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Monthly Archives: September 2021

Prayer is Work

            Walking into the synagogue for the third day in a row of Rosh Hashanah services (one evening and then two mornings), I yawned and said to Mom, this prayer thing is work. I actually do work at my synagogue, as a teacher, so there’s a blurring of the lines for me between work and prayer on a regular basis. But I was specifically referring to the exhaustion of dressing up, and spending hours standing and sitting and standing, and dealing with my endless social anxiety so that there was no energy left to do much else. But when I was flipping through the prayer book later that morning (and our prayer book for the High Holidays requires a lot of flipping to get from one prayer to the next, because if we tried to say every prayer in the book we’d be there all week), I saw the word Avodah, which means both work and worship, and I had an aha moment.

“Aha!”

            In the back of my mind, I knew that the word Avodah was used to refer to the animal sacrifices in the ancient temple days, and that after the second temple was destroyed, in 70 CE, the sacrifices were replaced with prayer, and therefore the word Avodah came to refer to prayer. But more often than not, the word Avodah, in Modern Hebrew, refers to work: like a nine to five job or a chore that needs to get done. Sitting there in the sanctuary, praying that we would remain seated for a few more minutes, I wondered, were our ancestors so low on vocabulary that this one word, Avodah, had to have two meanings, or was there more poetry in the dual usage?

In our modern world we tend to think of prayer as transcendent, and spiritual, and somewhere above our regular lives, but in traditional Judaism, prayer and ritual are grounded in everyday life. You wake up and say the Shma, you go to the bathroom and say a blessing, you wash your hands and say a blessing, you pray three times a day, in community or alone, and then you continue to say blessings all day long; it’s not separate from your real life at all – it is your life.

But I’m not traditional in that way, and I tend to experience prayer as an oasis I can escape to on Friday nights, on Zoom or in the sanctuary, with my community. Except on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The long standing/sitting/standing intervals and the hours and hours of prayer definitely feel like work; but, also, still, transcendent. The work of prayer isn’t, usually, physical labor, but it does require us to stretch our minds to find the wonder in our world, and to search our hearts in order to develop our relationships with God and community.

And this year’s High Holidays were, if anything, more work than usual.

Cricket was not happy.

When the world seemed to open up last spring, we had so many plans for things to “go back to normal,” including having our High Holiday services in person. We were so sure we’d be rushing back to shul that the clergy planned for two or three seatings for morning services, to accommodate all of the vaccinated congregants and still allow for social distancing. But then came Delta. We tried to ignore it at first. We had choir rehearsals week after week, gradually putting our masks back on and sitting further apart, and then our re-opening committee said that not only couldn’t the choir sing, but no one except the clergy could sing in the sanctuary, even masked and vaccinated. And then people started to call in to the synagogue to say they would be watching services online instead of coming in person, to be safe, and, ironically, we were able to plan longer services, since we’d only need one seating for each service to accommodate those still willing to come in person.

            Mom and I decided to go in person instead of watching online, partly because Mom was asked to put on a one woman show in the social hall, to share her photographs and quilting and fiber art, just in time for the High Holidays, and partly because I was going to read my pawpaw essay on the first evening of Rosh Hashanah services.

            I was, of course, anxious about how many people would show up, and how the essay would be received, and how my reading would go (would I pause in the right places? Read too fast? Mumble too much? Fumble over my words?), but most of my anxiety was about how I would look. I’ve gained weight from my attempts at Intuitive Eating, and even on my best days I feel unpresentable, so I was afraid of putting myself up on the Bima in full view.

            I know, I know. It doesn’t sound like the right mindset for such a solemn and spiritual occasion – the beginning of the new Jewish year, the time to atone and make amends and return to the true path yada yada yada – I should be wearing all white with flowers in my hair and smiling beatifically, la la la.

            I felt honored to be asked to read, truly, and hopeful that people would get to know me better from hearing my essay, but… I was afraid. I forced myself to practice my “for the most part thinking,” as in, I will do my best to read my essay with appropriate drama and clarity and humor, and try to look up once in a while, but I can’t expect to be perfect or look perfect. I will try instead to be grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts, and accept that I will be nervous and self-conscious and therefore imperfect.

            I worked on that a lot, but I wasn’t especially convinced.

Ellie wasn’t convinced either.

            I was nervous all day before my reading, preparing my all back outfit and trying not to look in a mirror. That night, I wore a mask with pictures of dogs on it (over my KN95) to help me feel like the girls were with me, even though they couldn’t be in the sanctuary itself, and I planned to envision a crowd of dogs sitting in the first few rows of the sanctuary, heads tilted with interest as I read, though probably in the mistaken hope that I might say the word “chicken.”

