I end up getting out what I had originally put in. That keeps being obvious – but not entirely. Because sometimes, I put in stuff because it’s my job or my responsibility, because it’s my obligation – not because I want to end up somewhere. But if I don’t think about where I will end up, then I end up nowhere fast. (If you aim for nothing, you’ll achieve it.)
Sometimes, I have lofty dreams. I’m going to achieve this or be that kind of person. But if I don’t do anything, those dreams recede and don’t happen. I have to take the actions that take me closer to my dreams, or again – I don’t end up where I wasn’t to be. Procrastination is an evil habit that turns my dreams into nightmares of overwhelming failure. I could have done this, that, or the other thing – but I didn’t, did I?
If I start my journey out well, but get distracted by minutiae, I end up getting only the minutiae done. I find myself stuck where I am trying to move a mountain with a pair of tweezers or fill a well with an eye dropper. (Yay, phantom tollbooth – one of the better children’s journeys) It takes me forever to do anything. Again, I end up as far from my goal as I was when I started with tired fingers and broken tweezers. I have to plan properly, pick smart goals and work on them intelligently to keep this from happening.
Others derail me, on occasion. If someone describes my goal as stupid or insufficient, I can put it aside to follow their goals – but then I’ll end up somewhere very strange and wonder what I’m doing in this place, where nothing seems familiar. As the man, his son and the donkey found out, you can’t please all of the people. I need to please me. And not please me with games and novels, with distractions and diversions. I need to please myself by asking what my dreams are – and whether these activities are helping or harming me as far as meeting them go. I need to ask myself this question – no one else can answer it for me.
On the other hand, I need to take the hands that offer help. I am human and God made us to be in society and if I try to do it alone, even if I succeed, I find myself holding a hollow shell of my dream, nothing like the beautiful, incredible thing I envisioned. I can dream big, and work towards my dreams but God sometimes has something bigger in store. I need to work with others if I’m going to find that bigger dream.
I must avoid despair. Sometimes, it feels like I’ve already reached the end of the road and it’s a dank, nasty alley behind a garbage dump. It stinks. I need to remember that there is indeed an exit to the alley, and I have a way to walk it, because God gave me one.
So, if I want to be a teacher, I need to plan the lessons, do the marking and enjoy those special moments where it’s me and the kids. If I want to be a wife, I need to listen to my partner, plan dates and special activities for her, and enjoy the magic of our two hearts beating together as one, of true connection, soul to soul. If I want to be a Jew in a Jewish community, I need to go to services, participate joyfully in the holidays and enjoy those magical moments where we touch God’s hands together – through our voices rising, through candles burning, through arms around each other, through old crackled yellowing words repeated by the people next to me. (Yay, Slichot and Havdalla at Beth Jacob last night – if you weren’t there, you missed a beautiful, spiritual experience that you would have loved; more importantly, that would have lifted you out of despair and turned you out of that alley you ended up in and put you on the path you needed to be on. It was good.) If I want to be a mama, I need to do dishes, find time with the kids, make hanging out with them a priority, and love those beautiful hugs and smiles and things they want to show me. If I want to be a good person, I need to do Mitzvot, read Torah, help others in any way possible, practice my sorry and thank you, and enjoy those moments where I’ve made a difference for another human being.
I know where I want to end up this year. These are my priorities. I want to be a good person, a teacher, a mama and a married Jewish woman. All I need to do is walk that path, avoiding despair and pride, accepting help and making sure each step I take is a step along the road to my goals. Maybe these steps aren’t my obligation – but what is obligation but the need to keep stepping along that road. So, maybe they are. Certainly, when I walk them, my road is full of light and I really love where I end up.
Well that’s unfortunate! I wrote about ‘love’ yesterday, for fill. What to do now? Ah well, Bible story time.
They’re my children. I know it sounds odd, because they are important people and everyone knows them and no one really knows me, but still. They’re still mine. 3 generations of them, from the time when I was much too young but already had a baby and was called to wet nurse for this little girl to the time I finally got another little girl to play with so very many years later – all of them were loved by me, raised by me, praised by me, sung to at night by me, hugged by me and chastised by me. Although, as a nurse, my ability to chastise was limited. If I could have only had more influence, maybe I could have taught that one more about honesty, or kept that one from fighting so much. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to watch brilliant, broken people grow up and self destruct. Oh, but then…my children are so beautiful. Maybe I wouldn’t have done any better, and would have just been overpowered by the sheer wonder of them all.
