Monday, September 26, 2011

Defending Your Life

Saturday afternoon, I was the guest speaker at an event for the Saint Paul Chapter of Hadassah. Being a life member and all, I can tell you that the stereotypes of the 1950s Hadassah ladies are long gone and the group, which ranged in age over 4 decades, was an interesting and lively one.  Since Saturday night was S’lichot, that odd midnight service that kicks off the penitential season for Jews, I decided I would talk about ownership.

If you don’t know much about the High Holy Days: Rosh HaShannah is the Jewish new year….and this year is 5772…here’s a little background. This is not the same kind of new year celebration as the one in January. This one is somber, reflective, and, if you do it right, really hard.  The big thing for this holiday is called t’shuvah:  you assess the last year for what went wrong and set about to figure out how not to repeat it. T’shuvah literally means “turning,” and this is a moment for turning one’s life.

Okay, so that’s what I was supposed to be talking about. I was supposed to be discussing, interactively, how one approaches that assessment and how one gets through it. It can be very depressing if you’re totally honest about it. It takes a certain kind of fortitude, and that's what I was describing when one of the older women's hand shot up. "It's very negative, you know," she said, "and we shouldn’t just be all about the negative. We should be looking at what we accomplished, too."

I waited a few seconds before I said, "Uh, actually no. If you focus on the accomplishments you kinda subvert the purpose. It's supposed to be about the things we've done wrong." Well, she wasn't thrilled with the answer, but a lot of other heads in the room were nodding vigorously. Turns out, that little exchange was the most provocative of the afternoon, and I don't know if anyone else even noticed it.

Saturday night, throughout the s’lichot service, I was thinking about it instead of my own issues. Granted, I was sitting in a pew after midnight and my mental acuity may not have been top notch, but somewhere in the middle of the service, I figured out the answer.  All of us are sitting there thinking about where we’d gone amok. This is not a bad thing. There are times when you need not blow smoke up your own butt. So I decided that what bothered me was that she wanted to minimize the mistakes…as if accomplishments could wipe out the bad stuff. But this isn’t cap’n’trade.

When confronted with the act of atonement, it’s not okay to gloss over the bad stuff and remind G-d only about the good stuff so G-d should think better of us. We shouldn’t be absolving ourselves of the real work of examining our actions. If G-d is omniscient (and what Mother isn’t) you can’t blow smoke up Her butt. You and She are going to know you are fundamentally redacting your own history and that’s coloring outside the lines. This is a one shot deal to decide if the life you’ve lived this past year is morally, ethically, and socially responsible. And the only one who really knows if you’ve lived up to your own measure, is you.

You know, of course, it really isn’t just for Jews, and it really isn’t about G-d. It about answering the last question on the test: have you done everything in you power to make sure no one is suffering because of your actions? That ranks right up there with “leave your campsite cleaner than you found it.”

And just for the record, you and G-d can endlessly debate the merits/ demerits of heavenly deeds all you want; just be aware that G-d cannot forgive you for that which you have done to another person. That is not part of Her job description. 

L'shana tovah to one and all.
 May you be inscribed for a happy, sweet, healthy and adventurous new year!

Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week
This picture is worth a thousand words:

Monday, September 19, 2011

Acts of Loving Kindness

Good friends were at Reno this past weekend. Lynn and Chuck, along with the rest of their party, are safe although the crash was very close to where they were seated. Because their company was a corporate sponsor of the air races, they found themselves with hotel rooms and catering contracts that would have been cancelled. Instead, everything has been turned over to the organizers of the event to be used for the families of the victims. It was the right thing to do. It was also gemilut act of loving kindness. These are nice people. Nothing less would have been acceptable to them.

Sunday here brought its own challenges. We were at the cemetery for my friend Amy Ringold’s unveiling. She was a remarkable woman with challenges that would’ve been insurmountable for others.  When she knew she was dying, rather than remaining out east where she had grown up and had been living the last year, she made the decision to come back to Saint Paul where she was a vibrant part of this community. She’s buried not far from Steve, so I always make it a point to visit Amy when I go to the cemetery. Well, on this day we were there for Amy. It was a good gathering, a chance to re-tell Amy stories…which are always full of strength and our admiration for her.

But it's also Elul, so when the prayers for Amy were done, the rabbi and I walked the few steps over to Steve. He chanted El Moleh Rachamim. Some of the people at the unveiling had also been there for Steve. They stood nearby. I got to say how much I missed the ol’ grey beard, and we all got to laugh because there’s creeping Charlie on just Steve’s plot and unbelievably there was no hand reaching up from the ground to yank it out.