            I walked up to the Bima when it was time, and placed my pages on the lectern, and told the small in-person crowd about the significance of my doggy mask and my imagined crowd of doggy listeners, and they laughed. And then, it went really well. I forgot to think about how I looked, and instead read my essay as if I didn’t know the end of the story ahead of time. I even looked up every once in a while and made eye contact with people in the sanctuary. And I remembered to mention that there was a picture of the pawpaw tree in the social hall, along with the rest of Mom’s beautiful artwork (hint, hint).

Part of Mom’s exhibit – Pawpaw tree is second to last on the right.
The Magic Garden Quilt
Dahlia Art Quilt
Dandelion Thread Painting
Chestnut Leaf Sunprint, with stitching
Mom with her photos and fiber art!

            And then I walked off the Bima and tried, and failed, to put my masks back on as I returned to my seat. It took me three tries to figure out that the reason the masks kept popping off my ear was because I had them upside down, with the nose clips at my chin.

But the response was lovely: lots of warm, kind comments. And then, we went on with the holiday. There was a two and a half hour service the next morning, and Tashlich at the water in the afternoon (the one service each year when congregational dogs are invited. Cricket had a great time sniffing other dogs, while Ellie hid behind my legs), and then there was another two and a half hour service the following morning. And when I finally got home on the afternoon of day three, knowing we wouldn’t have to go back until Yom Kippur, I felt like I could sleep through that whole week and still be exhausted from all of the emotional and physical work of prayer.

Mom and the girls, exhausted.

But saying that it felt like work doesn’t mean I regret it, or wish I’d just stayed home. Instead, it means that I put a lot of effort into something that is sacred to me. I pushed myself to be present, and I built more spiritual muscles in the process.

Yom Kippur, a week later, was, as usual, even harder. The services were longer and there were more of them in a shorter period of time. I didn’t fast, but I went to all of the services and did all of the standing/sitting/standing calisthenics. I switched to sneakers, not so much to avoid leather (one of the things traditional Jews avoid for Yom Kippur) but because my feet hurt, a lot. Yom Kippur requires more standing, and more chest beating and introspection, and repentance. The music was beautiful, and mournful, though, and we were told to hum along with the Cantor as he sang in full voice, standing even longer than the rest of us.

I was asked to do a reading at the concluding service on Yom Kippur, a poem by Yehuda Amichai this time, and I did my best to read it as if the words were my own, as if it were as much a part of me as the essay I read at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, ten days earlier.

By the end of everything I felt like I’d been hit by a truck, and I still felt guilty for all of the ways I’d cut corners (not fasting, avoiding some of the more penitent prayers in favor of my own thoughts), but overall I felt like I’d done my best. I’d made the most of the opportunity to be present with my community, and within myself, and I was grateful to be finished with the work, for a while, and to be able to rest and let it all settle in.

Did I come to any exciting revelations about my health, my body, my spirituality, or my future from all of that prayer? I’m not sure yet. But I put in the work, and I took a few small steps forward; and, really, every step is worth taking, even if it’s not clear, in the moment, where it will take me.

The girls are ready for whatever comes next, as long as it’s a walk.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Ellie’s Grey Eye

            For a few days in a row, Ellie’s left eye was a little bit red and she occasionally seemed reluctant to open it, but she’d had similar symptoms before and they usually cleared up on their own, so I wasn’t worried. The vet had given us an ointment way back when, but when we ran out we didn’t bother to get it refilled. When I saw the redness in Ellie’s eye I had it in the back of my mind to call the vet and ask if she should come in, or if we could just refill the old prescription, but it didn’t feel like an emergency.

“Really?”

            And then, at around ten thirty one night, Ellie looked up at me (to tell me that it was time to go out for the final walk of the day) and her left eye, almost all of it, was grey. It looked like a particularly opaque cataract, except that her eye had been clear just a little while before. I started to panic. My baby was going blind! She had multi-system organ failure that was showing up first in her eye! The emergency vet clinic would cost thousands of dollars I did not have, but how could I not rush her out to the car right away!

            I was freaking out.

“EEEEEK!”

            Mom went to the computer to google the symptoms while I watched Ellie dance around on her toes to let me know that she really, really, really wanted to go outside. There were a bunch of possibilities, like a sudden cataract or irritation, Mom said, so let’s wash her eye with warm salt water and see of that helps. We took the girls out for their walk, because they were now barking up a storm, but I was still freaking out. When we got back inside I made the salt water mixture and held Ellie in the bathroom sink and poured the water over her eye, over and over again, to her great frustration. I was hoping the greyness would just disappear with the water, but no such luck. At least the salt water didn’t seem to be hurting her (though she was very annoyed at getting wet and required serious treats as a reward).

