Friday, July 30, 2010

Let's not miss the forrest...

Popular Science: Rise of the Helpful Machines 
Set to hit the shelves by 2014, this robotic ‘touch therapist’ aims to soothe anxiety by reading sensors worn by patients.  This robo-bunny wiggles to help patients recognize changes in heart rate and sweaty fingertips and purrs when being petted. In other words, it’s an electronic version of the furry puppy lying on my couch.  Sure, there’s no walking, poop bags, and blonde hairs coating all surfaces.  You wouldn’t have to deal with nightly brushing and manic squirrel chasing.  But I fear we might be overlooking our own backyards in our quest for newer, sleeker, and higher powered.

 Forget these futuristic anxiety robots.  They’re already here, pawing at the front door with wagging glee at the mere sight of your face.  Those of us who count pets as roommates already know the secret: a dog is a service dog without any special training.  My puppy, who doesn’t sit or stay, can’t bark on command or come when I call, is more helpful for mental wellbeing than any pill I’ve tried.  While I might be the one chasing the ball in a game of fetch, I would testify to her therapeutic skills in a heart beat as the weight of her head in my lap reminds me to take a deep breathe.  Pets have long been recommended for patients suffering from depression, anxiety, loneliness, and phobias, without the requisite batteries and remote control.  Maybe it’s just too simple for the innovative types, or too ambiguous in its curative properties, but I think we might be barking up the wrong tree with the robot pet. 

My puppy snuggles beside me on the couch and stares wordlessly at my tears.  She bounds through the stillness of isolation and forces me to laugh during foggy days.  She teaches me to sit and be still, content to mark a day as a success as long as there’s a comprehensive tummy rub.  She opens doors in my neighborhood, introducing me to new friends met on the morning stroll, and reminds me to stop and take notice as we make our way down the street, stopping at each plant because you never know what unbelievable treats you might find. 

I’ll admit, a robo-pet comes with less hassle; no vet visits or walks in the rain.  But there’s a misconception that obligations need to be erased.  There’s a sense of pride I get from her knotless coat and a laughter that erupts as she wags with so much excitement when I come home that she nearly knocks both of us over.  Maternal skills are cultivated as I worry over her every cough and stand protectively between her and any dog that stands as a threat. And the steady rhythm of her breath soothes my fears as I try to match her peace.  Maybe a robot could offer warmth on the couch or nestle amongst fears.  But what about the blessings of early morning kisses or the entertainment of finding hidden treats tucked behind pillows as she saves them for later? It’s easy to focus on symptoms and treatment, pills and quantifiable results.  But joy can be an antidote to depression and laughter banishes anxiety infused with fresh air.  So lets keep working on cures for mental illness and treatments to help all who suffer. 

But lets not forget that sometimes the best cure might be already licking your nose. 

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

It would be easier

After a while, it’s easier to give up.  It gets tiring to insist upon the amorphous and to define the unquantifiable.  With no bleeding wound or broken bone to point to, unanswered symptoms get brushed aside as distractions, livable, or all in your head.  And maybe they’re right.  Maybe a stronger person would soldier on, drop the quest, and stop complaining.  Maybe it is some aftershock of stress or anxiety, an offshoot of a brain that runs on overdrive.  Maybe my search for an answer is futile, sifting through the haystack for the missing needle that even stumbled upon, wouldn’t erase the symptoms.

But I can’t give it up.  Even amidst the doubts and prevailing expert opinions, I have to believe my reality, validate my experience, raise my hand and assert my truth in the face of mute explanations. 

Still, it’s easier to back down, wave the white flag and grit my teeth.  It would be easier to stop fighting, waiting in doctors’ offices, and just exhale into the status quo.  Except easier isn’t always better.  Easier means resignation to a smaller life, limited by distance and sickness.  Easier is subpar, allowing nagging illness to dictate my days.

I’ve done that already.  I know what that life looks like and I’m ready for something better.  I want to bathe in freedom, empowered to dance through my days without sickness as my leading partner.  I want to climb despite the occasional fall, risk and leap, weeping worth the laughter.  I want to soak up the sunshine of ordinary and join the march of normalcy.  I’m tired of watching from the sidelines, tired of filling prescriptions, paper gowns and side effects.  But I’m not willing to give up.  Because I’m even more tired of a lifetime scattered with aches and sorrow, and am determined to avoid a forever of not feeling well. 

So I keep standing up, singing my truth, and insisting on an invisible reality.  I keep searching, asking for help, and seeking the last puzzle piece, hoping for an answer that carries a reward of health. 

It would be easier to give up.  But easier isn’t always best. 

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Coming Home

I found the yellowed clipped article tucked between baby pictures and frayed friendship bracelets.  It was a photo from when I was ten presenting my construction paper tzedakah(charity) box to the head of the Phoenix Jewish Federation.  I had collected my dimes and proudly handed over my accumulated allowance to support Project Exodus, the campaign to save the Ethiopian Jews.  I’m sure my $26.14 made a huge difference, but the bigger question is why I was so inspired to help at age 10. 

