Snowflakes and Grandkids



Is it too much of a stretch to compare a dancing snowflake to a child? Recently, after watching the Dance of the Snowflakes in a local production of the Nutcracker, in which two of my grandchildren performed, I found myself thinking about grandchildren and snowflakes.  Children are a little bit like snowflakes. Each one is unique.  Each one is splendid.  Each is exquisite.  There was never one exactly like them in the past and there will never be one exactly like them in the future. Childhood disappears quickly as does a snowflake.  Now you see it, now you don’t.  Remarkable!  It’s been through the blessing of grandchildren that I have truly been able to fully appreciate the miracle of childhood and the full measure of life.

Its wonderful  is to watch our grandchildren grow up. I take great pleasure in being a part of their lives.  I am in awe of the rapidity of change.

It can be challenging to raise a child.  I look back now and wonder how I did it!  Youth helped a lot.  One of the gifts of aging, if you’re lucky, is to have time for yourself.   As a grandparent, there can be an inherent conflict between your love of freedom and your grown children’s desires to have you do “grandparently” things.  Where do you draw the line between self and family obligations or family expectations as time becomes more precious?  I first asked this question as an adolescent.  I guess the balance question follows you through life, in one form or another.  We all need to find our own balance point, I think.

I was the kind of Mom who had to have my own thing going on in my life while my kids were growing up, or I’d be dealing with depression. Non stop parenting became boring and could stifle my sense of self and test my sanity.  I needed and craved an identity beyond being a parent. Interestingly, my needs are not much different now!

Just as parents come in all shapes and sizes, so do grandparents and so do families.  There’s been a lot written about misguided efforts to be “perfect” parents, but nothing I’ve come across talks about a similar drive to be the perfect grandparent.  Personally I don’t think we get to do perfection in relationships in life.  Parenthood is usually lots of trial and error.  Those challenges are lightened by an occasional acknowledgement that our efforts have paid off and we’ve helped raise a child who is a good person and will do her part to make a contribution to the world, be it large or small.  That role is not nearly as intense for grandparents, but it’s easy to feel guilty when our children or grandchildren are looking for more than we’re able or even willing to give, both physically or psychologically.  I’ve heard this from my peers and I’ve experienced it myself.

Many grandparents easily slip  into the role of default babysitter or chauffeur, which I’m sure delights their adult children and their grandchildren as well. Good for them. I knew immediately that role was not for me. I want to grandparent in a way that’s meaningful to me and not in a way that is imposed.  Scratch that sweet image of a patient, smiling cookie baker too. I feel a little badly about my lack of enthusiasm for this, but not badly enough to  get out the cookie cutters or heat up the oven.

I do relish my role as observer and facilitator. From the vantage point of advancing age, I can now see children for the miraculous beings that they are.  They learn so much so quickly.  Their bodies are in a constant state of flux.  They’re hungry for knowledge and experience.  It’s a gift to watch this being played out as they  learn to talk, walk, run, dance, read, write, draw, play a musical instrument, share, learn kindness, etc. They’re constantly seeking the balance between independence and dependence.  I want to be there for as much of it as I can.  I take pleasure in their successes and share concerns about their challenges.  I want to be able to be a meaningful influence in their lives.  I enjoy taking them places, be it travel, museums or performances.

Most of all, I want them to know how much they are loved and appreciated.  I want them to know we, who are of sound mind, want to do the best we can for them.  As parents or grandparents.  I want them to know how grateful I am to be able to see the ongoingness of life through them, to get another opportunity to revisit, with more mature eyes, the brief time that is childhood. I want to continue my own growth as I watch theirs.

Life is growing short. There’s no longer time or energy to do it all, as I could easily pretend when young or middle-aged. I  might miss some of the important moments in the lives of my grandkids while I’m off chasing a rainbow, but, I hope they know I love them with all my heart. Maybe, if we’re lucky, I’ll even be able to share a piece of the rainbow with them someday!

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To Bow or Not to Bow?

Once upon a a time, in the middle of the last century, in a small industrial city in Western Massachusetts, a child born and raised to assimilating Jewish parents frequently found herself conflicted during the holiday season.

Downtown Holyoke, Mass. early 20th century

On one hand, there was the modest holiday of Chanukah. During the 1940’s and ’50’s it was celebrated in our household  with the lighting of orange candles that burned out pretty quickly.  On the fifth candle, we enjoyed the distribution of a little cash or a few small gifts. By the 8th night, the glowing menorah presented a sight to be admired, but after a few exciting moments, it was quickly over.  The painful truth is that other than sharing the month of December, Chanukah and Christmas have/had little in common. For a child, Chanukah was an unsatisfying substitute.

On the other hand, and far more celebrated among her Irish Catholic classroom peers, was the seduction and allure of Christmas. The bible story itself was attractive and the decorations and imagery were irresistible.

My classroom was the epicenter of Christmas Anticipation. My fifth grade teacher, as a lesson in penmanship, in a moment of sheer inspiration, had our class copy all the lyrics to the narrative song Frosty the Snowman,  I remember actually enjoying that exercise . The story is all about living life to the fullest even though your days are numbered.  Sophisticated stuff.