Rebecca was my first. She was so smart! Few little girls are that smart. I was her nurse from the time her busy, uncaring mother first stuck her onto my breast and forever more. The way we loved each other, Rebecca and I! Of course I had my own babies and husband and I loved them and I raised them well, and they all got jobs as nurses and butlers, as manservants and maids but Rebecca…she was special. Quick as anything she was, and strong. She knew what she wanted and no one or nothing would get in the way of her getting it. She did have her faults. Sadly, she was not above manipulating her parents to get what she wants – and they fell for it too! “But Mama, Dad said I could…”, “but Mama, it’s so hard to be from a chief’s family, there’s no other fault…” Laban got in trouble a lot for things that were at least partially Rebecca’s fault. Of course, I yelled at her about it, but sometimes, that just wasn’t enough. She knew it worked with her parents, so of course she used manipulation.
She listened to me in most things, though. And even more importantly, she talked to me. Her questions, her ideas, her hugs – she explored the notion of Gods with me, and told me about the One God of Abraham (Bethuel knew about that God of course, but somehow, it was still Abraham’s God.) She kind of liked the idea of one God that ruled all the others. She thought it sounded clever, and less confusing. She also talked about marriage – she wanted someone to love her. In her family, all the marriages were for money and power. She saw my family though. We were just together as two servants, my husband and I, and we had picked each other and she wanted that so much. She knew it was not to be, though. It didn’t make sense for her. She’d need to be married off to secure a holding or to prevent a battle.
I think that’s why she was so ready to go with Eliezer when he came. Since an arranged marriage had to happen, she wanted to be part of arranging it. This way, she’d be with the one-God-of-Abraham people, and she’d be far enough from her family that maybe – just maybe – love could happen
Of course she made sure we went with her. Why wouldn’t she? They were going to send along some servants anyway, and my husband and children could just as well serve Isaac as Laban. We are invisible, you know – us servants who make sure that the babies are fed and the house is clean. When it says “Abraham prepared this”…or Isaac did that…or Jacob, or Rachel, or any of them, it doesn’t even always mention the ones that served the morning coffee or drove the sheep or mended the clothes. Who did the filling of the basin Abraham brought? Who prepared the choice animals for feasting? Faceless, nameless people. But we still love our masters and mistresses and want the best for them. So, I came. It didn’t matter to anyone else, and it mattered a great deal to Rebecca and I. We needed to stay together – and so we did. They fell in love as soon as they saw each other of course, Isaac and Rebecca did. It’s the first love story of the bible, really. That’s when I first started believing in this God – clearly, God had arranged this marriage. They both needed love so badly. I tried – but distant, indulgent self absorbed parents make it so much harder. Now, maybe they could love each other – and maybe their children would have the love they needed from their parents not a random nurse.
It was not to be, of course. The men of that family always had a hard time with babies. Couldn’t get their wives pregnant for years. Bethuel had children late, as did Abraham – and Isaac was no different. Rebecca wanted children so much – “mama Deborah,” she’d tell me, “I’ll be good with them – I’ll truly love them.” But when she finally had children, that wasn’t simple either. It was a hard pregnancy, and I almost lost her a couple of times during the birthing (of course I was there, where else would I be?) The babies wore her out. She was always tired, always slow, always grumpy – my quicksilver, super clever and funloving girl! And Esau – how could she, who was so smart, give him her love? He was slow to learn things. He preferred the doing. He was a big boy, quick – but sometimes he broke things in his enthusiasm. She liked Jacob – sweet, smart – like Rebecca in boy form, the best of his parents put together. It wasn’t fair to Esau of course. He wasn’t a bad boy – he was just not a Rebecca sort of boy. Isaac liked him. Isaac was a simple man and liked simple things and Esau was – well, a bit simple. He got Rebecca’s looks and quick movement, but not her cleverness – no that went to Jacob.
