Lesson from the check-out line: Spread Joy

This time my prophet appeared in the form of a Trader Joe’s cashier.

Let’s call him AJ. He was chatting with the cute young woman in front of me, and their conversation continued after she had paid and her groceries were bagged.

I felt aggravation bubbling up. I took a deep, patient breath. I decided to notice the sweetness in their conversation, to wonder if this moment would be the one they would tell their future children about — how Daddy handed Mommy his phone number on a bent and dusty business card.

They finished talking after about 10 seconds, probably less, and he began ringing up my purchases. I was proud of myself for not wasting energy on harrumphing. He was one of those “How are you? I’m great, I’m super, what a blessed day” type of guys. As he started ringing up my purchases, he offered up his personal M.O.: “I wake up in the morning and decide ‘Today going to be great.’ No matter what happens, you have to decide that.” He explained, as he bagged my frozen taquitos and smoked mozzarella, that with this attitude, even if he has a car accident, it won’t ruin his day. It’s just part of his day.

His attitude dovetailed with my new resolution to laugh more. To lighten up. I tend toward the serious. Even my gratitude is serious – for the absence of all the baaaaad things that can happen. My motivation for the new attitude is my kids; I want their idea of me to be fun and laughing, not worried and cranky. I have precious few years left to imprint their childhood memories.

This happy-gas effort has been working, though it takes some mindfulness to counter my default “serious” outlook.

Let’s be clear, I have nothing against seriousness – it is requisite for significant social change. I mean, we have to presume that America’s Abolitionists, Suffragettes, and the leaders of the Civil Rights movement were serious people, who were never heard to utter, “Let’s not worry about equal rights! Turn up the music and pass the cupcakes!” Seriousness of purpose has a place. But I don’t have to be so serious all the time.

The day after AJ, I heard the same message at Torah study. Even though the weekly portion was about skin eruptions. 

I will spare you the gorey details and cut to the chase. Rabbi Amy Bernstein showed us a little rabbi trick she had learned, because rabbis like to play with language and meaning. She took the Hebrew word for blemish, moved its letters around, and turned it into the Hebrew word for joy. Whether you see a blemish or joy, she suggested, depends on your perspective.

Joy blooms when you look for it. The sages knew it. AJ knew it. And, just like certain skin eruptions, joy can spread to people around you, be they your kids, your spouse, or the lady in the check-out line.

Be careful. It’s catching.

 

Never a Dull Moment, With The Big Questions Kid

Have you ever told your children that it was good to be bored? Have you ever flailed trying to explain why, even to yourself?

Let me define boredom for my purposes: an absence of outside stimuli (e.g. XBox, Wii, FB, Instagram, television, the usual suspects), as well as an absence of creative ideas coming from within. Stasis. Quiet. Spaciousness.

I heard two super smart women sing the praises of boredom this week. Each relayed a story of a different psychological study.

At the Literary Women festival in Long Beach on Saturday, author Aimee Bender described a study in which one group of people were given an exceedingly boring task — copying phone numbers out of the phone book — and then right after were given plastic cups and told to do something creative with them. A control group of non-super-bored folks were given the same cups, same instruction. The bored-to-death folks ran away with the creative assignment, cutting out spirals and snowflakes and lord-knows-what-else with their plastic. The non-bored folks made an effort at some pyramid-thingy. The takeaway? Boredom led to pent up creativity bursting to be released.

The second study about boredom was relayed by Rabbi Amy Bernstein. People were asked to sit alone in a waiting room. There was nothing to do in the room. No one was allowed a phone, a book, a pencil and paper. Nothing but one’s body and mind. For fifteen minutes they would have to be alone with their thoughts. There was one activity in the waiting room: a button that, when pushed, gave off an electric shock. You won’t be surprised, will you, when I share that many folks preferred the pain of electric shock to being with their thoughts for fifteen minutes?

When I told my kids about this study, before I could finish, my 10-year-old son offered he gladly spin in circles for 15 minutes.

