Monthly Archives: September 2014
To return. It suggests that I was doing things better before. It puts the lie to constant progress, because at some point in the past, in at least one area, I was doing better – and now I’m doing less well. I need to actually return, to go back to doing things the way I am supposed to do them. Where do I need to return – where have I strayed?
This is hard to even think about. I like to think that I am making good choices, or at least if I make poor ones, that I’ve improved. Where have I ‘unimproved’? I’m teaching instead of pushing papers. That’s good. I have more people in my life than ever. That’s good. I am working on taking care of my body. That’s good. I have justifications for everything. It takes an enormous act of sheer will (and a month of blogging, so that I’m used to looking in that mirror at least a little) to peel back all that rationalization and see the faults underneath.
And peeling back is a good image, because that’s what’s happened over the year.I’ve gotten a crust. It’s normal, of course, as people get older for them to get a little crusty – to build up walls, to become more cautious, to try fewer things. I think about teaching. Am I more sarcastic about the students and their abilities? Am I more closed off from them, giving them my education, but not my soul? I think about friends. Am I as loving, as open, as giving? Or do I weigh what I say with care, trying not to offend or provoke. I think about the world. Do I still believe I can save the environment, the Jewish people and all the hungry children from all evils? Instead, am I much too ready to let the world go its own way while I go mine? How crusty am I these days?
I am pretty crusty. It’s a lot to be that open, that giving, that trusting and that positive despite everything the world has shown. It’s a place of courage, a chance to open my eyes, a chance to return to a mindset I remember having that was perhaps more naïve, but maybe was more authentic, more godly in some ways. I read today that our life is a choice between love and fear. I think of the line in Deutoronomy: “I put before you the blessing and the curse. Therefore chose life.” I peel away the crusts of fear and disappointment. I chose love. I chose life.. I chose closeness and optimism. I smile.
My students are *all* infinitely capable and *will* succeed. My friends are *worthy* of love and trust. The world *can* be repaired by each of us doing our best. I know I need to return. It isn’t easy – in some ways, it is almost impossible. I have to pretty much fight myself, prepare for pain and tears and disappointment, grit my teeth.
I return to being open. I refuse to get old and crusty. I will always welcome learning, welcome growth and welcome people into my life. I return. I find it’s fun and funny and strong and beautiful. I know that this won’t be where I stop turning. Maybe I’ll go too far, and make silly decisions and get unnecessarily hurt and look at returning to a different pattern of thought. I turn, turn, turn – and it is a delight, and who knows, maybe this year, I’ll come round right.
This is the key. To love, to a good job, to financial success – if I was going to give advice to young people, (and as a teacher and a parent of teenagers and a friend to some as well, I often give advice, so I just might,) I’d say give more. When you take a job, find one where you can help others. When you have some money, give lots of it away, even if you can’t afford it. If you want to be close to someone, give compliments, time, friendliness. It works better than anything else in securing success, giving does.
I’ve been experimenting with this last year. I added a charity that I give to monthly and a once-twice a year volunteering gig. It’s not enough. It’s not the tithe I was planning for. However, as I go through my budget and try to decide whether new socks are a necessity or a luxury this year, I know that the Plan International donation will not be the item that gets cut. In fact, I might add to it – I still have a goal to tithe. I’m at 1-2% not, so it will take a while, but I can get there. What has it given me? A feeling of wealth. Rich people tithe, not poor ones! A sense of gratitude. I can give help instead of just needing it. Some pride.
It just feels good, you know? Giving feels better. There’s probably a biological aspect to it all. I know very little biology, but I suspect there’s a scientific aspect to it all as to why giving feels wonderful. It really doesn’t matter, though. I can enjoy that feeling without knowing why. It is why this job works. My previous job paid better – but it gave absolutely nothing to anyone. So, now I teach kids – and often, kids that need additional help. I think it’s a valid consideration when selecting a future career. Does the career give something to people, to the world, to society? If not, maybe it’s not the best career.
The trickiest area is around friendship, of course – because while it feels great to give, receiving is a lot harder. We bristle at gifts we never asked for, ideas that contradict our own and people whose needs take up time that could otherwise be usefully spent. Knowing what to give a friend – whether space or closeness, laughter or sympathy, a bracing speech or a helping hand – that can be quite the challenge. Success in this area will give me rewards too, however, rewards of closeness and love and joy.
