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.)