Spinning

It came as no surprise to me that this kid had no problem with the idea of fifteen minutes to himself. He lives for it. Yes, he gets addicted to screens like the rest of us. But he is a soul who needs quiet moments, too, room to hear his own thoughts. That’s when the cool stuff happens: the wide-eyed realizations and the biggest questions.

Early one morning, we ride our bikes to school. “What does it all mean?” he asks, navigating the sprinklers and bumps in the sidewalk. “I mean, we are just specks in the universe, Mom!”

We roll along, him in front, leading, and me trying to keep up.

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It’s all Greek to me

No Torah Study for me today. After last week’s Jewish Journal article in which I gushed about Rabbi Bernstein’s Friday morning ancient-history-philosophy-religion-mythology-spirituality-and-parenting seminar, I felt sheepish to miss today. I had wanted to go, but at the last minute the second graders needed one more driver for their field trip. I hadn’t said yes the first time the call for drivers came out, because the idea of an 8-12 field trip seemed too much of a commitment. But I had a car, I could make the time, so I raised my hand and said I’d do it.

Thank goodness. I was headed to the Getty Villa with fifty second-graders. Talk about ancient-history-philosophy-religion-mythology-spirituality-and-parenting skills. Have you tried to corral rambunctious seven- and eight-year-old boys through a palace of priceless sculpture?

The morning was filled with many pleasures, however, not least of which was the drive. It was the first time I’d needed the third row of my Toyota RAV4. This is a big deal to me. I chose this car in anticipation of our move to Venice. Guessing that parents wouldn’t relish having to drive their kids from the old neighborhood to our new house, I bought a practical, 3rd row SUV so I could take everyone. This was instead getting a wildly impractical but super fun convertible, which would seat just us four! I repeat, I gave up a convertible in order to ferry many children. And this is the first time I have ferried. Bitter? Not at all.

Listening to the five boys in my car was another highlight. It wasn’t the topic (Lego Ninjago, which was pretty funny) as much as the passion they brought to it. And their jokes. And the screeching laughter. Their excitement was electric. All it took was being out of their normal, run-of-the-mill classroom environment, on an adventure. Leaving behind routine is implicitly awesome. That’s why I love travel.

Finally there was the Getty Villa itself. Our docent, Rick, carried a children’s book of Greek Mythology with him, which he read from to make the art come alive. He told them the story of Herakles slaying a lion, strangling it with his sheer strength, then brought them to the statue of Herakles holding a lion skin, a statue which inspired J. Paul Getty to build the whole museum.

Second graders reenact the lion slaying.

He sat the kids in front of an ancient stone mosaic floor with a Medusa in its center, and then he read the story of Perseus slaying Medusa. Now that stone mosaic meant something. The same with a sculpture of sirens. Yeah, these may have been cool to look at for a minute or two, what with their bird legs and feathers on the bottom, female bodies on top. But add to that the story of Orpheus sitting on a boat and playing his instrument (the original “guitar hero” in Rick’s words) in order to drown out the sound of their tempting, dangerous singing and thereby save the lives of the sailors, well, now the kids were hooked.

I loved hearing how much my son knew about the Greek myths. He raised his hand to answer all sorts of questions: “What power did Medusa have?” “What did a siren do?” “What is a sickle?” I give thanks to author Rick Riordan for writing the Percy Jackson books, and to whomever wrote and illustrated the Greek Mythology comic book Emmett has been reading in the school library. I give thanks for school libraries.

(This sounds like a good time to plug Proposition 30. And 38. Field trips. School libraries. Books in schools. Please vote for them. If you want to phone bank for them, call me up and we’ll go together.)

I give thanks for the opportunity to see him in his element, to get out of my own normal, Friday routine and experience some surprise, and to be reminded of the power of stories to capture imaginations. Which is, after all, what Torah is all about. Our stories — heros, villains, folly, morality. The human experience of the supernatural.

Okay, then. Chew on that. Class dismissed. Have a great weekend.