Old is How Old Does.

Birthday Candles
I woke up this morning to the sound of one child screaming at another child not to wake me up. Then, as my third child burst into my room, I was presented with a birthday gift: a clothes hanger. “Because I know how much you love to hang up your clothes, mom!”, my four year old beamed with pride. My baby honored the day by trying out his new set of teeth on my leg.

And just like that, the first morning of my 33rd year began.

After breaking up a fight between the kids over who got to tell me that they made breakfast, I hid for a while in the bathroom where, under the pretense of washing up, I was checking my email and Facebook. (Oh like you don’t do that!)

A quick inspection in the mirror confirmed that the only wrinkles on my face were the same ones I had the day before. That one I started panicking over near my eyebrow? Turns out it was just a line from my pillows case. The gray in my hair is still at the point it can be considering cute, and not yet matronly–or so I tell myself. I focused on the fact that despite the extra 20 lbs I lug around now, I still look better than I did when I was 23. Hotter, even, if I do say so myself. It probably helped that I stopped wearing my super short bangs. After pouring over pictures I now realize that the six year phase was not my best. I looked a lot less like a dark haired vixen and a lot more like, well, Mamie Eisenhower.

When I finally ventured out to the kitchen, all of my kids were beaming and pointing to the table. My oldest is quite the chef these days and he made french toast, eggs and iced tea. Purple flowers–I’m still not certain what kind–that my daughter bought herself were decorating the table. Finally! my older kids have reached the age where they realized that much as their mom LOVES cards scribbled on the back of scrap paper and covered in sticker hearts, she would also enjoy something that took more than three minutes to make. Granted the younger two still have a ways to go–but I guarantee I’ll make use of that hanger!

It was a beautiful day, despite the fact that my age can now be rounded up to 35 instead of down to 30.

I always promised myself I wouldn’t be one of those women who worried about getting older. I would wear my silver hair with pride, never cover up a wrinkle, and finally be happy with my body-type. Of course, that was when I was in my early 20’s and I could still eat a donut for every meal without gaining a pound, and before I realized that one must go through years with the various stages of “mousy brown” before they could even begin to reach the status of “silver”.

But, here’s the thing about getting older that nobody told me–I still feel 17. Sure, my body has grown a little softer and my mind a lot wider, but I am still the same person. I hate being told what to do, I love funky socks, I get a headache when I eat too many sweets. I have an extraordinarily long fuse with a whole heap of wrath ready to explode on the unfortunate person who pisses me off nearest the end. Really, I’m just still me.

I found myself thinking today a lot about my grandmother. When I was a teenager, after sharing most of my life in the same house, my grandmother passed away at the age of 76. She had suffered so long with an undiagnosed, degenerative nervous system disorder which, after many other insults to her independence, eventually left her trapped silently inside her body; unable to speak, eat, or move. It was harder still when my mom had to finally admit she could no longer care for her alone, and she was admitted to the nursing home. The work got harder as her body began to shut down. It became a world of bed sores, feeding tubes, and IVs.  Nearly every day we visited–telling her about our day, wiping her skin down with wet clothes, sometimes brushing her thinning hair into a pathetic little pony tail. We made every effort to show her love, just hoping it would reach through the thick layer of death that seemed to hover about her room, waiting for just the right time to take her away from us. I wonder if she longed for a hot shower and for the taste of water on her lips, and if she missed walking through her favourite garden watching the cardinals carry on.

The wait, for us all, was agonizing. But I had always believed it wasn’t for her. I told myself that she had had a good life, was ready to be laid to rest. So, when my mom came home early from one of her regular visits with the look on her facing telling me my grandmother was gone, I admit that the first thing I felt was relief. I thought she would finally find some peace. We were so close and I loved her so deeply that it hurt my heart to know she was suffering.

Maybe that was all true–that she was ready. That she was sick of being sick and tired of being tired. That her body ached to be released, and her mind to be at rest. That she was happy because had she lead such a fulfilling life and was ready to pass the torch to the next generation.

But lately I can’t help but wonder if deep down, trapped inside a body that was failing her, she still felt 17 too. And if after all, the number which signified her age has a lot more to do with how many years she had been on this planet and a lot less to do with how she felt on the inside.

