Sunday, September 04, 2016

989. #Blog Elul 2016 1: Prepare

BlogElul 2016 #blogElul

So it's been quite a Year, the kind that requires a capital "Y". Last year at this time I attempted to Blog Elul, and made it to 9 days; perhaps I'll get that far again, or not. I have no expectations. If there's one thing I've learned during the intervening 12 months, it's that you never know what the passage of time might bring. Planning is a nice diversion, but honestly--the universe is in charge of all that. (Spoiler alert: I'm fine! But the journey has been interesting in the ancient Chinese curse sense of the word.)

Elul 1: Prepare. Here's a list of apparently random words you might encounter as prompts in a creative writing class. Contemplate them, and then prepare to write something interesting and cogent that incorporates each in an equally important way:

Salman Rushdie
plastic bags
swimming pool
Benjamin Moore's "Daisy Blue"
chanting (still, and always!)

The successful essay will perfectly describe my year, and perhaps help me prepare for the one ahead. More to come as this awesome month unfolds.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

988. #BlogElul 2015 9: See

Seen yesterday morning from my roof. My favorite part, which took me awhile to notice, is the calm, clear sky at the very center, almost hidden by the little agitated clouds around it.

Monday, August 24, 2015

987. #BlogElul 2015 8: Hear

I currently live with two wonderful young cats, who were preceded a few years ago by two magnificent very old cats. D. was a macho alpha except when confronted by thunder or loud noises, at which time he'd run away as fast as his enormous, jiggling belly would allow. He reminded me a little of Ernest Borgnine in "Marty." He was the strong, silent type, choosing to meow only when something was really, really annoying.

Right before he died, I waited in a little exam room at the vet's office after they took him away to insert the needle that would deliver the drugs to stop his pain and suffering. I prayed that they would keep him back there forever, because it would mean he was still alive.

Then I heard it--not quite a yowl, far from a cry, but loud enough to wake the neighbors. Had I not known it emanated from a sick, frail cat, I might have thought that a crabby old man had wondered in while yelling at the noisy neighbors. How dare you! the sound exclaimed.

The vet brought D., still complaining loudly, back into the exam room. He crawled into my arms, and looked me straight in the eye. I tried to tell him that I heard him loud and clear, and I was sorry, and it would be OK. And after a minute or two he seemed to understand that he was safe and home once again, and lay down with his head against my hand to wait patiently for whatever came next.

986. #BlogElul 2015 6: Know

Here's something I do know: the moon over my dear cousins' house outside of a city is the same one I can barely see, obscured by twinkling apartment windows and myriad traffic lights, over mine. But it's the exact same moon, good to remember any time I feel far away from family, or people on the other side of the world who seem distant and disconnected from me. We have more in common than we often dare to think.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

985. #BlogElul 2015 7: Be

(So much for post scheduling--this was supposed to appear on Sat. night. Better later than never!)

I'll catch up soon with "Know," which I missed yesterday because I was feeling like I didn't know anything. It was just one of those days. But how I aspire to Be is easier. See answer at left: there is no better teacher than a kitten when it comes to enjoying the sheer pleasure of existence. Just yawn, stretch, and claim the space, and (particularly if your belly is full) revel in the goodness of being alive. And then take a nap.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

984. #BlogElul 2015 5: Accept

In junior high school I was neither super cool nor a dork, but somewhere in between. I had friends in each camp, although of course aspired to be popular--but also didn't want what came with that status, namely cigarettes and boys. The former, I concluded after one puff backstage at a school play, was disgusting, and I was in no way ready for the latter. Besides, in order to maintain my cred with the smart, nerdy, good girl camp, it would be unseemly to hang out with kids who were, you know, bad.

But there was this cute boy by the name of Eddie. He was the size of a linebacker, but soft-spoken, and with the face of a cherub. Rumor had it that he'd spent time in "juvie hall," whatever that was. We would smile shyly at each other as we passed in the hallway. I was confused, liking someone so obviously bad, and so never admitted my crush. I simultaneously hoped he'd talk to me and forget about me. The thought of me talking to him was utterly terrifying.

