Archive | Love

Thou Shalt Not Lie

Dar and I recently returned from a visit to Alaska, where I was struck by two curious qualities: the wide expanse, breath-taking vastness of the landscape, and the Alaskan maxim of working only so that you don’t need to work.

Wait, what?

Apparently, according to some people we spoke to, Alaskans work only so they have enough money to live on, rather than to collect it in the bank in case of something which may or may not happen in the future. This seems a strange maxim, you might say, to someone spending her days in the Silicon Valley, where people work for a variety of motives, none of which has anything to do with mere subsistence.

I like this idea of working only so life can be sustained. Those of you who know me, know that I have never shown interest in inventing new technologies, increasing the depth and breadth of human power over the universe, or collecting more money in my bank account through any of various means. In a way, I could say that I have struggled against my family’s (and my culture’s) tendency for ambition all my life. This has earned me the unacknowledged title of Black Sheep in my family. My father, in fact, once introduced me to a friend as “My daughter who is not a doctor.”

Perhaps I should move to Alaska and live for the moment, as it seems many people do over there. The thought is tempting. I love the Alaskan open spaces, the tundra, the mountains, and the wildlife. I love the relaxed atmosphere, the fewer cars, the few people. I love the idea of living so close to nature. I love the idea of twenty-four-hours-a-day sun, even if I have a hard time imagining twenty-four-hours-a-day darkness or 30-degrees-below cold. I doubt, though, that I would fit in Alaska society. It seems many people there tend to be more conservative about some things, like environmentalism or LGBTQ rights. And they sure do seem to be enthusiastic (almost righteous, I thought) about hunting and guns.

This is an Alaska female moose who identifies as salmon.

There’s many things I can complain about here in the Bay Area, but not those, for sure. People here seem to be mostly liberal. Take, as a case in point, my recent attempt to manage (behind the scenes) my son’s first foray into the world of college life. The young man, soon to be seventeen, is taking a class at a community college this year. In an attempt to make some money, the college charges for parking fees, not unlike many other universities and colleges around the country. So a few days before school started, I logged into the website and purchased the young man (who is also a young driver) a parking pass. After paying I received notification that the shipping will take ten days and that I will receive a temporary parking pass, which, however, never arrived.

What to do? Like the good, considerate, over-zealous parent I am, I called the school to ask about this. But I didn’t want them to know that it’s me, the parent, calling. After all, this is college, and it would be embarrassing if they knew the parent called for the student. So, with this logic in mind, I told the cashier who answered the phone that I was my son. “And you’re a high school student?” She marveled. “Your voice sounds so much older.”

Ah, the suffering of telling a lie.

Only after hanging up did it occur to me that in order to see the status of the parking pass, the cashier had looked at my son’s information and could probably see that he identified himself as male, while my voice (old though it may sound) was distinctly female. For a moment, I felt discomfited. She must have known I was lying (ah, the suffering of telling a lie). But then the relieving thought came up in my mind. This is California. The cashier probably assumed I was a female identifying as male! And the next thought knocked me off my feet:

In my Californian, crazily-liberal mind, it is much less embarrassing if the college people think my son is a female identifying as male, than if they think his mother called to inquire about his parking pass.

So this is why I plan to stay and continue to struggle against our Bay-Area tendency to rush and be busy and successful and ambitious. I live in a place where it’s (relatively) ok to be gay or transgender, or anything you wish. I live in a place where, when my kids go to visit someone’s house, I don’t really need to worry about guns. I live in a place where there’s fresh fruits and vegetables year round, and sunshine, and where being an environmentalist is only a mildly bad word. We’re not perfect (in fact, we’re pretty ridiculous when you come down to it, with our nail-polish-painted toes and our clothes which we believe say something about us, and all our other foibles which I won’t get into because it’s a whole other series of blog posts). And we still have a lot of way to go before this place is more equal, before we accept all races and all peoples and our responsibility for past and present racism and prejudice. And we have a long, long way to go before we stop using so many of the earth’s resources and live more rationally and with thoughtfulness. But all in all I think we’re trying and a lot of us really care.

So I’m staying here for now, even though Alaska really is such a tempting, lovely place. And, though my parents might be disappointed, I think for now I’ll continue to baaa like the black sheep I am, posting here on the blog instead of submitting to the New York Times, sticking my nose in the kids’ business, meditating, and preaching to everyone who would listen about recycling, using less plastic, and saving water and gas.

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Meditation on Eagle’s Wings

Tuesday, in a forward-hurtling metal hunk of a car, I glance through my open window at the sky. Raptors soar overhead, circling in currents of rising air. I fully expect them to be turkey vultures or red-shouldered hawks, but still I scan for my favorite bird. Then, I see it: long straight wings, head so white it reflects the sun, white tail a stark contrast to the dark body. Huge, huge and monarchical and impressive against the blue sky. A bald eagle. Here! In our sky! My heart pounds in my chest as I try to tell Dar that he must stop, that I must get out. My whole body aches with the wish to pump my fist and yell hurray, to jump up and down, to spread my own wings, to fly, to join that eagle, that miracle survivor of humanity’s impact on nature, in the sky. My head and hand out of the window, I stammer and babble until finally I manage to call out, “A bald eagle!” Too late. The forward-hurtling car is so far, I can’t see the eagle anymore, but I know it was there. A bald eagle! In our Bay Area sky!

