I’m Freaking Out

I felt like writing a blog this evening. I really did. I’m usually kicked off the laptop by my much more industrious wife so I resigned myself to the 4 year old refurbished Vaio. Bad move — it took half an hour just to get to the browser before my wife, in an act of mercy, handed over the Mac Air. Unfortunately by the time I got my hands on this little sucker I was seriously frustrated, angry, stressed. But am I really angry about all this? Perhaps, but I think not. I think what’s really bothering me is something most men have learned to internalize. Every Monday I have to forget that I had unfettered access to my kids. That as a family we moved through our lives intertwined with the casual intimacy and ebb and flow that comes with family life. Every Monday I have to say goodbye to all that and disappear into the cold dry harshly lit corridors of work-a day ‘reality’.

How odd after a Friday night filled with family, ritual and friends, a Saturday morning of french toast made from left-over homemade Challah and a weekend of sweet and constant company of my darling wife. Come Monday I am awake, showered and gone. So perhaps on this wintry Monday night that is why I am angry. Poor excuse I guess when I think of those that yearn for a decent paycheque. Every night is not the Sabbath. In fact it is said that for six days of the week we “do” so that for the one day we can “be”. The Sabbath, as Abraham Joshua Heschel says, is about the architecture of time but as I think on it, perhaps the effort must be applied to taking the lessons of the 7th day and allowing them to infuse the doing of the other six days of the week.

www.newsabbathproject.com suggestion. Leave your work cell off from Friday night to Saturday evening.

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Growing the New Sabbath Project — Across Toronto and Hometowns Everywhere

Challenge: Looking for 5 – 10 other people who would like to host a New Sabbath (Shabbat) dinner all over Toronto or your city. Let’s build community and keep growing.

Need inspiration? Check out Ted Talk and Alain de Botton on Atheism 2.0

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Push Boundaries and Welcome the Stranger

I was honoured at this past Friday night to have a future school board trustee, future city councillor and perhaps even a future Prime Minister at my New Sabbath table. This future leader is only 15 and her decision is a recent one. I could however appreciate her optimism and her sincerity. Perhaps more interesting and telling about potential leadership was that she agreed to come to our New Sabbath dinner in the first place – it’s not exactly the way most 15 year olds I’ve known choose to spend their Friday nights. We have had young people at our table in the past – but usually they are with their parents and are not here on their own accord. This teen (and her 15 year old counterpart) took a chance – on the suggestion of another new guest at our table — who contacted us through our blog — a social innovator who works with youth in the Parkdale neighbourhood in Toronto through mentorship and the arts — and who wanted to “sample” a New Sabbath Project.

I’d be lying to say we weren’t somewhat apprehensive about welcoming guests had never met before into our home. It’s not something we’d considered when we thought about expanding our Sabbath of “togetherness” to loosely borrow from the book by Pinchas H. Peli and his 1988 book called Shabbat Shalom: A renewed Encounter With the Sabbath. Most new guests come via some older and more well-established guests. Clearly, they didn’t know what to expect either. The religious and cultural diversity was not unlike so many other New Sabbaths we’ve held but the dynamic of having three complete strangers with no obvious connection to any of them was a wonderful exercise in stretching our comfort zone – particularly in a society that preaches over and over to fear the stranger.

Comments both during and since Friday tell me it was a boundary worth stretching. Our guest who initiated initial contact told us he expected more formality and more flash. He was surprised to learn it was little more than dinner in our home with some blessings. In response, I told him since deciding to take what we do “public” as it were — based on what we saw as a crisis in both citizenship and community — we wondered about whether to introduce things that made it more formal. We are still not entirely sure if we should be introducing more structural elements into it but I think the whole point is that if you create a formal atmosphere with bells and whistles and great expectations, it might bring more self-conciousness into what has naturally evolved into what is otherwise an intimate gathering place — even a salon as one guest from last Friday labelled it in his note to us afterwards. What we feel is most important is ensuring it is not just another dinner party full of small talk — but instead a place for bigger conversation (most of the time – kids usually in bed), some cultural and spiritual rituals, and simply making sure you do it regularly. It then becomes more than an occasional dinner party but a disciplined and ritualized way of creating a bit of a fence around the sacred – something that many feel missing in our secular, highly consumerist society.

