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I Cut My Own Hair

            I kept seeing ads for an at-home haircutting kit in my Facebook feed, in those “five hundred things on Amazon that you obviously need” type of lists that pretend to be articles. I am addicted to those lists, which is probably why they come up so frequently on my feed.

            Anyway, the kit included two plastic guard clips and a pair of scissors, so you could cut your hair at home. If it had cost five or ten dollars I would have ordered it immediately, alas it was more expensive than that, and I was skeptical that it would be worth the money.

            But…I hate getting my hair cut. I hate sitting in a salon and listening to all of the inappropriate personal conversations blossoming around me, and I hate feeling pressured to talk to the hairdresser, and I hate feeling like I’m being stared at and judged the whole time (Did you see her nails? I bet she only gets her hair cut every few months! She’s not even wearing makeup!!). I start to feel like I have a sensory processing disorder with all of the smells and noises and lights, and I’m on the edge of running out the door screaming the whole time. And the haircut itself always takes so long! And it’s so stressful trying to guess how much hair I should ask her to cut off, and inevitably I guess wrong and when she’s all done I realize I wanted it two inches shorter, but I’m too embarrassed to say anything.

“I’m not embarrassed. I’ll say it for you!”

            For years, Mom and I went to a small salon, behind a beauty supply store that was never crowded, and the hairdresser was low key and liked to talk about dogs. The haircuts themselves were still anxiety producing, but I could handle it. And then the store closed, a few years ago, and we had to go to go back to a real hair salon and my anxiety blew up.

            And then came Covid. I left my hair to grow very long at the beginning of the pandemic, unwilling to risk a crowded hair salon, even while wearing a mask and with each cubicle separated by a plastic divider. I finally went back, but each time my anxiety got worse, and I put off the next haircut even longer.

“My hair is fine the way it is, Mommy.”

            But recently, my hair had gotten so long that I had to wear it up every day, because if I left it down it was as if I had a hundred paint brushes attached to my head, getting into everything. And that silly haircutting kit ad just kept showing up on my Facebook feed, taunting me, telling me that I’d either have to put on my mask and get a real haircut, or buy the dang thing and take a risk. The turning point came when Mom got into a snit one night, after I fell asleep, because her hair had gotten stuck in her glasses for the thousandth time, and she decided to chop off her bangs on her own. When I woke up the next morning her hair looked very much like the way mine looked when I was five years old and my best friend cut my bangs with a pair of safety scissors.

“Ive seen worse haircuts.”

            I showed Mom the home haircut kit and she said, eh, why not? So I finally ordered it, ready to blame her if it turned out to be a waste of money.

            The kit arrived not too many days later, but I just stared at it, in its packaging, for a few more days. And then I risked opening it, and continued to stare at it. Then I watched a bunch of videos on YouTube of people using the clips to cut their hair, to trim bangs, and even make long layers. And then, finally one day I decided to try it. I waited for my hair to be dry (which takes a long freaking time lately), and combed out the knots, and then I layered paper towels over the bathroom sink to catch the hair as it fell, and I took a deep breath. I’d decided to try doing the long layers, because that way I could gather all of my hair in front of my face and actually see what I was cutting (instead of trying to cut my hair behind my back). Miraculously, the guard clip stayed in place as I hacked away at my hair (there are a lot of teeth in the guard clip to keep the hair from moving around as you cut). The scissors that came with the kit were surprisingly small, but I thought I should at least try to use them the first time, in case they had special powers (they didn’t). It took a lot of chopping to get through the mass of hair, but then I was able to even everything out by snipping as close as possible to the edge of the guard clip, after the masses of hair were out of the way. And when I flipped my hair back to see how the hair cut had turned out, the layers looked really good, as if I’d gotten an actual haircut! I went ahead and used the smaller guard clip to trim my bangs, and went a little shorter than I meant to because it was harder to judge the right length than I thought it would be. But then I was done. And it was, relatively, easy. I will need to try again pretty soon, though, because my hair is still too long. Except, I’m anxious about cutting my hair too short; it has become kind of like my security blanket during Covid, keeping me safe, somehow.

Oh, and after all of that time spent cutting my hair with the tiny scissors, I remembered that I actually have an electric clipper in the closet (from back when I was naïve enough to think I could groom Cricket at home) that I could have been using to cut my hair much faster. I had to give up on my grooming attempts with Cricket way back when, because even after a year and a half of diligent effort, I could still barely brush one swath of her hair without running out of chicken treats. Even sweet Ellie starts to grumble when I try to comb her hair or, god forbid, clean her ears, so the clippers have stayed in the closet and have probably rusted through, though I should probably check.

“Nooooooooo!”

As long as I don’t suddenly decide that I need to have short hair, or a Mohawk or something, I should be able to use my little haircutting kit for the foreseeable future, or at least long enough to forget exactly how awful it feels to go to the hair salon. In the meantime, the dogs still have to go to the groomer, because there’s no kit in the world that will make them tolerate me cutting their hair at home, let alone their nails, without risking life and limb. So while I can now avoid the expense and anxiety of going out for haircuts, the girls will still have to go to the groomer regularly, each haircut costing about as much as it would cost for a human woman’s haircut, and requiring a lot of drugs (for Cricket) and treats (for Ellie) to make it worth the horror. Fingers crossed that neither of them decides they need to dye their hair or get a perm, because that could get prohibitive.

