What Happened?

So it’s been roughly a year since my last post to this blog. The good news is that I didn’t meet some untimely death doing the Spartan Race that I wrote about last year (although I did manage to tear my lateral meniscus through a total bonehead maneuver that was in no way the fault of the race itself). But I can’t credit a torn meniscus for my radio silence. Rather, over the course of last winter and spring, I came to a realization that after three years of being home with the kids, doing gobs of volunteer work, and working on this blog, I was ready for something different. I felt that I’d come to another junction in my life and I had to make a choice


One path – one that I seriously considered last year – involved taking my writing about faith ‘to the next level’. Mostly I considered going back to school – either Divinity School or graduate school for Religious Studies/Sociology of Religion. I am one of those weird people who actually love school, and getting a PhD had long been on my bucket list (OK, maybe a bit below snorkeling with whale sharks, but it was on there). But to be frank, the logistical realities of this path overwhelmed me. Not only would it mean a financial hit from the tuition for any program, but most likely I would need to hire some help for my three kids on those days when I had class and they had to be at three after-school activities at once (not to mention getting help with the hound dog who needs an hour-long walk in the woods every day). So I was facing a double negative financial hit for multiple years, after which I’d come out with a degree that would generate lower potential earnings than I could make with my MBA. This same MBA had taught me that the ROI on such an investment was not attractive.

But more fundamentally – I realized that as much as I love studying and writing about religion, philosophy and other ‘big issues’, I wasn’t sure that doing that all day every day would actually be fulfilling. I really like to feel like I am having a direct, concrete impact on the world. I try to live my life based on the Hillel’s golden rule:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me

If I am only for myself, what am I

And if not now, when?

If I don’t feel like I am actively helping others, I am not happy. I am not a saint – at all – but I just like to be doing things where I can see the results of my work. In the case of writing about religion – the fact is that none of these issues can be resolved. By definition. I can spend the rest of my life struggling with all of these questions, and provoking others to think about these questions, and it will never end. I realized that for me, I needed to pursue work that had more tangible end results. I admire and value those who write and provoke others to think, or provide inspiration through their beautiful words. And if I have done that in the past, or can at times do that again through this blog, that’s great. But I needed to do something more with my life.

So, I started my own business, leveraging all of the marketing and technology skills I had developed during my previous work experience, plus some additional ones I’d picked up during my years ‘not working’ (during which time I obviously learned how to create and manage a blog, plus through my volunteer work built several websites, learned how to manage a church database system, etc). Since last spring, along with my business partner (one of my closest friends from business school) we have been using our skills to help non-profit organizations. We’ve built websites. We’ve configured, implemented and cleaned up donor database systems. We’ve conducted market research to help an organization refine the direction of one of its programs. And I’m absolutely loving it. I’m learning new things all the time, because technology constantly evolves. Each project has a clear deliverable, and at the end I have the satisfaction of seeing something I have clearly achieved. he results of my work are clear-cut and tangible. That’s something that is much harder to achieve when writing about religion.

I also have had one other important realization: life is too short to read super-intense, intellectually taxing books all the time. I have been slumming with fun stuff like Game of Thrones and Shogun, and having a blast. But I haven’t had as much to write about philosophically because I honestly have just been too busy to have deep thoughts.

Oh, and I’ve gotten completely hooked on training for and running obstacle course races (that’s me jumping over the fire in the pic below).Image

After recovering from knee surgery last summer, I went on to run another obstacle course race last fall and came in 4th for my age group. This year I’m planning to run a Spartan Trifecta (three obstacle course races in one year, each of increasing length and difficulty). Running and training has become a true source of joy for me – the repetition of running, or doing push ups or burpees – provides a weird form of spiritual peace (plus burning huge calories allows me to indulge my insatiable sweet tooth).

So – that’s my situation. I am not closing up this blog. I hope that when inspiration takes me, or I get a moment to read something relevant, I will stop in and write a post. But I will not be posting regularly. Thanks to all of you who have followed this blog in the past, and provided constructive feedback. I wish you well and will write when I can!

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Catharsis while training for the Spartan Race


Today I returned to my favorite cross-country ski trail – Peru Creek in Keystone, Colorado. While my trip on this trail last year was a serene and spiritual experience, this year was very different. Now I’m training for a Spartan Race, so today was all about pushing myself as hard as I could, for as long as I could (I ended up skiing for 3 hours, 2 of which were uphill).

Signing up for a Spartan Race is the culmination of several years of trying to whip myself into shape after having three kids (two of whom I had at the same time, gaining 65 pounds in the process). In particular, over the past year I have  gotten into what I guess can only be described as ‘extreme exercise’ – circuit training work-outs that consist of cycling through one excruciatingly painful exercise after another, keeping my heart pumping throughout while I work different muscle groups.  These work-outs are so intense that even though I usually only exercise three times a week, I can eat whatever I want and am now in the best shape of my life.