It tore the family apart, really – Isaac and Esau against Rebecca and Jacob. Whereas before the two of them celebrated differences, now the differences were highlighted and accentuated by children who parodied the best – and the worst of their parents. I tried to bridge the gap. I learned to read and write so I could work with Esau on his letters and I learned to ride so I could take Jacob out for rides and get him moving. The boys both loved me. I was their Mama Deborah and many a time, the one they ran to with their tales of woe. “Look!” Jacob would say, “I wrote this incredible poem about God, and dad said it was sissy stuff”. “I found the most beautiful oasis,” Esau would complain, “and it’s not far and mom won’t even come look.” I comforted, consoled, counselled and corrected but once again – there’s only so much a nurse can do. I tried to show Rebecca that Jacob was a bit sneaky but how could she see that when she did it herself? And Esau was so frustrated and so active and stuck with parents who liked to read or to study that he lashed out and yelled at everyone and everything. They were so critical and so demanding, those two – and playing favourites! Let me tell you, they were wonderful people but as parents…
So, it didn’t surprise me that as Isaac was dying, Rebecca and Jacob manipulated him into birthright and blessing. I could have predicted that! I also could have predicted how mad Esau was. He was being left with nothing, poor boy and so he turned against all of us. I understood – but I missed my big guy. Jacob went back to Laban’s and I thought I was done parenting – but then Rebecca got really worried. How was Jacob doing? Did he have children? Why wouldn’t he come home? Rebecca missed her Jacob a lot So, old or otherwise, up to Haran I go, and there’s Jacob, married to two wives, a whole passel of children and no clue how to raise them. So, I’m Mama Deborah again, and the wives are seeking my aid with jealousy anyways. Stop it! I tell them – jealous broken parents lead to issues with the children. Just cut it out. But they don’t – Sigh another generation. Still, I will do my best to raise them up well with good values and strong skills and hope of the future.
I don’t know. I talked and I taught, I comforted and I challenged, I disciplined and I delighted. I raised them all as best I could and gave them all what self confidence I had. So, these children – they’re mine. That’s it – I worked hard and loved hard and when I die, I hope that some of these people will cry at my passing. And until then, well I have plenty of tasks to do and children to love. That is enough for me. I’m mama Deborah after all.
We have a blessing. “Oh fill my cup until it overflows with love. I share my cup because it overflows with love.” It’s pretty when sung, and there are days when it is definitely one of my favourites. It’s a very Jewish blessing in some ways – the “my cup overflows” always makes me think of ‘Adon Olam’ (ask for my Adon Olam translation some day. It’s the prettiest and best for singing – she says modestly.) Other times, I just don’t seem to have that love to share, I just don’t. Then, I resent it – where am I supposed to get this overflowing cup from, again?
Lately, my daily “sensible sayings for the day” feed has been full of ideas about love. Most of them seem to be in exactly the same vein. They all say, “stop asking for it, you moron, and start giving it!” Sometimes, though, I think God asks for too much! How can we share our cups of love when they don’t seem to be overflowing? When, in fact, they seem to have nothing but dried on old coffee grounds that should have been cleaned out ages ago. When they were last used to drink the soup of the soup of the soup (great Jewish story – ask me if you don’t know it.) It feels so much like there’s nothing to share.
Of course, there is. There are probably tons of people who love us. Our partners, our children, our family and friends – plenty of love all around. The cup can still seem empty though, in the middle of a fight, or in the middle of the night. Sometimes that love is hard to see. How does one handle those horrible days when the goal is to give love and one feels there’s nothing there? Don’t know. My current approach of no sleep, caustic humour and shutting down when upset may not be the best one at giving love. Once or twice, I’ve noticed that opportunities for being loving have come up and passed me by because I just wasn’t on the ball enough. And given my noticing skills, if one or two have come up, 20 or 30 have gone down without my even being aware of their existence.
So, I need to work on filling my own cup. Because asking the universe to do it for me always gets that annoying indulgent parental smile of “aww, sweetie…you can do it yourself, I know you can”. (Yes, I use that exact tone of voice with my students – doesn’t mean I like it directed at me, thank you very much, God.) I need to remember what has worked in the past and start using those approaches.
