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California Naturalist Class, Part 3: Barf Car Vignettes

Rumbling down Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, cow ranches on either side, the sky is heavy with fog above us. In the car, some of us concentrate on surviving the nauseating drive, breathing in and out, staring ahead. David, both hands on the wheel at all times, foot perhaps too attached to the accelerator, recites J.R.R. Tolkien poetry:

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.”

We discuss which character of Lord of the Rings is closest to our hearts. I choose Sam, the hobbit, for his honesty, loyalty, bravery, and trustworthiness. He is not the hero, and yet the hero depends on him utterly for his success. Tonya interjects, pointing out that Sam is tempted not to return the ring to Frodo after he rescues him from the spider. I counter by saying that actually, though the ring tries to gain control over Sam, and arguably perhaps succeeds momentarily, Sam proves stronger and does, in fact, return the ring (unlike Gollum, if we want to compare, who kills his brother for the ring, Sam’s love belongs first and foremost to Frodo, and no ring can breach his loyal heart).

David, perhaps predictably, chooses the elf, Legolas. I poke fun at his choice, saying the elves don’t really and fully participate in the adventure. Higher beings, immortal, they seem somehow above any danger encountered by mere humans and hobbits. David’s reddish hair glitters and his eyes shine as he speaks of Legolas, his honor and courage. The elf from the book, he emphasizes, not the movie. David mentions Gandalf, too, as a possible choice, because of his humility. Gandalf’s hand is in every instance where help is needed, and yet he wanders the countryside humble and unobtrusive. You’d never know he had done anything to change history. I agree with that choice. I love Gandalf. I’d be Gandalf in a heartbeat if I could.

Tonya and Lesley, sitting in the back, choose no character for themselves. Perhaps they have not dreamed of living in Middle Earth the way I have, the way I sense David had. Perhaps their hearts are inextricably tied to some other book. Or perhaps David and I dominate the conversation too much with our Tolkien passion, our need to dive into the world of the book.


I look out the window as cow ranches turn into marshy yellowing grass. Drakes Estero stretches to our right. I know somewhere there is water, fresh mixing with salt, but from where I’m sitting my view is mostly blocked by the bushes that frame the road. I search for wildlife, and suddenly, far in the distance, I see a tan shape of what looks to be a cat. I yelp intelligibly. David breaks the car at the side of the road, and we all run out, holding onto our binoculars (in my case, a monocular). I jog breathlessly after David and Lesley, both of whom, far ahead, seem much more used to running (or else, just younger). Tonya chooses to stay near the car. If it’s a mountain lion, perhaps she’s being wiser than us, but at the moment, it doesn’t matter that I may be running toward a carnivore that could kill me. My heart races with the joy of discovery, of something new, with the joy of being alive.

The estero lies before us, green and yellow and grey, punctuated by stretches of pristine, transparent water, and there, right in front of a little boulder mound, is the cat. I jerk the monocular to my eye and squint through. Tan indeed. Muscular. A cat for sure. But what kind of cat?

“I don’t think this is a bobcat,” David says.

“It’s a mountain lion,” I say with confidence, because I want it to be so. In the eye of the monocular, the cat walks regally up the boulders. Its muscles ripple. I have never seen any animal look quite this powerful, quite this strong. Nothing exists but its shape in my monocular. No estero, no birds, no grass. Just me and the cat. I wonder if it’s looking back. The monocular is not strong enough that I can see a face. Just a shape. Just the blatant power of a wild, living body.

The van with the rest of the class turns the corner. David runs to tell them to come see the cat, just as it walks around the boulders and disappears behind the grass. “It was small, but I think it was a mountain lion,” David says. I hear Chris say in reply that it was a bobcat. I gnash my teeth in frustration. It was a mountain lion. I know it was. I saw, as clear as day, the long tail, the tan, sleek body. This was no kitten. This was it, the king of the beasts, the top predator.

“A bobcat,” Chris says later in class.

“A mountain lion,” I insist quietly to myself, wondering why I feel so irritated. “I know what I saw.” But (fearing what?) I don’t speak up. The mountain lion, now a part of the estero and the park and the mythological journeys of the Barf Car, remains, for the time being, singularly mine.


