Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Good Life

It’s that time of year again. We’ve got to drop the petty stuff and look ahead and look behind and decide, have we been worthy in the past year? What’s changed? If we had G-d’s job, how would we rate our performance over the last 365 days?

Of course, I naturally look back and start with where I was at exactly this time, right before Rosh Hashanah last year. All I’ll say is, man, am I glad it’s not last year anymore.
At this time then, I was… there’s really no other way to put it, pretty freaking miserable. There was nothing WRONG in my life, perse. I hadn’t suffered any horrible losses or diseases (thank G-d), but things hadn’t been going my way, and I’d faced a few big disappointments and an uncertain future in both career and social aspects. My self-esteem was at an all-time low, and many changes were coming at me full-steam, like a train about to hit some moron wearing headphones on the tracks.

I’m SO glad it’s not last year anymore.

It’s difficult to explain without getting into boring, unnecessary detail exactly what it was that had gone wrong. Up until that point I had been seeing the world one way, and very quickly, things occurred that forced me to see it in another light, and this wasn’t a light I looked good in. I still had faith in THE BIG THINGS, but I somehow failed to see how any of it had anything to do with me. The way I saw it, happiness was arbitrary, and some people just seemed to hoard it, while others were never happy with what they had, and could only cry for the things they weren't getting, like little tantrum-throwing kids in the action-figure aisle at Toys-R-Us. 

Why wasn’t I getting what I thought I needed? And why did it seem like I’d come so close to having it? It was a month of sitting, frowning on benches at my college campus, when I ran into someone I’d only vaguely known for a few months.

He remembered me, from only two months before, as cheerful, involved, and social. Who was this grumpypants on a bench? Is this what I turned into when the fall hit?

Somewhere between the end of that conversation and the bottom of my generic-brand-and-therefore-Kosher pumpkin latte, I came to the realization that something would have to change. A new year was beginning, and until those things had gone so recently wrong, I had been enjoying a fantastic year leading up to them.

And so, Rosh Hashanah, of which I don’t remember much. And so, Yom Kippur, of which I seem to remember every detail. Never before have I prayed so hard. Never before had I kept my eyes on the Siddur throughout all of Kol Nidre and Maariv. Never before (or since, I’m ashamed to admit) did I have such concentration, and such fervent feeling in my prayer.

I’ll be frank. In my silent, Hebrew whispering, my mind begged, and groveled, and threw itself on the floor like that kid in the toy store, wondering WHY the thing that had gone wrong had done so, and pleading for it to be fixed. I asked that Hashem help my family, and I asked that he help certain friends of mine who were going through rough patches. I wondered why the world was so royally messed up and why no matter what we did, it only seemed to get worse.

And I begged that whatever was wrong with me go away, and that by this time next year, things should be better. I pleaded that at least one of my agonizing worries be solved.
Fast forward. The truth is, it’s been a difficult year. I've had my hopes up and dashed again, repeatedly, and had more major ups and downs than any time I can remember. I spent a few months unemployed and out of school and generally feeling like a waste of cells and space. I spent a lot of time wondering when, G-d, when will this horrible year be over?
But sometime between my midwinter despair and now (apparently when I was off doodling or thinking about other stuff), things actually did get better.
I didn’t get everything I asked for, but I got a start. Somewhere between last Rosh Hashanah and this one, my family was blessed with wonderful S’machot (may they only continue to have more). One of my best friends got married, and another got engaged. I graduated, got a job and an apartment, and signed up to take a test which will (hopefully) assure I someday get a Masters’ degree. Some people left me. New people filled those empty seats.

It took (and is taking) longer than I’d hoped, but I guess I really did get most of what I prayed for, or at least the tools I need to achieve those things for myself.

I’m not sending this out to the internet void for any real agenda-reason. I’m not trying to tell people to pray harder (or at all, if that’s not your inclination), or to JUST HAVE FAITH, or even that things will work out. Hey, they may not, and I could just be spewing na├»ve optimisms for all I know.

But I’ve been given a good life and the foundations to create one of my own, and I’m grateful for them, temporary as they may or may not be. I suppose my point here is to observe that the storm may not have passed, but the despair has, and I’m just so happy that it did.
So this year on Rosh Hashanah, I’m going to attempt to pray as hard as I did last year (though perhaps with less undignified sobbing). I’m not going to make any resolutions other than to improve generally, in any way I can. I can’t say I've become a better person this year, but I have learned a lot.