I know that ‘no sleep’ stinks as an approach, for example. I need to start filling my cup by loving myself well enough to take care of myself. Yes, there are other priorities – including this blog, I will do all 29 posts by Rosh HaShanah, darn it all – but if I never put me on the priority list, I fail. So, I have to try to love myself just a little ‘6 hours a night’ bit. Getting enough sleep and eating healthy food is a necessity. Let’s see if I can do it. I certainly will try.
I have to look for the love in the cup, too. As I said, I am not very good at noticing. I am extremely blessed, and when I get off the pity potty, I recognize it. It’s been a while since my daily gratitude list happened daily. There’s another thing to resurrect – I need to keep reminding myself of good things, keep my eyes open, recognize the love I’m being given (“I sent a boat, a helicopter…”) and appreciate it, and maybe my humour won’t be quite as toxic.
Shutting down when upset is probably also not the best approach as that upset has nowhere to go, creates a lump and that lump sits in my cup like curdled milk, smells yucky and keeps my cup from filling with anything decent. Saying or writing the upset, working through it, moving on – there are people who can do all that automatically. Then again, there are people who remember their wallets automatically. I need to always check for my wallet, and I need to engage in constant spiritual practice to deal with emotions. Again, downplaying prayer, journaling, contact with support network, meditation – all not acceptable.
There are people who manage with actual empty cups – with no family, or friends, or health, or resources. And while some of them are unable to share anything but their despair, others seem to pour out love as if that cup were never ending. Maybe they love themselves enough. Maybe they see god’s love. Maybe they actually follow one of those daily inspirational readings and behave like adults and give love instead of expecting to receive it (yes, giving love causes the cup to fill and overflow. I remember that when I give myself enough sleep.) I, who have so much, want to be more like those people. I want to share my cup of love until it overflows. I want to fill that cup with loving deeds and thoughts and feelings until I can sing cleanly and openly, and know it’s true.
“I share my cup because it overflows”.
I suck at saying “Oops. It was my mistake. I did the wrong thing. I’ll certainly do better tomorrow.” I *still * suck. I wish I was good at it. I wish I didn’t have the same face-saving needs that I had when I was 5. I also wish for a million dollars and to be 20 again, but having a decent character should be more achievable than the other two not less. It just feels like less. I’ve been trying for years and sometimes I wonder if I’m incapable of doing this.
It shouldn’t be that hard. It’s natural to make mistakes, everyone does it, ‘we are but dust blowing in~ the wind’ so how can we expect to be perfect? We aren’t. It’s OK not to be. And one should be able to admit that lack of perfection clearly and easily as one apologizes. But I just can’t. The words physically get stuck in my mouth and I can’t say “I’m su-se-so-sorry, I was wr-wr-wr-wrong.” There’s two ways this happens. First is the righteous anger version. “I wasn’t wrong! I’m never wrong. I was right, darn it all. If only you’d have listened to me…” I find myself thinking I’m right a lot. I’m very clever after all. I know things. So, I’m not wrong. If there was a problem, it was your fault. Guaranteed.
The second is the embarrassment version. I know I screwed up, assume it’s really, really bad, feel horrid about myself, decide that the only way I can survive it is if no one knows and go on pretending that the world is a place where I’m never wrong. (See previous paragraph.) The secret shame grows bigger and then I feel bad that I’m covering something up and that’s not very good either, because then there’s no time to do the right thing and so I do the wrong thing, but it’s not my fault, really.
Both are problematic, but the embarrassment more so. I know how to deal with anger, and with sufficient prayer and journaling and meditation and all that other good stuff, I can admit that I’m wrong. The embarrassment one is more of a problem, though. No matter how hard I pray, I can’t seem to speak those words – they refuse to come out of my mouth.
