Recently, one of my twins convinced me we needed to look at an online mindfulness app. It featured ocean beaches, a sunset, a waterfall, a forest, a rainstorm …. you get the picture. The notion was that one could stare at each image, take deep cleansing breaths and feel restored. Except, with the twins crowding my iPad screen, within moments we had hopped from one view to the next. The app kicked us out, as we had “seen” all its tranquil views. What was supposed to be meditative became a crazed, erratic two-minute virtual tour of all the outdoors, at once. Oops. That didn’t work out right.
There’s a lot of discussion online and in the media about how the pandemic has caused mental health issues because people are lonely, restless and bored, and many have a hard time with restrictions and lockdown. This may well be true for many people.
For those of us with kids, it feels more like a Ferris wheel/merry-go-round mash-up, where both rides have the music playing, it’s all set on a fast speed and there’s NO. WAY. TO. GET. OFF. We’re crazy busy staying home. We chose remote schooling for safety. This gives no breaks from parenting, and no way to get all the work done. My house is a mess. The housework and cooking? – seriously out of control.
My parents, living alone in Virginia, have an opposite experience. Due to their age and health, they, too, are staying home to stay safe, with lots of time, not enough socializing in person, feeling adrift without their usual travel plans and volunteer activities.
Our extended family is far away and cannot help us in Winnipeg. We can’t support them in person either, so we’ve had a long stretch of time, including holidays, on our own. Chanukah won’t be different. My parents are sending fun toys in the mail, ordered online, to keep the kids busy during the hours and hours ahead indoors this winter, which we will appreciate, whenever they arrive.
We’ve also been planning way in advance. When you celebrate Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, etc., on your own as a nuclear family, it takes more thought to make it special. Giving ourselves time to prepare has meant we have had some amazing meals and meaningful home-based observances, without going farther than our back deck sukkah.
My husband and I prepared for Chanukah by worrying if we had enough candles or if we had to shop for them – were Chanukah candles considered essential by the Manitoba government? To our relief, unless the kids insist on lighting all the chanukiyot at once, we’re fine. We’ve got plenty left over from last year, no need to go out and buy more. This, and internet ordering for kids, has been the extent of our preparations.
My twins, however, started the Chanukah countdown much earlier than usual. On a quiet Sunday afternoon, I discovered they were making paper chains and complicated construction paper cut-outs of dreidels, jugs of oil, a menorah, and more. The cut-outs were carefully hung up on our living room’s French doors – approximately 17 days before the first candles would be lit. Anticipation makes a holiday special.
However, the gift I love the absolute best these days won’t come on Chanukah. It’s Shabbat, which happens every week. It’s an opportunity to just sit on the couch. We stream services and I cook ahead so there’s nothing to do on Saturday. We sometimes magically find take-out appearing on the table Saturday night, when the leftovers don’t seem appealing. We’re not shomer Shabbat, and I’ve been known to disappear for a cozy chair and some knitting or to spend time with my sewing machine to deepen my relaxation, but Jewish traditional practice was really onto something with Shabbat.
Since having twins – they are now 9 years old – I’ve had people ask what would help, if I could have absolutely anything. I’d say: going to a quiet place in the country, alone, with a big bed with clean white sheets, lots of good food prepared, and time to just sleep, eat, read and hang out by myself. In reality, I felt that leaving my household for any length of time might result in worse chaos when I returned. My husband is well-intended, but an absentminded professor. He often forgets to feed the kids snack or the dog dinner if I don’t remind him over and over.
However, Shabbat at our house has become that oasis, where I get the chance to just be. It’s not the sunset, waterfall, rainfall, forest walk, ocean waves vision that the mindfulness app thinks we need. Not at all. It’s nothing idyllic – or tidy – but it’s a time to step away from social media, the chores, the craziness, and just be. Nowadays, I don’t have to get everyone dressed up for Shabbat services. I can’t invite guests or stress about getting a fancy meal made. I have many fewer work deadlines. And while, yes, there are some negatives in that, there’s a whole lot of positives, too.
We’re facing so many things that aren’t like anything we’ve experienced before. The unexpected can be scary. It can also be an amazing opportunity to let go, embrace and learn something different. Shabbat has long been my favourite holiday, but it took a pandemic for me to settle even more fully into one day a week of rest.
Turns out I don’t need to gaze at a mindfulness app to unwind. I’ll stick with making a huge Shabbat dinner, sleeping (late!) until 8 a.m., and participating in services from the couch, surrounded by the kids’ Lego and Playmobil congregation.
This year might be a chance to discover new gifts within this very challenging experience. Mine might be the best thing I could imagine – doing nothing at all.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.