One day in the cafeteria at lunchtime as I was returning my tray, he came over. "Hi," he said, eyes twinkling. "This is for you." He held out a little white box. I opened it, and inside on a bed of cotton was a bracelet made of pretty plastic jewels. "Would you," he said, "go to a movie with me?"

I was astonished. "Um," I answered. "Um!" He smiled back. As if I were in a plummeting aircraft, my life flashed before my eyes. I imagined his cool friends making fun of my romantic inexperience. I imagined my nerdy friends making fun of his (I assumed) poor grades, and having to answer to my parents about dating someone not good enough for me. I saw myself in some distant future, listening to gasps from the crowd as I confessed that I once held hands with someone like him, someone bad.

"I can't accept this. I'm really sorry. I just... can't." His face fell, and then hardened, and he looked at the floor.

"OK. I understand." He turned around and walked away, and never spoke to to me again.

I wish I remembered his last name, so I could track him down and apologize for being such an ass. Yes, I can sort of blame youth and cluelessness for my rudeness, but not entirely. Those of us today who marginalize and shame the other don't have that excuse.

Who would I be now, I wonder, if I had accepted his gift?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

983. #BlogElul 2015 4: Understand

I'm in a book group where we're reading the wonderful and complex Bewilderments by Aviva Zornberg, a study of the biblical book of Bemidbar (Numbers; literally, "in the wilderness"). When the spies return from their survey mission of the Land, she writes, and offer an ambiguous message—it's all milk and honey, but populated by fearsome giants—the Israelites face a paradox: is it good or evil? Do we stay or do we go? They're stuck in a place where they have no choice but to "acknowledge life and death as inextricably interwoven [p.139]." This confusion and disruption forces them to confront "questions about themselves, the world, and God [p.146]." Their existential agony, in a way, teaches them to be better people, which gives them the strength to continue on their desert journey.

Almost exactly three years ago, a friend since childhood stopped talking to me. We were like family; we were sisters. We had an argument of the big, whopping, nasty variety, and she refused to sit down and discuss what happened. And then she simply cut me off. Complete silence. At first I tried to make contact. Then I reached out to mutual friends, and learned they'd been instructed not to talk to me, either. She was facing a serious health crisis, and I wasn't supposed to know if she was dead or alive.

Her birthday came. I didn't send a card. The next day I received an undeniably hostile message from her, just one word. I wrote back with many more words, saying that I didn't understand why she wanted to hurt me, why we couldn't just talk, and so this was goodbye. I would stop reaching out, but would always love her.

I tied myself into knots and then tore myself apart. What did I do to her? I identified a million little sins; surely it was all my fault. I also spoke to many wise people, who pointed out that her behavior over the years had been extremely and obviously dysfunctional. I knew this, of course, but it's easy to make excuses for someone you love: "She's going through a hard time." "She'll realize tomorrow how much that hurt." But it was always the same, and worse. But if course it would get better. We were special, and none of that other stuff applied.

Now I understand that mental illness can strike anyone, and there was nothing special about us at all. I mourn the person she once was and embrace who I am now, with the ability to seek out friends who have space in their lives for my life, and who make me feel good about myself. I'm still sad, sometimes. I forgive her, although can't imagine ever being able to trust her, should she return. (See this wonderful essay on that topic.) I'll send her a New Year's card like I did last year, wishing her all goodness, and will not hear back. It's OK. I'm now on the other side of the wilderness paradox, done with the worst parts of wrestling good and bad, love and not-love, and I really do understand.

Monday, August 17, 2015

982. #BlogElul 2015 3: Search

(Forgive me for another 9/11-related post, but I'm still thinking about my visit to the Memorial.) My mother, z"ll, a bookkeeper by profession, was an aspiring interior designer and architect by dream and imagination. She loved when new skyscrapers sprouted in Manhattan, and would plan excursions to visit and gawk. I remember, in particular, field trips to Citibank (with the slice missing) and AT&T (with the Chippendale top), but the World Trade Center was her favorite by far. We counted down the days to the opening, and then made multiple trips to the very top and a view that seemed to embrace the universe. On July 4, 1976, when tall ships from all over the world gathered in New York Harbor, we managed to squeeze into an elevator—security? what's that?—that landed on the top floor where TV cameras were transmitting the spectacle to the entire world. It was actually a little disappointing, because from almost a mile up the ships looked like matchstick toys. But just being there was enough to make me feel like I was helping to make history in some small way.