Sometimes, I say the “I’m sorry” in my head. I commit privately to doing the right thing. That’s good enough isn’t it? I think to myself and praise myself for the job will done. And then there’s this kid who’s been asked to scrape a plate or finish the homework assignment or return the money or whatever. And she’s sitting here not doing it even though I know she should and she knows she should and I know she knows she should and she knows I know and so on. And then I remember that hot feeling at the back of my eyes, and that thought in my head that I simply couldn’t admit this in front of them, and I leave the room, and wait 10 minutes and come back in and what do you know, the plate is scraped, the homework is done, and the money is back. It’s all very mysterious and the best approach is not to acknowledge it at all even though I know and she knows I know and ….
But I’m not a kid any more! I have worked on this trait. Surely, it’s fixed now and I can stop working on it? But I can’t. I still have a hard time apologizing. I’m thinking I’ll go back to “a sorry a day.” It’s Elul and time to start making life changes after all. I haven’t done this in ages but clearly, it’s time to do it again. I will try, at least, to say a “sorry” to someone, every day, genuinely, with all the accouterments of sorryness. It’s an excellent spiritual practice, and as everyone knows, practice makes better. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe this isn’t a trait I can do much about. Maybe I went from being much to young to being a bit too old to do this. Nevertheless, I will make the effort. I will try to do it in small, relatively un-embarrassing situations, so that I get so much practice, it feels automatic.
Maybe it will, in time, be easier to speak those tricky “I’m so-sa-se-sorry”. Until then, well, you know how it is. It’s all YOUR fault!
It’s fun having kids. You go through the stages of learning again and again. For example, politeness. One spends a lot of a child’s first few years of speaking life saying “please say please”. We have this forlorn hope that if we can just get the kid to say “PLEASE pass the milk”, the kid will turn into a polite, pleasant young person who talks intelligently and interestingly about the day’s happenings, instead of singing some inane ditty over and over again at the top of her lungs while bits of spaghetti drip out of her mouth. (This is potentially a description of my eating style as a young person, never mind that of my children’s.)
It’s fairly accurate, too. They do. They grow a year or two, learn to say please, eat with their mouths closed and are really fun to talk to. I’m not sure if the please was the secret, but hey, parents wouldn’t keep saying that line over and over if it wasn’t a useful line!
And yet I remember being extremely against polite words as a kid. ‘Please’ seemed to me to be a waste of time and air space that could be better spent doing almost anything else. It did not convey any new information to the original “pass the milk”. It did not actually change or do anything! What was the point of the ‘please’? Social connection and relationship? Who needs that! I want the milk. Furthermore, if people were just cool with simple clear straightforward requests for information, then it wouldn’t be needed for connection and relationship either! I would never ask kids to “please say please” or use any of the other social niceties which were bad habits that people had just got accustomed to despite the fact that that they did nothing but waste time. I would simply help my kids relate factual information and be comfortable with receiving that information without needing silly nonsense life ‘please’.
You will be happy to know that this parenting approach lasted until approximately 30 seconds after I had my first child. I knew so much about parenting before that birth, and so little since.)
The purpose of politeness is not something I learned from Judaism despite Judaism being big on politeness (for example, it is said it is worse to embarrass someone than to harm someone physically, for the embarrassment is harm not just to the body but to the soul – we even cover the Khalla on Shabbat just so it wouldn’t be embarrassed.) In Judaism, politeness is called Derekh Eretz, the way of the Earth, as you can’t function well on Earth without politeness.
I learned it in physics. I had a very hard time with grade 11 physics. I failed my first test, and almost joined the 20 kids (out of a class of 30) who dropped it. Except I was the only girl left and I wasn’t about to buy into ‘only boys can do physics’ so I went to the teacher and told him he was going to explain it to me every lunch time until my mark improved. I finished the class with an 80, whether because my knowledge of physics improved or my teacher wanted his lunches back we’ll never know.
Anyways, he was trying to explain forces and he said “friction is a force that keeps things from moving forward”. It was sort of like misunderstanding, he said. Just the way people’s ways of seeing the world don’t always match up so the molecules in various substances don’t always match up. That discrepancy creates tiny barriers in the way of the object moving forward, just the way that people in conflict could keep a project from advancing. Oil, like politeness, helped fill in the bumps and make a smooth surface that an object could slide on.