To keep up this positive momentum, I decided to sign up for a Spartan Sprint. The Spartan Sprint is one of a multitude of obstacle course races that have sprouted up recently (other well-known ones include the Tough Mudder, Tough Guy, and my personal favorite, the “You Will Die Death Race”). As the names imply,  the promotional materials for these races tend to be testosterone-laden affairs, filled with photos of guys who look like this:

spartan racers

The inspirational message I get in my ‘Work out of the Day’ email from Spartan Race continues the egocentric vibe:

Why WOD?
Because you are committed. Because you are hungry not to just show up and get through a Spartan Race, but you are hungry to show up and dominate the clock with a peak performance. Spartan Race is here to help you achieve your fitness goals.

Every time I read that message all I can think is “No, actually, I’m just hungry”.

Anyway, while there is definitely a part of me that buys into this egocentric and competitive mentality (it’s kind of fun when I can do more straight-leg push-ups than anyone else in the room)  there is a whole other aspect of extreme exercise that fascinates me from a spiritual perspective. Because to me this form of exercise is essentially an ascetic experience.  It is all about getting to a point where your will is stronger than your body – where you deny your body’s desire for rest, where you transcend your physical pain.

Asceticism is a core component of  spiritual practice in both Eastern and Western faith traditions.  It can take many forms and serve different spiritual purposes, but always involves some form of bodily deprivation – fasting, wearing ‘hair shirts’, self-flagellation, or enduring extreme physical effort (see Exodus 17:9-12 where Moses has to hold his hands up for an extended period of time or, as my friend Anna pointed out, the Hajj). The Islamic practice of fasting during Ramadan, or Jewish fasting during Yom Kippur or the Christian practice of ‘giving up something for Lent’ are all examples of self-deprivation as part of spiritual practice. While often these ascetic practices are tied to calls for atonement for past sins, I have always been intrigued by asceticism as a mystical effort to shed one’s materialistic shell in order to spiritually connect to the Divine. Ghandi is probably the one of the best-known practitioners of this form of asceticism, but there have been a multitude of Christian mystics (particularly in the Middle Ages) who were similar. These mystics were all seeking ‘Catharsis’ – the shedding of one’s physical reality so that one’s soul can directly connect to the transcendent (Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God covers this subject, as does William James’ The Varieties of Religions Experience). As William James notes in his lecture on Saintliness:

..the writer describes his experiences of communion with the Divine as consisting “merely in the TEMPORARY OBLITERATION OF THE CONVENTIONALITIES which usually cover my life”.

Well, it seems like pushing yourself to run as fast as you can for three miles while trying to overcome a range of extreme obstacles such as sprinting up a mountain while carrying a twenty pound bucket of sand or crawling through a pit of rocky mud would be effective mechanisms to ‘obliterate conventionalities’. Indeed, this page about becoming a Spartan Coach makes an explicit connection Spartan Racing, spiritual health, and mastering one’s impulses.

However, there is one major difference between this new form of asceticism and religious mysticism: the mystic seeks Catharsis in order to connect directly to the Divine, to the Transcendent, to Ultimate Truth. As Evelyn Underhill puts it in her book Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness:

I understand (mysticism) to be the expression of the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete harmony with the transcendental order.

In contrast, the extreme athlete seems more focused on connecting to a more transcendent version of his or herself. For example, the Spartan Race tagline promises a form of revelation:

Spartan Race: You’ll know at the finish line.

You’ll know what? That the answer to the universe is 43?

No – what they are talking about is you’ll know your own potential – you will have transcended your own past limits.  Given that I still tend to think of myself as the short, uncoordinated and slightly chubby kid who always got picked last to join the team in gym class, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Furthermore, I am impressed by the broader humanistic values espoused by Spartan Race: team-work, helping others (I noticed that a group of Spartan Racers helped clean up in the Rockaways after Hurricane Sandy), standing up for your beliefs, etc. 

So – I guess the question is: does it really matter if you are transcending yourself in order to connect to the Divine (and thus becoming a better person) or just transcending yourself (and thus becoming a better person)? Perhaps I’ll know at the Finish Line…

Posted in Nature, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Our (first) year without a Santa Claus

Year without a santa claus

It was bound to happen sooner or later.

After years of dodging the bullet with elaborate explanations of how Santa deploys state-of-the-art Supply Chain Management systems to deliver all those presents around the world in one night, my younger children finally got the truth out of me.

It happened during a walk at the dog park. Out of nowhere, my almost-nine year-old son Andrew turned to me and asked:

Mom – does Santa really exist?

I choked. His older sister, now eleven, knew the real deal, and was standing right there. I knew our days of Santa-belief were numbered, but I wasn’t quite ready to let go yet. Using a patented technique learned from years of therapy, I responded:

Well, what do you think?

Andrew paused, deep in contemplation.

Well, there’s no real evidence that Santa exists. Sure, there’s the presents, but those could just be from you and Dad. Plus, I just don’t see how Santa could go all around the world in one night. Especially with just reindeer to pull his sleigh.

