Tuesday, April 21, 2009

813. Yes, same topic as yesterday

10-minute writing exercise from my last writing class of the semester, prompt: "A time when a possibility opened to you through art (or music, dance, etc.)."


For the past 20 years I had seen them only at funerals--six in the last seven years, in fact--but my niece M. remained a stranger. I remember her as a scowling, angry child who didn't want me to play with her toys when we went to her parents' house--my much old brother and his wife--every other Sunday afternoon.

We sat in the restaurant, M. and I and a collection of cousins, eating pasta and marveling at how happy we were to discover that we really did like each other after so many years apart.

"Were you like sisters when you were kids?" asked R., recent girlfriend of L. I froze. I had no idea how to answer in a way that a newcomer to our complicated family constellation would understand.

"Well..." I began.

"Her father and mine didn't talk for a long time," M. interrupted before I could go any further. "You know, I think it was our fault. You were the prodigy and I was the black sheep... They argued about us all the time." She looked me squarely in the eye, blaming me, without words, for her years of estrangement.

But it wasn't my fault! I wanted to scream. I was just a kid. I smiled instead. "Well, maybe. Hey, how about this dessert?" I tuned around and stabbed a piece of R.'s pie with my fork.

Finally, after we all hugged and kissed goodbye and vowed to stay in touch, I walked down the block and tried to pick up my heart. It remained, mixed with tears, on the concrete beneath my feet. I walked quicker and quicker, and the rhythm of my steps reminded me of Hallel, the prayer of praise I had heard every day that Pesah week. The tune became louder as I reached Grand Central, and I suddenly realized I was speeding down the street as light as I had been weighed down just a minute before. "Betzeit Yisrael, mi Mitzrayim," I sang to myself, "the mountains skip like lambs, the hills like rams." This song of skipping, laughing hope, and not M.'s anger, was my reality, today and any other day I wanted it to be, and nothing could change that.

Monday, April 20, 2009

812. Dinner and Omer

I'm trying to count the Omer this year. I'm doing better than in the past; I missed just one day at the beginning, and have been reading and thinking about each day's kavannah, spiritual intention. Saturday night, the beginning of day 10, was "Tiferet of Gevurah," compassion in discipline:

Underlying and driving discipline must not only be love, but also compassion. Compassion is unconditional love. It is love just for the sake of love, not considering the other's position. Tiferet is a result of total selflessness in the eyes of G-d. You love for no reason; you love because you are a reflection of G-d. Does my discipline have this element of compassion?
Exercise for the day: Be compassionate to someone you have reproached.

—From meaningfullife.com

How is it that we sometimes hear exactly what we need to hear? Hamakom hazeh: God is in this place, and it's easy to stumble past without noticing. I read this Omer paragraph after returning from dinner with some members of my family whom, over the past few years, I had seen only at funerals. We decided to change this habit, which arose not only because the entire generation of our parents had reached ages where death is an unfortunate inevitability, but also because we had stopped trying to do anything else. We were tired, complacent, not yet willing to take responsibility for making plans that had been the jobs of others for so long.

Not everyone made it to the dinner. But one important person did, and she and I were really happy to see one another. Then we started to talk, and I felt like I was falling into an abyss. I wanted to crawl out as fast as possible, and run away. We had lived through the same events, she and I, but had come away with different conclusions—and hers, in many ways, reflected answers I had chosen not to believe. I've learned to live with and find goodness and redemption in my interpretations. Neither of us can know the truth; all the original players are gone. But I realized on Saturday night that she still carried those ghosts with her on a daily basis, whereas I've put them where they belong: not out of my life, but away, safe, in a place that lets me change, grow, and forgive.

I know she wants to revisit the source of her pain, and I do not. I'm content to know that our small group can acknowledge that we've grown and changed since childhood, and can relate to one another in new ways. That's not enough for her, which makes me angry, because with acceptance of her presence in my life comes the inevitability of future pain. This makes me angry and resentful. Enough already.

