When life gives you foghorns, count your blessings?

There are realities in every life utterly beyond anyone’s control. Consider the foghorn.

Under certain weather conditions, a ship has an obligation to blast its foghorn at regular intervals. It does so to keep the seas safe for other vessels.

When one sits on a deck in the vicinity of said sonic safety device, the resulting report can be… distracting… to say the least.

It startles me enough to make me jump the first several times at least that I hear a foghorn during any given hour. It is sufficiently loud that my instinct is to clap my hands over my ears like a toddler would. I tend to let out a nervous giggle with every sonorous report. Conversation must stop.

While on vacation, at sea, in the North Atlantic Ocean, we’ve encountered more than our fair share of fantastic conditions, but there have been plenty of overcast hours. As it happens, our favorite place to spend the non-wind-whipped ones has been a Retreat Cabana we reserved for our voyage. These amenities are situated on deck 12 of 14 of our temporary home-away-from-home.

From the sound of it, these otherwise luxurious rentals sit directly under the ship’s foghorn. Without a doubt, the source is nearer deck 12, forward, than our staterooms on deck 4, aft.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the frequency of the foghorn blasts was dictated by a ship’s speed or other specific conditions, but I know almost nothing about maritime rules. What I can say is that the foghorn sounds at an interval just long enough that one forgets it is coming, right up until it trumpets its way back into your ears and central nervous system.

My husband, it’s fair to say, is not a fan of the foghorn. He spends more time outdoors than I do, and he frequents the Cabana more often than I do. Thus far, he’s tried noise concealing headphones and foam earplugs to dull the noise and continue on with his work, but the distraction continues.

I’m absolutely sympathetic to the necessity and value of the foghorn, and all the other safety innovations that make a modern cruise safer than the maiden voyage of the Titanic. I hope this post comes across as something absolutely distinct from a compliant! That said, my heart kept stopping and my ears kept ringing on our foggy Cabana mornings, and I wasn’t sure that was optimal, either.

On about the third day that the foghorn menaced my peace of mind, I had an epiphany. It’s stentorian reverberations, after all, meant we continued on our way, all systems go, all of the important stuff quite right with our isolated little floating world.

I decided, with every foghorn blast, to adjust my reaction into counting my blessings.

Loud noises shut my eyes and often prompt me to clasp my hands at my heart. Why not follow that lead and take a moment in gratitude for the gift of safety, the ability to hear a warning offered with beneficent intentions, and the joy of my functional if reactive body?

I can’t say that the foghorn is my favorite aspect of traveling by sea, even so, but our relationship has improved.

I love the waves. I find the atmosphere and pace of cruising conducive to contemplation. I marvel every day aboard a ship at the luxury of having the time and funds to see the world this way.

And, now?

I hear the blast of a foghorn, and I’m reminded to count my blessings. They’re as myriad as the waves in the sea.

And, if occasionally obscured by the mist, my other faculties remain to offer clarity.

What’s a clarion blast if not a call to action?

What better action to take than finding the good in an inconvenience?

I still prefer a clear blue sky, but I’ll hearken to the value of the foghorn.

Is grief reflected in (un)polished silver?

One way I’m still processing my grief, two years and five months after my mother’s death, is by polishing her silver. Today, my hands are sore and chapped from completing that task last night.Tarnished silver showing a coppery glow instead of the whitish glint of sterling

Perhaps it was just the passing of more than the usual time while travel was ill-advised, but I think regional wildfires and their acidic smoke sped up the tarnishing of her sterling tea service. My irrational heart may also feel that these dark stains reflect the deprivations and loneliness of 2020.

If we couldn’t celebrate life’s occasions together, why shouldn’t our heirlooms wither and wilt in their own exile?

Silver heirlooms & family history

I was a girl, but old enough to notice, when my father bought Mom the silver tea set she’d coveted. I think I recall the particular room in the particular house we lived in at the time. I have memories of her excitement upon receiving it.

I’m not sure that Mom ever actually served tea or coffee from it, but it shone with pride of place in every dining room thereafter.Sterling silver tea service with heavy tray, coffee pot, tea pot, sugar bowl & creamer

Some families may own objects for generations; others build their own cache of keepsakes in the moment. It’s the memories that form mementos, not the artist or craftsman at a workbench or in a factory.