“Would I look good as a redhead?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

A Day of Rest

The defining story of the Jewish people is the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The children of Israel were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years, and when they finally escaped one of the first things they did (at Mount Sinai) was to proclaim that there would have to be a rest day every week. And, yes, the way the Hebrew Bible is written, it’s God who tells them what the Ten Commandments are, including the commandment to keep the Sabbath day as a day of rest, but even if we believe that it’s coming directly from God and not from the people themselves, the people had a choice, to embrace the new rules or forgo them, and they chose to take them on. Imagine what having a full day of rest every week would have meant to a people who had only known life as slaves? Setting aside a full day of rest meant that, for at least one day each week, their time and their priorities were their own. We think of a day of rest as a logical necessity, because of the body’s need for rest, but that day off also creates more space in our own minds, for our hopes and dreams and plans, instead of just thoughts related to work and getting by.

I like to think of Shabbat as a time to sit and listen carefully to those quiet voices inside of us, the ones we can barely hear during the busy work week, so that we can put ourselves back together and bring our full selves back with us into our daily lives. Shabbat is a chance to heal the wounds of the week, especially the times when we’ve pushed through, despite hunger or exhaustion or pain, and never bothered to apologize to ourselves for the harm done.

“How dare you!”

But even in the United States, where we supposedly have a five day work week, with two days off, many people still work on the weekends, or set that time aside for chores and errands. Maybe they go to a prayer service, or have a family dinner, but they don’t spend a full day (and certainly not two days) napping or reading or taking nature walks; instead, they spend the time ticking things off their to-do lists. I’ve found that most people find the idea of rest, especially for a whole day, uncomfortable. Which means that the ancient Israelites knew what they were up to; they knew that rest is essential to living a full life, and that we would have to be commanded to do it.

“You need to be commanded to nap? Humans are weird.”

But even with my deep appreciation for rest, I still don’t feel like I make enough use of Shabbat each week. Part of the problem is that creating a day of rest takes effort. Shabbat is supposed to be a mini holiday every week – a mini Chanukah or Christmas or Passover – and that means a lot of planning, and cooking, and inviting, and cleaning, and dressing up. It sounds crazy to say that I am too tired for Shabbat; too tired to rest. But I am too tired to create the right circumstances for my soul to rest and recharge, instead of just my body.

            Another block to making the most of Shabbat is that I don’t really feel like I deserve a special day of rest each week, given the amount of rest I need, and take, during the work week. I feel like I should be making up for all of that laziness by doing chores on the weekend.

            And then there’s the biggest block of all: my memories of celebrating Shabbat as a kid. Before my father became more religious, when I was four, five, six, and seven, Shabbat was a good day. My brother and I went to Junior Congregation – an hour of Bible trivia and songs and prayers with the rest of the kids and with one not-so-grown up adult – and then, if we could sneak into the Social Hall after the maintenance guys had set up the tables, we could steal brownies while the adults were busy praying in the big sanctuary. And then I’d go to gymnastics with my best friend, and then me and Mom and my brother would get meatball heroes from the tiny Italian sub shop on the way home. It was pretty great.

“Meatball heroes, yes. Bible trivia? Not so much.”

            But then my father became more religious, starting when I was about eight years old, and instead of meatball heroes and gymnastics, my brother and I went from Junior Congregation in the little sanctuary straight into the big sanctuary with the adults, and then to the Kiddish in the Social Hall, where the adults drank Slivovitz and ate gefilte fish and herring and talked for what seemed like hours. We were able to eat a few more brownies, but it didn’t seem worth the trouble. And when we finally got home, we weren’t allowed to watch TV for the rest of the day, or even get homework done. The boredom was mind numbing, except for the times when we played Trivial Pursuit as a family, which were brutal. At that point in my life, the best part of Shabbat was the end.

            I gave up on celebrating Shabbat entirely in my twenties, going to therapy and writing workshops and shopping trips on Saturdays, because it was easier to think of it as just another day than to wrestle with the fish hooks of the past, the memories that cut so deep into my skin that it’s hard to pull them out without damaging my internal organs. And even after joining our current synagogue, nine years ago, and consistently going to Friday night services each week, I still couldn’t find a comfortable way to bring Shabbat home with me.

            But I want to be able to find some peace each week. I want there to be a day set aside where I can put down my big bag of anxieties and truly rest and recharge. But while I know people who are good at dissociating from their feelings, who can even be specific in which of their feelings and memories to “put on a shelf” and out of their minds, for a time, I can’t do it. My internal shelves are not well constructed, so the nasty things keep falling back into consciousness, often in dreams or nightmares, or just in triggers throughout the day that I can’t control or ignore.

“The shelves are falling! The shelves are falling!”

So I’m left with all of my memories and emotions and internal conflicts, even on Shabbat, and no amount of challah, or grape juice, or matzah ball soup, seems to be able to overcome that. Except, if I look back at the beginning of this essay, the purpose for Shabbat that I came up with wasn’t to be happy and carefree, it was to take the time to put your whole self back together, to take ownership of your time, and your internal life, so that when you go back to your daily working life you can bring your whole self with you. Maybe, on those terms, I’m doing Shabbat pretty well after all. Maybe the real problem is that I expect my version of Shabbat to match what I’ve seen in other people’s homes. Maybe it’s not so much that I’m flawed and broken beyond repair, but that my expectations of myself just don’t fit me. And maybe, my goal for Shabbat each week should be to gradually change my expectations of myself until they match the person I actually am. Maybe if I can do that, some peace will follow.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?         

