Saturday, August 20, 2011

Where, oh where can my muse be?

I know, I know, long time no write.  For that I apologize.  I hope none of my many, many loyal readers feel abused and betrayed (*sarcasm*).  But seriously, to the handful of you whom I know personally and who prompted me to continue blog writing, I am sorry I didn't hold up my end of the deal.

I have a number of excuses for not writing more.  I've been working a lot and though I've had the time I have not had the energy to write interesting, insightful blog entries.  I also feel I've temporarily run out of material, since working as a housekeeper in a hotel in a small town isn't necessarily the stuff of poetry.  It could be, I'm sure.  If I worked as hard at writing as I do at making minimum wage I'm sure I could make profound connections, but at the end of the day when I feel sluggish and lazy and can't seem to get the remnants of Spic-n-Span off my hands, such attempts at provocative thought are beyond me.

Another thing I've realized is that blogging can be scary.  When I was in Israel, I felt I was playing the role of teacher or explorer, revealing to my readers the mysteries of a foreign land without fear of being proven wrong.  I could easily write about my revelations and observations, even as a young woman, without feeling that my fully-adult readers would roll their eyes and scoff with a "Psh, I learned that years ago.  Big deal."  I somehow yearn to wow and introduce ideas rarely considered before, but as a student working a summer job in a small town, what new and creative ideas can I possibly suggest to the populace?  When I do learn lessons here and there - about friendship and love and work and the stuff of everyday life - what of it is of any interest to those who have already learned that lesson and graduated from that class of Life?  I don't much care for that feeling of pride when I "discover" something only to find out that someone else has already discovered it.  Not only that, but every person in every previous generation has already discovered it.  It is as if every other person who has already made my discovery chips away at my pride until I am just like everyone else at this stage in life.

Please excuse my blatant hubris, but I want to be special.

So, I've decided to put a pause on the blog until I can find something a little more interesting to write about.  This semester I'll be enrolled in a creative writing course which may give me some more material, and the semester following I'll be student teaching - loads of material there, I'm sure.  I've also just recently discovered the art of Spoken Word Poetry and I'm thinking of focusing a little more on my relatively insignificant collection of private writing so that maybe some day I can do something more with it.

It was short lived, but thank you to those of you who did read this blog.  Again, I'm sorry I wasn't a good blog-writer this time around, but I'll try harder next time.  I promise.

In the meantime, please enjoy these two videos of spoken word poetry artists, Shihan and Rudy Francisco.  Then look  up more of their stuff - you won't be disappointed :)

Friday, August 5, 2011

Pre-Shabbat Thoughts

Boy, this whole "blogging" thing is harder than it looks when you don't have outrageously interesting experiences on a weekly basis or have copious amounts of spare time and energy.  Hmm, maybe I'll need to rethink this a bit...

Loaves of Challah waiting patiently to be
blessed then devoured.
It's about 30 minutes before the official candle lighting time that marks the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath.  The challah is baked and ready to be ravenously consumed, and my mom has the rest of the meal simmering and baking in the kitchen, filling the room and the house with the comforting, savory scent of Shabbat.  Every home's Shabbat smell is different, but ours usually consists of challah, chicken, kugel, and soup.  It's as recognizable to me as early summer's lilacs or my dad's cologne (rarely used, but replete with associations nonetheless), smells that comfort and remind me of the simple necessities of home.

This will mark my fifth Shabbat at home since coming back from Israel, and I'm still trying to figure out how exactly to do it.  Shabbat is a lot of things - a religious commandment, a secession from work and the mundane, a day for family and rest - but most of all it is something personal and as such it is hard for me to blindly follow other people's rules for how to keep Shabbat.  I have a lot of questions to consider - should I work, and what constitutes as work?  Should I use the computer and the internet to keep in touch with friends  and risk wasting time doing meaningless and decidedly un-Shabbat-like things?  What should I do to sanctify the day without feeling as if I'm limiting myself from the simple things I truly enjoy?