For myself, I take pains to use lovely things such as china and silver as often as possible. Regular readers may recall that I worked on my novel by candlelight last summer while sitting at my parents’ dining room table and keeping one ear open to Dad as he recovered from surgery. I know that five-branched candelabra was one of their Silver Anniversary gifts.

The use of three different styles of mismatched candles is entirely my own choice, and my mother, it must be noted, would be scandalized by such cacaphony.

5 branched candle holder with two gold beeswax tapers, two rust colored beeswax candles, and one smooth taperI use a silver tray to carry Dad’s post-surgical medications upstairs every night now* just as I did in August.**

It’s the right size to fit on his bedside table, lighter than wood, and less breakable than a plate would be. Some old-fashioned objects remain just as useful as their modern alternatives.

How to remove wax residue from silver

Before I polished all the silver, I had to pour hot water over the tray I placed beneath that 25th anniversary candelabra in order to remove all the wax I’d spilled thereupon.

Please note that, never, in Mom’s lifetime, could such a mess have been left for four months or more before being attended to! That, too, is entirely my responsiblity, and does not reflect the way Mom raised me.

If undertaking such a wax removal exercise, make sure you place a paper towel between the wax-stained item and your drain to avoid expensive plumbing repairs down the line. Very hot water does very effectively remove wax from even the most detailed metal surface.

I used water just off the boil, and the tray from which I was removing wax had no heavy, weighted areas to avoid heating. Be careful if treating candlesticks or other items which may contain meltable fillers as counterweight if you try the hot water method!

Amongst the almost innumerable blessings of my highly charmed life, I include the fact that my mother died in the summer of 2019, well before the pandemic. The children and I were able to spend the first holiday season after her passing with my father, accompanying him through what was a difficult time for all of us.

Frankly, anyone who knew my mother would recognize at least this irrefutable fact: she would have hated being locked down and isolated from society. Mom liked to be busy, and she reveled in the company of other people.

I don’t know if I could have survived such a loss in 2020 when travel took on new risks. The idea of Mom’s hospice care taking place while we were thousands of miles away is intolerable. I can’t even express the gratitude I have for the fact that I wasn’t challenged in such a way.

In spite of the mild miseries of my own experience of the pandemic, I know firsthand that heroic caregivers continued to minister to the dying in spite of the job’s personal risk. The long illness that plagued my mother-in-law came to an end in 2021. Hospice workers—and an investment in long term care insurance decades ago—gave her the dignity of dying at home, as she wished, though there can be no real respite from the ravages of grief.

It ranks high on the list of ways I consider myself luckier than I deserve that we six shared a household, thus having no question about our ability to be as involved as my father-in-law wished with her daily care at the end. Being there for a terminal loved one is difficult; knowing you can’t be must be excruciating.

How to polish silver without damaging it

While products abound, these days, promising quicker, less effortful removal of tarnish from cherished silver, experts universally decry the lazy man’s dips and hacks. Polishing silver isn’t particularly difficult, but it is best done with a bit of elbow grease and zero “quick fixes.”

Removing tarnish means, fundamentally, stripping away a thin layer of the valuable metal itself. It is best to tackle the job gently.

Apply a high quality silver polish using cotton balls, a sponge, or a rag. Rub until the dark stain of tarnish disappears, changing out your cotton or rag when it blackens. Finally, rinse or rub off the remaining polish, depending upon the type of object you are cleaning. A tray can be wiped dry or rinsed, then buffed; silverware or items you put in your mouth want washing after polishing.

Silverware as a shelf for memory

I have less memory of how this three-tiered silver tray came into my parents’ possession, but it does define the space for receiving Christmas cookies in my mind. Now that I’ve polished it, a bit of baking does seem to be called for.

When is it not better to confront a pleasing array of delicacies arranged on a silver platter? Or trois? When is a display not improved by height, texture, and depth?

While I wish my father weren’t recuperating from a painful operation, and I wish my mother were here, in her house, doing a better job of decorating, polishing silver, or tidying up than I every could…

Well, suffice to say that I am grateful for Dad’s recovery. I’m happy to spend the month of December surrounded by Mom’s things with at least the possibility of realizing a tiny fraction of her joy in the Advent season.

It’s a constant ache and awareness of loss to live amongst the remnants of my mother’s life, but such a gift that I have the luxury of time and access to process my feelings about everything she was, what she loved, and what she left behind.

The finer things in life only achieve that definition because we acknowledge how they add to our delight, or enhance our appreciation of the lives we lead. Even gold has only so much luster outside convention.

I would trade every precious metal for my mother’s presence if I could, but that’s not how living works, and that’s not a bargain anyone gets to make.

Grief is not the garland we expect for our holidays, but it is one most of us will hang one day. Whether personified by tinsel or a sterling silver tea service, holiday grief is a likely inheritance to everyone blessed by the chance to love and be loved.

It’s hard to make a family without generating holiday memories. Vanishingly few conduct an entire life without loss. Learning to live with grief throughout the holiday season is the burden—and the gift—of those who’ve been loved.

*For knee replacement number two

**When Dad became a cyborg, as he likes to say

Happy Hanukkah 5782

Almost another full year of pandemic permutations, and the Gregorian calendar is wrapping up 2021. The Hebrew year 5782, however, is just entering its prime as we celebrate Hanukkah. Tonight, Sunday, December 5th, is the last night of this Jewish holiday.

What I love most about Hanukkah is its focus on the universal human need for light to triumph over darkness. On this, the eighth and final night of the Festival of Lights, my sputtering candles serve as a visual metaphor for a dream many of us share: may this be the final stand of COVID-19, too!Candles in Hanukkah menorah burning out

I hope that Omicron is a pathetic, last gasp of the no-longer-so-novel coronavirus; I pray for a future where we can resume our holidays, rituals, and everyday celebrations in each other’s company without fear.

I am personally blessed to be both vaccinated (Moderna) and boosted (Pfizer), and to have the freedom and means to travel this holiday season. My father, who got his first knee replacement last summer, was able to schedule his second side for the week after Thanksgiving. While elective surgeries like my father’s have been canceled in my home state*, hospitals in the Pacific Northwest, where he lives, remain open to patients like him.

Hanukkah is notable for its emphasis upon pirsumei nissa, or “publicizing the miracle.” This isn’t just a minority group’s attempt to hold a holiday up against the majority culture’s big day. Rather, the miracle of a single vial of oil burning far beyond its expected daily duration for an entire week instead (necessary to create new ritual fuel) was deemed worthy of public emphasis by Jewish sages in antiquity.

This year, as my youngest child embarks upon education in a new environment—but, again, a Christian one—I can’t help but draw his attention to the history of gambling over dreidels for this holiday. It matters, a lot, why Jews emphasize this particular act.

As I understand it, during Syrian-Greek rule of the Holy Land (c. 200 BCE), it was illegal for our people to study Torah. The punishment for a Jewish religious education was death. A form of hiding in plain sight was developed; if enemy soldiers approached, students would pull out their spinning tops (dreidels) and pretend they were just playing.

There is so much that I admire in my youngest’s Catholic education. A recent letter from his principal included the following statement that resonates powerfully with me:

You were created by the God of love

in God’s image and according to God’s likeness,

to be a unique expression of that love.

It is through you

that God desires to manifest Love

to the peoples of the world in these times,

and to offer them the freedom

of the children of God.

According to our school, this statement is one of the fundamental principles of the Xaverian Brothers.

For all the ways I identify with these notions, I also found myself admonishing my child to remember his own unique heritage in recent weeks.

We are blessed to live in a society where we may elect to join any school, but we mustn’t forget the lessons of our forebears. A Jewish child should know where he came from; he must recognize that there are people living in America today who wouldn’t acknowledge him as either fully human, equal, or a true patriot. It’s unfortunate, but plain fact.

I feel myself to be an American before any other categorization, yet I don’t have the luxury of assuming that all my compatriots would agree with that assessment. It’s a tragedy that I have to emphasize the same to my children; it would be negligent to fail to alert them to this truth as I understand it.

The scent of spent beeswax tapers lingers in my nostrils as I waver between gratitude for my abundance of blessings and acceptance of the ridiculous prejudices that seem to motivate vast swathes of the public today.

I’ll take my luck and be thankful. I have the light from my menorah piercing the darkness, my father’s great good fortune to have gotten the health care he needs, and the secure knowledge of the love of friends and family who surround me.

As we near the darkest days of December, 2021, my wish is for the blessing of illumination to all who seek light. Best wishes for warmth, safety, health, and goodness to everyone reading this.

L’ chaim! To life! And to everything good, holy, and beneficent as we huddle against the darkness.

*Due to a combination of COVID cases and staff shortages

Goal check: Now’s the time to reflect on New Year’s resolutions

I wrote in January about one process I use to setand follow through withpersonal goals. I didn’t call them New Year’s Resolutions, so perhaps that’s why I haven’t given them up yet.

The internet says 80% of people drop New Year’s resolutions by February, and a 1988 article in the Journal of Substance Abuse showed 77% of resolution makers stuck it out for all of one full week while only 19% remained committed to their goals two years later.

2021 is approaching its halfway point as I write this. My not-too-ambitious printed list of goals for the year still hangs behind my computer screen. It’s been lightly annotated as I’ve gone along. I look at it—reminded of what I promised myself and why—every day.

So here’s an update on how well I’ve done at putting my energy into actions that affirm my values. I’ve printed out a clean new copy to hang for the second half of the year.2021 goals in a table, listing intellectual, financial, physical, relationship, and career objectives

Green lines blur personal financial goals; the pink line relates to a personal relationship goal.

Here’s a refresher of the New Year’s list for those who didn’t read the first post:

2021 goals in a table, listing intellectual, financial, physical, relationship, and career objectivesYou’ll notice that my list has grown since I penned it in January. This is intentional. I take care to craft a set of goals that serve my long-term interests without undermining my short-term sense of accomplishment.

I know myself! I can be overwhelmed by a large task that presents as monolithic.

On the other hand, almost every job can be dismantled into manageable component parts. I’m pretty good at methodically working my way through a list of concrete action items.

Can I regain all the strength I enjoyed due to regular vigorous exercise before I developed an autoimmune condition? The idea of trying makes me want to crawl back into bed. Maybe forever!

Moving every day in an intentional way, however? For just a few minutes? Yes, I can definitely do that. And, usually, I do, because the gentle suggestion on my list doesn’t feel like something that will decimate my limited stores of energy.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to emphasize that it isn’t so much the details of your personal goals that matter, but the fact that you assess them—then actively work toward what you want—that produces the efficacy of this technique.

My humble ambitions might easily be mocked by a high powered striver. That’s okay. I live comfortably with my choices because they are based upon my core values. The list I’ve shared helps me to recognize my own accomplishments for precisely that reason.

There aren’t many awards ceremonies—or any merit-based pay raises—for stay-at-home parents. One hears more often about Mommy Wars than Mommy Awards. But just because a parent opts to take on child-rearing as a full time role doesn’t mean personal growth and self-validation should be abandoned.

Self-improvement and self-care aren’t mutually exclusive. I see investing in myself, if only with time set aside for making and keeping short- to long-term goals—including those unrelated to my offspring!—as a vital part of staying sane and being prepared for the day when the last fledgling leaves the nest.

If you didn’t make New Year’s Resolutions, perhaps Mid-Year Resolutions will suit you better? There’s no better time to commit yourself to goals you care about than right now.

Why, yes, I did work in Quality Assurance. How did you guess?

Passover is sweeter when we celebrate our freedoms

Passover Greetings for 5781! And also a very happy Easter to my friends and loved ones celebrating that holiday. The Spring Equinox* is nothing to sneeze at, either, except, maybe, for the allergies, a little.

May spring offer hope, renewal, and joyous freedom to everyone reading this post.

You can gauge the season in my home by the drift of matzah crumbs across the kitchen floor. Note to those new to a cracker-based diet: no, it is never a wise idea to eat matzah without a plate for catching the inevitable crumbs. Don’t let my husband or children tell you otherwise!Passover Pesach matzah

In 2021, I found myself rueful that yet another פֶסַח Pesach would be celebrated without guests or even family. Due to necessary medical appointments, we were socially if not spiritually distanced even from my in-laws who live downstairs within our home as this holiday commenced.

Yet, still, we had so much for which to be grateful.

Chief among all blessings, the festival of liberation from bondage reminds me annually of my husband’s exodus from an oppressive regime which persecuted his family for its Jewish heritage. Thank God for a United States of America welcoming refugees! My husband, his beloved parents, and his grandmother z”l all benefited from that largess.

Anyone familiar with DH’s academic record knows how the USA benefits, in turn, from his ground-breaking scholarship in—and beyond—the natural sciences. Certainly, IMHO, the likelihood of international fame ought not be a prerequisite for offering refuge to “your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”** And yet, time and again, immigrants such as my husband prove their worth far beyond such beleaguered beginnings.

