Monthly Archives: November 2014

See What I Mean?

ב”ה

Part One
My glasses have gone on hiatus.  I remember wearing them 24 hours ago, returning from a poetry reading at a Berkeley bookstore, and since then, I have no idea where they are.  Usually this kind of absence is momentary or fleeting, and I have a system of sorts to help me: I’ve designated one spot in each room where I place my glasses if I take them off in that room.  This reduces the number of places they usually might be, an important strategic point, since ironically the most important physical possession to have when looking for my glasses is… my glasses.

Since I use them to drive, this could theoretically be catastrophic (for me, for other drivers, and especially for innocent pedestrians), but I have my prescription sports goggles (that I use for volleyball, racquetball and running), so I can still get around even if I look more strange than usual.  Which means this is primarily an annoyance.

What do you do when you have misplaced something?

I usually do three things.

First, I search the most likely places.  I went through each room of the house.  I started with the chosen put-my-glasses-here spot in each room, and then expanded my search to all kinds of would-never-put-my-glasses here places.  Nowhere did I see my glasses.

Second, I retrace my steps.  I thought back to the time I knew I last had my glasses.  I clearly had them after the bookstore event, because if I had driven home without them, I would have noticed.  But I blanked out when I imagined coming inside and taking them off anywhere afterwards.

Thirdly, I do what I should do first: I check in On High.  This usually starts with a whining, “Really?!  Was this necessary? Why you gotta do this to me?” and progresses to inquiring if there are any things I’ve left undone, unsaid or unattended that The Master of the Universe is bringing to my attention.

Sometimes, God is being helpful in a masterful way, like when I’m in a rush to get somewhere and head out without my glasses.  I come back inside to get them, and in the course of looking for my glasses I discover another needed item (like my wallet!).  Without the “inconvenience” of misplacing my glasses, I would have arrived at my destination completely unprepared.  So the “annoyance” of misplaced glasses turns out to be a kindness from On High.

More often, however, there is some other lesson being pointed to, and the instruction is often related to the item I can’t find.  For example, I found it fitting that on my road trip out to California from Minnesota this last time, when I was planning to get married and stay out here, I misplaced my Minnesota driver’s license.  To me this was symbolic of letting go of my identity as a Minnesotan to embrace creating a home with my new bride (and her son) in sunny California.
I view my life as a canvas on which God and I together create an artistic work of a lived life.  I see symbolism and grace in the details, and I hope to contribute my part towards making it a masterpiece.

My sense of the lesson of my glasses was not coming into focus, however, and I remarked to my wife that I didn’t think I would find my glasses until I next davened (did my traditional prayers).  Praying increases my connection On High, and I often have increased intuition and awareness during and afterwards.

Part Two
Later in the day, I went to my usual davening space and saw my glasses sitting atop a tall adjacent cabinet.  This is a place I never put my glasses.  But there they were, resting comfortably on their high perch, waiting for me.

I took this as a sign that I had gotten the message.  That I wasn’t seeing how important my daily prayers are in my life and so The Master had gotten my attention, via my glasses, to redirect my focus.  (And in fact I had missed saying my prayers both that morning and that afternoon, an unusual dereliction).

It often goes this way.  I interpret my life almost as you would a good movie or a great novel: everything means something, everything is placed where it is for a reason, and there are meanings and hidden symbolism available to the inquisitive and open mind.  And while not every situation discloses its secrets so easily, I find my life richer for being in this conversation with The One.

May your life reveal its hidden meanings to you, Gentle Reader, and may you gather in the hidden meanings and act appropriately on their messages.

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The Merit of Being Unrefined

ב”ה

So I was sitting in our back yard, relaxing on Shabbos, mentioning that I had eaten only a little challah at the post-service meal at the little minyan where I was praying that morning.  Our guest asked why I didn’t eat more of the delicious rich egg-bread which is a staple of meals on the Sabbath.  Perhaps I was reducing my gluten intake?

