Sunday, August 29, 2010

942. Trifecta

Guilt and worry--the signature characteristics of of American Judaism. No, not really, but they often seem to be, especially during the month of Elul. They don't have to, suggested the rabbi yesterday at services. This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, included a long and somewhat gruesome list of curses, followed by a bunch of blessings. The rabbi related it to the blessing and curse of hindsight. We feel regretful when we look back at what we haven't accomplished, but failure is part of the human condition--and we're engineered to learn from our mistakes. But our educational system, and our entire American culture, pretty much, make us feel that we're out of luck when we don't immediately "get it," whatever "it" is. Perhaps--a radical idea--we can think of hindsight as a blessing instead, a helpful and welcome tool to identify what we have't yet achieved, and are still able to. (Or not; in that case, a way to reach closure, and move on.) In context of the current, introspective month of Elul, he suggested we turn things around and try to be grateful instead--OK, I've fallen short of the mark, but look how much it's taught me!--rather than reacting to our shortcomings with that popular trifecta of guilt/worry/anger.

It's a brilliant insight, and seemed much more possible to achieve as I sat in services listening to the rabbi's kind and logical words of wisdom. Today, not so easy. But as I get ready to attend the funeral, in a few hours, of a sweet, lovely man (I wrote about him a few years ago), and lead a shiva minyan for a different grieving family tonight--and another for yet another family on Tuesday*--I am reminded to be grateful for the health of my loved ones, for being able to live in freedom on this gorgeous, sunny, not too hot day, and for the possibility of growth and change, whenever I'm ready for it.

*I must admit that I didn't jump at the chance to volunteer, as I'm a little afraid of being around so much sadness so many days in a row. But all that death taxes the resources of any community, even a large one like ours, and also causes rabbis to run around like crazy providing support to very many grieving people. I can't imagine anything more exhausting; I want to do my part to help my rabbis find a little space to breathe before they have to support the rest of us during the holiday marathon.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

941. Jewels of Elul blog tour: “The Art of Beginning... Again”

This post is part of Jewels of Elul, which celebrates the Jewish tradition to dedicate the 29 days of the month of Elul to growth and discovery in preparation for the coming high holy days. This year the program is benefiting Beit T'shuvah, a residential addiction treatment center in Los Angeles. You can subscribe on Jewels of Elul to receive inspirational reflections from public figures each day of the month. You don’t have to be on the blog tour to write a blog post on “The Art of Beginning... Again”. We invite everyone to post this month (August 11th - September 8th) with Jewels of Elul to grow and learn.

We hope you’ll share the program now with your friends and followers to spread the word about Jewels of Elul. If you’d like to, you can also folllow Jewels on Twitter or join the Facebook group.


Two weeks ago at services, the rabbi spoke about Parashat Shoftim:

Deuteronomy 20:5 Then the officials shall address the troops, as follows: "Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. 6 Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. ..."

This section is particularly appropriate for this time of year, she observed, because it's about our goal for Elul: finishing so that we're ready to begin. Yes, we have the freedom to start anything at any time–but can we truly renew, release bonds, until those loose threads are tied?

Well, it would be lovely if life had the good graces to work according to the Jewish calendar, with resolution achieved like clockwork. But what if I can't make peace with those I've wronged by the end of Elul, or Yom Kippur, or even by Hoshana Rabbah, the day when those gates really, finally, close? Am I out of luck until next year? I don't know—but I don't think so. I love that in Judaism there's always another chance. Year after year we find new light in the darkness on Hanukkah, learn how to be free on Pesah, grow up as ethical beings on Shavuot; starting over doesn't happen just once, even though Elul gets all the press. Remembering that every day is an opportunity to reboot takes some of the pressure off for me at this time of year. But not all of it.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately because Elul for me, this year, is mostly about my role in the process of someone else's re-beginning. As readers of this blog know (all 5 or 6 of you, thank you immensely), a few months ago, incredibly, after 11 years in the National Marrow Donor Program registry I matched with a stranger to be a bone marrow donor. It was scheduled for July, but she had a setback and it was postponed indefinitely. My speechless awe tumbled quickly into anger—how dare God have the chuztpah to offer hope, and then yank it away? In truth, I had no idea of the extent of her illness, or how much hope there ever really was. All I knew was that I might be cheated out of the gift of being able to help.

And after grumbling for a few days, I realized I was more upset about losing my opportunity to do a cool, once-in-lifetime mitzvah than about the recipient's grave situation. I hated this encounter with my own selfishness and impatience, which I tried to explain as a reaction to God's random screwing around with the timetable. I felt completely powerless; it drove me crazy. This was Elul, the time to fix. I wanted to DO something. My Elul for the past 6 years had been about action—rehearse, sing, feel like a wrung-out sponge, and then like a new person. The Elul of waiting around was my old life, been there, done that years ago in Row Z of a moribund synagogue in Queens.

