Monday, May 31, 2010

The Disappearing Magician

With a wave of this magic wand and ‘abra cadabra’, witness my blessings magically disappear.  And as you can see, with nothing up my sleeve, all of the old hurts and insecurities you thought had vanished, been worked through and excised, been analyzed and resolved, as I tap this same magic wand, they mysteriously reappear. 

I am a magician.  My act hasn’t drawn traditional crowds and their gasps of awe have been motivated by fear tinged with anger rather than gleeful wonder. I have built momentum, adding new joys and experiences, achieving new successes and integrating calmness.  I asked for audience participation, leaning on strangers, family, and friends to lend a hand, boost me up; hold my hand while I attempt to avoid the usual trap doors.  I channel my energies and cause heavy objects to float, transform trash into treasure, and utilize darkness to sprinkle twinkling stars.  I step on the stage, determined to mesmerize, to give you your moneys worth, to find my talent and become the person you think I am, you think I could be, you believe I would be if only I could avoid the old scars that I trip over.  I step on the stage and hope that this night will be the night I name the card in your hand, make the bunny reappear, unlock the handcuffs I use to lock myself to the past. And every previous performance has had the same ending.

I have been the disappearing magician.  I wave my wand and cause joy to vanish.  I pull old hurts out of my sleeve and sew anxiety into my cape.  I stuff my black hat with fears and I walk straight towards the trap doors.  Despite having a full house filled with volunteers to assist me, hands raised to help prop me up, tools donated to cure, I have turned my back.  I ignore my fans and begin my solo act of self-destruction.  There have been times of greatness, of hidden gifts uncovered, new happiness and secure contentment.  I start off my show ready to transform, determined to end the show still standing.  And yet, I have been a one-trick magician, unable to learn the magic words needed to bring me back to life, without remembering the trick to catch joys in thin air before they crumble at my feet.  I have waved my wand and lost myself again and again. 

It stops being entertaining, this fading magic. While it takes a sad talent to cause life’s blessings to crash night after night, when the lights come on, all that is left is ebbing hope and powerless pain.  And the magician? I feel the same.  I scan my brain for the words that will raise me up, for the spell that provides the strength to stand.  I trade in my magic wand and buy a new cape, hoping that this time I can spread success and contentment, can take the final bow, can remember the enchanted words that prevent disappearance.

I am a magician.  I step onto my life stage and glance into the audience.  I collect her soft hugs and his pep talks, their supportive eyes and your belief in my potential.  I fill my pockets with steady shoulders and listening ears, with your tools and her nurturance.  I tuck faith up my sleeve, faith that this night I don’t have to vanish to hold your attention. Faith that I am good enough right at this moment, even if I still have my doubts.  I wave my magic wand and convince myself that I deserve the blessings, that falling down isn’t the same as disappearing but can be the slapstick humor used for entertainment.  I allow room for mistakes, keeping in mind that perfection is boring to watch, and mistakes can be rungs of lessons on the ladder I ascend for the finale.

I call on volunteers and step over trap doors.  I draw attention to the small joys, the flower hidden within the cactus needles.  I point out kindness and easy laughter, weaving them into the scenery, trying with all of my might to hold on to this life that I am starting to live. Like me, I know you are holding your breath as the show continues. Know you also remember where I tripped during previous shows, where I vanished in the past.

 I am a magician, and I climb the ladder for my final act, ready to step off the ledge and take the risk, ready to aim for greatness even if I'm scared.  I stand on stage, equally terrified of repeating the same vanishing act while thrilled that, just maybe, tonight will be the night that I hold on to myself and can actually take a bow.  I am a magician, and rather than performing the tired old tricks, disappearing and disappointing, I vow that this night when the curtain closes, I will not be trapped beneath the rubble of my life but will stand steady, applause ringing in my ears.

 I am a magician. Tonight I hope to inspire rather than invoke panic.  I hope to draw you in rather than alienate.  I hope to strengthen rather than debilitate.  I hope to create rather than self-destruct.  I am a magician, and as I wave my magic wand, I gather my blessings around me.  I take the leap of faith and flap my cape, ready to perform new miracles, ready to appear. 

I am a magician with new tricks up my sleeve, holding my breath, praying that this time new joys materialize and that I can shed the title of the Disappearing Magician.

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Game I'm happy to Lose

JTA Article: Holocaust Mocking Game
It’s the kind of story I would expect to be shelved in “ Bad Fiction”, “Sick Humor” or “Tales of Skinhead Pastimes”. It’s not the kind of game that comes to mind when I picture California teenagers on a Sunday afternoon. “Beat the Jew” is a game created by Southern California high school students, who posted the rules on Facebook. The game involves one volunteer, “The Jew”, to be blindfolded and stranded on a highway while the other players, “the Nazis” drive by and try to capture and tackle the Jew. The Facebook page has since been taken down, but the game is thought to be alive and in play. 

I'm not sure which part of the story I find most horrifying.  The KKK flavor of the game? The excuse of the teenagers who pled ignorance, claiming that they didn’t know the name of the game and didn’t think about the discriminatory undertones? The idea that, despite the page posting the rules being removed, the game is probably still being played at this moment? Or the comment of the Indio police spokesman stating, “assuming all people playing the game are willing participants, whether any criminal wrongdoing had been committed would depend on if participants using vehicles were following traffic laws.  If they're driving, are they obeying the speed laws? Are they driving erratically? Then there are going to be complications."

And that’s where the problem lies.  It seems that we might be focusing on the cracks in the wall while the building collapses upon us.  To me, it matters less if an actual punishable crime has been committed, and more that children believe this kind of game is fun. Even if we take all religious connections away, just the basis of the game is disturbing.  Leaving a friend on the side of the highway so you can swoop around in your car to tackle him? Personally, I’d vote for monopoly or scrabble, both of which never seem to involve trips to the emergency room.  But the part I can’t sit with, the issue that I have trailed around my ankles for the past three days, the section that I want to shake my fist at is this: The kids claiming that they didn’t realize how inappropriate the game was.  I'm not buying it.  Teenagers might be impulsive and rebellious.  They may test the rules and stretch the boundaries until they snap.  They might act crazy to get a reaction or sling slurs for the attention.  They might be cruel for popularity points. But teenagers aren’t stupid.  And we aren’t talking about kids being raised by Hitler or living on a commune by cult leaders.  These are high school students in southern California, and I would bet that they knew better.