Yes, it was a great cause, providing support and aid to help Jews immigrate to Israel.  Yes, my mother was a very active volunteer in the Jewish Federation, which is how I heard about it in the first place.  But I’d never been to Israel nor met any of these refugees. There had been other campaigns and causes that lacked homemade coin boxes.  So what was the difference here?

It was home.  The campaign ad crooned heartfelt lyrics as the desperate families deplaned and kissed the Israeli soil.  We were helping them come home. This was something I cared about.  I couldn’t ignore the loss of safety in their eyes, scanning horizons for a place to call your own.  I related to the pursuit of community, the welcoming arms that cushion life’s blows.  I too longed to belong, to fit in, and to exhale with a knowing of care.  I sought to transform new into familiar, unpacking for a day’s vacation, tacking up pictures to the wooden walls at summer camp.  I nested, secure in the trinkets and love that home defined.  I resisted travel, shaky when forced to cram home into carry-on bags, lost in the backdrop of adventure. 

I knew how a house isn’t always a home, how adoring aromas can vanish in the face of frustration and exhaustion. There were nights of wandering into my parent’s bedroom, mute to explain this ache of being homesick for a home that doesn’t exist.  I was a worrier, and got trapped within the tentacles of fear, where reassurances that ‘nothing bad will happen to us’ paled by Holocaust legacies and nightly news. 

But there were also afternoons of storybook home-ness, finger-painting with pudding on the kitchen table and diving for pennies in the lukewarm pool of an august night.  There were meals of laughter and snuggling before bed.  I was lucky.  I had a house that stood as a home, even throughout the raindrops.  And still, I wanted more, needed more.  I craved constant perfection, eternal happiness, and an eraser for the edge of anger that crept in.  I compared my home to TV shows and fiction chapters, always coming up short.  I yearned for permanence, a home that never disappointed, was too busy, or overworked.  

In other words, I needed to change my definition.  And I have.  I’ve grown up, and remain stunned by the beauty that I grew up in, the support that lay beneath my feet, even when I was blind.  I hear about houses of horror, traumas and nightmarish childhoods.  And I say a prayer of thanks that I know what home feels like. 

So the coins saved were my way of sharing home.  I donated my allowance in an effort to quench the desire for safety, to help the wandering rest, to build a room that could become a home for the sad eyes I saw on the screen.  

I wanted to help them come home and to ensure one for myself. 

Monday, July 26, 2010

Lost our dreams in order to protect our days

That is why we need to travel...we pass our days in a routine that is both comfortable and limiting.  We wake up one day and find that we have lost our dreams in order to protect our days.
-       Letters to my son, Kent Nerburn

Sometimes I catch myself, mindlessly retracing old steps, routines of thought with slippery sides.  I shuffle through days hazy in the mantra of familiar, usual motions lined up in a row, without pondering the whys anymore, simply following orders.  I wallow in structure, wallpapering my hours with daily chores and errands.  I slip into new routines easily, always adding rather than subtracting, until its possible to fill all of the minutes with a to-do life.  I clench my schedule closely lest someone try to stretch my edges and breath new chances into stale footsteps.

 I find myself strangely attached to routines that seem to have appeared from nowhere, meaningless rituals that lack joy and yet, I believe I must do or else...Or else what? What is it that I become so afraid of when I step outside of the narrow boxes? What horrible tragedy do I think will crash from the sky?  And the answer is nothing.  I know better.  I know that if I don’t sweep the floors right after I get back from a morning walk with my puppy, no bolt of thunder will strike us both down.  I know it can wait until later, or dare I say, tomorrow.  And yet, I still am saving for later. 

I was the kid who saved the best for last, stored unopened birthday presents for days after to spread out the fun, and somehow came to believe that if I worked hard enough now, I’d get to play more later.  So I live with a fear of running out of time, errands and chores elevated to crucial priority, as I scramble to take care of business before I seek out the laughter.  If only I can cross off all of the day’s tasks, respond to all emails, return calls, and mail the bills, then I can splash in the puddles.  The fatal flaw in this plan is that there’s always more.  There’s always more emails, more calls, more dusting, more laundry to be done.  And so I get trapped, lost in routines to quench the anxiety, safe in the comfort of the familiar, but in a dimmer world. 

Routines are good.  We all need structure, places to go, and things to do.  I see friends at the dog park and wave to the neighbors each morning on our potty strolls.  I don’t have to worry about unpaid bills or massive dust bunnies attacking my guests.  Structure gives us space to explore within secure arenas and carves out paths for us in a chaotic world.  And some need it more than others.  I set down routines at the drop of a hat.  On vacation? New routines for the weekend, seeking comfort in order during spontaneous times. 

