The View From Here

There is no color palette like an Arizona sunset, all cantelopes and indigos and lilacs.

There’s more to the view from the foot of my father’s hospital bed. There are tangles of tubes running from my dad to blinking machines. Men and women in scrubs and sneakers rush by occasionally. A bottle of hand lotion and a thrice-read newspaper clutter the counter. I’ve been sitting here for four days straight, watching the sun make its way across the sky, over the buildings, out past the western mountains as it sets the horizon aglow before it dips down into darkness for another day.

No matter if this majesty is the result of five million car motors spewing carbon monoxide towards the heavens, I will not allow such a view to be diminished. Even from a window in the intensive care unit, this daily spectacle is a reminder that life is larger and more mysterious than we can possibly imagine.

Monday morning my dad woke up with a terrible headache and asked my mother to call 911. A vessel in his head burst, and he walked downstairs with the EMTs before he lost consciousness. The neurosurgeon told us later that 50% of people don’t even make it to the hospital. The beeping of the monitors, the rhythm of his breathing through the oxygen mask and the occasional flush of the biohazard disposal have become a strange, new symphony, the sound of human brilliance and God’s grace.

So thank God for airplanes, spewing tons of carbon monoxide so that I could cross an entire continent in a few hours.

Thank God for my brother, who as a doctor knows the right questions to ask and what all the blinking lights and numbers mean.

Thank God for my mother, whose steel-solid optimism and faith has not wavered for a second.

Thank God for my future sister-in-law for her sweetness and support.

Thank God for my husband, who has managed to care for the kids, the dog, the chickens and his business all week and still text me hilarious and encouraging endearments.

Thank God for Jen and Kelly and Sue and Julia and the rest of the nurses and aides and tech whose names I never caught who perform marvelous and amazing tasks with compassion and calm.

Thank God for the friends who are helping and praying and standing fast.

Thank God, Thank God, Thank God.

When a loved one’s life hangs in balance, there isn’t much else to do but pray and wait. As this week comes to a close, we’re heading to synagogue to make our Misheberachs official.

Right now we don’t know what the future holds for Dad. God willing many more sunsets like this one.

The View From Here

There is no color palette like an Arizona sunset, all cantelopes and indigos and lilacs.

There’s more to the view from the foot of my father’s hospital bed. There are tangles of tubes running from my dad to blinking machines. Men and women in scrubs and sneakers rush by occasionally. A bottle of hand lotion and a thrice-read newspaper clutter the counter. I’ve been sitting here for four days straight, watching the sun make its way across the sky, over the buildings, out past the western mountains as it sets the horizon aglow before it dips down into darkness for another day.

No matter if this majesty is the result of five million car motors spewing carbon monoxide towards the heavens, I will not allow such a view to be diminished. Even from a window in the intensive care unit, this daily spectacle is a reminder that life is larger and more mysterious than we can possibly imagine.

Monday morning my dad woke up with a terrible headache and asked my mother to call 911. A vessel in his head burst, and he walked downstairs with the EMTs before he lost consciousness. The neurosurgeon told us later that 50% of people don’t even make it to the hospital. The beeping of the monitors, the rhythm of his breathing through the oxygen mask and the occasional flush of the biohazard disposal have become a strange, new symphony, the sound of human brilliance and God’s grace.

So thank God for airplanes, spewing tons of carbon monoxide so that I could cross an entire continent in a few hours.

Thank God for my brother, who as a doctor knows the right questions to ask and what all the blinking lights and numbers mean.

Thank God for my mother, whose steel-solid optimism and faith has not wavered for a second.

Thank God for my future sister-in-law for her sweetness and support.

Thank God for my husband, who has managed to care for the kids, the dog, the chickens and his business all week and still text me hilarious and encouraging endearments.

Thank God for Jen and Kelly and Sue and Julia and the rest of the nurses and aides and tech whose names I never caught who perform marvelous and amazing tasks with compassion and calm.

Thank God for the many, many friends who are helping and praying and standing fast.

Thank God, Thank God, Thank God.

When a loved one’s life hangs in balance, there isn’t much else to do but pray and wait. As this week comes to a close, we’re heading to synagogue to make our Misheberachs official.

Right now we don’t know what the future holds for Dad. God willing many more sunsets like this one.

Bad Teacher

The notion of “homeschool” always confounds me.

There’s home, where you sleep and eat and watch t.v. in your underpants. And there’s school, where you spend daytime hours with people born in the same year as you, torturing each other with complex social hierarchies that change by the minute and occasionally learning things like the Pythagorean Theorem and forgetting them right after the test. Putting the two together sounds like a terrible idea, like okra chip sock-flavored ice cream.

Yesterday’s Forward article by Kate Fridkis about her experience as a Jewish homeschooler amongst fundamental Christians got me thinking about this again, and all I have to say is that her mother must have possessed superpowers or a very large cupboard full of Xanax.

