Monday, January 31, 2005

Yes is a world. So is NO!

About a week ago I had to move some things in the house from over here to over there. In the process I accidentally left one of the electrical outlets formerly occupied by a lamp plug from "over here" exposed.

I know, I know. Call DYFUS! I'm a bad man.

Anyway, as I'm coming back from "over there," I turned the corner and saw Rachel standing next to the outlet, standing very still, with her eyes fixed intently on the socket.

Before I could say anything I heard her quietly repeating to herself, "No. No. No."

And despite the unbearable cuteness of the moment -- as well as the vague satisfaction that some of what we (MHW and I) were saying to her was getting through on a semi-permanent level -- there was, in me, a small twinge of concern.

Sometimes it feels like all I do when I'm with Rachel is say, "NO."

Lick the stick you found in the puddle? "NO."
Put your hand in the toilet? "NO."
Throw Abba's glasses down the stairs? "NO."
Cross the street by yourself? "NO." But there's a fuzzy (stray) dog over there! "NO. and NO." What if I just stand here at the curb until you're not looking? "NO." In that case, can we renegotiate the stick I found in this puddle? "NO."

Yes is a world, said the poet, and all worlds are folded (curled) into it. And it's true. But if so, then No is the antithesis of that world, a breaking.

It bothers me a little, true, that we are so often saying NO to Rachel. But what bothers me more is that I think I should feel worse about it. Not only is there the practical consideration -- HW would (and should) take Rachel and leave if I were to, for instance, give her the go-ahead to cross the street on her own at this point -- but there's the emotional reality of the fact that I don't feel like these are the types of "NO" that cummings was talking about (or not talking about.)

And here I've jumped to the end a little bit, by inventing a distinction between types of No. But bear with me here. I've been playing with this idea of different types of "No" for a little while now, but I couldn't put my finger on what was bothering me, nor could I figure out the kuntz (secret, trick; it's a tough one to translate) of how to talk about it.

Luckily, Der Aibishter zu helfen (Hashem helps). (Aibishter is Yiddish for "most high.")

I did something a few nights ago that I'm not incredibly proud of. Rachel's got this thing. Her crib is right next to the light switch for her room, and a long while ago she learned to turn on the room lights when she was bored or didn't want to go to sleep or wanted to do pretty much anything. She even knows the word, "light," though she pronounces it "yight."[fn1]
[Fn1:] That's just gratuitous "my kid is so cute" information, to jump in on the whole parental blog as narcissistic exercise bandwagon. NYTimes article (registration required, maybe some money); Google search; Accoona search. (See footnote 3.)
Normally this tendency is awesome; there are a lot of days when she'll wake up, hit the lights, grab the sippy-cup full of water and some books that we leave by her crib, and "read" for half an hour before calling out for us. Not only is this one of the cutest! things! ever! but it's a tremendous gift for MHW, who gets that extra half-hour of sleep. And yes, we realize we have a freak-a-zoid baby and I shouldn't have said anything because now it'll never happen again. But still.

Recently, though, she's been turning on the lights in an effort to fight bedtime. And normally even that's okay; Just going in and turning it off would play right into her hands, so we generally don't, and since she's not distressed, but a little bored, she ends up sitting in the crib, quietly, reading or babbling to herself, until she falls asleep. She'll turn on the light when she wakes up in the middle of the night, too, and then go back to sleep. I don't like it that she sleeps with the lights on -- I just think it's probably bad for her; I know I don't sleep as well as I do when it's dark -- but I'm not so worked up about it.

For the past few weeks, though, we've had this dilemma: The lights are now actually keeping her awake. She gets to a point where she's tired, and lying in the crib, and clearly wants to go to sleep, but the lights are keeping her awake. The lights she's turned on, mind you.

So last night, she was up three or four times, at all hours. HW's exhausted, I'm downstairs in the "office," with miles to go before I sleep, and the little one just refuses to go down. It's not just that we're miserable (though that's certainly a part of it), it's that she's making herself miserable, too. And it keeps coming back to the light that she keeps turning on.

So, finally, it must have been around one or one-thirty in the morning, I got a little frustrated. Okay, a lot frustrated. I got up on a stool, popped the fixture off the ceiling, and took out the bulb. Rachel was watching me the whole time, and while I don't think she got it a hundred percent, she knew something was up.

Then I got down, and showed her that the switch didn't work anymore. "Uh-Oh. Abba broke it. No more! All done." (Except for the subject of the first sentence, these are phrases she knows.) The look of abject sadness this elicited absolutely broke my heart, but I still needed her to sleep, so the best I could do was, "Abba will fix it tomorrow, sweetie. Now you lay keppe (lay down your head) and go shluffie (go to sleep)."