David likes raptors, and not just any raptors. I’d guess his favorite is the harrier,  He never says it in so many words, but I can tell. Every time we see a raptor in the sky, David pulls the car over. “It’s a harrier,” he says with bated breath, hands locked around his binoculars, eyes peering through with an intensity no plastic instrument can hide. “I can see the white band on the back.”

“I don’t know,” Lesley says. Her eyes, too, are glued to the binoculars. “The tail looks very red to me.”

A pause, followed by a slight sigh, “Oh, it’s a red-tailed hawk,” David admits. Then, “No, it’s a harrier. Look at the white band. Oh, no, it’s a red-tailed hawk.”

The hawk flies beside us over the golden hills of the coast, its wings spread out as it catches the wind. I watch it, entranced. Ah, to fly like a bird. To swoop down close to the waves. To dive through the air down the cliffs, wings tight at my side. To soar above dolphins as they slice through the waves. Ah, to fly like a bird. Like a harrier. Or a falcon. Or a red-tailed hawk. Even a sparrow would be fine.

“Now, that’s a harrier,” David says and pulls over the car again. “Look at the white band.”


I must be feeling comfortable with David, Tonya and Lesley, because here I am singing to them a Hebrew song. David’s entranced. He’s a musician, but I can’t tell if he’s excited because he’s hearing a new song in a different language or because he actually likes it. The song is an Israeli rendition of a poem, “A Walk in Caesarea.” The poet, Hannah Szenes, was a young woman on the brink of volunteering to be the first woman paratrooper to Nazi-held Hungary. The poem can be translated like this:

“My God, My God,

May it never end,

The sand and the sea,

The rustle of water,

Lightning in the sky,

The prayer of Man.”

“Can you teach me how to sing it?” David asks.

In Israel, “A Walk in Caesarea” is often sung as part of Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies and has become, for many people, a song of sorrow about a lost life. Hannah Szenes was captured by the Nazis, tortured, and eventually executed. She was twenty three years old when she died. Despite that, to me her poem is a symbol of hope and love. It reminds me that humanity deserves to be prayed for. Sometimes, as I look at the trash which we humans carelessly throw out, at the toxins we thoughtlessly pour into our rivers, and at other damage which we believe our right to perpetrate upon the earth, it is hard for me to remember that everyone is worthy of prayer and love, even us humans. Hannah Szenes’ poem does not separate lightning, sea, sand and man. Standing on the beach in Caesarea and watching the Mediterrenean’s waves calmly wash upon the sand, she puts her faith in the power of regeneration, in life itself. She will parachute into Nazi-held Hungary to save other people precisely because she sees the interconnectedness of every grain of sand, every human soul, every drop of water.

I lean my head back against the Barf Car’s seat and think of Hannah Szenes as she stands, so many years ago, not in front of the firing squad but on the beach. I think of Hannah writing her poem in the tranquility of the sand and the sea, of the Roman archaeological ruins in the background. The Barf Car rumbles on back toward the Lifeboat Station. Harriers and red-tailed hawks fly by and owls hoot. Baby peregrine falcons balance on cliff tops as elephant seals and sea lions roar in the water below. Somewhere, a meteor rockets through the sky, and ahead, at our destination, our cook, Yaella, fills the Lifeboat Station with the good smells of food and love. For this moment in time, all falls into place as planned by the Great God in the Sky. Later all might be chaos again. For now, here is life and love.

Watch Ofra Haza, an Israeli singer, singing the song “A Walk in Caesarea.”


A Year to Live — Day 350

Getting Things Done

My daughter had the day off on Friday, and this meant I had a little more time in my usually-hurried-and-stressed-out morning. Most weekdays, but especially on Tuesday when both kids need lunches, I often feel  as though I am juggling pans, lunch boxes, chickens, dogs and my own needs under Jupiter-gravity conditions. On Friday, however, I leisurely set the alarm for a 45-minute meditation. I could have found, all too easily, other chores in the house that needed attention, but I forcibly subdued the urge to get one more thing off my list. Don’t Just Do Something, Sit there, is the humorous title of one of Sylvia Boorstein’s meditation-instruction books. I made the conscious choice to just sit there and not do.

