Friday, July 29, 2016

Lessons From an American Buddhist Nun

Well, it's happening: my time in Israel is winding down. A week from Sunday, I will be heading home to the States. My summer program at Pardes finished yesterday, and that was when it hit me that I was going to have to say goodbye to everything and everyone that has been so precious to me this summer. Now, this isn't new; it happens every year and every year it's awful. But this year I am feeling it particularly acutely, I think because my connections were so authentic and so nourishing. I was able to really put myself out there and let myself be seen, and the reward was total acceptance--not something I experience on a daily basis at home. Who would want to say goodbye to that? Not I.

So I woke up this morning with "gray goggles" on and thought, "I am not going to get through this day." But I got myself together and went out to meet a friend, which helped for a couple of hours...but I had only been back in my apartment for about ten minutes when I started crying. I just felt such a void, so much loneliness--my brain just kept saying, Fill it, fill it, I can't bear it. Distract with something, anything.

So I picked up a source sheet from one of my classes because, desperate times. Now, this was an AMAZING class, and the last session focused on "losing and finding meaning." The source sheet boasts an impressive variety of contributors; to name a few: Rav Soloveitchik, Leo Tolstoy, Woody Allen, and Fred Rogers. For real. But I bypassed all of those in favor of an excerpt from an interview with the American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron:

"For me the spiritual path has always been learning how to die. That involves not just death at the end of this particular life, but all the falling apart that happens continually. The fear of death--which is also the fear of groundlessness, of insecurity, of not having it all together--seems to be the most fundamental thing we have to work with. Because these endings happen all the time! Things are always ending and arising and ending. But we are strangely conditioned to feel  that we're supposed to experience just the birth part and not the death part. 

We have so much fear of not being in control, of not being able to hold on to things. Yet the true nature of things is that you're never in control...You can never hold on to anything. That's the nature of how things are. But it's almost like it's in the genes of being born human that you can't accept that. You can buy it intellectually, but moment to moment it brings up a lot of panic and fear. So my own path has been training to relax with groundlessness and the panic that accompanies it."

That's it.

That's how I feel right now, and how I feel at the end of every summer in Israel. I want to hold on to everything. I'm afraid of losing my connection to Judaism and my connection to the people I care about here. I hate the groundlessness I feel when I transition away from this place. And what accompanies all of this is grief--for the loss of people and places that are such a big piece of my heart, even if I know they're not really leaving me and I can still stay in touch. But it's not the same. And it does feel like death. The joy I felt at the beginning--that was the birth part. And what I'm experiencing now--this is the death part.

But that's how it is. It's unavoidable. And I do panic: What if I can't come back next summer? What if my friends forget about me? What if they don't respond to my emails? What if I have to spend an entire year feeling lonely and spiritually unfulfilled? And on and on. But I recognize these thoughts, and I am able to label them as Typical Leaving Israel Thoughts; this doesn't take the sting out of them but does let me relax into them a little bit because I know they're normal. I'm allowed to be sad, because endings are hard. But I have strategies: I can go for a walk; I can watch the birds; I can write. I can bring my grief to people I trust and say, Here it is. You don't have to fix it. You don't have to make me feel happy. Just be with me where I am. Help me relax with the groundlessness.

And yet, there is still so much love. So much sun. And one week left, which I plan to enjoy as best as I can while still making room for All The Feelings. Going into this Shabbat, I am profoundly grateful for all that I have been given over the past month, because those blessings are precisely what makes leaving so hard. I think I'm the lucky one.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Biblical Insecurity

I just finished Week 2 at Pardes, another week full of stimulating conversations and interesting learning. In one of my classes, we explored the story of Rachel, focusing on her beauty and how it affected her and her relationships with her husband, Jacob, and her sister, Leah.