Red-tailed hawk above Coyote Valley

One of my favorite Buddhist teaching is the idea that enlightenment, or true freedom, comes through the cultivation of two wings: the wing of compassion and the wing of wisdom. Wisdom on its own is not enough, nor is compassion, one too cold, the other too warm. Like the wings of a bird, compassion and wisdom must balance each other for true freedom, true flight, to occur. Perhaps I love this teaching because of my longing for more wisdom and kindness, but perhaps, too, my love for the wings of enlightenment comes from a much simpler dream: the wish to fly.

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I remember moments in my life, feeling like I could fly.

Eighteen years old, at the completion ceremony for the primary army training, waiting to receive the Hebrew Bible with all the other young women, a gift which symbolizes our national heritage and beliefs: strong Jews, capable of protecting ourselves and our country. I feel as though the whole wide world is open before me, vistas innumerable, opportunities galore. I realize I’m becoming, have become in a sense, an independent adult.

Thirty something, at Asilomar during a writers’ conference, I stand by the railing on the beach, waves breaking below me on a rocky shore, water and sky merging in a splash of blue and grey, the wind under my arms whispering: “Let go, let go, and you can fly.”

Emigrant Wilderness, above Buck Lake, my shadow lingering long over the cliffs, above the water. Feeling the solitude, loneliness, the utter desolate, magnificent distance from other human beings. Enjoying the tantalizing fear of death that comes with the knowledge that a leap is possible.

Point Reyes, surrounded by aspiring California Naturalists, watching a juvenile peregrine falcon perched on a jutting rock, its young feathers as fluffy as a bunny’s fur, the ocean invisible below a thick fog. I’m cold but longing for my own peregrine-falcon wings, strong and powerful and fast. I sense the freedom that comes from being in the body, beating those wings, frolicking in the air between ocean and fog and sky.

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I meditate because I wish to be wiser and kinder, because I wish to live from the heart and to act with intention and love. But I live for the connection with nature, for the chance of coming closer to merging with the sky, the ocean and its waves, the birds, animals and bugs. Every day I move closer not just to who I am but to who we all are, creatures of the earth, like spiders, deer, falcon and eagle, hummingbird and giraffe. Our body is made up of the water, soil, gases, and nutrients of which this world is made, of which gorillas are made, or ants. Living in houses, sleeping in beds, covering ourselves with clothes — we forget that. We call them wildlife and ourselves human, we pretend that we don’t belong to this sweating, pooping, burping, slurping, chomping, dirty, messy congregation. But we are. I am. You are.

Today I read that the president has moved forward with his plans to open the Arctic Refuge to drilling. There is something ridiculous about this, the thought of going so far to seek for oil, of how much work and money will have to go into just getting there and then getting the oil out. And there is something horrifying about it, the thought of spoiling this place which so far has remained pristine and wild, the invasive outreach of the human hand, how nothing is sacred, how the greed for more money, more resources is so all-consuming, how we think we have a right to every place, no matter how unique, no matter how lovely, no matter how important to other people and species, to the balance of the fragile ecosystems of our world.

The thought which really shakes me to the core, though, is how far removed we are from our own wild nature, from our belonging to this wild earth. We too, like all other animals, depend on a habitat, no matter how varied or diverse that habitat may be. Instead of appreciating and taking care of our habitat, this living earth, we are slowly destroying it, sucking it dry of water and food and air. We do this because we don’t really believe we need it. We do this because we believe we’re somehow superior to our habitat. After all, surely there are other planets with life, and if we find them (and we’re looking), we could go there. We delude ourselves with thoughts of how smart, inventive, creative, innovative, and technologically advanced we are.

My heart breaks as I think of what we do to this earth. Drilling in the arctic and the oceans, opening up public lands for coal, how we build more and more housing and manufacturing plants and pave more streets. We’re surprised when a sandstorm comes, or the ocean rises in a tsunami to flood our streets. We install another air conditioner if the weather gets too hot. The oceans will rise? We’ll desalinate them and have more water. The soil or ocean will be polluted? We’ll spray it with chemicals to make it right again. The dodo’s extinct? Let’s see if we can genetically recreate it. We think we can do anything, all powerful, masters of the universe. We don’t need nature, because this is humanity’s planet, god-given, provided for our enjoyment and use.

On Tuesday, Dar and I are flying to Alaska, to the Arctic Refuge. I want to see it with my own eyes, feel it under my feet and in my lungs and blood. There is something humbling about this trip, about the amount of gear that we need to prepare in order to survive there, about how many flights we need to take in order to get there, about the fact that we would not have been able to go without a guide. I go to the Arctic Refuge to cultivate my two wings. Compassion and wisdom to me are part of one wing, the wing of our Humanness. The second wing I wish to cultivate is the wing of Wildness, of being Nature. It’s a tough wing to develop, especially with all that human gear that we are carrying. Despite that, I aspire to strengthen my body-and-heart connection to nature in the most intimate of ways, to become not more of myself but more of It, the planet, the universe, the cosmic and microcosmic sharing of breath and cells and waste, a part of all wild things.

