The birds and the bees

When my son was thirteen months old, I took him back East to meet his cousins, Aunt and Uncle. One night, in the middle of this visit, ensconced with my son and three nieces in a cozy bed, my oldest niece suddenly looked at me and said in a perplexed tone, “Tanya, he’s so cute. But I just don’t get it. How does the baby get out? Is there an operation and does it hurt or does the hospital give it to you? I mean, how do you get a baby?” A little flustered as to how to answer, I wound up telling her that it takes part luck and part biology to make a baby and that she might want to talk to her mom about the specifics.

Over the next month, this conversation kept creeping back into my mind. As my thoughts swirled around the topic, I couldn’t help but think about how I couldn’t remember not knowing how babies are made. Soon after, I decided that I would talk about this subject with my son at a very young age in a low-key manner. Fortunately for me, I serendipitously soon found a Dr. Ruth pop-up book that explained this very topic.

And so, between the ages of three and four, we read this book innumerable times. Before bed, in the mornings, and at nap times, we learned how to spell S-E-X, what it’s all about, and how it works. By the end of this phase, I had developed a pretty good analogy for explaining how babies are made.

In the shortened version, I would tell my son that making babies is isn’t too different from making a cake. You need some ingredients, an egg and a sperm. And, just like when we’re baking, the ingredients need to mix together to make something new. The mom’s uterus is the oven, with the only difference being that instead of an hour, it takes nine months before a baby’s ready to come out and be enjoyed. Most importantly, though, just like when we make a cake, it’s important to make sure that you love the person you have sex with since it makes the experience (and the baby) all the sweeter. And then, adopting the philosophy of spray and pray, I fervently hoped that my son absorbed the main messages.

A couple of years ago, my seven year old son casually approached me as he was getting ready for bed and calmly stated that “A lot of my friends think hugging and kissing is disgusting, but I don’t get it. It’s just a natural fact of life. Right mom?” “Right.” And with this quiet declaration, I knew that my son had indeed retained one of the valuable tenets that I had espoused to him.

As I watch him grow older, quietly but steadily approaching teenagehood with all of its precarious uncertainty and novelty, I hold on to the hope that he will keep his heart open, make his emotions visible, and dare to take emotional risks while treasuring himself enough to only share his intimate self with one he loves and who can reciprocate in measure.

Shanah tovah

For me, fall is always a special time. Not only does September indicate a new school year but the Jewish New Year often coincides with this time, clearly opening the door to new beginnings and possibilities. Reflecting on this, I can’t help but think about how the excitement that I feel about such predictable events is, in actuality, about the unforeseen and unimagined.

As I reflect on this, I think about my grandfather and how he left us not only material goods but an ethical will as well. In it, he encouraged us to seek out knowledge, explore spirituality, treasure family, be ethical, and to think for ourselves. And, most importantly, he encouraged us to always hope for a better life: to make every personal effort to improve ourselves and others through love and diligence in order to make the world somewhat better for our having been here.

Standing on my back patio, drinking in the cool night’s air, my mind and eye drift to the mezzuzah that hangs upon the door to my house. Wondering to myself why this particular relic of Judaica is so important to me, I came to the following conclusion:

The mezuzah rests silently
Waiting to usher the goddess of love through her doors
Enveloping her home
And hearts that lie within

With a warm embrace
Allowing shuttered defenses
To open wide
Making the soul visible as fears fly apart
Potential created
Joy abounds

Ultimately, I decide, the mezuzah is a physical representation of all of the lessons that my grandfather gave me, both during his lifetime and after, a collection of wisdom that if adhered to can lead to a life well lived.

As I share these ideas with my son in a slow progression over the years, it’s my hope that he will absorb their messages into the very fiber of his being and use them as a guideline when crafting his life so that even when he falters, he’ll have an innate compass by which he can redirect himself onto a path that is at once expansive and fulfilling, building a solid path to my grandfather’s dream that the world become a better place.