I guess that might seem a depressing thing to think of on my birthday, right? But it some ways it gives me hope. Helps me to believe in love. Because all of those times I came to see my grandmother and all of the time my mother spent out of her day taking care of her ailing mother–no matter how thankless the job–that was real love. And with all of the words she could not say back to me, I still managed to feel her love. And that kind of love puts everything into perspective.

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What Does Friendship Look Like?

When I was a kid my best friend was my cousin. We did everything together–even sharing a bedroom during all of summer vacation. We were so inseparable that she even went with me on dates and in return I attended her prom with her. Yes, we were those attached-at-the-hip, finish-each-others-sentences kind of weirdos. She was, for all intents and purposes, my other half. I didn’t realize how entangled we were in our relationship until when I announced that I was getting married, she suddenly became very withdrawn and increasingly distant. It turned out to be the beginning of the end of our long friendship.

At family functions she rarely attended, preferring to skip off to the mall or a movie with her new friends. When I found out I was pregnant, she was the first person I called, and though she feigned a lighthearted congratulations, it was clear she wasn’t remotely happy for me. The blow that stung the worst though was when at Thanksgiving when I saw the BFF scrapbook I had made her with pictures and little mementos of all the fun things we had done together, on her bookshelf. I pulled it out to look through it and saw her staring over at me from across the room.

“Why don’t you want to talk to me anymore?”, I asked her while staring at the page, hoping she wouldn’t notice the sob I was choking back.

“I don’t know”, she replied with cold eyes. “I guess we just grew apart.”

That is when I understood that this was the punishment she was delivering to me for leaving her to get married. Things had changed forever.

Though I’ve only see her a handful of time since, 14 years later it still stings when I think about it. I feel like a part of me died back then and I’ve been nursing those wounds ever since, trying to figure out exactly where I went wrong. Here I am at 32 years old and still trying to figure friendship out.

Oh sure, I’ve had friends since then. Some really close, some casual. But for one reason or another, those friendships have always seemed to take a sudden turn off onto a dark road. They would start our burning bright and beautiful, but just as I was getting used to them, all at once they would burn out. Once again I was left feeling hurt, confused and very rejected.

After some reflection I realize that a lot of it’s my fault. Well that’s not to say that I single-handedly ruined the friendships, but I did allow the friendships to be set up on a foundation that was quaky at best. And while it’s true I’ve not managed to make to find that one BFF sort of relationship (outside that of the beautiful relationship I have with my husband), I think I have managed to hone in on some of the things I have done wrong in my past friendships:

Let myself become someone’s safety-net. I have a habit of befriended people in need. 2am and you need someone to talk to about your husband’s affair, your child’s latest struggles, a pimple in your recesses of your ear canal? I’m your gal. Need a loan? An extra pair of hands to help you around the kitchen? Found yourself without a sitter? Want a doula but don’t want to shell out the cash? Just call me! I’ll do it all for free. And while I do think it is true that these types of people are drawn to me, simply because of the fact that I can be a good listener, I can’t deny that I go looking for it because I like to be needed. If I am needed, then I am valuable. And valuable people don’t get dumped, right? ….Wrong! Actually valuable people don’t really get valued much at all. We’re just a stepping stone. And the worse thing is, we lay right down there in the ground and stick up a sign that says “step on me!”, so we really have no recourse.

Try to find friends I have everything in common with. I spent a lot of time sizing people up–their musical tastes, religious beliefs, favourite books, foods and movies–to find that perfect match for me. But what looks like a good fit on a resume, doesn’t necessarily mean will be the makings of a beautiful friendship. In fact, people just like me tend to really get on my nerves. I’m overly-analytical, more than a little obsessed with my own thoughts, and I like my own space–if you paired me up with someone just like me, chances are I wouldn’t like her at all. Sure, I like me, but hey, I kinda have to because I’m stuck with me either way.

Look for that one perfect friend. BFF, close friend, fair-weather friend, buddy, pal, acquaintance. All of these labels mean little because in reality friendships evolve and change just as we do. Who is an acquaintance one moment becomes a best friend the next and vice versa. Some of us might have those people we can call a true friend who can manage to ride along with us from third grade and on into our 80’s, but that just isn’t the norm. Most of us have a variety of people whom we have had the pleasure–and pain–of calling friends all through out our lives. Looking for that one person to meet all of our friendships needs is burdensome to any relationship.