            I went to sleep that night worried that I was condemning my baby to death, or at least blindness, by not rushing her to the emergency vet, but Mom said we would go to Ellie’s own doctor the next day and he would know what to do. I was not convinced. I had nightmares about stray dogs coming to my house for help with serious medical problems and I couldn’t help them. The guilt was endless and I woke up feeling like the most awful, selfish, hopeless, incapable person to ever live. And then Ellie came running into my room with a smile on her face and almost no greyness left in her eye.

            Oh Lord.

            We made the appointment with the vet anyway, and did everything we could do to distract Cricket while shuttling Ellie out of the apartment. Ellie cried in the car, but she always does that. She sits in the back seat and makes very high pitched conversation with us, to make sure we don’t forget she’s back there (when her sister is in the car with her, Cricket will climb behind my neck, in the passenger seat, to deal with her anxiety and leave Ellie in the back on her own anyway).

“Hey! Don’t forget about me!”

            By the time we’d reached the vet’s office, and the vet tech came out to get Ellie, I actually had to point out which eye was bothering her, because it was hard to see even the redness now. And then we had to sit in the car and wait. I hate this. Going to the vet is always anxiety producing (for me almost as much as for my dogs), but at least I can be there with them to give them comfort and ask questions and remind the doctor of whatever I think he needs to know. With Covid, I just have to sit in the car and wait while they steal my baby away from me.

            Eventually, the doctor came out and told me that Ellie had had a thorn in her eye (!) and he’d removed it, but there was an ulceration at the wound site and she would need eye drops twice a day, and she’d have to come back in a week to have her eye examined again to make sure it was healing. The vet has something of a hang dog face to begin with, but he looked even sadder this time, clearly upset for what my baby girl had been through; which sort of helped, but also sort of made me worry more.

            Then the vet tech brought Ellie back out to the car and, other than the yellow stain on the hair around her eye from the examination, Ellie looked fine. She was eager to get onto her own feet and get the hell out of there, and she had a lot to say about her adventure on the drive home.

            As soon as we got home, Ellie and Cricket had a tête à tête about the vet visit (mostly Ellie reassuring Cricket that she really didn’t miss anything good), and Cricket seemed to be reassured. They both got a treat for their different traumas and then bedded down for their afternoon naps.

            My first attempt at giving Ellie her eye drops that night was not especially successful (she kept closing her eye so that the drop just rolled down her face, but I eventually figured out how to tilt her head back far enough to get the drop into her actual eye). Once she got the hang of the eye drop routine, though, she got so excited about the treat-to-come that she started to dance around before I could get the drop into her. By the end of the week I just accepted that I would never be good at this, and if it took three drops before one got into her actual eye, so be it.

            We never figured out how Ellie had gotten a thorn in her eye, but given her propensity for rolling around on the floor, bed, and ground whenever and wherever she can, it’s not a big mystery. Days after her visit to the vet she managed to get what I hope was just poop on her back (we have dead mice out there in the yard, and who knows what else I don’t what to know about), and she had to have a full bath to wash it all off, and of course treats to make it better, which meant that along with the twice daily eye drop treats she and her sister had pretty much hit the jackpot.

            We went back to the vet after a week of eye drops and he stained her eye again and there was no sign of the ulceration. I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be, because of how healthy and wide open and brown her eye looked, but we had to check and make sure.

            So now we’re back to the usual problems – with Cricket intimidating Ellie away from Grandma, and off the couch, and away from the leftovers meant for both of them. Not that any of that went away while Ellie was suffering; Cricket doesn’t believe in having mercy on an injured opponent. She takes any advantage she can get.

“Who me?”

            G’mar Chatima Tova! To another year of silliness and treats and good health for everyone!

P.S. Ellie begs for treats even while she’s sleeping

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

It’s Hard to Respect a Body You Can’t Trust

            I’ve been having stomach pains since mid-March, so when I went for my yearly check up with the cardiologist I told him about the pain and he sent me to the gastroenterologist in his practice. I haven’t been to a gastro since I was a teenager, on purpose, so the referral was not a happy thing for me, especially when the cardiologist casually told me it was also time for a colonoscopy.

“Never. Absolutely never.”

            The new doctor was nice, though. And he actually listened to me, and read through my records, and even recommended a geneticist to figure out what type of Ehlers Danlos I have (in case it means that my tissues are too fragile for a colonoscopy, which would be a pretty cool escape). But he also sent me for a few ultrasounds, and even though I knew I should be happy that he was looking for answers, I was dreading the scans, especially the more invasive one. I want to feel better, magically, not go for more humiliating tests.

“What does invasive mean?”

            When I told my therapist about the latest medical drama, and my concurrent struggles with Intuitive Eating and trying to learn how to respect my body, she said, it must be hard to respect a body you can’t trust.

