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Thanksgiving

            Thanksgiving, my birthday, and Ellie’s birthday, all happen around the same time of year, and I’m not sure I’m ready for any of it. I’m not a huge fan of birthdays, especially my own (I keep getting older, even when I’m absolutely sure I pressed the pause button), but also, Ellie will be seven this year and I think that has to be wrong. I think we should count the age of rescue dogs from the date they were rescued, instead of from their actual birth dates. In that case, Ellie would be about two and a half years old, and that sounds much more accurate to me.

“I’m a puppy!”

            And then there’s Thanksgiving. While the idea of a holiday devoted to giving thanks for our good fortune is lovely, it’s hard to look past the origin of the holiday with the Pilgrims taking advantage of the indigenous population of America. As a kid I just drew hand-shaped turkeys and sat through drama-filled family dinners, blissfully unaware of the back story or even the gratitude theme of the holiday. But I’m not sure what to do with it now that I know more.

It’s hard to focus on gratitude when you are busy feeling guilty and ashamed of what your ancestors did to the ancestors of your friends. I much prefer the Jewish holiday of Passover, where we can focus with righteous indignation on the wrongs done to us instead of the wrongs we’ve done to others. Sometimes I try to separate myself out as a more recent immigrant to America (my ancestors started to arrive around the turn of the twentieth century), so maybe I don’t have to own the guilt of those earlier European immigrants to this land. But then I read something like Deborah Fineblum’s article, The attitude of gratitude: Jewish connections to share at the Thanksgiving table published on Jewishworldnews.org, and I find out that the Pilgrims actually modeled their autumn thanksgiving holiday after the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot, celebrated just a few weeks earlier, and I feel implicated all over again. The fact is, we are all related in one way or another, and we all come from the predators and the victims at some point in our histories.

So the question is, how can we focus on our gratitude for the good things in our lives, without ignoring the things we’ve done wrong, or things that have been done to hurt us? I’ve had to work hard on this one. I was deeply depressed for a large portion of my life, and found it insulting and simplistic when people tried to tell me to focus on my good fortune instead. They seemed to believe that if I could just whitewash my own history and ignore the pain, the way they were doing in their own lives, I would be happy. But it doesn’t work that way. In reality, telling people to smile when they are depressed, or angry, or sad, or frustrated, is DISRESPECTFUL, because you are not offering them kindness, you are bullying them into smiling in order to make you feel better. My smile has to be my choice, my willing gift to you, or else it’s meaningless.

“Harrumph.”

            So, again, given all of the pain of the past, and the pain of this year in particular, with the numbers of Covid deaths rising precipitously in the United States and around the world, is there any healthy way to celebrate Thanksgiving and express gratitude around a table (or a zoom), with our friends and families? Is it healing to talk about gratitude when we’re still hurting so much?

            My answer is: maybe; if we are careful and kind with each other. I wrote about Thank you, but blessings last year, as part of my first blessings writing workshop at my synagogue. The idea is that saying thank you by rote, because it’s what is expected of you, can be not only meaningless but also self-destructive, but if I can acknowledge both my gratitude and my pain, out loud, maybe I can actually feel the gratitude more fully.

            The number one Thank you, but blessing among my students this year was, Thank you God for knowing that I am still a good Jew even thought I eat bacon.

“Bacon!”

            Ellie’s favorite is, Thank you for giving me chicken, but I want more.

“Did you say chicken?”

            And mine: Thank you for my good fortune in having a Mom who loves and believes in me, and a job I love, but I wish I could have more energy, and more focus, so that I could lose weight, and finish two or three novels over winter break.

            I am grateful that Joe Biden won the election, but I wish that half the country didn’t have to feel so left out after each election. I wish we could all find a way to agree on the facts and then listen to each other’s experience of those facts with more compassion.

            I think that these Thank you, but blessings are a way that I can make gratitude possible, and meaningful, for myself. Because if I just said that I am grateful, it would feel hollow and even untrue, but within the context of the all of it, my gratitude is real and I can celebrate it.

            I hope that Thank you, but blessings are helpful to other people, but if nothing else works, I suggest skipping the turkey on Thanksgiving and going straight to the ice cream/chocolate cake/chocolate frosting part of the meal. That’s bound to make things better, at least for a little while.

“We have room for dessert, Mommy. Stretching helps.”

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?

Hope For Tomorrow

            The weather is finally getting colder, and despite the rising Covid 19 rates around the United States, things in my little world are inching closer to normal. We’re still living most of our lives masked and/or on Zoom, but we have plenty of toilet paper, and imported television shows from Canada, and the library is open for browsing again.

Except, people are still dying. 230,000 is the current estimate, but it grows every day. We’re so used to Covid that the numbers of dead barely make it into the headlines anymore.

The autumn Hallmark movies have already given way to the Christmas movies, and even though I could have used a few more weeks of fall festivals and leaf peepers and corn mazes, I’m still happy to cozy up with the dogs and watch all of the happy endings unspool. Given the temperature of the world right now, with political debates and health debates and tension and drama from every direction, I find great relief in spending a few hours embraced by a pool of kindness, generosity and love. All I would add is some chocolate fudge ice cream, with whipped cream, and peanut butter sauce, and then it would be perfect.

“Did you say chocolate?”

The schools in my area have been reporting more Covid cases recently, so synagogue school may have to transition from hybrid to fully online any day now, but at least I’ve had almost two months with my students in person, getting to know them and build relationships. The kids are doing their best to squeeze some normalcy out of their current abnormal: planning Halloween costumes, hoarding jelly beans, running and playing and making a lot of noise whenever possible. They make me believe that everything might be okay, someday.

