Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Briefly bright and optimistic-- working title

A friend of mine doesn't like reading my blog. He tells me it is dark.


I thank him for his honesty, and call him Captain Obvious behind his back.

Seriously; anyone who knows me has no problem with the idea that I would have to climb several sets of stairs to get to pessimistic. I like dark. I revel in dark. My natural tendency is for the dramatic. My self portrait is that cool chick wearing all black and sunglasses regardless of time of day, with spike heels, and smoking a cigarette, smile tinged with just the right amount of cynicism. Light and breezy give me the heebie-jeebies and make my teeth itch.

But to humor him, today is light and breezy, with just a hint of an edge. Instead of the cool chick wearing black, I will, instead, present myself as the kid with the pony tails, swinging on the swingset, maryjanes polished to a high gloss, breathless and laughing her silly head off, just because.


*taps fingers on desk*

*stares at screen*

*types something*

*types several somethings*

*deletes them all*

*hums tunelessly*

*taps fingers some more*

*instantly thinks of Oliver! and the scene where Mark Lester timidly begs "Please sir; I'd like some more," and the ensuing chaos and sale of said Mark Lester (as Oliver) as a result*

So. Reel it in, I tell myself. Something not dark.

Hmmmm. Ok, let's try this:

My son went into the garage to take out his scooter the other day. It has sat dormant for more months than I can count. He couldn't live without it before we purchased it for Chanukah a couple of years ago. Now it gathers dust in the garage, also known as The Sad Little Room of Lost and Lonely Toys. My car just barely fits on its side of the garage, fighting for floor space with my son's discarded and disregarded paraphernalia. I told him he couldn't ride the scooter without putting on his helmet first. He looked at me, disgust and pity for the crazy lady writ large on his face, and dropped the handle, shuffling back into the house. He was so annoyed at the thought of a helmet that he preferred the total boredom he faced with no electronics.

Seriously. I just told my son he couldn't ride the scooter without a helmet; if it has wheels, you're wearing a helmet. I did a mental double take. A helmet? Where the hell did that come from. I never wore a helmet when I was a kid. Had they even been invented then? Who the hell wore helmets, except for those dweebie, nerdy little kids whose noses ran constantly, asthma inhalers jammed into pockets, chronically underweight and over-smart. And I had my doubts that even they wore protective gear.

So, here's my question: how in hell did we ever survive our childhoods?

We certainly did not live in the protective bubble that seems standard for the kids of today.

When I was brought home from the hospital (after a week long stay, where mom went into labor and woke up several hours later, presented with a clean and swaddled baby girl, the miracle (and mess) (and pain) of childbirth not even a ghostly memory), I travelled in style on my mother's lap. In the front seat, with the little triangle window open so she could tap the ashes off her cigarette (Kool extra longs). This was the original car seat: mom's lap. My older brother sat in the back, perched on the hump, arms dangling over the front seat, moving in frenetic jerks between mom and dad as he tried to capture their attention from me so that it could be properly be placed on him, the Crown Prince, balancing precariously through turns and sudden stops.

With this thought open the flood gates of memory---
  • No car seats, no seat belts, and we fought over who got the middle seat and who got to ride in the front. It wasn't a question of age or size that determined seating order, but pushiness and sheer volume of calling dibs.

  • No helmets or knee pads or wrist pads (oh, my!)

  • We walked to school. Alone or in small groups, down crowded sidewalks and across busy streets, not a crossing guard in sight. And if we were early, we played on the playground until the bell rang and we lined up, by age and class, waiting to march and shuffle and shove our way into the building. Rain or shine, hot or cold. Every day.

  • We came home for lunch. Bozo and Ringmaster Ned and the Grand Prize Game, coupled with cream of tomato soup and tuna sandwiches, and then skipping back to languish through our afternoon classes.

  • We rode our bikes in the street, ran with the neighborhood kids till way past dark, swam in retention ponds and hidden creeks.

  • We drank out of garden hoses. Hell, we drank tap water.

  • We got spanked, occasionally.

  • Boys played little leagues; girls were Indian Princesses. Paths did not cross. Roles were very clearly defined: X's went one way, Y's the other.