The art of negotiation

At about eighteen months, my son started to display his will. It all began one night when he wasn’t feeling well and I was trying to get him into the bath, an activity he usually ran to participate in. On this night, however, he simply refused, kicking up such a fuss that a stranger walking by might easily assume that he was being tarred and feathered.

My mother, visiting at the time, decided to soap him up outside of the tub. When I tried to dunk him in, I was met by an absolute refusal. At this point, desperate enough to resort to bribery, I said “I’ll give you a cookie if you get into the tub for one second”. And that was enough to start a chain of interactions that changed my viewpoint forever.

“Cookie? No candy.” This, from the child who had only ever eaten candy once before, made me realize that I was dealing with a great negotiator. “Ok, candy.” “No, two candy.” Flabbergasted, I agreed, “OK, two candies”, thinking that for effort alone I should reward him with what he demanded. In response, I was told “Blue candy and green candy.” “OK”. And with that, negotiations were complete and for the first, but not last, I was bested by my son.

Years later I still reflect on this incident, thinking about how much my son has taught me about the art of getting to yes. And about how he much he has taught me about the irrelevance of absolutes in this world.

When I was younger, I saw the world in terms of black and white. Although I knew that shades of grey existed, I had a hard time recognizing them. Things were either wrong or right and there was generally only one way of doing things. As I grew older, I slowly and painfully through much trial and error learned the art of perspective and the ability to step into another’s shoes.

Now, as a parent, I try to remember that things aren’t always as they appear and that there is validity in another vantage point, even if it comes from someone who is a fraction of my size. And so, our daily interactions are routinely marked by a series of negotiations around how things will unfold and the events that will take place. Throughout it all, I try to remember to give in when it doesn’t make a difference, even if it’s not the way that I would choose, and to stand strong on the important issues that actually matter in the long run.

Looking forward, I hope that if I can teach my son to be flexible while helping him to hone his innate negotiating skills, he’ll be ahead of the game, able to adjust and adapt to change while staying true to his own goals and harness the power around him to bring to life an environment in which everyone feels fulfilled and empowered.

Marriage and intimacy

During the 2010 Olympics I was lucky enough to obtain a ticket to the pairs figure skating competition. I was initially disappointed when the event began as I hadn’t realized that I would be watching twenty pairs perform the same routine over and over again. After watching many of the couples perform, however, I began to see the beauty in the repetition, noticing that the couples who were most magical were not necessarily the ones  always in sync. Instead, it was the couples that fell out of step with one another while maintaining their connection who were most appealing. For it was in viewing the stronger partner unhesitatingly and unflinchingly carry the faltering one that the intimacy between the two was most visible, providing a peek behind the curtain into the deeper bond that enables two distinct individuals to separate and come back together in a unified dance that’s all the stronger for a misstep.

Over time, I reflected on this hidden beauty, struck by how it paralleled the relationships that I know and most admire.  And so, when presented with the opportunity to get married to someone who loved me, I turned him down, knowing that our relationship did not meet the litmus test that I had set for myself.

When my son, who also loved this man, asked me why I wouldn’t marry him, I gently explained that I believe that marriage is like a puzzle. Whereas you can sometimes force together two pieces that look as if they belong with one another, it’s a struggle and you always know that something’s not quite right, if not through the process then by the end result. On the other hand, when two pieces belong together, they gently nestle up against one another, falling together into place to create a picture that is more beautiful than either piece could create on its own, each unique part accentuating the other’s natural form to present it in a supportive and flattering light.

Having no desire to be the next Elizabeth Taylor, marrying repeatedly for an elusive but heady feeling that’s unsustainable in the long term, I’ve decided to save my last marriage chit for a relationship that is mutually supportive, allowing each of us to explore and express our dark and light in all their splendor while striving to become the best version of ourselves. And it’s my hope that as my son matures and falls in love, he’ll ultimately choose for himself a relationship in which he’s loved in spite of his flaws all the while being recognized for the work in progress that he is, supported during his mis-steps and throughout his attempts to make the most of who he is, while complementing his other in a dance that creates a long-lasting moment of truth that is beautiful for all of its work and imperfections.