The towers falling—being murdered—was an assault on those memories. It was no longer possible to look up at the buildings and re-live those trips. Photos evoked only anger and sadness. I could find no space in the drawers and crevices of recall to place the good times I spent on top of the towers with my mother, and best friends, and my first boyfriend as we chastely held hands and scanned the horizon for the speck of the street where I lived in Queens. For the past fifteen years those memories have been adrift, seeking a spot to land.

When I saw the two pools yesterday that rest in the footprints of the North and South Towers, I knew I could stop searching. My mother would have loved them. I can see her leaning over the perimeter and tracing the names with her fingers, and then listening to the waterfall and smiling.

981. #BlogElul 2015 2: Act

Today a dear friend from college and her family came to visit, and I joined them on a tour of the Sept. 11 Memorial. Even though, thank God, I didn't lose anyone personally, that day was one of the worst in my life. In anticipation of this visit, I've tried to figure out exactly why. Yes, of course, it was horrible and terrible on so many levels, but the thought of that day has always made me feel like running and screaming, despairing and leaving—like punching my fist into a wall and declaring that it never happened. Like never looking down 6th Ave. to see the lack of two buildings (now replaced by one, which I also never looked at). Like avoiding all of downtown whenever possible. I've been aware that, at some point, I needed to stop running away from the memory of that day. Eventually. Not now.

I'm glad that my friend's visit forced me to act, because today was the now. It was unbearably sad, and at first I could barely look at the crushed firetruck, the slurry wall, the last column, pieces of holy things that were once ordinary. I skipped the hour-by-hour exhibits; the day's chronology is already burned into my soul. But then there was the wall of blue squares, a color that had come to signify ugliness now transformed back into its beautiful self. And the reminder of flight 93 and how they sacrificed themselves to save us all. And also the video that began with that awful, awful sound, and all the paper and a mist of almost-breathing dust, and ended with new growth, new hope, and a place for memory to rest. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

981. #BlogElul 2015 1: Prepare

Deja vu... I was here last year at this time, no? Life has continued in the usual way—some good, some (but not too much) bad, some (mostly all) in between, and here we are again. Right now: mostly good! It's a nice way to start the new year.

Today at services the rabbi invited all those who had a goal for the month of Elul to come up to the bimah for an aliyah. He gave us a minute to think about that goal, and I closed my eyes and saw a carousel of intentions, all dancing and vying to be chosen. I opened my eyes and realized I wasn't quite ready to choose, and instead offered a little prayer that Elul itself would lead me to the answer. I happened to be at the bimah already, since I was chanting, which I think was God's way of accepting a compromise. I'm preparing to prepare. It's a start, like this first day of the journey of Elul.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

980. #BlogElul 7: Be

(Just a little behind.)

When I think of "be," what first comes to mind is the question that travelled with me throughout childhood:

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

I considered many possibilities over the years. In first grade I became fascinated with bugs--excuse me, insects, with six legs and a proper thorax. My mother didn't appreciate the ant farm on our fire escape, but I managed to keep it going until they succumbed to the New York City winter. Uglier species were soon displaced by butterflies; I became Monarch-crazed and saved up for and practically memorized Lutz's Field Book, even though scant few pretty flying things ever appeared in Flushing. 

Then I started wearing glasses and, no pun intended, focused my scientific interests on myself. In 3rd grade I fashioned a clay and hand-painted model of an eye, compete with veins, and planned a career in ophthalmology. That lasted until I began to read the comics in the Long Island Press, and instead chose a future as the next Charles Schultz. I drew Snoopy all over my notebooks (the human characters didn't interest me at all). This direction kind of stuck, and by high school comics had turned into drawing and painting, and then in college more painting and graphic design, which is where I remain today (with a side order of painting, digital version).

