Inventorying the Pettinesses (and Trying Not To Channel Darth Vader): Everyay Magic, Day 732

There’s nothing like a convergence of the ongoing Days of Awe, when Jews are supposed to look at our shortcomings and make amends, and a bout of insomnia to catalyze awareness on steroids. So the other night, unable to sleep, I tossed and turned over my own flaws, which were many, and in the middle of night, seemed Empire-State-Building in size. Where I landed most was on my capacity to be petty.

I come by pettiness naturally. My dad was the master in this realm, able to make anything from a small offense to an actual compliment into a call to arms. One time when he was visiting me in Lawrence, while we were walking down Massachusetts Street, I high-fived a friend. Months later, I discovered my dad was convinced that the high five was a secret signal to make fun of him. A pebble of an issue would be escalated into the end of the world as we know it. When I was very young, our family and my dad’s brother’s family would meet for dinner regularly at the home of my grandparents. My dad and his brother would, sometime after dessert, argue so vigorously that each would declare the other one dead to him, only to make plans a few days later to meet for dinner next weekend. Old arguments weren’t forgotten either, just stowed away for future ammunition.

Although I haven’t declared anyone living as dead to me, I have my moments too. In the last week, I realized I responded, although seemingly politely, to a literary situation in a way I’m not ashamed of: I very daintily pulled rank. As a writer, I’ve had rank pulled on me a thousands different ways over the years, part and parcel of the craziness of some centers of the literary world. It was always something I swore I would never do, yet when the phrase, “Don’t they know who I am?” in the gravelly voice of Darth Vader, I knew I was in trouble.

I apologized, regrouped, and am trying to stay more aware, yet I know it’s likely I’ll be petty again in the future when my awareness slips and ego flares. It’s a little like my propensity to indulge in a bit of dessert after dinner when I know so clearly the next morning that sugar after 6 p.m. means the migraine the next day. Some habits die hard.

Meanwhile, I try to pay attention to the motives behind the words ticker-taping across my mind before they cross my lips, and for added reinforcement, when I catch myself in time, I’ll high-five my shadow.

When the Hooks Are on the Wind: Everyday Magic, Day 729

Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun and writer, calls it shenpa, which she defines as “….the urge, the hook, that triggers our habitual tendency to close down. We get hooked in that moment of tightening when we reach for relief. To get unhooked we begin by recognizing that moment of unease and learn to relax in that moment.” Life calls it just-being-life. I have other names for the moments the hooks are on the wind heading toward me.

Lately, I’ve had a lot of reminders about the dangers of catching hooks. I’m amazed that I can feel so calm and happy-go-lucky one moment, then trip over a hook into a caldron of spinning fear or defensiveness the next. Then again, we’re wildly vulnerable creatures, prone to easy breakage but, luckily enough, full recovery in ways we can barely grasp.

Growing up with a father who an expert hook-thrower, I learned early how to catch every hook whether I had to squat down or leap up suddenly. Then I learned how not to reach out my unprotected hand for what wouldn’t serve my spirit or actually help anyone. The art of not grabbing the hook isn’t as simple as ducking or turning away. It entails deeply considering how to respond or not respond to someone who is determined to cast you as an evil force or powerless victim in his/her fast-moving and fairly dramatic narrative. What complicates clear thinking and meeting the situation with tenderness and curiosity is the habitual going-to-the-races responses most of us have honed to perfection.

As Pema Chodron writes:

I recently saw a cartoon of three fish swimming around a hook. One fish is saying to the other, “The secret is non-attachment.” That’s a shenpa cartoon: the secret is—don’t bite that hook. If we can catch ourselves at that place where the urge to bite is strong, we can at least get a bigger perspective on what’s happening. As we practice this way, we gain confidence in our own wisdom. It begins to guide us toward the fundamental aspect of our being—spaciousness, warmth and spontaneity.

So as I swim through today, I try to not bit the hook. Fortunately, I have chicken enchiladas in my future to bit into instead.

Homing In: Everyday Magic, Day 680

downsized_0224131357aHoning and homing in are easily confused, but I recently learned that knives are honed and birds home in on where they’re heading. Definitely not the sharpest knife in or out of the drawer today, I homed in on my travel becoming a farce because farces, despite and because of everything that goes wrong, end well with marriage, homecoming and great joy in the land.