Thank G-d we didn’t yet know the Vi-queens were about to blow a 17-0 lead in the second half to lose to Tampa Bay 24-20. For sure, he would’ve risen up hollering, “Fucking Vikings, yer breaking my heart!”

It was drizzling just like it had on the day of the funeral. Our friends stood with me in that spitting rain anyway, gemliut chasadim and rememberance. It’s little things like that that keep me going; when I think I'm all alone out there, a little noodge reminds me that I am not.

Which brings me to the big point in this week’s self-indulgence: gemilut chasadim ~ acts of loving kindness. When we take stock of this past year, the really difficult question isn't "what sins did I commit?", but rather, "where could I have been more compassionate in my response?"

This question seems to have gone missing from the public forum these days. Anyone who wasn’t abjectly horrified by Ron Paul’s cavalier attitude towards those without health insurance has some serious assessing to do. How “okay” are they with paying for the medical bills of someone in need, and how far does that commitment go? Listening to the Republican candidates is a very interesting window into what they each think constitutes the American personality. And the thing I keep running up against is the lack of social responsibility in the general responses.

But there’s little anyone can do about that…as a single person. Perhaps collectively we would have more luck, and that’s what elections are for. But in the meanwhile, I think it should be a rule that everyone has to sit down ALONE and answer the following questions:
  1. Can I afford to cover my parents/kids/aunts/uncles/grandparents/closest friends’ medical bills in an emergency where insurance is not available or adequate to cover their needs?
  2. If the roads/bridges/tunnels are no longer safe enough to bear the usual traffic levels, is there alternate transportation to get me to my job?
  3. Can I afford to live out the remainder of my days on the money I’ve put aside without the assistance of Social Security?
If you can't yes to all three questions, you're probably part of the 95% of the non-wealth controlling majority of Americans. And you have some serious thinking to do. I would recommend the first question you ask yourself is "was I as compassionate in my response to things as I should have been?"

And if you are not sure about that new first question, not to worry; you can fix that starting right now.

The Wifely Person's Tip O'the Week
Always keep a filled water bottle and a couple of stones in the car; 
they're handy in case you have to run out to the cemetery. 

Bonus Tip for the Poetically Impaired
Reading between the lines isn't de riguer;
sometimes it just is what it is.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Roar of the Pencil Sharpener, The Smell of the Crayons

September is the smell of fresh crayons. I love a nosegay of yellow pencils sprouting up from a jelly jar with sharpened points up in the air. There is nothing like the sound of a black and white Composition notebook crackling open for the first time. And the ultimate aroma…real library paste.

These are the smells of a new year. Not the one that happens in January, but the one that happens in the fall when school doors are thrown open and kids with shiny faces and heads full of expectation, trepidation, and illumination parade in for another year of mental expansion. Even though it’s been a long time since I’ve had a first day at school, I still surreptitiously sniff crayons at Target, and buy a pocket sized academic calendar. 

I pretend I’m starting over.

Well, I went a little overboard this year. As I mentioned a while ago, I'm growing out my hair. Every day I look a little more like me and less like the old widow lady that had been staring back from the mirror. I have a ceramic iron now and can actually use it. Coming from a woman who recently figured out which is the business end of a blow dryer, this is quite an accomplishment.

My erstwhile and eternally optimistic cousin Laurie accompanied me on the quest for new glasses. The old-lady rimless ones are gone, replaced by very fashion-forward Kate Spades with turquoise inside. (Like someone actually sees the inner rim of glasses???) Of course, they’re still lined trifocals (no progressives for me unfortunately) but they are Transitions lenses, so that has to count for something. And as if that was not enough for one season, Laurie is now muttering something about my wardrobe. Hey! Cut me some slack here! I don’t want to shock myself into the big one, y’know!

Right now, I am eagerly anticipating my friend Judy’s call to say she has first blush Macs all ready for me. I love popping over to her little orchard for a taste of whatever new apple she’s growing for the University of Minnesota and a chance to catch up on all the news. Judy always smells of fall and apples, and her tiny shop is just a wonderland of appley Judy-things.

