Ethics of the Mother

Linda 2014

Empty nester Linda Haase considers lessons learned and progress made in her lifetime, through a Jewish woman’s lens.

Ethics of the Mother

Wide awake

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Sometime during the Obama Administration, I stopped sleeping.

Perhaps it began during my daughter’s high school years, when I lay awake in bed on Saturday nights, waiting for the reassuring scrape of her key in the front door. There’s a chance it followed the 2:45 a.m. emergency call from my mom in 2013 when my dad had a stroke. Or maybe it’s a Pavlovian response to forgetting to shut off my iPhone one too many times, the muscle memory of incessant, round-the-clock buzzing as emails stack up like virtual cords of wood in my inbox.

Whatever the cause, nowadays the minute my head hits the pillow my senses go into overdrive. The rhythm of the ceiling fan ricochets in my ears. I think I smell something burning. My leg itches. I’m blinded by the tiny sliver of light peeking out from beneath the window shade.

And that’s nothing compared to my train of thought, which goes something like this:

Do I hear a radio? I wonder if it’s coming from next door. Sounds like Queen. I miss Freddie Mercury; I should send Jenna that Youtube video pitting him against Kanye West singing Bohemian Rhapsody. Wait. Is Bohemia called Czechoslovakia now? Damn. I should know that. Why did I never learn geography? It was always my Achilles Heel in Trivial Pursuit. Hey, we should play that the next time my family comes over. Or maybe Scattegories. I really should sort throughout all our board games in the coat closet. Crap—I need to pick up my coat from the dry cleaners. How many years has it been since our neighborhood dry cleaners closed? Time really flies. Time like an ever-rolling stream. Or is it ever-flowing stream? What is that from?   

I get up and pee.

I return to bed, determined to think loftier thoughts. But then, unfortunately, I do. 

I think about the election.   

And then the day’s headlines run like a ticker-tape through my mind. 

400 Syrian refugees drown in the Mediterranean.

Another child killed in a drive-by shooting in Bronzeville. 

ISIS burns women alive for refusing “sexual jihad.”  

San Bernadino, Charleston and Sandy Hook.

Taliban starves town into surrender. 

Former Speaker of the House convicted.  

Boko Haram forces 50,000 to flee their homes.

IDF uncovers new Hamas attack tunnel.

A shriek rends the night.  It is our elderly tabby, prowling the house and yowling like a drunken yodeler. The vet thinks she has dementia. Who knew that cats get Alzheimer’s? 

Alzheimer’s; ugh. Horrible disease.  And how scary is that Zika virus? 

The clock blinks at me: 12:39 a.m. 

I get up, do plantar-stretching exercises and lie back down. 

I close my eyes, practice my yoga breathing and will my mind to go blank. 

I awaken at 2:58 a.m in a miasma of dream fragments. 

And this is how it goes. Every night, instead of sleeping, I take a series of naps. 

In between, I contemplate whether it’s too late to prune my lilacs and if Jenna needs a meningitis booster vaccine, why it seems impossible to find dresses with sleeves or a live person to answer the phone at a doctor’s office, how to make a vegan version of my daughter’s favorite pasta and if Alice Hoffman’s newest book will be out before I go on vacation. 

I worry about my mom. And global warming. And honor killings. 

I rifle through my mental inbox, weighing themes for the next annual report and annual campaign, framing stock photo shoots and video concepts, outlining speeches and solicitation letters. Sometimes I get up and write little notes to myself, which in the morning light may be comprehensible, but rarely prove the brilliant insights I perceived them to be at 4 a.m. 

Then, sometimes, I pray. For an end to sickness and famine. For the eradication of war and hate. For peace.

And I sleep. 

KonMari and me

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The women around me sing the praises of this purification ritual. It is a spiritual experience, they insist. They promise I will feel renewed; reborn. I have misgivings about its sexist underpinnings, but decide to give it a try.

So I bought Marie Kondo’s book about the Japanese art of de-cluttering your home.

This ode to the “life-changing magic of tidying” your dwelling place contends that inertia and inefficiencies in our lives reflect our living quarters; that cluttered homes result in cluttered minds. 

At the core of the “KonMari Method” is examining every object you own and asking yourself if it “sparks joy” in your heart. If it does not, you thank the item for its service, or for the lesson it taught you, and then get rid of it. No exceptions.

I earnestly explained this idea to my husband, watching panic battle amusement on his face. When he thanked the empty yogurt container in his hand for its service while depositing it in the trash, I scowled. This wasn’t a joke, it was about the energy with which we filled our lives!

I opened the hall closet and pulled out the first thing I touched. “Does this spark joy?” I asked Joel.

“It’s a vacuum cleaner,” he said. 

I wavered.  Vacuuming might not spark joy, but needing to vacuum and not having a vacuum cleaner could spark one heck of an argument.  But Marie believed in keeping things because you love them, not “just because.” Joel asked me if she also believed in providing a renewable supply of cash to replace the appliances to which her clients did not have deep emotional ties. 

Switching focus, I told Joel that the KonMari Method could help us make more efficient use of space. I noted that she recommended folding clothes into neat rectangles and storing them vertically rather than stacking them. I should have quit while I was ahead, because that’s when I carelessly mentioned that she also believed in treating one’s socks and stockings with respect. 

Joel stared at me, biting his lip to keep from laughing. 

She says it’s disrespectful to ball up your socks because they cannot rest if they are always in a state of tension,” I mumbled in explanation.

Joel whooped, and poured us big glasses of wine.

I took a gulp and sighed.  I couldn’t get Joel to move his shoes from the doorway; what made me think he’d be up for turning his wardrobe into origami? I sniffed that perhaps it would be best if I tested the KonMari Method on my own possessions first. 

The KonMari disciple is urged to begin with her clothing, emptying all drawers and closets on to the floor and then selecting what to keep rather than what to discard. 

Marie Kondo must believe I have a great deal of floor space—not to mention agility, if she thinks I can get up and down that many times after having mulched the yard.  

Truthfully, it felt like more than I could handle, so I decided to begin with my books instead. This is no small feat for someone who has long held that putting up another bookcase doubles as both home improvement and interior decorating. But it seemed like a safer place to start, because I was sure I would experience positive emotions in handling my books. 

I anticipated delight as I remembered the first time I read a favorite novel, nostalgia as I paged through gifts from my dad, and pride as I reminisced about reaching the summit of that college class that showed me what I could accomplish if I was passionate about my work.  

But when I held some of the books with which I’d surrounded myself for years, I was shocked to identify emotions that I did not expect: guilt because I’d only skimmed the volumes about urban blight, shame since I had never read the turgid novels by authors I was supposed to like but really didn’t, and even resentment, realizing that certain books had been foisted upon me by relatives cleaning out their own bookshelves. 

I tossed hundreds of discards into boxes and bags, and I felt lighter.  

Hours later, I sat in my favorite reading chair and looked around the living room. The room seemed bigger, and I felt triumphant. Seeing some empty space on the once jam-packed bookcases made the mementos seem more prominent, too.

That’s when I realized, with a jolt, that I’d never liked some of them. There was a vase that had been a wedding gift, but never my taste; when I held it, I felt guilt rather than joy.  Fingering a trinket given to me by a childhood friend reminded me more of the end of our relationship than the friendship itself. Another bauble, given to me by a relative’s relative, made my face go hot with embarrassment as I remembered learning that it had not been bequeathed to me; the family had just decided it was easier to give it to me than bring it to the ARK. 

I boxed them all up and felt a surge of relief. There was something to this!

Once done purging the bookcases, I began looking at all of the objects around my home in a different light. I realized that I kept a plethora of items in an attempt to feel rooted, but that some of these possessions instead made me feel burdened. 

Truth be told, I haven’t used my childhood desk as anything more than a deficient filing cabinet in 40 years.  I never actually sit in my grandmother’s uncomfortable tapestry chair, which gathers dust in the corner of my bedroom.  I have never used the tiny silver chafing dish that my parents received as a wedding gift, and never will.

I imagined carting them away and creating some space for new memories. And why just stop with my own stuff?

Like any evangelist, I wanted to share my newfound wisdom, and sat Joel down to ask how he felt about his deceased father’s many possessions on display in our home. The cameras, the photos, the display case with tokens of his dad’s military service—how did they really make him feel, really, truly, in his heart of hearts?

“Good,” he said, slightly puzzled. 

And then it hit me: In her book, Marie Kondo barely mentions the family, beyond warning that it will cause great consternation if one’s parents witness a household purge. She never speaks about the items that represent your family’s history, however bittersweet, much less those that are a touchstone to one spouse and an albatross to the other.

Perhaps she was deliberately single. I googled her and found that Marie Kondo is not only married, but the mother of an infant. This is the woman who, to be true to her personal brand of asceticism, wears only white. I smirked unkindly, imagining her with spit-up running down her snow-white sleeve as she stepped on scattered legos.  And then I let the image go. 

Instead of picturing Marie, I imagined myself, with perfectly-folded clothes and minimalist furnishings, far removed from the boxes of baby clothes in my attic and the shelves of haggadahs in my pantry, divested of the ancient pull-out table in my dining room and the candlesticks in my cupboard, freed from the wine-stained tablecloths and the cache of Costco paper products in my basement. I pictured myself in a spotless living room, unburdened, in a home that is calm, minimalist and pristine. 

And I didn’t recognize myself. 

The truth is that Marie Kondo is right:  the home does reflect life. But life is messy, not tidy. Complicated.  Alternatingly heartbreaking and heartening. And it sure as hell does not always spark joy.  

I have heard it said that debating whether the glass is half-full or half-empty misses the point, which is that the glass is refillable. Just like our closets and our lives, which doubtless will once again overflow with treasures and trash, love and loss, no matter how many times I purge them.  

A healthy helping of millennial wisdom

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The sandwich I bought for lunch came in a compost-friendly cardboard box that proclaimed the product had no "sell by" date because it was "made TODAY!" It was from one of the many new carry-out restaurants promoting their offerings as "fresh," made with "natural ingredients," and as "good, honest" food. 

Since my Cobb Salad has never lied to me, and I'm not sure what an "unnatural" ingredient might be, I find this confusing. This is because I am not a millennial.

Apparently, the key to a millennial's heart is preservative-free.  Not to mention globally sourced, sustainable and—most important of all—convenient.  A 2015 survey reported that almost 40 percent of millennials eschew breakfast cereal because it is too inconvenient to clean up after eating it

The average Millennial is a bundle of contradictions who binge drinks but doesn’t smoke, and I must admit that some of their habits and preferences bewilder me. 

But beyond their preference for granola bars or smoothies over Wheaties, millennials are reshaping long-established patterns of consumer spending in today’s marketplace. They don’t buy TVs because they watch their Netflix shows on laptops. They view owning a car as a burden rather than a passage to freedom. They’d rather spend disposable income on travel and other experiences than material possessions, meaning that they defer home ownership while going on the dream vacations their parents saved for years to afford.

However, I’ve come to believe the most important thing about millennials is their relationship with the older generations. Millennials not only get along with their parents, they socialize with us.  On purpose.  This trend shows no signs of slowing down; according to one study, an incredible 85% of teens today name one of their parents as their best friend. 

Here’s the kicker: more than one-third of millennials of all ages say they influence what products their parents buy, what stores and restaurants they visit and what trips they take. This makes millennials vital, both in their own right and as liaisons to older generations. 

If you believe yourself impervious to millennial influences, ask yourself:  How often do you read the newspaper instead of catching up with the headlines online? How many times do you order from Amazon instead of going to the store?  When’s the last time you hailed a cab instead of ordering a ride on Uber? Do you ever catch yourself texting rather than picking up the phone?


At the rate they’re spreading their influence, it won’t be long until each of us could pass as a millennial—at least, in terms of our attitudes and buying patterns. 

Now if only they could teach us to program our VCRs.