I debated taking the time to draw process-flow diagrams of Santa’s delivery solutions. But I could tell that what my son really wanted was the truth. I was also impressed by his thought process, incorporating the search for evidence to support a claim and analysis of the feasibility of a given proposal. I turned to Andrew, gave a little sigh, and the gig was up.

Thus ended one era in our family, as my children moved one step closer to tweendom. There is a part of me that is mourning the loss of innocence (and also of the convenient scapegoat when the kids don’t get what they want for Christmas). But I also immediately started to worry what learning the truth about Santa might do to their views of faith more generally. Would learning that their parents had lied to them about Santa make my sons question whether we were lying to them about much bigger targets of belief – like God?

As we continued our walk, I decided to address the issue head on.

You know, just because Santa doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean that there aren’t still things that are worth believing in, even if you don’t have hard evidence for them. It’s important to keep an open mind about things. Sometimes there are things in life that you can’t explain, that you just have to take on faith.

My daughter, who is not a huge fan of organized religion but is a dreamer, replied:

Of course! There’s still magic in the world. There’s mystery.

Exactly!  I replied. Or, for example, for me, I can’t exactly explain what happened after Jesus died. Something happened that doesn’t make complete logical sense, and it happened so long ago that we are never going to be able to get the whole story, but I think something special happened that touched his followers, and continues to touch people today.

The kids all walked on silently for a minute. Then Andrew turned to Emmy:

Hey Emmy, did you put a bed into your Minecraft house yet?

I guess that’s about as good a response as I could expect.

I thought that was the end of the story, at least for this season, but the issue came up again a few days later. Despite my very clear instructions that the boys should NOT discuss their insights about Santa with their third grade friends, I found out that in fact the boys had leaked this information at school. While discussing Santa’s non-existence with a friend who had never believed in Santa, they were overheard by other classmates whose belief in Santa was still going strong. Their other friends directly asked them whether they believed in Santa. Not wanting to lie to their friends, they replied “No”. They were then promptly chased around the playground, with demands to recant their heretical lack of faith.

In other words –  they were persecuted for their beliefs.

Well, not really. It was mostly in good fun, but the word did get back to me that the boys were spreading the bad news about Santa, and could they please cease and desist. We had stern words with the boys about not destroying the magic of Christmas for other families, and for ignoring our explicit instructions. We took away their screen time for a day as punishment.

But a part of me felt a bit bad for punishing them. Isn’t expressing belief, or lack of belief, in Santa, a form of free speech?  If it was a case of an atheist child expressing his lack of belief in the divinity of Jesus, would it have been socially acceptable to ask the child to stop expressing that view?

Well this is of course where the parallel breaks down. Because there’s no way to conclusively prove the divinity (or lack thereof) of Jesus, while all you need to do to prove the Santa story is to look in the right spot in your parents’ closet. Santa is a parents’ sweet, well-intentioned lie, while Jesus (or God more generally) is humanity’s great unsubstantiated hope.

So I am confident that my children’s ultimate faith in God will not rise and fall on their faith in Santa. In fact, finding out about Santa doesn’t seem to have caused much damage at all.  When I asked my daughter if Christmas is still magical without Santa, she said absolutely, because Santa isn’t the spirit of Christmas. Also, we can still look forward to Easter. As Andrew put it:

Well, I still believe in the Easter bunny. Although normally bunnies don’t lay eggs….

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After a day in The Rockaways

As I trudged past towering piles of sand and moldering debris in the Far Rockaways today, I was suddenly reminded of a motorcycling accident I had in my early twenties. My boyfriend at the time was taking me for a ride on a beautiful sunny day in the Berkshire Mountains. He was driving just a bit too fast, in the middle of the road. As we crested a hill we came face to face with an oncoming car. After a terrifying moment, we pulled over to the shoulder and the bike fell to one side. We were both banged up but otherwise escaped unscathed. The experience made me realize something that should have been obvious: when you’re riding a motorcycle there’s very little standing between you and utter destruction.

Likewise, when Mother Nature turns to Mommy Dearest, there’s only so much we can do to protect ourselves and the lives we’ve worked so hard to build. Standing in my kitchen just a little over a week ago, with violent gusts of wind battering my home and the lights flickering ominously, I felt an overwhelming sense of vulnerability. At any moment water could come rushing into our flood-prone basement; trees could crash through our many large windows; the power that kept threatening to disappear could make its final curtain call.

Ultimately we escaped the storm unscathed and have spent much of the past week helping those who were less fortunate. But I keep feeling like the idiot rejoicing at dodging a bullet who turns around to realize she’s facing a firing squad. Because this time we just got really lucky. Next time, our home could be like the one I spent cleaning out today in the Rockaways: full of sewage-infused fragments of a life.

I remember many people remarking after Hurricane Katrina that New Orleans was ultimately doomed, because it was built below sea level. But much of the New York area is at sea level. Given the accelerating rise in the sea level, ‘at’ becomes ‘below’ rather quickly. At this point these freak storms feel like an annual event, at the minimum, and each time we face the question of whether it’s better to sleep in the basement and face potential flooding or sleep on the second floor and risk getting hit by a falling tree (and why is it that so many of these storms seem to hit at night when we are sleeping?