When I came back to the kitchen 45 minutes later, however, my eyes fell on the to-do list, the one that’s been sitting on the counter for the past week. My heart sunk. That list’s been haunting me, remonstrating and reminding me I have not yet began to do several of the items on it. “When will you start?” It harangued me. “When will you finish?” And in an irritable tone: “You should have folded the laundry instead of sitting like some kind of bum.”
todo list
Perhaps the meditation had worked it’s magic and my mind was clear enough to see this, but as I breathed in and out, the realization struck me like lightning: No matter how much I work on my to-do list, it will never be completely done. There will always be more items that can be added to it. Whether it is small daily tasks like walking the dogs, cleaning the chicken coop, and unloading the dishwasher, or larger one-time tasks like coordinating the 7th grade bake sale or finishing my Bridge to Emergency Medical Responder class, the to-do list will never, ever stand on zero items. Never.

So why do I expect myself to get it all done?

When people die, I often hear relatives speak about the unfinished business the deceased had left behind. Some times it’s a messy house which the children need to clean up, pack up and dispose of. Some times it’s the details of the burial or the inheritance. I too, if I died today, will have died before signing my new will, which I’d been postponing for about a year now (though it is ready and waiting for me to sign). I wonder, though: does anyone ever die with all their business done, all the bills paid off, all documents settled, all chores completed, every single loose end tied?

This past week felt very stressful to me. Hassled and harassed, no matter how much I did, there was always more to be done. Like a clown trying to keep all the juggling balls in the air, I strove to extend my arms so I could reach all the chores at once. There may be times, I suppose, when it really is necessary to juggle more than one task at a time. Often, however, I wonder what is making me feel this desperate-and-all-encompassing need to “get things done.” What will happen if some balls/tasks were never picked up? What would happen if I picked some up and then dropped them? What would happen if someone else picked up a ball that I dropped? Will these be the big disasters I expect?

The clues to my struggle with the doing/non-doing are rooted deep in my cultural heritage. My maternal great-grandparents arrived in Israel with the reactionary immigration wave known as the Second Aliyah. These immigrants arrived steeped in socialist-zionist ideology, and many of their ways of seeing the world have lasted to the 21st century, creating the cultural environment, moral values and religious ethics with which I grew up. The Second Aliyah Jews believed in becoming a new kind of Jew whose spirituality was tied up with working the land. This belief, expounded by A. D. Gordon in the early part of the 20th century, eventually came to be called “the religion of labor.”

Labor as a religion. Get it?

If getting things done is akin to religious dogma, small wonder that I struggle so much with how much I get done. If I believe in the absolute truth of Doing, then even my just sitting there in meditation must show concrete results and consequences. Rest is dangerous. A nap is mortal sin. Letting someone else do my job is opening the door to the devil and all his brood.

And after all these words that I’ve just piled, I realize only three matter in the end: compassion and non-judgement. These words offer not a solution, but a truce of sorts: Can I be with the pain of the conflict between how I’ve been raised and how I choose to live my life without judging myself? Can I look on with compassion at all the tasks still gobbling up the space on the to-do list? And when I cannot take better care of myself in the midst of all these judgements and tasks, can I at least be compassionate for and not judge that?

….to be continued.


White Tara, the goddess of compassion.

This exploration of my relationship to Doing is inspired by the class “A Year to Live” which I am taking at Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society in SF.


A Bit of Good Bye

Twenty-four years ago, when I left my family home in Saratoga and flew half way across the world to enlist in the Israeli army, there was only one phone company in Israel, the omnipotent and omnipresent Bezeq. I’m not sure who were the phone providers in the U.S., but one thing I can tell you for sure: calling Israel was extremely expensive. As a result, my parents were only able to afford calling me once a week, and that call, too, was generally not a long conversation.

In order to stay in touch, people wrote letters then, remember that? Except, I don’t really remember letters from my parents either. Mostly, I remember waiting for Friday night so I can talk to them.

Fast forward twenty-four years and we are inundated with communication devices. There is the good old phone, the one that used to be attached to the wall and can now move around the house, or even outside the house, with us, as long as we remain in some mysterious connection with the unit that is, strangely, still connected to the wall. There is the cell phone, that piece of even more mysterious dimensions, that needs no wall unit and can work miraculously from almost anywhere, including, sometimes, the middle of the wilderness.

And we have computers, and Skype, and Facetime, WhatsApp, and social media, and who know’s what else. I surely have no idea of the scope of possibilities, being, in general, of the old-fashioned mindset that it’s nicest to see people face-to-face.

Seeing as how half of my family lives in Israel, however, face-to-face in warm bodies is not always possible. Face-to-face on Skype, though, well, that’s available at the press of the button, as long as some other family member is by the computer, which, in our day and age, most people are.