Of course, there are plenty of families that make it work, and I am in awe of them.

While many families choose to homeschool for religious reasons, but two favorites that I know choose it out of convenience and for its freedom on their time. Their children are well-mannered and intelligent, doing their academic work on laptops whenever they choose and pursuing other interests. One or both parents work from home while everyone goes about their day peacefully and productively. They make it look really easy, organic and fun. I find this fascinating and amazing. And totally unrealistic.

First off, my children are smarter than me. And they know it. Establishing myself as a person of authoritarian superiority in their minds would require a personality transplant. Secondly, my chosen vocation requires that I sit at my computer for hours, uninterrupted by questions about how to remove a crayon from a dog nostril. Thirdly, the house stays much cleaner when they’re eating paste in a classroom with their peers. Furthermore, school classrooms enjoy keeping gerbils and other rodents in cages, and that is just not going to happen here.

Mostly, our family truly enjoys and benefits from a community that grows out of a school where many parents volunteer in the classroom, spend Saturdays planting flowers along the front walkway and hang out after school comparing notes on life and watching the children climb in the giant oak tree in the park across the street, swearing one day we’ll climb it ourselves. It’s not perfect (yo, SCCPSS, maybe one day you’ll fix the plumbing in the upstairs boy’s bathroom before the mold carries a urinal down the hall?) but it feels like home.

When we first moved to Savannah, I had the gut-shredding experience of finding a spot in first grade for my son in the Chatham County School System, which ranks 128 out of 164 in the state of Georgia. This city—as does our country—blazes with a vast socio-economic gap that among other iniquities, has translated in a tendency for the wealthy people those who can to send their children to various secular and religious private schools, leaving the public school system for those unable or unwilling to spend thousands of dollars in tuition and/or naively committed to the democratic notion of providing education for all through our taxes.

Here public schools operate as a “magnet system” that allows parents choose a school for a particular “specialty,” be it traditional academics, alternative curriculum, performing arts or science. This sounds fine in theory but basically creates a neurotic climate of competition and dysfunction as families who care scramble to get into the “good” schools even though it may mean their kids are on a schoolbus for three hours a day. There are lotteries and waiting lists and letters of recommendation and bitter disappointments. It’s like “Toddlers and Tiaras” with No. 2 pencils and stone-faced administrators with helmet hair.

Already reeling from the culture shock of moving to the South from the insulated liberal nest of Northern California, I melted into a lump of hippie despair when informed that my son was 79th on the waiting list for the highly-coveted public Montessori I had carefully researched the previous spring. (More on Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy here.) I dutifully visited the school we were “zoned” for but left after the office assistant greeted me with four missing teeth and six “ain’t”s in five minutes. For three weeks I shlepped my 6 year-old and 2 year-old from school to school in the hell of August, shopping for another magnet that didn’t feel like a daycare run by the devil.

During this period, I considered homeschooling him. He is a bright, curious person with a flair for language and music. I imagined creating a classroom area off the kitchen with some blackboard paint where I would cheerfully teach him addition and subtraction and a place to blow up stuff with a chemistry set. He would complete lessons online quietly while his sister napped and I wrote the world’s greatest novel. We would take incredible field trips to the beach and wear pajamas on rainy days. I would explain in gentle tones the cycles of the weather and continents of the globe. We would play games to memorize all the state capitals and parts of flowers.

Sounds fabulous, right? But then he had a huge meltdown in the grocery store about choosing a juicebox flavor right as his sister ate a stray M&M off the floor in the meat aisle and my adrenals started prickling and I was overwhelmed with the urge to clear a spot on the juice shelf so I could sit down and weep. I realized we would be together all the time, EVERY DAY, and I would have to generate lessons constantly to stay ahead of their amazing electric brains. The more I thought about it, the more terrified I got.

Fortunately, the Montessori called the next morning with a first grade miracle spot. My kid would get the education I wanted for him (and four years, later his sister) with all kinds of cool materials and encouragement to follow his interests and guidance from trained professionals who know how to redirect a broken pencil tantrum into a teaching moment.

It was humbling to admit that I was not prepared to be the sole provider of my children’s education. People go to school to learn how to teach; I arrived into motherhood barely equipped, armed only with a loving heart and the Internet. I admire so very much the parents with courage and wherewithal to figure it out and do it. Maybe it’s because for the most part, Jewish culture values educational institutions and group study; more likely it’s just me. I wish I had the patience and compassion and desire and faith to homeschool my kids. But I don’t.

And I forgive myself for it. They learn so much at home with us—how to garden, cook, care for chickens, communicate their needs using English instead of Whinese, play music and just plain play. I feel pretty good about biking the 11 blocks to the brick schoolhouse 181 days a year, pointing out the magnolia trees and reminding everyone to look both ways. I loved school, and my kids do, too. It’s been a lovely summer, full of bike rides and fishing and waterfalls and teaching moments.

But I’m damn ready to have the house back.