 I find it inconceivable that they could play “Beat the Jew” without it crossing their mind that this could perhaps be about beating a Jew!! Or that one could capture a blindfolded “Jew” player on the side of a highway and still not have any inkling that the game was eerily reminiscent of cattle carts transporting Jews off to imminent torture.  Ignorance might be bliss, but ignorance is not an excuse for wrong doing. We don’t allow robbery if the thief wasn’t aware that a locked door is code for ‘Please Don’t Enter’.  I'm guessing that the players either knew that the game was wrong and didn’t care, or knew the game was wrong and that’s exactly why they played.  I don’t know.

I do know that its easier for me to live in a world where I don’t have to imagine children bickering over who gets to be the Nazi.  It’s easier for me to breathe when I envision today’s world as safer than during the 1930’s.  I would rather believe that the players knew exactly what they were doing. Because to think that there are really people who don’t have any concept that ‘Beat the Jew’ is a sick game requires me to acknowledge that the distance between a game and reality can be far too close. Games often imitate life, until they stop pretending and transform into current events.  Just like the hurtful truth cloaked in sarcastic humor, sadistic games can be rooted in history and prophetic futures.

 I know we live in a world of duality.  Amidst the pain we find new seedlings of growth.  Among the wounds, spotted rainbows.  I don’t delude myself that the world I live in is always safe and fair, kind and loving.  I might be naive, but I do know that even though we tout ourselves as freedom loving, progressive, and humanistic, there still are weeds of meaningless hate and fear-based discrimination.  I'm not blind to the injustices and separation, the places we fail, the blind spots we ignore.  But this ‘Beat the Jew’ game located my Achilles heel and burrowed deep. 

As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I carry the weight of their suffering next to a finely tuned anti-Semitism detector, glancing over my shoulder lest the S.S. officers be following me home.  I avoid Holocaust memoirs and movies set in concentration camps in efforts to stifle my re-occurring nightmare.  The scene my mind repeats in a loop, where I am sent to the left line while watching my family sent to the right, lining up for a gas ‘shower’, powerless to do anything other than watch.  I nod and smile when I hear “It could never happen again”, mentally listing the genocides and mass murders, the torture and rampant anti-Semitism that makes the daily news.

 At least if the students knew how repulsive their game was, we have something to work with, something to teach, something to build on.  Ignorance, especially ignorance with no desire for learning, becomes a breeding ground for intolerance. .  But if Jews are just meaningless pawns to be captured, interchangeable with faceless ‘enemies’ and imaginary ‘bad guys’, then I am very afraid.

 I don’t know the students and I don’t know their motivation.  I don’t know if there are blindfolded teenagers sitting on a California highway waiting for their friends to come capture them.  I don’t know how to teach compassion and tolerance to unwilling pupils.  But this I do know.  I know that torture as entertainment doesn’t breed kindness.  I know that education cracks the surface of ignorance.  I know that being pro-active eliminates future regrets and that over-reaction is preferable to murmuring “How could this have happened again?” I know that we can plant trees in Israel and open Holocaust museums but still there those who wish to have us exterminated.  I know that we can pass hate crime bills and lock our doors at night, but I also know that hatred can spread like wild fire, and fear is a reasonable response.  Maybe they’re right – that the Holocaust can never happen again.  I hope they’re right.  But while I hope, I will speak up, keep my eyes open, and point out the hints of cruelty, just in case. Because in the very least, I don’t want to be the one of the crowd that stood by and said nothing.

First they came for the Jews. 
I did not speak out
 because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists. 
I did not speak out
 because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists.
I did not speak out
 because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
 to speak out for me. 
-Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Tetris Withdrawl

There’s a reason I don’t have Tetris on my computer anymore.  As long as I know it’s there, the seductive icon beckons and I can’t resist. It was only when I would close my eyes at night and see Tetris shapes falling behind my eyelids that I decided I needed to go cold turkey. Still, today I am having Tetris cravings.  Not so much to play the game as to superimpose it on my life.  I want the daily challenges and unanswered problems to fit neatly together, to make sense, to complete the puzzle.  I long for the sense of mastery, of knowing that if only I turn and position the falling troubles, I can place them in exactly the right spot and they’ll magically disappear.  It’s always the long red stick that I'm waiting for – the floating shape that fits anywhere, completes every line, and is always useful.  My life is missing the red stick piece. 

I don’t mind the hills to climb or the new quagmires to solve.  I can gear up for a challenge and trudge through the puddles.  I can practice the mantra of “this is a lovely growth opportunity” rather than cursing the crisis. I just like to know that if I can examine the predicaments, if I can slide them over and rotate them correctly, I will clear away the chaos and move on to the next level.

On level one, the Tetris shapes drift slowly down the screen, allowing enough time to brush your teeth between new parts.  It offers a false sense of control, an ego boost: See, look how easy this life stuff is! No problem.  One headache at a time to maneuver, and still enough time to prepare.  But then we move on…level 3, level 7, level 10.  The shapes fall faster and faster, until blinking is an extravagant luxury lest the screen fills up with mismatched figures and Game Over.  There are the L-shapes and the square blocks, the small z-members and the prized red sticks.  And even if you know what piece you’re missing, the answer you need, the cure for the chaos, it’s not up to you.  We only get to choose how to arrange them, not which ones we get.

Life as a Tetris game.  I have level one days. Hours of leisurely tackling each to-do item with breaks of dog cuddling and strolls in the neighborhood.  The times to boost confidence, climb the next ladder rung, and close my eyes at night secure in a day well lived. I love level 1.  No problem seems too overwhelming and there are concrete solutions at my disposal.  However, knowing me, I'm guessing that were I to have a life entirely spent on level 1, I’d probably be bored, and just like when I used to play Tetris, I’d rev up the speed, jump to level 8, and invent problems out of clear skies. 