The world seems to have become a much smaller place, now that we can talk to the other side of it so easily. So I can’t figure out quite why I am so sad that my sister’s family is moving back to Israel. After all, I can see them and talk to them daily on Skype, if I want. I can Facetime with my nieces, or WhatsApp for free. I can follow them on Instagram (as long as they agree). I can be as involved in their lives as I want. All these devices and programs and magic technological advances make it possible for me to be as close to them as I wish, as long as I don’t expect hugs and kisses. Which, let’s face it, teenaged boys and girls often, anyways, don’t like to give.

I’m being facetious, and possibly a bit cynical, but the truth is, I was surprised by how sad I was that my sister and her family are leaving. There was so much drama in our family around it, that I tried to accept their departure as it was, to be supportive and sympathetic. In fact, I may have been so busy being supportive and sympathetic that it didn’t occur to me to examine my own feelings about it at all.

I could write to you a list of what I fear I’d be missing out on now that they have flown away and are on their way to new adventures in Israel. All my fears and worries, sadnesses and regrets. But instead, I thought I’d write what I enjoyed and am grateful to have experienced during their five years here:

Watching the kids grow. For example, my little nephew was 3, I think, when they moved here. Now he is 8. I watched him start to draw and become a quite amazing artist, and learn to read and become an excited reader. My nieces both grew so very tall! One of them loves to read they way I always did. My older niece arrived a girl, and is now turning, magically, into a lovely, musical and intelligent woman.
Celebrating birthday parties together.
Our trip to Yosemite together for Thanksgiving one year.
And if I’m already mentioning that: celebrating the holidays together.
Pool parties at Safta’s pool on a Sunday or Saturday afternoon.
Meeting the entire family by accident at the Farmers’ Market.
Going to Shoreline Lake together for a picnic lunch and boating on the lake.
Taking my nieces, separately, a couple times, for special afternoons just the two of us.
Picking them up, once in a while, from school.
Having coffee with my sister when she could take the time from work.
Watching all the kids (mine and hers) playing together.
Watching the five of them jump on the trampoline.

We had a good time together, living on the same side of the same continent, in the same state, and almost in the same town. I don’t want it to end, though I know that’s just how it is, sometimes. I know I can visit every year in Israel, but I fear it won’t be the same. The girls are getting so much bigger, and will likely have their own activities and friends. We have some time with the little one, but eventually he’s going to grow up as well.

I guess for this change in life, too, all I can do is repeat to myself: It is what it is, and it’s ok.

Since lately I’ve been finishing up my blog post with prayers, I’d like to send some blessings their way too:

I wish you happiness and love in your new-old home in Israel, success and joy in your new jobs and new classes at school. May you be safe and healthy. And may your travels carry you where you want to go, in safety and comfort and joy. A special blessing to all who are traveling today, to all who are making a change in your life. May you find that which you are searching for. May you find peace and love.

We love you. Have a fabulous trip! We will miss you back here, but we want you to be free to enjoy your new life. Have fun!


It Takes Two to Tango

I read this morning about the Israeli soldier whose body has not been found. Apparently, (based on evidence which was not shared in the article) the military and rabbinical authorities decided that he had been killed. I cannot even begin to imagine how awful this is for his family.

For someone who rarely, if ever, looks at the news, I’ve been checking the Israeli media site Ynet very often, more than once a day. In this war, I am having a hard time maintaining (or even wanting to maintain) my usual bubble of separation. Ignoring won’t do. The war is very much here.

I grew up, in Israel, on ideals such as, “It is good to die for one’s country,” “where you walk in Israel belongs to you (as a representative of the nation),” and “The existence of Israel is a guarantee that the Holocaust cannot happen again.” I was raised with the knowledge that our army, the Israeli Defense Force, is superior to all other armies, not only in the weaponry/military qualifications/bravery of our soldiers (one soldier of ours is equal to ten of theirs kind of thing) but also in our ethics, our morality, our sense of right and wrong.

Headlines on Ynet let me know that this war we Israelis are fighting is a Just War. “Just” as in justice. It had better be a just war, hadn’t it, if our soldiers are dying for it? If our people have to hide in their safe rooms because of the threat of rockets? If the world is turning its blaming eyes on us? It had better be justified. The alternative does not bear thinking about.

