The Seder and the Little Things

Granted, there are a few parts of the Passover Seder that could be considered boring, but Chris was asleep during the Plagues part! That’s good stuff. Frogs! Lice! Pestilence! Boils! etc.

It’s times like these I try to focus on my 7 rules. I reminded myself of Rule #2 — Escape through Literature. I buried my nose in the Seder guidebook, the Haggadah.

I’ve been more worried about Chris’s Parkinson’s lately. Like last night at the neighbor’s Seder, Chris’s chronic illness was visible, difficult, and anti-social. And it persisted. After the party, instead of getting the kids ready for bed, he sat in front of the computer and fixated on his on-line bridge game. I know I should be grateful for all he does and is. And mostly, I am. But still. I laid awake at night worried. And then I moved on to worry about the little things.

Like the possibility that the mouse we caught on Sunday was not the only mouse in the house. Honestly, my worry about the mouse in the kitchen surpassed my worry about Chris’s Parkinson’s decline. It’s the little things that slay me. That feel insurmountable as I lay awake in the middle of the night.

You somehow learn to live with cancer or chronic illness, but the mouse situation? That’s the last straw! I’m ready to toss it all in and ask for a redo. This must be why something as small as lice made it to the Top 10 list of unbearable plagues that smite mankind in Egypt. The Ancient God of the Seder knew it was the little things that get you, not the big ones. Still, it doesn’t make it any easier.

God in Las Vegas

They don’t call it America the Beautiful for nothing. God, this country is beautiful. I visited Las Vegas two weeks ago.

Wasn’t too interested in the usual things people go to Vegas for. To me, casinos are like Chuck E. Cheese for sedentary grown ups.  Not that I don’t like being sedentary. Not that I don’t like Chuck E. Cheese, but on the few times I’ve taken my kids there, I’ve left with a massive headache and a lot less money in my pocket. I’m not too interested in The Strip, because I have a problem knowing what to do when I’m overstimulated — too many lights, sounds, people. (That’s why I prefer Central Park to Times Square in NYC.)

I am into nature. I find God in nature. I find beauty in trees.

I am an unashamed tree hugger. I will hug a tree every chance I get. You can ask my kids. I make them hug trees too. I say out loud,  “Thank you, old tree, for being here.”  In Vegas, I didn’t hug a tree, but I discovered a canyon.

With only a couple of hours before I had to catch the plane back to NYC, I asked the front desk clerk what sight I should take in. “Red Rock Canyon,”  she said without hesitation. I never got to thank her.

It was other-worldly beautiful. The snow the night before made the whole thing look like a moonscape. The red of the rock. The white of the snow. The gauzy grey clouds. The ocean-blue sky.

Every turn on the 13-mile scenic drive caused a gasp in wonder. “Purple mountains majesty.” Indeed. 

When I left the scenic drive, and was back on the highway, I noticed so many cars pulled over on the shoulder. The drivers were all standing beside their cars, looking up at the canyon walls, the snow, the sky.

I bet just about everyone who saw the canyon that day pulled over to photograph it on their phones or pocket cameras. I did.

To me, the sights of the natural world around Vegas are so much more compelling than the lights of the Strip. Maybe the tourism board doesn’t promote the natural world near Vegas because the visit doesn’t add to the region’s economy the way casinos do.

Yet the sight of Red Rock Canyon covered in snow stimulated me in a deep spiritual way. In a way no manmade luxury hotel could ever do.

I twittered that afternoon that seeing the Red Rock Canyon covered in snow made me believe in God. Someone replied, asking me then if Ansel Adams was an atheist? I don’t know. All I know is that trees, rocks, clouds, and natural beauty inspire awe.

That afternoon reminded me that I am small and the world is big. For me, that’s a God moment.

Lunch in Akumal with Joanna

We sat in our bathing suits and cover ups in Akumal at La Luncheria, the kids’ favorite breakfast and lunch spot.

We talked about running. We agreed we would run a 5K in 2010.

I told Joanna how proud I was for her great review in the New York Times last month. She is having a great career.

We sat at the counter. My kids snuggled onto my wooden chair, crowding me, eating tortilla chips off my plate (my mother would hate that!)

That night, we met up again after dinner at the Snack Bar, the thatched roof outdoor dining part of Club Caribe. The kids and I sat at a long table with her mother and a million of her sister’s fiance’s family.

Joanna’s sister knows about blogging. She advised me to update my Google Profile, have a good “About” page, link more to others.

Joanna and I have been friends for more than ten years. We met at the Depot Theatre when she was in Radio Gals and I was teaching the Depot Apprentice Program. I had brought my students to the Depot to watch a real live play rehearsal. The kids fell in love with her in Radio Gals. What’s not to love? She is extremely smart, talented, funny. She can write, act, teach, sing, play instruments. She and I have had comedy gigs together – my highlight? Our comedy/improv show, Saturday Night Live, at the Princeton Public Library. She has been my writing coach. She hosts this great monthly, new work showcase, the Happy Hour Salon, one Friday night every month.

Changing Barracks

I am sensitive. I am a light sleeper.

Because of the snoring, that first night at Taize, I did not get more than one or two hours of sleep. At three in the morning, I sat outside under a bare lightbulb. I was cold on that concrete step. It was raining lightly. I read the book, “Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close.”

I never want to cause any waves or ruffle any feathers so when I had to go to La Morada to ask if I could be moved from my barrack, I felt bad. (Yes, the Taize bunk bed rooms are called barracks.)

But the barrack the gentle novitiate moved me to already had its six beds (three bunk beds) full. (“I will have to ask one of the sisters to investigate,” he said.)

The only barrack left for me was with the four women on the silent retreat week.

“I promise I will not speak to them,” I said.

“And they certainly will not speak to you,” the brother said.

“Let’s hope they are as quiet in the night as they are in the day,” I joked. He smiled, unapologetically, raised his eyebrows, as if he could not guarantee.

The women were quiet and peaceful. After my first dark night of the soul at Taize, I got many good nights sleep on the top bunk in the quiet room with the women (mostly German, I figured) who were on silent retreat.

They were incredibly quiet and extremely close.

It’s Not About You!

The first time I consciously shut up about myself was at my sister’s Marymount College reunion. The wonderful Catholic women’s college in Tarrytown was closing and this was the last hurrah for the graduates. The college had been folded into Fordham and then simply disappeared. Gone from everywhere but collective memory.

All that remained of the college was the fading sign at the Metro North Station, once a “Welcome Home!” symbol, now a reminder there was no home to be welcomed into.

I knew the reunion would be hard on my sister and her friends (Katie!) So I said to myself. “Yes, Mary Beth, you have troubles, issues, ideas, opinions. But today is not about you. You are not the center of the universe. Support MK. Focus on her. Don’t go into any of your diatribes about the sexism of the Catholic church.”

This last edict was hard on me. I wanted to vent about the BS of Catholicism. About how the nuns were smarter, yet could never have more authority than the priests. About how God resides in everyone – especially in the least of these – not more fully in the Pope. How Catholicism kept abusive marriages together and women down over the centuries. Well, you can see, I’m about to go off again!

My point is that I told myself in my journal and then throughout that day, “Do NOT talk, think, focus on yourself today. Not one little bit. Today is NOT about you. Other days will be about you, but not this one.” And it worked. I relaxed, felt receptive, and was non-judgmental.

In our modern culture of narcissism, giving up on my own opinion is difficult, but that day, it paid off. I listened more. I nodded more. I really heard more. My heels sank into the mud under the tent on the lawn and I experienced more. I felt embedded in the Marymount community. Although it was disappearing before my eyes, it was also coming to light – what community had been so many and what it could have continuted to be.

On the ride home, I could resist no longer. A flood gate opened and I had to mention the BS of the Catholic mass that day – how could the presiding priest not recognize the huge, gaping sadness of so many people in attendance? He did not even mention the loss to so many people. I couldn’t help it. I shared my sadness too. I did apologize for having an opinion. But, luckily, MK agreed. She vented too.

It was hard not to talk about myself all day. I find myself and my views so interesting and I have something to say about, oh, just about everything.

I recommend this exercise. Give up your own point of view. Focus on some community. Or some person who is having a special day. Like a wedding, divorce, graduation, bar mitzvah, funeral, reunion.

Put all your attention on the other person or the community. You will find a freedom in getting away from yourself. And then, if you’re lucky, you will be able to debrief and put in your two cents on the ride home. Or you can write about how the exercise made you feel. Because, ultimately, it’s all about you.

# 7 Embrace Uncertainty

In less than three weeks, I will go to Switzerland and France for a week and a half. I feel a sense of hope mixed with worry. I don’t know how well my husband can care for the kids without me.

I also feel guilty. Yes, as a mom of three school-age children, what gives me the right to such happiness? such liberty? Once we’re parents, we’re are no longer free. We must be responsible-type people. We must not traipse around Europe with a backpack (I do intend to take a backpack and a fanny pack!) I feel guilty I will miss the girls’ 10th birthday.

But for survival reasons, I MUST take this journey. In order to fulfill my proposed sabbatical, I must go. To jumpstart my lagging spirit, I must go. To gain the language fluency I dream about, I must go.

Yet, yet, yet. I still feel worried and compelled to downplay my excitement. I wonder why. I wonder if there is some soap scum residual ring of dread around my psychic bathtub. If in my childhood, I was told not to look forward with hope. I must scrub that psychic tub.

Here are some reasons NOT to worry. Chris has said he’s adequate to the task. I have a cadre of friends, neighbors, babysitters, family who can help.

I must embrace my uncertainty. I must embody those stupid cliches – like, Jump and the net will appear.

It’s human nature to want to know if the house will increase in value before you buy it. Or to want to know if the kid’s soccer team will at least have one victory before you sign them up.

I have tons of swagger and humor, yet also carry oodles of self-doubt.

Yet, yet, yet. I am going to embrace my liminal state. I do not know the outcome; I am fearful. I am going to take Goethe’s advice to the young poet and (paraphrasing here) “Love the questions themselves, like books written in a very foreign tongue. You are not given the answers because you are not yet ready to live them. But you must live the question now. And that is the point. To live the questions now and someday you will find you are living in the answers.”

Live the uncertainty. Embrace the unknown.


Live every day as if it were your last.

This is the Carpe Diem step. Honestly, it sounds cliche, but sometimes cliches are true.

The point is to really live this day fully. Not to be petty. Not to hold a grudge. Not to nurse a wound. But to be open (and yes, okay, loving) to the people in your day. There are people, places, adventures right there in front of you.

Celebrate this one day only. And especially your relationships. Because happiness is found in relationships. Sure, it’s fine for religions to extol the benefits of the silent retreat, monastic life, 40 days and nights alone in the wilderness. And I’m sure there’s something to be said for that kind of withdrawal from humanity.

But I have to believe that real joy and meaning is found in hugs, laughter, friends, family. Just being in the presence of one another. Like E. M. Forster says in “Howard’s End,” “Connect! Only Connect!”

On August 16, Rev. Anna Carter-Florence spoke at Camp Dudley Chapel service. Her teenage son introduced her. He mentioned all of her credentials, like that she taught sermonology at a divinity school in Atlanta; she had been given awards, etc. Then he closed his introduction with, “The light of my life, my mother.”

That was living the day to the fullest. He could’ve been sarcastic and not exposed his feelings. But, instead, this teenage boy, in front of hundreds of other teenage boys, said “I love you.”

That was awesome.

Rule #5

Expect the Best; Love What You Get

Lindsay suggested this rule after working with horses. Every time she gets a new horse, she thinks, “This one will do tricks. This one will amaze and inspire. This is the one!” And every time, that horse is not exactly the ideal horse.

So it is with kids. As he first began to babble, I stared at him in his high chair, wondering, “What pearls of wisdom will he say when he can finally talk? This kid is deep, brilliant, poetic.” And when he did start talking — and I’d been waiting months, years for his genius — I got, “No!” “Mine!” “Dad!”

With people and animals, you gotta love what you get.

It’s hard at times to do that, when you expect so much. But you’ll get something and it will be surprising. And it will be good. Gail told me that as moms, we have to love the title of that book, “The Good Enough Mom.” That’s me. I’m good enough. A perfect mom would be a disaster. Same with a perfect kid. Or horse.

There’s an adage that is useful for creative people — low expectations, high results; high expectations, low results. But this rule says, high expectations and love no matter what.