Sway to the Rhythm of Love

It can be a rude shock to come home after a dreamy vacation, but it helps when that first Monday is Tu B’Av, the Jewish holiday of Love.

And yay! whoopee! goody! That’s today!

“Tu B’Av” literally means the 15th day of the month of Av, which corresponds to the full moon that usually wanders through the sky in all its shining corpulent glory sometime during August every year. If you had a glimpse of Her Silvery Majesty glowing amongst the stars this weekend, you might agree with the notion that our closest heavenly body is looking particularly stunning lately. Perhaps all that global warming is doing wonders for her complexion?

Peoples around the globe have always related the moon to fertility, sexuality, femininity and emotional fluidity, and Tu B’Av is a simple celebration of all that. It’s a pretty minor holiday by Jewish standards, with no real religious obligations or special foods or complex rituals—for 19 centuries the only acknowledgment of it was the omission of prayer of penitence during the morning prayer services. MyJewishLearning.com attributes it to a matchmaking festival for the unattached ladies of the Second Temple era, who would dress in white and check out suitors while dancing in the vineyards (how very Bacchanalian of our ancestors!)

These days it’s basically Israel’s version of Valentine’s Day, with a similar industry of gift-giving and partying down. Its popularity could have much to do with it taking place hot on the heels of last week’s very, very depressing “holiday” of Tisha B’Av, a fast day that’s the culmination of three weeks of mourning for the many hideous and awful things that have happened to the Jewish people on the Ninth day of Av throughout the millennia. Tisha B’Av is the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day of Judaism, and Tu B’Av is a fine way to remember that life can be effortless and lovely once in a full moon.

Even if you didn’t fast on Tisha B’Av or even remember to light a yahrzeit candle because you were up in the mountains without a cell phone or internet let alone a Jewish calendar and were called out later on your Facebook page by a religious friend for being a bad Jew, don’t let that stop you from swilling a little hooch and boogie-ing down under the full moon. After all, I—*ahem*—we can always repent on Yom Kippur. (Technically, Tu B’Av began last night at sundown and ends tonight, but heck, as mountain wisdom dictates: If the bottle’s already open, you might as well finish it.)

Of course, love and the moon are hardly bound by traditions or religion or even our own minds, so here’s a soundtrack that captures the simple joy of Tu B’Av by the Plain White T’s (none of whom are Jewish, in spite of WholePhamily.com’s sincere attempts to find a few agreeable degrees of separation):

Remember to sway to the rhythm of love today and all days!

T-Shirt of the Week: Headin’ For The Hills

How wonderfully fortuitous to find this “Mountain Jew” t-shirt from ShalomShirts.com just as we’re off to retrieve Yenta boy from camp in North Carolina. A month in the mountains is a long time—I wonder if he’ll come back with a beard?

Speaking of Mountain Jews, I recently received a link to an Examiner.com article that claims there is evidence that Sephardic Jews were the first people to settle in the Southern Highlands of what is now western North Carolina. There’s good background on the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal in the late 1400s and throughout the 1500s, and the author, Richard Thornton, makes an interesting case for some historical re-examination.

Thornton has published two more articles describing stone inscriptions that he says prove an ancient Jewish presence in North Georgia and Western Carolina: First, near Brasstown Bald Mountain, the name “Liube” with the date 1715 is carved on one of the Track Rock Gap petroglyph boulders. While the soapstone petroglyphs are believed to have been created by Native Americans, Thornton claims that the name Liube is specifically a Jewish girl’s name, and was perhaps added by a young lady looking to add her own tag to the ancient graffiti already there. (I haven’t been able to confirm the name “Liube” as Jewish, though—anyone?)

A couple of hours north in the Smoky Mountains off the Cherohala Parkway, another rock inscription holds mystery for Thornton: He writes that the phrase “PREDARMSCASADA SEP 15, 1615″ means “Prayer we will give, married” with the date in Ladino, the Spanish-Hebrew dialect used by Sephardic Jews, and was carved in commemoration of the wedding of a nice Jewish couple. (No evidence of a broken glass or weepy mother-in-law, however.)

While Thornton’s articles are fascinating, they haven’t been corroborated by archeological sources—no effort has ever been made to examine the remains of a Spanish village near Dukes Creek. I’ve long been captivated by the theory that Portuguese and Iberian Jews running from the Spanish Inquisition ended up in the Appalachians and beyond as early as the 1600s, subsisting off the land and avoiding contact with Cherokee and other settlers. There’s speculation that the mixed-race group of mountain people known as “Melungeons” are descendants from such Sephardim; legends abound that Melungeons spoke a form of Spanish that could have been Ladino and lit candles on Friday evenings. Even if it all turns out to be a wackadoodle bubbemintza, it would be amazing to see more research before these sites are destroyed by weather and tourism.

I may try to convince El Yenta Man to take a detour while we’re tooling around the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Absurdivan so I can do a lil’ amateur yenta sleuthing.