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Book Review – Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning

This is a book that is near and dear to my heart after reading it. I learned the power of lifelong learning first from my parents. My father was always learning something about history, one of his favorite subjects or else meticulously reading through a manual for a piece of farm equipment, carefully scrutinizing detailed mechanical drawings of how pieces of the machinery went together. On road trips, he would stop at nearly every historical marker and loved museums of all kinds as well as learning how farmers in different regions grew their crops and handled their climates. My mother would immerse herself fully in a new hobby, whether it was sandblasting glass, crocheting blankets, studying geneology, or becoming a master gardener. Her curiosity led her in new directions and she happily followed it, practicing new things until they no longer intrigued her, then finding something else that attracted her attention.

These were great role models for lifelong learning and curiosity growing up. In this book, the author dives deeper into the experience of being a beginner, again and again, and why this is so important as we age.

There is something both scary and exciting about being a beginner. Often, when I’m new to something, I’m afraid of making a fool out of myself. It’s hard to be the person in a class or doing an activity in front of others and to be in that awkward stage of a beginner. It feels vulnerable and brings back memories of trying to master a new skill as a child and being teased by those who were further along or to whom it just came more naturally. There’s always that fear that I’ll never get to a point of feeling confident, never reach the point of proficiency.

Yet there’s also an exhilaration in learning something new. There’s a freedom in being a beginner…you’re not expected to get things “right” and so you can experiment. It’s a fresh new start, full of as many possibilities as a blank notebook, waiting to be written in. There’s also a thrill when something you’ve been working hard at comes together and you achieve some milestone. Being a beginner also forces us to leave our comfort zones, to look at the world in a new way.

In my own life, I’ve been a beginner over and over and right now I’m also a beginner. In my yoga teacher training, I’m pushed to try all kinds of new things I never thought I’d try. In some, I’m surprised at how difficult they are. For one, keeping my right and left straight when my students may be mirroring me is a particular challenge right now. It feels so awkward to tell someone to “put their right foot forward” even as I’m actually putting my left foot forward so that they can see what they need to do. In other things, I find myself unable to do much more than laugh at my own awkwardness as my balance fails spectacularly and instead of gliding gracefully in a pose I topple over in a tangle of limbs. In some things, I actually find it’s easier than I thought it would be.

Having to do so many new things challenges my body, but also my mind. My brain has to make new connections and function in ways it isn’t used to. In this book, the author explores what that does to our brains and how it can help us avoid age related cognitive issues. He also brings us along on his adventures as he tries new hobbies.

I’ve always believed that growing old may be mandatory, but growing up is entirely optional and that holding on to some childlike qualities is a good thing. In this book, I found new inspiration to hang on to curiosity and wonder and to continue to find new things to explore no matter what my age. It’s also a good, immersive read that mixes fascinating science with the author’s experiences in a way that avoids being dry or overly academic.

We could all use something new to inspire our curiosity these days and help us recapture a sense of wonder about the world we live in.


A New Year a New Challenge

I’ve been quiet lately, a bit overwhelmed by a few things in my life. One has been my son being away at a residential program for kids with Autism and other issues. I’ve been missing him and his program has also required us to do a lot of work, too, so we can be ready for him when he completes it. I’ve also been really busy with a very challenging workout program, and then, to top it all off…my 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training began this week!

Last fall, I decided I wanted to get certified to teach yoga. I’ve done it for many years and I use it to treat aches and pains and to stretch out after hard workouts and I’ve really gotten a lot of benefit from it. I did research and found a program that sounded like a good fit, but the training didn’t start until January 2021. I figured that would help me get into better shape to prepare for it, so I signed up. The program is virtual, so I wouldn’t have to take off time from work or travel.

I chose a program that is more a modern, fitness-based yoga program. There is little discussion of any Hindu philosophy, no sanscrit, no chanting or spirituality mixed in. (No offense if that’s your thing, it just wasn’t what I was looking for.) There is a big emphasis on anatomy and physiology and the science behind different poses and how they work to strengthen or create greater flexibility or mobility and how best to teach them safely and clearly to a western audience. The style of yoga is power vinyasa, which is pretty physically demanding, but I’m also learning some yin yoga and encouraged to try other styles as well as part of my practice hours.

It’s a lot of hours of yoga, repeating poses, breaking them down, teaching them, getting feedback on my teaching, and then doing it all again. I think I spent a good part of my week in a half-pushup and my shoulders are not so pleased about it. When I think about being able to help friends and family feel more comfortable in their bodies or maybe getting to teach others and help them find relief from some of their stress or aches or pains…it feels worth it.