So, I do giving things. I give computer help and resume writing assistance. I give charity and tutor kids. And I do what I can to give my friends what they need to, as best as I possibly can.Giving feels like it’s on the right path – the one I want to take. I just have to keep learning to be discerning in how I do so.
Intention. Ah, intention. Oaths made and broken, debts, especially to oneself, that one cannot repay – following up on this morning’s Elul post, I give you the lyrics of a song by, I would have to say, one of my favourite singers and the best lyricist I know, Bulat Okudjava. I translated the song myself, because none of the translations were quite right and I might be a bit of a perfectionist. It still doesn’t do credit to the original, but I think it captures the mood, somewhat. The songs that he wrote are often a bit sad, maybe even morbid. This one is no exception. They are sweet, though, and they say the right things and they paint the right pictures. All his songs that I know well were written in the late 50’s and early 60’s in the now blessedly non-existent Soviet Union, and always make me think of my parents as hippies (not that they were, necessarily – but children’s memories are not the same as reality, and that’s what I remember.) In my head, there is a camp fire, and my father sitting by it smiling and singing and my mother with long straight black hair, young and beautiful and I am very little and there are stars and trees high above my head and an accordion is softly playing and this song.
Faith, Hope and Love
By Bulat Okudjava, translated by Anna Lilliman
Nurse, be so kind and please close my blue curtains
I don’t need any drug mixtures you’re thinking of
For my creditors stand by my bed, mute and certain
Keeping watch, waiting silently: Faith, Hope and Love.
I reach out to pay debts, son of this fleeting era
But an empty purse falls from my trembling hands.
Oh my sweet Faith, do not pine, do not sorrow
Those who owe you remain, still numbered like sand.
And I also will say, feeling helpless and gentle
While guiltily touching her hands to my lips
Do not sorrow, don’t pine, Mother Hope, sentimental –
On this Earth there are still sons to sail in your ships.
To Love, I’ll stretch out empty palms, open handed,
And I’ll hear her clear penitent voice softly say
“Do not pine, do not sorrow, your mem’ry’s not faded
I have given myself all away in your name
But no matter which hands may have touched and caressed you
How your flame burned or guttered, ethereal bright,
People’s gossip three times all your debts has redressed – You
Owe nothing more. You are clean in my sight.”
Clear and clean, I lay still as the dawn fades in slowly
Just before the beginning of forthcoming day
Three sisters, three wives, three judges of mercy
Start one final credit for me to repay.
Hope is a tricky lady. She’s all bright coloured, with a rainbow skirt, promising so very very many things. ‘You can trust me,’ she says, ‘it’s going to be good!’ She makes it possible for us to work through difficult times, holding on to the belief that something better is going to come of it. She works with our imagination to create beautiful castles, floating in the air, and sometimes, she delivers. We hope, and it happens. We find our missing wallet, we solve the problem facing us, we build the connection, we attend the picnic. It’s just as good as it looked like it was going to be and we’re happy.
But Hope, she lies sometimes. Sometimes the wallet can’t be found, the picnic is rained out and the puzzle is unsolvable. And then you’re stuck with this mess of emotions – crushing disappointment and anger that she failed you, so much indignation! If you hope, you see, you might expect. They’re pretty close to each other in so many ways. If you hope for something from another person and they don’t deliver, what does that mean? Should you give up on this person, hope again, closing your eyes to reality, bother this person to do what you hoped for? All perfectly valid possibilities – some, a bit hard on the person your hope hinges on. What about the world? Many people have given up on God when a hoped-for outcome hasn’t arrived.
There are days when I wish Pandora would have just kept that stupid box closed – when I see Hope as just as negative a trick as all the other ills and troubles that came out of her box. This is a new attitude for me – for years, hope was the thing. I hoped regardless of what the environment gave me back. I hoped in a vacuum because I loved the highs hope gave me. My heroines – Anne, Pollyanna, Heidi – they were very hopeful children. In fact, I remember when I first read the story of Anne and Marilla arguing about hope, I was totally on Anne’s side. Anne said that hope gives colour to the world and adds so much and turns a good event into days of joy with anticipation. Marilla felt that hope would lead to disappointment and to foolish expectations. Only recently can I see any point to Marilla’s side of the argument. I guess it’s an age thing. I’m just not 13 anymore, and can’t hope in that same firm way, with a solid belief in my own power and the goodness of the world.