Golden eagles fly over the Arctic Refuge. I hope, in a few days, to be sitting in my pack-raft, floating on the Aichilik through the last untamed landscape on earth, meditating on the eagles’ flight.

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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.”

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Year to Live — Day 318 — My Grandma

This morning, I looked in the mirror, and out of it my maternal grandmother stared back at me. The same hair style, eyes, shape of face, the same expression, the same slightly dour down-turned mouth, the same wrinkles. A tear came into my eye. I miss my grandma. I love my grandma, and I know, from my memories of years ago, that my grandma loved me back.

My Grandmother, Safta Chaya, passed away twenty years ago in June of 1996. She had one of those cancers that can’t quite be pinpointed. I’m not sure anyone knew where or what kind exactly the cancer was. She just got sick, and then sicker, and then she died. I was so far away, here in the U.S. while she was in Israel, and I didn’t really manage to understand what it was she had. Even now, the entire progression of the disease and my grandmother’s eventual death are unclear to me. At age 24, I did not quite realize how much her death hit me, how much I cared, and how much I deserved to grieve.

Judaism has a wonderful custom for grieving: the Shiva. For seven days after the passing away of the person, the family congregates at the deceased’s house. Everyone comes: relatives and friends. In the more religious households, prayers are conducted at specific intervals. In other houses, the guests sit and tell or listen to stories. Often (and perhaps surprisingly), the atmosphere is not necessarily heavy with sorrow and tragedy (though those may be present). Rather, in most of the Shivas I attended, people seem to be suffused with gratitude for the community and the love and support that it presents, and with gratitude for the life of the person who has passed away.

I did not fly back to Israel to attend my grandmother’s Shiva, and so I cannot tell you what kind of Shiva my family held for her. Knowing my family from the maternal side, I suspect it might have been (and please don’t faint at my use of this next word) fun and full of humor and love. But thinking about my grandmother’s life, I begin to doubt. My grandmother Chaya (at least in the 24 years I knew her) led a lonely and sad life. A complicated life. Had there been guilt in the family’s mind about not making Safta Chaya’s life easier and happier? About not being there enough for her? I hope not. I hope that during the Shiva, the family were able to celebrate Safta Chaya’s life, and not just to pity or grieve it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandma lately, about how much I loved her and why I loved her, and about how I loved her despite the fact that she was not an easy woman to love. I remember the whole-wheat bread she used to bake from scratch (her father was a real baker with the horse and cart and everything, selling bread he’d baked through town) and some of the other food she’d serve me when I visited her. She used to heat the food in the toaster oven (which my dad probably got for her): vegetables which she cooked before slowly on the stovetop, rice, and sometimes sautéed mushrooms too. Once the food was warm, she’d mix each element with a little bit of oil to give it a freshness, a pizzaz. She would cut salad for us without using a cutting board, calmly and carefully slicing the veggies over the bowl into neat triangles. When we ate, sitting together in her little kitchen, the door to the small kitchen balcony right next to us, I would feel cherished and loved. I could tell it was all for me. I could tell she wanted me there, that she appreciated every moment of the visit. There was a tranquility in that kitchen which I experienced nowhere else in my life.

After lunch, my grandma would play the piano for me — she begun to play the piano when she was perhaps 60 or so years old. She did not play accurately or with a smooth flow, and it was sometimes difficult to listen to her — especially since I played the piano myself and knew what the music was supposed to sound like. But today… today I wish I had listened more. I wish I had asked more questions and heard more stories. I wish I had spent more time with her, this woman who I loved but who was a mystery to me. And I wish those things because I see so many lines of similarities between us. I sense the lines of ancestry that connect us. I recognize those facial lines that proclaim to the world that I am her granddaughter. But most of all, I know that my heart is somehow linked to hers.

I can see the cyclicality of life in my grandma, my mother, and myself. In my daughter. I can see each of us enacting roles that family, culture, history assigned to us. I can see the similarities with which we play these roles even as each of us struggles to find her own place and individuality within our inter-relationships. I am not my mother or my grandmother, and yet I am tied irrevocably to both, just as they are tied to me and my daughter to all of us. A hereditary line of mothers and daughters, passing along love and wisdom and hardship from one to the other.

From the mirror, this morning, my grandma’s eyes looked out at me, and as I realized how much I love her, I also realized how much more love and compassion there is room for me to give to me. My memories of my grandma remain locked up in the glass case of memories, like the one that held her special China set and her little glass figurines, clean of dust but somehow hazy. A faint smell of mothballs, paintings of my aunt from when she was a young woman, the yellow sofa which used to be orange when it stood in the living room, and the shutters, always slanted, shadowing the room against the hot Israeli sun.

My grandmother’s life lives on in us, her female descendants: soft and hard, easy and difficult, clear and confused, but always full of love. My mother and her sisters. Myself, my sister and our cousins. All of our daughters, the fourth generation already born. And beyond us, beyond the barrier of death, all of the grandmothers and mothers and daughters before my grandma, whose life influenced her own and through her ours. I can see them, each trying her best. I’m not sure what it means, all this interconnectedness, but I can see it, feel it in myself. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is here to remind me — and you — that we are ever loved, that we deserve to be loved, and that we are never alone.