For those of you not familiar with the story, Jacob arrives at the home of his uncle, Laban, after fleeing the wrath of his brother, Esau. When Jacob sees Laban's daughter, Rachel, he falls passionately in love with her immediately. Jacob arranges to work for Laban for seven years in exchange for marrying Rachel. But at the last minute, Laban substitutes Rachel's older sister, Leah, for Rachel, explaining that the older sister has to marry before the younger one. Jacob agrees to work for Laban another seven years, at which point he will finally be able to marry Rachel.

The narrative goes on to describe the sisters:

ועיני לאה רכות ורחל היתה יפת–תאר ויפת מראה
"Leah's eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful of form and of face." (Bamidbar 29:17)

Rachel's exquisite beauty is why Jacob fell in love with her, and Leah's implied lack of beauty, along with the fact that she played a role in deceiving him, is why Jacob does not desire her. Seeing this, Hashem intervenes:

 וירא יהוה כי–שנואה לאה ויפתח את–רחמה ורחל עקרה
"Now, seeing that Leah was disfavored, Hashem opened her womb, while Rachel was childless." (Bamidbar 29:31)

What follows is a heartbreaking story of sibling rivalry: Leah gives birth to child after child, each time hoping that Jacob will finally love her. Rachel is forced to watch her sister produce all these sons while she herself remains barren, and get so jealous that she has Jacob sleep with her maid in order that she should have a child. Eventually, Hashem grants Rachel her wish and she becomes pregnant herself, having one son and dying during the birth of a second.

As my class discussed this narrative, it became clear that most of my fellow students pitied Leah because she was unloved, and had limited sympathy for Rachel because she was beautiful and therefore the object of Jacob's desire. I found this interesting for two reasons:

1) It mirrors today's attitudes toward women--we feel sympathy for "unattractive" women, while we assume that "beautiful" women have it all.

2) Personally, I had a different view--I felt badly for both sisters. Why? Because it was clear to me that both were deeply insecure, particularly around their attachment to Jacob, the man they shared.

Leah knows she is the unfavored wife and understands that if she isn't going to be loved, at least she can be useful by producing the heirs that Jacob needs. With every birth of a son, she hopes that this will be the child who makes Jacob love her. Because that love never comes, Leah feels pressured to keep bearing children, ultimately giving her maid to Jacob when she herself stops getting pregnant. The bottom line for Leah is this: being loved is best, but being needed is better than being ignored.

Rachel, on the other hand, is the object of Jacob's desire. She knows her own beauty and understands that it is the reason for Jacob's love. But she also knows that she cannot give him what he needs--children. Rachel also recognizes the importance of being needed, because while infatuation can disappear, an heir is forever. Therefore, although Jacob loves her, Rachel does not feel that the relationship is secure until she satisfies his need for children. Her bottom line? A pretty but barren wife is ultimately not essential. She needs to make herself indispensable.

I think I read this narrative in this way because the sisters' insecurity really resonated with me. In many of my relationships, from childhood into adulthood, I have understood that I was not the favorite and could be disposed of at any time. Therefore, I felt I needed to guarantee my place by providing my friends with something they needed. My motto: it is better to be used than ignored. I think Leah and Rachel both understood that to be true.

Shedding that motto has taken a lot of effort and is still a work in progress. I do still carry a bit of belief that unless I offer something useful, my friends will prefer other people over me. But I've discovered that my truest friends like me for who I am, not what I give them. In my best friendships, the relationship is its own reward--I do not have to continuously supply other incentives. But that sense of security in relationships--and the knowledge that I deserve it--is something I've had to cultivate slowly over time, and it is easily threatened by outside competition. Still, I'm working hard to learn that a genuine friendship means that you both love--and need--each other, and that this doesn't disappear just because someone else comes into the picture.

Perhaps the story of Rachel and Leah does teach us about the advantages and disadvantages of beauty, and about humility, and about character. But I think it also teaches us about relationships and how challenging it can be for women to know they have to compete and hustle for love and belonging. I hope we can all do better than our foremothers in navigating those waters, and that we understand our inherent worthiness and lovability.

