Monday, October 09, 2017

1018. #BlogElul 28: Give

(Written two weeks ago, before Yom Kippur.)

This prompt brings up two two ideas: what I’ve been given, and what I can give. That my body never forgot the ability to swim, even after decades away, continues to be one of the most amazing and mystifying gifts I’ve received this year. Each time I go to the pool I feel my body stretching, getting stronger, rising to the challenge. I never imagined such a thing would be possible, especially at my age and relative lack of athletic skill. Best of all, it’s like flying. When I look through the clear blue and glide to the wall buttressed by water, safe and free, I remember that I can do this in life, too—if only I remember to open my eyes and look for friends and family waiting on the other side.

I can give this gift, too, with the help of God to remind me. I hope that the coming 25 hours will give me greater strength and understanding of how to reach this goal.

1017. #BlogElul 27: Bless

As I write this, we’re just a few hours away from Kol Nidre. I’m lucky to get to listen, imbibe, and absorb those notes, and hear a voice beyond description—and even luckier to be singing two services, tomorrow morning and afternoon. I hope and pray that my voice will fully express my heart. I hope that God will bless me to do my best, and that I will feel those blessings magnified through the kahal and be able to reflect some of them back, as well.

1016. #BlogElul 26: Create

(Written two weeks ago, before Yom Kippur.)

I used to think—why? It makes no sense—that creativity dissipated with age. This year has been one of my most creative in a long time. I decided to make tallitot, an idea that came to me one day during services but that had been brewing and bubbling for a few years. I learned and taught myself to sew. I’m getting ready for the next creative challenge, executing and marketing my ideas. I hope and pray for the continued ability to create, and for the strength to not give up when inevitable obstacles appear. I need to remember to be constantly and fully grateful for this and so many other gifts.

1015. #BlogElul 25: Change

(Written two weeks ago, before Yom Kippur.)

This prompt brings to mind a different meaning of the word than I think was intended: those silver and copper pieces that roll and clink in our pockets. As I write this, we’re on the other side of Rosh Hashanah, the final marathon just a day away. I’ve spent this past week ping-ponging between great happiness, great insecurity, renewed self-awareness, frustration, gratitude, exhaustion, and boundless energy. Life, in other words, but somewhat compressed and magnified to fit within a few days of deep reckoning. I reached no conclusions, but perhaps a little more understanding of myself and my weaknesses.

One thing I observed: I rarely carry change any more. Most of the time I pay for coffee, groceries, whatever, with a debit card, which makes it easier to track my expenses. All fine and good, but I never have anything to offer those who ask for money on the street. I will admit that I’ve rarely given that money—nor considered it as requirement for being a good person—but now there’s never an option. I’ve been doing my best to respond to those requests so with a smile and an apology.

This awareness will not change my habits. I will continue to give tzedakah in other ways, and try to exceed what I think is my limit. What I have been thinking about, more and more, is how grateful I am to not need to be in the street asking for change. At times I’ve felt financially stretched, but I still always had a roof over my head. I am very, very lucky in so many ways, and must never forget that.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

1019. #BlogElul 29: Return

I know I'm skipping ahead—I still have to finish 25 through 28 (all begun, or at least considered!). But since I've actually written and posted more of these this year than ever before, I want to officially conclude, for now, with the last one. The other four will appear before Yom Kippur, a fine time to continue to be circumspect. As Pirkei Avot says, starting the task is the most important part.

By #BloggingElul, I've fulfilled my goal of returning to writing after some time away. I stopped blogging because other creative pursuits took up too much of that kind of energy, and they will continue to do so. But I'm glad to have proven to myself that I didn't forget how to string words together, and still have a great deal to say. A metaphor for my life, in general: I need to to not be timid or afraid to use my voice. Oh my goodness, that lesson applies to so many different thing right now.

Whomever may be reading this, I wish you and the entire Internet a good, sweet, happy, and healthy year ahead. May our our country return to some semblance of sanity very soon, and may the world be filled with peace even sooner.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

1014. #BlogElul 24: Hope

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.

1013. #BlogElul 23: Begin

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.