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A Year to Live — Day 352

The Last Birthday

Till the last few days, I had never before considered the possibility that every birthday could be my last. Like many people’s, my birthday is a sensitive subject. While I hadn’t really obsessed much about my age since my 19th birthday (when I felt hit by the realization that I was leaving my childhood behind), my birthdays have become for me a symbol of appreciation and love. Or, more often (and whiningly so), the lack thereof.

When the children were younger, and after my divorce, I made up my mind to treat my birthday as an opportunity to show kindness and love to others. I was disgusted by and impatient of what I considered my unhealthy habit of looking for love outside of myself. Instead, I reasoned, I would radiate love out. This brought about several years in which rather than expect gifts for myself, I shopped extensively for gifts that would bring pleasure and love for the kids. Rather than dream about waking up the morning of my birthday to my own surprise table full of gifts and treats, I decorated the house and created a surprise table for the kids.

My famous angel food cake with pink clouds and strawberries, our traditional cake during all birthdays.

My famous angel food cake with pink clouds and strawberries, our traditional cake during all birthdays.

In the last few years, however, a new factor was brought into my tenuous status-quo with this need to be loved. This factor was a new boyfriend, and one, moreover, who showed himself right from the start as considerate, thoughtful, and prone to giving gifts. On our second date (which was on a Christmas Eve), Dar showed up with a ribboned and wrapped box containing a Spot device (a device that helps locate lost hikers), the perfect gift for an avid hiker. For our third date, he showed up with chocolate-covered strawberries which he made himself (I had told him they were my favorites). For Valentine’s Day, he gave me two bouquets of flowers. One was a bouquet of pink tulips, I think. I loved that one. For my 39th birthday, Dar gave me several gifts. One, I remember, was the most elaborate box of chocolates I have ever seen. The chocolates came in a pink ruffled box that I still keep. Can you blame me if my expectations, after this beginning, reached an almost hysterical peak? Add to this my 40th birthday, the next year, which included two birthday cakes (one baked and hand-decorated by a friend’s talented daughter) and a cartoon artist who drew the guests.

I think you will not wonder, then, at hearing that I consider my next three birthdays a gigantic flop. The worst, perhaps, was the birthday we spent with the kids playing badminton (they fought so much, the two of them, that I had to remove myself before I started screaming) and then having lunch at the Cheesecake Factory (the waiter and manager claimed they had nothing either wheat-free or dairy-free they could bring me to eat, and I spent the meal food-less watching the others eat).

My 44th birthday is coming up in a few days, and even before I figured out that it was going to be my last, I’d been thinking what I could do to make this birthday different. I tried to see my patterns of behavior that lead me again and again to be afraid of asking for what I need, instead trying to please the rest of the family with my choices as to how to spend my birthday. If it was really and only up to me, after all, we’d spend my birthday camping out for a night somewhere in the wilderness. (Eden: “NOOOO!” Uri: “No way. Do it on your own time,” and, “Even Dar doesn’t want to go with you”). Every year I try to find something to do which, heaven help us, everyone might enjoy, and every year it looks like my best efforts do not pay off. Not to mention, in addition to this, the small voice in my head which says: “Why are they not planning my birthday? Why are they not trying to please ME for a change?”

I’m not sure this birthday is going to be all that different, except, perhaps, in my own mind. The gifts for my three important people are already piling up in a secret location in the bedroom. I’ve also decided to decorate the house — I deserve it, after all, just as much as they do. I’ve made a reservation for fondue at a restaurant which pretty much we all like. What is different, however, is my acute realization that this birthday might very well be my last.

Of course, any birthday might be our last. The not-knowing the day of our death is built-in, unquestionably present every moment we are alive. For all I know, my last birthday may have been my 43rd — after all, like all of us, I am not really assured of surviving till February 20th, 2017 — I am only committing to live till then as though that day is my last. But if this coming birthday is the last birthday I am going to celebrate, I would like to give myself the gift of at least some of the time celebrating it the way I’d like.

Inside of me, I can just barely touch the well of sadness and anger about the way I’ve let my other birthdays go, the way I never said what I needed, never expressed what I wished, never insisted, never taught the kids that my dreams too deserve to be a factor in our relationship. Instead, I’ve been teaching them quite dramatically that a parent needs to live for his or her children. A part of me, in fact, still believes it. Any deviation from this belief is a huge struggle that I overcome only rarely, and only in bits. But the rational part of me, the part that thinks that, actually, I deserve to exist as a separate human being with her own needs and wishes and dreams, that part keeps saying: “Sigal, this belief is not the truth.” And it says: “You have to teach the kids that. You have to teach them to be free.” And it remarks, ironically: “In the hurry to teach them that they matter, you may have taught them that they won’t matter when they’re adults.”

On Wednesday next week, in honor of my 44th birthday, I have taken the day off, and I am going to head up to my most beloved park to check out the wildflowers. I haven’t been up there in a long time, and I’m eager to revisit my favorite spots. In a five-hour hike, I will not be able to cover all thousands of acres of park, so many of which I know like the back of my hand, but I will be able to get a taste of wilderness. Later that day, we will go to fondue, and it will either be great, or it won’t. But in any case, the success of the dinner will not matter in the way it usually does, because I will have already celebrated my birthday for myself earlier that day in the park I love.

