Happy New Years! LeShanah Tovah Tikatevu…may you be written in the book of life. I only got to 24 #BolgElul again, and have no idea if I’ll make it to 29. I hope so. I will try. It will be a change from last year, and this is a time of change.
The year changed (it is now 5778), the school year started (oh, and my students all look so much bigger and smarter and more capable than they were last year), the days are shorter, and the leaves are turning colour. The last of the vegetables are coming out of our garden and the kids needed new shoes. What changes can I make?
As I stood on the Bima in services this year and heard the haunting melody of Avinu Malkeynu, I found myself in that space that Avinu Malkeynu always puts me in – that combination of humility and awe, of realization and yearning. I become aware of how much I need to do, how little I have done, and how I actually have no “good deeds” to offer, how I need God to be compassionate and kind because I come empty handed. It’s both horrifying and lovely and impossible to imagine or describe. The High Holidays are what they are because they break the boundaries of imagination to actually touch the heart. So, can I reach for deeds? Can I come from this place of nothing and try to become?
Nope. I don’t have a lot of willpower. I make promises to myself and break them much the way tiny children make sandcastles. In fact, many sandcastles last longer than my promises. So, I can claim that this is the year where I…but I might not. Notice, for example, that it is Tishrey 1, and I haven’t written the 29th Blog of Elul. So much for promises!
I go back to the feeling that Avinu Malkeynu inspired. It was echoed and amplified, through the Shofar call, by the overwhelming words of the Unetane Tokef (which was beautifully done in Hebrew and in Leonard Cohen in our Shul this morning) For a few minutes there, I had that realization – that knowledge of it not being up to me. That’s when I understood surrendering to God, and having God in the driver’s seat and letting God be in charge and all those other trite clichés that actually stop being trite or clichéd on Rosh HaShana. I saw myself as a vessel, designed to channel God’s light, broken at the beginning of the world. It was amazing.
Then my reality vs. cheesiness regulator kicked in and I realized that I was getting very close to magic mumbo jumbo and crystals and mantras and any minute now, I’d look someone deep in their eyes and tell them they needed more blue in their lives to balance their energy. (Note that if you are someone for whom crystals, mantras and blue work, more power to you. For me, they are mumbo jumbo is all.) Still, I think that feeling may have had something to it. How can I change? Maybe just by getting out of my own way.
I love doing the right thing. It feels good, it is its own reward, it brings me joy, brings others joy and connects me to other people. I don’t get there often, but it’s not hard to recognize. All I have to do is stop interfering with it. If I could just reach for that Avinu Malkeynu feeling any time that I’m trying to decide what to do, I bet that most of the time, I’d do it right. It’s a different goal and it’s not a promise, so I guess that’s a change. I’ll try to keep out of the way of God making the decisions and hope God knows what needs to be done well enough for the decisions to be the right ones.
We’ll see if it works. Whether it does, next year, I hope to be back at shul, saying with complete faith and clarity that “I have no deeds”. The difference is, if I can let God manage things this year, then next year, maybe the fact that I have no deeds will be less devastating.
Now, back to apples, honey, and most importantly, honey cake. We may have no deeds, but we sure have good honey cake!
Oh dear. So today is Erev Rosh HaShanah and I don’t think I’ve ever been this unprepared for the High Holidays. I still have a lot of anger in my heart to some of the people in my life – my attempts to forgive have been met with imperfect success. I still have anger towards myself. I still haven’t apologized to anyone for anything big this High Holiday season, and not all of my small apologies have been sufficiently sincere. I haven’t said goodbye and let go of last year’s things. I haven’t made big plans for how next year will be different. I haven’t even finished the darned Blog (maybe during the Yomim Noraim…) None of that has been done. So, what am I supposed to do?
Rosh HaShanah insists on coming. It’s not going to wait for me to figure it out. It’s going to be there before I say “boo”. My only hope is to what? Fake it? Hope that my reluctant heart does Teshuvah now, right now? Figure that Rosh HaShanah itself will take care of the missing bits? Get a bit harder and more cynical and decide it’s a day like any other day and I should just get on with living it? I don’t have answers.
But each time I ask, maybe I get closer. This, this asking, this yearning for better without being able to know what it is, without ever reaching it – this is my preparation. I prepare by giving up and realizing I can’t and by realizing that I must and by never giving up on hope and the future. I prepare by embracing paradox as a valuable part of my faith and by doing just a bit more today of something (anything) than I did yesterday. I prepare by lo listening to my heart long enough to at least hope for the new year. I may not be brave enough to plan, but I can at least hope.
I hope that I finish this blog this year. I hope that I catch up at work. I hope that I can love my kids with all my heart. (I always wonder if the VeAhavta is talking about the way we love God through loving people.) I hope that I can be kind. There. Right there. That’s my top hope for the year – I hope I can be kind. I hope for the kindness that Hillel preached, when he told the entire Torah on one foot
God, this Rosh HaShanah, let me be kind enough to forgive those that harm me. Let me be kind enough to forgive myself and hope for good things for myself. Let me be kind enough to apologize with ease because the regret comes from the heart and not my thinking. Let me be kind in my writing and my planning. I hope for kindness, God. This year, I have learned to be hard. I have learned to set boundaries so firm that joy and loving and warmth are left out in the cold. So, let those boundaries break this Rosh HaShanah. Let my heart break, even if it hurts, so I have no choice but to feel the kindness that I have buried inside.
I am unlikely to suddenly become successful, efficient, popular, or graceful. I can hope for those traits. I can tell stories with those traits in them and I can work to become more like the person in the stories. But it will take time. However, I have been kind. I know what that feels like and I know I can do so. So, that’s what I need to return to. This will be my hope – that I can be a kind person, one who loves truly and cares for other people.
Not something I’m good at. In fact, sometimes the length of time it takes me to start something is considerably longer than the length of time it takes to do it. So, I put it off, saying I need to take this break and do this other thing and finish this activity and then maybe take another break, plus there’s emails to read and … and so I get behind.
I have lots of excellent excuses. I can’t start because the day was really long and so and so said this to me and this other person looked at me funny and I’m too behind and overwhelmed to start anything (that one is a fun one invented by the devil himself, and he cackles every time I say it) and I can’t stop this compulsive behaviour and I don’t have this very important pen which is the only one I could use and there is a parade blocking my way and to think that I saw it on Mulberry street.
The thing is, my excuses are real. I do get overwhelmed and spun and out of control. I do forget to do the next thing. I do get stuck acting compulsively. And yet – they’re still excuses. They are still stories I tell myself. In the last year, I have told myself many stories, but some of them have been excellent and some of them have brought me nothing but pain.
When I tell myself procrastination stories, and when I add helplessness and hopelessness stories I set myself up for disaster. The universe likes stories. It makes them come true. So, I get more behind and feel even more hopeless and helpless. Which I tell myself and the universe, liking my stories, is happy to bring to fruition.
Well, Rosh HaShanah is a good time to do something different. First, I will begin by telling new stories. I will tell myself stories of success and speed, of self-discipline and focus. I will tell them over and over and over again until I believe them, and until the universe works with me to get those stories to be the real ones. Then I will begin to limit whose stories I believe. If there are people who aid and abet me in negativity, I can refuse to listen. If need be, I can limit time with such people. I can break my activities into small steps, I can work on them, one small step at a time, and I can be proud of myself for each small step. I can find what fears hide behind my excuses, bring them into the open, and then beat them into submission until I fear nothing that stands in my way. I will limit what I try to do. There’s no point daydreaming so many things that none of them get done.
I will do all of this. But maybe, I’ll begin doing it all – tomorrow. 😊
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.