Then there are the level 12 days where figures stream down the screen, struggles and worries race past, and there never seems to be enough time to focus on the current shape before the next one sprints before my eyes.  I try to multitask, keeping my gaze on the current L-shape or square block while simultaneously glancing at the small box in the corner that gives me a preview of what’s to come. I'm torn between taking care of the issue at hand and preparing for the impending storm.  Sometimes I find my rhythm, becoming a wiz at rotating problems and placing them perfectly to achieve the desired result.

But inevitably, I blink or sneeze, and all of the sudden the lines are precariously tall, leaving no room to do anything other than wait for the shapes to fill the screen. The lines mock me as they rise with alarming velocity, worries piling up, and disaster imminent as I reach the point of no return. These are the days of scattered anxiety.  The moments where I shuffle through knots, never untangling any, merely moving them around as I search for space to breathe. The memory of the level one control and life Masters degrees fade as I convince myself I'm out of my league. 

I forget to slow down, even in the face of torrential dilemmas, and to take a step back.  I forget that sometimes I can regain my footing, find the long red stick to make the lines disappear, and channel my talents to arrive at an ideal resolution. But sometimes I need to call it a day and start over. I forget that once I'm past the point of no return, it can be wiser to watch the shapes flood the screen and admire the pretty colors rather than continue to mindlessly flail.  I find myself getting lost in the details, certain that if only I could find the accurate position or hit upon the needed component, I could resolve the puzzle.  I forget about the “pause” button, the call-a-friend lifeline, and the ability to take a time out.  I forget to ask for help, forget that fresh eyes might see the overlooked space where the L-shaped heartache can fit.  The irony is no one shape is a disaster.  Seldom is any falling worry or hardship a matter of life and death.  There might be square blocks that weigh heavier than z-shaped irritations, but compared to true tragedy, life is still good.  It’s not the singular struggles that throw me off, it’s the mess that they create when they fall, cluttering my brain with sharp edges and empty holes.

The orderly precision of Tetris appeals to me. I like the shapes that complete the lines, the way that each block can snap into place, the way the lines vanish when you arrive at the correct placement.  Maybe you have a life that always fits into place, where the challenging pieces float slowly and you always are on top of your game.  Maybe your tribulations are neatly organized, stacked up and tucked away.  Maybe there are those for whom Tetris is a mirror image of their lives and don’t get dizzy from rapidly falling pieces.  Maybe. Maybe, but probably not.

So far, it’s a level 4 day, with the added bonus of sunny skies and a play date at the dog park.  I mark my problems as they fall, trying to tackle them one at a time, and doing my best to ignore those that lack a clear-cut solution.  I have time to breathe and enjoy the game, getting a thrill when lines disappear and knots unravel.  I remind myself to look for the fun, and keep perspective.  I remind myself where the “pause” button is.  I keep my eyes on the prize and use my lifelines. 

And I remind myself that what matters isn’t if I can achieve the highest score, but if I whether I participate in my days. I remind myself that I’d rather lose the game than never play at all. 

Friday, May 28, 2010

Choice F: All of the above

I don’t think about dying that much anymore.  It’s one of those topics that I have to give myself a time limit to ponder, like the questions of what’s outside of our galaxy, black holes, and the 90% of my brain that I'm apparently not using.  Death brings up all of the unanswerable questions and only serves to increase my anxiety. Perhaps it would be easier if I had a firm belief in an afterlife, if I could envision the beauty of the Jewish World to Come.  Perhaps if I was confident that Heaven existed and that my final destination included lounging on a sunny beach lulled by the waves, I could breathe easier.  But thinking about dying usually causes my brain to cramp, twisting with the ‘what if’s’ and gray mysteries.

 Death prompts the “What comes next?” multiple-choice question.  Choice A) Spending all eternity in a pine box, ceasing to exist, to be aware, dust becoming dust. Choice B) The World to Come or Heaven. A beautiful existence where all my loved ones are waiting for me; an environment stuffed with simple blessings and sweet joys.  Choice C) Reincarnation: a choice that only exhausts me at the idea of having to do this all over again.  More challenges? Combating the same challenges that I failed to overcome in this lifetime? Yes, there’s the opportunity for success and laughter and insight, but still, really? Again? Choice C makes me want to lie down now and call it a day.  Choice D) A fiery city where pain and suffering are the norm and punishment is the sole item on the menu.  Maybe its arrogance that causes me to strike this one off the list.  I’ve made plenty of mistakes, caused hurt and worry, etched scars into the souls of those I was trying the hardest not to wound.  I'm far from a saint, but in comparison to true evil, I have to believe I’d make the cut. If there is something after this lifetime, I'm hoping it’s anything but choice D.  Usually, I feel justified in nixing Hell by drawing on Judaism.  I remember classmates, kind-hearted Southern Baptists in Abilene, Texas, telling me “I'm so sorry you’re going to burn in Hell. You’re such a nice girl”. I confidently comforted them with “It’s ok. I'm Jewish. Jews don’t believe in Hell.”  

And then there’s choice E) All of the above in some unknown combination, woven with bliss and sorrow, loss and connections. 

I used to think about dying quite a bit.  When dying seemed to be the next item on my life agenda, I couldn’t take my eyes off of my questions about the afterlife, wondering what do Jews believe, what do I believe, and will it hurt?  I was less preoccupied with concepts of Heaven and Hell, and more distraught by this thought: What if, wherever I am – Heaven, Hell, buried deep beneath the surface, I know what I'm missing? What if, despite rewards or punishments, I am aware of the family that I can’t be with, the distance between the people I love and myself? What if all of the regrets, forgotten promises, resentments carried and tears induced follow me forever?  All I could imagine was endless heart-wrenching sorrow at what I could have been, what I could have done, and the knowledge that it was too late.  It was this thought that festered.  This was the ache that necessitated time limits, the thought to distract myself, to erase with a kiss and a band-aid.

I tried to comfort myself with learning; asking parents, cousins, friends and Rabbis what they believed, what Jews believed, what they thought was in store for me.  I read books about theories of the afterlife, Jewish opinions of what happens when we die, and spiritual articles, in the hopes of comforting my fears, trying to find an answer that I could whole-heartedly believe, an answer that would stave off the suffocating anxiety.  I forced myself to abandon the quest, to “JUST STOP THINKING” and to focus on the hugs and outstretched hands surrounding me. I corralled all of my unknowing and fears into a more concrete terror. My single worry became “What if there isn’t space for me at the cemetery by my family?” I needed reassurance, promises that there was a square plot for me beside those my parents had purchased for themselves far in advance of needing them.  I make them swear that I wouldn’t be alone in a corner, lonely and forgotten.

 I welcomed death with my actions while I shook with fear over the outcome.  It’s easier to worry about cemetery plots than what I was most afraid of: that I would be alone forever. The thing about death is there are no comforting answers – at least not for me at that time.  I listened to theories and I knew that they couldn’t be anymore sure than I was.  I spun with fears, debated beliefs, and reviewed my life. Dying is a solo journey, so my fear of being alone gained momentum, even as I still breathed in and out. 

I don’t often think about death these days.  Those who loved me more than I could love myself granted me a stay of execution.  I kicked and screamed, demanding the right to give up and throw in the towel.  And I was lucky enough to have people who staunchly ignored me as they set about saving my life.  So death is no longer on my immediate agenda and I try to avoid the subject for my mental protection.  I still have no clarity, no comforting vision of blissful eternity, and no circled multiple-choice answer.

A Jewish View of "Hell" - by Lori Palatnik : Video on

 Occasionally, the questions re-emerge, popping up amidst errands and to-do lists. So this morning, I watched a video by Lori Palatnik, an amazing Jewish speaker, on the topic of Hell. She stands rooted in certainty of the World to Come, and describes Hell as a world of shame.  Hell is a land where we are burdened with the sharp clarity of what we could’ve been, should’ve been, and would’ve been if only we had known.  This world of shame saddles us with missed chances, unsaid apologies, and skipped good deeds. 

I begin to squirm as it hits too close to my nightmare scenario, but then she goes on.  She claims that Hell is a gift from God. Just like the hospitals on earth, we hope to never have to check in, but are grateful they’re there if we need them.  Hospitals aren’t pleasant or pretty, but they offer the chance to heal amidst the pain. Hell, Lori Palatnik says, is a hospital for our soul where we can work to repair the damage we caused, learn our neglected lessons, make our amends.  It isn’t a life sentence, but rather one last chance to repair our soul so that we might merit a spot in the unimaginable joyous World to Come. She finished with this: As hard as it is to say “I'm sorry” here, it is infinitely easier to polish our lives here than within the walls of the world of Shame. 

And suddenly, I can lean back, finding space to breath, easing the brain spasms that are inevitable side effects to pondering death.  This is a view I can live with.  This offers hope.  I suppose some could see it as carte blanche to live a life of immediate gratification and selfishness with the intention to right their wrongs at a later date.  But for me, this casts death in a softer light. Instead of bathing in fears, I am given a plan.  There is final option on the multiple-choice question.  Choice F) Strive to live a life of kindness and honesty, of forgiveness and amends.  Strive to grasp opened doors and seize chances to make the world a better place.  Admit mistakes made and draw loved ones close.  And should I fall short, never living up to the person I could’ve been, I will have the painful gift of a second chance. 

Dying is still a topic that makes my brain hurt. I still wouldn’t bet my life on the existence of an afterlife.  And as long as it stays a future occurrence rather than a current event, I can spend my days steeped in the business of living rather than dying.  But there are no assurances or firm promises of time. Rather than cowering in fear or obsessing about theories, I choose to save the multiple choice exam for later in favor of saying “I'm sorry”, “I love you”, and facing the chances to be better, do better, live higher, even when it’s the harder option.

If my nightmare about death is draped with loneliness, then I better use my days for connection, holding out my hand while I have the chance.  I’d rather not have to do this all over again.  I’d rather toil today and only have to climb the mountain once. Today I’ll leave dying filed away and work on living the life I have. Instead of wilting in fears, I’ll show up and try to be my best self. And when I fall, I’ll practice picking myself up in this lifetime rather than saving it for a later world. 

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Limited Collectors Edition

 I still have them, set amidst the forgotten stuffed animals and obligatory yearbooks.  His stamp collection that he passed along one evening when I was 12. He set the fabric tote bag on the kitchen table, and let me rustle through the collectors books and envelopes saved for the squares affixed on their corners. They were originally from his father, my great-grandfather Zaidy Bernard, until he took over and continued the tradition.  He thought I might like collecting, appropriately guessing that my obsessive attention to detail and love for the neat rows of stamps would lend itself to the challenge.  It was a casual gift, nothing more than an aside before we dealt another hand of cards and vowed not to tell mom and dad when I stayed up too late at our weekly sleepover. 

I tried to love stamps.  I tried to be passionate about searching for the newly minted sheets and steaming the envelopes so that I could remove its stamp unblemished.  I tried going to collectors shops and mustering up excitement about the post office’s upcoming printings.  I tried to love stamps, because I wanted to carry on the tradition, wanted to make my Zaidy Charlie proud, wanted to be worthy of this legacy he had bestowed upon me.  But really, they lacked magic for me, remaining the necessary postage to get my letter to its destination.  I didn’t love new stamps or ones I could buy at a specialty store, but I loved his stamps.

 I loved the history and his patience that oozed out of the collectors books.  I loved pouring over the pages and knowing that he had done the same.  I loved guessing at how he had gotten each one and the story behind it.  But most of all, I loved the envelopes stuffed at the bottom of the tote bag; the envelopes with stamps that had never been removed, but rather simply saved and filed away for one day. Because amidst the envelopes and valuable sticky squares lingered Zaidy Charlie’s quiet heroics.  His love of family, his faith in Israel, his willingness to fight for what he believed in, for who he loved, for freedom and equality. I treasured the forgotten letters left inside that came from Romania, Israel, Russia, and Canada.  The letters that couldn’t say thank you enough, that credited my Zaidy with their lives after he managed to secure escape for his relatives trapped in Romania. There were letters that spoke of their eternal gratitude and love. Letters thanking him for his donations and work in the Jewish community, envelopes bearing return labels from friends made across the world. Quietly, patiently, and with fierce persistence, he was a hero.