I Don’t Want To Go To the Doctor

            I got a call on the answering machine (yes, they still exist, as do land lines), cancelling an upcoming appointment with the cardiologist. And I was thrilled! It’s not that I particularly hate my cardiologist, but every time I go to a doctor, whether it’s my primary care doctor, or a rheumatologist, a pulmonologist, an endocrinologist, a cardiologist, etc., they weigh me and then tell me that my real problem is my weight, and proceed to lecture me on how to go on a diet.

“I’m not fat, I’m fluffy.”

            I have been on every diet, and read every diet book, and lost and gained weight multiple times, and now I am working on Intuitive Eating with a Nutritionist and trying to undo all of that damage, but even so, every time I see a doctor they insist that if I just ate less and exercised more it would all be fine – as if my problem is that I’ve never heard of a diet before.

            Or as if my weight is my primary medical issue, which it’s not; the added weight is a symptom of both the psychological trauma of my childhood and the medical disorders I have had to deal with as an adult (and the medications I need to take to manage both). I’ve said this to my doctors over and over and over again, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

            When I told my nutritionist about all of this – and about my rage at the doctors, and adults in general, who encouraged my eating disorder when I was a child, and who have continued to push me into disordered eating as an adult, without ever feeling shame or responsibility, let alone bothering to educate themselves about an alternative way to address issues of nutrition and weight in their patients – she said, well then, that should be our next project.

            Huh?

            She said, you need to practice setting boundaries with your doctors around weight, and even try to educate them about the pervasiveness of the Diet Mentality and the endless Mobius strip of weight loss and weight gain that they seem to think of as such a wonderful idea but that has actually been shown to cause more health problems than remaining steadily overweight your whole life.

            But I’ve tried, and they never listen to me, and it’s not fair, and why don’t they have to learn this in school, and why is it my job to teach them and…

            And she agreed with me, and listened to me, and said, we need to work on setting boundaries with your doctors around the subject of weight.

            But, but, but…they never learn, and they keep repeating the same things, and whenever they tell me that I should just stop eating so much I believe them and…

            Oh.

            I had the aha moment at the same time she did: the real problem is that I don’t have confidence in what I already know and have worked so hard to learn, so that when they challenge me, I give in.

“Never give in!”

            I’ve worked so hard this past year to learn how to hold my ground when the “You just need to stop eating,” and “You’re less of a person because you are overweight” messages are said by movie stars, or social influencers, or random people in my life; but when a doctor says it, the ground under my feet still gives way. I sit there feeling small and hopeless and I forget everything I know, and believe everything they tell me – that if I would just stop eating so much I’d never have health problems again.

            Depending on how brittle the doctor is in presenting their message on my weight, it can take me hours, or days, or even weeks to get back to solid ground and remember that, actually, my weight is not the problem. And diets have never been a long lasting solution even to the weight issue, never mind for my health overall.

            So what can I do to fix this? And can it be fixed before my rescheduled appointment with the cardiologist which is coming up way too soon?

            The nutritionist suggested that I remind myself that, on this subject, the doctors don’t know me better than I know myself. She said to tell them – I know you’re going to bring up my weight, but I am working with a nutritionist on Intuitive Eating and I am making progress at my own pace, and, for now, your advice is not helpful on this subject. My weight is the least of my problems, and if we can focus on the physical pain and exhaustion that make life so difficult for me, and the connective tissue and auto-immune disorders that cause the pain and fatigue, and numerous other symptoms, that would be a more productive use of our time together.

            But I’ve said all of that, or at least most of it, to my doctors, and they just talk over me. Though maybe I haven’t said it with confidence. Maybe I’ve said it with my eyes on the floor, afraid of what they would say in response, afraid of their disapproval. Because even when I’ve said “the right things” I’ve only said them once; and when the doctor, inevitably, pooh poohed it, I shut up. Because I freeze in the face of their disapproval. I forget everything I know, and I let them talk down to me and blame me without contradicting them. And, no, it’s not my responsibility to teach them, or change them. But if I could stand up for myself, maybe I wouldn’t be so negatively impacted by each doctor visit.

            But how do I get there? How do I hold onto what I know when I start to feel shaky and small? How do I convince myself that I do know my body better than they do, and that I have done the research and I’m not just believing what I want to believe because it sounds easier?

            The temptation to just cancel appointments, or to go but shut off my brain for the duration, is very deep, because I don’t feel strong enough to stand up for myself effectively.

“Yeah, let’s stay home.”

            I wish I could promise myself that next time will be better, and that I will be different. But I don’t know how to make that happen. I had hoped that writing this essay would give me the confidence to believe that I can stand up for myself, but instead it has made it clear to me how much more work I need to do.

“Oy.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?   