Monday, September 18, 2017

1012. #BlogElul 22: End

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.

1011. #BlogElul 21: Love

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.

1010. #BlogElul 20: Fill (in remembrance of 9/11)

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.

Friday, September 15, 2017

1009. #BlogElul 19: Speak

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.)

1008. #BlogElul 18: Ask

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.

1007. #BlogElul 17: Awaken

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.

1006. #BlogElul 16: Pray

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.

1005. #BlogElul 15: Intend

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.

1004. #BlogElul 14: Learn

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.

1003. #BlogElul 13: Remember

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.

1002. #BlogElul 12: Count

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.

1001. #BlogElul 11: Trust

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.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

1000. #BlogElul 10: Forgive

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.

998. #BlogElul 8: Hear


I *love* this song. I am responsible for some (OK, many) of the almost 4 billion views of the video—really 4 billion, more than half the population of the world. My musical tastes usually gravitate to classical, with big detours to The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and piyutim, but this one hit me like a truck. The words are kinda dirty, and the poetry, well, not great. ("Let's do it on the beach in Puerto Rico 'til the waves scream 'my god.'") But the Spanish sounds so lovely and lilting that they could be singing the phone book for all I care, and the utterly beautiful people in the video look to be having more fun than I've had in my entire life. They're not just acting. I've been around enough truly happy and sad people in my life to tell that they're having a genuine blast.

Oh, and the music itself. I love how the slightly electronic tinge of DY's rapping bounces off Fonsi's vocal lugubriousness. I love the insistent reggaeton beat, brand new to me, and the part at the end where the solos disappear and we hear everyone kid of ragged and joyous in the background as if we were at that party, too.

Most of all, listening to (and watching) this song is a reminder to have fun in a world with very little of that right now. And to succumb to the charms of an earworm every now and then.

999. #BlogElul 9: See

These are drawings and paintings by the artist Vija Celmins. Whenever I'm overwhelmed, and forget that peace and order are all around me if only I remember to see them, I listen to Bach and look at the art of Vija Celmins. They both remind me that it's possible to find beauty in details without forgetting the bigger picture. How exquisite those details can be!—the tiny crest of the granddaughter of a wave, a shy congregation of stars. I've been swimming laps this summer, a new hobby; feeling the water against my limbs and watching blue of the pool change as I travel down the lane past peripheral arms and legs is another reminder. The smaller parts of a thing or idea that we forget to see are often the sweetest.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

997. #BlogElul 7: Understand

The older I get, the more astonished I am by how little we understand one another.

I remember the moment, as a child, when I realized that no one saw the world exactly as I did. No one else but me could occupy the universe in the exact same physical space. I was my own self-contained universe, formed and fueled by the wind hitting no one's arms exactly as they did mine, light entering my eyes from a perspective unique to me alone. It was an overwhelming awareness.

So I began to understand why human beings find it so hard to agree: when you get down to it, we all base our decisions on a different set of facts. As I sit in this chair at the coffee shop, I have no way of knowing that the boy at the counter is experiencing the pain of the formation of a lifelong scar. His father, through the filter of my own experience, seems to be engaged in harmless parental scolding. Or: wait, is she just moving on, or is this a betrayal? Or: locker-room talk, or horrifying misogyny? The answers can be completely different and completely true to both perpetrator and observer. And even if one answer is the right one, and the other so completely wrong—as is often the case—we get nowhere by insisting that our side is right. The only solution, I'm slowly beginning to understand, is to try to force ourselves through painful, narrow crevices into the utterly alien place of the other.

Monday, August 28, 2017

996. #BlogElul 6: Want

My first thought, upon reading this prompt, was that this would be a very short one. Only one want consumes most of my waking hours these days: a new president.

But I—we—can't have that right now, or perhaps (I gasp and choke to even type these words) for many years to come.