So I came home and started to cry. Then read the above kavannah, and realized that although I had every right to be frustrated, I also needed to temper my feelings with compassion. We're all at different stages of our journeys, and she has a ways to go. Being a part of it will be challenging, and I'll need to tread carefully and with gevurah, be strong and disciplined, and protect myself along the way--but always in the company of tiferet. I can do this.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

811. Connection

In case you were wondering, yes, I'm still a little obsessed with Twitter. But more than that, fascinated by what "social media" in general--all the new, high-tech ways we are discovering, as a society, to be connected--says about the basic human need to reach out to one another.

And I did not at all agree with this New York Times article:

Let Them Eat Tweets: Why Twitter is a Trap

To summarize, author Virginia Heffernan quotes cyberbunk writer Bruce Sterling at the tech conference SXSW who pronounced, essentially, that connectivity is poverty. "Poor folks love their cellphones." By "poor" he didn't mean just the economically disadvantaged, but also the emotionally lacking--those who have to reach out to everyone in the universe for "ambient awareness" because their "private gardens" are neither safe nor secure. "The vibe of Twitter seems to have changed: a surprising number of people now seem to tweet about how much they want to be free from encumbrances like Twitter," she writes.

This may be true (and sad: we are masters of the medium and our own time, not the other way around), but to me it doesn't say that the whole concept is wrong--just that its evolution is a work in progress. I was reminded of how exhausted, both physically and socially, I felt after attending five long mornings of services this Pesah (the first and last two, and one in between where I also read Torah). I wasn't the only one, as the rabbi noted on the last day of the holiday. But by making the choice to be a part of something larger, he said, and acknowledging that we want and need more than just our own company, we become stronger. Just because it's hard to get out of bed all those mornings, shlep to shul, and repeat the same prayers over and over again doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. In a religious context, this kind of connection is an expression of God's presence--but that's just one interpretation. Just as diversity was the reason why we evolved and survived as a species, so we also need to reach beyond our private gardens and form communities in order to continue to thrive and grow. And "community" today means not just the folks in one's neighborhood or house of worship, but also those on the other other side of the city, or world, who say, do, or think something we find interesting.

Right now, social media seems to be the expression of that original murky, primordial pool in which one amoeba decided to swim over to another, beginning life as we know it. We haven't yet found the right balance between living in real time and needing to announce electronically to the whole world what we ate for lunch, but we will. The last thing we should do is reject the whole idea before we can work out exactly how to use it.

810. Time

On the second day of Pesah, the rabbi reminded us about time. Slaves can't control it but we, as free people, have that opportunity. We have mastery over time; we can choose when to work, and when to stop.

Well, somewhat. I tried to remind myself of this important truth these past few weeks whenever a deadline bumped into the beginning of parts of the hag, and the need to sleep collided with a deadline. It's been a little crazy, but much fun. I hope to resume semi-regular blogging and write about the seder I led, the new family members I got to know, the Torah I chanted (5 out of 8 days). I am a free person; the choice and power to control time lies in my hands. But freedom isn't easy.

Before I head off to brunch with friends (a true urban marker of freedom, as we all take a break from Sunday cramming of various sorts), I'll start at the end. Yesterday I once again chanted The Birds, Shemini version (they make another appearance over the summer). I knew it well, but my memory balked for fractions of second when I encountered some of the longer, stranger words in unfamiliar handwriting on the scroll. But I also sensed that the yad was trying to push my eyes across the line, egging me on to reach from one syllable to the next. I didn't lose my place; I ambled, instead, from word to word. The effect, for me, was that I got to really hear and listen to each sound, almost as if those birds were making their own music just for me.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

809. Hag Sameah!

Just coming up for air after two weeks of work, cleaning, cooking (believe it or not--a relatively rare event for me), and a magnificent seder last night, about which I hope to write more very soon. For now, as I get ready to go to a second seder where all I have to do is eat, whew, here's the (sort of) story of (not really) Passover, the one we didn't tell last night, courtesy What I Like About Jew (no longer performing, but their brilliance lives on) and Sean Altman: