Last year, we held Josie’s birthday party in our sukkah. As a kid, I had loved making construction-paper chains to drape gaily around the s’chach. So at my behest, Jonathan bought a forest-stripping ton of construction paper at Costco and I painstakingly cut it into strips and stocked up on glue sticks at the dollar store. As the kids tentatively filed into the sukkah, I chirped at them like a demonically peppy camp counselor: Hey! Grab some paper! Make some linked circles! Fun! Whee! They all looked at me the way Tom Cruise looks at an anti-depressant.
Oh, they were happy to draw pictures, to scribble on fallen leaves with colored chalk, to string Froot Loops on lanyards, to stuff birthday cake into their gaping maws and run around screeching like chimps on a poo-flinging bender. All the kids had a terrific time. But they ignored my big exciting childhood-revisiting project, the one I was so jazzed about.
Welcome to the first lesson of parenting, one I’ve had to revisit over and over: Things rarely go the way you expect. And if you get too rigid about the way things have to be (You will love the construction-paper rings, you ungrateful little rat bastards! You will be who I was!), you fail to appreciate what actually is.
Sukkot, which begins the evening of October 6, is all about this lesson. The sukkah, the temporary booth we build to remind ourselves of our collective past, is a model of impermanence. It’s meant to recall the structures that our ancestors lived in during the years of wandering in the desert before entering the Promised Land, and it’s meant to stand in for the squats they built at the edges of the fields during harvest time. The sukkah is exciting to build and fun to decorate (though apparently not with paper chains), and it’s silly and delicious to have dinner outside when there’s that little nip of autumn in the air. But sometimes it is not so much fun, such as when the little nip becomes a giant Cookie-Monster-esque bite. Or when it rains. Or when you can’t get s’chach and your husband scrapes his knuckles bloody while pulling from the basement the PVC pipe skeleton out of which the sukkah is constructed and he growls that he’s sick of having to do everything himself and you hear yourself responding in the elaborately fake patient voice. Just as the ancient wandering Israelites couldn’t predict where they’d be from year to year, just as those early reapers couldn’t know when they sowed or whether the harvest would be abundant or meager, we can’t predict how a given moment of our lives will go. Sometimes better than we ever could have hoped; sometimes, well, not so much.
We have to learn to live with the not-knowing. And we have to say thanks for what we’ve got, not bemoan endlessly what we wish we had. As Josie now says when she gets a crappy hand in Uno, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” Of course, we sometimes can’t help getting upset. (Wait, we have to wander for 40 years before we go in? Wait, I led the people out of Egypt and went up the mountain and got the Commandments and yelled at those schmucks about the calf thing and I don’t get to go in at all? Wait, you hit your sister again despite my superlative parenting?) But that doesn’t give us license to have immature tantrums and act like tools.
Speaking of acting like a tool, our biblical friend Jonah embodies how not to embrace the not-knowing and how to build a sukkah. Jonah builds the sukkah after delivering God’s fire-and-brimstone warning to the people of Nineveh, who promptly repent and earn God’s forgiveness — which annoys the crap out of Jonah, who thinks he now looks like a moron. So he goes to the edge of the city and builds a booth to sulk in. Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz wrote a drash a few years ago about it, in which he noted: “Although a sukkah is typically associated with peace, shelter and God’s beneficence, Jonah turns the true image of the sukkah on its head…. Dissatisfied and even angry with the mercy God has shown to the Ninevites, Jonah waits patiently in an attempt to prove he is right — that his pessimism will prevail and God will destroy the Ninevites. Jonah’s behavior is unbefitting an Israelite prophet. One who should be rejoicing in God’s mercy becomes embittered.” Ugh. Don’t be that guy. We read this story on Yom Kippur, and we’re encouraged to build a sukkah right after Yom Kippur, right after hearing about this leader exhibiting total sullen-teen behavior. The takeaway: “The sukkah that we build is one that negates Jonah’s pessimism in human nature,” Berkowitz writes. “It is a sukkah that stands for peace, faith, shelter and ultimately in the eternal Jewish optimism of human behavior.” Our liturgy shares this image, with the phrase in the Sabbath-evening service: “Praised are You, Lord, who spreads a shelter (sukkah) of peace over us.” Our sukkah should reflect the one provided by the ultimate Parent. It should be, as Berkowitz puts it, “an expression of hope in our future.”
Indeed. Parenting is all about hope in the future despite our frequent frustration with what’s going on today, the unknowability of what’s happening tomorrow, the impossibility of predicting just what we’re gonna harvest. Parenting is like what we used to say about the weather in Rhode Island: “Don’t like it? Wait a minute; it’ll change.” (Of course, that’s also true if you do like it. Hey, look! Hailstones the size of candlepin bowling balls!) Three months ago I was all serenely self-satisfied about how great bedtime was going. Max went down like a silk duvet. Josie had gotten into chapter books, providing endless shehechiyanu moments (sharing your favorite childhood classics, like “The Velveteen Rabbit,” with your kid has gotta be up there with winning the World Series). Jonathan and I ate dinner together at a reasonable hour. And then Max started waking up and shaking her wild thing when we put Josie down, bouncing with glee in her crib and hollering, “Tee-ta! Tee-ta! Tee-ta!” (No, we don’t know what it means either.) She’d get Josie giggling like a maniac, and bedtime would take an hour and a half. We solved that problem by keeping Max up a bit later and putting the girls down together. Then a few weeks later, just before starting kindergarten, Josie experienced a return of the nighttime fears she’d struggled with a year earlier. Suddenly she was shooting out of bed screaming multiple times a night, attributing her fears variously to ghosts, spiders, monsters and/or the dark. Her nocturnal shenanigans are a habit we’ve yet to break. We haven’t been this tired since Max was a newborn. I despair. Yet I have been promised that few college students demand that their parents get into bed with them.
My point is that parents have to live with uncertainty, change, ambivalence. Sometimes everything seems to be going great and then something wallops us out of the blue. Sometimes we anticipate the worst and it doesn’t come. For instance, nursing Josie was a challenge. She couldn’t latch; I had to pump milk and feed her though tiny tubes and cups; I spent hundreds of dollars on lactation consultants; I battled plugged ducts and mastitis repeatedly until she was 5 months old. I steeled myself when Maxine was born…and had no nursing trouble whatsoever. You never know.
In his moving new book, “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” (Hyperion), Rabbi Irwin Kula writes beautifully about letting go of our control-freak tendencies and knee-jerk judgmentalness. He calls the midbar, the Hebrew name for the wilderness our people wandered and built sukkot in, an “in-between space, a wild unpredictable place where we can encounter parts of us that we don’t yet know or haven’t allowed to emerge.” Midbar, he writes, is our inner landscape. Roaming around in there, examining our true feelings and defenses, is an opportunity for growth. And I’d argue that being a good parent means accepting the necessity of entering that sometimes-scary place. Kula points out that the word midbar literally means “word place.” And the words we use, the stories we tell — about ourselves as a people, why we choose to squat in a temporary booth, why our children aren’t perfect and why we aren’t perfect — can be scary and compelling and beautiful.
Write to Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org.