But I digress. Indeed, it’s time to sharpen the pencils, buy new harvest apples, stock up on local honey…and begin that process of self-evaluation necessary for the coming Yam'im Nora'im (High Holy Days.) Now is the time to take a moment to think about where we’re were and where we’re going. Have we lived up the goals from last year, and to whom do we owe an apology for being a horse’s ass? The interesting thing about Jewish atonement is that G-d can’t forgive you for whacking your brother upside the head. Issues between people have to be resolved between those same people. You are responsible for clearing your own slate.

There is something daunting about this process, but I think it’s a necessary one. You have to pause to clean up your own messes. It’s not easy, nor should it be. Even getting ready for the process is its own deliberate process. And it should be a deliberate examination of the past year. You need to revisit the good as well as the bad. 

On the other hand, this is a symbolic time for new beginnings.  Kids get to have them on the first day of school. I want my own. A new pair of sneakers might be nice, or maybe a new pair of jeans. Meanwhile, a pencil bouquet is on my desk, and they all have really good erasers in case I make any mistakes....which I will, but I'm ready for whatever comes. 

Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week
Never throw out a good jelly jar. They make the best repositories for weird stuff.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Notes On A Decade

Next Sunday will mark the 10th anniversary of September 11th. There is a ton of stuff on television, and lots of stuff written about what it meant to America, questions about whether or not we are any safer, and weepy-waily op/ed pieces on heroics ad nauseum.

September 11th was not an abstract event for me and my family. On my dad’s side, the Cantor in Cantor-Fitzgerald was family and even though BG was already gone, other family members still had business in that building. On my mother’s side, Arthur was at Fred Alger, and Kenny, his son was, oddly enough at Cantor Fitzgerald. I would later learn a friend from my college days was on American Airlines flight 11. Another friend who worked in the Pentagon happened not to be at work that day because he was moving into a new house and that kept him out of harm's way. And my childhood best friend, who would've been arriving in the WTC Path station at that time, was delayed at home because her daughter barfed on her on the way to school. 

Rodin: the hand that survived
Michael Falco for The New York Times

I was here in Minnesota watching it all from a surreal distance. For days and days, when I wasn’t at my job as a corporate travel agent trying to secure hotel rooms and rental cars because planes weren’t flying and people wanted to get home to their families, I watched the planes hit the towers over and over and over. I was haunted by the knowledge that Kenny called his wife to say he was on his way down the stairs and would stop to find his dad. Neither ever emerged from the rubble.

The videos and constant rehashing went on and on and on. I hated them all. I hated people who talked about it even though they knew nothing. I hated the people who spouted off about how they once saw the twin towers so they understood New Yorkers' feeling when clearly they had no clue. Our home town had been attacked, our friends and relatives and neighbors had disappeared in a cloud of flame and ash. We could barely understand our feelings.  

And then for reasons which still manage to escape me, President Bush started a war in Iraq. Iraq had nothing to do with this. Then he started a war against Afghanistan. Even the screenwriters of THE PRINCESS BRIDE knew enough to say, “Never start a land war in Asia.” The one objective, to find Osama bin Laden, went unmet for a decade. 

Every year on 9/11 I cringe as the baloney starts up all over again. The uproar over a Muslim community center and mosque several blocks away from the pit that was once the WTC was disgusting. Would anyone have said such a thing to a church or synagogue group? The TSA is an alien entity unto itself, humiliating old ladies and terrifying children yet they are unable to find the “weapons” hidden and sent through the detection process to test their abilities. We spent the blood of tens of thousands of young men and women in pointless, expensive wars...for what purpose? Are we really any safer?

We have honored the memory of those who perished in the towers, on the planes, in Pentagon, and two absurd wars with a completely hamstrung, dysfunctional government more interested obstructionism than in America. I know I am not the only one repulsed by the grotesque parade of political hatespeech that permeates the airwaves and the halls of Congress in equal amounts.

 There are thousands of us who have lost loved ones in the aftermath.  Not everyone wants to talk about it, or relive it publicly, or even watch the tributes on TV. Why would we? Ten years later, they can't even get their act together to build a new building. Those television specials are depressing in the worst way because they point out we have accomplished nothing in the years since the attacks. 

I prefer to remember the last time I saw Arthur ...sitting across from me in the dining room of my parents' house on Long Island. Alive.

Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week
Unless you are a terrorism survivor yourself,
do not attempt to tell a New Yorker who sat for days on end clutching a cell phone, 
terrified every time it rang that there would be more bad news, 
that you understand what he/she felt. 
You don't.