nice to be with other people, standing next to other men and women who felt my pain as well, as they said Kaddish for their loved one. Sure, it was nice to cling onto this routine, as my world was in utter chaos. In fact, when I said my final Kaddish during that year, it was painful to let go of this prayer. I remember sponsoring a breakfast that morning, with fresh bagels and schmear, after services at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was studying to become a rabbi. And the tears that I let out as I said that final Kaddish, with the words so vividly escaping my lips, somewhat by rote, somewhat by an act of God because I did not want to end them…well, those were powerful, too.

But I was literally driving myself crazy to get it all in. And, looking back, at least this year, my experience feels a little different.

Growing up, I was the “perfect child,” or at least I was held to that standard. My father, of blessed memory, grew up with such a challenging childhood, literally wearing the same clothes every day to school, not growing up with a father of his own during the most formative teenage years of his life. And so my father, with only the best of intentions, had every hope that I would be the child he never was: the one who got straight A’s, the child who was involved in nearly every extracurricular activity and received a full tuition scholarship to college, the child who picked up the pieces of a broken family after we lost my 18-year old sister when I was thirteen. Thirteen.

Needless to say, I was under a lot of pressure. I never had the courage to break away from the expectations that were placed upon me. I loved the validation that I received when I did well and this validation motivated me to do even more, to “be” even better.

But I was not better. And I was not being. I was living the life of someone else. I was living the life of this person on a pedestal who I strived to be.

So this year I will not be going to shul. I will not be saying Kaddish. I will not rearrange my schedule, though this date has been on my calendar for months now. And, no, childcare and self-care are not the issues. Instead, I will spend that time with my beautiful daughters. As a full-time rabbi and mother of two, my time with them is so precious. This year, I will read to my girls the book “Stones for Grandpa,” by Renee Londner, a book that describes the Jewish tradition of putting stones on a tombstone. This year I will light a candle and tell my daughters “Pop-Pop” stories, how he loved antique cars and tandy cake. This year, I will devour lots of cocktail weenies (one of his favorites) in his memory. This year, I will be free to do what my heart so yearns to do: turn the words of the Kaddish praising God into actions of love and praise with my children. Isn’t this what it means to praise God?

Before my father passed away, he asked me “Sun, (that was his nickname for me – long story!) when I die, will you say Kaddish for me?”

I’m saying Kaddish for you this year, dad, just a very different kind of Kaddish. Here’s to a great day in your memory with your grandbabies. I love you and miss you every single day.