Shana Tovah to all of you, and may your year be filled with joy, and growth, and meaning.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Learning Curve

This is a sort of sequel to Sign Language, so I would suggest reading that post and the comments below it prior to reading this one

Since the response to my last post, Sign Language, was so positive, I thought I might write something of a sequel this time around, expanding on some of those ideas and adding new thoughts. Then, sometime around last week, I decided that that could wait because I wanted to write another post about music to coincide with new releases by Dream Theater and Anterior, which I have listened to extensively since I got them and have concluded that they are quite awesome. However, something came up on Monday afternoon that is having a pretty large impact on my life. The idea here is more of a spiritual successor to Sign Language than a direct sequel, and it will be good catharsis for me to get it out, so once again, I’m not writing about my original idea. Typical. Whatever the case, here’s this:

As I’ve mentioned before, from February 28 to September 7 of 2010, I was very sick with a serious kidney disease. Thank God I recovered and went into remission, but I was still required to remain on the medication for another year to prevent a relapse. Having just completed that year, I met with my kidney specialist on Friday to discuss a schedule for tapering me off the meds. Going into that meeting, and for the entire year prior to it, I was under the impression that the taper plan would have me coming off the meds in mid-January. My doctor confirmed that belief at our meeting and set up a schedule for me, but she just wanted to check up with the top FSGS specialist in the country (whom I had had a consultation with in April of last year and have since remained in contact with) on the particulars of the plan, and she would call me after the weekend to confirm everything. Then Monday afternoon rolled around and that’s where things started to go awry.

I got a call from my doctor and the long and short of it was that the FSGS god wanted me to do a reeeeeallllyyyy slooooooowwwww taper and I’ll probably come off the meds as next year’s birthday present. Just in case you were wondering, my birthday was YESTERDAY! So now I’m going to be on this stuff for ANOTHER WHOLE FREAKING YEAR! Yeah, it’s really really reeeeally annoying but that’s not what bothered me the most about this whole episode.

The one thing that characterized this disease best was the uncertainty associated with it. The basic synopsis is: first it was a virus, then blood tests, then waiting for the blood test results, then it was a kidney disease but they didn’t know which one, then more blood tests, then a biopsy, then a week of waiting for the biopsy results, then the emergency room, then a whole lot more blood tests, then it’s a different disease, then the emergency room again, then the medication I was taking doesn’t work, then the hospital for two weeks, then it’s chronic, then I get better. The doctors seemed to be basing their diagnoses and my regiment of pills on pure conjecture; they had never had a case with as many complications and variables as mine. In the end I got really lucky and something worked. The whole thing was just a bizarre and very unstable situation, and it was that instability that really messed with me psychologically.

Then, after having gone into remission, there was a year of relief, where all I had to do was stay on the meds in a holding pattern. There weren’t any surprises, changes, or random complications. That post-remission year replaced the prolonged chaos that I had just been experiencing with stability, and having just gone through the most turbulent year of my life, it was an absolute godsend. There was a concrete plan, a path I was to follow, and there were no expectations of anything other than that. I just mentioned it a few lines ago but it’s impossible to overstate how psychologically and emotionally important that stability was/is to me. Yet now, after a year’s worth of that, everything is getting jumbled up again. So when I say there’s more to this than the simple lengthening of my taper, I’m referring to a more psychological/emotional context. It sucks when you think you have a handle on things and then everything gets turned upside down, and that is where this post begins to connect to my last one.

There was a prolonged discussion in the comments below Sign Language during which it was asked by a reader named Yael, “What steps should we take in the face of the frightening realization that our worlds can crumble at a moment’s notice and if they do we will be powerless to stop it?” My situation is less dramatic than what we were discussing at the time but the sentiment is similar. This news has, in effect, turned my world upside-down, inside- out, and front to back, completely reshaping what this next year looks like for me. And of course, there’s the psychological impact of knowing that the thought that I was out of the woods was just an illusion.

The situation seemed pretty bleak for the rest of the day but on Tuesday I had a conversation with a close friend of mine that really set me at ease. I’ll paraphrase the hour long vent-session for brevity’s sake: I learned so much about myself and the world during the year of my illness. There’s really nothing more perspective changing than not being able to walk for about seven months and then coming out on the other side of it with full mobility. You begin to appreciate things differently and look at life differently after going through something like that. As a result of that total paradigm shift, I was changed in a way enabled me to accomplish the things that I’ve accomplished over this past year in the social, personal, and educational realms.