Little did my teacher know that my poor knowledge of science was still vastly superior to my knowledge of social graces. I actually understood friction well enough so that the teacher’s explanation helped make politeness make sense for the first time. I still thought it was overblown (after all, most objects move fine without oil, right?) but at least I could see some point to it. Maybe it wasn’t totally useless, just mostly so.
These days, I realize more and more how important it is. Treating someone with courtesy is a way of showing respect – a way of saying, “heck, our ideas may never match up, but I still think you’re important enough to waste space on something that has no factual significance.” Sometimes, simple politeness ends a fight. It’s hard to fight with someone that’s saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ sincerely. (Insincere politeness is and always will be evil. I though so as a little girl and on this one, my opinions haven’t changed.) It can change my opinion of a person – if someone is important enough for me to be polite to them, they must have good attributes I just need to find. It overcomes social hierarchy – when I remember to be polite, so as to set a good example, in front of and towards my children and students, it reminds me that they are people worthy of respect. It brings more smoothness and joy into everyday conversations.
It’s not that politeness builds relationship. It doesn’t. In fact, like oil between two objects, it is something that lies between and interferes with direct contact and intimacy. But it does an amazing job of removing much bigger barriers and so allows that connection to be discovered and build over time. It does seem to be worth the time to just say ‘please’ when asking for the milk. It’s not a bad idea to reduce friction when I ask.
There are days when I don’t even know. The best I can do sometimes is the next thing, just trying to get through a moment. I wake up with a list of tasks already buzzing through my brain and I do some of them and I sigh about the ones I didn’t get to and I fall asleep in the middle of another one, because my eyes won’t stay open and sometimes I get to putting on my pajamas and sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and put my pajamas on then and then I sleep a bit more and then I wake up with a list of tasks already buzzing though my brain and…
I just exist. Is this living? I mean, of course it is. I get things done, I consume nourishment, I get older, I do work – that is living. But somehow, despite the cycle of waking and sleeping, it all feels vaguely asleep. Surely there’s a kind of waking I’m missing – the kind where you awaken to a quiet day, make a plan about some of the things you’re going to do today, making sure to balance positive self-growth activities with those that accomplish necessary tasks and those that bring more goodness into the world, complete the plan well, sighing at the most about that one extra thing you wish you could have gotten done, and then nicely getting ready for bed before going to sleep. You have those days all the time, right? Do you think you could share one?
If not, if we are all hurrying from one day to another, then what kind of waking can one aim for? There is a huge discussion in the Jewish “we like to talk about the tiny details in the words and letters of the Torah” community about the difference between “lived years” and “lived days of years”. Why throw in the extra stuff about days – you don’t need days to say a dude lived 500 years or whatever? Because the days that one is awake – those are the important ones. One can live year upon year upon year without having a single day worth noting.” Say the Rabbis. They think we can have a day worth noticing. But how? The tasks still need to be done.
Maybe it’s really just a matter of being fully awake while doing those days – of noticing the moment of brightness in the middle of the task. It’s hard to remember, but there are moments – the smile someone, the absent-minded pat of the cat, the one lonely late blooming flower, the random singing in the kitchen – that make the day into a DAY, a day that’s lived fully.
(Yes, I’m reading Pollyanna to my daughter right now – and she goes on and on about being glad and just living, so some of that might creep in to my writing. It could be worse. What if I had been reading ‘goosebumps’ at the time? These blogs might be full of ‘and be very careful when you go down into the basement…’)
This year, “key moments” – seeing those important moments, appreciating them and living them fully seems to be the underlying theme of Elul. (No, I don’t have a theme for the month. I make myself write stuff every day and sometimes, a theme surprises me and hits me in the head and I go, ‘cool, a theme for the month.’) To have those key moments, one needs to look up from the everyday tasks, to notice the world and just notice the good bits. One needs to be awake.
I pray for you today. I pray that you wake up happy, and that your heart is full and you have the energy to meet the day. I pray that you’re not too tired, not sick, not too depressed for the day. I pray you have plenty of spoons to deal with everything you need to do. I pray that you have all the things you need for today, and that you get done at least the top half of your to-do list (those bottom items on the list are there for decoration, right? No one actually expected us to do those!)
