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The New Year of the Trees

            On the evening of January 27th, 2021, and through the next day, Jews around the world will celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees. Historically, this was an agricultural festival celebrating the emergence of spring in the land of Israel. Here in the Unites States, where we’re still in the deep freeze, Jewish children will celebrate the holiday by eating fruits and nuts that grow in Israel (like olives, dates, grapes or raisins, figs, pomegranates, Etrogim (citrons), apples, walnuts, almonds, carob, and pears.)

“We’re Jewish children too!”

            When I was a kid in Jewish Day School, a platter of dried fruit and nuts was brought to each classroom, and it was the only time during the year that I would see actual carob, rather than carob chips masquerading as chocolate chips. The idea that we were brought food in our classrooms was meant to show us the specialness of the day (and it did! It really did!), because after Kindergarten the whole idea of snack time had disappeared as completely as nap time, and food in the classroom was verboten.

(a picture of a Tu Bishvat platter I found online)

This year, because of Covid, we won’t be able to share food in our synagogue school classrooms, or have our usual Tu Bishvat Seder in the synagogue, where we tend to celebrate by dipping dried fruit into a rapidly diminishing bowl of melted chocolate. Instead, this weekend, the kids at my synagogue will have a Zoom chocolate chip cookie baking lesson, and the adults will sing Tu Bishvat songs on mute and learn about the history of Jews and chocolate.

We won’t have synagogue school classes again before Tu Bishvat, so this past week I sent my students home with a list of fruit and nuts to choose from, and a copy of the two blessings they may want to say. The first blessing is a simple blessing over the fruit itself:

            Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree.

The second blessing is the shehechiyanu, a blessing we say whenever we experience something new, or newish. We say this blessing on Tu Bishvat if the fruit or nuts we choose to eat is something we’ve never had before, or haven’t had for a while. As a kid, this blessing was always said over the weird Carob thingy on the platter, which looked nothing like the carob chips in my trail mix.

(I found this online too, but I can’t remember how to eat it.)

But over time I’ve come to realize that the shehechiyanu blessing is much more interesting than it sounds, because it doesn’t just say thanks for this new thing. Instead, it says:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

So, it’s not just about celebrating the new thing; it’s about celebrating the fact that we survived long enough to experience this new thing. It allows us to acknowledge all of the work and suffering and fear and luck it has taken for us to get to this moment, and to bless all of it.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

We inaugurated a new president here in the United States this week, and even though the celebration was muted by Covid, and the threat of violence, the feeling of renewal and relief was palpable, and we could say a shehechiyanu for that too. We have so much recovering to do in the United States, and around the world, and most of us have had a hard time seeing anything to be thankful for lately. But the shehechiyanu blessing reminds me that everything we’ve been through to get here is part of the blessing of this moment.

It’s easy to celebrate new plants and trees and fruit when they come up in the spring, but what if we can also bless the planting of those seeds, and the turning of the soil, and the worry that nothing will grow, that comes before the spring?

I’m not a gardener, but my mother is, and this is the time of year when she starts looking through seed catalogs and sometimes starts new seedlings in biodegradable containers, so that they can begin to grow and build strength before the ground is warm enough to support them. This trust that spring will come, and the awareness that we have a role to play in planting the seeds, is part of the process of getting to spring.

One of Mom’s indoor seedlings

So, maybe this is exactly the right time for Tu Bishvat and the New Year of the Trees, here and in Israel and everywhere else. Maybe we can say the Shehechiyanu and bless the fact that we are planting our seeds, even in the winter, even with our fear and doubt still in place, because we choose to believe that, in time, something beautiful will grow.

“I’m ready to help. Again.”

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?

How do I grow from here?

            I was growing before. I could feel it. My trunk was growing more stable and my branches were starting to leaf, even to flower. But I hit a wall this year, with the extra weight of Covid, and hybrid teaching, and maybe trying to move forward too quickly.

“I’m a blur!”