  • We played with cap guns and watched violent kid shows, like Tom and Jerry or Bugs Bunny. We played cops and robbers, cowboys and indians. We were politically incorrect.
  • We had Christmas Break and Easter Vacation, regardless of religious beliefs (or lack thereof). We sang Christmas carols and loved them.

  • There were winners and losers; learning to handle either was a part of growing up. We knew not everyone was equal, not everyone was special.

And this is just the immediate stuff, the unconscious stuff. I'm sure if I really gave it some thought, I could come up with eleventy-seven more examples of how my childhood may seem so horrifying to the parents of today--- me included! We seem so determined these days. So intent on protecting our children, from skinned knees and broken hearts. We want to keep our children safe and watched over. Unscathed by the reality of life.

In the same vein, we seem so much more present for our kids, more involved in their lives. Sometimes too involved, I'd venture to say. It happens: the Little league parent who gets a bit too argumentative and demanding, of the kids and the umpires and the game itself, who looks foolish and crass, a caveman visinting the 21st century. We push and prod and demand excellence, and try to temper that with humility. We over-schedule them and over-stimulate them, and wonder why they have the attention span of small flying creatures. We filter where we can and hope the message and the medium don't provide fodder for some future therapy session.

We do the best we can.

That's the bottom line, I think. We do our best, and we love them as best we know how, as fully as we can. In every generation, we find a way to love and watch and teach and sustain.

One more image, one more difference---

My father, like most father's of his generation, paced nervously in the Father's Waiting Room, smoking and drinking bitter coffee, awaiting my triumphant appearance on the the planet. My mother was unconscious, drugged to the gills, oblivious to the miracle she was about to produce.

Fast forward a thousand lifetimes, to the day of my son's birth.

I was terrified. I was in pain. I was not drugged. I begged for drugs. I was denied; apparently, you need to dilate to at least four centimeters to qualify for drugs. I never made it past three. An hour. Two. Five. More. More pain that I could ever imagine being in. More fear than I could ever imagine surviving. The monitors lost my son's heart beat a couple of times. The doctors searched high and low every time it got lost, finding it just on the edge of sight, the edge of a miracle. Finally, one of the several hundred masked strangers (all claiming to be my doctor) came to my husband and me and said "We can continue this and hope for a natural childbirth, but there's some risk to you and the baby. We'd like to do an emergency C-Section."

"Do it," we said. We were a team, we were united. While my husband could not bear our child, he could be as present as possible. He gained weight with me, came to our doctor's appointments, read and trained and craved and worried and gloried right along with me. And he was with me as they wheeled me into surgery, held my hand as the spinal took hold. He turned green but did not faint or get sick. He was stoic and resolute and watchful and willing the doctors to not blow it, not make a mistake. He was there, not pacing in an antiseptic and crowded waiting room.

And then our son was born.

And here's the extraordinary thing:

Our son was born, squalling and red faced and mottled, plae skin, and he took him from the nurse. The boy wasn't even barely cleaned of gunk and swaddled in blue, and Don took that small boy-child, all six pounds, one ounce of him in his huge hands, so dark against the boys pale, pale skin. He took our son and held him high, so that God could see our son's face all the more clearly, and know him all the better, and love him all the more fiercely. My husband held him high, his hands so big that they nearly swallowed that boy. And then he brought our son to his chest, cradling him tenderly, more gently than a bubble suspended in sunlight.

And he danced.

Slow and stately, with a gaze of absolute and unconditional love, my husband waltzed around the operating room, turning and swirling with this small life, this perfect boy, this gift of love. His feet carried him close to me, his lips grazing mine. He showed me our son, our beautiful boy. And I kissed him. And all the fear, and all the questions, and all the doubt were no more, gone in an instant, quick as laughter. In its place was pure light.

We're divorced now, my husband and I. There was a lot of pain and anger and hurt that went into the divorce. (Now there's a shock, I'm sure.) But these days, I try to remember the beauty of our marriage, the joy and the glory and the absolute love that held us together. Our sone. And this is the image that sustains me, that reminds me that there is power in love.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Redemption, with a touch of Grace

I have a couple issues with God.