So, thousands of years after it was written, Psalm 29 still captures much of what I’ve been feeling lately:

…The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty. The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!” The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever. May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!

Tomorrow another storm is supposed to hit – a Nor’easter. I pray that those left homeless and vulnerable by Sandy’s wrath will be safe. For those wishing to help with relief efforts, please check out this website for up-to-date information on how you can help.

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What should I teach my kids about the election?

As election day approaches, politics has become a common topic of conversation at my kids’ elementary school. Last week my 5th grade daughter had to watch the first presidential debate and then discuss it in class. When I asked Emmy what they’d discussed, she said that her teacher had asked the kids what they thought was the most crucial challenge facing the country right now.

“Oh,” I replied “Great question. What was your answer?”

“Taxes.” Emmy replied (an appropriate answer given that I’d only let her stay up till 9:30 because it was a school night and taxes had been the main topic at the start of the debate).

“And what do you think the problem is with taxes?” I asked, curious how much she’d been able to follow the fairly technical discussion by the two candidates.

“The problem with taxes” my daughter wisely replied “is that they’ve gone over their 15 minute time limit.”

Thank you Jim Lehrer.

Political discussion has even seeped into the playground. My third-grade twin boys reported to me that two of their friends got into a heated political argument at recess last week in which one boy (whose parents are clearly Republican) told another boy (whose parents are clearly Democrat) that the Republican boy’s dad clearly knew much more about politics than the Democrat boy’s dad. Ouch.

All of this has gotten me thinking about what I should be teaching my children about politics. I distinctly remember my own childhood political education. I grew up in a liberal bubble – attending a Quaker school where one of my teachers was actually a Marxist and everybody I knew was a far-left Democrat. I remember being completely confused about how Ronald Reagan could have been reelected since everyone I knew hated him. I also remember my well-meaning cousin explaining the difference between Democrats and Republicans in this way:

Democrats care about poor people. Republicans are rich and greedy and want to keep all the money for themselves.

Right. Since then I’ve spent significant time in post-Communist countries, which has made me appreciate Capitalism like nothing else could have; I’ve worked in small businesses where I’ve seen how they’ve provided jobs and opportunities for people who otherwise would have been on welfare; and I’ve gone to business school where I’ve learned what exactly Wall Street does and why it’s important. At the same time I’ve remained a staunch liberal on a range of social, foreign policy and economic justice issues.

In other words, I am stuck somewhere between both parties – much as I often find myself stuck between religious identities.  I know that what my husband and I teach our children about political affiliation may strongly influence them for the long-term . So what should I be teaching my kids about this election?

After some thought, I realized that the key lesson I wanted to teach my kids had nothing to do with party affiliation. It had to do with my belief that we are all children of God, worthy of being granted the benefit of the doubt. It had to do with my experience of finding that frequently both sides of an argument have a valid point to make, and the truth is usually somewhere between the two poles. It had to do with my secret desire to see Jon Stewart run for president (because the Million Moderate March was pure genius and his State of the Union addresses would be so entertaining).

So after hearing about my sons’ friends’ political fight on the playground, I told my children that both political parties have good intentions, good ideas and a sincere desire to make our country a better place. They just have different philosophies on how to accomplish those goals. And frequently the best path for our country involves combining approaches from both philosophies. I encouraged them not to blindly embrace one party’s political platform – just as I encourage them not to blindly embrace a given religious doctrine. Treat everyone with respect, even those with whom you don’t agree, and look for the truth somewhere between the extremes.

I feel pretty good that my message got through. Later that day, as we were eating lunch at Five Guys Burger and Fries, we got into a discussion about whether Five Guys or McDonalds was better. A vigorous debate ensued.

“Five Guys has better burgers!” my son Austin exclaimed.

“But McDonalds has chicken nuggets!” Emmy retorted.

“But Emmy – you can get hot dogs at Five Guys” Andrew noted.

With a sigh, Emmy turned to me and said,

 “You know mom, I think the ideal lunch destination is somewhere in between.”

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My label-free children

“Hey guys – do you know why there’s no school today? It’s Yom Kippur, the day of atonement and the most important Jewish holiday.”

It was September 26th, and I was taking the kids and the coon hound to the dog park in the minivan. As I sometimes like to do when the kids are strapped down in an enclosed space, I was trying to educate them a bit.

“Really?” my eight-year old son Austin replied “I though Christmas was the most important Jewish holiday”.

Oh dear.

After further discussion in which we reviewed what Christmas was all about (the birth of Jesus, not receiving new Lego sets), and the fact that Christian views of Jesus are different from those of non-Christians, Austin’s twin brother Andrew piped up with a question I’d heard many times before:

“Wait, Mom, what are we again?”

I gave the same answer I’d given many times before:

“You are being raised Christian, but I also want you to have some understanding and exposure to Judaism since I was raised Jewish and my whole family is Jewish.”