The other day, in talking about this war with a friend, I mentioned my (more than) sadness over the fact that so many Palestinian kids have been killed (the count is not clear, but it looks like it comes to over 200). My friend, Jewish herself, was appalled, and not by the number of kids. “You’re talking to me about their kids! What about our kids who are getting killed?” She asked me, her voice trembling with passion and vehemence. In a Just War, I guess, you do not talk about the number of enemy kids who are killed.

From my perch on the seat of safety, here in the United States, I am saddened by the entire war and its casualties. I am saddened by the situation that caused the war, the ignorance and fear, the hatred that are at its root. And I think, perhaps, admitting those roots, admitting even the minute possibility that this war might not be a “Just War” are too great a pain to bear. Even to suggest the idea that our soldiers are dying for a less than a just and justified cause is intolerable.

War in Israel is an intensely personal thing. It is so small a country that most people live within earshot of the explosion of rockets, everyone had been in the army, and even if no one had died in your family during this war, you need only look once-removed, twice-removed, to find a connection. Everyone is affected. Everyone’s life is changed.

Such a personal army, such a personal war, such a near effect on who we are as a nation, as individuals, as an army — I am not surprised at how vehemently and passionately we defend our army’s every move. Shooting a school must be justified: the Hamas was hiding weapons there. Destroying Palestinian homes must be justified: there are terrorist tunnels leading below. Our very safety, our very existence hangs in the balance. Those who view us as an enemy, who seek to destroy us, must be destroyed. We have NO choice.

The Palestinians, of course, have a choice. They can choose not to hide behind children. They can choose not to hide behind civilians. They can choose to seek peace and not terrorism. But we? We are fighting a Just War. We are only defending ourselves. We have NO choice.

There is always a choice.

I was afraid to write this blog post. Afraid of the anger that would turn toward me if I wrote anything that could (and probably will) be construed as lack of support in Israel in the war, lack of support in our soldiers who are, after all, only once or twice removed from being my children, my brothers. Especially, seated hypocritically as I am, on the seat of safety in the United States, rather than supporting my nation by coming back to Israel. How dare I, a part of me questions, how dare I write this at a time of war, when solidarity of support is so important?

But the truth is, I can support our soldiers and not support the fighting. I can support Israel and Israelis, but not support the war that is done in their name. Truth be told, I do not support any war. My dream is a concentrated effort for peace. My dream is a concentrated effort to improve everyone’s life, Israelis and Palestinians. My dream is a world where no hatred, no fear, no racial division exist. I am allowed to dream. That is my choice. Think of me as innocent or hypocritical all you like. My choice is peace. My choice is a life of love.

Imagine a world in which eighteen-year-old soldiers stay alive.

As this war progresses and the number of casualties on both sides rise, my heart bleeds for all mothers who have lost their child. My heart bleeds for all children in the midst of fighting. My heart bleeds for our soldiers, who are caught in a situation where they are forced to do and witness unspeakable things. My heart bleeds for our politicians who have decided to send the army to war, for their fears and ignorance that have brought them to this decision. And my heart bleeds too for those who believe that terrorism is the only way, whose life is led by hatred, whose thoughts of a solution involve death and mayhem. For that, I am sad for them too.

So once again, I hope, whether you share my feelings about war or not, you will join me in a prayer for peace, peace for Israel and everywhere else in our world:
May we all know peace.
May we be happy.
May we feel loved.
May we be free from pain.
May we be filled with compassion for ourselves and others.
May we find in ourselves the ability to forgive.

My blessings to you for happiness and a long life of peace.


To Lie or Not to Lie

Early this morning I was caught lying to a Customs’ officer. After standing in the long line at the Philadelphia Customs, my children and I finally stood in front of the officer, passports in hand. The officer took a look at our Customs’ form and asked: “Did you bring any food with you?”

“No,” said I, thinking guiltily of the piles of chocolate in my bags. And then, before I could bat an eye, my secret was out.

“That’s not true,” corrected my son. “We have plenty of food.”

Exposed! “Chocolates,” I hastened to reassure the officer. And I pulled out a gumdrop bouquet the children’s grandmother stuffed in my bag.

“That’s not true,” the child once again intervened. “We have lots of other food too.”