I kissed her, and caressed her head, and when she was quietly lying there, I left the room. Ten seconds later she's up and hitting that switch, but after about three or four times, she figured out it wasn't going to work, and with only the nightlight to keep her company she lay back down and (finally!) went to sleep.

I, of course, went down to the office, listened on the monitor, and felt like a terrible father. I couldn't figure out what it was, exactly, that upset me so much, but I felt like I had done something very wrong.

The next day my mother tipped me off. Which is not to say I had a reasoned discussion with her about the night's parenting adventure and she provided some insight. Shya! (good-faith link.) Which is not to say that such a series of events is inconceivable; It's happened... But just that once.

I often say, "there are people who can push my buttons, but my mother installed my buttons." So, one of the buttons centers on the fact that my Mother doesn't agree with my decision to become more observant.[fn2] What she will do sometimes is play dumb about certain things, just so she can ask me questions that she's asked before, questions that are freighted with subtext that, quite honestly, there's not enough time and energy to explain here.
[Fn2:] That would be the understatement of the year.
Something my mother likes to do is to needle me about what could be seen as the restrictions involved in being a frum Jew. What she likes to do is hear that I'm planning to do something or visit somewhere or eat something or do something on the computer and then ask, "Oh, I didn't know; are you allowed to do that?" The written word can not communicate the spin she puts on the word, "allowed," and quite honestly it needs the baggage of years to really give it the effect she's going for.

Now the facts underlying the point she's trying to make are not entirely invalid. There are, in fact, 365 negative commandments, "Thou Shalt NOT" phrases from which are derived any number of ostensibly restrictive laws and rulings. And what my mother sees, from the outside looking in,[fn3] is that there are a thousand different ways that Hashem is telling me to deny myself, to remove myself from the world, to not do and not enjoy.
[Fn3:] This link, directly to the Times, is only free for about a week, and in any case requires registration. This could be problematic for some, so I just linked to the Google search, above, where hopefully there should be some interesting discussion of a very good article. Here is the Accoona search, because I'm fascinated by this new search engine.
And the point I always try to make in return is that what she sees as restrictions don't feel so very much like restrictions; what she thinks of as proscriptive I think of as more prescriptive.

In fact, the Torah makes much of the diametrically opposite idea, that the world is to be enjoyed, and that we will be called to task at the end of our lives for any piece of Hashem’s creation that we didn’t appreciate and cherish. The first commandment, the first time Hashem tells anyone to do anything, is to tell Adam "Eat of these fruits. . . "[fn4] Judaism is not an ascetic religion, and Hashem wants us to enjoy the world He made for us.
[Fn4:] The creation story is told twice, and in this second telling "Eat of these fruits" is the first commandment. In the first telling, it's essentially the second or third commandment, depending on whether or not "Be fruitful and multiply" is read as a commandment or a blessing. Either way, though, the point stands.
The negative rules as much as the positive rules are simply a mechanism for Hashem to direct the enjoyment of the world so that it's not harmful to me, either physically or spiritually (not least because Judaism rejects at some level the distinction between the two types of harm).

Huh? I realize that's a fuzzy idea. But think about me and Rachel. I've joked elsewhere that MHW are giving up modern conveniences for the sake of baby-proofing, but that joke was exactly that -- a joke. I like indoor plumbing and electricity; I like hot water, and so on. More importantly, those things are useful and good for Rachel, too. But there have to be restrictions on how she gets to access those things; there has to be a very careful channeling of the way she interacts with electricity and hot water and the ever-fascinating toilet. Then there's things I couldn't make go away even if I wanted to: Traffic. Weather. Strangers. Like that. She's allowed to interact with those things. In fact, she has to interact with those things. But there have to be a lot of rules about exactly how and when she does so. And in fact, sometimes those rules will simply deny her access to those things until she's older. And sometimes, those rules will deny her access to those things at all. (e.g., the only appropriate interaction with nuclear waste is distance.)

I show Rachel the world around her, and her mandate is to "eat of these fruits," to enjoy and experience and engage the world. But sometimes -- and in fact a lot of times -- I have to say, "NO."

But here's the thing. (The kuntz , if you will.) Usually, when we say No, we're saying it primarily for Rachel's benefit, protecting Rachel's interest. And here I'm going to make a jump, and I'm not entirely sure this is accurate, but I feel it's accurate. As a result of that, the "no" has a lot of "yes" mixed in. Except in exigent circumstances, it's very rarely "No" alone. It's usually, no-with-an-explanation, or no-with-an-option. Even when it's a straight out no, it's usually at least preceded by a validation. And even when Rachel doesn't understand the specifics of that, she understands that the "no" comes from a place of love, and someone who's interested in taking care of her.

So it's usually, "No, sweetie, that's not safe for you," or, "No, Rachel, if you put that in your mouth you could get sick." Or sometimes, "Rachel, you know that's not allowed. Do you want to throw the ball instead?" Or, "Abba knows you want to pet the puppy. And most puppies you're allowed to pet. But that one, sweetie, that one looks rabid, so No."