It’s a family thing

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After a plane ride across nine time zones, it was a relief to finally check in to our Jaffa hotel. The woman at the front desk checked our passports while I daydreamed about Aroma coffee and Tel Aviv’s Gordon beach. Then she asked to see our visas. My husband handed his over while I stared at them both stupidly. I had no memory of being given this tiny slip of paper. Without it, we’d be charged hundreds of dollars in VAT and face heaven-knows what other challenges for the rest of our trip.

As I began to hyperventilate, the Israeli concierge held up her hand and stopped me. In a gentle but authoritative voice, she said: “Here is what you will do.  You will go to your room now and take some time to relax. Then you will find it, and you will bring it to me. And everything will be fine.”

She was, of course, right. On more than one occasion throughout our trip to Israel, I heard her voice in my head saying: “Here is what you will do…and everything will be fine.” It was almost like I suddenly had an older sister.

That is what I love most about Israel: the sense of having a much larger family who’s looking out for you. 

On Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, we met a Moroccan shopkeeper who immediately engaged us in conversation about politics. Which candidates did we support in the U.S. presidential election? What did we think of the current Israeli administration? Had we heard the conspiracy theories about who was really behind the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin? We spent half an hour debating, cheerfully telling one another that we were crazy, when an Orthodox couple entered the store and joined the conversation. Before we knew it, the six of us were arguing about the teachings of the Torah as compared to the Koran and the reason for the soaring prices of municipal real estate. It felt like we were sitting around a Thanksgiving table. 

When we left that shop, my husband, daughter and I each hugged the owner goodbye.

Another Israeli who won a place in our hearts was the store manager at The Photo House in Tel Aviv, owned by the family of Israeli photographer Rudi Weissenstein. Looking through Weissenstein’s photos was a virtual trip through the history of the modern State of Israel. The store manager shared the stories behind every shot, from the breathless crowd waiting for the declaration of independence in 1948 to head shots of an impossibly young Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. 

Then she took us to the front of the shop and showed us the faded upholstered bench upon which the first leaders of the modern Jewish State sat while their portraits were being taken. She insisted that we sit on the bench ourselves. No, she promised, we were not too heavy; and yes, it was appropriate. It was part of our shared history and belonged to us, too.

Like a Jewish grandma sending her family home with leftovers, she added a handful of buttons and postcards to the parcel of photographs we purchased. 

While in Israel, we also went to visit some actual relatives in Kiryat Gat. We had been on the commuter train for perhaps 20 minutes when it became clear that we had gotten on the wrong line. We asked a fellow passenger for help. This young Israeli businesswoman immediately got on the phone to check the schedule and enlisted another passenger to call a separate source. While on hold, she asked us about our trip. Was this our first time here? What had we seen so far?  What did we like best about Israel? Finally, she hung up the phone and said: “Come. Get off with me at Ashkelon. We can get you to a bus station or find a cab.”

Like a mom picking up her teen stranded after curfew, this woman walked us to the front of the station, spoke with a cab driver and negotiated a most reasonable price to drive us straight to our niece’s house.  She hugged us and wished us a good trip. My husband looked at her and said: “You asked us what is the best thing about Israel? It’s you. You are the best thing. The people here are wonderful.” 

When we are in Israel, I feel like we are part of a crazy, loud and loving extended family, a feeling of kinship and belonging like nowhere else in the world. That’s why I was delighted when Jenna decided to spend 10 months here on MASA, and excited to come visit her halfway through her program. But it also is one of the reasons it was hard to return to Chicago when our trip was over.   

On the flight home, Joel’s and my seats were not together, but the ticket agent said perhaps they could change our seat assignments at the gate. If not, I knew this might be the price we paid for traveling on a budget. The agent weighed our bags and asked about our trip. He checked our passports and asked how our daughter was enjoying her time in Tel Aviv. The agent was very pleasant, but did seem to be taking an awfully long time to check us in, and I was relieved when he finished. We thanked him, and got ready to dash to the gate to see what could be done about our seats.  I glanced at the boarding passes and stopped in my tracks. He’d put us together—in an exit row, no less. 

It was like another generous relative had slipped us a virtual $100 bill for the trip home.

The empathy double-standard

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On Nov.13, when Islamist terrorists murdered more than a hundred innocents in synchronized attacks across Paris, here is what did not happen:

Activists did not urge the American public to empathize with the plight of the terrorists and to consider the conditions that drove them to publicize their cause with such extreme measures.