            I keep watching Hallmark movies, hoping that the gumption and confidence of the heroines will rub off on me. I want to be the kind of person who sees a problem and relishes the chance to solve it; I want to be the kind of person who can embrace change, and persist despite rejection, and believe in my vision of the future and fight for it; but I’m not.

            It’s been a relief, during Covid, to have an excuse not to move faster towards my goals, because my inner clock runs very slowly compared to the normal world. Covid time is much more my speed.

            I know I need to branch out in new directions, but I don’t feel safe out on those shaky limbs. I’ve struggled to decide which risks to take, because I don’t know ahead of time what I’m ready to handle or what will be too much. I’ve had experience with “too much” in the past and how deep the hopelessness and depression can be when what I thought would be a small leap over a shallow puddle turned out to be a swan dive off a cliff.

            I keep hearing the introjected voices in my head telling me what I should do and who I should be, and lately the shoulds have been taking precedence over what I want, and they’ve prevented me from investing the energy and patience I’d need to succeed at the things I really love. Like writing. I feel like the shoulds are yelling at me and the wants are whispering, and I don’t know who to listen to.

            I’m still writing, but the voices keep telling me that I have no right to think of myself as a writer in the face of all of the rejection, and no right to spend time working through plot lines when I should be doing something worthwhile, like teaching, or social work. And when I sit down to write, the voices get louder and louder. I only feel safe working on short pieces for the blog, because the longer pieces are the ones that have collected all of the rejections. It feels like masochism to keep writing things that no one but an intern at a literary magazine will ever see.

“I like to reject people. Deal with it.”

            Is it okay to continue to write when so much of my work has been deemed unacceptable? Is it selfish? Is it self-destructive?

            I’m angry that the rejections have stopped me from writing more, and I’m angry that I can’t shut off my inner critics and get the work done, and then I’m angry at myself for being such a loser and a moron and an idiot, and on and on. My therapist asked me to write down all of the nasty things I hear in my head when I try to write and I filled six pages without ever feeling like I’d scratched the surface.

“It’s exhausting.”

            But I don’t want to give in to these voices and follow the shoulds instead of doing the things I love. I’m so tired of hearing what’s wrong with me, and what’s not enough, or what’s too much, as if the noise is blaring out of speakers everywhere I go.

            So this year, my resolution is to do the work that matters to me, even when it’s hard, even when I have to fill page after page with nonsense before I can get to one good, heartfelt sentence. I hate that it’s so hard to get to the good stuff, but it is, for me, for now.

            And I have to persist.

“I can teach you how to persist, Mommy. It’s my super power!”

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 Pawpaw Forest

 

Earlier this summer I wrote about my excitement when my two twelve-year-old Pawpaw trees flowered and seemed ready to fruit, and then I wrote about my grief when one of the Pawpaw trees was cut down by the co-op’s hired gardeners. Well, recently, when Mom was examining the stump of the dead Pawpaw tree, where she had set up one of her experiments to encourage new growth, she happened to look two feet further along the retaining wall and saw what looked like Pawpaw leaves dangling over the side. She examined them closely, comparing the leaves to the healthy Pawpaw leaves on the surviving tree about fifty feet away, and they looked very much the same. How odd!

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The possible Pawpaw leaves were hanging from two stand-alone stems, half green and half brown, and wobbly from very recent growth. We had not planted new Pawpaw seeds, or even noticed any random Pawpaw trees planting themselves under the mass of other trees and bushes in the retaining wall, but there they were, as tall as the two year old trees that we’d had shipped to us a few years ago (unsuccessfully). But it just seemed so unlikely, to me, that new Pawpaw trees could have planted themselves right there, without any help, and just when we really needed them.

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Mom brought me outside to examine the leaves for myself, and even let me pick one of the leaves to bring over to the big Pawpaw tree to compare. But I still felt skeptical, because that’s my automatic response to most things. It can’t be true, especially if I want it to be true. Mom was, and is always, more trusting. She pointed out the unique quilting design on the leaves, unlike any other leaves nearby, and the shine on the baby leaves, which I’d seen many times myself when our Pawpaws came back to life each spring.