So, for the next two months, in addition to my daily workouts, I’m doing hours of yoga. Some days, I spend up to four hours in it, along with hours spent studying anatomy books, reading up on myofascial release, practicing using certain terms or words to describe movement, and becoming stronger and more flexible. It’s definitely a challenge!

I look forward to returning to running after my training, as the weather also warms up, but for now, I’m focused on this goal while still lifting my weights and doing my cardio in the mornings.

When You’re Stuck…Dig In

I hate being on hold. This year, I’ve had to navigate some pretty intense bureaucracy, the kind where you get stuck in an automated phone tree thing, where the automated voice keeps getting your words wrong, then you get transferred to one person, put on hold, transferred to another, explain your entire issue again, then just get transferred back to the person you spoke to before, then put on hold again…

You know the feeling.

This year in particular, I’ve had this feeling of life being “on hold.” We’re all waiting for the pandemic to pass, for things to return to something like normal. In my family, we’ve been waiting on my husband to heal from his first cancer surgery so that we can schedule his ostomy reversal. We’ve been waiting on our son to get through a really rough phase and come home from a residential program. We’ve been waiting to get some home projects finished. Our daughter has been waiting to be able to get back to in person school. We’ve all been waiting to be able to see friends again, hug family members.

Waiting…on hold…on pause…feeling like we aren’t making progress.

Less serious, I was in a weight loss plateau for months. I lost 20lbs from July to September and then…just stalled. My nutrition wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t awful either and I was still working out, but it seemed like no matter what I did I was losing and gaining the same 5lbs over and over again. Sure, I had TONS of non-scale victories. I was getting stronger. I could feel more muscle. Clothes fit a little differently. But still…there was something draining about stepping on that scale over and over again and just seeing that number…not budging.

Again…more of that feeling that life was just on hold, like there was something good waiting, but I had no idea when or if it might come.

In times like these, and I’ve faced many in my life, my first knee-jerk reaction is to go all Type A about it. What can I change? What can I push harder? What can I switch up? Then, I remembered a big lesson I learned a few years ago when I was learning Hebrew. I still can’t speak Hebrew or carry on a conversation, but at that time my struggle was just to be able to read it so that I could follow along at my Synagogue, where they went VERY fast. Week after week, I stumbled over words, sounding them out much like a small child first learning to read. It was slow, painful, and humbling and I felt like I was NEVER going to be able to read. Hebrew, if you’re not familiar, is a tough language. It’s read the opposite direction of English. The letters are completely different, and, when it comes to modern Hebrew, they even drop all the vowels!

Just like our 7 year conversion journey, this seemed like it was just never going to happen for me, but I just kept going, doing the same thing and, one day, something in my head finally just clicked, as if there was a connection that had just been stubborn and difficult to connect, but once it did…BOOM! I could read and I could keep up. I’m still not perfect and I still keep improving, but I made what seemed like a quantum leap forward after months of just plodding along, seeing no progress.

Life is often like that, at least for me. I’ll be working steadily towards a goal and just not seem to be seeing any reward or progress for a long while. There were the days when I was in college, feeling like the semester stretched on so long, with endless all nighters in studio and project after project and then, suddenly, graduation was right there. There were those LONG nights with little ones, where my kids seemed never to sleep so I didn’t either or the time spend trying to potty train them that seemed like we’d never make it and then, suddenly, we were past those stages and it seemed like we fast forwarded to high school. There was my conversion, where I spent so many years working so hard and then, it was a rush of just a few weeks to get everything ready for the mikvah.

I think as a overly logical person, I tend to want to view progress in life as a nice, straight line. I like to visualize a graph with just a single line starting low at the axis and heading gradually up. Instead, it’s usually more like a bunch of stair steps, with long periods of plateaus where it seems like nothing is happening and then a sudden jump upwards, followed by more stagnation. And boy is it easy to get down or give up during those plateaus, those times of being stuck or on hold, just waiting.

And 2020 has felt like one very long plateau and time just waiting.

Last week I hopped on the scale, not expecting a budge. We just got past Chanukah and I’ll admit, I indulged some. It didn’t seem like it would matter all that much and I kept it in moderation. If the scale wasn’t going to move, why not? This time, however, it had moved by several pounds and I am now down by 33 pounds from where I began this summer! I realized that I made it through the plateau by not giving up and not suddenly changing my plans, but by sticking with things and just trusting that eventually I’d see some progress…and I did.

