Thanks a Windmillion


Turns out I’m not so good at gratitude. I mean, I know how to express it and I send thank you notes and emails and say it out loud to people all the time. I drill my children to say thank you, to show their appreciation for kindness, helpfulness, compliments, gifts. Not only is it polite and good manners, but the giver feels lovely when thanked and – perhaps most important of all – actually saying or writing thank you feels great for the givee too: a time to feel the intention behind the gift, to accept the warm love, kind thoughts, pure heart that almost always accompany an act of giving.

I love to say thank you, and to be thanked, but it’s always instantaneous. In the moment. Right when the delicious deed is done. The gift received. The compliment heard. The assistance appreciated. And I feel great globs of something way beyond gratitude for all the good in my life: my family, my health, my friends, my body that works. That I can open my eyes in the morning, see a sunrise and a lunar eclipse, enjoy the sweetness of mangoes and eat marrow bones, feel love and give love, smell woodsmoke and jasmine, have memories, talk and read and write and hear my kid say things like “We share the world.” This greater-than-gratitude is inherent. With me, in me, always.

But I rarely think about the smaller godsends in my life. The tiny, almost imperceptible openings between the marvelous moments of giving and the greater goodness. The barely noticeable happenings that evoke nuances of emotion, leave me feeling different, with a perspective altered not only in that second but for the rest of the day, the week, or for always.

Last night’s late-night phone fest with my friend Lisa yielded such an opening. In between giggling bouts of hysteria – the release of both husbands away, too many kids too little time for each of us, the intensity of daily A to Z writing that we’re both enveloped in – she suggested I use this color and this topic for T.

“I have no gratitude right now,” I half-joked, half-sniffled, completely dismissed. “Oh well then,” she replied sagely.

Couldn’t get it out of my head. Fell asleep thinking about it. Woke up thinking about it. What does that mean: No gratitude?

So with tremendous thanks to Lisa, who often inspires gratefulness in me, especially in her writings at Flingo, here are my Windmills of Thanks for today:

To my friend J who gives me the biggest hug, whenever she sees me, and tells me, “You look fantastic.” I see her at least twice a week, sometimes two days in a row – we work out together – and I look a lot of things at those times (harried, tired, irritated, pained, hair too long, sweaty, unshowered) but definitely never fantastic. I choose to believe her though. And that hug sure feels fantastic.

To my kids, who started today in that can’t-be-beat way: fighting. Because he wanted to sit in that chair, and how dare she finish the cereal, and he’s an idiot because he breathed. One of the cruelest ways to kick off a Wednesday, listening to their whingeing and whining when I’ve barely taken a breath. But the silence they left in their wake as they argued their way out the door and down the road to school was serene to the extreme.

To same storm-out-the-door son who called me at 8.17am from school to apologize. Truly a breathtaking moment and one that obliterated the day’s sticky start. Thank you, love. (And also thank you to the school for allowing the kids to call their parents no matter what – this time, anyway. It’s not always something to be grateful for).

Thank you to Matthew Weiner for creating the greatest show on TV ever: Mad Men. Yes to Don Draper. Yes to Joan. Yes to fabulous sixties fashion and design. But mostly, yes to amazing writing. And scenes like the one of Betty shooting the pigeons in Season 1. Life-changing (for reasons that deserve a piece of their own – stay tuned. And watch Mad Men).

Thank you Kind Driver for backing all the way up on Clarendon Crescent – possibly the narrowest street in Oakland, made all the more so by the cars, trucks and minivans parked on either side. No mirror is safe on this street. Whether he sensed my impatience at having to navigate this obstacle course or not, his unconditional willingness to help me out, to make life a little easier this morning, restored not only my faith in human kindness, but strangely in myself. When I raised my hand in thanks. When I slowed down. And smiled.

To my sister T (how perfect!) who shows me every day that it is possible to live life with humor and abundant compassion even when it’s all kinds of tough.

Six letters left, one week to go in this A to Z Writing Challenge and I am feeling so much gratitude for the experience, the creativity, the purest joy of writing words so often. I am blessedly thankful to have the opportunity to read the wonderful work of others, and to connect so meaningfully and relevantly with other writers taking this challenge. But I am mostly grateful for all who have read what I have written, who have taken the time, hit like, shared, tweeted and retweeted, sent an email or a text, posted a comment. I could write reams on how much that means to me. But I won’t.