The world of travel farce is narrow and treacherous. What wouldn’t shake me much in ordinary life level me here. My burrowing animal keeps ramming itself against the rock, convinced more effort will open the rabbit hole to home. Last night, a dropped call to United, after 45 minutes of waiting for a representative and another 20 of trying to sort out the tangle of getting my Delta ticket, originally a United ticket, back to United, tipped off a long crying jag (which led to me calling Ken and asking him to take off calling the airlines to arrange for my two flights, starting at 6 a.m.). Two hours later, when Ken called on one phone while talking with Delta on the other to make sure I was cool with a direct, non-stop flight at the reasonable hour of 11 a.m., I started crying so hard I could barely say, “Yes!” as in “Yes, Fredrico, a million times yes. I will marry you!”downsized_0224131444a

Back home this afternoon, I told Ken how I tried to think of the travel challenges as akin to an intensive spiritual retreat focused on letting go. “How did you do with that?” Ken asked. “Not very well,” I told him.

Yet there were moments of almost grace when I relinquished control, particularly when parked on the tarmac in Hartford, CT in a very small plane, completely full, for three and a half hours. I was on the phone for an hour with the airline, the aisles full with a snaking line of people waiting for the bathroom. People’s butts occasionally hit my head as I said to the United rep, “Could you say that again? I couldn’t hear you.” When I hung up, I surrendered to what the women around me were saying, which included repetitions and variations of:

  • There’s nothing we do, so why worry about it?
  • It is what it is.
  • It’s better to be sitting here alive than dead.
  • Yeah, this is challenging, but we’ve got it better than a lot of people in this world.
  • And you know, if I miss my connection, it’s not the end of the world.
  • I just missed my connection, but what you gonna do?

In communal travel mishaps, people tend to take turns being the cheerful one and the freaking out one. As soon as I told people my story (up until that point), the main cheerleader among us got a little depressed, and I repeated to her some of what she said to us earlier.

Soon the pilot announced that we were ready for take-off, back for a third try to land at La Guardia, but now we had to wait until someone could drain the overflowing toilet to prevent its contents from rushing down the aisles. The whole plane laughed together, and laughed some more when we needed to get de-iced again. Right before take-off for real, the pilot said, “Ladies and Gentlement, federal regulations stipulate that we inform you that if anyone wants to get off the plane at this airport, we can let you off.” The whole plane laughed harder, then we all looked around, as if to say, “No one is leaving this plane, sucker, so stay put.”

We were homing in together, and although I did start crying so hard at La Guardia at the information desk that a young Indian man came up to ask if he could help, I was grateful for help whenever I needed it.

Travel farce turns on plans dissolving, missed connections, the kindness of strangers, taking walks down streets in cities you never expected to visit, shuttle downsized_0224131446bdrivers talking about the last big snow, tiny bags of mini-pretzels that taste remarkably good when you miss a meal, and letting go of expectations right at the point of them being met (or not). When the plane I boarded today, the seventh plane I was booked on (and only the second flight I made), the pilot announced there was a small issue to resolve before take-off. I asked the flight attendant if she thought we going to actually go, and then told her my story. Although I wished I carried around some Valium, I was glad I at least had a story.

Then of course the story took off, and from the air, the world shone with snow, roads and rivers all the way to Kansas.

Needle in the Bone Book Launch: Everyday Magic, Day 660

44700_4069537058430_72832791_n“Is this the High Holy Days?” a friend asked me as the crowd swarmed into the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation for the Needle in the Bone launch party. With over 150 people finding seats around tables, against the walls, in the lobby outside the social hall, or simply standing in corners, it looked a little like we might launch into “Kol Nidre” instead of a presentation on this book about the survival and friendship of two local men, one a Holocaust survivor and one a Polish resistance fighter.

All day leading up to the event was a combination of all-okay and all-not-okay because, as Jarek said during the launch, “This is also very sad day because two people aren’t here.” When I started this book, it was about four people — Lou and Jane Frydman, and Jarek and Maura Piekalkiewicz. With both Maura and Lou dying in recent years, and on the same date (January 24 – 2011 for Maura and 2012 for Lou), it’s both tender and heartbreaking to share their stories with the community without them here.

Community came in abundance: well over 150 people showed up, the books sold out in a flash with many orders for more, and people listened intently to the presentation. Ken told me that the power point slide show about Lou and Jarek’s lives revealed just how important family was to each, starting with the family they lost and ending with the family they made in a new land.

Jarek spoke about he had a choice as to whether to risk his life against the Nazis, but Lou and other Jews didn’t have such a choice. He pointed out that Lou’s survival aimed Lou toward a life of family and service, reforming mental health laws that were damaging to children. He also said that even if Jews didn’t have saints, Lou was a saint to him as well as to many of us because of Lou’s heart and humor.