I didn’t need to read the letters to know he was a hero.  They were nice documentation, but the book cataloguing his love, kindnesses, mitzvot, small miracles, and courage overflows.  I didn’t love stamps, but I collected his merits like a zealot.

 I lined up the patience of an only son humoring his crotchety mother next to the patience he exemplified fighting cancer.  I incorporated this intelligence spun with humor as he finished his crossword puzzle, even if it meant using nonsense words to fit the empty spaces. I pealed off the determination to succeed, to provide for his family, even when it meant changing his name because Katz was ‘too Jewish’ for their neighborhood and ‘Kent Drugs’ had more consumer appeal. I collected his volunteer positions, fighting for the establishment of Israel, for the security of the Jewish people, toiling away to ensure a better life for those who struggled.

 I noted his artistic hands that carved sculptures we all still prominently display, his hands that created beauty from marble, and his hands that could make you feel safe forever as long as you had one to hold.  I catalogued his softness, his kindness, and his generosity.  I filled pages with his easy laughter and pride in his children and grandchildren.  I collected his love of learning, the Yiddish classes, computer classes, and art classes he enrolled in upon retirement.  I made sure not to bend the corners of his marriage and all of the examples he left behind about how to treat your wife like a queen, how to fight fair, how to cherish the ones you love. 

And the last book of my Zaidy Charlie collection is saved for his acts of loving kindness.  This is the book containing the snuggles and slurpy kisses, the “I love you’s” and the nicknames he assigned as tokens of his adoration. I crammed in the sweet sleepovers and gifts of time he profusely offered.  All of the letters I received at camp and upon loosing a tooth are recorded within my collection, along side the moments holding hands and times he brushed away tears.  All of the ways he set the bar, teaching me how to be a good citizen, a good Jew, a good relative, a good father, and a good soul.  All of the ways he taught me how to do what you love and never stop looking for joy, the examples of how to live a life you can be proud of when its over. 

And on the last page I save my most prized limited edition. I log his final words to me: “Lauren, it’s been like a love affair” as we said our goodbyes and I kissed his soft check before leaving his hospital room.

I never learned to love stamps.  But I am a collector. And I love Zaidy Charlie with a collector’s fervor.  I didn’t continue the legacy of saving stamps, but perhaps I still have an anthology to pass down. So I keep the fabric tote bag filled with envelopes and stamps, knowing that the truly worthwhile items are laminated in my memory. 

And I hope to one day live a life with enough merit to fill the next collector’s book. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Adventure Dog - by Dave Barry

On the topic of dogs and laughter as the best medicine for worry, this article makes me crack up every time! So for your reading entertainment...

Heeeeeeeeere's Adventure Dog! by Dave Barry

Posted using ShareThis

Worry Champion

Writing Prompt #201: If you had three hours where all of your worries and problems were removed, what would you do?

Ah, the mark of a gold-medal worrier…what would I do? Obviously, come up with new things to worry about.  Worrying shouldn’t be limited to natural disasters and newsbreaking crises.  If you are to be a world class worrier, then you must learn how to worry in the absence of true problems, to dig up old anxieties and plant new seeds of doubt.  When faced with hours of free time, worrying not only absorbs every second but also can provide you with abundant distraction when you have actual tasks to accomplish.  I have become a worry master. 

I started my course in worrying in childhood. Trouble was always unexpected, disasters unforeseen.  So, if I could make sure that I worried about every possible bad thing that might ever occur, then nothing would be unexpected and therefore nothing bad would happen.  I might have been on to some deep universal secret, but this global worrying only served to create massive anxiety and the plan was aborted.

Then there’s the genetic pre-disposition. Bubby Ida, despite her motto of “99% of what we worry about never happens”, taught the art of worrying interspersed with lessons on re-using tin foil and opening gifts without tearing the wrapping paper. (She sounds less crazy if you remember that she was raised during the Depression. Also, with all of the money she saved on tin foil, her red Jaguar was quite snazzy.) As her daughters, my mother and aunts stage champion worrying competitions, making sure to cover the required worry topics: children, health, your children’s health, parents, your parent’s health, Israel, anti-Semitism, and the overarching worry that everyone you love is happy so that you can sleep at night.  Then there are the subcategories: Politics, the economy, global warming, how your children will survive the global warming, vacation planning, gift-giving strategies, and developing plans B, C, D, and M just in case plan A falls short.  I'm telling you, worrying is serious business. 

So if it only causes anxiety and doesn’t prevent heartache, why do I worry? I'm sure control plays some crucial part, allowing me to believe that I have some say in the outcome, imposing structure on the unknowable, and plans for the unexpected. The other piece is that worry becomes a symbol of affection. I rarely worry about earthquakes or massive floods, although being a California resident; I may have to add these to my worry roster.  I must admit, I seldom worry about politics or the state of our nation.  I skip past the dangers of smoking and perils of eating non-organic food.  I feel twinges of anxiety as I read about terrorist attacks and subway bombs.  But most of my worry is done locally.

 I worry about my family and of course, their health.  I worry if the people I love are happy and how I might add to their joy.  I worry about finances and if it’s really possible to earn a living doing what you love.  I worry about the to-do lists and making sure I have an adequate supply of my favorite salad dressing.  I worry about the cleanliness of my floors and the pile of laundry to do.  I pause over conversations with friends, scanning the script for possible hurts I might have imposed.  I catalogue relationships, worrying about missed birthdays and belated anniversary cards. And as a master worrier, I worry about the things I don’t know to worry about.  What aren’t they telling me? What problem do they really have that they don’t want to burden me with?

It’s the dance we play in the worry play-offs. I don’t want to worry you, so I won’t tell you the hardships in my life.  But you don’t want me to worry, so you do the same.  And then we all can worry together about the worse case scenario and what horrible thing you aren’t sharing that I really ought to be worrying about.  All in the name of love and protection.

And then there are those days where I draw a blank.  Family all seems healthy and happy.  Friendships are secure.  Warm weather and dusted bookshelves.  Hints of doors opening on the career front.  Do I sit back and enjoy the peace? No.  Instead I develop dog-owner hypochondria. 