Cover of Richard Codor's Joyous Haggadah book

I hope that not a day goes by when I do not thank God for the blessing of my husband’s freedom, but I thank Passover for the fact that a year never could. The Haggadah—the story of Passover related by Jews at a סֵדֶר seder or order of telling—includes the answer, “It is because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt” to the question asked by a child who can’t even formulate a question about what the holiday means.

“It is because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt.”

I must admit to not being particularly literal in my general understanding of the Torah. I believe God gave us a legacy of poetry, using metaphor to offer millennia’s worth of new understandings of the same old words, letting scripture rise to the occasion of ever-evolving human capacity.

And yet… in this case, I take scripture fairly literally. It is, frankly, because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt that everything else in my life carries so many of its multitudes of meaning.

That Egypt is a metaphor, yes. But, from where I sit, “Egypt” is a place I was, yet here I am, free.

Compared with 2020, I gave thanks in 2021 for plenty of capacity at the stores to get groceries delivered, and no shortages of either mundane or ritual items we needed for our seder.

At this time of year, in addition to counting my blessings, I am inclined to count my freedoms. The liturgy of the season Deuteronomy (26:5–8) includes the phrase:

God took us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”Bible open to show Deuteronomy 26:1-5 on the page

Bible open to show Deuteronomy 26:5-8 on the pageUnderstanding the mighty/strong hand tends to be trivial. God is mighty; God is great. Translation doesn’t dilute this understanding much, in my experience.

The outstretched arm is, perhaps, less obvious, but sometimes more compelling, at least, to me.

You can find Jewish scholarship on the topic of the strong hand and outstretched arm all over the internet. But here’s what that extended arm means to me.

The outstretched arm reminds me of my obligation—always!— to reach out to the wider world. I believe I must use my personal freedom as a tool to work toward the liberation of others. At my seder, I can’t help but reflect upon current events. This year, that included paying attention to the illegal coup taking place in Myanmar, formerly Burma.

The New York Times reports that:

“Ten days after seizing power in Myanmar, the generals issued their first command to journalists: Stop using the words “coup,” “regime” and “junta” to describe the military’s takeover of the government. ”

When that didn’t work, the military junta that staged the coup in Myanmar—overthrowing the legitimate, democratically elected government—arrested more than 50 journalists for continuing to report the truth.

I wish I could do more than thumb my nose at these tyrants by defying their chosen vocabulary. This is the small strength of my individual hand, however, so that’s the little bit of power I will wield today.

Page view from Haggadah describing The Simple Child

After mentioning this outrage against human dignity, I’m also inspired to consider the question: Which child of the Passover seder am I aping, as I ask?

The Pesach Haggadah prompts us to answer questions about our liberation from slavery in Egypt for the benefit of four children: the one who is wise, a wicked child, a simple son, and the one who doesn’t even know how to ask what s/he needs to know.

Modernity offers most of us instant connections across the globe, yet few of us seem blessed with the wisdom to use what should probably be considered a superpower to its utmost. Staring at the atrocities in Myanmar, I wonder if I’m the child who can’t even formulate a sensible question.

Who should determine the form of government of any nation? Am I remiss in assuming the majority’s opinion offers the critical vote?

What is our obligation, as outsiders, to support those agitating and risking their lives in hopes of bringing democracy to a nation? Is it enough when I simply simply ponder their fate?

When are we called upon to act as opposed to bearing witness? How many civilians must a military coup murder before free people of the world feel obligated to take action?

Where should I draw the line between my own liberation and that of another oppressed person?

Why have I been blessed with so much more freedom than the people of Myanmar?

How can I make the world better given my limited strength and resources?

In this spring of optimism across the developed world as a pandemic God willing wanes, I hope those of us living in the bosom of privilege, safety, and freedom from want can provide some sort of meaningful support for those in  Myanmar and elsewhere living beneath a cloak of oppression.

* With a special nod to the pagan holiday of Ostara, aka Eostre, from which Christian Easter stole borrowed what it needed to convert the masses. Please note, friend Christians, that I don’t think Jesus himself is in any way incriminated in this wholesale holiday obfuscation. The social history is pretty fascinating, however, to a nerd like myself.

Hebrew acronym for zikhronah livrakha, meaning “May her memory be a blessing.” Read more about this Jewish acronym at My Jewish Learning dot com.

** Excerpted from Emma Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus, as etched at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Here’s one rabbi’s thought on understanding how translation affects a well known, widely “understood” passage such as the one I’ve quoted here.