Which brings me back to the bigger picture for 2020 as a whole.

When I’m stuck in those periods of just waiting, it’s important to remind myself that although I may not see this as progress, progress may still be happening. I never know when staying faithful to my routines or doing what I know I should be doing is suddenly going to lead to a huge jump forward…and that’s just as true with everything else that feels like it’s on hold. Sometimes, I just have to dig a little deeper and keep going across that lonely plateau a little bit longer and then I’ll see the reward.

My husband had a scan last week and his first surgery is finally healed AND he has no further evidence of any cancer. Our daughter will finish her semester next week and get a break. Our son is doing well in his program and progressing. The first vaccines for Covid are rolling out. Even though I’m still waiting, there are signs that it’s starting to pay off.

Eventually, I got through to the people I needed to reach on all those phone calls and issues got resolved. Eventually, I was able to read Hebrew well enough to keep up. Eventually, I broke through my weight loss plateau. I also know eventually, I’ll be hugging friends and family again and celebrating my kids’ graduations.

And eventually, whatever part of your life that seems stuck right now will come unstuck. Until then, just keep on keeping on and trust that the progress is happening.

Why I’m Proud of a 161st Finish for my Thanksgiving 5k

I ran my first race back running on Thanksgiving. When I say “ran,” well…it wasn’t exactly my best race, but there was running and I did the distance and I’m still very proud of it.

This year hasn’t been a normal year in any way and this race was a virtual 5k due to Covid. I ran it with my daughter and our two dogs. Originally, my son was also supposed to run with us, but he’s in the hospital right now. It was hard training for this race with him in and out of the hospital and my daughter away at her high school dorm during most of the training time. I didn’t do many real training runs, instead concentrating on lifting weights and doing indoor cardio. Many days, I was doing good just to do…something. There were so many sleepless nights where when my alarm went off at 5am I wanted to just roll back over, so I felt like getting up for any workout at that time was a huge victory. There were several weeks where those sleepless nights were on a cold cot in my son’s room, only half-sleeping as I listened to the sound of him sleeping.

And yet…and yet…I still laced up my shoes on Thanksgiving as planned.

I didn’t have to. I’d already donated our entrance fees to the charity the race benefitted, so they gained nothing from me running. My daughter wasn’t thrilled at first about the idea of going out and running before turkey time. It was cold and windy and gray. I’d already done a weight workout earlier that morning, so I had the perfect excuse to skip it.

But…I’d promised myself I would do this race and that it would be my first 5k back to running.

Still, we bundled up and headed out and hit the sidewalks. It was a difficult run. My shins, feet, and ankles had lost their resiliency that I’d picked up when we all first started training. My daughter struggled to keep up and I chose to drop my pace to match hers…I didn’t want this to ruin Thanksgiving…we already had a table with an empty chair to come home to. We slowly but surely made our way across streets, the dogs always a lot more enthusiastic to go faster.

But we didn’t stop. We didn’t give up or give in and we didn’t stand still until we’d done 3.1 miles and then we walked home, a little more cheerful than when we set out.

And I looked at my daughter and our dogs and I thought about how often in life I have every reason to give up or give in, every reasonable excuse right there…and I have a choice to make. Whether it’s at work fighting my way through a complicated task I’ve never done before, at home, finding the will to put up my Chanukah decorations in a year that feels anything but bright, or with my loved ones, always looking for hope that better health is just a turn in the road away…there is always the choice to keep pressing on or to give in to the temptation to be satisfied with something less than my all.

There is a feeling that I have when I know I’ve given all that I had, whether it’s at the end of a project full of long nights and complex solutions or a workout where my muscles have reached the point that they plain out no longer work…or when I’ve set aside my own fears and feelings to embrace someone I love and put their needs first. That feeling is one that fills me completely and is better than anyone’s praise or admiration. Only I know when I’ve held nothing back and given my all. Only I know when there’s nothing left behind. That feeling is clean and honest and deeply satisfying and I wipe my brow and rest without any tossing or turning.

Even if no one else notices, like a race run without a cheering crowd or finish line, just a tracking watch and us and the wind, I know. The One who made me knows. Somehow, it’s almost more special when it is just between me and Him, like it has more power in the fact that there is no human praise I worked for, just that knowing that I did my best. A secret gift sometimes is more special.