No, not really.  Well, sort of.  I think in our culture these days we over-refine foods.  Foods are often so processed (or genetically engineered) that they lose their connection to the earth and are stripped of their basic nutritional value.  Bleached white flour, high fructose corn syrup, refined sugar, and ingredients that only chemists can pronounce.  I’m also wary of food grown with pesticides that leach into the produce as well as into the environment.  “I’m migrating towards being a coarse ruffian,” I answered.  “I aspire to be less refined.”

As I reflected on that back-to-basics theme in regard to food, I realized it also applies in other areas as well.  Most of the movies I see advertised these days are remakes of older movies, or yet another sequel in a series of films whose pilot was of dubious quality to begin with.  It feels like Hollywood is just rehashing the same old stuff again and again, with each iteration farther removed from any grounding in the real world.  Special effects, increased violence, graphic depictions and unrestrained profanity don’t make up for a fundamental lack of human complexity in the characters and plot.  I want a story that touches my heart or challenges my mind.

And in the arena of public discourse, much of the news feels like gossip to me.  He said, she said, they reported, so-and-so commented, etc.  There’s less original reporting and analysis on the events themselves and more gushing over what other people are saying about it, and speculation about popularity and potential public reaction.  We get further and further away from actual happenings and caught up in blogosphere echoes.

I suspect we’re in danger of doing ourselves a similar injustice mentally as well.  Perhaps it’s the California vibe I am newly immersed in, but I feel there’s a danger in overthinking our internal experiences as well.  Getting caught up in classifying and clarifying and processing and sharing to the point where we’re on our phones composing texts to other people (in reality or in our minds awaiting the next online opportunity) and not spending enough time in deep attentiveness with ourselves and others, actually experiencing the here and now.  Watching a sunset, looking deeply into our lover’s eyes, walking barefoot on the grass.

Sometimes fresh broccoli is more appealing than a rich tiramisu dessert.

(Okay, so maybe I just stepped over a line there.)

This is one of the things I treasure about the Sabbath.  I unplug.  I stop trying to change things or report on things or participate in molding the world in some fashion, or even trying to understand how things work.  Instead, I focus on prayer and gratitude, on community and family, on simple things like eating basic foods, telling old stories and conversing about our inner lives.  Reading a book, playing some games together, taking a nap.  Simple, refreshing and nourishing.

Like having a friend over in the backyard in the beautiful sunshine, and thanking God Almighty for the opportunity to live and breathe in His world another day.

Gentle Reader, do you replenish and nourish yourself regularly?  If so, what does that look like?

May the coming week inspire and uplift you.

Who Makes Darkness?

ב”ה

I enjoyed watching Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday yesterday.  (Yesterday wasn’t Sunday; I watched online at http://www.oprah.com/own-super-soul-sunday/Full-Episode-Barbara-Brown-Taylor-Video.)  She observes that people in the spiritual/religious realms encourage us to stay in “the light”, whereas she advocates embracing our experiences of “the dark” as being rich for learning.

(I also appreciated that she eschewed giving a simplistic or reductionist 1-2-3 approach; I find those one-approach-fits-all formulas to be lacking.)

The question I pose (to myself, or to you) is who do you think made the darkness anyway?

For me, the answer is the G-d made (and makes) everything.  Everything.  Good and bad, light and dark, sublime and ridiculous.  I don’t expect to fully understand why Hashem has done so; as He said, “My Ways our not your ways; My Thoughts are not your thoughts.”  But I do search for lessons and meaning in the difficult times.  I usually find profound love behind the difficulties.  And when I can’t find it, I trust it’s there nonetheless.

I’m preparing for another round of intense therapy in the months ahead.  I’ve contacted an old therapist (who helped me untangle difficult issues in the past) and we’re scheduling some dates for some new work.  This entails going through old painful experiences, many of which I pushed to the far recesses of my mind and memory.  Exploring them brings up powerful unpleasant emotions and fears, unmet needs and terrifying ordeals.  I can’t say I’m exactly looking forward to that.