שבת שלום!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Love Is the Sun

So. Remember how, in my last post (all about how happy I was), I said:

"I know the happiness won't last forever, probably not even for the duration of this summer program. I'm a mood cycler, and eventually the downswing will come."

Well, today was one of the Down Days.

I felt the shift beginning yesterday, and I thought,'s happening. And then I woke up this morning, and I couldn't access the pure elation of the previous week at all. I went to class, and all the material felt hard; I observed the participation of my classmates but couldn't bring myself to chime in.  At one point, a fellow student caught my eye, smiled at me, and said, "How are you?" So I did what I always do when I'm not feeling it--I fake it to the best of my ability. I dug up a smile, pasted it on my face, and said, "Good! How are you?" Social obligation fulfilled.

Now, there's no real reason why I am emotionally slogging through today, whereas last week I was on a happiness high. Nothing bad has happened; nothing good has gone away. I just know that some days are like this, and when it happens, it doesn't really do me much good to wonder why. Rationality doesn't help; "looking on the bright side" doesn't help. But there are a few things that do:

1) Perspective. Over the years I have experienced the full range of moods, ranging from lying on the floor in the fetal position and not wanting to wake up the next morning, to genuine happiness and inner peace. The mood I am currently experiencing is somewhere in the middle. It's not the best, but it's also not the worst. It's uncomfortable, but it's something I can deal with. I know how to do this because I have done it before.

2) Time. With regard to my own personal mood cycles, the most important thing I have learned is that given enough time, things will even out and I will feel better. This truth has proven itself over and over--if I can just hang in there and take care of myself, the waves of negativity will wash away.  Now you might be thinking, "Wait-it-out is not a viable strategy for combatting true depression," and I would say that you are correct. When I have been truly depressed, the most essential tools in my arsenal have been therapy and medication. Actually, those are still tools I use regularly, which probably explains why I have fewer episodes of genuine depression than I used to. But of course, there are lots of shades of low moods that aren't as extreme as depression, and those also need to be dealt with. For me, recovery does not mean that my mood is always positive, or even on the positive end of the spectrum. But it does mean that I know how to handle darkness, and that I take the initiative to combat it however I can...and one of the ways is by telling myself, "This will pass," and then doing something to distract myself in the meantime.

Glennon Doyle Melton recently wrote a profoundly brave and honest post on her blog, Momastery, in which she explores what it feels like to literally be at emotional rock bottom--a place in which death doesn't seem like such a bad option--and how to lift yourself up just enough to know that life is always worth fighting for. I'm linking the whole post here and I encourage you to read it in its entirety, especially if you or someone you know is struggling/has ever struggled with thoughts of suicide. These issues need to be de-shamed and talked about honestly, and Glennon opens up the dialogue thoughtfully and articulately. When I read her piece, I thought, "Yes. That's exactly it." And here is the part that I have taken with me and integrated into my core, the part that best captures what my experience of depression and lowness has been like in recovery:

"You just don't follow Despair's directions. You wait the despair monster out. You let it yammer away and try to scare the shit out of you and then you remember that despair is loud, but it's a LIAR...

Am I able to do this because I beat the monster? Because it leaves me alone now? NO! Still speaks to me. It's just not the BOSS of me. I just say: Oh, shut up. You lie. Pain comes and goes like clouds. LOVE IS THE SUN."

And that's really it. Pain comes and goes like clouds, but LOVE IS THE SUN. So today, as I waited for the clouds to pass, I did my best to engage in learning, got myself a yummy drink at a cafe after class, sat outside on the porch and read, reached out to a friend, and wrote. I still felt down, but I told myself, "This is just clouds, and love is the sun." And here in Israel, thank G-d, I have access to so much love.

I think it might just be a sunnier day tomorrow.

Monday, July 11, 2016


First things first: breaking the One Meal Rule worked out great. I had an amazing Shabbat! In case you were concerned.