I’m sharing this because this year, each of us is running a race like this in our own unique ways. Each of us is alone without a crowd cheering us on and life is throwing us so many reasons to give less than our all…good reasonable reasons that no one would fault us for. And yet…I know so many other people who are also still moving forward, even if they feel like they’re crawling. I see so many other people in my life who can’t see the finish line yet for the things that they’re struggling with, but they’re not giving up.

And I believe that there is a reward for all of this, even if it is just that feeling that we may get when we know we gave our best and held nothing back.

So yeah…I’m still proud of finishing 161st in my age group…because I finished and sometimes that in itself is a HUGE accomplishment.

And I see so many others out there, still working to finish what they’ve started and I’m virtually cheering you on.

A New Perspective for “This Too Shall Pass”

I’ve always leaned on certain phrases whenever I’ve gone through challenging times. One of my favorites was “This Too Shall Pass,” which is attributed to King Solomon. I always took it to mean that no matter how the present moment is, it won’t last.

This phrase would come to mind when I was doing a tough workout, muscles shaking…this too shall pass. It has come to mind when I’ve been at work and struggling with a complicated issue or organization change. This too shall pass. It’s definitely come to my mind a lot this year, whether it’s things in my personal life or the things we’re all struggling with.

This too shall pass.

Recently, I began to view this phrase in a different perspective. It started when I was looking at pictures of my kids when they were little and I found myself getting a little sad. I miss having little ones and my husband and I always hoped that one day we might have another child together, but it was not meant to be. Then, another day, I found myself watching a video of Alaska and feeling SO homesick for life up there and I began to think about that phrase in a whole new way.

This too shall pass also applies to clinging to the good things in our lives or the way things were before a big change.

Everything, no matter how difficult or joyful…is temporary and I often cause myself almost as much unnecessary pain dwelling on good things that have passed as I do feeling like something difficult will never end. It’s important to enjoy the present moment when those wonderful times do come and it’s also worthwhile to enjoy looking back on happy memories, but it becomes counter-productive to dwell on what has passed in a way that makes me miss what’s good about the present time.

It’s also easy to fall into the trap of thinking the past was some kind of pristine, perfect place and that change is always something that somehow worsens what was. Often this looks like trying desperately to return things to the way they used to be or expecting that we can recreate what was. The fact is that everything is always changing and that we often forget that the past wasn’t quite as ideal as we might remember. Change is natural and being stuck on a past time can get in the way of us adapting and finding joy in the present.

This too shall pass is becoming for me something deeper than it was before, a phrase that asks me to not cling to things, but simply experience them, whether that’s emotions or moments. It asks me to do what I can, but flow with what I can’t change or hold onto and just trust that where things in my life are being guided to is all for the good.

Special Needs Parents…I See You

I see you, crying in your shower because that’s the most time you have somewhere private and I see you wipe your face and turn to face another day. I see you exhausted from another night of little sleep, either from worry or getting up to take care of your child. I see you staring at your calendar full of appointments, unsure how you’re going to catch your breath, eat, or pee. I see you fighting every day, on the phone with insurance companies, providers, and systems, trying to claw your way through red tape to get the help your child needs. I see you answering the same questions, over and over, trying to keep a polite smile. I see you filling out endless forms, again and again.

I see you when you’re frustrated and feel like giving up. I see you lie awake at night, trying not to follow all the paths of “what if,” all the dark possibilities that could like ahead for your child and I see you choosing instead to focus on any tiny bit of positive. I see you when there seems to be nothing positive to be found and you fall back on dark humor or chocolate. Then I see you jump into your diets and workouts and self care, struggling to keep it up in the chaos. I see you doubt yourself, questioning every decision. I see you throw away the things broken or ruined, reminding yourself that things are less important than the child you love. I also see that it still hurts.

I see you as you hide the bite marks or wipe off the spit from your child or hide bruises he or she gave you. I see you gather your dignity and protect your child even from themselves. I see you hold them tightly even as they rage and I see you avoid the stares of strangers who judge you. I see you leaving the store, trying to keep your head high and hold back the tears and I see you break down in the car. I see you try not to lose your temper with the teacher who won’t follow a plan or the adult who suggests you discipline the disabilities out of your child. I see your web searches, always looking for a new service, a new treatment, a new hope. I see you try different schools, different therapists, different doctors, a different diagnosis…all just searching for anything that will help your family.