                        

           

           

           

           

           

           

          

         

           

           

           

           

           

           

           

           

           

Cricket Had To Get Her Teeth Cleaned

            Cricket had to get her teeth cleaned, and I was scared. The doctor first mentioned to us that Cricket’s teeth needed cleaning around two years ago, I think. It’s possible he’d mentioned it earlier, but if so, I blocked it out. We were able to put it off at that point, because Cricket was dealing with other health issues that were more pressing, but since she’s been doing better the doctor’s insistence has been growing. Both Mom and I have been concerned about putting Cricket through such a procedure, because of her age and because we’ve heard so many horror stories about dogs dying from regular teeth cleanings, because of the anesthesia. The doctor has tried to reassure us, and at Cricket’s most recent checkup he gave her a battery of tests to make sure she would be safe undergoing anesthesia, and the doctor said that he was confident Cricket would be fine. I wanted to be as confident as he was, and I wasn’t, but Mom and I decided to go through with the procedure anyway, because Cricket’s quality of life was in the balance. The pain in her mouth, especially when she was eating, and the bacteria running through her system, weren’t doing her any good. But I was still scared.

            Cricket is fourteen and a half years old, and as of her latest checkup she was three pounds lighter than the fourteen pounds she’s weighed for most of her life; also, her eyes are a bit blue from cataracts, she’s on medication for incontinence, she seems to hear things that aren’t there, her hair is thinning, and, of course, she has bad teeth. When we first adopted her, I saw a chart that said that a Cockapoo her size would live around 20 years, but given the way she’s been aging lately, I’ve had to recalibrate my expectations. But even so, I’m nowhere near ready to lose her.

“I am a puppy. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

            Cricket is a difficult dog, she demands what she wants in life and never tolerates no for an answer. She is prickly and feisty and temperamental and adorable, and she has only recently discovered the joys of play (with a Golden Doodle puppy named Kevin who lives in our complex). And no matter how often she gets on my nerves, I can’t imagine my life without her.

            But I trust her doctor, and he was getting more and more insistent that a teeth cleaning was necessary for her overall health, and I could see his point.

Ellie was still skeptical.

            I didn’t want to think about the small chance that she wouldn’t come back from the doctor’s office, but that was all I could think about. Cricket has never been a good patient. She resents both the illness and the treatment, and she absolutely blames me for whatever awfulness she’s feeling. I couldn’t even check her teeth myself, to see if the doctor was exaggerating about how bad it was in there, because she’d bite my fingers off. I wish I were exaggerating, but she recently bit me, hard enough to break through the skin on my thumb, just because I dared to try and wipe the goop from under her eye.

            We made an appointment for the dental procedure for during the winter break and I crossed my fingers – or braided them like a challah – in the hopes that Cricket would come back from the vet, and come back in better shape than she’d been in for a while, ready to chew and bark and play for all she was worth. That was the result I wanted, and I did my best to follow Cricket’s lead and refuse to accept no for an answer.

“No is my favorite word, but only when I say it.”

            The night before the procedure we had to put the food and water bowls away at nine pm, but Cricket barely noticed. Ellie on the other hand found the whole thing upsetting. And so did I. I had nightmares that whole night, and when it was time to leave in the morning, Ellie and I were wrecks, but Cricket was still fine. She was thrilled when Mom took her out to the car (so that I could put the food and water bowls out for Ellie), but Ellie was freaking out. Instead of eating or drinking, she stood by the door and cried as I left to catch up with Mom and Cricket.

I wasn’t freaking out, Mommy. I was just expressing my opinion.”

            Cricket was her usual anxious self in the car, shivering behind my neck, because she knew she was either going to the vet or the groomer and both are horrifying. And, of course, I had a hard time handing her off to the vet tech once we arrived, especially after signing the card that said I knew she would be undergoing anesthesia and recognized the risks. I watched the vet tech carry Cricket inside (the vet still doesn’t let people in the building, only pets, because of Covid) and tried not to panic.

“What are we doing at the vet?”

            By the time we got home, Ellie had pooped up a storm in the quilting area, and even after three treats and a lot of cuddles she still couldn’t settle down, shivering and breathing heavily in my lap. We both tried to take a nap, but the anxiety made it difficult.

            The call came around Noon that Cricket was “Great” and that we could pick her up between three and five pm. I watched TV and did jigsaw puzzles and tried to believe that Cricket was fine, but I had convinced myself so thoroughly that her life was at risk that I really couldn’t take in the idea that she was okay.

We got to the vet at 2:45 pm, but the vet tech understood. The vet came out to give us the bill (oy), and told us that they’d had to remove 7 rotten teeth, and that Cricket would need to take antibiotics and painkillers for a few days. And then there was Cricket, trying to jump out of the vet tech’s arms to get into the car. We thanked the vet and the vet tech and Cricket climbed all over me and her grandma, ready to get the hell out of there. She may have been a little high from her painkillers, but she was herself, and kept climbing all over me, and around my neck, and back down to my lap through the whole drive, until her leash was wrapped tight around my neck, twice.

            I’m sure it was unintentional. Or, I hope it was.

            When we got home, Ellie had to check Cricket out and sniff her everywhere, while Cricket kept pushing her sister out of the way so she could get to the water bowl (though she was only allowed a few sips of water at a time). And then Cricket spent the rest of the afternoon barking and complaining, as usual, because she wanted more water, and she wanted treats, and she wanted…everything.

            After all of the anxiety, and really expecting to get bad news from the vet, the idea that my fourteen and a half year old dog came through anesthesia with flying colors, and almost no after effects, feels like a miracle. And now she seems to be eating more and even starting to gain some of the weight back, and giving me hope that the original chart that said she would live to age twenty, might not have been so far off after all.