Second: today was my first full day of classes at the Pardes Institute, which has been my summer intellectual home for the past 5 years. Here is today's low-down:

1) How Much Are You Worth? Introductory Talmud (Bava Kama)
I might be totally outing myself as a geek here, but there is something so fun about working your way through a piece of Talmud. It's like a gigantic puzzle. And in an intro class, no one is really good at it, and I like that I have permission not to be good at it yet, but to enjoy it nevertheless. Today, my chevruta and I began studying the civil laws of "damages." It's amazing how compelling that can actually be.

2) Modern Jewish Thought: G-d, Torah, Chosen People
This class totally blew my mind. Wide open. I'm not really a philosophy person, except apparently I am, because I am loving every minute of this. I left today's class with a ton of unanswered questions, which, when you're engaged in Jewish learning, is the sign of a successful day.

3) Beauty and the Beast: Power, Seduction, and Challenges of Vanity
I mean, what's not to love about that? The instructor is one of my all-time favorite teachers and you would not believe how much she can cram into two and a half hours. I'm still digesting it.  But let me just say, if you've ever wondered how the story of Adam and Eve relates to Pandora's Box, I now can explain it to you.

So anyway, it was a great day. And the weirdest thing happened, about midway through the afternoon class: I realized I felt happy. This is a big deal. I am not a person whose baseline emotion is, "happy." While I wouldn't say I'm unhappy, I'm usually neutral at best. There are times when I feel content, but happy is not a word I attach to myself often. And yet, here I was, in a windowless classroom in Pardes, and it occurred to me that I loved where I was. I was intellectually and spiritually engaged; I was having stimulating conversations with interesting people; I was reunited with people close to my heart in a place that is important to me. And I felt happy. It was so weird! But I loved it.

I know the happiness won't last forever, probably not even for the duration of this summer program. I'm a mood cycler, and eventually the downswing will come. But I'm not worried about that right now. I feel competent, brave, and energized. Maybe that's what happiness does for you? I'm not sure, but I'll take it. sweet, especially when it's rare. I'm going to do my best to enjoy it!

Friday, July 8, 2016

The "One Meal Rule" Was Made to Be Broken

Ah, Israel. Land of milk, honey, and feral cats. So good to be back!

The cool thing about returning to a place every year is that you can see how much better you get at navigating that place. The first time I was on my own in Israel, I was pretty much at a loss--couldn't communicate, couldn't navigate, had no idea what was safe and what was not, etc. But as this summer's trip got started, I noticed that I was handling pretty well things that would have really challenged me in years past:

1) Figuring out how to get from Tel Aviv to my apartment in Jerusalem

2) Filling several day's worth of free time before my program started

3) Going to a medical clinic for a small (non-recovery related) issue and asserting myself with an Israeli doctor

There were two things that very nearly pushed me over the edge, but I held on. First, when I had already been waiting 30 minutes to check out in the grocery store and a woman with a VERY full cart told me to move back and cut right in front of me. I wanted to cry, but I did not. I saved it for when I got back to my apartment and realized I had no internet connection. THEN I cried. But I got some help and handled it, and in a few hours it was up and running. Success! So far, so good!

But then, there was the issue of Shabbat plans. It just so happens that everyone who would normally host me for Shabbat is out of town this week, so as of last night I had no plans for either Friday night or Saturday lunch. Now, at home this would be no big deal--I am by myself for most Shabbats and actually like it because it gives me some quiet downtime after a week of teaching. But in Israel, spending Shabbat alone somehow feels more pathetic than it does at home. Still, I had pretty much convinced myself that it would be fine, when one of my teachers, who takes me under her wing every summer, texted me and asked what my plans were. Even before the words, "I don't have any," left my fingertips, I thought to myself, "She's not going to like this...." Now, I've explained the whole "quiet Shabbat alone" thing to her before, but she's Israeli and Israelis operate under a different paradigm--it is a cardinal rule that One Should Never Be Alone On Shabbat, and this goes even for die-hard introverts like myself. So it didn't surprise me at all when my teacher responded with, "Do you want me to call a friend?" I didn't think it would pan out, though--so last minute! And I'm vegetarian! Who would take that on? Well, I don't know exactly how she did it, but within 12 hours my teacher had nabbed me a place at a lovely family's table for Friday night. And then a few hours later I got ANOTHER text from my teacher, saying she had found a lunch meal for me, as well, with two young women I'd actually met one time on a previous visit.