I see you hold back when someone asks you the simple question, “How are you doing?” I see all the answers you could give when instead you smile and say, “Good!” I see you feeling alone even among friends or staying home because you just can’t get a sitter who can manage your child. I see your isolation and loneliness as you watch years tick by. I see the mask you put on to feel strong enough to face the world, the one you wear because you fear you’ll break down if you let even a little of your reality slip through. I see your shreds of pride you tightly hold onto because without them you feel naked and vulnerable.

I see you let go of dreams for your child, adjusting your expectations over and over and celebrating every small shred of success, victory, or forward growth. I see your happiness wane as you watch your child’s peers attain milestones or achievements you know your child can’t reach. I see your frustration as you keep having to do things that other parents have been able to move on from years ago, as if your life and your child’s are stuck on hold while the story moves on for others.

I see your guilt and how hard you are on yourself for being human, for the times you lost your temper or the times you were so exhausted you fell asleep when you should have been watching closer. I see your shame at not being able to do more when you’ve been given a task too big for anyone. I see you medicate your pain with food, scrolling on social media, movies, or just zoning out.

I see the good days where you wonder if things are getting better and I see the bad ones where you wonder if they ever will.

I see you trying to make an impossible balance and I see your guilt that it never quite adds up. I see your anguish at having to stay at work when you think you’re needed at home, school, or one of the many appointments. I see your fear of being fired when you ask for yet another day or hour off, hoping this isn’t the one that puts your boss over the edge. I see your worry for providing for your child even as you wear yourself so thin.

I see the stress of all this on your relationships. The friendships you just couldn’t keep up with or the friends you lost from always having to break plans. I see the family that drifted away from you because they couldn’t handle your child or disagreed with your parenting. I see the spouse you barely have time to hug and who you struggle to keep in the loop.

I see you crumble, falling apart to pieces, and I see you rebuilding yourself, again and again. I see you every time you think you have nothing left, that you can’t give any more, that you have reached your limit, finding some hidden reserve of strength to go just a little further. I see the days when that reserve is exhausted and you just focus on survival.

I see the fierce love you have for your child swirling in a mix of disappointment, frustration, and rage at a system that offers so little help and support for families like yours. I see you fight the world for your child and I see you fight against your child when they can’t see what is good for them and you have to keep them from harm.

Yes, I see all of this, but I hope, in all of this that you see that you’re never alone and that as you cry in your shower, countless parents cry in their own. As you fight your battles for your child, other parents are pulling on their suits of armor and super capes, too, and fighting similar fights. As you run on empty and fall apart, so many others are also. As you feel so alone, so misunderstood, and so forgotten in all of this…you are not alone and you are understood and remembered by every other parent who is also raising a child with special needs.

Please…reach out to others. You don’t have to do this all alone and even just having coffee with someone who doesn’t judge you for your child’s differences or what you must do to accommodate them, who can just sit in that place with you can make all the difference between finding enough energy to keep on going and falling to the ground. Someone who you can talk to without having to tell you how “strong” or “amazing” you are. It’s not that you aren’t all those things and more…it’s just that sometimes you’d rather not be those things and instead have a more “normal” life with everything that would mean for you and your child. Sometimes you just need someone who understands how hard all this is and doesn’t try to convince you its not or suggest everything you’ve already tried, but who will just be there, in it with you.

I see you…and the rest of us do, too.

2020 As Masterclass?

When the quarantine first began, I kept getting ads on my social media feeds for something called “Masterclass” and I was fascinated by them. These were classes taught by experts in their fields, so cooking classes by famous chefs, acting classes by famous actors, a gardening class by a great gardener, and even a class in authenticity by Ru Paul. The appeal was that you could get access to these people who were rock stars in their respective fields and learn their secrets from them, over safe, well produced videos, for a fee.

I never wound up subscribing to any of them and now I realize that part of the reason why is because I was knee deep in my own Masterclass.

I don’t know ANYONE for whom 2020 has been easy. Everyone I know has had some kind of big challenge in their life. I know people who have lost their jobs, faced health challenges, struggled with stress or depression, or just plain been stressed out by everything we’re all going through. Every single person is in the midst of their own personal struggle.

Which got me to thinking about the idea of 2020 as its own Masterclass, uniquely and specifically designed for each one of us to push us to grow in ways we may not have had to up to this point. People who depended on socializing with others as an outlet for stress are now being forced to find new outlets. People who used to go to the movies to escape are having instead to stay home and either find a new escape there or face whatever it is they were escaping from. People who ate out a lot are learning to cook. I know a lot of people who didn’t work out before who now are, having removed their daily commute as an obstacle.