            I really needed a miracle right about now, to keep me going. Leave it to curmudgeonly Cricket to make it happen.

“I’m looking cute.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Jigsaw Puzzle Therapy

            I finally got my Covid vaccine booster a few weeks ago. I’d been putting it off, first because I didn’t think I qualified, then because it was unclear if I should get one, and then because I was worried about how my body would react to a third shot (Mom had a bad reaction to her booster shot back in September). My plan was to wait for winter break, so that I could rest afterwards and not worry about having to do battle with, I mean teach, my students. But then Omicron came along, and the doctors on TV who’d been questioning the morality of getting third shots in the United States while poorer countries still weren’t getting their first shots suddenly did a one eighty and said that we should go out and get our boosters, yesterday. And, of course, by that time all of the appointments had been taken, by other adults getting boosters and by the kids getting their first and second shots. But then my synagogue magically sent out an email about a booster clinic happening at a local college, and I found an appointment right away, and since the boosters were now half the regular dose, instead of the full dose Mom got in September, the only side effect I experienced was pain in my arm at the site of vaccination for two days.

“Two days without enough scratchies. Harrumph.”

            And yet, once that anxiety was out of the way, I was still anxious. Very anxious. So it wasn’t just Covid, or Omicron, causing my anxiety, it was more than that. At around the same time, I realized that I was not up to thinking about New Year’s resolutions this year, because I’m still struggling with the ones from years past: trying to get my writing on track, working on Intuitive Eating, trying to figure out better ways to deal with my health, etc. I was actually offered a good part time job as a social worker, by someone I really respect, and I couldn’t take it because two full days at work would wipe me out for the next two weeks. It’s become clear to me that I am an even slower turtle than ever, and that that’s where the anxiety is coming from.

            But I can’t fix my health issues all of a sudden, or become someone who makes changes at the speed of light, and I realized that what I still need to work on most is how to accept where I’m at, and respect my own pace, without letting the anxiety overwhelm me.

            One thing that’s been working for me lately is jigsaw puzzle therapy: whenever I feel anxious about all of the things I haven’t done yet, or feel so confused and discombobulated that I can’t even figure out what I’m feeling, I work on a jigsaw puzzle. I like everything about jigsaw puzzles: the sorting, matching the colors and patterns, the image gradually appearing in front of me like magic, the sense of accomplishment, and then the chance to start over from the beginning and do the whole thing again.

           I used to have piles of jigsaw puzzles in the old apartment, because they helped untie the knots that kept me locked in place. I was so thrilled when I was able to give those puzzles away, because I’d found other things that helped even more: like knitting and baking and cooking, and eventually going back to school. But lately, I’ve needed my jigsaw puzzles again. They don’t require a lot of physical effort, and they don’t inspire too much self-criticism; they just activate the analytical and visual parts of my brain and help me slow down my thoughts to a more reasonable pace, so that I can try to deal with them one by one.         

“Hmm. One toy at a time? Interesting idea.”

   And knowing that I have jigsaw puzzle therapy available whenever I need it makes it easier for me to test my boundaries in other ways, with more baking (a Mille Crepe cake that took all day to make and came out sort of Meh), and more outings (HMart, the Korean market, was a mushroom bonanza!), and more essays delving into the past, bit by bit.

            I’m looking forward to a time when I won’t need quite so much Jigsaw puzzle therapy to help me through each day, but until then I’m happy to have something that works for me (and, conveniently, pairs so well with binging on Christmas movies!).

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Food Insecurity?

            I was talking to my nutritionist about how I panic when I do the experiment where I have to stop eating mid-meal to check in on my hunger levels, and she said, you are food insecure.

            Huh?

            I thought food insecurity only referred to people who legitimately don’t have access to enough food, because of poverty, or living in a food desert. It felt melodramatic to think of dieting as a cause of food insecurity on that level – but the more I thought about it the more I realized that the nutritionist was right.

            Being on a diet means imposing food insecurity on someone who should not otherwise lack nutrition; imposing scarcity on someone who lives in a world that is full of good food. Why are we willing to do this? Why are doctors willing to encourage this?

“Why?!”

            There is something unnatural, even cruel, in imposing a diet that doesn’t match the food that is readily available (gluten free food for millions of people who have no actual allergy to gluten, anyone?). It’s like saying to someone who lives on the beach, you should never swim. Or to someone who lives in the Alps, you should never ski; and you are a terrible, ugly, gluttonous person for even wanting to ski. And so many diets are based on passing fads and half-finished research, rather than on any real understanding of the role food plays in our lives, so that the rules we have to follow aren’t just cruel, they are also, often, wrong. The fact is, food has never been simply about nutrition. If we forget that, we forget large parts of who we actually are and where the disorders in our eating habits even come from.

            Each time I have regretted taking on the no-diet rule of Intuitive Eating this year, because I’ve been gaining weight instead of losing it, I’ve checked in with myself and realized that I did not want to return to the constant panic and deprivation that comes with diets – whether they are low calorie, low carb, or low anything else. The severe diet I tried over the summer – to deal with stomach pain symptoms – was all the reminder I needed that dieting is no way to live.

“We agree. No diets for us.”