What I concluded about this hiccup based on that was that I’m not done learning yet, and I still have more work to do. This doesn’t contradict my Sign Language theory though; in fact, if I can say this without coming across as extremely arrogant, it’s a perfect example of what I was talking about in that post. After the initial struggle and frustration, I have accepted that there is a purpose for this experience and I don’t know what it is, but I do know that it may be revealed to me in time and what I am to learn can only take place in that setting. It took about 24 hours, but I have come to peace with it.

However, while I know I don’t have much metaphysical control of my life, I do have control over a few things. One of those things is the length of this post, and so here it will end, lest I ramble on eternally, which I am apt to do when it comes to things I am passionate about. But not to worry, endless rambling is what the comments are for! So write something if you want to talk more and we can engage in a wonderful discussion of ideas like the one from last month under Sign Language. That being said, I’m done here for now, and since you won’t be hearing from me until after Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, a happy new year to everyone and may this next year be filled with happiness and good times for one and all, amen!

Song of the Day: Slanderous – Machine Head

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Holy Days

Rosh Hashanah arrives in less than two weeks. I am not usually one to write up a list of New Years’ Resolutions, but I’ve been feeling the itch to write one lately. Maybe the reason lies in the fact that I’ve just begun my final year of college and I’m getting antsy and creating goals. Maybe the reason lies in the fact that I feel I haven’t accomplished enough lately and need to figure out how to motivate myself. Or maybe it’s just because I’m procrastinating wildly (*ding ding ding*) from doing my homework. Whatever the reason may be, it matters not: I wrote this list in hopes that one of my resolutions will ring a bell in your head and you’ll think of an idea or two yourselves.

1. Get in touch with that relative in Israel I’ve been meaning to email. Okay, this one is rather important. If I’m going to be spending an as-yet undecided amount of time in the Holy Land post-graduation, I feel like I should have someone aware of my plan who already lives there and could give me some advice, and perhaps a soft bit of floor on which to camp out in her apartment if need be.

2. Make more ‘me’ time. This might be cheesy, but it’s true. It is high time that I put down my textbooks and stop procrastinating online. Ideally, this will include live music and reading for pleasure as much as I can (damn those professors instructing me what to read during the semester). ‘Zen’ time is necessary first in order to be productive when the time comes for diligence, or burn-out will ensue.

3. Learn Photoshop, take two. The first time I learned the intricacies of the program I was still stuck in high school, so it’s been a while and I've forgotten nearly all the details. Computer art has always been a fascination of mine; I plan on quenching that particular thirst.

4. Yom Kippur is 'fast' approaching (pun intended), my least favorite day of the year. I am rather addicted to caffeine and the lack of morning coffee causes a massive headache, making me extremely irritable throughout the day. A headache beating like a drum on my skull plus my usual difficulty concentrating while davening is the perfect set-up for a failure of a day that is meant for atonement and repentance. It is most definitely time to mature in this area and concentrate on prayers instead of my own epicurean fantasies.

What are YOUR resolutions?

Thursday, September 8, 2011


This post is a follow-up to The BSF.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about stories, and as always, the Big Scary Future.

We grew up learning, telling, hearing, loving stories that seemed completely detached from reality. Fairy tales, with their brave knights and fearsome beasts, folk-tales, with their witches and wise men. As a kid, I loved these tales. I ran to read my monthly Cricket magazines, eager to discover new legends from China, India, Russia, or the Congo. On the rare occasion a Jewish folk-tale was featured (usually a Chelm anecdote or a Chanukah tale), I gave a little shriek of joy.

I've saved every one of these magazines. Every once in a while, I look through them, rereading the Ramayana or adventures of Lohengrin, and all the time I wonder, why is it that I know about as much about the legends and myths of all these amazing cultures as I do about my own (that is, not that much)? Why is it that I spent my whole life going to Jewish schools and camps, and yet the most I’ve learned about the folk-culture of our generations, the superstitions and silly jokes, I learned from a magazine without any Jewish connections?

Oh, I’m not saying I don’t know my own culture. I grew up learning the Tanach and Halacha and Talmud on the surface and in-depth, along with enough commentaries and Midrashim to challenge those Shakespeare-typing monkeys in space any day. But to me, these seem like a different caliber of Jewish cultural education. I mean, think about it. Essentially, we’re being taught what we must learn in order to continue our faith and pass it down to future generations. They’re indispensible. But what’s to become of the lighter fare of our faith, those stories told by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, or the Chelm Tales, or even those medieval Jewish legends of the Ten Lost Tribes?

