In which I talk about chanting Torah, singing, life, you name it. This blog is a writing exercise to help me organize my thoughts. Please bear with me for all the posts that are out of chronological order; I'm adding bits of the story as I think of them.
There's just too much to hope for at this particular moment in the world, and in our country. Writing these hopes, in some ways, feels like writing a bad science fiction story.
I hope we all don't annihilate each other any time soon. North Korea, please chill out and put away those nuclear warheads.
I hope our "president" doesn't manage to degrade the character of the presidency to a degree from which we can't recover.
I hope our Constitution, and the lawmakers sworn too uphold it, can remain strong.
I hope that the relentless tide of natural and social disasters won't claim so many lives and hearts as to wear us all down beyond repair.
I hope that this entire country doesn't get so depressed about all the above that we never want to leave our homes ever again.
I hope that the refrain so often invoked these surreal days, "We've been through this before, and we survived," really is the case. Every time is unique, but this time more so. I know I have the narrow perspective of having lived in only one time—but humanity has never before been so easily able to destroy the world with a misguided push of a button.
I hope 5778 brings us hope, and a great deal of wisdom.
As I write this, I'm drinking wonderful coffee and hoping it does its magic so I can wake up after a late night of Selihot. This is the beginning. We studied prayers, we sang beautiful piyutim, we listened, for the first time this season, to the melody that will bookmark each service and help set this time apart from ordinary time. I sang loudly and with complete abandon some songs that I will be singing into a mic over the coming days, a very different experience—equally intense and meaningful, but by necessity more measured.
High Holy Days rehearsals have been completed. The beginning is really here.
The first thing this prompt brings to mind is that what may seen to be the end can also be the beginning. The challenge is to reframe and try to see the situation from a radically different point of view, which can yield amazing discoveries. I think this is the hardest thing to do in life, period.
I have a dear friend who was the victim of a horrific crime. The physical aftermath of the assault altered her life completely, with challenges she never imagined having to confront. And she scaled those unexpected mountains—not without painful stumbles, but also with a great deal of love both given and received. Her life now, many years afterward, is good, full, challenging, rewarding, and truly happy. She's my hero and teacher in so many ways, the best example of finding new paths even when the end of the road is all you think you can see.
My Hebrew name, I was always told, is Ahuva, "beloved." I love my Hebrew name even more than my somewhat archaic English one, which I'm fine with now but was an uncool burden as a kid. Ahuva begins with the same letter, aleph, as my grandfather's Hebrew name, Asher; there's no one better after whom to be named. I grew up hearing so many stories about him that sometimes he seemed to be just hiding around the corner, waiting for the right moment to jump out and say hello. No one ever uttered a bad word about Pops; he was kind, sweet, smart, and ethical, the one you'd always go to for advice and a smile. "Asher" means "happy," and in photos his face is gentle and welcoming, and (within the technological constraints of the era, when you had to sit as still as a stone) clearly, calmly joyful.
But last week I finally had time to looked at a CD of photos and scanned documents from my father's side of the family, painstakingly compiled by a relative. Included were images of yellowed, creased pieces of paper with family records in both my parents' handwriting. I found my paternal grandparents' yahrzeits, the dates they died, which I had never before known. And on another was the record of my birth, with the date and my name written in careful caps in my mother's distinctive slanted hand. Above it was my Hebrew name, in my father's scrawl. But, wait: there were 2 names, Ahuva Rahel, in both Hebrew and English. Rahel? Who?
No one ever told me I had a Hebrew middle name. I stared at it, and read it over and over. I vaguely recalled my mother telling me I was almost named Rachel, and getting a little angry at the time that I was denied such a beautiful name. Maybe this was a compromise? I don't know of any past Rachels among my ancestors, but there are few existing records on either side. My father's grandmother, perhaps?
So my Hebrew name is now bigger and better than ever before, and I will be using it whenever I'm lucky enough to be called to the Torah for an aliyah. (I consulted with my rabbi, who agreed that this discovery is quite legit.) What better time of year to stumble upon such a bounty? I think it means that my task ahead is to try to understand this unexpected gift, this cryptic dispatch from my parents' souls, and live the life that Rachel z"l (zikhroná liv'rakhá, may her memory be for a blessing,) as well as my grandfather z'l, might want me to lead.