And we’re all having to learn to relate to our families in different ways.

Being cooped up off and on with kids and spouses, all of us working or studying from home has changed a lot of families. Parents are having to be more involved in their children’s education. I know many parents who took the jump this year to homeschooling. Kids are having to find new ways to entertain themselves and adjust to not being able to see their friends. It’s all hard, but I have to hope that we’re learning new skills that will make us more resilient. Spouses are having to learn to spend more time together, sharing workspace and eating lunch together.

Personally, I’ve learned so much this year and been pushed to grow in so many ways.

This year, I’ve faced the question, “Which do you value more, your house or your family?” several times. I’ve had to drill holes in old growth woodwork for love. I’ve had to let go of my house being the way I might want it and instead embrace it being the way it needs to be for those I love. I’ve carried furniture out to the curb and donated clothes and cleared away clutter to make room for the life we have versus the life I might have dreamed of.

I’ve also faced the question, “Which do you value more, your job or your family?” I’ve had to skip important meetings to make appointments, log off to rush to the hospital, and take time off to take care of myself and others. The fact is…I don’t know how my career is going at this point, but I still feel good about the decisions I made to prioritize the people I love.

And I’ve faced a huge realization that I can’t do anything for others unless I take care of myself. I shifted to waking up at 5 am every morning to work out and I began prepping healthy food each week. I don’t think I could have made it through my husband’s hospital stays otherwise. If my life is like a marathon, then I need to train for it like that and then it’s so much easier to lift and carry and stay up and stay present.

I’ve had to let go of things I really loved, but just weren’t working anymore. Some friendships that were decades old, but we’d both grown in different directions. Some ways of thinking or doing things that just weren’t working anymore. I had to get real and stop trying to be someone I wasn’t even where people I admired encouraged me to do so.

In so many ways, this year has whittled me down into a leaner version of myself, distilled me into a more concentrated form and forced me to be very discerning about what I choose to carry and what I choose to prioritize.

I know I’ve been in a Masterclass, challenged in unique ways that pushed me exactly where I was weakest and as I talk to my friends, it seems like we all have, in our own ways. As we move through November and towards December, I’m finding it more useful to look at everything I’ve learned and how much I’ve grown rather than trying to look at accomplishments or happy memories like I might in any other year. It’s more like looking at the end of a class semester and feeling a sense of pride at projects completed, papers written, and stacks of books read. I can hope that next semester in this Masterclass is designed to be easier and more fun, but at the same time I realize I’m stronger and more flexible in all ways than I was a year ago. I’m more prepared for whatever comes and more ready to let go and become whatever it is that I am called to be.

As we wrap up this Masterclass, I’m preparing for the next with a clean notebook, ready for the first notes.

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough…?

This past week has been one of the hardest in my life emotionally. I’m not ready to get into specifics and everyone is ok, but I feel like my heart was put through a blender. On top of what was going on in my personal life, my coworker had to be out of state for a funeral, which left me on my own all week. I was frequently juggling 3 different things at work, along with what was going on at home. I wasn’t sleeping much and I was crying…a lot.

Thank G-d, it’s easing some now.

My coworker is back and things at home are calming down. I’ve been able to take care of everyone and we’re all ok and healing in various ways. Still, I’ll fully admit, there was a day last week where I just curled up with my PJ’s and mac n’ cheese and cookies while I made it through work. At the time, it felt like what I needed to do to make it through.

This week, though, I’ve sought solace in other ways. I reached out for help from friends and family and they rallied to help support me. I let go of a project I volunteered for at work without guilt. I doubled down on my nutrition and workouts, starting a new challenging program so I have something positive to think about even if my day goes downhill. I leaned on my community and, as they always do, they held me up. I swallowed my pride and contacted my own primary care doctor for medication to help support me through everything I’m going through. I gave myself more time to rest.

All too often, I try to carry the world on my shoulders alone. I worry so much about being a burden to others. I also sometimes feel guilt or shame because, at times, it just feels like my life is a mess. I cage myself in with all this inner dialogue of how things “should” be and how I “should” respond. The funny thing is that when my friends and family are going through things, I’m never this judgmental of them. I’m happy to be able to help them, even if it’s just giving them an ear to vent to. I never see them as weak or failing. I reserve that kind of meanness only for myself.

I sometimes wonder if maybe that’s why my life has these kinds of crazy times…because I’m stubborn and don’t reach out otherwise. I don’t ask for help from other people or above unless something happens that I just can’t handle otherwise. If I was less stubborn, more humble, and asked for help and support more readily, maybe things wouldn’t need to get so dramatic?