Jane told of how Lou survived, partially because of how smart his parents, brother and he was in thinking on their feet at crucial moments, and mostly because of “dumb luck,” such as the train out of the Warsaw Ghetto not going to Treblinka, which barely anyone survived an hour, but in saving grace, going to Majdanek instead. The near misses — while hiding in Warsaw on the Aryan side, in the camps, and even on the death march — kept Lou alive, but it was also his parents’ legacy that he could think so quickly and clearly on a dime of what to do or say to save his life.

I told about the four themes of the book, which I grappled with when writing it and will always grapple with: 1) What it means to survive such trauma, and how we carry such trauma within us; 2) The relationship of Poles to Jews when it comes to both anti-Semitism and how so many Polish families risked everything to save Jews; 3) The nature of good and evil, and how such a thing could happen; and 4) How we stand or could stand in relation to atrocities such as the Holocaust. Here is an excerpt of what I read:

Both Lou and Jarek bear an obligation, based on the holocausts they each went through, to create, educate, and make a difference. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing, a need to draw nourishment from the painful memory of near-annihilation: “The ultimately Jewish statement is the Messianic statement. We say this world will be redeemed; we say that human life will ultimately be worth everything. Anne Frank wrote in her diary that if she survived the war, she understood that she would have to make something of her life. The rabbis told us that the Messianic act is achieved when, in the face of total destruction, people choose to take on the grubbiness, the difficulties, the complexities of recreating life at all costs,” writes Eli Wiesel. Or maybe this is even more a human thing.

Surely, the weight of an experience such as the Holocaust is made bearable only by what we can make out of the wreckage.

In the end, there were lines of people hugging us and having us sign books, laktes, Kelley’s cookies, Terry’s vegetarian meatballs and lots of treats to eat, lingering visits while cleaning and packing up.

As Lou was dying, I knew he didn’t believe anything happened to us after death but that we simply and completely were no more. I believe quite the opposite, that the soul lives on (and not just in the hearts of loved ones). I told Lou that if I was right and he was wrong, he should send me a sign. This morning, I woke up to realize last night was a sign as well as a high holy day of its own.

Thank you to all who helped: the Lawrence Jewish Community for passing on all the food, drinks and wine left over from the Hanukkah celebration and hosting us, the Raven Bookstore, my husband Ken who worked with me for hours to prepare for and clean up from the event (as well as set up the AV), and many who helped: Sandy Snook, Kelley Hunt and Al Berman, Eve Levin, Forest Lassman and others. Special thanks to Jane and Jarek.

Back to the Source in New Jersey: Everyday Magic, Day 639

Reunited after 30 years with Phil Brater, my mentor and dear friend who modeled for me what true witnessing, support and daring to love and create really look like

Today I gave readings at Brookdale Community College, my first and best college, and Temple Shaari Emeth, the synagogue that saved my life when I was a teenager. Although I’m tempted to say I was back at the scene of the crime, it was really back in the scenes of the anti-crime. At Shaari Emeth, I found a youth group that gave me community, meaning, and extensive nurturing of my talents and strengths while I was living through the hardest time in my life. At Brookdale, I found my legs and ability to move forward toward my life as a writer and people of community.

So here I am, 33 years later visiting the college where I began as a deeply

Reading at Brookdale Community College, one of the best colleges I know

insecure 17-year-old and the synagogue where I found a refuge as a freaking-out 14-year-old. Not only am I back, but I’m reading from my love song to New Jersey, The Divorce Girl, which traces my main characters journey from fragmentation, isolation, fear and grief to art, community and beauty. As if this isn’t enough, the blessings pile upon blessings: my family is with me — my mother at all the readings, and at the Shaari Emeth one, my aunts and uncles

Cantor Wayne, and we look EXACTLY the same we did back in ’77

and brother too; my main mentor and lifeline as a teen, old friend and guide Phil Brater, who I haven’t seen in over 30 years; and even Cantor Wayne, who led me and my peers in singing our hearts out.

Life has a way of returning to itself full-circle, going back to the roots of breakdowns and breakthroughs to spiral into what matters and why before taking us to the

Mom at Manalapan Dinner, another source for a different kind of nourishment

next discovery. I love the places that showed me love and possibility, and although everything was different, everything was still familiar and welcoming. But mostly, I’m grateful for the people who helped me through the dark: Cantor Wayne, who kissed me and called out, “Welcome Home”; my mom, aunt and uncle who talked fast and vibrantly with me in the car of what survived and how we love each other; my old friend Phil who sounds exactly the same — reassuring and like he truly sees me for who I am — as always. These voices and faces travel my heart and soul, returning me to the source that always is.