Before I left for Israel I was careful not to use my computer or watch TV on Shabbat because of their associations with the stressors of the average weekday - news, advertisements, work and school-related e-mails, etc.  However, in Israel Shabbat took on an entirely new purpose because I didn't need it as a day to relax, since I spent most of the week doing nothing but relaxing.  As such, I gave myself more liberties and didn't abstain from as much.  In many ways, Shabbat lost much of its meaning for me, but I made up for it in other ways.

Since coming back it's been hard to adjust, especially since my experience in Israel helped me to develop spiritually.  Still, I'm faced with the same question: how do I make this day holy?

I'm sure it will take me a while to reach a sense of equilibrium and decide how I truly want to make this day my own personal day of rest, and I'm sure the moment I do I'll be back at school and it will all change again.  But I truly think it's important for all of us to search for the deepest personal meaning in any given situation, even if that means a little trial and error first.

Before I sign off for the day, I'd like to direct you to a beautifully-written article a fellow-blogger wrote at This Good Life.  In it, she describes what the Jewish Sabbath means in more global terms, and I highly recommend all of you - Jewish or agnostic, religious or secular - to read and consider her well thought-out words.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Kindergarten Drop-outs

Raise your hand if you're sickened by the games being played in Washington right now.  Go ahead, raise 'em high.  But wait!  Don't start fighting about whose hand is raised higher!

Though I've not read the book, I feel there's a significant amount of truth in the saying "Everything I need to know I learned in Kindergarten." Let's list a few, shall we?

1. Always share crayons, glue, smiles, and hugs.
2. Play nice with others, even if someone accidentally broke your crayon.
3. Always say "Please" and "Thank you" - it makes people happy.
4. Don't talk when somebody else is talking.
5. Take turns with everyone.
6. Listen to the teacher or person in charge - they probably know what they're talking about.
7. Naps are important.
8. So is play time.
9. If you make someone mad, say you're sorry and help them feel better.
10. Macaroni is a perfectly legitimate art medium.

As we grow up we learn that life is a little more complicated than all that.  Mysterious and terrifying things called "obligations" start popping up around us, pushing and shoving one another in a vainglorious attempt to grab our attention and dedication.  Classmates turn into coworkers who occasionally turn into opponents.  "Please" and "Thank you" get thrown around aimlessly without consideration of their true meanings.  And play time becomes synonymous with "waste of time," which has a tendency to make grown-ups grumpy.

Not everyone becomes so jaded; some people remember what they learned when they were little and might even adhere to many of these basic rules.  But others appear to so blatantly disregard these tenets that I wonder if they even so much as attended kindergarten.  *cough*POLITICIANS*cough*

 I won't even try to pretend that I have a strong understanding of economics, policy, or national debt, but it seems to me that the politicians in Washington right now don't understand it either.  First of all, the question of whether or not the debt ceiling should be raised should be a no-brainer.  It's an arbitrary ceiling for an arbitrary amount of money that will be spent regardless of where our imaginary ceiling is.  No, that's not the way it should be, but it's the way it is.  So, Washington, if any of your are reading this (which is highly unlikely since they're supposed to be fixing the country instead of reading a puny little blog), just do it already and stop freaking everybody out!

It seems to me that what they're really debating is how to avoid this issue in the future.  Good!  Great start!  They're right - we shouldn't even have to be having this conversation.  The federal government should find a way to behave just like everybody else and spend within their means or pay the consequences.  Except we don't want them to pay the consequences because that really means that we - people who probably did nothing wrong - pay the consequences for them.  So that leaves spending within their means as the only option.

To choose that option means deciding among a number of other options that all help to answer the question "How?"  Do we cut back on federal funding?  Do we take a break from giving money to certain programs or endeavors in order to pay back our debt?  Do we raise taxes and ask the citizens of the country to contribute a little more?  What to do, what to do...

Ideally it would be a combination of all the options, configured in a way that most accurately addresses and serves to fix the problem while not jeopardizing the country or its people.  This is a serious issue and one that should be considered, debated, worked on, revised, and discussed by all members of congress over an adequate but not unreasonable period of time.

