Hugging to the Background

camouflaged duck smaller fileMartin took this when we were hiking in South Lake Tahoe, visiting our new daughter-in-law’s dad and step-mom. In Yiddish, the word for your child’s in-laws is machatunim.  Nothing to do with the photo but it’s a useful word, nevertheless.

I’ve felt a bit like this duck for the past few months.  The first half of the year was an emotional roller coaster and by the time June arrived, I just needed to fade into the background. It’s not a bad thing to withdraw a bit every now and then.  Farmers allow fields to lie fallow and thus regenerate; lying fallow is good for fellow humans as well. With the arrival of this new Jewish year, I find myself returning—stretching a foot out here, fanning a wing there, poking my beak into some new experiences.

The ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are a time of reflection, inner dialogue, seeking and granting forgiveness, crafting new intentions or dusting  off the ones that never came into fruition last year. The image of this duck, there for all to see if only at second glance, reminds me to look more closely in this new year, to gaze beyond a first cursory glance. Never know who or what I might find.

What about you?  Was there a time you helped draw someone out from where they might have been biding their time in the background?  What happened? If the spirit moves you, please share this with your Facebook friends and any others whom you think would enjoy this.

Entering the New Year Freshly Restored

Baylinson beforeThe restoration of a painting is as good a metaphor as any this time of year. Rosh Hashana begins Wednesday evening.  We are in the waning days of the month of Elul, a time given over to introspection as Jews prepare not only for the New Year but for Yom Kippur’s day of atonement ten days hence.

I inherited the painting at the left from my mother. It was done by a Russian emigre painter – A. S. Baylinson – in 1939.  He was an artist of some note in his day, and had shows at the Art Institute of Chicago, here at the Detroit Institue of Art and elsewhere. The Metropolitan in New York has some of his work in their collection. How my grandfather came by this painting, I do not know. Perhaps he bought it outright. Perhaps he took it in trade for medical care. Or maybe his and Baylinson’s connection was personal.  Perhaps they were landsmen, Russian emigres both who came to America early in the 20th century in search of a better life and much distance from murderous Cossacks. Maybe the painting was a gift from one grateful American to another. It hung in my grandparents’ home and then in my mother’s.

By the time the painting came to me the canvas was torn, yellowed with age and discolored by decades of cigarette smoke. It was large, dingy, costly to restore, and I wavered about what to do with it. Relegate it to the basement? Hang it as is? Put it out on trash day? It carried memories of a woman whose mothering ran more to Dali than Cassat. Happily, restoration won.

Ken Katz of Conservation and Museum Services did a masterful job in bringing the Baylinson, as it was always called at home, to life. Carefully, painstakingly, he and his staff worked over the summer removing varnish and nicotine, patching a gash in the canvas, damage that likely occurred during one of my mother’s moves. They matched paint and brushstroke so well that I cannot tell where the canvas had even been torn. It was quite exciting to unwrap the painting when Martin brought it home last week. The dahlias seem to dance in new brilliance, their petalled faces crimson and proud. The marigolds are lively once again, no longer weighted and wan beneath varnish and nicotine. And surprise! The vase on the pie crust table is not green but a silvery white. I wish I could show my mother and ask if this how she remembered the painting growing up? I’m sure it hung in the living room.  Did she read on a couch within its view? The Baylinson now hangs in the entry way of our home. I smile every time I see it. She looks good, this painting, hopefully as beautiful as the moment in 1939 that Mr. Baylinson looked at his work, declared, “It is good,” and laid down his paintbrush.