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A few days later, Mom went back to the same spot, to make sure the Pawpaw plants were still there, and not just a mirage made out of grief, and she found another, much smaller, Pawpaw sapling, maybe just a few weeks old. And she kept going back, and searching more carefully, and finding more Pawpaws. I still wasn’t convinced though. It seemed too much like the universe looking out for me.

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It never occurred to me that my trees would try to re-create themselves. I thought, actually, that Mom and I would put in endless years of effort for no real reward, because that’s how my life has always seemed to me. But I think I might be wrong this time. We still have new-growth devices on three branches of the existing Pawpaw tree, and the makeshift device on the Pawpaw stump, and if these previously hidden little trees are real Pawpaws, then we are on our way to having a Pawpaw forest in the yard to replace the one tree that was cut down by the gardeners. And we still have a Pawpaw tree coming next spring, as a peace offering form the gardening company.

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The Papa Pawpaw

We’ll have to replant the saplings in different parts of the yard, where they will each have sunlight and space to spread out, to give them a real chance to survive. But it seems miraculous already, that they even exist. There’s a metaphor in all of this, or too many metaphors to count, but here’s hoping the hidden Pawpaws are a sign of good things to come in the next year.

 

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Ellie’s ready for some gardening!

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Cricket is already digging!

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 Had Two Pawpaw Trees

 

I had two pawpaw trees, but now I only have one. The new gardeners decided that the trees were in their way; they had already cut down the first pawpaw tree when Mom looked out the window of her bedroom and screamed.

I had no idea what was going on, because I was still sleeping (afternoon naps are a thing). I heard the small scream and then the dogs barking like crazy so I got up. The first thing I saw was a puddle of pee on my exercise mat. I assume Ellie did that when she heard Grandma scream, but it could have been sitting there for a few minutes. I had to focus on cleaning up the pee, so I couldn’t ask Cricket why she was standing at our apartment door barking her head off.

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“Where did Grandma go!”

E pre groom

Loud noises make me pee, Mommy.

Then the doorbell rang, and it was Mom, because she’d run outside so quickly that she forgot her key to the building. That’s when I found out what had happened. Between the scream and the doorbell, Mom had been running across the lawn to convince the gardeners to leave the second Pawpaw tree alone, and then dragging the murdered tree out to the woods, to prepare it for a proper burial.

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Pawpaw branches awaiting burial

I wasn’t taking the information in. I looked out the front door of our building and the bigger pawpaw tree was still there, but fifty feet closer to me, there was a hole. Who cuts down the trunk of a tree like it’s the errant limb of a Forsythia?

The pawpaw trees were both twelve years old and just beginning to flower. My hope was that, very soon, the flowers would lead to fruiting. Actually, we had the tiny beginnings of pawpaw fruit earlier in the summer; a little clump of four pawpaws. I didn’t want to write about it until I knew if the fruit would survive, and within a week, they were gone. We thought they must have been wiped out by heavy rains, but it turns out that the gardeners had knocked down the fragile baby fruit when they were mowing the lawn, and that’s when they decided that the overhanging bushes and trees would have to go. Except, no one mentioned this to us.

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Pawpaw flowers

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clump of baby pawpaws

I was angry, and ranting, and running around like a chicken with my head cut off, but there was nothing I could do.

The powerlessness is what overwhelms me. My mother is the president of our co-op board and no one even told her that the trees were in danger, let alone asked her opinion, or her permission, to take them down. Up until this year we had two maintenance men who knew the trees and knew who to ask when there was a problem with them. They figured this out early, because they’d accidentally knocked down our third pawpaw tree soon after it had been planted in place. But one of the maintenance men retired recently, and the co-op hired a gardening company to come in once a week to make life easier for the remaining maintenance man. The first time they came, Mom told them to stay away from the pawpaw trees, but they seem to have forgotten.

