All the Paths from Stuck to Motion

all-the-paths

1.

I put on clothes before I go downstairs every morning. It’s a new rule, in my head, a ward against a world in which so many have switched to sweatpants and pajamas all day and in which I know I would roll slowly down into deep sadness if I didn’t put on real clothes. Pants, top, bra. Deodorant. Brush hair and teeth. Deep, deep drags on the morning inhaler as my city fills with the bored smoke of too many fireworks celebrating nothing. The path from the bed to the closet to the bathroom is the first trip I take every day, moving from another-day-like-yesterday to maybe-this-shirt-will-make-me-feel-better.

2.

If the clothes I’ve put on are running clothes because the air quality has passed muster outside, the path down the stairs to the back foyer is next. Sneakers. Little stretchy pouch for my inhaler and my key and, now, for a mask I sometimes pull out and clutch in my hand as I trod past Lake Michigan, making ten-foot arcs around septuagenarians walking in pairs. Go too far north and the path is clogged with people, forcing my mask over my face, so I go west, past the shoe store and the shuttered bakery and the tiny nail spas that can’t be doing well. Past the rose garden, past the funny goose statue they dress in giant bows and rainbow capes. I come back to my yard, panting, and sit at the picnic table to upload photos of flowers and waves to Instagram. All my photos are of flowers and waves and food, all the miracles I pin there to remind myself that they exist, still, even among all of this. Continue Reading…

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Making Challah in a Pandemic

In the third week of my state’s stay-at-home order, a friend asked me to teach her to make challah via Zoom.

Challah, the traditional braided bread that Jews eat on the Sabbath and on most holidays, isn’t a complicated recipe. It’s not hard to make, as breads go, with most recipes using just flour, water, yeast, sugar, salt and oil. My mother made challah regularly, long braids during most of the year and round loafs for the High Holidays in the fall to symbolize the unbroken circle of life. When I was a little girl — ok, even for most of my adulthood — I knew challah to have only two varieties: plain or full of raisins.

I made my mother’s recipe for years, but when my daughters were just 5 and 2, I offered to host the Friday night Sabbath meal before my brother’s wedding, and I decided to make my friend Hilary’s challah. You can watch me tell the story of this very important challah here, but suffice it to say that the way I received this recipe — over email, just before she went to bed on the other side of the world — was dramatic and exciting and forced me, for one of the first times in my life, to improvise, guessing at the number of eggs I should use. My mother and I — who had never made a challah with no eggs — peered over the edge of the bowl after adding one egg, then another, and finally a third one, declaring this to be our best guess. The challahs rose in a warm oven, were rubbed with whisked egg and sprinkled with sesame seeds, and baked into the kind of loaves you see on the cover of Jewish cookbooks. They were gorgeous — chewy and sweet, delicious ripped in chunks from the loaf or sliced perfectly and slathered.

I made that recipe for years and years. I brought it to the Yom Kippur break-the-fast gathering to which we were invited for years, all to cheers from the other guests who remembered it from the years before. “Debi’s challah is amazing,” the hosts told everyone, and I glowed and beamed even while demurring. “It’s my friend Hilary’s, really,” I’d say. “Well, Hilary’s plus three eggs.” Continue Reading…

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The Cost of an Ear Infection

When my best friend visited me from Israel in the summer of 2006, her daughter — the same age as my younger daughter, Sammi — was recovering from an ear infection. Like Sammi, my friend’s daughter had been through a lot of ear infections that year, and my friend had been traveling with a small bottle of ear infection medication just in case. When they left after a week at my house, I found the bottle had been left behind.

I panicked. I started emailing, sending messages through Yahoo Messenger, calling her temporary US cell phone. I couldn’t reach her for two days, and I imagined her in a panic, desperately searching for the bottle of medication. When I finally did get in touch with her, she was already home.

“Do you want me to ship it back to you?” I asked. “I don’t know how much express shipping to Israel is, but I know how miserable these infections can be. How is she?”

“Nah,” she said. “It’s just an antibiotic. I’ll get more if she gets another infection. You can throw it out.”

“Seriously!?” I answered. “But just the whole hassle of going and getting another prescription…do you know for sure it wouldn’t be cheaper to send it to you?”

“What? No, it’s no big deal,” she responded. “It’s just a quick visit down the street, and the meds are, like…ten shekel?”

I did the calculation to dollars — about two dollars.

“Right, but the visit to the doctor,” I pressed. “How much every time?”

