Counting the Omer

We have just passed the midway mark of the Counting of the Omer, the 49-day period between the second night of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot.  In ancient times, at the beginning of the spring agricultural season, an omer (sheaf) of barley was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem as a gratitude offering on each of the ensuing 49 days. The Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E. ended the sacrificial system. Counting the Omer was ultimately transformed into a seven-week period of spiritual exploration. In this way, Jews have the opportunity to embark upon a spiritual journey that mirrors the ancient Hebrews’ physical journey of liberation from slavery (the Passover celebration) to the receiving of the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai (the celebration of the holiday of Shavuot.)

For the past month I have been part of an online group that is counting the omer, following the structure laid out by the Kabbalists of the 17th and 18th centuries. These masters assigned to each of the seven weeks one of seven earthly emanations of the Divine: chesed (lovingkindness), g’vurah (boundaries), tif’eret (splendor/balance), netzach (endurance), hod (gratitude/humility), y’sod (intimacy) and malchut (reign/responsibility). Each day of the week embodies one of these seven qualities as well. If this sounds a bit complicated and overwhelming, it is. Yet each year I engage with this process, some nuance or other becomes clearer. Progress not perfection is our motto.

The Kabbalists taught that all seven of these earthly Divine emanations reside within each of us.  One person might be quite comfortable establishing boundaries; another opens easily to lovingkindness while another struggles to cultivate endurance. The object of this inner work is to find the “sweet spot” of these character traits.  If establishing boundaries comes easily to me, do I need to examine if my boundaries sometimes become walls preventing deeper personal connections? Is my lovingkindness so bountiful that I tip over into exhaustion and resentment, or have I learned to balance giving of myself with replenishing the well? Day by day our group reads and discusses where we slip up and where we glide forward.  

We are now in the week of hod or gratitude, which in Hebrew is translated as  “recognizing the good.” Gratitude in this sense isn’t the outpouring of ecstatic thanks but instead calls on us to take a moment, many moments in fact, to recognize our good fortune. Even in the most trying of times, we are bidden to find a kernel of light to appreciate. Something my husband does might set me off until I realize how fortunate I am to have him beside me each night and to wake up to his loving hug each morning. How can irritation not melt in the face of such blessings?

Self-awarness is a double-edged sword. The more aware I become of my thoughts and my reactions, the more I realize how far I have to go. What a judgmental, impatient, ungenerous wretch I can be! In those moments I remember again and again, “Progress, not perfection.” We are all works in progress until we draw our last breath.

Over these intense forty-nine days of counting the omer, I count my blessings, count my progress, and count to ten when the need arises. Each morning, members of our group bring sheaves of hope, determination, confusion, and more with the intention that at the end of this seven-week period we will have shaken free of enough chaff to be worthy to receive the words of Torah once again. Progress, not perfection.   Yes.  

photo courtesy of: “Ripe Barley field” by allispossible.org.uk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

With Some Help from Mr. Clean

I can find fault aplenty with this watercolor onion of mine, but that’s not where I am going today. I can spend way too much time in the land of fault-finding. I’m thrilled with how this came out.

In our first class, we were to draw an onion from 12 different perspectives. I hadn’t even peeled it and already felt a few tears welling up. How was I going to do this, and a dozen times no less? Then I remembered I was there to have fun, to learn new techniques, to play with color.

Each week, as a warm up exercise, we choose a different onion to paint.  One week it’s monochrome, one week primary colors. The week of this onion it was tertiary colors, blending primaries (red, yellow, blue) with neighboring secondaries (orange, purple, and green).  I loved swirling a bit of red into yellow, then a bit more and more until I had a red that barely tilted orange. Could I swirl red into blue for a blue-violet of similar intensity? To my eye, the outer onion skin needed to lean way toward yellow with  just enough orange to resemble an onion and not a clementine.

Skewing the background on the diagonal was my anarchy for the day.  The most fun? Patterning the blue-violet section. You’ll never guess how. With stencils and a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. First, paint your watercolor. Let it dry and then tear off a small bit of the Magic Eraser. Wet the eraser and squeeze it until it’s barely damp. Place your stencil over the painted section you want to modify and lightly scrub the area. Carefully lift your stencil and there you are.  Magic!  I have a stash of the erasers but no stencils.  Gotta change that.

Homemade Games

There are oodles of incredible games and toys out there.  We’ve gifted our granddaughters with many of them. Yet there is something wonderful about making toys and games for our kids and grandkids. So far I’ve made the girls a few. I’ll describe one now and share another in the future. (I have to snap some photos of it first.)

For now, here’s a “People Who Love Me” game.
(Ages 4-7)

You’ll need:
photos of friends and loved ones (3″x3″ works well)
card stock/posterboard
glue
clear packaging tape
black marker
adhesive magnetic squares
metal cookie sheet, rimmed
plastic soap box with lid

Here’s what to do:

For the cards:
1. cut your posterboard into 4″x 6″ cards
2. affix one photo per card, close to the top edge
3. Below each image, draw one line per letter of person’s name

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the magnetic letters:
1. Grid a section of posterboard into 1″ squares
2. Cut squares apart and write names, one letter/square
3. For sturdiness, wrap each letter with clear packaging tape
4. Affix a magnetic square to the back of each letter

 

 

 

 

Playing this on a cookie sheet keeps everything in one place.
Let your grandchild choose a person and help them sound
out the letters of their name. For younger kids, let them sound out the first letter and you can complete the name.
Which people’s names begin with the same sound? Who is wearing glasses? Who has a beard? Who goes with whom?
Arrange your family photos into a family tree and play “Tell a Story.” Have your grandchild choose a person about whom you can share a story. Does your grandchild have a story to share as well? 

 

 

 

 

 

When you’re done, put the letters in the soap box, put it and
the photo cards in a ziploc® ’til next time. You can also make a similar set featuring common household objects.

 

 

 

Spring Treasures

With a slight apology to Cole Porter:
I love nature in the springtime.
I love nature, why oh why do I love nature,
because of all the treasures to be found. 

Well, I was going to write about the childish delight that still arises when I find bird feathers and egg shells on our walks. I’ve been known to carry a yolk-shellacked shell home, saving it to share with my granddaughters.

I have learned it is illegal to do this. Ditto fallen feathers of US migratory birds, including those of crows, cardinals, blue jays and every North American bird that might frequent your feeder. The law is draconianly rigid, understandable given the species that were hunted into extinction and the plight of present-day birds as human expansion destroys habitat after habitat. 

There is one feather I found that I can still enjoy guilt-free. Peacocks are not native to North America. I found this feather on the ground at the zoo and took it home. I am not a destroyer of Nature. I take spiders outside when I find them in our house. I taught my children to return sidewalk-stranded worms back into the grass after a rainstorm. My granddaughters and I will release our spring treasures back into the wild once we have studied and delighted in them. Except this one:

 

What Will You Do When the Pandemic is Over?

The time will come. Day by day some of the binds are loosening. The CDC has announced that those who are vaccinated no longer need to wear masks for small outside gatherings. The end may not yet be in sight, but it feels reasonable to envision it around a not-too-distant corner.

I would love to go to the movies again, to sit in the dark with fellow movie-goers all of us experiencing together cinematic storytelling. I look forward to seeing my children and grandchildren, swooping them to me in great big  jubilant hugs, the pall of the pandemic a thing of the past. What will it be like to speak to someone full face? To see their smile and hear their laughter unmuffled by a mask?  I think of Alfred Eisenstadt’s iconic image of the sailor embracing and kissing the nurse on V-J Day in Times Square. Will there be such an image capturing Covid’s end? What do you imagine it to be? What is the first thing you intend to do?