But sometimes life can become one big routine, dulled by familiarity, absent of fresh excitement.  This is the danger zone.  So I stay on ready alert, seeking out new territories, new adventures, even just new streets to stroll.  I spice it up, taking a different route to the grocery store, meeting a friend at an untried restaurant.  I ignore the task buzzes from my phone and practice changing the sheets Tuesday rather than Monday as scheduled.  It is entirely possible to travel without leaving home, discovering new destinations by finding new eyes. I have to remind myself to be amused rather than annoyed, to search for the stories, the glimmers of humanity, the tidbits of light that peek through ordinary minutes. 

But when I remember to look, they are always there, hiding behind the structure, begging to emerge from beneath the routines. 

I’d rather not lose my dreams to protect my days.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Baby Steps

Jewish Journal: Incredible Orthodox Response to Homosexuality

On one hand, I’m impressed at the stretching of old boundaries and inclusion of alternative views.  I’m happily surprised at the compassionate welcoming and allowances they delineate.  On the other hand, there’s still the black and white bottom line: Halakhic Judaism views all male and female same-sex sexual interactions as prohibited. There’s really no way to get around that.  They can instruct on kindness and welcome differences with softness, but for someone striving to live a strictly orthodox lifestyle, it would be impossible to simultaneously be in a committed same-sex relationship.  Still, I appreciate the discussion, and the modern approaches taken by a community who roots itself in biblical days.  I appreciate the avoidance of cause, leaving out the debate of environment versus genetics, nature versus nurture.

 I appreciate the comments about “change therapies”. I’m always struck by the fact that it was only in 1978 that the psychiatric diagnostic manual removed Homosexuality as a mental disease.  Ironically, the same day I read this article, I stumbled across another website – JONAH: Jews Offering New Alternatives to Healing., which is one of the aforementioned ‘change therapy’ sites helping ‘unwanted homosexuality’ sufferers and family members.  I want to rant about how prejudicial the mere idea is.  I want to rally for gay rights and tolerance for all.  I want to march for the right to keep bedroom practices in the bedroom.  And yet, I get it.  I can understand how if I was a strictly Orthodox Jew and was homosexual, maybe I would want help ridding myself of those urges.  I can understand if I believed that observance of torah was the path to bliss, then being gay would be a struggle to overcome much like depression, addiction, anxiety, greed.  I can understand.  It doesn’t mean I agree.
 I wish there was a way for greater inclusion, for participation regardless of sexual orientation, for equal membership without concern for dating practices.  I wish it didn’t have to be an issue, that the torah was mute on the subject.  But for those that believe in the word of Torah as binding and literal, then there really isn’t much more room for compromise.  So I’m impressed with the new Orthodox rabbis’ response to Homosexuality, and I cheer for all human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect (kevod haberiyot). Within the confines of black lines and stone-set rules, they worked hard to carve away room for differences and to address prior prejudices that ran rampant within the community. 

There will be those who cry outrage at bottom-line beliefs and point fingers of homophobia.  There will be those who sneer at refusals to perform marriages and statements of same-sex acts being prohibited.  I will not be among them.  Sure I wish for a different outcome.  Sure I believe that it doesn’t matter who you sleep with when it comes to matters of faith and living a good life.  But I also respect those who seem to be trying their hardest to extend compassion while still grasping the roots of their life guidelines.

 So instead, I nod with appreciation, remembering that all big change comes in baby steps. 

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Judges' Table

It’s the million-dollar question, the thought that steals sleep and lurks at the edges of routine.  We buy books and hold yoga poses, repeat meditative mantras and jot down New Year resolutions.  It’s the fear that urges forgiveness and prompts deathbed amends. We want it more than fame and fortune, more than unbridled success and lavish second homes.  It’s a universal craving.  We all want to have lived a well-lived life.  But how to define a good life? It seems the criteria lies entirely in the grasp of the asker.  Are we judging our own days or the moments of a loved one we mourn? Are we comparing our minutes to his, our family to hers, our good deeds to Mother Theresa?

Maybe for some, wealth does equal happiness, and the joy from the finer things earns her a gold star.  For some, wealth becomes an avenue to better the world, the means to support charities and establish endowments ensuring blessings for generations to come.  There are those who pursue pleasure at any cost, cramming maximum bliss into our mortal eye blinks. They live a good life by avoiding pain, indulging the senses, soaking in happiness absent of the ponderings of long-term consequences.  If your belief is that this is all there is, this short earthly jaunt, then a life of laughter and chocolate ice cream might add up to a well-lived life.  But even if you set out for bliss and chase contentment round each bend, we all know that tears are inevitable.  Man cannot stand as an island without building a narrow sorrow, isolation bred from loneliness and small boxes of rules and solitude.  But loving carries side effects of loss and connection invokes heartache.  Plus, a single pleasure track might derail mine.  So who has the right of way? Whose train matters more?