Assume I’m not worth spending time with. After being ditched by yet another friend, I assumed I must not have anything to offer to anyone else. Which sent me right back up to number 1–trying to be the all around best friend. When that didn’t work, I gave up on trying to find friends. I shut myself away for a couple of years, and ignored other people, save the handful of people I knew online. This can become an ugly place very quickly and so it’s best to avoid letting your mind go there at all. It’s normal to have “dry spells” in our friendships, but we need to keep putting ourselves out there and make connections with real-life people.

For the first time in my life, I’ve puts the stops on looking for a best friend. Instead I’m allowing myself to be open to the friendships that may find me. Sure, I hope that perfect friend comes into my life again. Someone I can share those private jokes with, someone who will call me to ask how I am at 1 am, someone who will value my character an accept my (many) flaws.

But if it doesn’t? I’ll still be okay.

The Office Poet

There was this otherwise quite guy in the office where I worked a few years ago who was a poet. He made sure to let everyone know this by frequently reading his poems aloud. What he liked best was to catch you off guard in the office and make you stand there while he recited his latest poem.

So while your face was turning every shade of red, you’d be stuck there listening to this guy read you his poetry–in front of everyone.

After his reading he would lower his paper, proud smile plastered on his face, and await his compliment.

“Uh, that was very nice. Perhaps you could just allow me to read it myself next time”, I said more than once. It never worked. He relished in the attention of the public recital.

Worse still was when someone I didn’t know would walk in half way through one of his recitations. Did they think I asked him to read me poems? Maybe they thought it was some really strange office romantic we had going? My face would grow hot, practically begging that he would hurry and get it over with. Instead he kept is eyes steadily on his paper, even though he clearly knew the words by heart, and continued on reading it like a painfully slow oration.

I wanted to tell him to back off, but I also didn’t want to hurt the feelings of someone who clearly had some emotional need to wear his heart on his sleeve. I’ve never been good at setting boundaries with these sort of people because the thought of hurting their delicate feelings makes me want to lose my lunch. Probably because on some level I’m scared someone thinks I’m weird and awkward, but has ever told me because they don’t want to hurt my feelings.

 I was so relieved one day when I walked in and he had trapped another girl and made her listen to his poems! Knowing it was mean, I still couldn’t help but shoot her a “haha!” look as I quickly exited the room before he noticed me. The glare she shot back making it clear she wasn’t amused.

I’m not sure his whole story or why he sought after this sort of attention. I knew he was a competent office worker–the only other one in the office, actually. I also knew wore the kind of cologne that makes your eyes water and your throat burn, he had an obsession with a female singer I never liked, and that had a dated taste in ties and accessories. Like those those black leather shoes he likes to wear, that I have only ever seem old church-goers and Italians sport–the kind with the black fringe hanging in a row along the top of the shoe where laces would usually end on a tennis shoe. The softened leather and rubber soles always left me wondering how something that was once clearly modeled after a moccasin, had been transformed into popular Sunday shoe apparel.

Really, he was a nice guy. Polite and always helpful. If it weren’t for the awkwardness of the poetry readings, I probably would have gotten on with him just well. And looking back, maybe I encouraged his awkwardness by continuing to stand here, giving him the impression that I was listening. But, how exactly do you say to someone, “look, you’re a nice guy, but you’re kinda creeping me out here”, without hurting their feelings?

A few months later he spread the word that he was going to try out for American Idol. I heard he was singing for other people in the office, but I managed to escape being becoming a member of his audience. The following Monday he came back with a look of defeat on his face. A broken man, moping and slouching at his seat, avoiding eye-contact with the rest of us because he couldn’t deal with the fact that he didn’t win. Or maybe he couldn’t deal with the fact that we knew he didn’t win. Of course, everyone was polite, but none of us really understood what the big deal was.

Until then I had actually thought those people you saw on the show were putting on an act, appearing shocked when they got sent home after croaking out a off-key love ballad. But, apparently there are some people who actually believe it when their mommy says, “you are the best singer in the world!”, and never think to ask for a second opinion.

He was a strange character, but I can’t deny, I envy something he seemed to always have–a innate belief in his ability to succeed and a fearlessness in putting himself out there. I’m willing to bet that some of his stuff wasn’t half-bad, either. Perhaps, if it weren’t for the awkwardness of the impromptu office poetry slam for one, I might have been able to realize this.