I pray that you think you look good today. I pray you like your hair, your eyes, your body, your thighs, your arms, your muscles, your teeth and everything else you have. I pray you know you’re beautiful. I pray that you find a way to navigate the social complications of each day and relate appropriately to every person you meet. I pray that you go further, and actually make firm connections with others, building relationship, touching hearts, and thus connecting the broken pieces of the world one gossamer strand of love at a time, until a web even brighter and more extensive than the internet holds it together.
I pray you succeed in learning something new, whether by following your chosen course of study or by being surprised by a wonderful new discovery. I pray your learning is deep and meaningful, and that you can utilize what you learn to make the world a better place. I pray that you will find a spiritual path that works for you, and if that spiritual path is atheism, that’s fine and if it’s Judaism, that’s fine and if it’s a worship of the Spaghetti Monster, that’s fine too.
I pray you find a way to express who you are – whether through creative words, or painting, or sculpture, or song, or dance, or any other kind of being you. I pray you skip as you walk or bang doors or otherwise burst forth with joy. And if you don’t art, don’t craft, don’t dance, don’t sing and don’t bang doors – I pray your heart breaks, and that shell around your feelings falls apart and you have too much to say not to say it.
There’s a song called “I hope you dance” that says it better than I can. And if you think my tastes in music are cheesy or mawkish, you might be right, but there you go. Some days I’m drippy. And if you think that song is creepy and my post is creepy and who am I to pray for you, and you don’t like it and want me not to, no problem. This post isn’t for you. Also, I can change songs for you – we’ll go with “you probably think this song is about you”.
I guess these are the prayers that I need. This what I want to be and to have in my life. And so I pray you have them too. May this be a day in which God hears your prayers and mine. May it be a day that ends with prayers of gratitude.
I always intend to do the right thing. I never mean to be behind on anything, to forget anything, to be mean to anyone, or to otherwise miss those important marks that an adult is expected to hit. My intentions are solid, really. However, the more I teach the more I realize that everyone’s intentions are solid. Most people I meet seem to want to do the right thing. Kids in particular. But intentions don’t count for much – they’re important and thinking and feeling a certain way is definitely necessary sometimes for doing the right thing – but they’re not key. Actions and results are what counts.
It’s hard to explain that to kids – they say “it was an accident” and don’t ask themselves the questions of “why did the accident happen?” and “what could I have done to prevent it?” Kids have trouble admitting responsibility for something when it’s obvious and there’s no other way to interpret a situation. Those cookie crumbs on the face didn’t get there by magic! It’s a tricky step to go to even further and think about the responsibility that comes from poor planning, inaction, or innocent but risky action. “How could I have known that bouncing the ball in the middle of the living room would cause the vase to break? It was an accident!”
When one gets older, that sphere of what a person should be able to predict and be responsible for and act on gets bigger and bigger. Tikkun Olam says we’re responsible for the whole world. Jewish teachings say that seeing a neighbour in trouble, it is our duty to help. With electronic media, the world becomes our neighbours – we see people in trouble in all sorts of places. Our hearts ache to help and we truly intend to do the right thing, whatever that might be.
But now, the number of ‘potential accidents’ have spread too. “I didn’t mean to run up that huge debt. How could I have known that buying that one little whatever-it-was and that other thing and I’m not sure what else would have led to a negative balance? It was an accident!” Sounds extraordinarily pathetic, even more so than the kid with the ball does. We are expected to know, to predict, to think through consequences, to care and to act. Some days, I can’t imagine a way to live up to the level of competence the average person is expected to attain. (For my big kids: yes, the song “I hate being a grown-up” still applies, even in one’s late 40’s.) I intend to get it right – I just don’t always succeed.
So how do I bridge the gap between intention and action? Mostly, I don’t. Sometimes, I can do it by breaking it down into very basic very small activities and checking each of them against intention. Sometimes, I do it because of input from others, the words of a prayer or song, something I read in a book. Sometimes, I do the right thing because I write about it first! Putting my intentions into action is terrifying – but as I take each action that matches my intention, I feel like I’m finally reaching adulthood. Today, I will try to make my intentions and actions at least somewhat connected.