U.S. leaders did not take to the airwaves, urging the French government to exercise restraint.  

Pundits did not call for France to be divided into two states, Christian and Islamist, living side-by-side, with Paris as their shared capital.

College students across the U.S. did not demand that their universities boycott, divest from and sanction French products, companies and business interests.

Protestors did not assemble in the streets of Chicago brandishing the ISIS flag and demanding justice for the Caliphate.

Editorials did not question whether the French forces used excessive force in containing the terrorists, and Facebook and Twitter feeds did not erupt with messages of sympathy for the terrorists.

The UN did not condemn France.

Instead, the people of France received messages of solidarity from across the free world -- as they should. World leaders pledged their support to the French government, and international landmarks were illuminated in the colors of the French flag. News editorials across the globe expressed the shared horror of freedom-loving people everywhere. Citizens took to the streets to hold candlelight memorial vigils, and turned to social media to express their grief. Facebook’s news feed overflowed with new profile photos featuring the Eiffel Tower or French flag.

My heart aches for the families of the Parisian victims -- and for the victims of terror everywhere, whatever their faith. But right now, 14 Israeli families are still observing shloshim for loved ones recently cut down by terrorists, and more than 160 of Israelis are still recovering from damage done by terrorist knives, cars and bullets. Any international condolences they received have been conditional, diminished by simultaneous concern expressed for the cause of the terrorists who attacked them. 

So what is the difference between France and Israel? What is the distinction between ISIS and Hamas? Why does the average American empathize with the people of France but not the people of Israel? Or, for that matter, the people of Beirut, where terrorist bombings claimed 43 lives the day before the Paris attacks? Or the people of Kenya, where a catastrophic terrorist university bombing last spring claimed 147 lives?

While there was no global outpouring of support for Beirut or Kenya, at least there wasn’t a flood of apologist support for the perpetrators -- which is precisely what Israel continually faces on the world stage.   

Like the French, Israelis also deserve an outpouring of support from the Western world, unmitigated by tacit support for the perpetrators. 

And all peoples deserve peace.

Nothing gold can stay

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I climbed into the ambulance behind the stretcher and thought: Oh, God; today is the day I am going to become a widow.

My husband had collapsed at work. His consciousness and cognition were scrambled. He didn’t know where he was and could not identify the year. His colleagues were white-faced and the paramedics looked grim.

I should have taken him to Italy instead of saving for retirement, I thought. And why did I have to yell at him all the time for leaving his shoes in the hallway?

I stroked his face, looked into his eyes and lied. I told him everything would be okay.

But then, a mere few hours later, it was. His cognition returned. The ominous medical tests came back negative. The physicians cheerfully returned a rare diagnosis of global transient amnesia. A brain fart, if you will. Duration: two to 24 hours. Cause: unknown. Chance of recurrence: virtually none.  Lasting effects: nil.

Except an acute lesson for me, leading into the High Holidays, of both how frail and how resilient human beings are, and how fleeting and precious are our lives. 

I have responded with equal measures of gratitude and panic.

In the week since Joel returned home, I have not been myself. I jump every time the phone rings. I have forgotten my keys, a hair appointment, where I parked my car. And I count the days to Rosh HaShanah with equal measures of awe and trembling. I am so keenly aware, now, of all that I have to lose.

Nothing gold can stay, the poet promised, and his words haunt me this year. The self-help books have it all wrong. A midlife crisis isn’t about facing our own mortality. It’s about facing the mortality of the ones we love the most.

Perhaps this is why people set new goals for themselves, embarking on new challenges and adventures. You reinvent your world as well as yourself when you earn another degree, learn a foreign language or master a new skill. It’s a way for us to force ourselves to move forward instead of clinging to every sign post—and loved one—in our path.

This is agonizing for me, because I am both a sentimental fool and a creature of habit. My husband and I have lived in the same house for 25 years and shopped at the same local businesses. I have shoes older than my adult daughter. I still have friends from grade school.  