And then there’s the philosophy of good deeds, humanitarian acts and toiling for causes that add up to a good life.  Perhaps a life well lived is the one that leaves the biggest mark and improves the widest sphere.  Much like beauty, it seems the winner lies in the eye of the beholder.  We are all our worst critic, blinded by regrets and failures, ‘should have’s’, ‘could have’s’ and ‘if only’.  I will always come up short in my own comparisons as I handpick greatness and then weep at the gaps between us.  And yet, who are we to judge?

 Was my best friend who died at 16 from cancer less worthy of the prize simply because her allotted days ran out? From my viewpoint, she had a well-lived life, spreading smiles and hope within hospital hallways, and extending friendship to a lost girl visiting after school.  Her hugs soothed souls and her generous love inspired those of us lucky to know her.  But from an objective criterion, she wasn’t famous or rich.  She didn’t cure cancer nor stop genocide.  And sometimes she was cranky, snapping at her parents and frustrated with her team of doctors. So what’s the answer?

Of all of those I’ve loved and lost, I arrive at the same conclusion.  They all mattered, all were successes, and all journeyed a well-lived life.  Perhaps I’m biased.  None of them show up in history books or earned medals of Honor.  But for me, the measure of a good life sprouts in casual seeds, small gestures of comfort, hands to hold and words of care.  My criteria roots on a small scale, listing company in tears and laughter over completed crossword puzzles.  I catalogue investments of time, notes of support, silent hugs and meaningful glances.  

There are souls that wander our personal hallways, simply loving presences, touching lives with gentle kindnesses, and improving the world one smile at a time.  We can’t know the lives we touch.  We stay blind to the impact of a simple ‘thank you’ or nonchalant words that stir a heart.  We walk along, trapping in our worries and comparisons, perceived failures set on a grand-scale stage, never knowing our own greatness, never relaxing into our well-lived lives as we come up short and reach for higher peaks.

It can’t be measured in moments or even days.  Any random slice of life will be lacking, absent of essential ingredients for a final well-lived decree.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  We need a wide-angle lens and cheerleaders to sing our own value.  I could drive myself crazy with higher strivings and ambitions of moral perfection.  I could set requirements of faith and success, wealth and birthing of a legacy.  I could compare myself to grandparents whose list of volunteer activities put me to share, or mold myself into a woman I think the world asks me to be.  I could define my life as worthless without children, nest eggs, or injustices not righted.  Or I could stop.

 Maybe it’s not for me to judge, or at least not yet.  Maybe I am not the best critic for my own hours.  Maybe it’s been a well-lived life because I smile at the checkout counter and snuggle with my puppy during chilly mornings.  Maybe my life matters because there are those who love me and those I adore.  Maybe I don’t get to judge because I can’t possibly know, as none of us can, how we better the world simply by being in it. 

It’s a million dollar question and I don’t have the answer.  But I do know this: we all could do better, act better, be better.  But of all of those I cherish, my life is made better because I know them.  And that awards their days with the title of a well-lived life. 

dedicated to benjamin dov...

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A new adoptee

By the time we got to “East Wind”, I was ready to adopt a new uncle.  Beginning with a love of scuba diving, we managed to cover hobbies, teaching, the state of education in our country, places lived, business ventures, and family history.  Jack Winnick is a true renaissance man. He spun his history of working for NASA, teaching during episodes we read about in textbooks, and the details of his latest play that he’s starring in, while I worked hard to keep my jaw from dropping. I listened to him discuss being a visiting professor at Berkeley and his years teaching chemical engineering at Georgia Tech, and his vast knowledge made my head spin and left me scribbling notes to research when I got home.  He’s one of those people you feel lucky to get to spend time with, fascinating, funny, quick to laugh, and kind in spirit.  We perched outside of a Culver City Starbucks and sipped our drinks while we chatted away the afternoon. 

When we finally found our way to his first novel, East Wind, I saw his true passion spark.  In this international thriller, he weaves his engineering expertise with a love of Israel, and the result is a page-turner that couldn’t be timelier.  As I read the book that evening, I kept in mind pieces of our conversation – the back-room handshakes and long-forgotten military events that Jack taught me about in a loud whisper.  I knew that, while a book of fiction, almost all of the historic details and references were absolutely true.  Which is why I alternated between rapt reading and paralyzing terror.  Set in 2013 following a deadly nuclear terrorist explosion in Los Angeles, the terms are set: Stop all aid and support to Israel or else multiple attacks will be launched upon other American cities.  In a race to save lives and defend two homelands, an FBI agent partners with an Israeli Mossad field agent to crack the code before the 5-day time limit is up.  

From the first page, I saw hints of Jack within the words, fragments of his experiences, and facts that he had shared tucked in the dialogue.  “East Wind” is Jack Winnick’s voice, his message to the world about the current state of affairs.  “East Wind” thrills the reader with intrigue and suspense, but leaves a growing knot of fear in a world where the plot hits a little too close to home.  It’s hard to dismiss panic as fiction when it would be small hop to reality.  With Israel rooted on the front page and prominent Americans speaking out against U.S. support of Israel, “East Wind” couldn’t come at a better time.  