Or at the very least, "I know, sweetie, I know. You're sad because you want Abba to stay and play with you. But Abba has to go to work now."

And that's why I feel so bad about the light bulb incident. Because while I could rationalize that it was about getting her to go to sleep, mostly it was about me and the work I had to do. And there wasn't any explanation or apology; it was an arbitrary exercise of power directed to the furtherance of my own self-interest. Sticking with my paradigm of two kinds of "No," it was the wrong kind.

There's the difference between my mother's understanding of the negative commandments and my own. When I hear Hashem say, "No," I'm hearing the same thing that (I hope) Rachel hears from me. I'm hearing, "No, child, that's not safe for you. I know you think it's safe, but it's not." Or, "You know you're not supposed to eat that food. How about this food?"[fn5] Or at the very least, "I know, sweetie, I know. You can't imagine life without X, but X has to go now."[fn6]
[Fn5:] In fact, there is a teaching that there is no flavor of non-kosher food that is not available somewhere somehow in kosher form.

[Fn6:] I've got another post about joy and sorrow floating around in my head, and when (if) I ever get that one written I'll edit this footnote to refer to it.
Mom, on the other hand, just sees the "No." She doesn't want to see the love underneath it, and so she doesn't hear the "yes" that's folded inside of it, or the promise.

The reason I'm not as bothered as I thought I should be by the litany of "No" that Rachel hears is the same reason I'm not bothered by what could seem like the litany of "No" that I hear from Hashem. I'm not bothered I know that they're the right kind of "No." (Between me and Rachel, it's mostly that way; between me and Hashem we can safely assume that it's always that way.) It's the kind of "No" with a Yes folded into it, the kind of "No" that's also a world -- a world with wonder and possibility curled skillfully inside of it.


PS: The particularly observant among you might realize that I've back-dated this entry by about 20 hours. I really wanted to have this one sometime in January, and thanks to the magic of Blogger, I can have done so!

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At Feb 1, 2005 3:29:00 PM, Sarah said...

This is a really beautiful post. Thanks so much for sharing that.

At Feb 2, 2005 1:23:00 PM, Anonymous said...

I think there was a Yes in your No; you did want her to get some good rest and break the habit of turning on the light in the night. I think this was probably a good way to do it. Had you just moved the crib that day or the next day, the issue would resurface once she's in a bed and can walk over to the light switch at will.

I enjoy your blog.

At Feb 2, 2005 1:39:00 PM, Anonymous said...

Welcome back- another great post, by a long time lurker..

At Feb 3, 2005 9:05:00 AM, Anonymous said...

One of the things I try to do is give full explanations before simply saying "No." Like, when COlum pulls my books off the shelf, I don't say "No!" (unless I'm tired or cranky, then sometimes I might) - instead I say something like "Colum, you know you're not supposed to pull Daddy's books off the shelf." Colum understands this, and yesterday, for the first time, he put one back, and then a second one after I asked him to.
I don't knwo how old Rachel is, but I'm also giving him consequences and options now - like, "Colum we don't throw the choo choo; we only throw balls. If you throw the choo choo again, I'll take it away."
He understands that too, and often will run to get a ball and start throwing it.
"No1" is fast, and easy to rely on in a quick moment, but toddlers understand almost everything we say, and so I try for complete sentences when I can.

I still end up saying "NO" more than I'd like, as evidenced by the fact that one of Colum's favorite songs is They Might Be Giants' "NO!" -

No is no
No is always no
If they say no, it means a thousand times no
No plus no equals no
All nos lead to only no
Finger pointing, eyebrows low
Mouth in the shape of the letter O
Pardon me -- No!
Excuse me -- No!
May I stay?
Can I go?
No, no, no
Do this -- No!
Don't do that -- No!
Sit, stay, roll over
No, no, no
Finger pointing, eyebrows low
Mouth in the shape of the letter O
Red means stop. Do not go.
No, no, no
- John

At Feb 3, 2005 9:18:00 PM, lysb said...

I love you. You've put something into perspective for me that I've been talking over with my husband for weeks now. I hate to always be the one to say 'no' but I always explain to all the grandkids 'why'. I still felt bad that the answer was always 'no' & with the crew I have thats a lot of 'no's. Putting it into terms like 'wrapped with love' makes me feel better. May I steal your idea?
Just so you're prewarned. My blog is alot more graphic & I don't mean as in artistic. If you visit I wouldn't want you to be shocked.

At Feb 3, 2005 9:23:00 PM, Pgh Femme said...

Oh, I'm so glad you're back! What a lovely post from a wonderfully thoughtful father.

At Feb 3, 2005 9:44:00 PM, Anonymous said...

As always, an intelligent, thought-provoking post!