But in the process, I reclaim vital life energy, I heal, and I emerge more whole, more humble, and more able to be present for others.  It feels like the best way forward.

May you find the strength to linger a little longer in the difficult spaces of your life to see what you can learn there, and may you find unexpected grace and healing in the process.

Humility Teachers

ב”ה

A young man goes out behind the wheel for his first driving lesson.  He has a tendency to drift to the right, so the instructor gently tells him several times, “steer a little more to the left”.  He makes it through the session with increasing confidence and later meets up with a friend to tell her all about it.

“Oh, you have the same instructor I do!” she exclaims.

“Isn’t he so wise,” he rejoins.  “Don’t you just love the way he says, ‘steer a little more to the left’?”

“He never says that,” she avers.  “It’s always, ‘steer a little more to the right’!  Maybe you weren’t listening as well as you thought.”

“I could have sworn he said, ‘steer a little more to the left’.  In fact, I’m sure of it.”

This story illustrates the problem of promulgating a single set of “rules” or “teachings”, as if the same insights apply to all people at all times in the same ways.  If you’re a person that drifts to the right, the message you need to hear is “steer a little more to the left.”  If you’re a person that tends towards the left already, “steer a little more to the left” would be an unfortunate directive to receive; a serious accident could result (G-d forbid!).  So I’m often cautious in putting out generalized truths, because they might land poorly for an individual who actually needs to hear something different.  (In fact the rebbes of Psischa didn’t write down their teachings for exactly this reason, if I understand their history correctly.)

Adding to the difficulty: often the messages that we are open to hearing aren’t the ones we need to hear.  Perhaps we are comfortable going to the left; we lean to the left; we drift to the left.  It’s easy for us to hear someone tell us to steer a little more to the left.  Which means the appropriate message –“steer a little more to the right”–  sometimes has to come in an emphatic, dramatic or difficult manner.  And G-d obliges us by raising the volume on the message until we start hearing it.  He starts with a soft whisper and, if necessary, ends up using an oncoming car to get our attention (G-d forbid).  “Steer a little to more to the right.  We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.”

This is all by way of introducing what I call “humility teachers”.  This practice of seeing certain difficult situations/relationships/people as humility teachers is not something I would encourage you to do if you (a) have any experience tolerating abusive behavior, (b) have low self-esteem, or (c) are a “people pleaser” or conflict-avoidant.  If you would place yourself in one of those categories, please be cautious with this practice; you may be better served by  intervening to alter the situational dynamics, rather than accepting the situation as a message from which to learn wisdom about yourself.

Most of us have at least one person in our lives that we find frustrating.  They misunderstand us, they don’t exhibit compassion or kindness towards us, and, in fact, they may be hostile and critical when we encounter them.  Often we become defensive or self-conscious around them, and this can make the problem worse.  When I find myself in these situations, I try to ask why G-d is placing this person and these harsh words in front of me.  And for me, the answer is usually to teach me humility.

This understanding (usually) immediately transforms any impatience or anger that I may find building up inside.  This person is just a messenger from G-d, who understands me completely, loves me infinitely, and decided that in this moment I need to be told by this fellow that I’m not as smart as I think I am, or that I’m arrogant and condescending, or that people like me cause all the violence and hatred in the world.

So I try and take whatever kernel of truth there is in their words and meditate on it carefully.  I review their speech and what I understand of their frame of reference.  I reexamine assumptions I may be making about myself, or things I have overlooked about how I may come across.  How can I improve?  (I also examine whatever fear or insecurity leads me to become self-conscious around them.  Why am I seeking their approval, and what do I fear?)

This perspective sometimes allows me to be gracious in the moment, and even grateful to G-d for sending the message in a relatively mild fashion.  And at other times I still find myself acting an utter fool with the person, and the wisdom of the message I only uncover later.