So, I decide to give up on Hope, and say goodbye to her. I’ll live in reality, thank you very much, and take each day as it comes and be grateful for the gifts it brings and not ask for more. And for a bit I am, if not deliriously happy, then at least content. She sneaks in, though. Warm and laughing, she offers a hug, and I’m easy to convince when it comes to hugs. Once again I start listening to her promises.
I don’t know if there’s a way to have balance when it comes to hope. She seems like such a black and white gal; either you believe in her, no matter how tricksy she is about keeping promises – or you don’t. Can I hope without expectation? Can I be a hopeful pessimist – to clearly see that the cup is half empty, to be OK with it not being filled up further but to retain the belief in the possibility that there might be more put in the cup at some point? It seems like a tall order. It’s something difficult, but something worth doing – Hope remains a really fun, useful person to hang out with and she gives really good hugs. So, I’ll try. I’ll try to see reality clearly but still retain my belief in better outcomes in the future, without expectation or limit. I hope I can manage it
Oh, I started crying in Shul yesterday morning, and the reason was as ridiculous as those fairy stories that I used to read so very long ago. You know, the one where the girl goes down to the basement, sees a hammer, balanced precariously, pictures having a kid, and having the kid get older, and having the hammer fall on his head and hurt him? That one?
I was sitting for a few minutes next to my son (yes, sweetie, this one is about you – I know, how embarrassing), all grown with a beautiful voice singing prayers. He was old enough and big enough to put his arm around me for comfort. I looked at him and realized that this sitting together with me at services was, for various reasons, happening less often. That it might not happen much in the future. Because he was growing up and he was going to go away and he would be more independent and the day would even come when we would not spend High Holidays together despite the fact that we had for every High Holidays of his life. And he wasn’t the only child I had for whom this was the case, either.
It was heartbreaking. Beautifully, dreadfully, wonderfully, frighteningly, awe-inspiringly, overwhelmingly heart-breaking. My children are moving towards independence. They are developing their own lives and they need me less and less. They go to others for support, sometimes within family, and sometimes not. They make their own mistakes and want to spend time with their own people, some of whom I don’t even know. It’s not just them either. As they gain independence, I take mine. I have work I need to do and challenges I have to meet. I even take time to have fun and go out and don’t say that it’s impossible for me to do so because the kids need me.
Sure they still need me. I’m their mom. They have gone past so many ways in which they saw me – as the all-knowing parent figure, as the complete embarrassment, as the evil taskmaster (yes, I make you do your homework out of a sadistic desire to hurt you ,) as the annoying nag, as the best teacher and guide. Now, I’m potentially all of those things, still and so much their mom. But not the only person for them to spend special times with; not the only person for them to make memories with; not the only one to teach and love them. More and more, their memories are made with the family they chose. And I can and do fret about it and pray they make the right choices and do the right things. Sometimes, they do. Sometimes they don’t. But all I can do is fret and pray. I have less and less control over those decisions, and eventually – no control at all. This is true and wonderful regardless of whether they are 5 or 15 or 25 but it is even more true for the ones that are ready to live on their own. With every inch they’ve grown, with every skill they’ve mastered, they’ve become more themselves, and more ready to handle the world without me.
Oh, I know. This is so prosaic and not unique and repeated again and again for so many that it is barely worth mentioning. It is September, and parents all over are having their babies move away and live on their own (or at least put on their school uniforms and leave the house for those first temporary steps of freedom). It’s a life stage, is all – where the parents start passing away as they get older and the children start moving out as they get older and we get older and discover that we have gained some resources to handle this lonely feeling that we need to deal with. I’ve read about this stage. I knew it was coming. I was ready for it – except not really. Seeing it – realizing that it was happening to ME right NOW and that it hurt. I wasn’t ready.
Thank goodness I still have littles in my house and in my life and it will be many, many years before the last one is gone. Maybe by then, I’ll be ready. Until then, I’ll cry tears of joy and gladness for the maturity and independence of my children. They are growing, learning, beginning. It is right and beautiful. So, let my heart break and let my tears flow, as my beautiful grown babies begin the next chapter in their lives and I begin the next chapter in mine.