But then I thought about the waiting of my recipient. How could she possibly bear it? Did she try to reimagine time, creating new holidays, new beginnings and endings, in place of the real ones she might never again experience? Unable to take action and grab onto life, to complete any task at all, was she able to glimpse the future through love, laughter, the light of the sun coming through the trees?

I hope so, because this unknown woman (I named her Bracha—all I know about her is that she needs blessings, and everyone deserves the dignity of a name), this Bracha, by the simple fact of her existence and surprise of our connection, has taught me not to stress out over Elul. My beginning for this year happened in March, when I first learned I was a match. Maybe something was resolved in order to create that beginning, or not. It doesn't matter; what counts is that it changed me. I started exercising, to make sure I was in good shape for the donation. I plunged back into the world of dating after a long hiatus; I figured those odds must be better than the ones I just beat of matching to a stranger. Bracha reminded me that life must be grabbed onto, over and over again, to renew even when messy, loose threads of unfinished business stand in the way.

And life may end up fitting neatly into the calendar this year, after all. I recently learned that Bracha is now stable, and the donation has been rescheduled for the end of Sept. For the day of Hoshanna Rabbah, in fact—when the gates symbolically close, and we really, finally, do begin again.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

940. Random things falling off the wall

Elul sure did come in with a bang last week. But I haven't yet been successful with my plans to do the daily exercises in 60 Days, as I did last year. I'm trying, but have been temporarily defeated by an inability to concentrate (for good reasons). I haven't given up, since I know that Elul will not wait; I need to catch up. I got a reminder of this last night, in fact, just in case I happened to forget.

I was sitting at my desk, cranking on all my deadlines, when suddenly—the sky fell. Or so it seemed... a big, heavy piece of it whooshed past my right ear, knocked off my glasses, and landed at my feet. I was frozen for a few seconds, unable make sense of what happened. All I could think to do was get down on my hands and knees and reach around to find my glasses, since the world was now a big blur. I finally tracked them down on the other side of the room, completely bent out of shape.

Only then, crawling across the floor, did I begin to understand what happened. Over my desk, near the ceiling and about 7 feet up, is a big, ugly Con Ed meter camouflaged by an even bigger, heavier wooden box about 3 feet long by 1 foot deep. It's been wedged into the space between the door frame and the ceiling for a few decades, I'm guessing. The meter reader guys lift it up and then shove it back in place without fanfare each month in order to calculate the bill.

Last night, for the first time in its long and uneventful life, the box decided to fall off the wall and right on top of me. My glasses, thankfully, suffered the full force of velocity--had I been wearing my contact lenses instead, the broken and twisted parts might have been my teeth, skull, or eye.

I'm still shaken up, but fine physically—just a little bump on my right temple and scratch above my eye. (I'll know this afternoon if I need to say Kaddish for the glasses.) To say I feel lucky is the world's greatest understatement. But I also think that assault by a falling piece of wall is no different than any other trial, whether it be contracting an illness or losing a love. Or even much different than the good, random things—matching with a stranger to become a bone marrow donor, for example. There are no miracles or punishments; it's all life, one big soup of events that happen, or not. We can control only some of them but, to some degree, can control our reaction to all of them, and that's where I think Elul comes in. Once a year we join with our community to contemplate the spilled soup, and try to clean up the mess. And then we can start all over again with a clean table.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

939. Madness, definition of

Thought for the day, courtesy the fortune cookie I just got at Empire Szechuan:

"The universe without music would be madness."


Thursday, August 12, 2010

938. Agenda

Interrupting the current ongoing story for another ongoing story. A few days ago, exactly one month since I heard from the bone marrow donation people, I emailed for an update. I steeled myself for bad news; if the recipient was sick in July, what were the odds that she'd be strong enough to withstand the procedure just one month later? I prepared to mourn the end of this glimpse into how small the universe really is, and the life of a woman whose name I don't know, but who has become a profound influence. (What would that mourning feel like? I know the pain of losing parents, and even of the death of part of my past--a hole of grief one blindly, painfully escapes over time, if lucky. How much does it hurt to lose something you never really had in the first place?)

The shock of our connection reawakened me to the great luck of my life, and reminded me to discard complacency, a recent trap, and live instead with equal measures of patience and urgency. Thanks to Bracha bat Sarah, I began to pursue some long-dormant goals. I'm eating better, exercising, honoring the good fortune of a healthy body, and feeling more happily alive as a result. And I don't want that to end--I don't want to stop feeling hopeful, as being blindsided by bad news can do. So over the past few weeks I've tried to protect myself, practicing for pain by imagining the worst and then ignoring it entirely. The real answer made me giddy:

"Well, you must have some kind of intuition going on, because I just received an email that the patient may be ready to proceed."