I will admit certain references put my knowledge to shame, exposing my lack of political and historical expertise.  Chock full of little know truths and mentions of hushed military ploys, either Jack possesses an incredible imagination, or there are other pieces of his history that he chose to omit. Either way, it is a book entertains purely as fiction while simultaneously serving as a warning: Wake up and take notice.  Take action before this work of fiction becomes our very real shared trauma.

We tossed our cups in the trash and waved good-bye, promising to meet again for Thai food in the very near future.  As I drove him, I couldn’t help but marvel at this gem of a man I had just met. A professor, engineer, actor, and author, he struck me as a man who revels in truth, who strives for goodness, and lives with passion. Sharing his laughter and soft handshake, I feel fortunate to have gotten to spend an afternoon simply sitting in the sunshine and swapping pieces of our lives. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

How Do You Judge a Life?

How do you judge a life? What are the measurements used to determine evil versus heroics, balancing past mistakes with current kindnesses? Is the criminal marked ‘bad’ for the one-time crime or redeemed by present smiles and generosity?

It’s easier to stamp labels on foreheads, file people into boxes with defined edges and concrete rules.  It’s easier to dismiss, opting to wander trails of black and white over gray shadows.  I tend to delineate my life with ‘either/or’, neatly sweeping ambiguities aside in favor of stark answers.  I struggle to feel anger amidst love, disappointment mixed with longing.  I debate options, weighing the pros and cons, searching for the ‘right’ answer, the perfect solution. 

So it was with swimming anxiety that I closed the last page and set the new novel by Michael Lavigne on my night table. I tossed and turned in the abstract, unsure of how to sit with a character I both hated and respected.  Forced to acknowledge all facets, I was stuck.  Was he a hero or a villain? There were no instructions left, simply a beautiful story of a Jewish father and son, rippled with questions of truth and love.  “Not Me” by Michael Lavigne forces us to wrestle with the gray within ourselves, the world, and the hidden secrets tucked in dusty corners.  He writes about a family born from the ashes, the Phoenix emerging after the Holocaust.  He describes buried baggage and the secrets we keep as we begin anew, toiling in the soil of a life worth living.  He writes about a father he adores, a father he hates, a father he worships, and a father he doesn’t really know. 

But does a lifetime of supportive hugs and gentle parenting vanish in the light of old failures? Can you love based on the current while avoiding getting tangled in disgust over old actions? Who deserves forgiveness? Do you even want to forgive?

How will you rate a life, determine if love is worthy? “Not Me” forces us to question the untold behind the words, to dissect the characters as slivers of ourselves, and to stretch our black and white lives. 

With true talent, Michael Lavigne offers a gripping story worth reading mingled with an after taste of self-reflection.  And as I grapple with life’s grayness, I nod with appreciation at a novel worth reading. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Long Goodbye

My Turn: Seeing in Dad the elusive hope of memory -
NY Times: Expanding Alzheimer's Diagnosis

We sat in front of her, taking turns vying for her attention, racking our brains for the right song, tone, story that would bring her back.  He held stroked her hair, the eldest son, and searched her eyes for recognition.  Formerly held up as grandchildren idols, my brother and I became pieces of furniture, and no amount of hugs or whispered love unlocked her brain. 

It is my worst fear.  They call it the ‘Long Goodbye’, an unbearable mourning for a loved one who still breathes in and out but has vanished, stolen with their soft generosity and sweet support.  It is my worst fear, not that I would get Alzheimer’s but that those I love would.  It’s a selfish fear, greedy in my adoration, and protective of all time together.  It’s a fear of the unknown with vast crevices in the information, the dilemma of how to study the human brain using a human brain that stumps us along the way. Without the ability to ask her, I worry that my cherished grandmother splashes in memories of terror, rewound from the present back to concentration camp days.  I worry that she is aware of what’s she’s missing, locked inside a mind with no escape.  I worry that she is miserable, hopeless, and praying for the end. 

It would be easier to believe that she’s a blank slate, body lumped in her wheelchair, mute as she twists a rag entwined between her fingers.  It would be easier to believe that she has no awareness, no more fears or regrets, and no pain.  It would be easier for me.  But she hasn’t spoken for almost 10 years, and still she sits through our visits, staring past our eager faces toward the white wall.

There are new diagnostic criteria being discussed among medical experts that would involve earlier detection. With new tests and predictions, many more could be told that they would get Alzheimer’s, long before they began exhibiting symptoms.  But what good does that do if there are no known courses of treatment? Does it help to live in fear of the day when you can’t remember what a cup is? Is it beneficial to go through new and sometimes very painful tests to learn about a result you can’t alter yet?  The hope is that eventually we will learn more, understand more, and come up with new treatments.  I hope. 