Last Monday was the 16th anniversary, which much of this country seems to have overlooked. I did, too, to some degree—there's so much else to worry about right now.
When I think of important dates in my life, birth, graduation, and so forth, and then count back 16 years, the distance feels like another era. Things that happened even a year or two before I was born are firmly entombed in my mind's history. But 9/11, in many ways, still seems like yesterday. What helps fill the gaping chasm in my soul is to look at this installation at the 9/11 Museum:
"Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning" by Spencer Finch
Somewhat reluctantly, I visited the museum two years ago at the invitation of a visiting friend who wanted her children to experience it. I'd done my best to avoid even having to go to that part of the city. Although I had to skip the graphic exhibits that were too close to my nightmares, others—photos of first responders, salvaged steel posts covered with marker scrawls of love and hope—were good to see, and reminded me that we humans can be great at times. The tour guide was calm and respectful, as if we were at a memorial service.
And then we reached this artwork, in front of a wall behind which unidentified remains still sleep. I thought of earlier that morning, when I went running in the park and marveled at the impossible color of the sky. Keeping that blue in my mind's eye, to retrieve when blackness was all I could imagine, filled me with strength and hope throughout the day and unreal weeks and followed. It still does.
Nothing came to mind for this one, which tells me a lot. I'm not so great at speaking my mind. I have many strong opinions, and often do act on them, but am more likely to do so in private. The downside of this approach is that my actions usually don't beget more action, nor energize me to continue to act. Stoking a fire in one's belly requires a community to fan the flames. It's all well and good to volunteer quietly, but every once in awhile a loud announcement is required to demonstrate that we all have the power to prod along change. Volume is not my strong suit. I hope I can figure out a better way to raise my voice this year, and speak what needs to be said, without going too far beyond my comfort zone. (A little beyond, though, is just fine.)
What dare I ask God for at this time of year? My heart wants so much, so much of which is too petty to voice. I need to remember that God knows this, and so my job is to prioritize and push the really important questions to the fore so that God (meaning, the part of God mirrored in me) can try to make them come true.
Since I mostly work for myself, there are days when I have to sit in front of the computer for hours on end. Unless I go out of my way to make it happen, on those days I may well not see another human being. Luckily, a wonderful little coffee shop opened in the lobby of my building, practically in my living room. I stumble in almost every morning as soon as they open, along with an equally ragged crew of regulars: The prim and proper young woman who works for a non-profit, always typing intently on her laptop. The garrulous, friendly man in his 60s of unknown profession, who pays for his cappuccino from a massive wad of bills. (I don't want to know.) The German musician, whose friendship with the other German-speaking guy with the dog I watched blossom. The cable TV producer who occasionally talks about her famous boss. A few impossibly fit trainers on the way to early appointments, who sometimes stay for awhile and have deep conversations about working out. We all smile and acknowledge each other's presence, and unlike the usual custom, make room at our tiny tables. Sometimes there are animated conversations; mostly we remain in our own little worlds and fulfill early-morning obligations (like writing in this blog) over the best coffee in the city.
I love waking up in the company of this eclectic group, who help me feel connected to all those other New Yorkers I don't really know. No matter what, we're in this together. And caffeine really helps.
I really do love to pray. As a kid, as I've written somewhere before in this blog, I never understood what the whole business was about. Adults murmured words to themselves in a strange language; then they sat down, mumbled some more, and did it all over again for a few hours. My father (and, I assumed, all men) engaged in this exercise at home before work, a tallit-draped silhouette standing by the window in my parents' Wedgwood-blue bedroom.
Whenever I tried the mumbling, or followed along with the English thees and thous, they were just words. God didn't answer. When I needed to talk to God, I did so in my heart and soul, with no hoary paragraphs getting in the way. I concluded that praying was an ability that people acquired as they became adults, like how to pay taxes or know when the eggs were about to run out.
Then I became an actual adult, and still couldn't do it. Singling in a choir felt like I was getting close, but the God I was addressing in the words of Bach and Brahms was, most of the time, a Christian one, which was very, very confusing.