I’ll just say: a million thank yous.

Thanks a Windmillion by OPI

Thanks a Windmillion by OPI

This post was written as part of the April A to Z Challenge. To read more of my A to Z posts click here.

I wish I knew what she was thinking

That blank stare.

I never knew if she was happy, angry, sad, pissed off at me, or maybe not understanding my fast, accented English. Was it not okay that I dumped the groceries in the kitchen and then dashed out again? Should I not have asked her to clean the pantry if she has time? I just never knew what she was thinking.

Hard to get an emotional read on an already sensitive situation: employer-employee, woman to woman, have versus have-not.

I am sensitive to it because of how I grew up, with housekeepers and gardeners. Somebody to make breakfast and wash the dishes, unpack the groceries, do the laundry, water the garden, feed the dog, keep the bathrooms clean and the house tidy. That was how most white South Africans grew up. Somebody to babysit us when my parents went out, or for my little brother to stay with when my mom watched me and my sister at ballet recitals and drama festivals. Somebody, or two somebodies, to help. They made our beds, played with us. Because our parents worked and also because they didn’t. I know many Americans and Mexicans and Brits and Israelis and Brazilians who grew up the same way. With hired help.

It’s the way of the world in certain countries and in specific socio-economic communities – those that can and have and need to and want to employ those that will and have not. Employer-employee. It works like that.

Except of course, it’s not so simple. It’s not just employer-employee. It’s a system laden with undercurrents of guilt, with feelings of superiority and inferiority, of not wanting to offend or insult but still wanting the job done right, of wanting to do the job right but feeling unsure or insecure.

I’m sensitive to it because now I’m a part of it. Now I am navigating this complex emotionally fraught system. Equal parts expectation, responsibility, guilt and gratitude.

She came to work for us seven years ago, when my daughter was four months old. With barely any English at first, she quickly became indispensible to me. I hadn’t had consistent help before, and it was a relief to be able to leave this child asleep in her bed, and not in her car seat, while I drove a carpool. To go to Target unaccompanied. To have all the laundry washed, dried, folded and put away before noon, and by someone else. To come home to a house smelling of Pine Sol and orange floor cleaner. To have an extra pair of hands on deck when one was blowing bubbles in the bathtub and one was about to hurl herself down the stairs, while yet another was making a beeline for the dog food.

But if I spoke too quickly, if I told her not to take the baby to the park, if I asked her to stay late or leave early or do it a different way, she would look at me, with no expression in her face. “Shit,” I thought. “Is she mad at me? Did I say something wrong? Something offensive?” I hated to think that she felt silent or silenced, that she couldn’t tell me what she really felt or thought. Or that G-d forbid she didn’t love me all the time. That she wasn’t happy.

I was uncomfortable in this role, as employer of this woman – not much younger than me – who was taking care of my children and cleaning my house, putting away my underwear, hearing my arguments with my husband, throwing birthday parties in the park for my babies at her own expense. Birthday parties with piñatas and carefree fun and Spanish songs and laughter. The birthday parties they remember in living color.


This woman, who had left her parents and her seven brothers and sisters and her home in Guatemala at the age of 22, and walked across Mexico for eight days and nights in harrowing conditions until she somehow made her way to Oakland and to me. Mercifully unscathed on the outside, but what about the inside?

I had left my country and my family too. But that was the only similarity between us. I was uncomfortable with what I had and what she didn’t. Citizenship. Financial resources. Language. Her parents would travel hours to her brother’s house just to Skype with her – mine flew across time zones to visit me in the flesh. And I could go to South Africa, or Guatemala, or anywhere in the world whenever I wanted.

Did she begrudge me? Did I act spoilt? Ungrateful? Was that the blank stare?

After seven years of taking care of me, of loving my babies, chopping my vegetables, making my bed, speaking my language, spending time with my parents, her longing to go home was burning so strongly in her heart, I could feel it across the kitchen counter.

So she did.