We didn’t learn them. Or if we did, they were told to us at a fire-side Kumzits by an energetic speaker, or on a Shabbaton, or on the bus to camp. And I don’t know about you guys, but I treasured those story-telling moments as much if not more than when I learned the authoritative lessons in the classroom.

I've had many discussions with people from all along the spectrum of Judaism: Yeshivish teachers, Modern-Orthodox friends, proud culturally-Jewish atheists, and High-Holiday-only family friends. Some have told me that those classroom essentials are basically just better-known folk-tales (a view which, I must admit caused me to flinch a little. I respect it, but I can’t agree with it). Others called them leftover superstitious nonsense. Still others recalled them with nostalgia, having heard them during childhood from their European grandparents.

My own view is that they have little to do with the essentials of the faith. These aren’t part of the guide to living as a Jew. They have nothing to tell us about keeping Shabbat or Kashrut, or about what Moshe Rabbeinu meant when he said “x”. They are not our faith, but they are our culture, as much as those Zemirot we sing at the Shabbat table, or the paintings of Chagall, or the reggae beats of Matisyahu. They are our past, and so we have what to learn from them. They were the stories fathers in the shtetls told their kids to alleviate the fear of the next pogrom. They were the jokes they told to deal with the Dreyfus Affair and the latest blood libel. They are windows into how we lived, and how we were treated not so long ago. Haven’t we been taught that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it? In the end, our history is all we have to shape our future. 

They are ours to be proud of, the influences of our modern sense of humor and comic-book superheroes. And, as I recently discovered via some book-shelf surfing and amazon.com searching, they are really, awesomely…well, cool. How often do you hear that about something undeniably Jewish?

Did you know that during the 18th-19th centuries, European Jews had their own versions of Snow White, Cinderella, and Rapunzel? I sure as heck didn’t. And why shouldn’t they? Every other culture did. Did you know that we had fairy tales starring brave princes who kept Shabbat, and princesses who played upon the violin of Eliyahu HaNavi? Some of these stories are so fantastically amazing, I can’t help but read them over and over, and annoyingly shove them in the face of everyone I know.

And now, it seems they’ve come to influence a lot more than just my sense of Jewish pride. My art projects echo them. My blog posts and cartoons mention them at every turn. And now that I’ve started that scary climb into real adulthood (eek!), they seem to have pushed me into a career path as well.

After years of agonizing over majors, then trying out internships in every field that interested me, then checking out programs in those fields, I seem to have picked a road to walk down. My first, real, every-single-day job starts this week, and I’ve begun the process of applying to graduate school, finally choosing an actual path of study. And it’s not what many would call a “safe” career path. I’m not going to be a doctor or a lawyer. I’ve chosen to combine my love of all things nonpractical: my love of art and culture, and my seemingly aching need to teach the future generation of young Jews to be proud of their background and realize there’s more to being a Jew than bagels with lox and being a nerdy Woody Allen caricature. It may not make me a dime, but it sure is fulfilling.

And it’s the stories that did it. That’s something I only realized last week, when I sat down to start my first graduate-school admissions essay. The topic demanded of me: “What connections can you make between (experiences in childhood and your background) and your present feelings…about children and youth…and your own patterns of action?”In other words, what about my past possessed me to do what I’m doing now?

And I realized: it’s my culture. It’s those legends I learned from my parents as we walked along the banks of the Danube in Budapest. It’s every gasp of excitement my five-year-old self issued when she realized this PBS kids’ show was going to mention Chanukah in its holiday special. It’s every ache of nostalgia and sense of responsibility I feel when I read one of these so-little-known stories, and my repeated thoughts: I can’t let these be lost. They’re too beautiful. They’re too enchanting. They’re too significant. They’re too Jewish. I’m going to write about them. About my culture, how it’s undertaught, and how that inspired me to make a career out of helping kids discover the parts of knowledge beyond the essentials: art, music, and yes, stories. 

And as a bonus, I've realized my faith and my culture are some unexpected weapons I can use in the fight against the BSF. When I feel like the monster's beating me, I have my faith, my culture, and my loved-ones who share them. I’m not saying that’s enough to win the battle, but it sure feels good to be armed with something that’s got as much of an investment in me as I've got in it.

Big Scary Future, let's dance.
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