Every time I go through Customs I have the same dilemma. Are not the officers searching only for agricultural products, like veggies and fruits, and not packaged chocolates? Arguably, however, all are included in their chosen word, “Food.” I once honestly responded to the question with a yes and  found myself having to unpack half the suitcase in order to show the Agricultural Inspection officer that there really was nothing there except for chocolates and a jar of jam.

Despite the fact that I really do believe the Customs’ people are not looking for travelers smuggling candy into the USA, I felt ashamed this morning in front of my children and the officer. I had been caught lying, and surely the Lie Police wcandyas on its way, long years in a maximum security federal prison, and perhaps — for who can tell how serious lying to Customs really is — the electric chair.

So yes, we had lots of food with us: chocolates, kinder eggs, gumdrops, peanut M&Ms, marzipan, crackers, and even (dear deity of the Customs save us) some packages of nuts. I was guilty (almost) as charged. But we didn’t have any fruits, vegetables and seeds. It was just a white little lie!

To lie or not to lie? The critical part of me demands total honesty. I should have checked the Yes box for Bringing foods to the USA, and explained about the chocolates. A practical part of me waves this concern away: “This is mere semantics! Why answer yes when you know you don’t have what the officers really search for?”

I write these thoughts to you and am reminded of Usui’s fourth Reiki Precept: Be honest in your work. Is it dishonest to lie to the officer about having chocolates? Is it dishonest of me to use my understanding of what the officer’s question means and answer my interpretation instead of his actual one?

The officer this morning was merely amused by my exchange with my son. He accepted my chocolate correction to my earlier lie and did not require us to go through any more inspections. Considering how awkward I felt to be revealed lying like this, though, I think the answer to my question is clear. To lie or not to lie? Next time, I will answer the food question with an honest, “Yes, I have food.” And if we get sent to stand in line for the Agricultural Inspection, well, so be it. It’s yet another opportunity to practice acceptance and patience and an abundance of time.


Hurray! It’s Summer!

Every year, as the last daSeay of school approaches, I find my excitement level rise. Finally, we won’t have to wake up early in the morning to go to school. I’ll have more time to spend with the kids. We can travel, have fun, relax. The kids dislike going to camp, but that’s all right with me. Hurray, I cheer, more uninterrupted, unscheduled, un-rushed time.

“I’m bored,” my son announces not five hours after we leave the school grounds. “Only seventy five more days till seventh grade.” He sighs with great drama. “I hate summer,” he announces, and as an explanation he adds: “It’s hot.”

Summer is hot. If it were not hot, I, at least, would complain. I love the longer days, the yellow sun shining in the blue, blue sky. I love the smell of sunscreen on people. For me, summer is that long ago time of my childhood, when we went to the beach and hang out in the water for hours, letting the waves carry us up and down. It’s that magical moment when the pool in the nearby kibbutz just opened, and I’d cut into the water first, like a dolphin, watching the ripples breaking the serene surface.

For my kids, summer sure is different. They do not live, like I did, within a ten minute walk from all their friends. The beach is forty-minutes away, and it is not the kindly, warm waters of the Mediterranean that await us there. My parents have a pool in their yard, but without their friends (who spend most of each day at camp), that is sometimes not an attractive option as well.

How can I make summer entertaining for the kids? How can I get them to leave the easy choice of television, computer, or Wii and have a summer the way I think a summer should be?

It turns out that getting the kids to have the summer of my childhood is possible, with a lot of (guess what?) hard work, preplanning and expense on my side. The opportunities around here, after all, are endless: picking strawberries in Watsonville, Great America, San Francisco Zoo, Saba and Safta’s pool, the pool at the JCC, hiking with friends, a camping trip to Point Reyes, San Diego for a week (there’s no lack of what to do over there), a picnic with friends, kayaking in Elkhorn Slough, paddleboarding at Shoreline, a movie or two. And more… so much more.

Would you be surprised if I told you that by the time mid-August rolls around, I am exhausted and longing for school to start?

We live in a strange world, full of exciting opportunities, yet I find myself longing for that somewhat simpler world in which I grew up. I long for our family moments on the Mediterranean shore, for a pool that has no slides coming in and out, for playing outside in the dirt with my friends, riding the bike to the park, or going exploring in the orange orchard next door. But the world is different now, and there’s no use living in the past. And perhaps it’s not that bad to be bored sometimes, or to watch too much television, or work a little harder in order to get together with a friend. After all, it is summer, and whether we work hard or not, we do it for fun.