Her return journey to me was one of unknown peril and fear and angst. Eight months of collect calls. Of tears and worry. She said she was fine. Treated well. They would let her in, she was sure of it. But I could hear the doubt in her voice. I could feel the regret in her heart. I wasn’t sure we would ever see her again.

Yesterday was her birthday. She turned 32. Her first day back at work. In my house.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, her eyes blank.

“Really?” I pressed.

She continued folding one of the boys’ t-shirts. And with no expression in her face, or her voice, her dark eyes looked honestly into my green ones:

“I’m happy. This, your house, is my second house. My home.”

Mom, where are you?

Floating in the warmest water, surrounded by tiny bubbles, a sky of swirling gray peeking through a redwood canopy while raindrops steadily splash on my upturned face… in our newly-installed hot tub. At 11.15am. On a Wednesday.

We’ve wanted a hot tub in the backyard for years. There’s a corner that’s just perfect for it. Tucked up against the fence, under the giant redwood tree – the perfect alcove of peace and quiet. And steam and bubbles. And soon bunches of pre-teen boys making inappropriate jokes, and wild whooping four-year-olds spilling apple juice and eating soggy Ritz crackers…

But not yet! It’s still tranquil, serene, bliss.

I’m not sure that’s where I was supposed to be before noon on a Wednesday morning.

I’ve been a Stay-At-Home-Mom (SAHM) for about ten years. I realize what a blessing this is, to be present and available for my kids all day. To not have to scramble for childcare when one of them is sick. They know I’ll bring the homework they left on the kitchen counter. I’m able to chaperone field-trips without rearranging my schedule, to help in the classroom and “spy” on the social dynamics of my daughter, or to see for myself if my son’s occupational therapy is really working. But it doesn’t necessarily mean a soak in the hot tub whenever I want!

I can exercise while the kids are at school, pick up the dry cleaning, take Pretzel the dachshund to the vet and myself to the dentist, prepare dinner, stock up on the boxes of frozen waffles we never seem to have enough of – all between drop-off and pick-up. My working friends often do a Target run after the kids are in bed, they have to arrange last-minute pick-ups in between meetings, grocery shopping happens on the weekend – life seems much more complicated logistically as a working parent, not to mention the emotional toll it takes.

So I don’t take the privilege of being an SAHM lightly. I am incredibly thankful for it.

But after a decade it has started to feel a little less fulfilling. Mundane. Isolating, even as I’m surrounded by dozens of little faces singing Sevivon Sof Sof at the lunchtime Chanukah concert. There is no separation between me – and me.

When I pick Jed’s friend up for preschool, and see his mom dressed in heels, a beautiful blouse and lipstick, I want to beg her to take me with to her office in the City, to her meetings, and meaningful interactions with adults (not “grown-ups”) about policies and contracts.

From my vantage point at home, if I stand on my tippy-toes and lean all the way to the side, I can just make out the tips of the Bay Bridge, leading the way into glittering San Francisco. While my working friends in the Financial District barely notice the sparkling blue of the Bay and the majestic spans of the Bridge laid out in front of them. The view is always more beautiful from the other side. I know.

As I helped my little guy brush his teeth this morning, he started whining and yelling at me (only four-year-olds can do both simultaneously producing a grating whell of a sound): something about a Spongebob toothbrush and Monsters University toothpaste, and then he started crying… and I started crying. I couldn’t remember what Monsters University was and I thought he said Angry Birds toothbrush. No separation between me and me.

The kids come home from school, hungry, cranky, bursting with stories, wanting something from someone – mostly me. I roll with it, a smile on my face and a song in my voice (the smile is a little strained and the song is Linkin Park’s A Light that Never Comes). Snack for you, 8×7=56 for you, tie your hair back for ballet, listen to your barmitzvah lesson for ten minutes, all of you wash your hands, with soap. Just enough to fit into half an hour before it’s back in the car for the rest of the afternoon.

(As an aside SAHM is a misnomer – at least the SAH part. It should be NAH – Never At Home, and also nah, as in not gonna schlep around today).

Somewhere between chairing the preschool parents committee, and serving lunch at the middle school, I seem to have lost myself. My daughter used to tell her teachers that my job was volunteering in the library at her school (actually, I wouldn’t mind working in a library). I can’t find the space between Mom Nicki, and Nicki.