I knew, objectively, that this was just what I needed--I now had plans for BOTH meals and would not be lonely at all. But on the other hand was my One Meal Rule: at home, if I get invited to one Shabbat meal, I'm off the hook for the other one. Dinner out = lunch at home, and vice versa. It's hard to say exactly why Shabbat meals stress me out, but mostly I think it's the unknowns: how long will it last, will I be able to leave when I want, who else will be there, what will we eat, what will we talk about, what will I say, etc. It's all just a little overwhelming...and even as I was maybe 90% happy to accept the lunch invitation, there was 10% of me that started to panic: "Too much! Too much! I can't!"

But then I thought, wait a minute...actually, I can. I am the one who made it from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem speaking only in Hebrew. I am the one who, though I lacked the vocabulary to stick up for myself, did have the wherewithal to give a dirty look to the woman who cut me in line at the supermarket. I am the one who got creative when I learned that my apartment didn't have any ice cube trays (in Israel? In the summer?!) and figured out that I could use the refrigerator's egg trays, instead. And I am the one who chose be honest and tell my teacher that I had no plans for Shabbat, knowing that she would do what good friends always do: get you what you need. So I can certainly swing two meals out in the same Shabbat weekend. Will it push my limits? For sure. But I have a feeling I will be glad I did it. And I feel very fortunate to have people in my life, like my teacher, who will go out of their way to help me grow.

So, if I never post again, you can assume that breaking the One Meal Rule did me in. But I have a feeling I'll be back next week!

Sunday, July 3, 2016

And...I'm off!

Well, the time has nearly arrived--I'm leaving for Israel tonight! The end of the school year was so overwhelming that I really didn't start thinking about this trip until maybe a week ago, and then I realized, "I HAVE SO MUCH TO DO!" But now, the to-do list is all checked off, the bags are packed, and my anxiety and I are ready to go.

Because, let's be honest, there is so much I can be anxious about! There are any number of possible flight problems, things that can go wrong with luggage, transportation issues, etc. I know I won't be wholly at ease until I finally arrive at my apartment in Jerusalem. Simply put, I like to be where I'm going, but I don't like getting there.

But, PG, I will get there. And, of course, I have some goals.

The first is related to physical health. I have been at a healthy place for a long time, but in the past month or so I've managed to boost myself up a little bit more so I could begin exercising...and I've managed to maintain it. I like how my body feels right now, and I'm proud of what I've managed to accomplish. Any long stretch of time away from my usual routine and environment can pose challenges, but I feel ready to tackle them this summer. It will be work, but it's work I think I can do--and I'm determined to give it my best effort.

The second is related to emotional health. Last summer was the first time I experienced symptoms of depression while in Israel, and it totally threw me off because Israel was supposed to be my "happy place." So I've been proactive this time around and have arranged a bit of a safety net--people I can text or call when I feel like isolating but really need connection.

My third goal is be present. It's as simple and complicated as that. I want to learn new ideas and meet new people, maybe even make some new friends. I want to be myself and not worry about what others might be thinking. If there is an opportunity to do something fun and spontaneous, I don't want to be so chained to my routine that I can't take advantage of it. I want to have fun. And be connected, and be enriched. All those forms of nourishment that Israel is so uniquely good at providing.

And, hopefully I will be back here often over the next month to write about my experiences! So stay tuned :).