But over the years, my neighborhood dry cleaners, grocery store and favorite local restaurants have folded, one by one. Shoe styles have changed.  Many of my friends have moved. 

So today I am forging different shopping routines, buying new shoes, making new friends—and learning to kayak. 

I am trying to head into the new year with a heart that is open and new, too. 

And I’ve started planning to take my husband on that trip to Italy.  

I can quit anytime I want

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I can’t imagine my life today without the conveniences of the modern age, innovations I take for granted in my daily routine:  Electricity, which runs my home; computers, which run my professional work; and Amazon, which runs the rest of my life.

My daughter says the first step towards recovery is acknowledging that you have a problem. I remain in denial. 

Throughout my adult life, I have adapted to a mind-bending stream of advances and inventions. I embraced fax machines and voice mail. I adjusted to computers and double-clicking, accepted email and the internet, welcomed social media and texting. But one day the speed and scope of information I had to quickly absorb and the hydra-headed to-do lists I had to juggle reached a breaking point.

Then I discovered Amazon, and I felt like businessman in a 1950s sitcom with the best wife in the world.  

Scene 1: I am finishing at the dentist’s office when the hygienist suggests I try using an electric toothbrush. It’s nearly 8 p.m., I haven’t had dinner, and need to pack for a business trip when I get home. “It’s just something to think about,” is the last thing I hear her say as I whip out my iPad and purchase the model she recommends with one click. It will beat me home from my trip, and I won’t have to think about it at all. Because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that I can’t remember one more thing right now.

Scene 2: I have spent an entire Sunday shopping for a dress to my cousin’s wedding. I have earrings and a bag to match, but have struck out on shoes. En route to the grocery store, I consider the week ahead and realize I have work obligations every night. In the produce department, I stop, click on Amazon and order shoes so I can spend the evening with my husband instead of at the mall. I smile and pick up wine to go with dinner. 

Scene 3:  It is lunchtime, and I take a break from my desk and duck in to drugstore to buy a couple of cosmetics. Turns out this location does not carry the solution I need for hard contacts and they are out of the nail polish that I want. A reminder sounds from the smartphone in my purse; I retrieve it and see that I have a meeting back at the office in 15 minutes.  I turn from my calendar to Amazon; it takes me approximately 90 seconds to order the two elusive products.  I can breathe again. 

Scene 4: the bathtub overflows. After mopping up the mess, we discover that the bathroom rug’s rubber backing is disintegrating in the washing machine. My husband pulls handfuls of rubber confetti from the washer and asks me if I want him to go out and look for a new rug. Already online, I smile and tell him that won’t be necessary. Click. The new rug will be Amazoned here in two days.  

I do remember the time before cash stations, when you had to go to the grocery store or bank to cash a check. I remember faithfully spending one night per month at my desk paying bills, painstakingly affixing stamps to each envelope. And I remember window-shopping at the mall with my best friend most every weekend. What I cannot remember is how I ever found the time to do any of this.

Once, I enjoyed my weekly run to the grocery store—but that was back in the days when you could shop at one grocery store for all your food and toiletries. Then the neighborhood store closed, and life has never been the same. Nowadays, it’s not unusual for me to hit one store for produce, one for packaged goods, another for earthy-crunchy goodies like cashew butter, and yet another for toiletries. 

At least my Amazon account greets me by name. 

That’s not the only way life has gotten more complicated. An ever-expanding menu of choices, from TV channels to take-out menus, means no down-time from decision-making.  And automation and technology have created their own roster of demands on our time.  (Remember the evening you didn’t check Facebook, and missed learning that your friend’s husband was in the hospital?)  With the instantaneous availability of information comes the companion need for rapid-fire response—whether it’s a request from the office or your mother-in-law. 

Last night, when I laid my head on my pillow, a ticker-tape of the week’s pending chores scrolled across my mind. Get a shingles vaccine. Order that new book for Fathers Day. Buy more calcium tablets. Send that wedding gift. Pick up sunscreen.

I can get the shingles vaccine at lunch tomorrow. As for the rest of it? Amazon to the rescue. 

Click, click, click, click. 

And I sleep. 


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