All of which brings me to the work of Elul, Rosh Hashana and restoration. This has been a cataclysmic year.  My mother died. My son married eleven days after her funeral. I was in a car accident two weeks ago (not my fault.) Last week I needed emergency dental work. My jaw still hurts. My heart is mending. My soul still soars at the memory of Elliot’s and Elizabeth’s wedding. As this Jewish year draws to a close, there are hurts to forgive and forgiveness to ask for. There is a patina of pettiness and impatience to wipe away and the hope that the face I show in this new year will project kindness and welcome. Instead of relegating my missteps to my inner basement or sending them to the trash unexamined, I strive for restoration. Even if no one can see where we’ve been patched, the rips remain just beneath the surface. I embrace this month of Elul, for Elul invites us to restore ourselves, to take long walks and think back over the past year. Elul reminds us that restoration is possible. Even if we are torn, even if we have been dragged hither and yon and none too gently, even if our faces are clouded with care and grief, we can do the necessary work and restore our personal canvas.

And so a still life painted by a Russian emigre, owned by another, then his daughter and now his granddaughter, has a new home. She is once again bright and gleaming. May we all be so as we move into this New Year.

Baylinson after



His Lens/My Pen –– A Single Point of Light


The currents fractured sunlight into a thousand thousand points of light.

The currents fractured sunlight into a thousand thousand points of light.

There must be something in the air at the Song of the Morning retreat center in Vanderbilt, Michigan. The only two photos I have contributed to the His Lens/My Pen series were both from there. The first one was taken last fall. I captured the image above during a walk in the woods one spring morning. The river was flowing full and swiftly after an early morning rain shower; the trees above me were still shaking off its remnants. Then the clouds parted, the sun took prominence, and Mother Nature bestowed yet another gift of beauty. I stood mesmerized for nearly fifteen minutes. Pure visual magic as the water shattered shafts of sunlight into particles and set them to dancing in the currents of the river.

It’s so hard to walk lightly through our lives.  There are kids to worry about; health issues to contend with; relationships to sustain, mend, tend and sustain again. Jobs to seek, keep, and sometimes leap from or toward with all that attendant uncertainty. Not to mention the maelstrom of malevolence and mayhem streaming daily from our various screens electronic devices. As I study this photograph again and again, I realize that what makes the scene so extraordinary is the atomization of the light, each daub of sunlight is bouncing to its own rhythm. Sometimes that’s all we can do, too. Just be who we are – a single point of light interacting as best as we can with life’s inevitable flow.

Immerse yourself in the flow of this image by clicking on it. Share it with your friends on Facebook. Or order the card from my Etsy Shop.  Enjoy.

Go See Boyhood!

imagesIt’s a rare summer when Mr. and Mrs. Darvick see two movies in a month. This is that rare summer and Boyhood is the latest movie we have seen. And loved.

Funny how both movies we’ve seen run to themes of family bonding with sons at the center. (For those of you who missed it, we saw Chef, too.)

Richard Linklater filmed Boyhood over 12 years, capturing actor Ellar Coltrane’s yearly development from childhood to adulthood. The film opens with young Coltrane as a 6-year-old and progresses until his high school graduation at 18. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke play his parents; Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei plays his sister.

The movie was mesmerizing. Each year was its own tightly spun vignette caught up in whatever milestones and miseries are there to be lived at the time. Each year segues into the next at just the right moment. And because the scenes fit together so seamlessly, it was sometimes startling to see Coltrane’s character Mason mature before our eyes. In this time-lapse growth, I found myself watching the movie alongside memories of my own son’s transitions. Any mom of a son will connect with 10-year-old boy innocence, when they still smell sweet, when they will still cuddle with you, when they are still playful as puppies. She will also remember the turbulent times, and then recall those tentatively hopeful times when the ground seems to have solidified again, as if overnight.

The movie stayed with me for quite a few days and the more I thought about it, I began to feel almost, well not embarrassed exactly, but awed in a way that I had seen such an intimate portrait of a child’s growth to adulthood. I wasn’t expecting that feeling. This wasn’t a movie in the way we go to the movies expecting to experience a story. What I experienced in Boyhood‘s two and a half hours was a life unfurling before my very eyes. And while there was a script, it was loosely framed. In part, Linklater drew his scene plotting for each year’s filming from whatever might have been happening in Ellar Coltrane’s own life.

Home movies are one thing—you see a birthday party, you relive a graduation or a recital. Boyhood was something entirely different. It made me wonder what it would have been like to see my own life stitched together in such fashion.

Nah. Better to leave this to Hollywood. Although I can see a new industry being born—the “boyhooding” of all those troves of family videos.

His Lens/My Pen #12 — These Geese Aren’t Silly

I kept coming back to this image, trying to break open what it might be saying.

I kept coming back to this image, trying to break open what it might be saying.

When I saw this goose couple that Martin snapped at a park in Virginia, I laughed out loud and wished I spoke goose, the better to understand what they might have been honking at one another. Sometimes Martin’s photos speak to me immediately (though not in goose). A lesson or meditation to accompany the image arrives swiftly.  This couple, however had me stymied.

What was the deeper wisdom waiting to be drawn from this shot?

I love the contrast in their goose necks and their postures because it looks like they are having one serious conversation. But while reaching for an accompanying text, I didn’t want to attribute rigidity to Mr. Goose on the right, nor submission to Ms. Goose on the left. See? Already I’m attributing rigidity and aggression to the gander and submission to the goose. I wanted to anthropomorphize this pair and their exchange, but did not want to make one the winner of the conversation and one the loser.     I returned to the image again and again, always coming up with um, a goose egg.

Then it hit me.  Both postures are ambiguous and open to interpretation. Is the goose on the left being submissive or flexible? What about the goose on the right? How many times is perceived rigidity more truthfully  maintaining one’s principles in the face of silliness or societal pressure. And just like that, the puzzle of what to say about this image cracked open.

We can be quick to judge when a “discussion” we are having isn’t going our way. We  might summon labels – rigid, unfeeling, wishy-washy, spineless – in hopes that such critical words will goad our partner into changing his or her position. This month’s His Lens/My Pen image is a reminder to keep the labeling at bay. To my eye, Ms. Goose and Mr. Gander are telling us to move past reflexive judgment, and strive to see a situation from a perspective other than our own.

Enjoy the geese in a larger format by clicking on the image.

Is there a teen in the house who mistakes your principles for rigidity? Or someone who needs reminding that being flexible on an important issue doesn’t mean caving? Order this card from my Etsy shop. The world can always use a little more understanding.

Reviewing Chef: a real feel-good movie

Chef Movie Poster

Reading Ross Douthat’s essay, The Parent Trap, reminded me of another reason I liked the movie Chef so much.  (Requisite spoiler alert here: I’m going to spill everything. If you haven’t seen it and plan to, close your computer and head to your local theater. Now.)  I’ll get to Douthat’s essay in a minute. For now, here’s what I loved about Chef:

It was delightful. Basic premise—a once cutting-edge chef finds himself out of work due to creative differences with the owner of his restaurant and a bitter Twitter exchange with a food critic that goes viral. He is also a divorced dad who doesn’t quite have the knack of spending four-star quality time with son.

His four-alarm chili of a Latina ex-wife has been encouraging him to open a food truck. When the shitake hits the fan at the restaurant, Chef accompanies his ex-wife and their child on a family visit to Miami where her second ex-husband (Chef being the first) stakes him to a run-down food truck. He and his son (along with a sous-chef from the restaurant) make a cross-country trip back to LA, serving up kick-ass Cubano sandwiches every stop they make. The son cooks and texts, tweets and vines the whole way, ensuring hungry crowds wherever they go. By the end, father and son are tight as bagels and lox, he remarries his wife, and the food critic stakes him to opening his own restaurant.

I kept waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me. I kept waiting for that air-tight never-to-be- compromised plot device where the hero is held back from achieving his goal, where he faces huge conflict and betrayals, where he loses big before learning the ultimate lesson. But there were none. Chef never falters or screws up. His son never cuts off a finger with the set of knives his dad buys him; the department of health never cites them for infractions; his former co-worker remains an integral part of the team, never once trying to wrestle away his success.