It is said that the great Rabbi Akiva, who at forty years of age was an unlearned peasant who didn’t even know the alphabet, was sent by his refined wife into the marketplace in such a way that caused everyone to ridicule and mock him.  Once he became inured to this treatment, she sent him to the Jewish elementary school for him to learn with the little kids.  Because he had developed a “thick skin”, he was able to tolerate the teasing of the small children as he learned to read and write at such an advanced age.  He went on to become one of the greatest sages of Israel.  But first he had to endure some rough humility training.

So when G-d sends us difficult people or situations, it’s for a reason.  If we ponder that reason and act on the message, we will heal, grow and draw closer to our potential.  If not, I find that G-d will send the message again and again, often at a louder volume each time.

But these challenges are not always an opportunity to just “turn the other cheek”, as it were.  Sometimes these difficult situations arise in order for us to find creative and gracious ways of asserting ourselves.  As I said above, it’s almost impossible to generalize; G-d speaks to each of us individually in the language we best understand, giving us the arising moment that our soul needs right then.  Sometimes He says, “steer a little to the left” and sometimes He says, “steer a little to the right”.  And sometimes He says, “now is not a good time for you to be driving!”

The important thing is to listen as best we can.

May you hear the divine messages heading your way, and may you find the strength and courage to act upon them.  If you have a relationship with The Divine, may your understanding of the Origin of difficult situations lead you to better accept them more easily and learn from them more fully.

Gentle Reader, if you are open to sharing, I’d love to hear a story about what course corrections you understand G-d is sending you today, or has sent you in the past.

Marriage: 1 + 1 + 1 = 1

ב”ה

I’m married!

Last Monday, just a week ago, my wife(!) and I were married in Piedmont California amidst family and friends.  A beautiful ceremony blending my traditional practice with my wife’s renewal approach, followed by dancing and eating and toasting and dancing.  And then flying to Minnesota to celebrate with friends there.  And now back in California.

After the ecstasy, the laundry.

There are all sorts of gift boxes to unwrap (thank you, everyone!) and thank-yous to send out.  The rooms of my wife’s house (where we’ll be living) need to be rearranged to reflect this new reality, and the cell phone accounts, and the dishes and the new joint financial structures to put in place.

But it’s all quite lovely to have to figure out, thank G-d.

During the course of figuring out what our ceremony would look like, we had many occasions where our practices were in conflict.  No compromise seemed possible; I need it this way, she needs it that way.  For example, it came as a surprise to my wife that in the traditional ceremony, the groom presents the bride with a wedding band.  It’s a one-way gift; there is no exchange.  In fact, an exchange would cancel the required gifting.  For her, a joint commitment should be reflected in an exchange of rings; we’re both committing to the relationship, we should each give the other a ring.  Hard to find a middle path there.

Our first attempt was to do both actions (in two ceremonies, one traditional and one renewal).  That would have resulted in my wife having three rings: an engagement ring, a traditional wedding band, and a ring from the exchange of rings.  We were walking down this path, meeting with an artisan/jeweler showing us her wares, when she said, “Of course, this is very important; you only have one wedding ring!”  My bride  resonated with that sentiment: she should have only one ring.

What to do?

And so we walked forward trusting there would be a way, and G-d answered our prayers with this inspiration: I gave her a plain wedding band in the traditional ceremony, and for the exchange ritual I gave her a second ring that fit over the first one to create a single ring.  The ring she gave me had a similar design (two levels already crafted into a single ring).

So, we have matching rings, and I was also able to give her two rings.  Pretty amazing the way it turned out.  And there are other stories like that, where we had conflicting needs and no apparent way to resolve them, and we stepped forward trusting G-d would show us a way.  And He did.

In mystical circles, marriage is considered a three-way partnership: bride, groom and G-d.  One plus one plus one makes one.  That has been our experience as we walked toward the wedding canopy, and I trust it will continue to be our lived reality as we walk down this life of marriage together.

So far so good, as we move forward amidst the mundane details of day-to-day life, grinning ear-to-ear at each other, making our way through our “to do” lists, the ecstasy and the laundry.

Gentle Reader, I welcome any advice that you have on what practices help nurture a strong marital relationship.