Serving in the Israeli army, I first became aware of the distinction between loneliness and aloneness. At home, I was acutely aware of missing my parents who lived far away in the United States. Every creak of the old walls echoed through my mostly empty childhood home, reminding me of the days we all lived in it together, the days when I was not so alone. In my army unit, though surrounded by people, my loneliness was, if possible, even more pronounced. I had not a single friend to talk to, to sit with during meals, walk with to the showers, or exchange little bits of gossip and laugh before we fell asleep. There were many people around me, yet it was clear to me that I did not belong.

According to mystic and spiritual teacher Osho, aloneness and loneliness are far from interchangeable: “Loneliness is the absence of the other. Aloneness is the presence of oneself. Aloneness is very positive. It is a presence, overflowing presence. You are so full of presence that you can fill the whole universe with your presence and there is no need for anybody.” For the two and a half years of my military service, I was too unhappy — and perhaps too young — to understand that while I could not help my aloneness, the loneliness was a choice, self-imposed and self-made. I was not yet aware that I could be enough by (and for) myself.

Long after I shed my uniform and returned to the United States, the understanding dawned on me that those girls who served with me in the army may have wanted to be friends. Belatedly, I saw that in my relationship with them I concentrated on the differences between us: I noticed every song and singer they were fond of that I had never heard about, every movie they loved that I had never seen. I paid attention to every clue that showed me that their Israeli high school experience was completely different from my American one. I focused on their superiority. And sometimes, conversely, on mine.

In his discourse, Osho quotes the Buddha, reminding the reader: “Be a light unto yourself.” “Ultimately,” Osho writes, “each of us must develop within ourselves the capacity to make our way through the darkness without any companions, maps or guide.” For moments at a time, I know I can be alone without feeling lonely, though I suppose that sitting at home surrounded by dogs, chickens and a cat can hardly be claimed as true “alone.” But it is during hard times that the alone is so difficult.

Of course no one can suffer the pain of childbirth for a laboring mother, write a test for a struggling student, or face the fear of death for a dying person, but it seems to me that another person’s support — a hand offered in comfort and love — sure helps at those times. I would like to make my peace with aloneness, to allow my own presence to fill me and the universe, but while I might dispense with “needing” someone else, I would always like to leave an opening for friends to come.

All the quotes and the card photo were taken from the booklet inside the Osho Zen Tarot deck.

Ah, the Joy of a Writing Routine!

I had a image in my mind for my month of vacations, and it began, every day, with me writing. In my mind I saw myself producing page upon page of fabulous material which would bring me ever closer to finishing a first draft for my new novel. In Roatan Island I pictured myself sitting with my laptop in my lap on the beach, the wind caressing my hair and the sun blinking in and out of my eyes (such a romantic image). In Prague I imagined myself writing away in a cafe, surrounded by literary-looking types. And in Israel I specifically planned to write every day at my aunt’s house, seating by my grandmother’s little table upstairs.

The result? In Roatan Island I hated everything so much that my mind was not open to creativity. In Prague I walked with my boyfriend from morning till night and was too tired and jet-lagged to think about blogs or romances. In Israel we rushed from cousins to grandmother to brother to friends, and I only wrote once. At least that.

Now I’m home, and I feel like a truck has driven back and forth over whatever order I had in my writing life. I can find a smidgen novel here and a piece of a blog post there, but putting them together seems impossible. I don’t remember how to get back to the routine I had before. I’m disappointed I didn’t fulfill the writing expectations I had. And mostly I just have no idea how to find the flow again.

Coming back from vacation is always hard for me, but most often I face an opposite problem to the one I’m feeling now: usually on vacation I am my better self, I write, I exercise, I spend a lot of time in the fresh air. And when I come back I feel like I’m losing my better Sigal to everyday life, worries and chores. But coming back is much worse when my better self never showed up at all!

So how to get back to writing, I ask myself. This is a corner of joy, not of complaining, and I already whined enough last week. How do I retrieve that rare joy in writing which permeated every moment of my life for the three months before we left on our trip, the confidence in my imagination, the connection which I felt with my dreams?

Perhaps if I let go of how I expected myself to be on these vacations and allowed myself to feel the enjoyment I received from spending time with Dar, my family and friends, I will open the way for the writing to return. Perhaps by writing this page I am already opening the door. And perhaps I held the door closed because I was afraid of the flood of words waiting behind it, yearning to be written. But writing is one area of my life, I really do not wish to dam.