Later that night I began reading Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief by Dale McGowan et al. and came across this statement among a list of ‘best practices’ for raising freethinkers:

Leave kids unlabeled. Calling a child a “Christian” or an “atheist” is counterproductive to encouraging genuine free thought.

I realized at that moment that in fact I never clearly answer my children when they ask “what are we”. In fact it is not a question I want to answer. Just as I refer to myself as a Jistian because my religious views don’t fall neatly into one bucket, ultimately I want my children to develop their beliefs based on what makes the most sense to them. I never want them to blindly adopt a packaged set of beliefs or unthinkingly embrace a given religious identity.

My aversion to rigid religious identification probably comes from my rather unconventional German Jewish upbringing, where we served pork for Passover and latkes at our Christmas tree trimming parties. Although I always knew I was Jewish and attended Hebrew school for many years, I always felt like my religious identity was, to put it mildly, complex. It remains so today, since to my mind one never stops ‘being Jewish’. I just happen to have discovered a spiritual side to my life through studying Jesus, and have acted accordingly.

I see people struggling with these same issues of religious identity all the time.  This past weekend I participated in an orientation for a new member class at our church, and almost everyone in the group had some sort of mixed religious background – Catholic, other mainline Protestant or even completely secular. Most of these folks were still feeling their way – trying to figure out exactly what they believed. They were looking for a community where they could wrestle with these issues while beginning to provide their children with some form of religious education. In fact many people who attend our church have connections with other religious institutions, and our church supports and respects the need for people to maintain those relationships.

Our church is not that unusual. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that roughly one quarter of Americans (24%) sometimes attend religious services of a faith different from their own (this number excludes people attending services for things like weddings or funerals). This same study also documents that Americans’ beliefs often include elements that are not part of the orthodoxy of their faith (in particular, it documents the high percentage of Christians who believe in various elements of Eastern religion). As the study so aptly puts it:

The religious beliefs and practices of Americans do not fit neatly into conventional categories.

This willingness to seek God through many paths and worry less about following strict rules for one’s religious identity seems like something that Jesus might actually have approved of. As his story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) or his criticism of the Pharisees (Luke 11:37-43) demonstrate, Jesus didn’t think righteousness was automatically secured just by being a part of a given religious group.

Just as racial intermarriage is creating a generation whose racial identity is fluid, I sincerely hope that interfaith marriage will lead to greater nuance in religious identity, with more people challenging and evaluating their beliefs and practices and coming to a place of faith that is authentic for them. As for my own kids – I guess I hope at least one of the boys will end up meeting a nice Jewish girl who, just like my mother’s family, will enjoy putting out Easter eggs on the Seder plate.

Posted in Celebrating Religious Diversity, Parenting | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Be not conformed to this world…on picture day

Tomorrow is picture day at my kids’ elementary school, and this year is a big one: my daughter is in fifth grade. While the children in the other grades usually sport a range of attire (with my kids typically at the most casual end of the spectrum), fifth graders are supposed to step it up significantly.

Since the start of school, I’ve been receiving notices about fifth grade picture day. All of them have contained this language:

Fifth grade boys traditionally wear dress slacks, button down shirt, tie, jacket and dress shoes.  Fifth grade girls traditionally wear dresses.

As I do with all the (voluminous) school communications, I skimmed these notices, and realized that I needed to make sure Emmy had a dress to wear. I talked to her about it and we determined that she did indeed have one dress that would basically serve the purpose – this one:

I offered multiple times to take her shopping for a new dress, but each time I was quickly dismissed (my daughter, God bless her, takes after her mother in finding clothes shopping excruciatingly boring).  But heck, she had a dress, so it was one thing I could cross off the to-do list.

Until today, when Emmy decided she didn’t want to wear a dress for picture day. Although I’m still not sure what provoked this change of heart, it came after we had just learned that one or two other girls had also expressed a desire to opt-out of the dress requirement. My husband, being even more laid back about these things than I am, had told Emmy she could do whatever she wanted. However, after some thought I was less sure.

I had seen the fifth grade kids at school every year all dressed up on picture day. It’s a tradition, part of their rite of passage, a way of identifying themselves as the ‘seniors’ of the elementary school world. Dressing up is a sign of respect. It’s just what everyone is supposed to do.

Then there’s also the issue of precedent. My twin boys will be in this same position the year after next, and one of them at least has insisted on wearing pretty much nothing but sweatpants since he was three. If I let Emmy buck tradition, where would that leave me with my sons?

So I told Emmy she needed to wear a dress. When I told her I saw her face fall, and that look of disappointment I’ve seen so often.

The fact is, Emmy is different. She likes to be different. She’s an artist, a voracious reader, and a dreamer. If given the choice, she’d wear black leggings and some funky sparkly top all year long. Every time I’ve tried to get her to do what other kids her age are doing, it’s been a disaster (i.e., team sports). She’s also very comfortable being who she is. In a word, she’s awesome.

But the question is, are there times when you need to conform? Like wearing a suit to an interview, or standing up and putting your hand over your heart to say the Pledge of Allegiance. I want to raise Emmy so that she embraces her individuality, but also knows when she needs to fall in line.