That would sure be nice for a change!

In any case, this past week, after my carb and PJ binge, after I’d taken some time to feel sorry for myself, I dusted myself off with help and realized that I have everything I need around me to face the challenges I’m given. Most of all, I have so many people who care about me and my family and aren’t afraid to reach out and show it. I have a phone full of numbers I can call and I’m so fortunate that most of them would drop almost anything if I needed help.

I keep wishing that this season would shift and I’d be back to being the one who can offer help and support rather than the one needing it, but, for now, in this season, I’m learning the lessons of being the one who needs to ask for help and support.

We all do sometimes. Please don’t be as stubborn as I often am when you need it, just show gratitude when it appears.

My Special Needs Son…Why I’m Running My Butt Off for Friendship Circle of Wisconsin

Our son turns 17 in December. For most boys his age, this would be a time of driving himself and friends, wanting a car of his own, preparing for college…getting ready to spread his wings. For my son, things are a little different, even without this Covid mess. He has 15 hours of therapy a week to teach him skills most of us just take for granted and picked up without much thought. How many times can you tell a joke and it still be funny? How can you tell you’re making someone uncomfortable because you’re standing too close? Why isn’t it ok to kick a teacher out of a zoom session if their microphone is giving awful feedback? From basic hygiene to getting assignments in on time, he needs a lot of support. We can’t leave him alone at home unsupervised, let alone hand him our car keys.

One of the hardest parts of having a family member with special needs is how lonely it can be. There have been years I felt like no one understood, that there was no one I could talk to about our reality. I posted pictures of our lives together and when people would ask me how we were doing, I’d just say, “fine.” We’d avoid social situations because we knew the loud noises or unpredictability were a recipe for disaster. We’d politely decline invitations for play dates because we already knew the normal noise level of a healthy, playful group of kids would just be too much for him. His sister, too, missed out on a lot of things because of the time and energy that we needed to give to him.

Most stories you read about families with special needs quickly gloss over the daily struggles and focus on the positive, even framing their child’s disabilities as a gift. That might resonate for some people, but it doesn’t for me. Of course there are lessons in my son’s conditions and I love him, but I’d also take these problems away from him in a heartbeat. I don’t feel “special” because so many things are so much harder for him and I don’t feel my life is fuller than it would be if he was neurotypical. This is just our struggle and we fight alongside him every day.

And that’s where Friendship Circle of Wisconsin comes in and why I’m running to raise money for them.

Friendship Circle helps where other services leave off. They provide social opportunities for families, from art nights, to play groups, to even dance parties that allow kids to wear headphones and control the sound level of the music. In everything they do, they provide a safe, inclusive environment where families like mine can socialize without the usual stresses. A place where even those who are different can feel normal and make friends. A place where everyone belongs and parents don’t need to stress before bringing their child out, no matter what needs they have. I so wish we’d had something like Friendship Circle when my son was younger and we had to navigate so many holidays that became unhappy times. Friendship Circle has events around holidays to make special times for families like ours and events year round.

For parents, there are groups. I’m part of a Whatsapp group of mothers and in that group we celebrate the successes that no one else might understand, those things that other Moms might just take for granted. We also hold each other when bad days happen. We understand that it’s ok to be frustrated, stressed out, impatient. It doesn’t mean we don’t love our kids. It’s ok to drop the facade there and we don’t have to always be strong or positive. That group and its events are like a warm hug and a pep talk.

For teens, for adults with special needs, Friendship Circle is there. They have job training in their bakery with people who understand special needs. Every single day, they’re giving to the community, trying to make the wider community more inclusive and accepting and reaching out to other groups to educate them about special needs. Their bakery and cafe and art center are a community center that is centered around the special needs community rather than leaving them on the edges.

It really is something special.

Even when I can’t participate as much as I’d like and my family can’t make it out to every thing, I want to do what I can to support this effort because I know first hand that pain of feeling left out, feeling different and alone and not knowing where I could take my son where he could just be…himself. I want all families in my community to have Friendship Circle as a resource to turn to and for them to be able to continue to expand their work.

I can’t do much, but I can lace up my shoes and devote my miles to Friendship Circle. You can help by making a pledge per mile, just for my races. I don’t think anyone wants to pledge for all my training miles for those races! I’m starting running races at the end of this November and I’ll be running 5ks through the Spring, Summer, and Fall of next year, then my dream of a half marathon next Spring in 2022. Your pledge of pennies or dollars per mile or a flat pledge all goes directly to Friendship Circle and helps keep up my motivation to keep lacing up my shoes and getting out there.

