October 7, 2008
Sukkot — the Festival of Booths — is upon us, and the Menorat Hama’or teaches: “The commandment to dwell in the sukka is intended to teach us that a man must not put his trust in the size or strength or salutary convenience of his house, even though it be filled with the best of everything….”
A timely quote, since my husband and I are in the process of downsizing. Sukkot encourages us one week each autumn to reframe the familiar tenets of shelter and home. For one week we live — or at least eat — in these fragile open-to-the-sky dwellings. Once, so we’re told, we wandered in the desert, secure only under the Shechina’s embrace. But now, be it desert or metropolis, hut or McMansion, the sukka is there to remind us that true security comes from above — and not within — our walls.
I think about this as my husband packs up yet another box of books for the giveaway pile. Since our decision to downsize — timed with our youngest child’s departure for college — we are emptying our house of all unnecessary clutter; soon we will put it on the market.
Our family and friends are aghast at our decision. I imagine they think it premature: One minute we’re hosting a large high school graduation party and putting up out-of-town guests and the next we’re taking out the leaves in our dining table in anticipation of future space issues. But our house has felt oversized since our older daughter left for college four years ago. With her sister following suit, we’re uncomfortable with two people rattling around on three floors.
What’s more, we’re looking to rent an apartment, rather than buy a new house. We want freedom from the upkeep: Let someone else deal with constant and costly repairs.
“What about when the kids come home?” our puzzled friends ask.
Oh, we’ll always have a room for them. Not the same room they have now, and not their own room, but a room with two beds and reasonable storage for what they’ve left behind. Our older child moved to Boston after college and is happily ensconced in her work life there. How often will she actually come home for more than a weekend?
Maybe our friends are really saying: You finally have a lovely, grown-up home. With your kids gone, don’t you want to savor that space and quiet? Aren’t you ready to relish the sense of rootedness that you’ve earned?
I think for many people that makes complete sense. It’s a wonderful thing to grow old in a family home that can serve as a home base for your children.
But my husband and I seem to be drawn to lighter structures.
It’s a bit analogous to the way many of us lived when we were in our 20s. No one was too weighed down by possessions, partly because we moved around a lot, and partly because it took us a long time to settle down. We didn’t mind, then, sharing our bathrooms, apartments, potluck dinners, or sleeping bags on the floor.
Something about that ease and fluidity is a good antidote to stodginess. And though it’s natural that age brings with it a greater need for comfort, I hope I don’t get so set in my ways that I would never sleep, if need be, on a friend’s couch or air mattress.
Or eat some meals in a leafy, outdoor hut with no heating.
The sukka reminds us that man-made dwellings are impermanent. That’s something, as Jews, that we’ve had some experience with.
My husband has finished weeding out our books. Now he’s gearing up to start on the kitchen. Though this move is minor — not even a blip compared to leaving Germany or Spain — there are nonetheless pangs when you leave behind objects and views that have quietly sustained you over the years.
But my younger daughter is off to a new adventure, and so are we. Though we’ve pared down our possessions, we’ll still have, unlike the sukka, a real roof over our heads. With the help of God, we will continue to stay warm and safe and dry.
And someone can always sleep on our couch.
Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer in Providence, RI.
Tiller of the soil
You listen to the thump
the dirt makes as you
spade it on to more dirt while
you till the garden by hand because
the Roto-tiller is broken and
you push the spade in the ground
with your foot, turn a clod of dirt
over and lay it diagonally in front of you,
working your way across the garden,
in rows, left to right, then right to left,
so you don’t step in the dirt
that’s already been spaded, and you realize
you still have to hoe and rake
the soil before you can even plant
any seeds, and then you’ll have to water
the seeds each day and care for the plants
as each breaks through the soil, stretching
towards the sun, and you’ll worry that
there will be too much rain or too little,
and you’ll fret over the eggplant
in the southern corner of the garden
that keeps losing its leaves, and your heart
will overflow as the crops begin to come in,
and you’ll rush to the house to show anyone
who is there the first of the tomatoes that seemed
to have suddenly ripened in the noonday sun,
and you will begin to wonder if this is why
Cain did not give God the first of his fruits,
when he made an offering, why he brought
the poorer quality fruits, why he wanted to keep
those first fruits for himself.
— Janet R. Kirchheimer