An inelegant but parsimonious theory of death

Last night I dreamed about my great-grandmother, Buby. My last strong memory of her is of the two of us standing in her studio apartment’s kitchenette: me, a rebellious sixteen year old with attitude; her, a warm and wrinkled ninety-four year old asking me what I was going to do with my life now that I was finished my schooling. Even though she could not wrap her head around the idea that I wanted so much more for myself than working as a salesperson in a shop and that my education was barely beginning, the over-riding feeling that flows through this memory is one of all-encompassing love and acceptance.

Last night’s dream was usual in that both my great-grandmother and my grandfather, who died around this time last year, made an appearance. Sitting in the front passenger seat of a car, I turned around and there she was. Younger than I remember her in my mind’s eye, she was wearing a soft baby blue cashmere turtleneck sweater reminiscent of her daughter, my great-aunt Muriel and plastered across her face was a wide open smile, framed by her famous red lips and carefully rouged high cheekbones. As she registered my surprise at seeing her there, she let out a relaxed little laugh and said “You didn’t really think I was gone? Don’t you know that I’m always there with you?”. As I turned, I saw my debonair grandfather in the driver seat, wearing his signature tie and fedora he smiled and nodded his agreement at me.

I woke-up soon thereafter with tears streaming down my face. As I navigated my way towards consciousness a more recent memory of my son came to mind. At the age of three and a half, he became very curious about death, asking me “What happens when we die?” That evening, lying together cuddled in the darkness, I explained to him that when we die, our bodies eventually disintegrate, like discarded orange peels that no longer contain delicate fruit needing protection. But, the part that makes us us, the part that makes him the special and unique person that he is and that holds his light, never disintegrates, it just disperses into everywhere and nowhere.

Initially, this knowledge translated itself into vigorous planning manifested in the following forms: “Mom, when you die, I’m going to bury your body in brown, so that no one will see the dirt on you”, “Mom, I get to have all your money when you die since I’m your only child, right?”, “Mom, when you die, I’m going to add another floor to the house and renovate it”, “Mom, don’t worry, I’ll always come visit you and talk to you when you’re dead so you won’t be lonely.”

Over time, my son’s preoccupation with the details of what to do with the physical when I’m gone morphed into a more sophisticated dialogue about death. And throughout it all, I was reminded of how at various points in my life complete strangers have pulled me aside to let me know that I have many guides escorting me through life, keeping me safe, sometimes in spite of myself.

And now, as my son and I talk about death, I know that I will need to explain to him my true beliefs around death: that when we die, our soul or energy does not disperse. Instead, it goes into the universe and attaches to what, for lack of a better term, I call the great glob of souls in the sky. When a new person is born, a soul is created from the amorphous mass that is either identical to one that previously existed or an entirely new combination with bits and pieces taken in various percentages of older souls.

For me, this explains why we sometimes meet someone and instantly have a connection and are drawn to them, recognize something of ourselves in another, or see bits of someone else we know or have known in another. It also explains why some people have outstanding talents in certain areas, such as master painters, musicians, or mathematicians, having amassed all of that particular energy from preexisting souls, and why others have incredibly outstanding dominant traits, such as mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler, that allow them to leave a legacy to the world.

As I think about this, I gaze at a painting on my desk, given to me by a stranger over fifteen years ago in Nepal. On the front of it is a simple image of a face but inscribed on the back is a reminder of how all of us in the universe are connected. Keeping this in mind, I know that as long as my son understands that the universal we is me, he will be able to live his life and meet death with joy and equanimity, knowing that our time on this planet is just one stop in time on an ever continuing journey.