So, in the interim, I want:
  • To find the strength to remain calm and rational when reading the news.
  • To become a little less obsessed with reading the news.
  • To seek out small, quiet acts of goodness around me that I often overlook in the course of mundane life: The friend who calls to check up. The stranger in the coffee shop who asks how I'm doing. Community members who come together to scrub off the swastika graffiti defacing a church (yes, this happened), and instead plaster the wall with messages of love.
  • To remember that all these little goodnesses will continue to multiply as more people witness them in action, and understand that action is possible.
Sure, I want lots of other personal stuff. But all the above has to take precedence right now.

995. #BlogElul 5: Accept

This past Shabbat, one of our wise rabbis offered these thoughts about the week's Torah reading, Shoftim (I am summarizing drastically):

"Shoftim v'sotrim..." "Judges and officials... will judge the people with righteous judgment." The first line of this parasha addresses those whose jobs are to enact the laws enumerated in the lines that follow. Why, asked the ancient rabbis, does it specify both judges AND officials, since judges are the ones who make the actual decisions? Because decisions are only part of the job. Judgment must be acted upon to have any meaning, and that's the job of the officials—they bring those decisions to life.

During this month of Elul, offered my rabbi, our task is not only to vow to make changes, but also figure out how to manifest them. We need to step beyond ourselves, like a magistrate watching a judge, and try to understand how to best bring those decisions to life.

It's never easy. We can't just accept that we know what's right ("Yes, I have to eat fewer cookies. Yes, I need to do more good in the world. ). It can feel so good to come to those conclusions!--they often require long, hard journeys, and we want to just sigh and sleep when we finally get there. But awareness is only the beginning of the task.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

994. #BlogElul 4: Choose

Last year, after a few decades of being too self-conscious to even put on a bathing suit, I mustered my courage and went swimming at a magnificent, Olympic-sized public pool just 15 minutes away. It's been there forever, and I never had a clue; amazing what hidden riches are often right under our noses. At first I could barely make it a few strokes, since I'd pretty much forgotten how to do a few strokes. With the generous help of YouTube videos, my body eventually remembered. I started going twice a week over the summer and by last August could, to my surprise, limp through one length of all 50 meters without getting out of breath. This summer, now, I can swim ten lengths with just a few breaks in between. I never imagined I'd be able to do such a thing. The feeling of gliding in rhythm, free and unencumbered, in a quiet, contained blue universe, is one of the best sensations I've ever known.

But: In order to get to the pool I have to actually get out of bed, get dressed, ride the subway (for just a few minutes, but still), load my stuff in the locker, and then reverse the process when I'm done. I  trek successfully to far less pleasant places all fall and winter, many also at that hour of day. But on so many beautiful swimming mornings the alarm goes off and I lay in bed and think: gah, I don't want to move. I imagine all the stages of travel; what seemed, the night before, like a quick, fun jaunt is now, suddenly, a formidable and onerous task. More times than not I do chose to get out of bed, and for hours afterwards my body and mind feel light and filled with breath. But other times, I roll over and am annoyed with myself all day long.

Why can I be so resistant to something that's fun and good for me? I've come up with a million reasons, and almost as many solutions. But swimming is just one example of this habit, and I know I'm not alone. One of my tasks during this month of Elul is to examine those kinds of decisions, and figure out how to find the strength to choose goodness instead of fear or laziness.

Friday, August 25, 2017

993. #BlogElul 3: Prepare

This is a short kavannah (intention) that I wrote for my synagogue about being prepared, or not.

For much of my life, the afternoon of Yom Kippur was a time to burrow into the couch and count the minutes until dinner. But after I came to [my synagogue], I discovered in those few hours a most intense and meaningful part of the day.

At all other services, we reach the Torah reading after a peaceful ascent though psalms and prayers. We have time to take a deep breath and prepare for the pageantry and complexity that follows. At Minha on Yom Kippur, however, we dispense with those preliminaries. Whether we’ve returned to services after a nap or meditation, or just hanging out, the holy day—like the Senate during a summer break—despite having paused, is still in session. So now there’s no warm-up. The Ark opens—“Vayehi binsoa ha'aron vayomer Moshe!”—and like metal filings to a magnet we rush to the scrolls, cradled in tired arms as they make their way around the sanctuary.