Please join me in supporting the great work Friendship Circle is doing for families like mine and pledge what you can.

And check out my campaign website for more information about my runs, races, and fundraising for FCWI.

This week’s parsha has the dramatic story of Noah and the Flood. It’s fitting that today is one of those days where it seems like the rain will never end. In the story, though, Noah toiled for a long time building the arc with no sign of the flood to come.

Having done a little bit of woodworking and such, I can only imagine what an undertaking something like that might have been, given the tools available at the time. Noah wasn’t a young man, either, when he began building. I can imagine how the impact of the hammer must have traveled up his arm to his elbow and shoulder, how his back ached from lifting heavy beams into place, his knees protesting. It’s likely that each night he fell into bed, sore and exhausted, only to get up the next morning, still aching, and do it all again. Everyone outside his family thought he was crazy and foolish for doing all this. They could see no reason for his hard work.

Life is often like that. Often I have to work hard without being able to immediately see the purpose behind my hard work, much less any reward.

In my work life, I work in IT and my work comes to me through tickets. These tickets each represent some request or problem to be solved and most take me about a week with all the paperwork, approvals, and testing. I get a brief feeling of accomplishment when my ticket queue empties, but it immediately refills. I rarely interact with the people who benefit from my work or see any tangible progress and I often feel like just one cog in a big machine. I’m not present at a party to celebrate a project launch or a meeting to kick off a major project…I only see tickets flow in and then tickets disappear as they are closed.

In my private life, I do laundry, fold laundry, and then do the same laundry again. I work out and sometimes, like this past month, I am in a plateau and I don’t see the scale budge. I do that work of raising kids where day by day I may not see much change until I look at pictures and realize they really are growing up on me. With one teen having special needs, even the usual milestones I would use to measure our progress have to be let go of. I wash dishes, we eat, and I wash those same dishes again.

In my workouts, I sometimes feel like a fool, but I keep trying anyway. I keep lifting a little more, running just a little further, and stretching just a little bit more. As I pursue my first certification, I sometimes feel my confidence waver, wondering who am I to do this? Who would ever hire me to do this for them? Am I too old to do this now?

A lot of people think I’m crazy for being an Orthodox Jew, following all kinds of laws that seem too restrictive or too arbitrary. It will definitely be a very long time before I know for sure if G-d cares if I eat cheeseburgers or not, but I keep on following those laws because they bring some sense of order and meaning to my life, just like emptying my ticket queue or getting those dishes washed, or adding on 2lbs to my chest press.

I go to sleep and sometimes I’m so weary and then I wake up, sore, turn off my alarm…and do it all again.

And I think of Noah, toiling away with just faith that what he is doing is meaningful.

I’m not being asked to build an ark, but I am being asked to keep on working even if I can’t yet see the benefit of my work. Anything worth working for involves that icky in between period, where I’m working hard, but I don’t yet see the results of that hard work. It’s easy for me to feel discouraged and to lose motivation in that in between time, but that’s where it becomes even more important to dig deeper and find something within myself to just keep going, concentrating just on what’s in front of me so that I don’t get overwhelmed by what’s ahead or discouraged by how much is behind me.

Climbing a mountain, it’s useless to keep looking at the summit or back down to the trailhead. Focusing on each step and just taking it one step at a time gets you where you’re going. The same is true of a running race, a big project, or a mountain of housework or helping a kid with their algebra. One problem, one ticket, one rep at a time, finding meaning in making each one the best I can.

Noah kept on working on his ark, following the directions he’d been given, even when there were no clouds in the sky to justify his labor. He kept working even as everyone around him disbelieved him. Eventually his efforts made a big enough difference that they’ve been remembered for long after his death.

When I am gone, it’s unlikely anyone will remember the dishes I washed or the laundry I folded. It’s also not likely that anyone at work will remember me long after I’m gone or remember how quickly I got a ticket done. I don’t think my 5k best time or my heaviest weight lifted will be on my gravestone. Still, the person that doing these things makes me and the life I created for myself and my family will be remembered for at least a generation or two. What I do influences my children, who in turn may pass on some of that to their own children, and so on. In this way, these small acts do add up to a life of influence to those who are most important to me.

What are you building today, bit by bit, whether it seems crazy or foolish or not?