“Did you say Jelly Beans?”

Other than missing the chance to see the kids in person, though, the possibility of renewed restrictions doesn’t really interrupt my life. I’m not a trick or treater (I prefer to choose my own candy, thank you very much), and Thanksgiving isn’t a big deal in my family, and I get at least two months’ worth of Christmas spirit through my TV, so that won’t be any different for me this year either. The fact is, other than the masks and the Zooms, I don’t feel especially inconvenienced by Covid anymore, which, in itself, is horrifying. How did we get used to all of this death so easily? Why is it so easy to adapt to the worst news?

I’ve never gotten used to Donald Trump, though, maybe because he is always creating chaos, uprooting us from our placid acceptance of the current evil to force us to face a new and crazier evil.

I’m ready for the election to be over, and I’d like to believe that Joe Biden will win, but I’m afraid that the damage will linger long after the cause of the damage has left the building.

In the meantime, Cricket has been helping me collect leaves for Mom’s craft projects, nosing her way past the green ones and focusing on the reds, and browns, and yellows, with sharp edges and mysterious wormholes. She likes the leaves that have been sniffed, pawed at, stepped on, and yes, probably peed on too, because those are the ones with the richest stories to tell.

The Leaf Sniffer at work.

Mom is deep into her craft projects, melding her photography and quilting and weaving and painting and eco printing, into all new works of art. And I’m jealous. I haven’t had the patience to make anything lately – no knitting, not much baking or cooking – I haven’t even done much cutting or gluing, since I can’t hang things on the walls of my temporary classroom in the social hall. It takes energy and focus to create new things and lately when I’m not teaching or writing, I’m watching TV or sleeping.

But there’s something about the impermanence of the autumn leaves that makes me want to collect them and make them into something, or just to keep them between the pages of books, or in photos, or in my memory. It’s the same with my students. I keep wanting to freeze certain scenes in my memory, so that I’ll remember how wonderful these moments have been, despite everything else.

“I can fly!”

I would like to say that I am hopeful about the future, and that I can picture a world that is freer from meanness, and full of healing and compassion and the right kind of compromise, where the best of each of us is respected and encouraged to grow. But I’m not quite as optimistic as all that. Instead, I’ve been trying to hold on to the hope that tomorrow, or the next day, or the next, will give me the chance to watch something good on TV, or listen to a podcast that makes me feel better about the world, or watch my students run around in circles and scream and play, whether I see them in person or on Zoom.

Tomorrow has to be better than today, right?

“Are you sure?”
“I don’t think she’s sure.”

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?

Thanksgiving with Teddy

 

Teddy arrived on Thanksgiving afternoon, and ran to greet Cricket, while Cricket ran to greet Teddy’s Mom. After that inauspicious beginning, Teddy and Cricket sniffed each other thoroughly and were so busy reacquainting themselves that Teddy almost missed his Mom’s exit. Almost. When she was barely a dot in the distance, he turned and saw her and cried out and tried to jump out of his collar to get to her. But his collar is very well made.

 

We pushed on with our efforts to distract Teddy, using all of the wonderful sniffies the backyard could offer, and by the time we reached our front door, Teddy knew exactly where he was. He ran up the stairs, and then stopped short in front of our neighbor’s door, where remnants of Hazel the visiting mini-Golden-Doodle-puppy’s pee wafted up to his nose. It took a while to get his attention back, but then he followed Cricket into our apartment, did a reconnaissance trip through every room, and satisfied himself that things were pretty much as they should be.

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Teddy adapted much more quickly on this visit, crying only one or two little mews while sniffing under the front door for signs of his Mom, before settling onto my lap to watch the rest of the National Dog Show on TV. I had hopes that Cricket and Teddy would chime in with some dog recommendations for me as we watched, but they kept their opinions to themselves. I, on the other hand, started to swoon over a little French Bulldog, with bat ears, who looked like he could have been one of Butterfly’s long lost puppies, just without the hair.

french bulldog

He looked a little bit like this cutie (not my picture)

Cricket was back in full health so she was able to jump up on the couch and let Teddy know that he would not be usurping her space. It worked out well for me, because I ended up surrounded by fluffy puppy dogs, vying for my attention. Cricket had her haircut last week, and Teddy’s hair has been growing back in, so they look closer in size now, and with Cricket back to full power they’re also acting more like equals on this visit. We all celebrated Thanksgiving together, with chicken treats (for the dogs) and chocolate cake (for the humans).

Rachel and the dogs

My attempt at dog whispering.

When I made a detour to sit at the computer, Teddy discovered the makeshift doggy bed we’d put together for him, to avoid the arguments over ownership of Cricket’s bed that had made Cricket so grumpy on Teddy’s last visit. The bed was made out of a cardboard box, bubble wrap, quilting supplies and a few pillow cases and thread. He knew it was his right away, and only pulled it apart three times before we figured out how to make it more durable.

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“Why does her bed look more comfy than mine?”

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“My bed is taller than yours, Cricket. Just sayin'”

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“This is more like it.”

Teddy has clearly been practicing his pooping-outdoors skills to get ready for this visit, and Cricket has been thoroughly impressed by his new and innovative ideas for who and what to bark at, and at which (very) early hours of the morning.

I know Teddy misses his Mom, but he’s doing well, and we’re all very glad he’s here to warm up the house in the cold weather.

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