Anyone who's known me longer than, say, 5 minutes, can pretty much figure that out. I wanted to change my relationship status on Facebook to show that I'm in a relationship with God and "it's complicated." I have run the gamut from at-one-with-the-All, sitting in virtual lotus on top of my virtual mountain, at peace and in love with God and all of God's wondrous works, to being convinced that my Higher Power is God's evil twin brother whose sole Divine Purpose is to mess with me and my life. I struggle with God's blessings and God's capriciousness.

My journey with God has been rocky at best. At thirteen, I announced my intention to become a rabbi. This had less to do with a belief in God and more to do with being a Jew. As I saw it then, if I had to take God along with being a good Jewish rabbi, so be it. As my parents saw it, this was not a good career move for a nice Jewish girl. They were quite sure that I would never make enough money as a rabbi to keep me living in the style to which they would have liked for me to become accustomed. They laughed, I caved, but maintained my love for Judaism (and by extension, God).

By fifteen, I declared my apostasy: God was a lie. Or dead. Or an opiate of the bourgeoisie masses. Take your pick. It was two weeks before confirmation, and I was a teenager, filled with anger and fueled by existential angst. Simmering with contempt, I announced that I no longer believed in God and that to become confirmed would be hypocritical. I refused to participate (and did a secret little happy dance of joy to see the light dim just a little bit in the eyes of my parents).

And so, although I did not know it then, began The Great Quest. I had a God-sized hole in the middle of me, and it ached to be filled. I filled it with anything handy. Sarcasm. Contempt. Cynicism. As I got older, sex. Intellectualism. Throw them all in there--- anything that would make me not feel quite so empty, quite so lost. Anger was good. If I stayed angry enough, pointed enough fingers, sneered with just the right curl of the lip, I did not have to feel. Anger was almost enough to fill in the empty spaces, almost enough to wrap around me like a shield, protect me from my fear. After anger came alcohol. Emergency spirituality in liquid form. I loved drinking. I loved feeling that wet fire trail down my throat and nestle in my stomach. I loved the way it made my fingertips buzz, an electric pulse that made me want to dance and move and breathe. The noise in my head got quiet and I could think. I could float, bathed in that clear, clean sharp liquid that made me feel beautiful and connected and almost (but not quite) human.

Anger and alcohol--- my constant companions for years. They kept my demons at bay. They blurred the outlines of that god-sized hole, and if I stayed angry enough, drank enough, I could almost believe that they filled that hole, filled me. I could tell myself that they were enough, and that I was enough. And that tiny little whisper that skittered and skipped in the dark corners of my head? The one that never quite believed those lies that I told myself, those lies I so desperately wanted to believe? Those whispers were all but drowned out by the crushing tide of my drinking.

And then I got sober, for a whole host of reasons, not least of which was the fact that the anger and the alcohol stopped working. I couldn't get to that floaty, breathy place anymore. Couldn't find God, or at least what I thought passed for God. Couldn't find any quiet space. All that was left was this deafening white noise and a brittle coating of despair.

So I got sober, and all those shiny happy people sitting in those shiny happy AA rooms, where the smoke hung in grey-blue wisps and the coffee could peel paint (unless it was more just brownish warmed water with a hint of caffeine) and the smell of ammonia masked the stale sweat and salted tears and the free floating anxiety that bordered on fear of the masses of people who laughed and cried and wondered and wandered and quested and questioned--- all those people insisted that if I find a God.

Great. Give me a task that I have been failing at for decades. I'll get right on that.

And strangely enough, I did get right on that. I started my quest for God in earnest. I had my eyes peeled for The Answer, that sublimely written piece of prose that would explain away all my doubt, all my cynicism, all my uncertainty, leaving me glowing with the light of God and giving me comfort and relief and calm. And I looked, and I read, and I looked some more. I sweated and struggled and stamped my foot. And everything I read confirmed my belief that God was a little hinky. Or maybe the wrong religion. Certainly capricious and inconsistent. God was messy and vindictive and totally missing.

And the more I looked, the more I struggled, the more desperate I became to find that source of solace. I saw my friends get it. I saw them, sitting comfortably in their own skins, whole (for the most part), healing (for the most part). Recovering (for the most part). And I wasn't getting it. I was just as far away from God as when I was fifteen. God may be real for everyone else--- and I was genuinely happy for all those people, really; but God would never be real for me.