Or maybe he really was terrible. Honestly, I don’t know, because in truth I rarely listened to a word he said. I was always too busy scanning the room for the nearest exit, planning my escape in case I saw his hands reach towards his desk drawer to pull out that crinkled notebook he was always scribbling in.

reflections on the last week

Last week I posted a public reply to an article from Pop Chassid. If you have not yet read it, feel free to do so here: Reply to PopChassid’s Appeal to Modesty.

When I wrote it, I hadn’t yet taken much time to read any other comments on the subject before I began scribbling my thoughts down. Sometimes a post just hits you and before you know it, your pen (keyboard?) is doing the talking for you.

The point of view which my response took was very strongly influenced by my personal experiences with moving towards dressing modestly, and for all intents and purposes–my journey to becoming observant. Perhaps, at some point, I will post more in depth about that journey. But for now, let’s suffice it to say that it was a confusing experience as I felt I was hearing conflicting advice over what was considered modest. At one point, I resorted to only wearing ankle-length skirts. Of course then someone pointed out that some men like long skirts.

Dress modestly, but not *too* modestly. Be attractive, but not attracting. Never leave the house without make-up, but make it look like you’re not wearing make-up. So on and so forth.

It didn’t take long to start feeling like my whole identity as a woman became solely based on how I appeared to the men around me. I had never felt so much pressure put upon my looks in all my previous years. I stressed a lot over whose version of modest I should follow.

I admit, a lot of this worrying was a product of my own tendency to over-think everything mixed in equal parts with the typical eager zealousness of the newly religious. It’s not as if men were coming up to me and pointing out my immodesty, or God-forbid, spitting on me. I just have a habit, as many woman do, of trying to be an upstanding woman.

But knowing that I was being sized up in a whole new way really got to me. The pressure became too much. Trying to dress myself each day became a chore and it brought me a lot of stress and worry. I looked in the mirror I didn’t recognize myself anymore. And worse, I didn’t even like what I saw.

That’s when I knew I needed to back up and start over.

It took a while to find that happy medium were I could dress modestly and still retain a style which feels like the me I’ve always been. Now I have a modest which I feel appropriate for my lifestyle, my convictions, my community, and which, I am nearly certain, won’t get me blamed for delaying Moshiach.

But what is really on my heart right now is that I am not the only one to have reacted strongly to PopChassid’s appeal. In fact, according to my sloppy estimations, more women than not had strong reactions. The reasons behind this are probably varied, but I think by and large boil down to the fact that women have a need to be valued as something more than her appearance; to be viewed as an individual and not a sum of her parts.

Covering ones self up is an effort but one many of us find worthwhile when we’re encouraged to believe modesty is not only a mitzvah, but will also aid in equalizing the playing field that both sexes share. So, when a member of the opposite sex puts a dramatic spot-light on our how our appearance effects them, many of us recoil–angrily!–at that notion. Right or wrong, we feel angry that after all our work to be taken seriously, we’re still being seen as a sum total of our clothing.

Of course there are likely to be many women who feel differently and perhaps never bought into the modern idea that women are equals–an admittedly idealistic notion that comes with its share of inherent contradictions. Or, maybe to them these appeals just don’t come as a shock because they have been doing this whole religious Jewish thing longer than I have. But what can I say? I’m a modern kinda gal like that. I grew up in a world where, without much effort, people treated me as both female and equal, and I didn’t need to dress any differently to receive that respect.

But here is the thing that bothers me even more than all of that–I have reread many of the comments on PopChassid’s post, as well as various comments on various forums online regarding the post, and I am horrified. Horrified. There are some seriously nasty comments floating around out there and it pains me to read them.

I am not just an angry feminist with a bone to pick. I don’t like the idea of shaming another writer for speaking his truth. And I don’t have to agree with someone to be 100% supportive of them speaking their mind. Really, I admire him because he really laid it out on the line. It’s so much easier for me to stand on this side and critique than it is to be open and honest from your heart in the first place.

I hate public calls to modesty directed at women. That isn’t going to change. I stand fully behind my initial response to his post, but I would be remiss if I didn’t take the time to say that I have a tremendous amount of respect for the guts it took to write his feelings out to begin with.