Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Nicole Graev Lipson, “Tikkun Olam Ted” (non-fiction) from River Teeth #22.2

River Teeth Journal illustration
I’m sitting with my son on the floor of his first-grade Hebrew school classroom, both of us drawing, according to his teacher’s instruction, what we’d like to do to repair the world. My four-year-old daughter, tagging along for the morning, is also drawing, and though she’s young for this assignment, she gets the basic idea. She scribbles blotches of flowers on her paper while I add a woman – me? – beside a compost bin, depositing food scraps. I’m feeling pretty good about myself for being down here on the rug, in the thick of things, while most parents sit in a semicircle of chairs, watching from afar. I am a very engaged mother, I think. I am modeling enthusiasm for my children!

If you’ve read other lessons-learned essays, you know what’s coming next: a dramatic shift, knocking that feel-good moment right on its head. And you know how the story will end: with a reprise of feel-good, a clearing of the air, a lesson learned. No surprises here; it’s a nice little story of parenting, set against the background of Kabbalah.

In that opening scene, instead of drawing an appropriate child’s-eye image of fixing the world, Lipson’s son has written, “I LUV MI PENES.” It’s every parents’ nightmare, hilarious to onlookers, and, she acknowledges, as a future can-you-believe-it anecdote. A five-year old pipes up on the bus: Mommy, what does sex mean? Or an eight-year-old asks why these napkins are feminine (I don’t think that happens any more, since, thank Zeus, they’re called pads now, but once upon a time…). Things don’t get any better when, after mom hides his proud creation in embarrassment, he then writes: FEK MOMMY. Hey, it happens.

The counterweight is a simple introduction to Kabbalah: not the celebrity version involving red strings, but the real deal, the intense physical and philosophical version begun in the thirteenth century and developed by Isaac Luria in the sixteenth century. There’s a mooc for that, and it was one of my favorites. In this case, one of the key ideas is Tikkun Olem, fixing the world. Tikkun Olem Ted is a children’s picture book about a little boy named Ted who finds small ways to repair the world: feeding birds, recycling, and so on.

One of the key concepts in this essay is from the creation story of Kabbalah, a story complementary to the account in Genesis: God fills the universe, then contracts to allow space for the world to exist. “In this version of the world’s beginning, God does not so much impose or demand, but pull back and allow.” It’s a lesson not lost on Lipson, emphasized by her sister as she later commiserates on the day:

“So he got angry at you for ruining his penis joke,” she says.
“Well, yeah,” I say.
“And to deal with that anger, he expressed his feelings on paper, in writing?” she says.
“I guess.”
“Even though he has had a language delay, and gets Early Intervention, and writing is hard for him?” she says. “He didn’t yell or scream?”
I don’t say anything.
“That’s a fucking awesome parenting success story, if you ask me,” she says and then she sits down on the couch next to me and reaches for the remote control. Outside the window, the barren March afternoon darkens to evening. Inside, the television blooms neon, illuminating Jacqui’s face in joyous flashes.
I’m beginning to see how I’ve gotten this day all wrong.

I don’t have kids, so I don’t really have standing to pass judgment, but I’d say any parent who worries about whether they’re doing a good job of parenting is probably doing a great job. As the essay shows, it’s when you think you’re doing great that you find out you’re not. Welcome to the agony of parenting, paradoxical version. I found it to be a delightful essay. Predictable in its comforting message, but amusing and touching in its telling, and intelligent in its kabbalic setting.

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