The trees should have had a ribbon around them. Both trees used to be marked, after the incident with the third tree way back when, but we forgot all about it. The trees were so solid, and so tall, that it didn’t occur to us that someone would try to cut them down.

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Pawpaw standing tall

Within minutes, Mom was calling around for advice on how to fertilize a lone tree; and if there was a way to save any part of the murdered tree; or if you could buy a five or six year old pawpaw tree instead of one of the two year olds, to cut down on the long wait for maturity; or, maybe we could borrow pollen from someone else’s pawpaw tree to fertilize the one tree we have left, next year?

The trees were born a few months before Cricket, and they lived in the kitchen until they were toddlers and ready to live outside, still in their pots. When the trees were planted in our new yard, seven years ago, they took root and decided to stay.

pawpaw new home 007

Pawpaw toddler getting ready to go outside

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Cricket, same age

That tree was loved, that’s all I can say.

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If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. Izzy’s father then sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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?

 

The Paw Paw Flowers

 

About twelve years ago, I bought a box of paw paws. I had to order them from Ohio, during the fruit’s very short season in September, and commit to eating most of them myself, because they were a bit too funny looking and odd smelling to share (believe me, I tried).

paw paws

Paw paws (this is not my picture)

Someone had told me about paw paws, waxed rhapsodic about their sweetness, made endless metaphors out of their shape and elusiveness and the speed with which they turn black and rot. I wanted to like these damned things, but at the same time I was angry at them, for being so much more interesting, to him, than I would ever be.

Of course it’s all about heartbreak. Why else would a fruit that barely has a season capture my imagination so thoroughly that I had to order a whole damned box of them from Ohio?

They arrived, wrapped individually in newspaper, because they are so fragile and easily bruised. Like me? Like him? The metaphor never ends. They are filled with a row of almond shaped seeds that you have to dig out or suck on to get the flesh that clings stubbornly to them. And the fruit has to be eaten with a spoon. You can’t peel it like an orange, or slice it like an apple, or bite straight into it like a strawberry. It’s work. And it’s messy. And it is sweet and custardy and sort of tastes like peaches and bananas and mangoes and vanilla have been tossed together into a blender.

paw paw seeds

(Also not my picture)

I saved the seeds in the freezer, like the instructions in the box told me to do (because paw paw growers are by their very nature proselytizers), and then, sometime in late winter, when it wasn’t really warming up yet, I planted the seeds in big pots in the kitchen, and set them by the window sill, and watched. The pots needed protection from the lingering cold, so I wrapped them in scarves. And then, like the Talmudic sages said the angels do for every seed, I stood over the pots and whispered, “Grow, grow.”

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My dancing paw paws!

The seedlings were tall and full of personality and five or six of them even survived long enough to be planted outdoors once the weather was warm enough. We kept them in their pots at first, though, so that they could come back inside if they needed to.

Three, maybe four, survived the first year and grew into little trees. Three trees came with us when we moved here five years later. One suffered a horrible gardening accident, but two lived, and settled into their new surroundings and continued to grow. They got taller and taller, their trunks started to thicken, their leaves extended out like shiny green fans and then paled to yellow in the fall, and disappeared for the winter, and reappeared in the spring. They kept getting taller, and healthier, but there was no fruit yet, not even a flower.

We got impatient and ordered two new baby trees, because a New York State expert in paw paws said we needed to have at least two trees in close proximity in order for fertilization to occur, and the two we had were too far apart.

But the baby trees we bought were crushed in the shipping process and never really recovered, though we watched over them hopefully for a season. And then last summer, after the baby trees had given up completely, my two stalwart twelve year old trees, that have been with me since they were just almond shaped seeds buried in the dirt, flowered.

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The flowers were small, and a deep burgundy brown color. And pretty quickly the flowers dried up and flew away, and the leaves turned yellow again and the trees went to sleep again for another winter.