At Feb 4, 2005 1:27:00 AM, Frumdad said...

Sarah -- You're welcome and thank *you,* for commenting, reading, etc. Also, if you are who I think you are, then thank you as well for your blog. If you're *not* who I think you are then I may be a reader of your blog as well, but I don't know that, do I. Sorry, that's all confused. Either way...

What I'm trying to say is, "aw, shucks."

Celeste -- There could have been a yes in the no, so to speak, but I don't think there was the way I did it that night. I didn't explain, I didn't apologize; I was, to be unflatteringly honest, a bit more concerned with my own sleep than hers, and to that end I exercised my power over her arbitrarily. That's what was bothering me.

You're right about the reason I want the room dark, etc. and I think it would have been fine if I had taken the moment to explain what was going on and why, and (even better) to give her some control over the situation ("If you turn it on again, I'm going to have to unplug it"). But I didn't, and that was why I was upset with myself.

Anonymous1 and Anonymous2 and PghFemme -- thanks. It's good to be back.

lysb -- you're welcome to the idea. (Though I'm obligated to note that the expression -- i.e., the blog text itself -- is copyrighted.) I surfed over to your blog; when you said "graphic" I expected NSFW so I turned off image loading, but then I say you were talking about language and circumstance, the graphic-ness of which doesn't bother me. I try not to cuss myself and I don't like it on this blog, but it's not like I've never heard that stuff.

On the other hand... WOW. You have so much more to worry about than whether or not you say "no" to your grandchildren properly. Wanna be nice to your grandchildren? Get the apparently alcoholic borderline-abusive step-grandfather out of the picture ASAP.

John (Colum's Dad) -- First: 123456789.. En! That was awesome. Second: I was so totally going to work in a link to the TMBG song somewhere, but then I forgot. Thanks for filling in the gap. Third: Rachel's about a month and a half older than Colum; she's a little less verbal than Colum, but she clearly understands everything. I do the explanation and full sentence thing when I can, as well.

At Feb 8, 2005 5:43:00 AM, Yael - Ein Shem said...

I've been reading on and off and enjoying your blog. We should get your mom to speak to my mom who, to put it mildly, is not happy with my becoming non-observant. They could try and figure out who has it worst.
In any case, don't fret too much until you say - "because I said so". I've been on the verge of that with my two (ages 6 & 4.5) and so far have been able to stop myself.

At Feb 9, 2005 10:47:00 AM, A Simple Jew said...

Great Post! Thank you for sharing this.

At Feb 11, 2005 2:20:00 PM, Jenorama said...

That is a great post. Thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting today!

A friend of mine bought, at radio shack, these devices that you can simply (through your outlets and remote control) install in your home which will enable you from your bedside to turn out Rachel's light when you want to. If you are very computer savvy, there is even a way you can hook it up to your computer and put the light on a timer, so it will go out on its own at a certain point every night.

Then you can say "Yes, but..."


At Feb 12, 2005 11:57:00 PM, Shevy said...

Great post. I have the opposite problem. My son needs pitch darkness in the entire house to go to sleep..

To each their own (cuteness), huh?

At Feb 17, 2005 11:54:00 AM, Shevy said... sound like a really great dad. Lots of nachas.

At Mar 6, 2005 11:33:00 AM, parcequilfaut said...

Frum D (haha! You have a rap star name now!):

Found your blog while reading over at The Barren Season -- when you indicated that G-d learned to say y'all from watching Dukes of Hazzard I 'bout died. So I thought I'd come over here and say holla. (Just a note: not Jewish, not Orthodox, but a reasonably well-educated person who finds both subjects fascinating; as someone raised in a very oppressive sect of fundie Xtianity, the compassion I find in modern Judaic practice, the logic, reminds me that not all monotheists have one track minds, and that's a blessing, if not a mitzvah.)

Then I found this post, and it resonated. There's a Taoist idea, "Say no to say yes" that deals with boundaries. Saying "No, you can't pet the strange dog" says "Yes, I want you to live to be old and can't allow you to put yourself into danger." Saying, "No, you can't turn on the light, even if it means Abba has to cheat a little" says "Yes, I want you to be a healthy, happy child, and allowing you to keep yourself awake does not achieve that goal."

G-d does similar things, but you've explained those better than I. One of the things that made me question my first faith was that so many of their prohibitions seemed wildly illogical -- Miriam danced with joy, why is dancing wrong? The Israelites travelled through the Red Sea together, why can't women and men go swimming together? David played the harp and sang, why does our song service have to be instrumentation free? When no one could ever give me good answers, I decided that illogic is a human trait and struck off to find G-d somewhere more logical.

No to say yes. Blessings. And, um, you crack me up.

At Mar 9, 2005 9:01:00 AM, Mirty said...

You're a good daddy and doing a great job! Nice to hear that someone in the world still says to their babies, "go shluffie"!


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