My recommendation to Congress?  Go ahead and raise the ceiling THEN tackle the issues that you should have been tackling all along.

But I digress; that's not what I wanted to talk about.  What I really wanted to say was: "Hey, politicians! Shut up and play nice!"

Remember those rules from kindergarten?  What happened?  It's like Capitol Hill has turned into a battlefield for a heated game of Tug of War, and no matter what you think about the people on your team you have to pull along with them or risk losing.  And nobody wants to lose.

Maybe the Mayans were right.  The world will end in 2012, which just so happens to be an election year.  Prepare yourselves, because unless our elected officials remember what it means to share, take turns, and play nice with others, it will only get worse from here.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Get it? Got it. Good.

Do you remember when you were younger and you were taught to do something without understanding why?  It might have been as simple as a routine or tradition within your family, or perhaps something like performing the order of operations in algebra.  Throughout school, I remember many situations (especially in Math classes) where we were taught how to perform a particular operation or told to follow a certain rule without getting the long and complicated explanation for why it was so.  In nearly every situation, I had some trouble grasping the concept because I wasn't satisfied with the answers to my pleading Why? "Because that's how it works" was not sufficient for me.

Yet the moment in which I finally learned enough to piece together the reasons for the rule was always a greatly proud moment.  The "Ooooh!  That's why it works!" was its own reward, and when my teacher would smile at me with recognition of my hard-earned realization I felt as if I had been given a gold star - equally special to me whether I was eight or 18.

I cherished every new discovery that made previous lessons more complete and significant.  Simply put, I have always loved learning because it affords me the opportunity to make sense of otherwise nonsensical things.

Now, one of the many reasons I wanted to learn to speak Hebrew was because since I was very little I have learned how to read and write in the ancient language for the purposes of Jewish prayer.  I memorized blessings, forming the unique sounds in my mouth and declaring them either publicly or privately as the circumstances required.  And in many cases I knew what they meant but only because of the antiquated English translation that always accompanied the prayers and blessings in my siddur, prayer book.  Baruch atah adonai, elohenu melech haolam..., the beginning of so many of our prayers, I knew meant "Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe..." but even though I knew what it meant it was like two separate statements.  I knew a couple words here and there but I understood nothing of the Hebrew grammar or parts of speech and had to simply trust in the translator's skill in order to make any sense of what I said.

In many ways, I prayed blindly.  At the synagogue I prayed silently or sang with the community, proudly proclaiming words in a tongue that was not foreign but still not my own.  Yet despite uttering the words I had memorized as if the language were my own - and sometimes even with fervor and my own ill-conceived meaning - I didn't do it because it made me feel personally connected to God; I did it because it was part of the tradition.  It was a way for me to connect to Jews the world over who were probably just like me - repeating Hebrew phrases with only a vague understanding of their French, German, or Chinese translations, and doing it because that's simply what we do.  And even though I didn't always know what I was saying, I somehow felt it was more significant to pray in the Holy Tongue rather than the English translation.  It's like the story of the young boy in Hebrew school who tells his rabbi he needs to learn Hebrew because God doesn't speak English.  Sure, I know I can get my point across in any language, but Hebrew just seemed more "right."

Well, after five months learning Hebrew I have successfully learned a good amount of its grammar and parts of speech, and a small but important part of it's vocabulary.  While I was there, though, I didn't spend too much time in synagogues.  Now that I'm back and am attending Shabbat morning services regularly again, I'm experiencing an interesting phenomenon.

Remember those little gold stars from school?  Even the imaginary ones?  Well, it's like they're raining down all around me!  (Which is cool except they often fall right onto my page and make me lose my spot or train of thought.)

Suddenly, entire multi-page prayers that I had memorized word-for-word and said effortlessly are sparkling with glimmers of comprehension and a myriad of opportunities for "Oooh, I get it!" moments.  It's fun to test my skills against the English translation on the facing page, seeing where the editor took minute poetic liberties or added explanatory words for a more complete rendering.  But the most fun?  Understanding.  And with understanding comes profound appreciation and a stronger sense of purpose.

Prayer for me has always been less a personal endeavor and more communal or based solely on tradition, but now with these exciting moments of understanding my concept of prayer is going through a metamorphosis.  I find myself saying things differently, adjusting my cadences and pronunciation to more appropriately reflect it as a structured, hierarchical language and not just a monotonous series of sounds.  And now, when I bow and say Modim anachnu lach, I know that not only does it mean "We thank you," but I feel that I myself am saying it instead of depending on an interpreter as I have for so long.

In an effort for more discourse among my readers, I'd like to hear what you have to say.  I'm curious: How do you feel when you experience that moment of understanding?  What are some of your personal favorite "Oh I get it!" moments?  And if you are religious in any respect and pray from a pre-composed liturgy, does it feel like something personal or do you prefer knowing more about its source and depth?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Some things never change

When I was younger my parents sent me to a Jewish summer camp every year for a four-week session in the North woods of Wisconsin.  From ages 10 to 16, I spent a third of my summer vacation far away from civilization, swimming in a freezing lake, doing ceramics and drinking bug juice, singing songs written by hippy guitar-wielding artists from the 60s and Debbie Friedman, and creating a family of friends in those back woods-turned-camper's-paradise.  Every summer was a rejuvenation of ruach (spirit), and I loved those strange, inexplicable traditions that I clung to with the strength and determination of a wide-eyed girl caught up in the current of generations of singing, tie-dye-sporting campers.  

Then every year in mid-July, I would step off the bus in front of the Holiday Inn in my home town after four weeks away, clutching my teddy bear and my backpack, and wave goodbye to the rest of the campers who had another hour to drive before they returned to their hometown.  And upon arriving home I would, without fail, find myself "campsick" - missing camp and all that I could only experience there.  Symptoms of this illness include mistaking strangers in public for campers or counselors; dressing only in clothes displaying the camp logo; and starting every story with "This one time, at camp" (which, despite the jokes, was not a reference to American Pie...honestly).  An additional complication associated with this illness is your friends' inevitable irritation and eventual choice to ignore any story that starts with "This one time, at camp."  Luckily, campsickness is closely associated with livinginthepasticitis, which can create a mildly skewed reality in which you believe your friends and family are truly hanging on to your every word.  Because, as we all know, summer camp is so awesome that everyone will undoubtedly understand its glory by simply standing in proximity to someone suffering from campsickness.


Thankfully I gradually got over my campsickness in high school.  Eventually those summers at camp became something of a distant but pleasant memory, something from my childhood (or at least my middle childhood, because there's absolutely no way I have graduated into the realm of "adulthood" - I shudder at the thought), and the subject of only the occasional story.

But y'know what?  It's baaaaaack. (DUN DUN DUN!)  And this time, it's mutated.

As most of you know I spent the last semester learning Hebrew and working on a kibbutz in Israel.  I've been home for a little over two weeks but as one close and incredibly insightful friend pointed out, I haven't quite come home yet.  Though I'd never thought of it in those terms, she's right.  My mind and heart is still back in Israel.  Would this be classified as "Israelsickness?"  Doesn't quite roll off the tongue, but you get the point.

The symptoms are nearly identical.  Why, just the other day I was sure I saw my Israeli friend Roni walking down the street in my town!  I could've sworn it was him!  And though I haven't been wearing strictly Israeli clothes (which aren't really all that different from my regular clothes), I am very fond of my Israeli Defense Forces t-shirt and wrap-around skirts.  Finally, despite my urgent desire to begin every story with "This one time, in Israel," I have a little more foresight and know that most people probably won't get it or enjoy it quite as much as I do, so I refrain.  A little.

Unlike campsickness, though, I'm experiencing this one as someone more closely resembling an adult complete with adult-like responsibilities and considerations such as The Future.  The big question here is: Where does Israel fit into the picture of my future?

I will warn you that this may be a recurring theme in this blog as I cogitate, ruminate, and debate the idea of Israel, my new found Love.  I'll try my hardest, though, to not let it consume this blog or all my thoughts.  After all, there is so much more to talk about!  And I don't want to let livinginthepasticitis get the best of me.