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Simplifying the Complicated Life

It’s 7:30am, and I’m already tired. Partly it’s because I didn’t sleep well last night. You could say I was besieged by strange recurring dreams concerning gorillas and high schools. Since I’m in the process of registering my son to high school, that might explain the second part, but I’m still not sure about the gorillas. Partly, however, I’m so tired because I’ve contemplated my schedule this week, and I am dreading what I see.

Ever since I’ve come back from the meditation retreat in September, I’ve become more aware of how overwhelmed I feel inside my own life. So much happens every day. I feel responsible for so many things and people. The driving… don’t get me started on the driving. And all of it, I confess, is by choice. My choice. And the question begs, if this chaos is my choice, why am I not choosing otherwise?

My brother-in-law once told me a story about a teacher’s example for good time management. The teacher placed a large glass vase on the table and fit large rocks inside, up to the top of the vase. He then asked the students if the vase was full. Yes, they answered. The teacher took smaller rocks and let them tumble into the spaces between the large rocks. Is the vase full now, he asked the students. Yes, they said. The teacher poured pebbles into the vase. How about now? He asked. Yes. Then he poured in sand. Full? The students, now wise, wondered if maybe not? The teacher poured in water. Now the vase was truly full. The moral of the story was simple: we have to fill up our time with the biggest rocks first, what is most important, and only then down in size to the water. If we fill the vase with water first, then sand, then pebbles, we have no room for the big rocks.

So what are my big rocks? I always come back again and again to this question. The kids, of course, hiking and being outside, writing, spending time with Dar, my meditation and qigong. I also have smaller rocks that I do not wish to be without: reading, spending time with the dogs, cleaning for the chickens (I know this sounds strange, but it actually makes me feel more connected to the essential me, the earth-me), making music, spending time with friends, connecting with my family, exercising.

Then there are the things I do which are harder to classify: cooking, for example — is that a small rock or a pebble? It is important to me to eat healthy and organic. I would prefer not to eat at restaurants, but cooking takes up so much time, seemingly more than its share in the order of importance. And, to make everything more complicated, it is also closely related to the much bigger rock of spending time with and still taking care of the kids, in, once again, two opposing forces. I guess some of my rocks are just not so black and white in the size department.

Then there are other things, like doctors’ appointments, for example. If it was up to me, those would be sand, or maybe even water. But what if it’s a doctor’s appointment for the kids? And paying my bills, whether sand, water or pebble, is essential to living an orderly and responsible life with direct implication to my peace of mind and the well-being of the kids, myself, and Dar. Unlike my brother-in-law’s story, I have not been able to find a way to make all of my rocks come together snugly in the vase of my life. It’s always an either/or. Either I take the kids to the dentist, or we can go home and spend time together. Either I cook dinner, or I help them with homework. Either I write or I go for a hike. It is always choice.

I remember one of my first conversations with my therapist. I described to her all of these things which I would love to do and explained how if only I was more methodical, less lazy, more organized, more efficient, then I would be able to do all of them every day. Jeanne thought that it sounded exhausting. Sadly, she turns out to be right.

Here is a schedule of my dream day:
5am wake up
5:20-6:30am meditation and qigong
6:30am breakfast while reading
7:00am-9:45am hike
9:45-10:00 clean for chickens, water plants in yard
10:00am-11:30am write
11:30-12:30 play the ukulele and sing
12:30-1:00pm lunch
1:00pm-2:45pm prepare dinner
2:45-4 pick up kids from school
4-6:30 spend time with the kids, walk dogs
6:30-7 dinner
7:00-7:30 read french
7:30-8:30 showers, spend time with kids
8:30 go to sleep

Here’s what I didn’t put in there:
My Reiki stuff: sessions, planning classes, promoting my business, connecting with people
Hanging out with friends
Resting or even just pausing
Talking with my grandmother in Israel, connecting with my family
Writing this blog
Laundry
Loading and unloading the dishwasher
Registering Uri to high school
Exercising
Doctors appointments
Date night with Dar
Massage
Answering emails
Volunteering at school
Grocery shopping
And so much more.

As I am writing this, I am wondering if perhaps I could look a week in advance and schedule in some things which are important to me. I would love to write every day, but do I really need to hike every day? Perhaps three times a week is enough, and perhaps I could assure myself of having that time by physically penciling it into my calendar? Perhaps I could play the ukulele in the evening instead of the morning, freeing up an hour and sharing that activity with the kids? That hour could be used to put in-between activities, for much needed pausing or, perhaps, for the laundry.

Jack Kornfield often reads a poem by the poet Ryokan:

BEGGING
Today’s begging is finished; at the crossroads
I wander by the side of Hachiman Shrine
Talking with some children.
Last year, a foolish monk;
This year, no change.

I tend to agree about that for myself. Last year, a foolish Sigal. This year, no change. The more I live and the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. I realize how some things which seemed so ultra-important to me in the past are not necessarily that important at all. I find myself getting back to the essential, that which truly is important to me: to love, to share that love with people around me, to be at peace and share that peace with people around me.

