19 June 2010


I lay under the car, next to my dad. He’s teaching me how to change the oil in the car – my first car. I line up the oil pan below the drain, as instructed, and pull the plug.
The black oil runs down my arm, and drips from my elbow onto the floor of the carport.
He laughs as I protest, “You never told me to move my hand out of there!” I tilt my elbow up to reverse the flow.
He scoots out from under the car to get me a rag to clean up the mess.
An hour or so later, I’ve installed a new oil filter, replaced the plug, and topped the car off with clean, golden motor oil. And I have a new sense of self-worth: I am a young woman who has entered the domain of men.

Dads are mysterious creatures. They know stuff. How to do things, how to fix things, what things are called, what to do. You have to admit, they know things that moms and wives and kids don’t – and things the non-dads don’t. And the cool thing is, they share all of this with us. With their own kids. With other people’s kids.

My dad instilled in me a love of the great outdoors. I don’t hunt or fish, but I do camp, backpack, and recently took up kayaking. I love to spend time outside. When I was a kid, I always wanted to grow up to be a mountain climber. I don’t climb a lot of mountains, but I do climb into the Canyon on a pretty regular basis. Spending time outdoors as a family is one of his legacies that I am passing on to my own children.
A few summers ago, we had the opportunity to share our home with Pavla, an amazing young woman from Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic. She was an exchange student spending the summer in Arizona and the school year in Michigan. One of the cool things we got to do was take her camping with some of our extended family. She’d never been on a camping trip before. My dad showed her how to make a good campfire and taught her about dutch oven cooking, one of his specialties. The peach dump cake they made that evening remains one of my favorite desserts of all time.

Mike, my father-in-law, is the kind of guy who can fix anything. But one of my favorite memories of him is of the advice he gave me prior to my first Grand Canyon hike, a year before I became part of his family. My sister Susie, and two of my cousins, Kelley and Laura, had made plans to hike to Supai Village in July. It would be our first backpacking trip – ever – for any of us. And while I think that all four of us knew that it would be difficult, I’m not sure it occurred to my twenty-something self that it could be dangerous. In a way that demonstrated concern and was far from patronizing, Mike opened my eyes to the fact that if we four got into trouble down there – from the heat, from the exertion, from a poorly placed step, or a case of bad judgment – that we would be in real trouble. I thought of his advice many times on that trip, and I’ve thought of it many times since. It reminds me to be smart, to use my resources wisely, and to look – and think – before I leap into a new endeavor.

The third dad in my life isn’t a father figure to me, but is the father of two amazing girls, my daughters. Since Dan and I started this parenting gig ten years ago, we’ve watched one another grow into our roles. Even a decade later, I’m still surprised at how different our roles can be, how they balance and complement one another, how one of us can pick up the slack when the other is tired or overwhelmed – and how this constantly shifts.
This fall, we took our first family trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We slogged through sand, and then over, under and across the stones larger than houses strewn about Soap Creek Canyon, which meets up with the Colorado at about river mile 11. Our girls were troupers, carrying a few things in their own packs, and mustering courage and determination when necessary.
At the river, Dan taught them to fish. Patiently, they sat; patiently, he instructed. They cast and waited, watching the river and the cliffs from their sandstone perch while I observed from the shade beneath the overhang, book in hand. And when each fish took the bait – oh, the joy, the pride on all of their faces as each girl reeled in her prize.
A skill shared, lessons taught and remembered, advice and knowledge passed to a new generation. All that and more, contained in smiles on the bank of an ancient river. I wonder how many first fish have been caught on these banks over the centuries. And how many fathers instructed sons and daughters here, granting access to the wisdom of ancestors and letting it course along through the generations, like a river through a canyon.

13 June 2010

Cultivating Hope

I water the pots on the deck, one by one. I smile, noticing the incremental changes from the day before, from last week. The lettuce leaves are bigger, darker, curlier. The scallops on the edges of the sprouts of parsley are just that much more pronounced. The horseradish seems to shadow half of the container. The spindly soybean vine reaches another rung on its bamboo and twine ladder. And just peeking out, a shy barely-pink strawberry.

I’m new at gardening. It’s a grand experiment, really. I don’t know if anything I grow will actually be worth eating. I hope it will be. I have faith that these little plants will know what they are supposed to do, because I certainly don’t know what I’m supposed to do, besides providing a little water and some food.

If this summer’s experiment goes well, I’m considering fencing in a portion of our yard to do a “real” garden. Time will tell. Northern Arizona is not a very easy place to garden. At a mile high, we have cold winters and hot summers. And the gusty wind is dry and brutal. In the spring, the temperatures fluctuate wildly, luring the trees into bloom just to freeze again the following week. And here in our neighborhood the deer, bunnies, and javelinas truly believe that much of my flower bed is for their benefit.

The gardening process seems a lot like parenting. I give these plants a little space to grow, a little nourishment, a dose of sun, and I cross my fingers. I haven’t had to instill much discipline yet, but the plants are all so small still. I am proud of their progress although I feel it has little to do with me. Maybe the wind won’t blow too much. Maybe this year we won’t be visited by the grasshoppers that leap from the ground like popping corn. Maybe it will rain – but not too much, not too hard. I hope there is just enough adversity to make them strong. I hope and I hope and I hope.

06 June 2010


Mitzvah: 1a. a commandment of Jewish law. 1b. the fulfillment of such a commandment. 2. a worthy deed. (plural: mitzvot)

My first year teaching was at a private Hebrew school in Tucson. I was hired mainly to teach English to a small group of Russian-speaking immigrants from many different parts of the former Soviet Union. My teaching duties there were varied and demanding. I learned a great deal about my students and myself, about Judaism and Israel, and the many assumptions I had about the Jewish faith and Jews in general. There were times at that school when I felt more like a fish out of water than I did during an entire summer spent in non-English speaking European countries.

How was it that in all my multi-cultural experiences and in all those classes preparing me to teach English to non-English speakers, that I actually knew so little about this culture that thrived right here, just six miles from my home?

Most of my students there were too young to be preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, but it was certainly an event looming in their future. As a young gentile teacher, I had only heard the term ‘mitzvah’ as it related to this rite of passage which confers upon young Jews the responsibilities of adulthood. There are actually over 600 mitzvot, or commandments of Jewish law, outlined in the Torah. And while most of them detail religious duties (like preparing lights in advance of Shabbat), the word ‘mitzvah’ came to have a broader meaning for me.

Mitzvah can also mean “any worthy deed” and in modern times has come to express an act of human kindness as well. These are duties as well. What can we do to make someone else’s load a little lighter? What power is there in choosing, deliberately, something worthy of doing?

I do try to incorporate a mitzvah or two into my daily life, even now, seventeen years after that first exposure to the term. For me, it’s kind of a Golden Rule thing – which, I’ve learned, exists in some form in every major religion. But a commitment to actually making mitzvot a daily ritual – well, that is a worthy deed in and of itself.