It was the day before Rosh Hodesh Elul--what better moment to begin a journey of change and renewal? Yes, I'm still willing to donate, I answered when they asked (as they must before every stage; I can back out at any time, no questions asked. But if I turn back too late in the process, the patient will die.) Yes, any day is good -- well, actually not. I'm kind of busy during the weeks of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and don't want to run the risk of getting exhausted the week before, either.

They got back to me today with new dates at the end of September, right before Simhat Torah. I had a feeling all along that it would happen over Shavuot. You couldn't script it more perfectly--harvesting the stuff of life during the holiday of the harvest.

I still need more blood tests to confirm that I haven't caught anything nasty over the past two months. Various administrators must exchange paperwork. It's still not a sure thing; I don't believe that man plans and God laughs (well, maybe God does laugh at times--but at our excellent jokes, not at us), but God certainly has agendas about which we have no clue. So I'm prepared for anything. And if it really does happen--I will not only celebrate new Torah the next day, but also the renewal of life. And not just Bracha bat Sarah's, I hope and pray, but mine as well--the miracle of this connection will change me forever.

Monday, August 09, 2010

937. High Holy Days 5770, part 8

(Continued from here.)

The gargling worked, but not entirely. My throat went from feeling like a paving stone on the road to Hell to a mere white-hot coal dancing in the mouth of an active volcano. I continued to search online for sore throat remedies and found this, mirrored on approximately 4,760,000 different sites:

Garlic Honey

Basically: Crush lots of garlic. Add honey. Microwave. Eat. A miracle ensues; health is restored, or so claim thousands of people. Who knew?

So I whipped up a big, steaming bowl. Actually, it wasn't so steaming; I couldn't bring myself to heat it. It was pungent enough at room temperature to bring a large gorilla to tears, and I couldn't help but recall the time my old boyfriend's roommate decided to cook an Italian feast and put so much garlic in the lasagna that I almost passed out. (He rescued me just as I was about to drown in the soup.) Heavy spices and I do not always see eye to eye. I chose to refrigerate the concoction instead.

The bowl of honey and garlic sat marinating for the next three days. I figured it would be more effective after it matured for awhile and, besides, I was afraid to eat it. Very afraid. More and more powerfully aromatic clouds wafted out of the refrigerator each passing morning when I opened the door to get the orange juice until one day I began to consider hiring a SWAT team to kidnap the bowl and dump it at a nuclear testing site. By day four I abandoned any thoughts of actually spooning down the stuff, since its aroma suggested that it might make good rat poison.

By day five, one day before Yom Kippur, I realized my sore throat was gone. I think the garlic and honey was successful after all, even though I never ate it--its very presence intimidated my germs into submission.

(To be continued.)

Sunday, August 08, 2010

936. High Holy Days 5770, part 7

It's almost Elul, yikes. This means I will soon have to stop working 12 hours a day and begin to think about more important things. Meanwhile, just four weeks left to finish the story of High Holy Days 2009. Where was I? Oh yes, Mr. And Mrs. Loud and Louder. So Rosh Hashanah ended, and I returned to real life. Things were great for a day. But the day after that, not so good: I woke up with a sore throat. Not just your run-of-the-mill pain--I never do things halfway--but the kind that makes you want to rip your tonsils out of your head and pour a gallon of ice down the remaining cavity. I usually ply non-life-threatening illnesses with echinacea or Advil and hope for the best, but this was an urgent situation--I didn't have time to wait for nature to take its course. I refused to accept a replay of 2005.

"Well, it could get better or worse in the next few days," opined the doctor unhelpfully after peering down my throat for a good long ten seconds. This was slightly better news than what a different doctor had told me a few years earlier, but still not so good. "Rest, drink plenty of fluids, and if you can't speak the day before you have to sing, call me. I have a few opera singers as patients. Steroid injection," she added.

I did not want a large needle anywhere near my vocal cords, so decided to find a miracle cure on my own. After scouring Google, I learned that established medical professionals and quacks alike seemed to have great faith in the remedy of gargling with warm salt water every hour on the hour. Even though it made me gag, I set my alarm clock and did so. I drank gallons of liquids and forced myself to sleep 10 hours a night over three days, during which I neither left the house nor spoke on the phone. I was determined to coddle this cold to death--kill it with kindness rather than a predictable OTC poison.

(To be continued.)