And this year, the flowers are bigger and brighter, and there are more of them, and they are filled with enough powdery, sticky pollen that we were able to transfer it from the flowers of one tree to the flowers of the other, by Q-tip.

I don’t know what will happen next. The trees aren’t especially muscular, and even if the fruit appears, the branches may not be up to holding the weight of it yet. But maybe soon. Maybe there will be paw paws in my backyard someday soon.

 

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Paw paw standing tall

Twelve years seems too long to wait for a piece of fruit, I know. But maybe the wait is the point. The patience, the slow growth. I mean, the metaphor works. The comparison to me, and turtle-slow growth is obvious. Maybe me and my paw paw trees will find our strength and come to fruition at the same time.

You never know.

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The girls are waiting.

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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?

 

Leaving Limbo

Butterfly's new room

Butterfly’s new room

            We are moving. We’ve lived in limbo, intentionally, for fifteen years, avoiding people and places that would remind me of where I grew up and what I had to contend with. This neighborhood has been my witness protection program. It’s not that I live in the country or out in the boonies, but it takes a while to get to the expressway and that’s an important point on Long Island. It takes a while to get anywhere from here. I will miss the privacy of living off a small road. We’re moving to a major road, near a high school and a train station. I’m afraid of being so visible.

I’ve been gradually moving back into the world, going to synagogue again, going to school, and finally moving into an area where I will run into people I knew before. I think I’m ready but there will be no way to be sure until I get there, and take the next step.

            When we first moved here fifteen years ago, it was the beginning of April, and the trees smelled like honey. I grew up in a flat neighborhood, with wide green lawns and evergreen trees and tall, old maples and oaks and it was majestic, but monotone. Here it was pink and white and red and yellow. Someone told me that this neighborhood was where the gardeners for the gold coast mansions lived. So they would come home and experiment with color and shape and size and arrangement. It’s a nice story, if it’s true.

Autumn in the neighborhood

Autumn in the neighborhood

            I will miss how familiar everything is. I know how long each route is; I know where the hills are, and where the road dips, and where a dog will bark.

I can’t imagine all the smells Cricket will miss from her five and a half years worth of walks in this neighborhood.

Cricket sniffing her neighborhood

Cricket sniffing her neighborhood

I’ve worked so hard at overcoming my social anxieties, and I do a lot better now, but I still panic, I still feel overwhelmed. And then someone walks by with a dog and I’m a chatter box, asking the dog’s name, giving pets and scratches, talking about my dogs, forgetting to ask the name of the human, or offer my own name, or shake hands.

            I feel such relief when I see a dog, of any kind. My autonomic nervous system calms down at the sight of a dog.

Nose kisses with Poochie

Nose kisses with Poochie

            I’m better at collecting dog friends than people friends. I feel much more confident that I am likeable with dogs. People make me anxious and make me question my value. Dogs just boost my neurotransmitters and make me feel loved.

Cricket and Ursula, the boxing puppies

Cricket and Ursula, the boxing puppies

            We made cards for our nearest neighbors and homemade dog blankets for three of the dogs Cricket and Butterfly love and will miss very much. But I felt awkward giving gifts and presuming we would be missed when we leave. And I was worried they would be mad at us for leaving and upsetting the equilibrium of the block. But it turned out that our neighbors loved us in return, and though they will miss us, they wish us well.

This was the picture on the card to say goodbye

This was the picture on the card to say goodbye

            A few years back, when I was walking Cricket around the neighborhood, we came across a tree that looked a lot like a chicken. I was still pining for my ex-boyfriend, a chicken enthusiast, and I wanted to believe that the chicken tree was a sign from the universe, that some part of him was still with me. The chicken tree gave me hope. This whole neighborhood has sustained me for fifteen years and offered me small gifts that have allowed me to hope that the future will be brighter and that moving forward will be a good thing.

The Chicken Tree

The Chicken Tree