When I stumbled upon my synagogue, and learned that my own tradition also had music and beautiful poetic translations that made a great deal of sense, prayer began to work. I hope and pray that I never stop learning.
Rosh Hashanah is in less than a week; the sleepy summer really is over. Last week I began teaching a design classes at a local college, tackling very many more work deadlines and meetings, and going to High Holy Days rehearsals. This is also the week when I traditionally start praying that no one sneezes on me in the subway.
From now until Sept. 20, I intend:
to get a lot of sleep (or at least more than usual)
to remember, every single day, how lucky I am
to go running at least once or twice (the pool where I swim is closed for cleaning until the end of the month, which I know is necessary to do once a year, but I just wish it weren't this month)
to enjoy the practicing part as much as the real thing, which won't be hard
to be patient with myself and others, and remember that we are all flawed human beings, and are trying our best
to do whatever I can to fulfill these intentions during all the months after Tishrei, as well.
This summer, for a new creative idea that I hope will soon become an actual venture, I learned to sew. I started with a 2-hour class at a sewing school and then graduated to College of YouTube, which boasts approximately a million videos about everything from how to pin (not so simple) to how to make your own upholstery (definitely not what I'll be doing). Despite the sewing class I was forced to take in 7th grade, I had no idea of the kind of hand-eye-foot coordination involved. I'm a designer, and so haughtily assumed that picking up the skills of a craft would be a breeze.
Nope. I guess over-confidence was good to get me started, but learning this hasn't been easy. I'm getting better, slowly but surely, but have far to go.
One of my commitments for the month of Elul, and beyond: Every time I sit down at the sewing machine, I will try to remember to thank God for giving me the ability to learn, grow, be creative, and find joy in all those things.
A few years ago I was asked to sing Psalm 23 after Yizkor at Yom Kippur services. (Usually the more senior leaders or real cantorial students do this, but there were none around that particular day.) I was nervous—not because of the singing part, but the emotional. I have many people to think of at Yizkor. More of my family is no longer on this earth than are. The remembering part of Yizkor is what makes the prayer meaningful for me, and I didn't want to bypass that so I could focus completely on singing. But of course I didn't want to screw up the singing because I wasn't concentrating.
I decided to just let the moment happen, and trust that my brain and heart would find the right direction.
I had four uncles, my mother's four older brothers, who all died by the time I was 18. I have very strong memories of them all, even though two died before I was 6: Ruby, dark, quiet, and always smiling. Charlie, sandy-haired, a little louder, a font of funny malapropisms. Moe, proud businessman with a voice like Archie Bunker's, minus the politics, thank goodness ("my little goil!"). And last but not least, Ben, the oldest and quietest, who offered few words in his soft, gravelly voice, and loved me fiercely.
And for some reason, even though their existence has seemed almost mystical for many years—did they really exist, or did I dream them through my mother's stories?—I suddenly felt them next to me at the bima, two on each side. Memories became as close to flesh as possible, just at that moment when I needed someone to put a hand on my shoulder. They remained there throughout the song, making sure I wasn't alone.
For many years, whenever I didn't want to do whatever it was I had to do, I'd consult The List. Often it was an actual, written List, and sometimes just a long scrolling one in my head. I'd count the items, and figure out how crossing out some would organize my life--and by definition, solve all my problems—and also become a wonderful—logical!excuse for procrastinating. The List was mainly filled with things that needed weeding out: Boxes of old clothes. Pre-internet-era photos screaming to be in albums. Almost definitely viable art supplies dating back to the 80s. This stuff required careful examination before I could decide whether to discard it, or give it away to a worthy recipient. Then and only then would the earth balance on its axis.
I did not actually possess a whole lot of stuff. I was an average keeper of things, fairly neat. I made my bed every day. But I always yearned for the apartment version of In-box Zero.
As they say, be careful of what you ask for: you may get it. In Dec. 2015, I was gifted with bedbugs by my upper middle-class next-door neighbor in my lovely, upper middle-class building. She didn't mean to do it. OK, that's too kind: she didn't care, either way. Her only goal was to banish them, in shameful secrecy, from her own apartment, which drove them screaming through the walls to their next victims: me, and the neighbors above and below me. The bugs liked us better than her, and fought with their cold, little hearts to remain as long as possible.