So I felt like I’d made a good parenting decision, and Emmy seemed to accept it.

Later, I was reading to one of my boys at bedtime. We started on one of the great children’s classics: Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman, and there it was on page 38 – a poster hanging at Harold and George’s school that looked like this:

I began to panic. Was making all the kids adhere to this dress code a similar kind of ‘mindless conformity’? By forcing Emmy to respect tradition, was I inadvertently passing on the message of this poster to ‘be just like every else’, that ‘individuality causes pain’?

This particularly bothered me because of my faith. To be honest, one of the reasons I became so taken with Jesus was exactly because he was a non-conformer. Heal on the Sabbath? Yep. Eat with social outcasts like tax collectors and prostitutes? Bring it on. He didn’t care about societal rules or tradition. As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans:

 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

Was God trying to talk to me through a Captain Underpants book? It seemed a little improbable, but truth has come from weirder places….I think.

So after I put the boys to bed, I went to Emmy and asked her how strongly she felt about the whole dress thing. She said she was OK, but she really would prefer to wear leggings and this cool black and blue shirt she has. I told her that was OK. She could wear what she wanted to school, and just bring the dress as back-up, if she changed her mind.

Her face lit up again. Maybe individuality doesn’t cause so much pain after all.

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Pushing Muslim Buttons

My eight-year old twin sons are masters at pushing each other’s buttons. In a matter of seconds, one small provocation can transform peaceful playtime into Armageddon.  Usually the dispute is over something unbelievably stupid, like who has the right to a specific Lego piece (out of the thousands of pieces that litter their room). However, the boys have a history – and if the provoked twin gets angry enough, he will haul off and smack his sibling provocateur.

Like many Americans over the past week, I have been somewhat bewildered by the tragic violence provoked by “The Innocence of Muslims” video. How could a cheesy movie trailer provoke such a dramatic response? Well, today I took the time to actually watch the 14 minute trailer. As I suffered through this piece of shlock (a bizarre mash-up of amateur porn and the worst Saturday Night Live video you’ve ever seen), a light-bulb suddenly went off. This video pushes all the Muslim buttons. While I didn’t pick up on all of the slights, I’ve heard enough anti-Islamic rhetoric on topics such as the age of Mohammed’s wife Ayesha to understand why this video would be so offensive to Muslims. Then I thought about how after eight years of history, my sons can be moved to violence by a seemingly small provocation. So how surprising is it that people who have decades of troubled relations with the US would be likely to respond in a similarly disproportionate manner?

David Kirkpatrick’s recent article in the NY Times sums it up well:

Others said that the outpouring of outrage against the video had built up over a long period of perceived denigrations of Muslims and their faith by the United States or its military, which are detailed extensively in the Arab news media: the invasion of Iraq on a discredited pretext; the images of abuse from the Abu Ghraib prison; the burning or desecrations of the Koran by troops in Afghanistan and a pastor in Florida; detentions without trial at Guantánamo Bay; the denials of visas to prominent Muslim intellectuals; the deaths of Muslim civilians as collateral damage in drone strikes; even political campaigns against the specter of Islamic law inside the United States.

Kirkpatrick goes on to quote an Egyptian political scientist, Emad Shahin, who says that the video was the “straw that broke the camel’s back”.

I am not in any way condoning the violent responses to the video. The death of diplomat Christopher Stevens and destruction of property has been terrible, tragic, and self-defeating. As Muslim Syed Mahmood notes in his response to the video on YouTube, these responses are exactly what the creators of the video wanted.

However, I am also saddened by much of the response I have seen from Americans to this whole mess. Many of the comments I’ve seen online are as sensitive as these:

  • Other religions get made fun of and teased all the time, Muslims need to develop a thicker skin about it.
  • If your religion is worth killing for, start with yourself.

These kinds of attitudes just contribute to the perception that Americans don’t respect or understand Muslims. It seems we are in a vicious cycle of disrespect and overreaction.

There are certainly other aspects to this story, such as the fact that much of the violence has been the work of a small group of radicals (just as the video itself was produced and promoted by a small group of nut jobs), and that many Islamic countries do have different cultural attitudes towards religion and free speech.

However, although Muslim culture may be different from ours in some ways, we are all human. No one likes to be dissed. We all know what it feels like to be fed up, tired of being insulted. We all know what it feels like to snap.

So just as I keep teaching my boys to learn to control their tempers when they are provoked, I am praying that the voices of reason in the Muslim world will help bring peace and calm back to their countries.  But I also teach my boys to avoid pushing each other’s buttons – to avoid provoking each other in the first place. I hope that more of us in the West will learn that lesson as well.

Posted in Islam, Religion and Morality | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Searchin’ for the Sabbath

Mom – when are we going to have time to do nothing?

My eight-year old son Andrew recently asked this question after we’d been going non-stop for the past 48 hours. Andrew, who loves to read, play Legos, and just goof off with his siblings, was suffering from down-time withdrawal.