Ah, my parents must be so proud.  In the absence of my usual top ten worries, I have simply created a new worry topic: the health and happiness of my puppy.  She didn’t eat as much today, maybe she’s sick.  She was sleeping quite a bit after two walks, maybe I'm asking too much of her.  She was too cooperative while I was brushing her ears last night, she must be dying.  She laid on the couch and cuddled all evening, what if she’s unhappy living in LA? It’s a sickness, I know.  I have gone round the bend.  Plus, she can’t reassure me, convince me that she’s fine, she’s happy, she’s perfectly ok.  Not that I would believe her anyway, going on my track record with actual humans who have attempted the same convincing speech.  But in the absence of actual facts, my brain jumps to the darkest corner. The hyper-vigilance sets in.  I track her every step, analyze her sleeping pattern, check her ears and nose and teeth as I search for any lurking illness, a reincarnation of my old mantra: it can’t happen if I make sure I worry about it first. 

I must be stopped.  I fear I have taken worrying to a new level, and am torn between amazement at my gold-medal skill and running through the list of possible terrible events that I haven’t worried about yet.  I know that worrying doesn’t serve me, doesn’t enhance my life, and surely doesn’t prevent wounds of any kind.  It is true that struggles are usually unexpected, but worrying about all possibilities only ensures that the struggle I’ll be faced with will be uniquely designed.  I try listing my worries to get them out of my head. This usually backfires, as I begin worrying about perfecting the list.  I’ve been told to imagine a box and place all my worries inside, locking it with my mind’s eye.  I’ve heard of burning scraps of worries or lecturing myself on the uselessness of this worry talent.  I'm sure these are helpful tools for some people, but as for me, laughing is the best antidote to worry.

 Laughing and connections.  I can’t worry about the sky falling if I'm laughing amidst the clouds.  I can’t wallow in financial insecurity if I'm chuckling with a friend.  The worry checklist gathers dust as I read his supportive email or dial her number just to say hi. 

Worry is my brain’s default, the way I fill blank spaces and ease uncertainty.  I can get lost in the lists, horrible possibilities, challenges, and struggles yet to be had.  I can allow myself to be consumed with the ‘what if’s’ and the future tears. I can, but a life of worry only guarantees ignoring the scent of blooming jasmine, minimizing joys, and maximizing peril.  Maybe she is angry with me. Maybe he feels hurt.  Maybe you have unshared pain.  Maybe they are sick.  Maybe.  Maybe I can drive myself crazy filling all of my moments with worry.

In a family of worriers, the unspoken translation becomes “I worry because I love you. I worry because I want to protect you and buy you joy.”  Worry doesn’t have to be the way I prove my love.  Worry isn’t the end of the equation in relationships.  If the painful growth opportunities are going to come either way, I think I’ll choose worrying less.  I choose filling my free time with books and puppy licks, walks in the park and ice cream with friends.  I dust off my brain’s dark corners and string twinkle lights over the stressful possibilities.  When there is actually something to worry about, something real and imminent, I'm sure I’ll know.  Worrying is probably like riding a bike…I'm guessing that it’s a talent you don’t lose. 

So I’ll lock my worries in an imaginary box and stuff my roster in a drawer.  I’ll tell the truth about my pain and my happiness, and trust that you’ll do the same.  I’ll do the next right thing, do my best, kiss my puppy while she sleeps, and work on enjoying the ordinary, disaster-free days…

And now I'm worrying that I said it was a disaster-free day, so I am basically asking for trouble…

Ok, letting go of it…letting it go…99% of what I worry about never happens….

Monday, May 24, 2010

Man Plans, God Laughs

“PLAN: To bother about the best method of accomplishing an accidental result”
 –Devils Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce

The plan was to be a therapist.  I went to school, took the test, and set out to heal the world, trying to heal myself along the way.  I kept my eyes on the map while I calculating my route, stowing away training rations and techniques in the trunk.  And then the plan changed. I moved back to Scottsdale, and then to California. New plan, new route, new necessary luggage.  I was a personal assistant and followed the map I was dictated.  And then, I was no longer an assistant. New plan: Find a job, any job where actual money could be earned. My plan kept my head above water, but treading water isn’t exactly inspirational.  I needed a new plan, complete with new dreams.

Planning comes easy for me. I make plans for cleaning, for meeting friends, for future vacations and imaginary houses stuffed with books.  I have lists of what to read, movies to rent, cards to send. There are the plans we inherit, the visions of our parents that get absorbed and incorporated. And with every to-do list, with every set of goals, with every plan, there’s the anticipated finish line.  We plan in order to get our bearings, to climb the mountain, to discover happiness.

Looking back over the past two decades, I have to admit that most of my plans evaporated or were interrupted by, say, a volcano. I like making lists and itemizing actions.  I like the idea of a plan. But at some point, my plan starts to become my master, blinding me to flowery trails and landmarks along the way, leaving me bleary eyed after too much highway driving. I become tied to the plan, tossing out flexibility and spontaneity, in an effort to stay safe and focused. Sticking to the plan becomes the priority regardless of if it has merit.

Inevitably, there’s a crisis: a sharp u-turn, and I end up lost on a dirt path.  It feels like my world has come crashing down, that I'm being forced to abandon my route along with the person I wanted to be.  At age five, I planned to be a librarian.  At age 12, a poet.  At age 20, a therapist. I planned to ‘have it all together’, to ‘be normal’, to succeed, to be a grown-up, to find a spouse.  I imagined a backyard with a tree house, to travel to Israel, to be a camp counselor, to teach literature.  Many maps, no final destinations. Instead of reviewing the data and concluding that my plans are seldom a roadmap to anywhere other than disappointment and heartache, I hunker down to develop a new plan, a better plan.