Perhaps most telling is that another first time guest told us that night how blessed he felt taking part in such rituals – this “salon” as he called it — having grown up in an Athiest home with no cultural or spiritual practice – and thus no anchor. And our teenage guests? Well, by the time they looked at the time, they were amazed it was already 11 PM. They thought it was only nine.

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Chasing Fear and Building Community – One Smile at a Time

While I always welcome more time with my kids under “normal” circumstances, I was somewhat relieved to see my 6 year old off to school this past Monday morning. I know many parents feel the same way after the intensity of the holidays. I felt guilty about feeling that way and I mentioned it at our first New Sabbath Project of 2012. While I am a huge advocate for work-life balance, I found that five weeks at home quite suddenly – first with just one, then both kids – no support, a husband at work, and expectations that I too needed to find paid work (try doing a job interview with a 2 year old crying in the background) – as is currently the case – while keeping up the house and everything that goes along to it – a shock to the system. It felt just as out of balance as being at work long days, having little to do with my kids. I was craving some intellectual stimulation that came with adult conversations and work-related topics.

One of our guests remarked that perhaps many of us simply like our work lives more than our family lives BECAUSE it’s so hard to raise children – and that’s why we spend so much time at work. He hadn’t intended to offend his own wife with the suggestion – but he did. While another guest suggested that men – being the bigger earners generally – which is in itself another story – don’t have the luxury to contemplate work-life balance, I disagreed with him. It’s not about a love of work but about the difficulties that come with raising children in isolation – without communities of women to support each other – unlike the days my mother was home. I would never romanticize the days when fewer women worked outside the home and the lack of choice that came with that. But over the last 5 weeks – at home alone with either one or both of my children, I realized I was suddenly launched into a culture where childcare workers are the majority – and have understandably built communities based on geography, culture and language – and have no interest in spending time with mothers, despite the friendships formed between the children. So, not quite welcomed into the paid childcare worker group and finding so few stay-at-home parents you know well enough to spend time with or connect. Facebook doesn’t exactly cut it in terms of building real, in-person relationships where you look out for each other’s children. It seems no one – including me — is around long enough to invest time and energy into building these relationships. I guess we can’t blame people. But, under the circumstances I’ve described, I can understand why many women opt for paid, out of the house labour.

It’s not that we aren’t trying to build community in our own ways. I’ve been organizing kids’ classes in my home for years while working flexible hours or part-time. In that all that time I have rarely met parents except over email. Even those classes could be seen as part of the over-scheduling of our children and ourselves that rarely lead to relaxed time and unstructured play. People come in, pay a fee, and leave when it’s over.

Some other guests from our last Friday New Sabbath project said their new years resolution was to expand their sphere of people with whom they spend time. Our communal dinner, according to them was a good start. They say they’ve always preferred to stay home but realized that without a dedicated community building “project”, their circle of friends , old and new remained relatively limited. Interestingly, when it came time for blessings our female friend spoke of the people she passed jogging in the park that morning – people who decided to smile back at her as she ran past. It actually stood out and was therefore, worth acknowledging. Sweet but somehow sad, really.

Still, when I talk about putting this together each week, the question I get asked over and over is “how” to do it. One friend and frequent New Sabbath Project guest said that all she could imagine doing on a Friday night (aside from being hosted at our place) was lying down on her couch and doing nothing because she’d gone so hard all week at work. I told her to keep it simple and have friends bring some good wine and a little bit of the food. I told her it wasn’t easy for us and that we had taken some breaks over the years when things had gotten too over-scheduled. But I can’t help but thinking she perhaps missed the point. Perhaps we’re all missing the point.