He wasn’t alone. After two weeks in Aruba where I actually had time to do things like read and relax with the family, I had been dreading the start of the school year. In particular, I was worried how I’d manage the after-school insanity: the period from 3pm to 8pm in which I morph into a superhuman capable of simultaneously transporting my progeny to various locations across Westchester while feeding them snacks and responding to questions about homework and social life.

My kids are not even all that overscheduled compared to most of their peers. Each child is basically only doing one sport each season. But each of these sports meets at least three times a week. It just takes some basic math to figure out what that means for the whole family: 3 children, each doing 1 sport that meets 3x per week, means 9 different time commitments per week (plus a small number of additional after school activities including play-dates), which leaves us with an average of 2 different after school commitments each day (plus additional time required for transportation, gearing up, etc).

Figuring out the after-school schedule feels like one of those awful word problems:

If Emilie needs to be at martial arts in Eastchester by 4:40 and there is a 12.5% probability of 5-10 minutes of traffic delays on the Hutchinson Parkway and Andrew needs to arrive 25 minutes early at the Ice Hutch to put on his gear for his 5:05 hockey practice, what is the expected average number of minutes that crazy mommy will be late taking Austin to his football practice at Glover Field?

The net result is that we’re only about a week into the school year and I already see symptoms of burn-out in my kids and myself. I do not want to complain. I think sports are incredibly important for kids’ health and character development, and I feel lucky to be able to give them these athletic opportunities. But what we all need is regularly scheduled downtime. We need a sabbath.

Child psychologist and Jewish author Wendy Mogul writes beautifully about the importance of establishing a day of rest in her book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee:

There are peak spiritual moments that happen in a family spontaneously. The prescient, poetic observations our children make, the questions they ask as they are climbing out of the bath or playing with their toast, cannot be pumped out of them or choreographed….But the idea of guarding the Sabbath teaches us to increase the odds that we’ll find ourselves in these moments, that they will be prolonged rather than fleeting, and that we don’t have to leave them entirely to chance.

Mogul goes on to describe how she managed, over time, to carve out Friday nights and Saturdays as restful time for her family to be together.

I have had similar conversations about the Sabbath with women from my church. In particular, I’ve heard many of the older women reminisce about how Sundays used to be reserved exclusively for worship. In the past no one would have dreamed of scheduling sporting events on Sundays, particularly not on Sunday mornings.

Well of course, times have changed, and folks have realized that loading up all the sporting activities on Saturdays ended up excluding Jews who wished to keep their Sabbath.  Now, sports are much more inclusive: they are equally inconvenient for people of all faiths.

So how exactly should I go about establishing a Sabbath time for my family? I have four thoughts on this:

1. Set realistic goals

Given the fact that each of my three children is doing a different sport, the chances are good that if we picked one particular day each week to be our ‘day of rest’, we’d end up penalizing one child’s sport over the others, which hardly seems fair.  For our family, it may not be realistic to find an entire day every week that can be entirely activity free. But perhaps we can find an evening, or a half-day once every two to three weeks.

2. Cherish days off from school

This coming Monday and Tuesday the kids are off from school because of Rosh Hashanah. In the past I might have just let this time get filled up with play-dates and errands. But as I was writing this post I realized that I should at least reserve one of these days to be just for the family. This isn’t a perfect solution since working parents typically still have to work on these days, but just giving the kids some downtime not in a clinic or ‘day off from school camp’ can be a gift.

3.  Call for ‘Family Time’ nights to be both homework and activities free

Around the country, school districts are trying to foster downtime by instituting homework-free nights where families are supposed to have more quality time together. However, the last Family Time night I had last spring, we still didn’t eat together because I was shuttling kids to various sports practices. If we are serious about fostering family-together time, then all the after-school demands on children’s time need to be suspended, not just homework.

4. Religious institutions need to make sure they are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Given how busy the kids are throughout the week, by Sunday mornings the last thing they want is to go to anything that has the word ‘school’ in it. Ironically, although attending church on Sunday mornings is supposed to be the way our Christian family celebrates the Sabbath, in fact, we don’t actually spend any quality time together in church. We rush around in the morning getting dressed in our church clothes, then we sit quietly (ish) during the beginning of the service, then the kids go off to Sunday school while my husband and I stay and worship, then we separately talk to our friends for a bit at coffee hour and then it’s time for whatever sport activity we have to go to in the afternoon. This hardly seems like a chance to create restful space for ‘peak spiritual moments’ with the kids.

Don’t get me wrong. I strongly believe in giving my children a religious education, and have demonstrated that commitment both through attending church regularly and being a Sunday school teacher. But I also wonder if, given the environment that our children are living in, church needs to consider creating occasional alternative worship models that foster more family togetherness.

Well, that’s it for now. I gotta stop writing and get to bed. The boys both have games tomorrow morning…

Posted in Parenting | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Selfish Sainthood

Last week I almost died.

Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but there was definitely a scary moment where I thought things might go poorly. We were still in Aruba, and the kids had decided that they wanted to go ‘tubing’. We had tried this the week before, and it was nothing like the let’s-go-drift-down-a-lazy-river-with-a-cooler-of-beer tubing I was used to. Instead, this was an adrenalin-pumping XTREME experience where a large raft was tied on a long rope to the back of a powerful motor boat which then zoomed at top speed over large waves while the riders held on for dear life and screamed their heads off. Oh yeah, and because we are a family of five, and a raft can only hold four, we  had two rafts tied to the back of the boat (one adult in each, with kids divided between them). This enabled the rafts to occasionally slam into each other when the boat driver did a funky wheely thing in the water.  Really not my thing.

After the first tubing adventure I had come home and read a horrifying article about how all of these beach activities are completely unregulated and how there have been several parasailing deaths in Florida recently. Sharing this information with my eternally optimistic husband, he assured me that if these activities weren’t safe, they wouldn’t still be in business.  I squelched my anxiety, and wanting to participate in a golden moment in our precious family vacation, agreed to go tubing one more time.

For our second outing, the winds were particularly strong, and the boat driver, recognizing us from the previous week, knew we (or rather the rest of the family except me) loved a thrill, so he set off at such high speeds that the wind kept literally lifting the front of my raft several feet in the air so that my son Andrew and I were at a 45 degree angle with our feet sticking up.  At one point our rafts slammed into each other so hard that Andrew slid over and we hit heads. I was completely terrified, but was trying to remain calm since I realize I tend to be overly nervous.

Then all of a sudden on a sharp turn, as our rafts came towards each other again, the wind picked up my raft at such an angle that the entire thing tilted on its side, then flipped over on top of the other raft. Staring down at the water rushing by, I had a scary moment where I expected to get squeezed between or stuck under the rafts or tangled in the ropes. But then I simply let myself go, the rafts passed me by/over me and the next thing I knew I was bobbing in the open water in my life jacket (yes we did at least have those on), watching the boat and the rafts zoom away from me.

Without even thinking I called out in panic for Andrew. He had been on the far side of the raft as it flipped and I had no idea what had happened to him.  I didn’t care about myself – just about my son. Where was he? Was he alright?

Fortunately, in a cartoon-like fashion Andrew had been flipped into the other raft and had landed, rump down between my husband and my daughter. Not only was he fine, the rest of my family thought this was one of the coolest things that had ever happened to them. Except they were worried about me. Soon we had confirmed that everyone was unhurt, the other raft was flipped back over, and the boat driver slowly made his way back to shore.

As soon as we reached the beach, I started to fully process what had happened.  After shaking all over and swearing that I’d never go tubing again, we rode back to our rental house in silence.

Back at the house, I pulled out my Kindle to unwind, and just happened to be on the chapter on ‘Saintliness’ in William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, where James is quoting from the narrative of a near-death experience of a deeply religious person:

The sail slipped through my fingers, and I fell backwards, hanging head downwards over the seething tumult of shining foam under the ship’s bows, suspended by one foot. But I felt only high exultation in my certainty of eternal life. Although death was divided from me by a hair’s breadth, and I was acutely conscious of the fact, it gave me no sensation but joy. I could have hung there no longer than five seconds, but in that time I lived a whole age of delight. But my body asserted itself, and with a desperate gymnastic effort I regained the boom. How I furled the sail I don’t know, but I sang at the utmost itch of my voice praises to God…..

It struck me how different my response had been in a somewhat similar situation. Rather than experiencing a sense of calm at submitting to God’s will and welcoming the prospect of eternal life, I was terrified of losing my or my child’s life. God?  If I’m honest, God didn’t enter my thoughts at the time.

If I’m even more honest, I’ll admit that I found many of the ‘saints’ described by William James to be either annoying, disturbing, or both.  James cataloged people who deprived themselves of all of life’s joys, abandoned all material goods, and cut themselves off from their loved ones  to whom they had an obligation. As James puts it:

The lives of saints are a history of successive renunciations of complication, one form of contact with the outer life being dropped after another, to save the purity of inner tone.

While in theory these saints ought to represent the apex of what a life of faith should be, I found their fixation on abandoning everything to be with God to be, well, selfish. It’s all about their spiritual life, their connection to God, their eternal life. But what about the people who love them, who depend on them. Isn’t the happiness of those people important too?

It seems to me that cultivating a spiritual life is important – but not as an end in itself. It is only important in they way it gives us the strength and focus to be present for those who love us, and to go out into the world and make a positive impact.

So I don’t feel that my response to my tubing accident shows that I’m any less saintly than the ‘saints’ portrayed by William James. I am a parent saint – someone who worships God by bringing more love into the world – by loving God and showing loving compassion to those around me.  As James himself concludes after providing his own critique of and support for, saintliness:

Let us be saints, then, if we can, whether or not we succeed visibly and temporally. But in our Father’s house are many mansions, and each of us must discover for himself the kind of religion and amount of saintship which best comports with what he believes to be his powers and feels to be his truest mission and vocation.

And to that I say Amen, and let’s go head off to the parenthood mansion. That’ll be the one where extreme tubing isn’t allowed.

Posted in Parenting, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments