Archive for September 2nd, 2011

Actualizing Possibility

Although I’ve always been an active and interactive grandmother to my grandchildren, with the deaths of my mother and mother-in-law I’ve thought long and hard about the concept of “legacy.”  The fact that b”h my children are shomrei mitzvot (observant Jews), happily married, and raising children of their own, is perhaps my most important legacy (either because of me or more likely, in spite of me).  Borne with joy and tears and siyata d’shamaya (heavenly assistance), it has been my single-minded pursuit, from a religious perspective and, especially and admittedly, as a knee-jerk reaction to the assimilation within my own generation (most of my relatives’ children are not Jewish due to intermarriage). That my children have become the people that they are, each in a service profession helping others, that they are excellent spouses and parents, fills me with gratitude.  Simply put, it’s nachas.

I had fantasies that my house in Maine would serve as a repository of wonderful experiences and memories for my children and particularly my grandchildren, a collective gathering space and haven where high tuition, the cost of living, the frenetic pace of daily living and the resulting stresses could be temporarily forgotten.  It would be an opportunity to leave one’s troubles and pressures behind, and enter a world where there were a multitude of activities that one could choose to participate in or not, but that there was something for everyone to enjoy.  There would be time to interact on a personal level without interruptions or distractions due to simpler pursuits.  I could practically hear everyone singing “Kumbaya” in unison around the campfire.

Alas, for reasons political, personal or practical, not all of our children are interested in the Maine adventure, either for themselves or for their children, and I doubt they’ll ever experience it or even deem to try.  My vision is not necessarily their vision.  Perhaps they think “maybe another time” but if I’ve learned anything in the past few years (a consequence of aging), we may not have “another time.”  So many people’s epitaphs read, “Would have/Should have/Could have.”  Regrets are inevitable but I am determined to minimize them.  I may be forgotten by my grandchildren, but I hope that many years from now as adults, they will read my blog and better understand who I was, what I was trying to become, and what I was trying to pass on to them.

I have been truly blessed in so many ways.  Maine has allowed me to stop, slow down and smell the roses in my life, to facilitate the expression of gratitude for life’s bounties:  for my marriage, and the man who has made my life’s journey so complete (that’s the same guy who I’m married to, just for the record!); for my children and grandchildren; for my Judaism and relationship to HaShem; for my friends; for my ability to see and do and experience so many things; and for the actualization of possibility.

Although I enjoy the solitude, it’s even better when this gift of Maine is shared.  For the hardy souls of all ages who have made the trek to join me for some time off, it’s been an incredible source of joy to see the worry lines in their faces disappear and their eyes to shine with happiness.  The gift of a good night’s sleep for a friend with many troubles; the joy of a rabbi and his family from my home town who can swim and kayak at a remote mountain lake in complete privacy; the thrill of a small child seeing a moose in its natural habitat; the sense of accomplishment in a young person’s hike-and-bike trek; the unusual quiet experienced by a harried young mother sitting undisturbed on our porch; the camaraderie and incredulity in sharing a Shabbos meal seemingly in the middle of nowhere – – this, too, is nachas.

Recently I had a bit of a medical scare which, b’chasdei HaShem (in G-d’s kindness) turned out to be fine.  But again I thought: what might I accomplish in the time left to me? What meaning might there be to my life? What lasting legacy can I pass on to my children and grandchildren?  The truth is, it should not take a medical scare to initiate these thoughts; we should be living our lives with these questions in our minds all the time.  This month of Elul, which leads up to Rosh Hashana-Yom Kippur, is a wonderful vessel for introspection of this nature.

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Irene: Powerless

We weren’t there when Irene hit in our home town.  No damage, but also no power… for SIX DAYS.  Unfortunately it meant that since we weren’t in town, my kids had to trek over to my house after the first 24 hours and retrieve two freezers-ful of food.  Thank goodness they were able to do this for me, as I had a decent amount of chicken and meat that I had bought for the coming Yomim Tovim (Jewish holidays).  Luckily my kids’ homes have power.  I have no idea how they were able to make room for it all, since they have their own stuff to worry about.  I really appreciate their efforts.

Heavy winds snapped this telephone pole in two. This is the only damage in my immediate area; it's located about 5 miles from where I live.(click to enlarge)

We were in Maine when Irene hit.

Close-up of the snapped, dangling pole (still not fixed 2 days later) (click to enlarge)

Frankly, it didn’t seem so bad to me.  No major tree damage, no damage to the house, nor was there any flooding (we live on a hill and drainage is good).  We’ve been through worse:  the classic “nor’easter” storms that are quite similar to Irene, the difference being that they hit during winter and instead of loads of rain, we get ice and snow.  The same 60 – 85 mph gusts of wind drop the temperatures well below zero.  There was a power outage but we weren’t affected because we use solar power and are independent of the power company (“off the grid”).  So Irene by comparison was a piece of cake to the usual winter storm.  (Only 20 minutes away, however, bridges collapsed, roads washed out, and houses were carried away due to extreme flooding from surging rivers and streams and overflowing lakes and ponds.)

A few years ago we were very interested in a rustic cabin along a river that was for sale in Harts Location, New Hampshire. To reach it, you had to park your car on the side of the road and walk across a foot bridge, continuing on a trail a few hundred feet until you reached the cabin.  Admittedly not too practical, but it was smack in the middle of Crawford Notch, one of the most gorgeous locations in the White Mountains, and the views and that river were entrancing.  We put a bid on the property but lost out to an offer that had been accepted only minutes before our bid was submitted.  Instead of thinking “gam zu l’tova” (this too, if for the best/it just wasn’t meant to be), I instead became consumed by regret.  Truly, it was a once-in-a-lifetime property at an amazing price.

Thankfully, HaShem runs the world, and wants only the best for us.  The area where my “dream property” was located was completely destroyed by Irene’s surge waters.

The very next morning post-Irene I ventured out, because my grandsons’ visit came to an end and I needed to get them to the airport in Manchester, New Hampshire, a three-hour drive away.  Not knowing the conditions of the roads, I set out much earlier than necessary.  Only a mile down the road, I saw five fire trucks and rescue vehicles.  Around 5 a.m. that morning, a neighbor’s house had, tragically, burned to the ground. Fortunately he escaped with his life, although as of this writing the owner’s  pets are still unaccounted for.

The powerfulness and the powerlessness at the scene was a shocking sight.  The vulnerability of being in the wild, in the woods was all too clear.  Our local fire and rescue is made up of skilled and hard-working volunteers, but however noble their efforts, the reality is that if one’s house is on fire, the likelihood is almost zero that it will be saved.  The trucks’ water tanks, once emptied, must leave the scene of the fire to refill the water at the lake a few miles away.  Because it’s an all-volunteer force, and no one stays or sleeps at the firehouse, it’s not always possible for firemen to respond immediately if they are otherwise preoccupied (ie many miles away at work, doing errands a few towns away, etc.)

(click to enlarge)

Today (two days post-Irene) as I once again passed the site of the fire, the first thing that snapped into my mind was “Elul.”  One is supposed to do a cheshbon nefesh, a spiritual accounting, for the entire Jewish month of Elul, which precedes Rosh HaShana.  One uses Elul to hopefully identify and rectify past mistakes and think of ways one can lessen and improve one’s shortcomings.  Seeing that destroyed house brought forth so many emotions.  I felt pity for the owner, in his 60s. A lifetime of possessions and tangible memories were wiped out in a minute.  All that is left is destruction and junk.  How does one begin to start over?  We may not be able to “fix” things to how they were before, but we can try to begin anew, even if it means living differently.  ((A metaphor for tshuva/repentance?)  The ability to pick up the pieces and go on with life is easier said than done, but it’s possible.  We have so many examples on a grander scale from Jewish history and from our parents’ generation, especially those that survived the   Holocaust.

So much of what we have is superfluous.  Sometimes we have so much stuff that we don’t even know what we have, or what is important.  Certainly when we die we can’t take our stuff with us (and woe to our children who have to clean out the years of accumulated flotsam and jetsam from our houses).  The only thing we can take with us is our mitzvos, (our deeds).  Our legacy is not our stuff; it’s our children, our grandchildren, and the positive consequences of our giving tzedaka, being kind to someone, etc. that is everlasting.   Hopefully I can truly internalize and  incorporate that message so I won’t have to learn it the hard way.