Perhaps that, in truth, is my one big rock, living with the intention to love. Everything else, whether I hike or write, whether I play or talk on the phone, whether I answer email or water the plants — do these things ever truly matter if they are not done from the heart? And is not even folding the laundry the most important thing, the biggest of all big rocks, if done with love?

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What Is Reiki?

I never know what to say when people ask me what is Reiki. I don’t have an elevator pitch — you know, the kind where you say one sentence which will make your listener want to know more. I used to start out by giving a translation of what Reiki means in Japanese (rei = sacred, ki = universal energy), but I doubt the translation gives any information about how Reiki feels or what it can do. Reiki Master Pamela Miles suggests sitting the inquirer down for a sample treatment, but a Reiki treatment can easily last longer than an elevator ride between the first and fourth floors. Instead, I wonder if I can simply say that, for me, Reiki is about love, about filling myself or someone else with love. As the Beatles so aptly said, “Love, love, love. All you need is love.”

The popular legend of the origin of the system tells that Mikao Usui, the founder of Reiki, discovered Reiki while meditating on Mount Kurama, a spiritual mountain in Japan. Like most of us searchers for meaning, Usui too probably wanted to find answers to life’s questions: Who am I? What is my life’s purpose? Am I living up to my potential? Am I worthy of love? This was back in 1920. He fasted and meditated, and, while sitting there, he suddenly perceived above his head the Reiki cure. The legend doesn’t really say what the Reiki cure was, but this insight must have been the answer to Usui’s questions.

Usui came down from the mountain and founded a spiritual system that combined palm healing (moving energy with the palms of the hands), meditations, mantras, precepts and a spiritual blessing ceremony which he began teaching to students and used in treating clients. In this system he brought together elements of Buddhism, martial arts, and other spiritual practices. Any student of Reiki can be grateful to Usui for taking often obscure practices, which novices had previously spent most of their lives studying, and simplifying them so that we lay people can learn them in a weekend workshop and start applying them in our lives.

Some people say to me, how can touching someone with your hands help the person to heal or feel better? Palm healing has existed long before Usui incorporated it into his system. Medical Qigong, for example, is a branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine which uses hand movements to move the energy in the body, displacing stagnant energy with healing without even using touch! In the New Testament, Jesus performs many miraculous healings by touching his patients. According to Frans and Bronwen Stiene of the International House of Reiki, “Palm-healing has a global history that extends throughout the ages. Religious groups and even monarchies (using their ‘Royal Touch’) have often claimed exclusive rights to these gifts, yet the truth is that each person has his or her own innate ability to heal.”

I love the emphasis the Stienes put on the idea that we each have our own innate ability to heal. The phrase really has a dual meaning: we have the ability to find healing, an inborn ability, but this inborn ability is not simply to heal, but to heal ourselves! The healing and the ability to heal truly come from inside us and not from some outside source. What we often see as the divine power to heal really exists inside each of us.

An innate ability to heal can be difficult to believe in our day and age. Sometimes, when I’m unwell, it seems to me that a headache won’t go away without pain medication or that an antibiotic treatment is necessary. And this, in fact, may be true. Reiki is not a substitute for medical attention. In a way, while Reiki can be used to improve our physical wellness, I see it really as a spiritual system meant to integrate our body, spirit and soul, or, if you prefer, our body and mind. It is a spiritual system whose purpose it is to heal our whole self, not just the physical body. Heal this whole self, and physical wellness may very well follow.

My purpose in teaching Reiki is to give you the tools to take yourself to the next level spiritually, to feel that your spirit and soul reside fully in your body and that you begin to accept and integrate all the aspects of yourself as one. I want you to believe that healing, true healing, is possible and comes from inside of you, to transcend the smaller ailments of the body and seek an alignment with that divine power which I believe exists inside each one of us.

In the Reiki I workshop we learn about the five elements of the system of Reiki: the five precepts which Usui claimed were the secret to happiness (kindness, trust, humility, honesty, and compassion), palm healing, meditations; and we receive the initiation ceremony, which is also a healing experience or a spiritual blessing. The mantras that belong to the system are taught in the second and third levels of Reiki. The workshop is mostly experiential with several guided meditations and practice sessions in which you will experience giving and receiving palm healing.

One of my favorite parts is teaching people the self treatment, or giving love to yourself, as I called it earlier. Many of us find it much easier to give love to or care for our children, for example, than to take care of ourselves. But Reiki is really first and foremost a system of self care, for how can we truly give others love if we don’t love ourselves? I love watching people accept their right and freedom to give love to themselves, accept their right to become their own best healer, in all aspects of the word.

To find out more about my classes, please check the Workshops page.

In the writing of this blog post, I used the following online articles:
http://www.ihreiki.com/blog/article/was_mikao_usui_a_yamabushi/ — This article by Frans Stiene gives some insight as to the spiritual practice of Shugendo which seems to have influenced Usui’s teachings.
http://www.ihreiki.com/reiki_info/five_elements_of_reiki/hands-on_healing  — This article from the IHReiki website describes the history of palm healing and includes a video of the five positions taught by Usui to begin a treatment.
http://reikiinmedicine.org/daily-practice/what-is-reiki-what-to-do/  — This article by Pamela Miles discusses the difficulty in explaining what Reiki is.
http://www.reiki.org/reikinews/reikin16.html  — This article by William Lee Rand discusses the Christian history of palm healing.
http://www.ihreiki.com/blog/article/119/  — This article by Bronwen and Frans Stiene gives a chronological history of the Reiki.
http://www.ihreiki.com/blog/article/eguchi_toshihiro_and_palm_healing/  — This article by Bronwen and Frans Stiene gives the history of one of Usui’s students, Eguchi, and his take on palm healing.

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The Jewish Year in Satisfied Review

שנה טובהWe Jews are so lucky — we get to reflect on our soul accounting, “Heshbon Nefesh,” as we say in Hebrew, twice a year. On Rosh HaShana we welcome the Jewish new year with honey and apples and by asking forgiveness for the sins we committed knowingly and unknowingly all year, and on New Year’s we welcome the Gregorian new year by making resolutions and celebrating till after midnight.

As the year 5773 winds down, I too reflected on what I did (and did not do) this year and was surprise to find the balance a good one.

This year, 5773, I visited Israel twice for a total time of three weeks. I traveled to Florida twice, the Bahamas, Maui, the Redwoods, San Diego, and Arizona twice. Dar and I also went freeze-camping with the kids and the dogs in Point Reyes in February for Valentine’s Day. On the downside, it is the first year in a long time that I had not been to Yosemite. This will have to be remedied in 5774 at least twice.

I wrote a total of 67 blogs, about a third of them for my new blog. I love the new website that the new blog is on! I worked a lot on my novel this year, but finally decided that I need some distance from it. Like many other wonderful creations, I am still “cooking” it in my head, and I hope to get back to it fresh and energetic this year.

Another thrilling thing I did this year is start my own Reiki business. I taught my first Reiki I workshop and have one scheduled for the end of September and another for November. Two weeks ago I finally found a gorgeous space for my practice, and I can now give Reiki sessions on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings as well as at your home! I’m excited about the new prospects opening up for me this year.

Learning is high on my list of favorites, and this year I learned a lot! I took a Maya Abdominal Massage class which led me to begin training as a certified massage therapist. I’ve taken courses in Tuina massage and acupressure, and this year I hope to begin a medical qigong certificate as well. Another amazing class I took is Karuna Reiki® (this was why I went to Maui). I loved this class and working with the Karuna energy! It is a beautiful, beautiful energy of love and compassion, and I’ve been enjoying treating with it.

I read some fabulous books this year. Perhaps the most notable of all is The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt. I just finished reading it for the second time, and it is as fabulous as it was the first time I read it. That book is an entire world in and of itself, and I was again amazed how Gary Schmidt succeeded in creating so many rounded characters, all of whom grow and change in the book. I also finally read War and Peace this year — I’m very proud of that!

Seems to me, looking back, that this was a wonderful year. My boyfriend asked me to marry him and bought me two sparkly rings. The kids grew tall and happy. I finally bought curtains for our bedrooms. We had fun birthday parties for all of us and ate lots of good food. I hope for more wonderfulness for this coming year. May we all continue to grow, may we be happy and healthy, may we be free, and may we all be together!
Shana Tova everyone!
Love,
Sigal

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The Reiki-Chihuahua Five Precepts

Over 43 million dogs live in homes around the United States. I personally own three of those. Kathleen Prasad, Reiki master and owner of Animal Reiki Source, calls pets our animal teachers, but I had my doubts. My less-than-impressive chihuahuas did not seem likely candidates for imparting wisdom. Then, one day, I found myself explaining the five Reiki precepts to a friend by using Chaim, Nati and Percy as an example. Turns out, they have a lot to teach, and I have a lot to learn.

1. For Today Only, Do Not Anger
I never get really angry, or rather, I should say I rarely realize that I am angry. I fear anger, and so I often bury it deep beneath the surface where, unrecognized and mishandled, it turns into hopelessness and despair.

During our walks, the puppies get mad at every passing dog. They  turn into a raging whirlwind of blood-thirsty canine storm. I drag them forward, ashamed of my inability to control them, and just like that, with the other dog left behind, they are little angels again. They never hold a grudge. They never stay angry for more than a second.  They are experts at living in the moment and letting go.

2. For Today Only, Do Not Worry
Worry lines crease my forehead permanently now. I constantly worry about the children’s well being. I worry about the future, and I worry about the past. Even telling myself, “Just for today, do not worry,” does not quite do the job.

The puppies get worried too. You should see Chaim’s little face whenever he sees me pack a bag. He knows that I am about to go away, and his eyes follow me as I move about the room, seeming to ask: “Must you go?” Sometimes he stays sad for a little bit after I leave, but he is a cheerful little creature, like the other two, and he soon lets go his worries in his other responsibilities as a dog: keeping the house safe from passers-by and UPS deliverymen.

3. For Today Only, Be Humble
Every time I dread meeting someone or am afraid of what my performance will be like, I can feel my ego stretching to take control. Perhaps I ought to retreat back into my turtle shell, it suggests. But I remind myself: Be Humble. Be ever ready to embarrass myself.

For the puppies, humility comdogs sunninges naturally. They beg for food. They lie on their backs, exposing their bellies in hopes of a petting. They do not imagine that they are a lion (except when they meet a bigger dog) or that they can defeat the world. They have no ego about success or failure. They simply know they are who they are, and it’s ok.

4. For Today Only, Be Honest in Your Work
Every morning I groan with the thought of the chores awaiting me. I need to put away the dishes, clean the chicken coop, make dinner. If only I had a Mary Poppins magical umbrella, or better yet, a wand! Sometimes I finish everything that needs to be done, and sometimes I’m just too tired, lazy or distracted, and those chores are left for another day.

The puppies, in contrast, are always honest in their work. You will never hear them say, “I already got up twice today to bark at people walking down the street. Now it’s your turn.” They are never too tired or busy to come to the door when I arrive. Chaim jumps up and down, Nati dances the hula on his back legs, and Percy runs around in circles. Every. Single. Time.

5. For Today Only, Be Compassionate to Yourself and Others
I love this precept. I’ve engraved it on my heart and try to live by it. But being compassionate, especially to myself, does not come naturally to me. At first reaction, I am often critical, judgmental, or simply not in the mood to be understanding, and sometimes even after I remind myself to be compassionate, I just cannot.

Compassion truly defines what it means to be a dog. Unlike us humans, dogs are always compassionate to themselves. They live by their needs and inner motivators: “I need, therefore I am.” They are ever compassionate to us too. Even when I least like myself, my dogs still love me. They love me happy, and they love me sad. They even love me when I’m mad at them. They simply are a compassionate body, mind and heart.

A children’s poem titled “Loyalty,” by an unknown poet, reads:

You can’t buy loyalty, they say,
I bought it, though, the other day.
You can’t buy friendships, tried and true,
Well just the same, I bought that too.
I made my bid and on the spot
Bought love and faith and a whole job lot
Of happiness, so all in all
The purchase price was pretty small.
I bought a single trusting heart,
that gave devotion from the start.
If you think these things are not for sale,
Buy a brown-eyed puppy with a wagging tail.

I did not buy my puppies. All three are rescues. The loyalty, friendship and love came built-in their little bodies. Usui Mikao called the Reiki ideals the secret to health and happiness, and I have my three canine teachers to show me the way.

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Gift of Love

In elementary school, I was a social outcast. I was not alone, of course. I was the bespectacled, nose-dripping outcast, but there were also the fat outcast, the too-tall outcast, the too-short outcast, and a boy and a girl who were outcasts apparently only because of their race. My class was extremely hierarchical, with three class queens and three kings, and we stayed the same group for five years, with the same kings and queens and the same outcasts.

A few days ago I was listening to Tara Brach’s True Refuge. The author was telling the story of Amy, who had a difficult childhood with a mother who neglected and rejected her. In her sessions with Tara, Amy managed to experience the anger which she had kept in check for years and to express the fears beneath: of never finding love, of not being worthy of love, of being alone in the world. Tara called it experiencing soul sadness.

In that moment, for a split second, I saw myself as a bleeding, mucusy, open wound, a whole-body sore. And I realized: This is how I walk around. This is what I am hiding. In my mind’s eye, I instantly knew when it started. Elementary school.

We switched seats that day, and the teacher partnered me with Matat, one of the class queens. In front of the class, Matat said: “I don’t want to sit next to her.”  But the teacher insisted, and as Matat slid into the seat next to mine, she whispered: “Stop sneezing and wiping your nose like that.”

Other than that split-second knowledge that I was a trembling, bleeding, mucusy, open wound, I had not been able to feel any emotion about this event. It was as though I had no feelings about it at all. I knew I needed to heal the wounded body and clear the hurt from my heart by forgiving Matat, but I could feel no real hurt and no compassion for her, and without any emotions, I didn’t know if it was possible to forgive at all.

I decided to try a forgiveness meditation (also from Tara Brach’s book). I settled myself into my cushion and slipped into my body thirty years ago: thick glasses covering half of my face, light brown hair twisted into two long but messy braids, a drippy, red nose, and a skinny body. And there was Matat, refusing to sit next to me, and a heaviness choked my throat.

All I wanted was to be loved, to be appreciated. Scooting down in the chair, I held the sneezes back and tried hard not to wipe my nose before absolutely necessary. There was no room for me to exist. I could feel the weight on my back (ah, said a voice in my grown-up head, that’s when you became a turtle), in my throat, in my heart.

Holding that little girl with compassion, sending her love, I began to murmur a lovingkindness meditation. May you be happy, may you be well, may you be filled with lovingkindness and joy. Then, realizing turtlethat she is me, I started anew: may I be happy, may I be well; may I be filled with compassion for myself and others.

Matat means gift in Hebrew. As I went through the meditation, I realized that by forgiving her, I am giving myself a gift. A gift of love.

I hug to my heart the wounded little girl I was thirty years ago and begin to let go of rejection and shame. As space clears in my heart, and I allow myself to expand into it, healing all hurt. I hold myself as a child and whisper: I am here; I love you; I appreciate your wisdom and originality, your quirky sense of humor, the doodles on your notebook, and the used tissues thrown about everywhere.

Then, I am ready:

I feel the harm that has been caused, Matat, and to the extent that I am able, I forgive you.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109