When I’ve had the privilege of helping lead Minha as a hazzanit, this sudden moment is also when I start to sing. I’m never quite sure what will come out: will I sound exhausted and tentative, betraying questions not yet resolved? Or strong, reflecting answers just discovered? It's usually a combination, as I find my bearings. That abrupt initiation of prayer and voice, even when I don't feel ready for either—and then discovering I'm just fine, no matter what—always seems like a metaphor for the year to come. Minha may be the beginning of the conclusion of Yom Kippur, but it’s also first step of the unexpected journey that follows.


Thursday, August 24, 2017

991. #BlogElul 2: Search

During 2016, also know as the Year of Having To Get Rid Of Lots of Stuff Very Quickly That I Did Not Want To Get Rid Of, I went through the following stages—not so different from the stages of grief:

1. Denial. In a week or two I'll calmly remove everything I own from these plastic bags, no worries. How 'bout those Mets?

2. Guilt. This is the universe paying me back for never finishing cleaning out my closets. I deserve it.

3. Anger & Bargaining. Why can other people live their entire lives as disgusting hoarders, but I—owner of a completely average amount of stuff—get forced into a state of extreme Marie Kondo? I am really tired of examining every piece of lint stuck to every scarf. Hey, God, if you stop treating me like Pharaoh I swear to be good In every way, forever and ever. Really truly.

4. Depression. Maybe no one will notice if I crawl into one of these extra-large garbage bags.

5. Reconstruction. This wall looks kind of cool in bright blue. 

6. Acceptance. I miss my stuff, but it's nice to have more space—physically and emotionally. I have so few possessions now that I won't have to search for anything ever again. Vacuuming is a snap, since there's nothing left to clean.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

990. #BlogElul 1: Act (aka Hello Again)

The other day I was running in the park and listening to an audiobook of the brilliant and hysterical Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah. He was musing about his childhood craving for books, and those perfect days when his mother brought home a stash of all kinds: children's books, picture books, encyclopedias, mostly from church basement rummage sales. And he imbibed them like water to a parched boy, which he was.

I, thank goodness, grew up in much safer and economically secure conditions than Noah, but shared that same desperate book hunger. New ones were out of our budget, although I didn't know this at the time. I just assumed that everyone's reading material was worn, dog-eared, and passed down through time immemorial. Our synagogue, like Noah's church, hosted many rummage sales, which went by the grander name of bazaars. On bazaar day, the 60s faux-modern sanctuary was emptied of chairs and old men and instead populated by long, brown folding tables and deep cardboard boxes piled high with treasures: scratched leather pocketbooks with little golden clasps, scarves of unknown provenance, gently worn kitchen utensils, doll clothing, and the motherlode, remaindered paperbacks with back covers only. I'd cobble together whatever was left of my monthly allowance and buy as many books as I could carry. I particularly remember the science and science fiction titles, genres that took over my waking hours starting at age 10, and some other odd finds: We Reach The Moon, by John Noble Wilford. Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes. Isaac Asimov. Something about exploring ocean life in a submarine. I Was the Nuremberg Jailer, Burton Andrus. I would start reading the minute I paid the blue-haired lady with the cigar box, and make my way four blocks home by instinct, since my eyes never left the page.

In 2016 I had a roof over my head, friends, and more than enough to eat; by relative standards, compared to the rest of the world, it was a fine year. But by absolute standards, compared to the rest of my life, it really sucked. I won't count the ways right now (maybe in a future post), but take my word for it. A year and a half later, everything is copacetic—but my books were a major casualty. All those cardboard box discoveries live on in memory only. This is, on the one hand, just fine: I know I can re-read them any time I want, thanks to the internet. But on the other, sometimes I miss looking at those crumbling back covers. I want to rummage through my shelves and be surprised by their existence, just like Trevor Noah when his mother came back from the church basement.

(Yes, after a long drought of words, since all of my creative energy was happily directed towards art, I'm trying to blog once again. I'm hoping for inspiration from the month of Elul, four weeks of preparation for a newly examined, revitalized, and repaired soul. Maybe I can write every day—maybe I can Act, as today's prompt suggests—or maybe not. As Pirkei Avot says, starting is a good thing! So, to be continued.)