I remember one Saturday, going to synagogue with one of my friends. I figured that as long as i was supposed to look for God, i may as well look inside God's house. As I sat in the sanctuary, soothed by the beauty of the stained glass, uplifted by its (you should excuse the expression) cathedral ceilings, comforted by the familiar heft of the prayerbook, I listened to the choir as it sang out some hymn of praise, some psalm offered up to God. And I wept. I was so close! I could hear their joy; I could! I wanted to reach out and grab it, hold onto it, connect with it. They were all so sure. They rested in the palm of God's hands, carried across the chaos of their doubts, the noise and tumult of the universe. They got it, all of it. And as much as I knew that, I knew that I never would get that gift. I knew that I would forever be denied that peace. How could I not weep in the face of that?

I told myself it didn't matter really. Told myself I didn't care, and that God and redemption and grace were fine for other people, but really, I certainly didn't need them. I was doing just fine, thank you. So what if I was a little raw, felt a little exposed? So what if I had created an invisible hard candy coating that kept me safe and separate and disconnected? So what if despair coiled around my ankles and drifted upwards, soft and smooth as lies, threatening to choke me? So what if all I wanted to do was drink?

So I planned it. I couldn't take it anymore. I couldn't sleep anymore. Stopped going to meetings, mostly. Couldn't bear to listen to those shiny happy people who had found God--- my God, their God, a God: some higher power who carried them and loved them and healed them and redeemed them. I needed to drown out the little voice in my head that insisted, in its silken and seductive and smoky voice, the one that said that I had not rejected God so many years before, but that God had rejected me, and the only thing powerful enough to drown it out, keep God out, was a drink.

There I sat: Queen of the Dramatic Gesture, in my darkened living room, candles flickering and casting macabre shadows on the walls, a cat tangling between my feet, my heart sounding a loud tattoo of determination and fear and wistfulness. I sat in the darkness, planning to drink. I wanted it. Wanted the sweet burn and liquid fire. Wanted the thirty seconds (at best) of absolute release that alcohol gave me. My fingers curled around the neck of that bottle, the glass cool against my palm, calm acceptance settling over me.

And I sank to my knees. I had every intention of drinking. I could taste it, for God's sake! I wanted it, wanted the release and the blankness and the tingle. And yet I sank to my knees. And I cried out from the sere desert of my soul "I give. I can't do this anymore. I can't be so alone. Please help."

That was my prayer. The only prayer I could offer. And I sat on my knees, hands still cradling that damned bottle, and I didn't drink. There were no angels to dance on the head of a pin. There was no clap of thunder or heavenly choir to sing out "Hosanna!" But I did not drink. I did not drink, even though I wanted to, even though every fiber of my being ached to drink. I did not. And I slept--- the whole night through. For the first time in months, I slept, not like a baby (up every two hours, hungering for something, cranky and whiny), but like the dead--- deep and uninterrupted.

Redemption. I have no doubt that I was offered this glorious gift, along with a small touch of grace. And in that instant, with no angels dancing, no thunderous chorus, I lay down my struggle with God, for God, found God. I was redeemed, at last. The miracle was for me, at last. And I slept.

And now, it's more than a decade later. Through the grace of God, I have still not taken that drink. I have found a faith that gives me comfort, that carries me through those long dark nights of the soul.

I still have them. Still tend to box with God and demand that God be accountable for divine (in)action, just as God demands that I am accountable for mine. We are locked in an eternal embrace, God and me--- a lover's embrace, intimite, profoundly connected, bound together as blithely as light, as strong as love. I struggle with the idea of God still. I struggle still with God; after all, I am a true Daughter of Israel. Sometimes it is daily, sometimes not. I rail at God and demand to be comforted, to be carried, to be loved. To be enough (for me, for God). And I am still given grace, because I know that when I ask, I am redeemed. When I love, I am enough. And, wrapped in that blanket of grace, I sleep.

Monday, October 5, 2009



As much as it pains me to admit it, I have become a packrat. I have stuff squirreled away, nestled into dusty, cobwebby little corners that haven’t seen the light of day in forever. There are hidden piles comprised of the detritus of my life, odd bits of this and that that seemed important to save at the time. I’ll be damned if I even know what half of it is, let alone why I saved any of it.