But for now, I’d rather not know.  Instead, I slide crossword puzzles towards my father and read up on the benefits of gingko biloba for my mother.  I hold my breath when names are forgotten and try to ignore the misplaced letter.  I list their healthy habits, reassuring myself with exercise and good genes.  I try not to make myself crazy with capturing every moment and memorizing his smile.  There’s nothing I can do anyway.  What will be will be.  So I cross my fingers for a cure and book flights for visits home.  I choose to believe that my grandmother floats through her days, reliving sweet childhood if anything at all. 

I lock away my fear, hoping that the day never comes when I look into my parents eyes and they ask who I am. I stick with the present, and pray smarter minds find the magic key before more of us have to say the long goodbye. 

Monday, July 19, 2010

Waiting for faith before taking the leap

Don’t touch.  Hands in your pockets! Fighting my urge to embrace my mentor, I watched him approach the Starbucks table, armed with pages of wisdom and faith.  He was my Orthodox Rabbi, suit clad even in 115 degree Phoenix summers.  He was my Rabbi, and we met to study, pondering life’s questions and seeking truth over iced coffee and air conditioning.  I toted my leather-bound texts, books that increased my intelligence simply by sitting on the shelf.  I scribbled in margins and underlined with question marks, searching for the words that would make me believe, words that would propel me into a faith rooted in surety. 

I asked him questions that his 5 year old daughter could have answered, exposing my ignorance with simplistic ponderings, trying to solve gray gaps from an academic perspective.  I wanted to know before I acted.  I wanted to see the Promised Land, to taste the sweet laughter before I made any changes in my life.  I wanted the rewards before I did the work.  I wanted to see the net before I took the leap.

We met each week to study, him focused on the writings we had chosen, I measuring his smile.  I was a student of his faith.  I watched for fulfillment, a joy that seeped beyond his sermons and into the walk from his car.  I watched his eyes for shadows and memorized the cadence of his voice, judging happiness and seeking proof of a life guided by deeper meaning.

He had what I wanted.  I was pretty sure.  I wasn’t asking him to exude bliss or be immune to life’s snaring boulders.  I wasn’t even requiring unwavering faith.  But I hungered for a sense of guidance, a feeling of connection, a knowing from up above.  I longed for a purposeful life, no longer having to figure everything out because there was a G-d that would direct my path. So I studied my Rabbi, and collected evidence of whispered prayers and true meaning. I logged obeyed mitzvot and heard truth amidst his tears.  I couldn’t trip him up with twisted analysis or catch him abandoning his religion when the rain began.  I came up with intellectual loopholes and incongruence between tractates, sure that I could find an excuse why I couldn’t believe, why this fulfillment wasn’t available to me.   Still, he had a response; even when the response was that there was no answer, there was only because. I questioned from the rationale, a scholar skeptical of ambiguity, craving black and white lines to contain the worldly gray.  I had abundant ‘whys’ and ‘but what its’, praying that he caught my subliminal longings for a way in, for a doorway to belief.

I wanted what he had, but I didn’t want to do what he did.  I wanted the security of community and the meaning of observance without the rules and obligations.  I wanted to know Hashem without having to change my lifestyle.  It didn’t seem to work that way.  I couldn’t think my way into spirituality. I couldn’t grasp the beauty of Shabbos or sip delicious melodies sung in gratitude if I wasn’t willing to show up and make the effort.  And so I stayed stuck.  So we studied and pondered, chatting as often about my life as the words on the page.  He showed up for our lessons and smiled if he caught my presence in shul.  He showed up as a mentor and simply waited, using his life as the urge for willingness, patiently offering Judaism and hoping I would tear off the bow.

When he moved across the country, I mourned my mentor.  I missed the Rabbi who made time for my doubts and saw through my skepticism.  I missed the Rabbi who spoke with passion and lived with one eye up above.  It’s easy to stay stuck when no one points it out, when calls to action are muted, and the questions cease.  It’s easy to wait till tomorrow and plan to believe next week.

But lessons get relearned and answers revisited beneath closed eyelids.  I find our book yesterday, flagged with orange post-its and highlighted passages.  I flip through the pages, no memory of what insights I gleaned or truths I learned, but I remember the lightness.  I can’t repeat any of his answers, but I see my sense of well being, and the sprouts of faith.  I hear his murmured prayers before sipping his drink, and touch my awe blended with yearning. 

He was my Rabbi and my mentor, dropping maps of strength upon pauses of weakness.  And I his student, choosing to pick up a map, begin the journey, and start asking questions again.  

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Yesterday a child came out to wonder. Caught a dragonfly inside a jar.
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder, And tearful at the falling of a star
Then the child moved ten times round the seasons, Skated over ten clear frozen streams
Words like, when you’re older, must appease him, and promises of someday make his dreams.
And the seasons they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time. We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came, and go round and round and round on the circle game.

We sang with arms intertwined, mesmerized by the campfire flames, childish voices rising with smoke as our pleas.  Memorized words encapsulating a grief that we didn’t recognize.  I loved the song.  “The Circle Game” meant summer camp, guitars and campfires, smoky t-shirts and hands to hold.  And yet, I sang without comprehension, absent of a panic that set in years later.