There is always grief and sadness
When the Goddess shuts the door
There’s a longing for the goodness
Of the way it was before
But the path winds ever onward
I must follow where it wends
And if I am facing backwards
I’ll miss what the Goddess sends
So although my tears are flowing
I will smile when moving on
Leave the past with nothing owing
Cherish what has come & gone.
There’s a joy within my freedom
And the path looks bright and clear
Though I don’t know where it’s leading
I can walk it without fear.
Wow. Love. It’s one of my core values. I only have 5 – all others stem from those. They have been gathered over the course of my life, slowly and patiently, with care and much thought. I believe in joy (to be happy and to help others be happy,) in learning (to learn and to teach,) in love (to love and be loved,) in integrity (to be true to one’s deepest self and to see the Godly in others) and in responsibility (to take care of the things that need taken care of and to get help when necessary.) Those are my foundation – and love is among them. They guide my belief. I believe in God, because I believe in the existence of Love, Joy, Knowledge, Wisdom and Caring. And what is God but unlimited love, joy…?
Love fails sometimes, of course. I’ve had my share of failed and aborted relationships, empty promises that never came to fruition, broken dreams. I’ve had my atheist days. There’s a lot of contradiction in it, less understanding than one might want, much confusion. What does one do when love isn’t answered? When love is broken? Does one re-evaluate one’s life values? Maybe one should rethink one’s values? Replace them with something more rational and dependable? Justice is a good one – or, no, better yet – independence. Sufficiency. Dignity? Courage. Serenity…
I come back to love. It continues to define the best of me, for better or worse. My life goals revolve around it (to build a beautiful, strong family; to raise amazing children; to have close friends; to help kids grow up to be wonderful people.) The two books that I consider define my adult life, Stranger in a Strange Land and A Bridge Across Forever, are about love. (My childhood defining novels were the Anne of Green Gables series and the Narnia series, and if you synthesize those 4 books, you’ll probably have a good picture of my belief system, and a blinding headache.) Love, where someone else’s happiness becomes important to one’s own (the Stranger in a Strange Land definition, and still one of the best I’ve heard,) is crucial to me.
And really, it comes from me, right? God doesn’t stop loving. I don’t have to stop loving. No matter what happened or will happen in my life, I can continue to love the people in it, whatever they think of me. Still, it seems to break that lovely symmetry I play with – ‘to love and be loved.’ How can I do that, when a friendship breaks down? It’s almost offensive to love a friend who doesn’t love one in response.
Part of it is perception. People love in so many ways – do I recognize that crumpled drawing handed to me by a kid, as love? Do I know that someone else yelling at me, fierce and angry and right in the middle of everything, is showing me she loves me enough to engage me, to want to make things right? Do I see love in people’s requests for attention and their requests for space, in long conversations and peaceful silences, in compliments on little things and criticisms in areas I can improve? Do I wait for specific people to show me love, or accept it from everyone who loves me?
Part of it is patience. All things, including relationships, have their ebb and flow, their ups and downs. I need to breathe, to wait, to laugh and to maintain what I can. I redefine. I go from ‘to love and be loved’ to ‘to love and be loveable’ and I let the universe manage the rest. I accept where I am…
You know, I talk too much. There are too many words here. Enough. I can do this whole blog in 13 words.
‘Na-na-na-boo-boo! I dare you to! You chicken! I double dare you!’ That’s all that comes to mind when I see this word. I admit, I treat most dares as challenges. It is the way I approach my life. What, you say, it’s impossible? Excellent. I’ll get right to work. People have dared me before – and I work hard on those dares. The ones I don’t work on, I put on my list. Don’t worry guys: it’s going to happen, eventually.
For instance, as a little kid, I, like so many others, was terrified of the dark. I felt lost and alone, abandoned and unable to sleep when I was by myself. I couldn’t walk down the stairs if the light was off, and would scream and cry at the top. That dark was challenging me. I made myself deal with this fear little by little. I was NOT going to let a mere lack of light stand in my way. I would walk a bit of the way into the dark basement, and then run back up. I would make myself do this 3 times each day – just 2 steps down those stairs. Just 4 steps down. Again and again, until it became a game and a challenge and fun and not scary any more and no one could stop me. Now, the dark is not frightening to me. Maybe that would have happened anyways, with age, but in my life, I know that my ability to be in the dark is an accomplishment.
There are many who disagree with me. ‘When something is that much of a challenge,’ they say, ‘you should give up’. Giving up is often the much more rational thing to do and it’s much easier. After all, there is nothing wrong with a night-light. And the time wasted on meeting dares can probably be better used to do other things – maybe improve on something I’m already good at. They let dares go by as if they don’t even hear them.
I can see where they’re coming from. Sometimes dares get one into really ridiculous and fairly unfortunate situations. From the time Anne (from Anne of Green Gables) fell off a roof, to the time I stood outside in shorts and a tee-shirt in Edmonton in midwinter until I got pneumonia, dares have led to stupid, unhealthy, ridiculous consequences. (I had a big test the next day, and I told someone that maybe I could get sick to avoid it, and they dared me to do so and of course, I did. God was not amused. I didn’t get to miss the test – I had to write it with a nasty headache. I did however come down with pneumonia right after.) It lets people control me – all they have to do is dare me to do something.
Still, I prize my ability to tackle a dare. Perhaps, this year is a good time for me to be selective in which ones I chose. Going dancing despite my lack of coordination? Definitely. Becoming a terrific telemarketer despite my discomfort with strangers? Maybe not this year. (I know better than to say ‘never’. God simply *loves* a dare.)
What about you? Do you have a good ‘dare’ story? Did you know that this blog has a comments section you can write in? Few people do, but if you have a moment, this could be the time to change all that. Is there a challenge you are planning to meet this year? Is there a dare that you met that you’re proud of? One whose consequences were less dignified but somewhat amusing in hindsight? Tell us about it. You may be too private to share. I get that. So write about it for yourself, somewhere private. Plan to break a limitation, overcome an issue, solve a puzzle, gain a skill. Tell me about it or not, but do something daring. Go ahead. I dare you.
Ew. Yuck. Another one of those words. Why do they keep having the ones I don’t like? Really, change is over-rated. There’s a lot to be said for consistency, for routine. You can get much better at something that you practice a whole lot. You can grow deeper roots if you stay in one place. You can build up some equity and gain some stability. The Jewish faith is great for not changing. We’ve been lighting candles for 1000’s of years, we’ve been saying these words, we’ve been blessing wine, we’ve been reading those books. We love not changing.
Personally, I can’t stand change. I work and work and work at what I’m supposed to do until it works. I don’t give up. I hold on, no matter what. That’s just who I am. Of course, God thinks this is hilarious, which is why my life is chock-full of constant changes. Everything – where I live and who I live with, what I do for a living, what language I use to communicate even – everything changes over and over again. People who are close get more distant, and people who are acquaintances become close friends. I learn new things and realize I’m wrong about things I thought I knew. I am in the Jewish Reform movement – so called because of constant ‘reform’ to outdated rules and traditions – that is, change. God just waits for me to say, ‘I am never doing this’ to ensure that I’ll end up doing just that before I know it. If I get too comfy cosy in a situation, if I start thinking ‘this is the way things are’, poof! The things disappear.
So, I’m left with liking change, because not liking something that one is constantly stuck with is a recipe for disaster. One doesn’t have to be best friends with change, but a modicum of affection is probably indicated as a way to manage its frequency. (Gosh, sometimes it’s fun to use big words)
Fundamentally, change happens. It’s an essential part of growth. It’s an essential part of t’shuva. I’m not giving up on continuity though. I like traditions. I think tradition IS community. I like focus and persistence. They are good ways ensure that I gain skills. I like commitment. I don’t believe that relationships can develop without some form of commitment. I need continuity for the changes I want. So – this is another place for balance. I accept the change that comes into my life. I strive for the changes I want. I use habit and ritual as tools to help simplify my life and let it work better. I use change to avoid stagnation. I use stability to avoid randomness. And I use humour to laugh at myself for thinking any of this is in my hands, when so clearly, time and again, God shows me otherwise.
Oh, the images associated with judging, and especially at this time of year! I can picture them vividly some days. I’ll share what I see with you and you can tell me if it rings true – if it looks right.
You walk into a room – you can’t see the wall, you can’t see floor or ceiling very clearly, but maybe it’s a bit like an assembly hall or a court room. There are definitely shadowy figures at the sides – whether they are audience or record keepers, monitors or guards you do not know. They are not shadowy because of darkness, they are shadowy because you cannot seem to focus precisely on their shapes. Their shapes do not stay in your mind, as if your mind doesn’t have quite enough capacity to hold them. The more you try to examine them, the harder they are to make out. Pictures and ideas that you understand appear in your head. They look like angels with wings standing stern with arms crossed, They look like random people, sitting around observing the proceedings. They look like newspaper reporters, or dragons, secretaries or storks. The images flicker and you realize each of them has as much accuracy as the other. Your mind settles on an image that works for you, stays there for a while, and then moves to another. The room is quite bright – the light so piercing that it should hurt your head, but strangely soft, too – so instead of causing pain, it calms and strengthens. Most of the room is like the recording figures, hard to perceive clearly because there’s more going on than one can see. The only clear part of the room is the line of people in which you stand.
For you are in a line-up. People stand in front of you, all walking towards a grand table on which rest two books, one crisp and clear and white, and one bent and broken, torn and sad looking, dark, but not a nice black – more a dirty brown-black-green which makes you feel uneasy. A quill pen is being used to write, first in the one book, then the other. The image flickers – the pen is now a shepherd’s staff, held just above people’s paths, with two different paths ahead of the staff. The image flickers once again. The staff becomes a mirror, held before people, showing their true reflection. Another blink of your eyes. It’s a balance now, weighing good deeds and bad on the scale.
Sins are what is being weighed. All the times that a wrong choice was made, that something important was missed. As you look, you realize that although you are not the person at the front of the line, the sins are yours. It is the time that you made a promise to your kid to take care of something important and forgot to do so that’s being carefully written in that book. The scale holds the money you spent frivolously when you had bills that needed paying. Under the staff, you can see the disappointed faces of the friends you didn’t find time to contact. In the mirror, you see your face the last time you had that screaming fit of hysterics. It is overwhelming, heart-breaking, unending. Sin after sin, letter after letter, detail after detail, every mistake of the last year (and your life before, if there was anything left unresolved) – every time you missed the mark is there in stark relief. You want to look away, but you cannot. It goes on and on until you are certain you’ve been there much longer than the year it took to live through it all – until you feel you’ve been there forever. You are broken , undone, despairing.
And in the second column of that same dark book you see the consequences. There are your visions of fire and brimstone, of all of the horrible deaths of the Unetane Tokef (the prayer calling us to reflect on the year during the high holidays.) There, down the dark path behind the shepherd’s staff are the more mundane results of your actions. That same boring job, the distance between you and your loved ones, your body wrecked through careless misuse. After the catalogue of your sins, the punishments seem almost reasonable.
Finally, you wrench your eyes to the side and look at that other book – the bright one. Is there anything there at all? Did you do anything right? You did. Every positive choice you made is here too. Every time you picked up a piece of garbage on the street and put it away, every kind word you said, every day you kept going though you really wanted to collapse and every time you didn’t scream although you were hurt – they have been noted. You may have felt no-one knew – now, there is an audience who does. You stand a little straighter. Although the future in the mirror still holds difficulties – there’s still that job, and the hard relationships and the illness – you know that these are not something you are to blame for. You realize that you’re looking forward to working through the challenges, and remember with a rueful smile that the reward for a job well done is a harder job. You look up.
For there is Someone holding the pen, the staff, the balance, the mirror. The light now gets unimaginably bright and it is only because of a veil that you are not consumed by it. Your mind tries to resolve what you see behind the veil – a Judge with a pen and a gavel? A Shepherd with the staff? An Earth-Mother holding the mirror? A blind Lady Justice with a scale? You cannot even try to understand. Even Moses could only see the tefilin knot – the very very back – of God’s head. All you know is that God is There and that God is judging.
And you are next in line. The line has moved forward and you are next. You reach out, hoping for a positive verdict and your hand is enveloped in Something – not a hand, but the very essence of hand, holding and supporting you in a way you hadn’t been supported since you first learned to walk, the hand of a Parent and a Friend, a Lover and a Ruler. With your hand so held, you realize it doesn’t matter to you any longer which way the balance tips. You are on your path into the next year. The only thing that matters is that you have been found worthy of being so judged.