Papers. Books. Little plastic thingies. Cancelled checks. Shapeless mementoes. Pen caps. Dried out markers. I feel as if I’ve stumbled into a Dr Seuss story:

This Thing is a little round,
This Thing never makes a sound
This Thing used to hold a shape
This Thing used to hang on drapes
Little things, big things, paper and more
So many things, all blocking the door….

Listening to the Rabbi’s sermon during one of the services for Yom Kippur, I was forced to take a mental inventory. He talked about re-ordering his garage and finding a box, over-flowing with stuff that he had been saving for years – stuff that he had been hanging on to but could no longer remember the hold that it had on him, or why he had saved it to begin with. And so he asked us, in the context of his sermon: “What do you have in your box?” The sermon was one of a series that had to do with change and perception and reality. That box was all about the stuff that I kept close to me, stuff that I needed, stuff that kept me lassoed to the past. I wanted to shout out “string or nothing!” and invoke the image of Bilbo, trapped in the caves of Mirkwood Forest with Gollum, answering Riddles in the Dark. Of course, that desire may have had more to do with hunger and fatigue than anything else. Certainly, that desire had nothing to do with being a brat…

But, instead, I took the Rabbi seriously. It was a serious question, after all, offered to me -- and the entire congregation (since I am not quite self-centered enough to believe that the Rabbi’s message was meant as an aid to my redemption alone) – the question was meant to get me to start thinking about how tethered I am to my past, how I cling to that past like a life preserver, and how that tether keeps me from claiming my present, let alone from moving into my future.

And I realized that the stuff in my box is not stuff at all. It is not paper or old photos or a program from some play I was in in High School. There are no trophies from half-forgotten competitions. There is nothing dusty or slightly mildewed or discolored shoved into the corners. What tangles and overflows and twists inside my box is people--- relationships that I have not been willing -- or able -- to let go.

I know, in my head, that it is time. Life changes, and so do needs and expectations and desires. So do people. I get that. I am quite smart, thank you very much. I know so very, very much. And that's the problem.

I know.

I live in my head with my knowing. I swirl and dance and dive into my knowing little head. I skip along the edge of reason, swim in the swift current of fact. And with every dip and dive and pirhouette, I continue to hold myself safe. I am seperate from my knowing. I can still listen to that seductive whisper that tells me this time it will be different. This time, I will have my say. This time, I will win your heart. Wherever the relationship may have wandered, this time it will be different, dammit. This time, you will not leave.

The longest journey I have ever made, will ever have to make, is the one from my head to my heart. It is an endless and eternal chasm that seperates the two. That way is dark and lonely. The cold of it seeps into my bones, freezes my joints. And I know, if I flit fast enough, dive deep enough, keep inside my head enough--- I will never have to face that desolate road. And so, for all my knowing, for all my wisdom, I have a box filled with broken relationships, tethering me to the past, holding me to you.

And yet...

It's just a box. And perhaps, because the question was asked in such a way that I could finally hear it, perhaps I can start unpacking it. Maybe those twisty little tethers--- maybe I'm ready, finally and at last, to cut them. Maybe, just maybe, I am ready to put one foot in front of the other, take that one small step (no giant leaps, thank you) and start the journey to my heart.

It is so alluring: to stay, to wish, to hope, to believe. To want. And God, I want to hang on to the possibilities as I see them. And yes, for me, it is just a matter of time and luck and perfect astral alignment that Everything Goes Back To The Way It Was. My heart is doing acrobatic twists and feats of derring do to hold it all together, this little bubble of desire.

But I was asked to see what is in my box. I was asked to challenge my perceptions and entertain reality. And all the mental gymnastics in the world will not keep those pesky, twisty, lovely, damaged and broken and wonderful and past relationships in place. That journey, that endless and eternal and lonely journey has begun, whether I am ready for it or not. My feet have found the path, however rocky and dark it may be.

I am not sure of this path. I hate not being sure. I live for certainty, for deft sureness. For control. For knowing.

But it is a new year, and I get to start clean and pure. I get to be... different. I get to unpack my box, no matter how slowly or hesitantly. I get to leap, in my faith, and believe that I will be caught, to rest safely in the hand of God. I get to let go, finally, and let be. I get to breathe. Finally, I get to say good bye.