“We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came, and go round and round and round in the circle game.”

But as I read the lyrics today, I search for the missing verse.  The lines that detail getting off of the merry-go-round, an escape from repeated lessons and circular living.  I picture the slow spinning and realize that I could stand here forever, and watch the same pink pony return again and again.  The ride does return, doomed to revisit the same path eternally.  I understand the message, and the mourning of spent childhoods, passed adolescence, and approaching gray hairs.  I understand the theme of wishing for a pause button, and how seasons seem to accelerate the older I get.

 But the ride has lost its thrill; after so many circles, I’m ready to try something new.  No longer content to simply wave at beauty and watch the world pass me by, I itch for new lessons, new adventure, and new scenery.  I could sit upon my pony, passively toeing the line, but it seems there are better things ahead.  I’d rather not miss the swing ride, the log flume, or the sticky cotton candy as the side dish for the magician’s act. 

I know I can’t go home again.  I realize that years pass by and it’s shockingly easy to wake up having missed the past decade.  I have learned the same lessons over and over, my stubbornness tripping over my future as I trace the familiar walls of the same hole.  But it’s time to move on.  My painted pony is getting uncomfortable, as I stay rooted on its dizzying spin.

 It’s time for new dreams.  It’s time to wave goodbye at history and mourn lost chances.  It’s time to make peace with old doubts and leave behind healed scars.  It’s time to appreciate the simplicity of the merry-go-round as I head off to new risks, new opportunities, and new chances, learning new tunes as I walk. 

The melody still moves me, wistful for old friends and childhood laughter.  I still pause, aching as my pony returns again and loved ones have walked on, tired of the same scene for decades.  I might miss my familiar ride, and the gently safety of its routine. 

But I’m done being captive.  The seasons will go round and round regardless.  It’s time to stop merely “looking back from where we came”.  It’s time for new horizons. 

Friday, July 16, 2010

Shiva for What Could Have Been

I could have related the facts, explained that Tisha B’Av was the day of mourning, grief over our temple destroyed.  I could have recited details of rubble and fasting obligations, but it would have been dry-eyed.  Ok, so the temple was destroyed...sure, not the perfect outcome.  But couldn’t we build another? Were we really to mourn for generations to come over broken bricks and fallen walls? I was told it was the ‘Saddest Day of the Year’ and I sat in ignorance.  Maybe I wasn’t moved because I have never been to Israel, never kissed the soil and connected with my homeland.  Partly I didn’t grasp the meaning of the temple. It wasn’t the destroyed structure that we mourned, but rather the loss of Hashem’s presence, the loss of our leader, our father, and our mentor holding us up.  But still, I had some sticking points. 

The story of Hashem claiming that because the Jews cried ‘false tears’ over imagined defeat they would cry for generations just didn’t sit right.  We were scared.  We were unsure of the future.  How could this kind and ever-loving G-d punish his people for their weeping?  And not only those that cried, but generations to come? It just didn’t fit.  It fit with the destructive and punishing G-d that some believe in.  It fit with the unknowable angry ruler who demands perfection, but it didn’t fit with my comprehension of G-d who loved like a father, and cared about even the smallest hairs on my head.  It didn’t fit with the Creator who yearned for joy and craved meaning for his children.  It just didn’t fit. 

And so, I would have crossed off Tisha B’av on the calendar, merely another Tuesday, missing the call for action that the holiday screams for. 

But today I glimpse a new snapshot of Tisha B’av.  Hidden beneath the facts and historic details lie the treasure of meaning.  There is another perspective, another interpretation, and another translation of the Hebrew that urges me to rend my clothes.  Hashem isn’t punishing the Jews for crying or fear.  They were distraught because they thought they were weak, believed that they would be destroyed, even though G-d had told them they would conquer.  Hashem is teaching us that our ‘false tears’ will be the cause of our destruction and downfall for generations, not because He is punishing us, but rather because we didn’t believe – didn’t believe in ourselves, in Hashem, in our gift of greatness.  We will weep for decades because of what we could have been, the missed successes and lost kindnesses.  Our own hands punish us, keeping ourselves locked in small lives, carving away glory with every doubt and worry. 

Tisha B’av becomes a Shiva for what could have been, grief for the happiness we turned away from, tears for the challenges we let our fears evade.  It isn’t punishment from the Almighty, it is self-induced suffering; a lack of faith, a declaration of ‘I can’t’ that results in our perpetual wandering, grieving with no temple as anchor.  And as always, I find the answer in a faith that I can’t always grasp.  Faith becomes the antidote to tears, belief that the net will appear if I step off the cliff unlocks my doubts and arms me for battle in life’s mountains.  Apparently, Hashem wasn’t so disturbed by the false tears as by the doubts in his assurances, the lack of faith in themselves over the belief in His promises.