What also never happens is that social services doesn’t bring the dad up on child abuse charges for employing a minor and/or sequestering him in an unwholesome and potentially dangerous fire-hazard environment. This is where Douthat’s essay comes into play. Douthat wrote about the increasing way parenting (as we once knew it) is coming under fire. Parents have been brought up on neglect charges for letting their kids walk home at dusk, for leaving an 11-year-old in a car while dashing in to pick up a quart of milk, and most outrageous, police were called when someone saw a five- and seven-year-old run across a parking lot alone. Their parents didn’t know; the parking lot was near the kids’ houses. Really. Someone called the police.

I guess this is what I loved best about Chef: a father and son have an adventure replete with sharp knives, hot flames, serving food to strangers, driving long distances without bathroom stops (this definitely wouldn’t have worked with a daughter), making friends and rebuilding their relationship mile after mile. And no one says Boo.

I say Yay. And even if I’ve spoiled the movie, go see it. Even spoiled, Chef will leave a great taste in your heart.

Debra Darvick reviews Robert J. Wicks’ book ‘Perspective’

Brother, courage comes and goes. Hold on for the next supply.
Thomas Merton

The first of three journals I kept, Elliot's first hair cut, his birth announcement in the NY Times.

The first of three journals I kept, Elliot’s first hair cut, his birth announcement in the NY Times.

The first three years of my son’s life, I kept a daily journal.  Unbelievable, right? Through diapers and colic, first teeth and first words, I made time to record the wonder of our days.

Somewhere in those pages, sleep-starved and overwhelmed I wrote, “I just want to have perspective! I want to know that everything is going to turn out OK.”

Years later I found the journal and began rereading it. I couldn’t help but smile at the mother I was so long ago. Rereading that dramatic and universal cri de coeur, I realized what was impossible to grasp as a new mother: By its very definition, perspective requires time and distance from the very thing one strives so hard to see clearly.

I thought of that journal page when Robert J. Wicks’ book Perspective: The Calm Within the Storm came my way. Instead of time and distance, Wicks guides readers to perspective by “improv[ing] our sense of reality and acceptance of it.” The personal growth goals Wicks writes about are not new, but his approach is worth considering for those who strive for a healthy perspective.

Wicks structured this clear and useful book so that it is rich with bullet points, questionnaires for self-reflection, and carefully honed text bytes that can form the basis for a lifetime of step-by-step personal transformation. In addition to explication, educative text and recollections drawn from his own life and that of other seekers, philosophers, and authors, Wicks shares insights culled from the most up-to-date research in cognitive behavioral therapy and the psychology of optimism.

The chapter I found most intriguing focused on achieving perspective on one’s “personal darkness.” Recognizing that trauma is a part of life, Wicks invites readers to acknowledge trauma as a terrible experience and then recognize its potential as an opportunity for powerful growth and meaning. Reading this chapter, I was reminded of a quote by Thich Naht Hahn: No mud, no lotus.

The young perspective-seeking mother I was might have written that in her journal. And even though I long ceased writing about my children each day, as blessed as we have been, I sometimes still wish I could be assured that everything will turn out OK.

First page of the journal begun when Elliot was three months old. The apologia in red at the top of the page refers to a first three months of feeding and wiping...
First page of the journal begun when Elliot was three months old. The apologia in red at the top of the page refers to a first three months of feeding and wiping…

Care to read more?

A NOTE from ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm …

  • ROBERT WICKS INTERVIEW—Related to Debra’s review, you also will enjoy our in-depth interview with Dr. Robert J. Wicks about his new book.
  • Cover This Jewish Life by Debra DarvickGET DEBRA’S BOOKReadTheSpirit Books produces important books covering interfaith and cross-cultural issues and is proud to publish Debra’s signature collection of real-life stories, This Jewish Life. In this wide-ranging collection of true stories, Debra carries readers through an entire year with dozens of men, women and young people who shape their lives around their shared Judaism. Whatever your faith, This Jewish Life is an adventure in meaningful living. Using Dr. Robert J. Wicks’s language: It’s a book with a valuable perspective on life.