            But thinking about food insecurity as being caused by something other than actual food scarcity made me think about all of the other artificial scarcity situations we create as human beings. Simple things, like forcing ourselves to work sixty hours a week when we don’t need to, or forcing ourselves not to cry because it looks weak, or forcing ourselves to be fiercely independent instead of relying on the people around us when we need help.

            I grew up in a middle class home. We were never poor, and yet, we frequently couldn’t afford the things we wanted, or needed, because my father withheld the money. He had it, he just chose not to spend it on us when he wasn’t in the mood (other times he would spend money on us, but only on things he wanted for us). We also went to school with a lot of people who were upper middle class, and compared to them we were poor. We got small presents for each night of Hanukah, while some of our classmates got presents worth hundreds of dollars each night. But we were not poor. We were abused and neglected by our father, but we were not poor.

            The fact is that abuse and neglect lead to an experience that is so similar to poverty that it can be hard to tell the difference. If you are food insecure, love insecure, and safety insecure, what good does it do to know that your father could afford to pay the bills if he chose to?

            The work I’ve been doing with Intuitive Eating this year has most often been about teaching myself to understand that food is always available, and never off limits, so that I can learn to decide what and when to eat based on actual hunger, rather than on the fear that the food will disappear if I don’t eat it right away. This work has taken much longer than I’d hoped, and, of course, the food represents so much more than just food. My panic at deprivation is so deep that it feels as if I’m being threatened with death, rather than just momentary hunger, when I choose to stop eating a little bit early.

“Hunger is awful.”

            The work of recovery is ongoing, and seems endless at times, but just when I think I’ll never untie a difficult knot, it loosens, and five other knots loosen with it, like magic. So I will keep working on this, and working on reminding myself that I don’t have to live in scarcity, because the things I want are available now. It’s such a hard lesson to learn, though, and food is just the first step.

“We could eat.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Why I eat in front of the TV

            The one rule that I have never been able to stick to in every diet I’ve ever been on, is don’t eat in front of the TV. The reasoning for the rule is that when you watch TV you go into a dissociative state – you are focusing on the TV characters or the story or the horrible news, or the sound effects, and not on yourself – and therefore you are likely to overeat. But distracting myself from myself is pretty much the point of watching TV. I find my own thoughts overwhelming, especially my own thoughts around food.

            I haven’t had a problem with other aspects of dieting – I can drink enough water, and exercise, and use small plates, and eat-this-but-not-that, and reduce portion sizes – but I can’t turn off the TV. If I were only allowed to eat at the dining room table, with no distractions, I think I might starve to death – because food just isn’t worth that kind of suffering.

“I don’t understand.”

            This sounds crazy, I know. But I think the problem started because nightly family dinners were one of the most consistently awful parts of my childhood. And it was consistent. My parents, who didn’t believe in regular chores or bed times, believed in eating dinner together as a family, every night, no matter what. I couldn’t escape to eat alone in my room, or say I wasn’t hungry, or even leave the table early. Those were just not options in our house. When I found out that other families didn’t always eat dinner together, I was shocked.

“Sometimes I like to eat alone too. So, stop following me.”

            We didn’t eat “kid food.” I heard about families where the kids ate fish sticks, or chicken nuggets, or refused to eat vegetables, or only ate white food, but I thought those were fairy tales. There was only one menu for dinner and it had to fit what my father wanted to eat and that was that. There was a time when my brother tried to be a picky eater, keeping his peas away from his meatloaf on the plate, or refusing to eat cream cheese and jelly sandwiches because they just didn’t go together, but that didn’t last. He trained himself to eat whatever was put in front of him, whether he liked it or not.

            My father also had a habit of throwing dishes (if they had minor chips in them), or yelling about having to eat chicken twice in one week, or just yelling because he was in the mood to yell. Otherwise, dinner conversation was most often focused on my father’s problems at work, or arguments about paying the bills, or other adult problems that needed to be solved. There were so many times when all I wanted to do was to crawl under the table and sit with the dog, whichever dog we had at the time, but I wasn’t allowed to do that either.

            I remember Friday night dinners, the worst of the worst of family dinners each week, when we had to stay at the table for hours, with guests, and discuss the news (Jeffrey Dahmer), and the gossip from our synagogue (ugh, don’t ask), and the latest unfairness my father had experienced at work (where they were all out to get him), and listen to my father’s childhood stories, where the moral of every story seemed to be that he could get away with doing any crazy shit he wanted. Everyone acted like all of this was normal, but I didn’t want to hear about the serial killer who ate his victims, or the rabbi’s affairs, or my father’s paranoia. And when I didn’t join in with the laughter or sympathy the way I was supposed to, I became the problem. That was when I became the target of jokes about my sensitivity, my looks, my eating habits, etc. I was a rich target, they told me, because I always “overreacted.”

            I remember a few times in my teens when I desperately wanted to leave the table, and leave behind yet another endless argument about whether murder is really wrong, or monogamy is necessary, or sexual harassment is actually a thing. I was the only one on my side of every argument (Mom abstained, excusing herself from the table to serve food or fill the dishwasher or do pretty much anything else). As the awfulness continued, I actually fell to the floor hiccupping with high pitched giggles, unable to catch my breath.

            I still wasn’t allowed to leave the table, though Mom came over to rub my back and give me a glass of water (which I promptly snorted through my nose).