It’s funny. I’m very smart. I expect to be able to look at the pages in a book and to understand them, extract the useful information, and remember it. Very few people can do that with the alacrity and easy I can. I expect myself to be able to sit down and write an essay or article quickly and without much difficulty, and I expect the result to be good. I expect to be able to understand a topic under discussion even if it’s in a field I am relatively unfamiliar and I need to use context to figure out word meaning. I expect to learn foreign language and to communicate, write, and utilize them. Most of the time, I meet my expectations.
On the other hand, when it comes to people, to getting things done, to dealing with emotions or everyday life situations, I’m stupid, stupid, stupid. I still have trouble staying within a budget or a meal plan. I still have trouble turning off that video game or better yet, not turning it on in the first place. I still struggle with basic elements of acting in a kind, honest, respectful way and that’s after years of trying. I have been working on some of these skills my whole life! Surely, by now, I should be a bit more capable in the areas of life I find myself struggling with. A little bit more capable? An iota?
I wish often I could give up! I wish I could stop trying to relate to others, to be honest and straight forward, to be sweet and kind, to be competent and capable. I wish some days it was an option to say “f*** it!” and just be a fat comfortable slob who sits on the couch playing video games. It might not be that different from my life now, and at least I wouldn’t have to grimly fight so hard. It’s funny – sometimes my students will say “miss, you’re good at math; you have no idea how hard this is” and I think “I’m good at math but I have some idea of how hard this is.” I see your twelve attempts at a set of math questions and I raise you hundreds of checklists, journals, meetings, emails and conversations about extra chocolate!
I can’t give up. I have family and friends whom I love, who depend on me to be good at life, not just at books (in fact, mostly, the book learning doesn’t matter much and isn’t good for a heck of a lot). So, I watch my students learn and I try to learn from them. They’re making another attempt? Maybe I should too. This one is seeking multiple sources of information. That one is asking questions. Here’s one highlighting key words. Can I use any of this? Can I learn the way they are, accepting that it may take me as long as that young man who just cannot math, no matter how hard I try – if I was still able to teach him concepts, surely I can learn too.
I listen to the things I say to the kids too. Sometimes my life advice to them is stuff I should take. Try again, I say. Ask questions. Make a diagram. Look for a similar example. I need to listen to the words I myself am saying and try to do them
Elul is the time to try again to learn the basics of living. As well as listening to my students, to my own voice, to those who are better than me in an area, I can try listening to God. I can do a bit of Teshuva and realize that missing the mark – there’s a simple method for that that totally comes from a book. I read the book, I follow the method, and I try again to learn not just factual information but the spiritual facts of everyday living that I need.
We say that every year, and we say it to people, about events and in so many other situations – “I will never forget”. But what we remember may be really different from one situation to another, from one person to another. Whether it’s “I will never forget that horrible thing you said” or “I will never forget the way he looked while standing there” is totally dependent on situation, on personality, on so many small things that we all remember – but so differently that we may as well have created a whole alternate world.
People are like that when it comes to the Holocaust. We say, “I will never forget” but we remember different things. Do we remember the individual stories we read about people and their lives at the time, and so honour every member of our family and friends as being one of those who survived and holding the memories of others? Do we remember the evil of the Nazis, people who may at one point have drunk tea with Jews, worked with them, learned with them and then – tortured and killed? If so, we probably don’t trust anyone, especially not if they are successful goyim.
Do we remember that the effects of prejudice and exclusion were death and destruction, or do we remember that hose people hurt us and we have to hurt them back, hurt them first and hurt them hard so that they never mess with us again? Do we remember the titbits of kindness that shone like pearls in mud through those awful times, or do we remember the wanton cruelty of some and give up on humans altogether? Yes, we remember the Holocaust. But what is it that we remember?
We need to look at each and every one of our memories and ask ourselves, not just what we remember but why and what does it mean and so on. It may surprise us and even discourage us to find how many of our memories are nasty negative versions of our best selves. We need to sometimes fix our memories. If we do, we might find ourselves truly able to remember, not just the facts but he feelings ideas and choices that can help inspire us to do our best too.