There’s that line: “We plan and God laughs”.  I always wonder what the alternative is. Should I run my life willy-nilly, stopping at every shiny object that catches my eye?  Maybe I just need more plans. In a world that feels chaotic and a brain that swirls faster than I can decode, planning is the way I impose structure. It offers the illusion of organization, allowing me to believe that I am my own deity.  I have a low tolerance for uncertainty, preferring to believe in a formulaic existence: if I do A , then B will occur. Even if I hate B, even if I secretly wish that A wouldn’t lead to B, I appreciate the equation. So I try to make my life fit into the formula. If I can only graduate, find the job, make a friend, publish my writing, then I'm ok, I'm good enough, I'm safe, I have value.  If I can avoid failure, avoid being crabby, avoid anger and tears, avoid falling down, then I have earned the right to take up space. 

And then I hear God laughing.  I hear the laughter when the glass cracks and milk is now covering my floor.  I hear the laughter when I trudge through the rain with my puppy, not having allotted for mud and puddles and the smell of wet dog to permeate my apartment. There’s laughter as I find more joy in writing than working as a therapist. I hear the laughter when the friend drops by and I shove my plans under the couch in favor of connection and relationships.

The truth is that I should be happy my plans have disintegrated.  I should be grateful for the detours because I plan small. I don’t always know what is best for me, what would bring me happiness, what would be fulfilling.  I plan for what I think I want, and forget to notice all of the other options.  Perhaps I would be perfectly content living the life that I had planned for myself, content with a smooth ride along straight roads. Maybe.

 But today I chuckle along with God’s laughter.  I remind myself that the silver lining is there even if it takes years to see. I recall the gifts of the roadblocks, the friends made and stories to share.  I consider failed plans to be my teachers, the lessons teaching me to dream bigger, to try new trails, to explore the fields within.  I try to practice appreciating the changes, try to see the opportunity in locked doors rather than just the hallway I might be stuck in.  I try…that doesn’t mean I always succeed.  Sometimes I wish for a freshly paved road and a life made up of typical travels. I miss my plan, trying so hard to figure out how to force the old plan to fit into the new circumstances. 

But then there are days like today.  Days where I wake up with the daily to-do list, planning only as far ahead as tomorrow, and I'm greeted with good news, with the offer to give me a ride one stop closer to my dream.  I didn’t plan to lose my job in January and I didn’t plan to be unemployed in May.  I didn’t plan to be a writer because it was too far across the ocean.  And yet, for today, I ended up exactly where I didn’t know I wished to be.  I laugh because somehow, amidst the road construction and closed exits, I discover that the best gifts in my life are always the ones I didn’t know to ask for. 

So I’ll still make my plans and do the next right thing.  I’ll pretend I'm in control by imposing structure and goal posts, plans with backup plans.  But when the street dead-ends and I hear the laughter again, I hope I remember to get out of the car and explore. I hope I remember that the laughter usually means there’s an unexpected blessing up ahead, as long as I stop gripping the old map. I hope I remember to laugh.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Jewish Prerequisites

It caught my eye while scanning the  LA Times: Obituary: Moishe Rosen dies at 78; founder of Jews for Jesus -   Right away, my Jewish genes kicked into overdrive.  On cue, the inner dialogue begins: “Jews for Jesus”, my inner rabbi scorned…”not real Jews, nothing more than a cult, something should be done…don’t even associate them with real Jews…” It seems oxymoronic – Jews for Jesus. Jews still peer out our windows with hope, still search for the savior among the homeless on the corner, still practice Tikkun Olam and plant our gardens in the anticipation of the messiah.  Jews for Jesus believe that Jesus was the messiah and now needs to come again.  Pick one! Are you Jews or are you for Jesus? You can’t have it all.  And so the ‘traitor’ box next to his name is checked and I flip the page, secure in my genetic heritage and my right to claim myself as a Jew.

But he lingers, roaming around, past the values of faith and mezuzahs marking the corners of my mind.  What makes someone Jewish? What are the minimum requirements? What are the course prerequisites for the PhD in Jewish mannerisms?  What constitutes a Jewish soul?

I know that rabbinic law determines a Jew by the religion of your mother.  So is it really so simple? If a mother was born Jewish, never prayed or welcomed in shabbos or braided challah, is her child automatically Jewish? For a religion that dissects every word in the Torah, prints tomes analyzing single sentences, and mandates 100 blessings a day, is it possible that it’s simply genetic roulette to gain admittance into the club? This Moishe Rosen, the founder of Jews for Jesus, was raised in an Orthodox family and married a Jewish woman.  While I vehemently disagree with his methods, he did spend his life immersed in certain Jewish rituals and the practice of faith. So what makes me think I'm a better Jew than he was? I don’t go to shul most weeks. I light shabbos candles when I remember. I store my siddur in a bedside drawer, gathering guilt as I notice it without cracking the cover. 

And yet, I am a Jew.  I stand proudly, secure in this heritage, this identity that I carry, this set of beliefs that I subscribe to.  My Judaism is a part of me whether I kiss the mezuzah or rush past it.  I am more apt to march in a rally for Israel than I am for America, even though I’ve never been to the Promised Land.  I keep my anti-Semitism meter turned to extreme, ready to take offense at the whiff of discrimination.  I sprinkle my vocabulary with Oys and mazel tovs, keeping gefilte fish and brisket on ready alert.  I find a local shul to observe Yom Kippur and fly home for Seder.  But there’s a bigger question that I avoid, keeping myself busy with books, cleaning, walking the dog, writing – distractions to remind me not to look too closely at my Jewish failings. 

It’s the question of faith. The hypocrisy of picking and choosing, selecting the appealing nuggets of Judaism to incorporate while shoving aside the rest of the religion.  It’s my religious ADD, where I get caught up in tradition and customs, seeing the beauty and meaning that can be infused in daily activities, but am unwilling to stretch myself to sustain lasting lifestyle changes.  I smack into my inconsistencies as I long for a solid belief in a G-d that manages my life better than I do, but yet continue to live a secular life absent of the Jewish markings I am commanded to follow.  I yearn for faith, for learning, for meaning in the details but don’t want to be inconvenienced by the rest of the 613 commandments.  So am I a real Jew? Is the Hassidic neighbor ranked higher than the reform father? Is merit measured merely by number of commandments followed, number of blessings performed every day? If I go to shul every week, is that enough? Does it count if I listen to torah lectures on my iPod? Do I get extra points for murmuring the Shema at the sound of my alarm clock? What earns me the Jewish gold star?

And then I remember that this beautiful religion, this smorgasbord of customs, this symphony of blessings isn’t a race.  This business of faith is a journey for me as I attempt to locate what I'm missing and which door I can unlock to make room in my life.  I’ve belonged to reform Temples, Conservative synagogues, and Orthodox shuls.  I’ve studied with rabbis, debated with students, jotted notes from professors.  Judaism values learning as do I, and so I learn how to find the Judaism within, the Judaism that deepens my faith, that sends me home with leftovers of meaning for the next day. 

I give up trying to define if I'm a  ‘good enough’ Jew, if I qualify, if I'm allowed to claim this identity.  I give up comparing my observance with hers, my righteousness with his.  I remember my obligation not to be the best compared to you, but rather to be the best compared to my highest self.  I remember that faith is a personal matter, and while there are abundant opinions and rabbinic prerequisites and tractates galore, belief in something greater than myself can’t be forced or rushed.  Faith can’t be quantified or ranked. Faith can only be lived. 

So I stop defending my lack of observance and cultivating guilt over broken mitzvahs.  For today, it’s enough to stay on the path, to keep learning, keep wondering, keep searching for meaning.  And in the same breath, I know I could do better.  I can take the minute to light my shabbos candles.  I brush off my dusty siddur and place it on the nightstand instead of tucked away in the drawer.  Maybe it will stay closed, still overlooked in favor of new novels with more exciting plots.  But maybe it’s cover will remind me that if I desire a faith that withstands with wind, I must take action, I must be willing to reach out my hand. 

As for Moishe Rosen, founder of Jews for Jesus…let’s not speak ill of the dead.  I’ll try to leave the judgments up to the all-knowing One, and keep my eyes focused on my own choices.  So I put away my Judaism checklist and failing report cards, and decide that as long as I still seek a seat in this religion, I have earned the right to say I'm a Jew. Not a good Jew. Not confined by sect, shul, movement, or philosophy.  Not a fallen Jew or a ‘Top Ten’ Jew. Regardless of merit or genetics or level of kashrus observance, I am a Jew.  It’s the box next to my name I check first.  In a complicated world with a complicated brain, I opt for clarity. I am simply Jewish.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Dear Inner Critic

I regret to inform you that your services are no longer required and your dismissal is effective immediately upon receipt.  I recognize that you have been a loyal employee for over twenty years, and subsequently have put together a generous severance package to help you transition into new employment.

Your severance package includes:
  •  60 days of comprehensive criticism including your appearance, your ability to succeed, your so-called talents, and defining traits.
  •  Daily doubts about prior decisions, future decisions, and the possibility of ever being able to opt for one toothpaste over its competition without a lengthy inner debate – available to be extended for the length of one year
  • A sum of self-mistrust and disregard resulting in dismissal of inner intuition or wisdom not to exceed moderate agony
  • Twenty hours of emotional abuse following interactions with friends to be spent dissecting comments and analyzing relationships.  These hours must result in the inevitable conclusion that you are not a good enough friend.
  • An abundant supply of guilt to be dispensed immediately after all communications with parental figures, relatives, authority figures, and others you love and care about.  You may elect any or all of the following guilt options:
1.     Not being cheerful enough
2.     Not being patient enough
3.     Not being flexible enough
4.     Worrying parents for no good reason
5.     Complaining without offering hope
6.     Being a burden
7.     Not answering all calls/texts/emails promptly enough to ensure complete love and devotion
8.     Not adequately conveying respect, love, and devotion
9.     Not being a good enough daughter/sister/cousin/niece/neighbor/friend/dog-owner
10. Other: ________________
11. All of the above
  •           My proprietary application, compatible with all electronic programs, which you may keep as a token of my gratitude.  This unique Dismissal app will simultaneously whisper doubts and criticism in your ear while convincing you that others’ compliments are obligatory and false.  Your training and services as Inner Critic have helped develop this gadget and I believe it is only fair that you receive one of the early models.
  •            20 self-destructive habits or overwhelming fears of your choice to be withdrawn either as a lump sum or in monthly installments.  These habits and fears may be considered payment for the seductive criticisms and manipulative brainwashing that you have excelled at during your employment here. You may choose from the following list:
o   Codependency
o   Workaholism
o   Alcoholism
o   Fear of abandonment
o   Fear of being smothered in relationships
o   Fear of growing-up
o   Complete dependence on others
o   Isolation
o   Drug addiction
o   Obsessive cleaning
o   Starvation
o   Depression
o   Anxiety
o   Spending splurges
o   Anorexic spending
o   Compulsive need for approval
o   Self-doubt
o   Self-hatred
o   Idiotic people-pleasing
o   Repeated volunteering for pain
o   Refusal to learn life lessons and the subsequent repeating of said lessons
o   Fear of failure
o   Fear of success
o   Fear of death
o   Fear of living a meaningless life
o   Fear of fear
* Please note: should you come up with other fears and destructive behaviors, you may substitute them for items on this list. Also, you are not limited to only 20 – please feel free to adopt more than the required minimum.

You have been a diligent and faithful employee with near perfect attendence and frustrating loyalty.  Despite my current perspective, I am aware that there was a time we both believed you were a crucial asset to the company, and so I thank you for your devastating efforts.  As an Inner Critic, you surpassed all expectations and can be proud of your ability to dole out cutting comments, debilitating doubts, and scathing self-hatred. 

I have decided to dissolve the position of Inner Critic in alignment with my mission statement:

Life will be lived day by day in accordance with the principles of honesty, integrity, and love. Relationships are treasured and I treat myself with kindness. Previous use of doubt, guilt, harsh criticism and approval seeking will be discontinued. Success will therefore be defined by the presence of laughter, gratitude, steps taken toward dreams and the ability to stand up after a fall. Faith, optimism, confidence and self-acceptance compose the operating life platform.

Should you have any further questions or burning criticisms about my abilities and value as a human being, please contact my attorney at 1-800-IGNOREU, as I will no longer be answering your calls.

With chilly regards,

Lauren Bottner, Inc.