And within this explanation, I find something to mourn.  I relate to ‘what could have been’, the squandered potential, and cast-aside greatness.  I am familiar with fears that dictate actions and destruction brought about by my own hand.  I infuse doubts into challenges and lean on worry to avoid success.  I have turns away from glory, spurred by my fictitious smallness, my idea that I wasn’t good enough, deserving enough, smart enough...wasn’t enough.  I ignored assurances from those who had gone before, and debated faith with my mentors.  I nodded at pep talks but chose to belief my own narrow eyes, opting not to try in favor of failure.  I too need to sit Shiva.  I too must grieve the lost years and buried happiness.  Suddenly, Tisha B’av becomes personal, a wake-up call to faith, a nudge to action, and a commandment to believe.  Tisha B’av becomes a whisper of confidence, tears shed and then left behind, with the option to live better, dream bigger, and snatch tomorrow’s ‘what could have been’s’ as today’s opportunities. 

This year I cover my mirrors and don black.  May next year my Tisha B’av require fewer tears and find us all living the lives we could have lived.   

Aish Film: Tisha B'Av: The Root of Destruction

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I Lied

I lied.  I looked her straight in the eyes and swore that I had thrown it away already.  I lied.  There was no suicide note that she would find as she rummaged through our trash bins at the edge of the road. There was no suicide note to find because there was no plan, no letter, and no fatal means hidden beneath my pillow.  I lied.

And yet, I thought it was a worthwhile lie.  After all, she came.  This therapist who I perched on a pedestal and crowned my savior had shown up at my home late at night on a mission to save my life.  She came on the ruse of the crisis, but she still came.  This woman whose attention I craved and love I pined for was sitting in my bedroom.  She acing my test, as I continued to place hoops for her to jump through, needing her to prove her loyalty, prove her care, prove that I was more than just another sick patient, depressed and hungry, aching for attention.

 I competed with my friends, her fellow clients, as we vied for ‘the sickest’ obviously equated with ‘most special’, ‘favorite’, ‘most in need of time and comfort’.  Right off the bat I was at a disadvantage: married parents who loved and provided for me, a tight-knit family, and no bruises or history of nightmarish trauma.  I knew I had it good, and yet, I couldn’t figure out why I was so miserable, so desperate for care, and endlessly needy for more.  So I stepped up the craziness, stretched to new heights of disturbed lest I lose her interest.  Heaven forbid I get better, find hope, and use the tools I’d been taught. 

Recovery was synonymous with isolation, loneliness, being forgotten as I was dropped back into the tale of normalcy and weighed by the curse of potential.  I’d return to regular, another girl disappearing in the swirl of high school, neither the best nor the worst, simply average and alone.  So, I soldiered on, desperately picking up the phone and nonchalantly hinting at impending death, casually suggesting that suicide was at the top of my Saturday night activities, and then proclaimed shock when she arrived at the front door.

Please, my silence screamed, convince me that you really care.  Prove to me that you love me in spite of the paycheck and not because of it.  Please, assure me that I am most special, that your care extends beyond fifty-minute sessions.  And with my lie, she rose to the occasion.  But with my lie, I lost her.

Yes, she showed up when she wasn’t obligated to, and yes, she obviously cared.  But she saw through my downcast stare and read my fiction in the spaces.  She knew there was no note to find, but also knew my stubbornness would insist on the existence of nothingness even in the face of disputing evidence.  So we stood still, staring each other down, as my lie sunk in and I shrunk with impending guilt.  This was not going to end well.  The price of my test offset the glory.  Her precious visit brought her hand to hold, but only as she led me through the doors of hospital admissions.  My lie served up furious and tearful parents, a gnawing pit of getting caught in falsehoods, and the disappointment shadowing her eyes as she urged me to at least tell the truth and I remained still.  My lie summed up my teenaged life: choosing immediate relief over lengthy consequences, always true to form as I sacrificed my future for the hug of right now.

I lied.  I lied and I crossed a line, tasting her resentment as I realized too late that, backed into a corner forced to prove her love, I had transformed myself back into a pain-in-the-ass client ranting dramatically while rooted in the breeze.  I lied and I lost her that night.  I lied and I betrayed my family and myself, erasing reliability with every claim I cast.  I lied without learning my lesson. 

I watched her frenetic sprint to catch us all before we crashed, and I loved her for trying, for believing us even in fiction, for being too inexperienced to know how to set boundaries, for cherishing our cracks and lumpy tears.  She didn’t lead me to heath, nor did she guide me towards adulthood.  She wallowed with me compassionately, and waved good-bye when I left for college.  But I thought I needed her, and so I lied to keep her hooked, keep her close.

I lied for decades, until I learned to recognize truth, own my truth, and speak my truth.  And that’s when the lies catch up with you.  When you have been a liar, your truths pay the price.  Upon a bed of hollow lies, my truth is probed.  Upon decades of lies, the burden of proof rests within my honesty.