Maybe one day I'll write a book about this, or a whole bunch of blog posts. Dorothy Parker's famous words (upon hearing her doorbell ring),"What fresh hell is this?", will summarize, for now, how I felt upon waking up each morning in my furniture-less bedroom in, successively, a sleeping bag surrounded by a moat of Vaseline; an Amazon rainforest-quality tent; and finally, curled up on a piano bench, wondering how my lovely middle-class life had come to such decrepitude. Finally, after three months of exhausting the talents of four exterminators and a beagle named Sophie, my building and I were bug-free
During this process, I also had to inspect every single item I owned. Everything: each piece of paper, sock, earring, pillow, book, photo. (Not the stuff in my kitchen, thank goodness; that was the sanctuary where I camped out amidst piles of clothing.) Remaining possessions were quarantined in plastic bags with horribly toxic bug strips, and then inspected again in an alley behind my building, just in case. I thought of the aria from Handel's "Messiah": "For He is like a refiner's fire." What remained, at the end, was what counted. I've now retired The List, since I no longer have anything to organize. There isn't enough left.
I still have plenty, though. More than enough. This state of essential spareness feels good. Maybe one day I'll thank God for the lesson. I'm not quite at that stage.
Only as an adult, long after both my parents had left this world, did I understand the extent of their trust in me. When I was in college, in that long-ago era before helicopter parenting, I was embarrassed whenever they called, showed up, or did any of those keeping tabs kind of things that mortify young adults. Truth is, though, I loved it. I wanted my mother to know what happened each day; telling her seemed like the of love, as well as a necessary record-keeping part of life. I didn't share everything, of course—and so when my parents told me how proud they were, which was often, it made me feel guilty enough to not do so much of those things about which I knew they wouldn't be so proud.
In none of those calls did they tell me what decisions to make, or what to major in, even after I chose the most impractical major in the history of majors. They made it clear that whatever my decision, they were certain I was adult enough to have reached it honestly. I remember this gift of trust whenever I doubt my direction. Even when that direction turns out to be wrong, I try my best to believe in myself and understand that I got wherever I did with full intention and conviction.
There's one person in my life I need to forgive. I've been trying to do this for the past 5 years; I have not yet succeeded. We grew up together, and she was like a sister to me. Throughout the years and the ordinary markers of life and loss—loved ones dying, boyfriends moving on (or vice versa), friends (or me) changing—I was certain, in the deepest part of my soul, that she'd always be there. I imagined us approaching 100, in rocking chairs on a porch somewhere in the woods (never mind that we were both city people to the core; fantasies are not rational), laughing hysterically at that thing we did at 15.
I was so invested in our permanence that I chose to ignore signs that, in any other friendship, would send me running. For years I made excuses: she's going through a rough patch; despite [fill in the blank], she really does have a big heart; as soon as she [fill in the blank], she'll start acting normal. When I brought up these issues, I'd be either dismissed or assured that everything was under control. She told me she hated emotions. We argued; I thought we made up, but wasn't sure. She talked a lot, but said nothing.
And then she got sick, and I was worried and offered to help, and she stopped talking to me. I understand the trauma of illness; I waited, and waited some more. I reached out. I learned from a mutual friend that she had instructed everyone not to tell me if she was dead or alive. I felt like I had been stabbed, and was on the way to being dead. I reached out again and again, gently, then forcefully. No response. I'd been unfriended, on Facebook and everywhere else, as if our past had simply ceased to exist.
I wallowed in anger, hurt, guilt, and grief for quite some time, but slowly came to understand the extent of her damage, and I that I'd known about it for quite some time. I just didn't want to see it. Even more slowly, I inched toward forgiveness. I'm not there yet, but every Elul brings me closer. I really want to remember how much I once loved her, and be able to recall those times with joy. Besides, the other, less pleasant emotions just take up too much energy, and I know that carrying their weight is a choice. I want to be able to take the other road, toward love and compassion.