Frosty the snowman was a jolly happy soul
With a corn cob pipe and a button nose
And two eyes made of coal

Frosty the snowman is a fairy tale, they say
He was made out of snow
But the children know how he came to life one day

There must of been some magic in
That old silk hat they found
For when they placed it on his head
He began to dance around

Frosty the snowman was alive as he could be
And the children say he could laugh and play
Just the same as you and me

Frosty the snowman knew the sun was hot that day
So he said, Let’s run and have some fun before I melt away
Down to the village with a broomstick in his hand
Running here and there all around the square
Saying Catch me if you can

He led them down the streets of town
Right to the traffic cop
And he only paused a moment
When he heard him holler stop

Frosty the snowman
Had to hurry on his way
But he waved goodbye sayin’, Please don’t cry
I’ll be back again some day

In school, I learned to love and sing all the traditional carols.  Away in a Manger became the thorniest of the carols for me to sing because of the phrase,”the little lord Jesus”  which was repeated several times during the song.  My classmates had no such hesitation.  They would automatically bow their heads in unison at the very mention of Jesus’ name.  What was a Jewish child to do? To bow or not to bow? How noticeable would it be if I did not bow?  The bow won out, although not without a large amount of Jewish related guilt.

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Another excruciating moment came when a classmate would eagerly inquire if we’d put up our “tree” as yet?  My answer to this inquiry, which felt as confrontational as asking a a young man if he’d been circumcized, was usually split. I lied 50% of the time. The other 50% of the time I’d admit, to my friend’s  great confusion, that Jews didn’t celebrate Christmas.  That response always ended the conversation.

Once upon a time, children were able to wander the downtown streets of their hometown without an accompanying adult.  It got pretty glitzy at Christmas in downtown Holyoke, at least to this child’s eyes.  It was an irresistible draw.  Many days in December, after school, I’d head straight downtown.   After looking at many fetching embroidered hankies for my teacher in one of the regal, if old fashioned department stores, I’d quickly hot foot it over to Woolworth’s, the 5 & 10 store par excellence.  There, to my heart’s delight, I’d gaze and touch large counters full of brilliantly colored Christmas baubles. Best of all, no one paid the slightest bit of attention to me.  Long shimmering strands of silver tinsel could be inspected there too, as well as the always- fascinating bubble string lights.

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For reasons I’ll never quite comprehend, I was encouraged to believe in Santa Claus. That brought some pleasure when I was very young. Family gifts were exchanged on Christmas morning in a low key secular appropriation of Christmas Day. However, the act of placing a Christmas tree in our home was never considered, except in my own fantasy. I always knew where the line was drawn, but was never sure of the rationale behind the line.

We spent the weeks leading up to Christmas watching entertaining  Christmas specials starring the likes of Perry Como Ahmal and the Night Visitors, always a yearly visitor in the 50’s, was on the DO NOT WATCH list since it had too many religious overtones to ever be considered remotely acceptable.  Ditto “The Little Drummer Boy.”  That went for the song of the same name too.

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Occasionally a Jewish friend would tell me in a whispered voice, that she had a Christmas tree.  I regarded her with a mixture of suspicion and envy.

Then one year, to my complete shock and delight, on Christmas eve, while we watched Christmas tv specials, my mother pulled out a small but not insignificant music box Christmas tree to plug into the electrical outlet in the fake hearth of our den. She said it was given to her by a customer of my father’s grocery store.  It only stayed out for a few hours and then was hustled back to its box in the hall closet as soon as the family went to bed, which was usually at the beginning of the Christmas Eve service from Saint Patrick’s cathedral. The tree’s disappearance was a little like watching a sitcom when a cheating husband tell his mistress to hide in the closet when he hears his wife come home.

musci box

The illicit tree would reappear in the same circumstances for many years until one year, when I was home from college, I discovered it had mysteriously disappeared.

Christmas in Holyoke was never the same.

Meeting the Arhats





meet the arhats

Meet the Arhats!  I guarantee once you’ve met them, you’ll never forget them!

I met them all a few weeks ago at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo.  They are the subject of an overwhelming artistic experience created by the Japanese artist, Takeshi Murakami in response to the 2011 Fukushima disaster and tidal wave.  As far as I could understand, in Buddhist tradition, the Arhats are enlightened beings who chose to spend their time on earth spreading Buddhist teaching and helping us regular mortals find compassion and consolation in dealing with the challenges of life on this earth. According to some Buddhist traditions, there are 500 of them.  Murakami painted each of them in his 100m or 328′ mural. It literally dwarfed any paintings I’ve seen before it.  It’s said to be the largest painting ever done.

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Two hundred student assistants worked with Murakami 24/7 for one year to research and help create the work.  The sheer scale of it, as well as its intelligence and soulfulness, require the viewer to consider the universe and our place within it.  The dynamic force of the mural doesn’t allow for any distraction.  Be here now.

The Arhats come in all shapes and sizes. They are depicted on brilliant backgrounds, from fiery to celestial.  Their images  range from spooky to aesthetic to just plain goofy.  Most are in prayer.  The mural includes historical references to early Japanese art as well as references to Murakami’s well known use of manga and anime. All in all, I found it spellbinding.  It was a total departure from anything I’ve seen before.

I’ve read that Murakami is a nihilist. The meaning of his earlier works is there is no meaning. But, somehow this work, with all these holy creatures , seems bound to give comfort to beleaguered humankind.  The paintings provide solace and inspired wonder, if only to show what an artistic mind is capable of producing.

I was in awe.

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