            My eating habits were already disturbed by then. I was sneaking food past my mother after school, and alternately starving myself and binging on cookies I didn’t even like (either because my father liked them and if I ate them he couldn’t have them, or because they were the only cookies in the pantry).

            I tried, once, as an adult, to force myself to eat at the kitchen table in the old apartment. I put a notebook next to me so that I could write down whatever came to mind, and I sat solemnly in my seat, alone, staring at my food. But I couldn’t eat, or write, or breathe, really. I persisted, one meal a day for a week. If it had led to pages and pages of writing, and insight, and recognition of the emotions behind it all, I might have continued the experiment, but none of that happened. Everything in me just shut down, and all I could do was force myself to sit there and fork food into my mouth, but I couldn’t taste anything.

            So when the week was over, I let myself eat all of my meals in the living room again, in my comfy chair in front of the TV, and color came back into my life and food tasted good again. I knew I was choosing to dissociate from my body, and most of my mind, as I sat there eating in front of the TV, but I also knew that that was the best I could do at that moment.

“We could use a snack.”

            I still struggle to taste the food when I eat at a table with other people. The anxiety is too big and I just eat mindlessly, unaware of hunger or taste or how much I want to eat.

            With my Intuitive Eating project, I didn’t even bother trying to eat away from the TV, even though it’s high on the list of rules, or suggestions. I told myself, and my nutritionist, that this was one rule I knew I couldn’t follow, and if she insisted on it then I wouldn’t be able to continue. But she accepted it. She said that you should only challenge yourself as much as is helpful, because pushing past your limits is counterproductive.

            So, I eat while I’m watching the news, or Christmas movies, or Law & Order. I eat with a towel on my lap, to protect the couch and my clothes. I eat with my dogs surrounding me, begging for my food with their eyes, and then with their voices. And the food tastes good. Maybe someday I will be able to eat dinner at the dining room table (I’ll have to move the dog treats, box of wee wee pads, and containers of snacks first, though), and maybe not.

“What are you eating now, Mommy?”

            In the meantime, I hope I can come to some kind of peace with food, even if I can’t come to peace with the dining room table.

“Tables are overrated.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Baking Bread Again

            I don’t know if the new dose of the antidepressant kicked in, or if it was just because of the cold weather, but the other day I finally felt like baking again. Mom and I looked through cookie recipes and cake recipes and then we settled on a Buttermilk Seed Bread, because it just sounded right. There’s something about the way bread dough needs to rest, and rest again, that resonates with me.

Ellie too.

            I didn’t knead the dough myself (that’s what Kitchenaid mixers and dough hooks are for, it turns out), but I helped mix in the ingredients (whole wheat flour, titular Buttermilk, cranberries, dates, poppy seeds, sunflower seeds, etc.), and helped punch down the dough after the first rise (so satisfying!), and put it into the loaf pans to rise again. I fell asleep before the bread was ready to go into the oven, but at least it was a start.

Despite the mass baking on social media (sourdough and banana bread especially) that occurred during the stay at home orders and boredom of Covid, I haven’t done much baking, or even cooking for the past two years. I made cookies once or twice, from a mix, and I chopped vegetables here and there, but mostly I reheated frozen dinners and opened cans of soup and smeared peanut butter on almost everything, while Mom did the actual cooking.

“Where’s the peanut butter?

            I used to cook every day, and bake a lot too, but I’ve been so tired, for so long, that I’ve gotten used to not wanting to do things, especially in the kitchen, where standing on the hard floor and leaning over the sink or the counter or the dishwasher leaves me feeling like I’ve been stabbed in the back with a cleaver. But for some reason, the other day, I felt like baking, so that’s what we did.

            Each day this past week we lit our Chanukah candles – either with our congregation on Zoom or just me and Mom and the dogs – and even though it often felt like a chore, like something I just had to get done, sometimes the sparks of light reached me and made a difference.

Day 4

            There’s something about the way the fire grows by one candle each night of Chanukah that makes sense to me. It fits the way I live my life, growing slowly each day, doing a little bit more and a little bit more, until seemingly out of nowhere, I’ve achieved something I didn’t know I could do. The way the Chanukah candles grow brighter each day of the holiday, instead of dimmer, makes me feel like it’s okay to pace myself, and to make the most of each day in whatever way works for me (naps, snacks, more naps, repeat), allowing me to focus on letting the fire grow instead of dim as I go forward.

Day 7

            I’m not suddenly cooking every day, but I’m noticing that I want to do more. I want to go to the Costco near us and buy…something, and I want to take a trip…somewhere. I’m not up to it yet, but for now it’s enough to know that I want to do these things; that they even sound like fun.

            After a few days of making sandwiches with the new bread (pastrami with mustard), I found a recipe for marzipan filled rugelach. I haven’t made them yet, but I bought all of the ingredients, so those Chanukah candles are adding up to something. I’m not setting the world on fire yet, but I’m wondering what else might start to sound good again, and I’m looking forward to finding out.

“We’re ready!”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

My Thankful list for Thanksgiving Weekend

I am thankful for my Mom, who makes everything possible.

I am thankful for my dogs, present and past, who fill my life with joy and laughter.

“What do you mean dogs plural?

I am thankful for my blogging friends and my friends-in-real-life who listen and give so much of themselves.