Is Luxuriating a Mortal Sin? (it might as well be…).

During our last vacation, Dar and I visited Sycamore Mineral Hot Springs. We started the morning with massages (I got my first hot stone massage). We luxuriated in a private hot spring bath in the forest and ended with lunch at the spa’s cafe. During the massage, I got into a discussion with the therapist about whether a massage was a luxury or a necessary part of an exercise regime.

I have heard from trainers the opinion that a massage keeps the body healthier and prevents injury. My wonderful pilates instructor, Vera Szepesi (who has her own studio called, appropriately, Esprit de Core) believes in massages and often recommends that I get them more frequently. I know people who get massages as often as once a week!

So are massages a luxury or a necessity? Are they acceptable or an extravagance? Luxury, if not quite a mortal sin in my book, is at least extremely shameful. I prefer the sky over my head at night to a king-sized canopy bed. I would like, one day, to let go of material possessions, take only what fits in my backpack, and head out into nature. This dream certainly does not leave room for a massage!

I know part of my dislike for luxury comes from the values that were imbued in me by my parents and my school. Israel is a somewhat socialist country. When I grew up thirty years ago restaurants were much less prevalent than today. Dizingoff Center and the Kenyon in Ramat Gan were a miracle of creation, amazing shopping Centers where we went on special occasions only and certainly did not buy anything. And nobody I know ever got a massage.

I remember one time my mother’s uncle visited us from Colombia, and we took him to the solitary Chinese Restaurant near Herzliya. In honor of the occasion I got to eat strawberries in whipped cream for dessert. Ah, I will never forget the taste of these strawberries till my last day on this earth! Not one of the intricate concoctions I have had since will ever compare.

So are strawberries in cream a luxury or can we eat them every day? Would it cheapen their uniqueness if we did? I remember when I came to the United States and was introduced to blueberries for the first time. Blueberries in whipped cream! Yum!

Wait, how did this discussion degrade to food, anyways? One moment I was talking about the physical value of a massage, and the next I am salivating over fattening foods. I have no real answer for my question. In the end, it is my decision whether to give myself permission to luxuriate oftener in massage. As to the strawberries in whipped cream, it has been eleven years now that my stomach cannot digest dairy. They have become, and apparently will remain, a dream of mine, to enjoy but never fulfill, and I think that is just fine.,

In Support of Selfishness

On one of my visits to Israel, I had an important insight. The children and I have the most fun when we do what I enjoy rather than what I think they might enjoy. This insight came paired with another wise saying, this one from my mother: don’t give the children too many options about what you’re going to do.

These wonderful revelations, giving me selfish free reign to do whatever I want while in Israel (and elsewhere), came after many visits touched by dissatisfaction. There is nothing I find more irritating than taking the kids to the zoo, museum, playground, etc. and hearing from them nothing but complaints. I mean, really! What ingratitude!

Surprisingly, or maybe not, all three of us have much more fun when I am not harboring resentment. Our last two visits we went hiking in creeks, checked out the tank museum in Latrun, and got lost in the Arab Quarter in Jerusalem. We went on a tour of the tunnels under the Kotel and through the City of David. We had a blast.

In The Happiness Project, one of the resolutions Gretchen Rubin adopts is “do it for myself.” I was raised to be considerate and to think of others more than of myself (after all, selflessness is a virtue in a nation which believes that it is good to die for one’s country). “Do it for myself” sounds to me more like: “selfishness alert! Beware!”

Nonetheless, “do it for myself” is an important lesson for me to learn. Far too often I find myself exhausted by thinking about others more than of myself. In her section on friendships, Ms. Rubin says: “one of the most delightful of pleasures is to please another person.” For me, at least, the emphasis is on the word “please.” My happiness is sadly decreased if the beneficiary of my kindness does not appreciate it.

The ability to enjoy a kindness independent of the receiver’s reaction seems near sainthood to me. There might be a way to “do it for myself” while trying to please another. For now, however, I guess I’ll have to settle for being imperfect with good intentions. In Israel, selfishness gave happiness to me and the kids. Perhaps, exercised moderately, it can bring happiness also at home. Maybe on my next birthday they can surprise me. Who knows.

Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109