Monday, September 23, 2013


One night last week as I was making dinner, I was overcome with a feeling of deja vu, or perhaps you could call it nostalgia. My husband wasn't home, and with the exception of our two cats tussling around a bit, it was just me at work in the kitchen. As I was chopping up vegetables, I was suddenly whisked back to a time around 26-27 years ago when I was also making dinner. I was in our old house in Seattle, and my husband wasn't home yet; it was just me and our dog Wilbur. It was fall. I had a cookbook open and I was making a hearty minestrone soup. The house was quiet and I had just come home from work. My husband was finishing up his senior year at the University of Washington. All four of our parents were alive and well. Our children, those amazing beings that have provided such meaning to our lives, were not yet even specks of dust.

Where has the time gone? How can it be that I'm 54 now, when I don't feel that old? In fact, when I think back to that time 27 years ago, I realize that I'm older than my own parents were, and just a bit younger than my husband's parents. And yet why do they seem so much wiser? 

I have a vague memory of who I was as a 27-year-old. I was definitely a work in progress, as many of us are in our 20's as we try and figure out who we are and our place in the world. I had been out of school five years, and motherhood was still two years away. I managed a Member Relations Department for a small HMO and volunteered as a counselor at Planned Parenthood. I was in a book club, we went to art movie houses, and on the weekends we hiked in the Cascades.  We had a group of friends that we are still close to today. My kids are now in their early 20's and they, too, are in the process of figuring out who they are. Matthew would have turned 25 this coming January. By the time we were 25, we had been married for a year.  Time is such an elusive concept. People far more intelligent than me have spent years trying to understand and explain it. But my point is just how quickly it is all going.

Sometimes I see a young mom with the same configuration of kids as ours--two little boys and a baby girl. I always sneak an extra glance in their direction, as I'm flooded with memories of my own kids. Those weren't the easiest of times, especially when I had three kids under the age of five. But of course, looking back now from my mature vantage point, I want to reach over to that mom and gently touch her arm and tell her to savor these moments. I want to tell her that it passes by so quickly and that before you know it they will be teenagers and soon after that out of the house. But of course, I know how unappreciated comments like that are when you are at the center of the vortex of child rearing.

I think what drew me back to that particular moment in the kitchen last week was the stillness of the house. As anyone who has kids knows, there is no stillness when you have children. For so many years our house was full of noise and laughter and tears and commotion, and now it's quiet again. When I leave the house to go to work, it is in the same condition when I come home. Towels are on the rack, dishes are in the dishwasher, and beds are made. When I come home from work, my evening is my own (along with my husband). I can read a book, I can watch a show, I can go to a lecture. Dinners are less of a production and yes, I will admit it, after years of always insisting we sit together at the table as a family, we will now often eat in front of the TV.

Much has been written about the empty nest. I've read some beautiful, heartfelt essays about it and have welled up in agreement. The chapter of active child rearing closes, and a new one begins. That's the way it should be. That's what we aim for when we take that commitment to have children. We want them to be independent, contributing members of society...and we want them to be happy.  My kids are making their way in the world, which is as it should be. It hasn'y been easy for them these past three years after losing their brother, but I'm proud of who they are.  I look forward to seeing what they will do with their lives, and I'm learning to let go as they make their own ways. I'm also learning to reclaim my own life as I enter this next chapter. 

Below is one of my favorite Linda Pastan poems which beautifully captures a moment in time. I hope you enjoy it:

The Happiest Day
Linda Pastan

It was early May, I think
a moment of lilac or dogwood
When so many promises are made
it hardly matters if a few are broken.
My mother and father still hovered
in the background, part of the scenery
like the houses I had grown up in,
and if they would be torn down later
that was something I knew
but didn’t believe.  Our children were asleep
or playing, the youngest as new
as the new smell of the lilacs,
and how could I have guessed
their roots were shallow
and would be easily transplanted.
I didn’t even guess that I was happy.
The small irritations that are like salt
 on melon were what I dwelt on,
though in truth they simply
made the fruit taste sweeter.
So we sat on the porch
in the cool morning, sipping
hot coffee.  Behind the news of the day—
strikes and small wars, a fire somewhere—
I could see the top of your dark head
and thought not of public conflagrations
but of how it would feel on my bare shoulder.
If someone could stop the camera then. . .
If someone could stop the camera
and ask me:  are you happy?
perhaps I would have noticed
how the morning shone in the reflected
color of lilac.  Yes, I might have said
and offered a steaming cup of coffee.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Days of Awe

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible;
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch a promise.
I choose to risk my significance,
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.
Dawna Markova

For Jews everywhere, we are in the midst of the Days of Awe. The Days of Awe are the ten days between Rosh HaShana (the Jewish New Year)  and Yom Kippur where we focus on repentance, prayer and good deeds. It's a time of reflection and introspection. On Rosh HaShana, a prayer is read that essentially asks a lot of questions about who will live and who will die:

On Rosh Hashana it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
Who will live and who will die, who in their time, and who before their time?
Who by fire and who by water, who by earthquake and who by plague?
Who will be torn and who will be whole, who will wander and who will have peace?

At first glance, it can appear frightening and formidable. In fact, I wrote a bit about that last year in a blog post. I wrote how I had a hard time with these questions, especially because I lost a son to an illness that couldn't be stopped (and it happened a few weeks after Yom Kippur). It seemed so random and senseless, and I hated the thought that there was a God that was supposedly making this decree. I  didn't like the fear that this prayer conjured up in me, even though I knew it was a metaphor for something else.

I've continued to reflect on the meaning of this prayer and have come to believe that perhaps fear is the wrong emotion.  Instead, I think that there may be something quite beautiful about asking this question every year, and I'll tell you why. I think it is human nature to believe that we are in control over our lives. We think that we somehow can escape the inevitable, i.e, death, by keeping busy, acquiring more things, raising our status. We think we can keep death at bay by not really thinking about it. The Days of Awe ask us to reconsider this by reflecting on our lives in more meaningful ways. When the question is asked, "who shall live and who shall die?" the obvious answer is--all of us. None of us gets out of here alive. Yes, some of us will die early like Matthew, and others will live to ripe old ages. Some will die tragically and quickly, while others will have long, prolonged deaths. No one knows how or when it will happen, and because of that we should treasure each day. We should try and be the best people we can be because it could all end tomorrow. By remembering that this is, in fact, a condition of being human, we in turn remember just how transitory life is. That's the beauty of the Days of Awe. By asking us to reflect on what being human is all about,  we in turn can become better people in the coming year. 

I was walking with my husband this afternoon and trying to explain to him these thoughts. He listened and began to nod his head in agreement. He pointed out that it made sense to think along these lines because even the most righteous amongst will die  (some at a young age, and some older).  The amazing thing is how we can continue on to live meaningful lives - even after the most horrendous events. To me, this prayer we recite every year is a reminder of just how fragile life is and how we should try and be mindful of that as we live our days out.  It's not a bad thing to reflect on this once a year.

I hate it that Matthew died. There are times when I feel very bitter about how it happened and how unfair it is that he didn't get the chance to live a long life. But I also know that my eyes have been opened in my grief to the world of suffering out there. It has brought to the forefront just how important it is to live as if each day could be our last and to reach out to others in whatever ways we can. We don't have a choice in what life deals us , but we do have a choice in how we react . As Dawna Markova says, we can "live so that which came to me as seed goes to the next as blossom, and that which came to me as blossom, goes on as fruit."