We’re too busy and too disconnected to connect. Fear telling us we won’t be able to do it – make new friends, make dinners, connect to our neighbours or our larger communities – building walls instead of removing them. May we all take more time in 2012 for opening our homes and joining others – even last minute. Make and share food – smile at strangers – and use time WITH new friends to acknowledge special moments.

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Your Money or Your Life – Part Two

As I look back on 2011, I can’t help but to follow up on a blog my husband wrote last week and write about a recent Leger Marketing poll that had Canadians ranked 23rd in the world when it comes to happiness. Following that poll, a Toronto Star article asked whether we can believe such a ranking. A CBC radio reporter included in his report an expert that said indeed the numbers couldn’t be true.

What a shame that neither reporter investigated the reasons why the poll numbers may indeed be true (I’m certain long, dark, winter days don’t help.)

This poll (and the journalists’ response to it) remind me of a dear family friend who just came into town this week. She and her husband and kids used to live around the corner. Then she got a job offer in the Netherlands (The Dutch are apparently some of the happiest people polled) – an offer the family just couldn’t refuse. It wasn’t an easy decision for her to make. She has extremely close ties with her family and she had no particular problem with living here in Canada’s biggest city – decent job, decent house. Seemed fine – as fine as you can be – juggling a full-time job, a husband who works as many if not more hours than you do and, two kids under five.

But now that she’s been gone about a year and a half, I find it interesting to talk to her about the comparisons between living there versus here. She still loves Canada but what comes up in our conversations over and over again – a big difference — is the institutionalized support for that ever-elusive work-life balance and family more generally that really does not exist here in North America — a work-life balance that many many people argue – gives us more happiness than more money ever could.

My friend can’t completely tie Dutch “happiness” to work-life balance or an overall, institutionalized family-friendly atmosphere, but she says it doesn’t hurt – and sure makes her happier than she ever was trying to fit family into life here in Toronto.

I love the story she first told me about eating at an upscale restaurant when she first arrived there. Terrified of dragging along a couple of 4 year olds, but unable to snag a babysitter since they just arrived, she and her husband decided to take their chances – just in desperate need of a night out. Upon entering the restaurant – preparing for those ever-familiar sneers from both waitstaff and fellow patrons, the hostess instead arrived with menus and a box of lego at the table. My friend was both suspicious and in shock. She is no longer either.

She’s an academic – so let’s consider academia (which is just one of many professions in addition to law, journalism and medicine, that so many women leave after having children). While academics here in Canada can easily expect an 80 hour work week – often at the office – the doors to the Dutch university close at 6 – work at home if you like but no choice — you’re out of the building.

That “no choice you’re out” sentiment was pervasive in pretty much all public places. I recall a day out shopping for a few gifts in town. At about 4:45, sales staff everywhere started shutting down and let you know it. They weren’t rude – but they didn’t apologize either. Here, we call that bad service. There, they call it work-life balance.

My newly “dutched” friend tells me she’s in the minority working the hours she does. Seventy-five percent of Dutch women work part-time. While I don’t know which came first, kids are in school half-days, 2 days a week. Her husband now works just part-time hours so is also the person at home more often. I asked her how families can afford to have one person work part-time hours. She has stopped using the word “cheap” and now says they just live more “modestly”. She says the Dutch aren’t trying to compete with design shows for home decorating and they predominantly vacation in RV’s close to home. It helps that excellent public transit and cycling is well supported by government. Car ownership is not rewarded. Virtually no one has two cars.

We must be careful not to romanticize situations elsewhere. Nothing is perfect. But when another dear friend and long time Friday night dinner guest tells me that if you want a job that matters, you have to be willing to work really long hours and be on call for the rest, I know something is terribly wrong. That we must start talking about why it is that we can only talk about “work” that matters. What system have we created that makes good work and work-life balance totally incompatible concepts? How far have we come when in an effort to create work-life balance, we have to virtually go broke to achieve it? My husband and New Sabbath Project partner says it’s time to “Occupy the Cubicle”. I’m inclined to agree for all 100 percent of us.

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