But that answers only part of the question of what I ended up being. Some of me is an artist. Another big part is a singer (i.e. "alto artist"). Filling the gaps in between is a writer, friend, aunt, caretaker of cats, and person still trying to figure out what to do next, and if I am, in fact, grown up. I hope the coming Yamim Nora'im will help me answer some part of those questions.

Monday, September 01, 2014

979. #BlogElul 6: Search

"... Rebbe Nachman teaches: 'At times, when people are joyful and dance, they will seize one who sits apart in his sorrow. They drag him into their dancing round and compel him to be happy with them. This is also what happens in the heart of a person who is joyful. Sadness and sorrow withdraw on the sidelines, but it is reckoned as a special virtue to round them up boldly and to bring sadness along into joy, so that all the power of sorrow be changed to joy.' (Likutei Mohoran II 23)

Rebbe Nachman knew that for most people, most of the time, joy is an effort and a choice. Sorrow is always available, and we can transform it or let it govern us. There is nobody who does not know sorrow, and yet still Rebbe Nachman said, 'it is a great mitzvah to be happy always.' ..."
—Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek, 

There's a lot of joy in my life, although usually not the woo hoo, let's run around with a bunch of balloons! kind. It's more often the quieter type: moments of love and friendship, small hurdles overcome, the light through leaves of a tree in the park in the morning, colors and textures of paint, a purring cat, a song, a prayer. Like the miracle of the air that surrounds us, these instances of joy can be so closely woven into the background that that they seem to disappear. But they're just waiting for me search for and notice them, and then grab on and dance.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

978. Attempting to #BlogElul. 5: Know.

Every year at this time I try to prepare for the month ahead. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. So jumping into the fray this time around, belatedly, with a few sentences:

What I know:

That art has taken the place of writing for me this year, which is just fine.
That I still, maybe, feel the need to write, so here I am again.
That I work too hard, and so it's really OK when I procrastinate. A little.
That I'm learning how to stand up for myself.
That I'm learning about the kinds of people with whom I need to surround myself.
That I'm blessed for having so many of those people in my life right now.
That I'm really, really lucky.
That living, especially in New York City, is a long, roiling, wavy line.
That if you examine that line closely, it still does contain small, smooth moments of tranquility.
That I'm learning to discover more of those moments.
That I'm learning.

Friday, January 24, 2014

977. Glow

A lovely essay by the Coffee Shop Rabbi--please read the whole thing:

"Chanting My Way into Torah"

Then I begin to notice how the melody comments upon the text: emphasize this word, that phrase.  Make a sort of soprano hiccup (geresh!) on one little preposition.  Gradually the text warms up, or I warm up to it. The little incense table begins to take shape, and glow.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

976. Presence

Thanks to a link in this op-ed by David Brooks, "The Art of Presence," I found this interesting piece about how to respond and react when someone you know experiences a trauma:

A New Normal: Ten Things I've Learned About Trauma

The author, Catherine Woodiwiss, is recovering from a serious accident. She writes, among other wise words:

2.  Presence is always better than distance.
There is a curious illusion that in times of crisis people “need space.” I don’t know where this assumption originated, but in my experience it is almost always false. Trauma is a disfiguring, lonely time even when surrounded in love; to suffer through trauma alone is unbearable. Do not assume others are reaching out, showing up, or covering all the bases.
It is a much lighter burden to say, “Thanks for your love, but please go away,” than to say, “I was hurting and no one cared for me.” If someone says they need space, respect that. Otherwise, err on the side of presence.

I've learned this past year that some people seem to prefer the "unbearable," suffering alone, to its alternative: allowing others in at a time when you're most vulnerable. Allowing them to see you at your worse and weakest, and trusting that they'll love you no matter what. But if you don't love yourself, then it's very hard to accept that others do. Pushing them away becomes a survival tactic to help maintain the status quo—but  ignores the fact that in times of trauma, the old status quo generally flies out the window.

I don't know what Judaism says about this, but I keep coming back to Pirkei Avot: "Find yourself a teacher." In my experience, when I've been at my weakest it's helped immeasurably to imagine everyone around me, from the guy who sells me coffee in the morning, to my clients, to my friends and rabbis, as a teacher, and remember that at my emptiest I can't possibly have any idea of what they might offer to fill that space. So I try to let them in.