“Nothing,” she answered. “Nothing, it’s free. Wait, how much does it cost you?” Continue Reading…

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Roll and Be Rolled

lake-michigan

 

I grew up along this lake, just two hours north of where I live now. When I was a girl, I wasn’t allowed to walk the crumbling wooden path down to the beach nearest my house without an adult, but when I was a teenager, I was given permission to walk just a block further south to the wider, gravel path that led all the way down to the beach and also to what my family called “the overhang.” That was as far as I could go alone, but it was so much better than not getting to see the lake at all. From the overhang, I could see it and smell it, could hear the sound of the waves, and could sit and write my teenaged poetry and sing the songs no one wanted to hear anywhere else. In a neighborhood with nowhere else to go — no stores or parks or libraries for miles around — the overhang by the lake was my sanctuary.

Oh my goodness, those terrible poems were everything to me. I wrote all the things I couldn’t say, shared all the hurts and the unrequited love, the injustices, the overwrought outpourings of a girl who wanted so badly to run away.

Look how far I ran: I took this picture last summer, on the same lake two hours south of my childhood home, less than a mile from the house where I live now. How far did I run? Not far, and very far, depending on whether I count the distance in miles or resilience.

There’s so much I’m choosing not to write now, on a bench near the lake or otherwise. Some things I find myself pulling back from the page because of superstition, worried that naming them will make it hurt all the more if they don’t happen. Some things I know have to wait their turn in the light of the screen, to protect the privacy and the feelings of the people who aren’t ready to have their story told. But even so: I clutched those poetry notebooks to my chest for years — decades now — and few have ever seen or read them. So why not write anyway, for myself, to hold for the decades it will take to free the words?

I’m trying hard not to hold anything tightly. Words trap feelings, somehow, and sculpt fluid images into frozen statues. I could hold a scene in my hand — the expression on her face, the way he held his coffee cup — and pin it to the page, but then when I returned to look at it in a month, six months, a year, it would always be just-so. I would not be able to turn it around in my hands, see it from another angle, play it out with the volume lower or higher. I read that memories are always distorted; we are remembering something only the way we remembered it the last time it came to mind. Our brains keep tweaking it, making it better or worse or more interesting or more dramatic. If I write it, I lose the opportunity to recreate it later.

This year, things will happen to me, just like every year things have happened. I’m trying with all my might to let the events that shape my year wash over me, rock me to one side or the other, and not to pin the outcome — any outcome — to the page. My career could tilt in one direction or another; old friendships seem to be gently falling out of season; shifts are happening in the generation above me; my older daughter will go to college somewhere; my younger daughter reminds me less and less of the frustrated, sick girl she once was. It’s all changing. I don’t know where my life will land.

I’m practicing coating my body with an invisible layer of something soft, something breathable, something cushioned, to protect me from the rocks on the shore, to hold me safe inside as I’m pushed all about. I’m practicing rolling over with the tides and the waves, rolling while things roll over me, being patient with where things settle and for how long.

I’m not a fan of new year’s resolutions or step-by-step plans. I’m learning to roll and be rolled. I’m listening to the water.


This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, hosted by Kristi of FindingNinee.com. This week’s prompt was “my word for 2020 is…”

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What I’m Learning, Part Six

library

Someone asked on Twitter last week for their followers to share something good. It was as open and unspecific as that, and the first thing that came to mind for me was libraries.

I’ve always loved libraries, ever since I was old enough to bike the three-and-a-half miles to my public library in Mequon, Wisconsin. Situated next to the municipal swimming pool, it was a beautiful two story, circular room, with children’s books below and adults’ above. It made me feel calm and hopeful, as does my beloved main branch library here in Evanston, Illinois today. The thought that passes through my head as I step inside is always thank goodness. There are so many stories here.

In the end, the happiest I ever feel is when I am sucked deep into a book, fascinated and immersed. All avid readers feel this way, I think – we all talk about it with the same vocabulary of being surrounded, transported, brought inside. It’s such a gift to have both the reading aptitude and interest in books. I’m grateful for it in every season and in every environment.

This year, I spent a lot of time reading books about health and medicine as part of research for my book. You can read the previous posts: about Gavin Francis and Jill Bolte Taylor, Seth Mnookin and Henry Jay Przybylo, Susannah CahalanAtul Gawande and Heather Armstrong, and finally, most usefully, Heather Harpham. As I finished my book proposal, I had to find a few more that closely mirrored the structure or voice or topics of my memoir, and I’ll share some of the ones I liked best below.

Continue Reading…

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