I am thankful for my students, who challenge me and entertain me and teach me and keep me on my toes.

“Like us!!!!”

I am thankful for my family, near and far, who keep me connected to the past and the future.

I am thankful for my Hebrew teachers and fellow students who keep bringing me closer to the dream of seeing and hearing and feeling Israel for myself.

I am thankful for books and TV shows and movies for keeping me informed and entertained and alternately distracted from and attached to the world around me.

I am thankful for good food, especially yummy food like pizza and sushi and chocolate frosting, for making life so rich.

“Did you say pizza?”

I am thankful for my memories, because they make me who I am.

My Dina

I am thankful for rainy days and talkative birds and flowers and leaves of every color and I am thankful for dreams of snow days yet to come.

My Butterfly

And I am thankful for hope, because it has gotten me through so many rotten days when nothing seemed okay, because it allowed me to always, always, imagine something wonderful up ahead.

“I always have hope, Mommy!”

I hope everyone had a wonderful (entertaining, complicated, meaningful, delicious, and peaceful) Thanksgiving.

And a Happy Chanukah to come for those who celebrate!

“Happy Chanukah!”
“I’ll have to think about it.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Everyday Miracles

            This year at synagogue school we’re focusing on miracles for Hanukah (last year we focused on the lights from the candles), and I’m doing a writing workshop with the kids based on Walt Whitman’s poem Miracles (https://poets.org/poem/miracles), to help them see the everyday miracles in their own lives.

            There have been times in my life when I was able to feel the level of wonder Walt Whitman felt at the miracles all around him, but I haven’t been in that state of mind lately. My first thoughts are of what I don’t have, or what’s wrong, or what I’m failing at. My hope is that by actively pushing myself to think about the daily miraculous things, I might be able to regenerate my sense of wonder: like the miracle of Ellie running through the leaves, or the miracle of Cricket giving a five minute diatribe, in the form of an Aria, about why I shouldn’t be allowed to leave the apartment, or the miracle of packages arriving at my door just because I typed a few things into my phone.

“Where’s MY iPhone?

            I want bigger miracles, though. I want to stop feeling so hungry – for food or love or success or whatever else. I want to feel less pain, physical and emotional. I want all of my hard work to kick in so I can finally feel successful and capable and healthy, and safe. It’s hard to be satisfied with the little miracles when I want so much more.

The fact is, I’m struggling. My psychiatrist upped my dose of antidepressants, because my lows have been more persistent lately, even prior to my father’s death. It feels like exhaustion, but I don’t know if there’s a medical cause or a psychological one, or a mix of both. All of the research being done on Long Covid (which I don’t have, because I never got Covid, thank God) promises to offer some insight for those of us who have other long term pain disorders, but I’m not optimistic, honestly.

            My latest experiments with Intuitive Eating have led me to look into self-care more deeply, to see if there are things I could be doing to help lift my mood that I haven’t tried yet, or haven’t tried enough; things, especially, that would take the place of extra food, because I’ve been relying on food as self-care too much lately. My current project has been about collecting good memories (times when I’ve felt cared for, safe, and accepted as I am), so that when I find myself wanting to eat beyond physical hunger I can fill the space with a good memory instead.

            Some of the memories I’ve been working with are: when I was four years old and my grandfather bought me a stuffed panda that was as tall as me and he walked me and the panda, hand in hand, down the driveway to the car; and the time when my brother and I sat on the lawn during a rainstorm with a towel over our heads; and the time we stayed over at Grandma and Grandpa’s house and they took us to Lickety Split for ice cream (I probably had mint chocolate chip) and then we were allowed to choose whichever candies we wanted, and my brother and I sat in the guest room, next to the cuckoo clock, sharing our candy dots and ingesting enormous amounts of paper along the way.

“Yum, paper!”

            I’ve also been collecting songs and TV shows and movies and books that have relieved anxiety or depression in the past, so that if the sweet memories don’t help enough I can move on to visiting YouTube or Spotify mid-meal, or I could even act out a scene from Harry Potter with the dogs if nothing else works.

            I just want to feel better, but it’s all trial and error and lately I’ve been feeling like I’m treading water. I remember this feeling from summer camp, when we had to do a Buddy Call at free swim in the lake. The water was deep and opaque, so we had to go in as pairs, with each pair given a number, and midway through the session we had to call out our numbers, to make sure we were all still alive. If you weren’t at the dock when the whistles blew then you had to tread water through the whole Buddy Call, which could take a while. Under the water I was kicking my legs furiously, but above the water I had to pay close attention to the numbers being called out, so I wouldn’t miss our turn. It was exhausting, and panic inducing. I worried that I’d forget my number, or forget how to count in Hebrew letters, but most of all I worried that my legs would give out and I’d fall under the water and the lifeguards would have to dive in to search for me and they’d be pissed off at me for the rest of the summer. I didn’t have faith that my buddy would remember our number, or call it out, or save me if I started to drown. I didn’t have much faith in other people, period.

“I would save you, Mommy!”
“Yeah, sure. Me too.”

            So this writing workshop on miracles is coming at the right time, and maybe when the kids tap into their own ideas of what’s miraculous in their lives I will remember my own miracles too. My hope is, always, that if I keep trying, keep working at this process of healing, good things will come. I just wish they’d come a little bit faster.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?