So this Wednesday morning, as I walked from the car toward the house in the relentless rain, laden with boxes of frozen waffles, I glanced toward the new hot tub. Sitting quietly in its corner.


The rain gently pattered down on me and the redwood tree stretched majestically into the gray sky, the steamy mist danced mystically above the water, and the bubbles floated around me – it was magical.

I felt the whisper of a space between me, and me.

Hashtag Facetime

My boys were playing a game on Sunday that involved a lot of shouting and leaping off beds and onto beanbags – nothing out of the ordinary. Usually I don’t pay attention at all, except to wish they would do it a little more quietly. But then I became aware that their language of play went something like, “Hashtag-jump-higher!” Followed by, “Hashtag-shut-up!” And then, “Hashtag-look-at-me!” Etcetera, etcetera. By the time we went out for the day, the older three were actually calling the four-year-old Hashtag. Talk about Damaging Life Events.

My kids have too many electronic gadgets, are too connected to their ipods/ipads/tv/wii/instagram/internet, and too disconnected from Real Life. I have to remind them daily not to turn on the TV until after dinner, please don’t play Minecraft even if your homework is done, go outside and ride bikes with your brother, it’s a beautiful day! I tell the little one he can watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse after his bath, and at 3.30pm he asks if he can take a bath now.

The kids groan and say, “But Mooom.” Yet with my gentle insistence they slowly venture outside, find the pogo stick and the frisbee, and eventually get up to good, ol’fashioned, outdoor fun (actually, it’s when I yell at the top of my lungs, “DON’T ASK ME AGAIN AND GET OUTSIDE RIGHT NOW” that they hightail it to the basketball hoop).

And now “hashtag” has made its insidious way into even their non-electronic imaginative play. O.M.G. When I hear it, I see Jimmy Fallon and JT’s hilarious Hashtag Sketch – they have an entire conversation using the word “hashtag” accompanied by a hand movement signing a hashtag. It demonstrates how ridiculous we’ve become ascribing all our experiences to a phrase #allinoneword, and also pokes fun at how connected to cyber-world we all need to be. I cried real comedic tears watching my two favorite celebs play that scene, laughing at myself in it all – but now I realize even my baby boy knows what a hashtag is, and also, he taught his preschool teacher how to use her iPhone! Not. That. Funny. Now.

I ban the kids from anything that has a screen for the rest of the day. We go to the beach. They’re still calling J the H-word but at least they are looking into each other’s eyes while they wrestle in the sand and chase seagulls instead of angry birds.

In the afternoon, I receive a text from my friend in Christchurch, New Zealand. She tells me our sons are FaceTiming right now. I heard talking from the boys’ bedroom, but figured it was to each other, not to friends a day away! So much for my screen ban. But I can’t be mad or indignant. My son was crushed when his good friend moved to New Zealand, yet they get to talk to each other every week. And not only talk – interact as if they’re in the same room.


Grandparents live half a world away. Friends come and go. Cousins don’t really know each other. But before my grandmother died, she got to see her youngest grandson on Skype – she never held him in her arms, it’s true, but she saw him move, and open his eyes and she knew what he looked like when he cried and smiled.

My parents and in-laws visit us at least once a year. It’s heartbreaking when they leave. Nothing replaces in-person, physical proximity when it comes to building relationships. On the day of departure, I can’t help but think of our grandparents leaving Lithuania and Latvia in search of better in South Africa, how they left their families behind, really knowing that they would never see them again. And they didn’t.

My kids’ grandparents watch them grow on Skype. We send videos of hip-hop performances and karate gradings. My mother-in-law sends me photos of Jacaranda trees blooming in Johannesburg because she knows how much I adore and miss them. My daughter has been known to text her grandmother in the middle of the night during a sleepover. We feel connected to friends who have moved away, and even to people who live nearby but life is busy and we just don’t get together.

Is it necessary for a preschooler to know how to take photos with an iPhone? Of course not. But how lucky he is to be able to see his Grampa whenever he wants, even though they are continents and time zones and miles apart.

Yes, we are terribly connected to our iDevices – and so are our children. But we are connecting with each other too. I don’t want my son to be known as Hashtag, but #ilove21stcenturycommunication.