            I’d never quite thought about my lack of trust in my body as coming from my health issues; I’ve thought of it more in terms of the childhood sexual abuse I experienced, and feeling like my body was always in danger and not a safe place to live. But my therapist was right: the way my symptoms come up intermittently, and don’t show up on traditional tests, has made it hard for me to develop a feeling of trust in my body as an adult.

            But maybe the more apt question is: How can I respect a body that my doctors don’t trust? How can I ignore their doubts about my symptoms when they are the only path available for seeking help? The way doctors tend to focus on blood tests and scans, and ignore basic details of how the person is or is not functioning, is frustrating. They are supposed to be empiricists, and yet they ignore so much of the information that’s right in front of them.

            I went for the invasive scans, despite my reluctance, telling myself that even if I don’t trust my body I still need to do whatever I can to heal it. And hours later I was able to check my virtual medical chart and see the results: mostly normal, but with areas obscured. It was already late on a Friday when I got the test results, so I couldn’t call the doctor’s office for more information, or to find out what to do next.

            By the following Monday afternoon I still hadn’t heard from my doctor, but I put off calling, not wanting to be a burden, and not really wanting to hear what he might say. When I finally called, after a few more days of dragging my feet, his secretary said that she hadn’t received the results of the tests, and that’s why I hadn’t heard from the doctor; he would definitely have called by now if he’d received the results, she said. That was something of a relief. And she told me that she was going to reach out to the testing location to get the results and then call me right back. Except, I didn’t hear from her that day, or the next day, or the next. I probably should have called again right away, but I didn’t want to. I resented all of the work that had to go into getting only mildly useful healthcare.

            I was finally able to speak to the doctor about two weeks after the ultra sounds had been done, after calling the office again and speaking to the secretary again, and the doctor told me that he wanted me to go for a Catscan this time, with contrast, in order to see whatever had been obscured on the ultrasounds.

            I reluctantly made the appointment for the Catscan, and I also heard back from the geneticist’s office (for the Ehlers Danlos diagnosis) with a three page history questionnaire to fill out before my visit.

            In the meantime, my nutritionist suggested trying a low FODMAP elimination diet, to see if that could reduce my belly pain. FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides And Polyols, which are short-chain carbohydrates (sugars) that the small intestine absorbs poorly. She gave me a crazy list of foods to avoid for the next two to six weeks – like cashews and pistachios (but not walnuts or pecans) and mushrooms (but not oyster mushrooms) and cauliflower (but not broccoli). I could have tomatoes, but not prepared tomato sauce (because of the onions and garlic that are usually added), and I could have chickpeas and lentils and potatoes, but not kidney beans or barley or wheat. It’s totally non-intuitive; I could eat handfuls of table sugar on this diet, but not an apple.

“Sounds good!”

            I emptied most of the High FODMAP foods from the pantry and put them in boxes (like we do on Passover when, for religious reasons, we are supposed to avoid eating leavened foods), and I adapted our regular recipes to the best of my ability. But my mind was spinning.

            The low FODMAP diet was originally designed for people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and/or Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), with the goal of figuring out which foods on the list, if any, are problematic for each individual sufferer. I didn’t have the right list of symptoms for either of those diagnoses, but I was desperate to feel better, so I agreed to go on the diet anyway.

            And there was a lot of relief in being on a diet again; any diet, for any reason. It gave me the feeling that I was at least doing something to help myself, and that someone was watching over my shoulder to make sure I was doing it right. But the diet was hard, and even harder for Mom who had to go along with it for no good reason of her own, expect to support me; though she made a lot of “secret” trips to the Italian restaurant around the corner to make it bearable.

“Wait. What?!”

            After three and a half weeks on the diet, though, my belly pain was worse, if anything. And the limited number of foods I could eat was bringing up my old food panic issues, and leading me to eat more of the allowed foods (like low-lactose cheeses and gluten free cookies).

            My nutritionist had told me that people often lose weight on this diet – even though that’s not the purpose – but I’d actually gained weight. And it wasn’t over, because I still had to slowly reintroduce the high FODMAP foods, in case I had a reaction to any of them. Knowing that there would most likely be no relief going forward, despite the length of time it would take to carefully reintroduce each food, made me angry; but I’m such a good girl that I did it anyway.

            Oh, and I met with the geneticist. She will be sending me a saliva testing kit so we can see if I actually have a connective tissue disorder (I was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos on clinical examination in the past), but she said that the tests only catch about forty percent of cases, so, even if the test comes back negative, the chances are 60% likely to be wrong.

            And the Catscan came back normal. So I’m at a loss. I was hoping that this summer of medical tests and diets and time off from teaching would re-energize me and allow me to start the new school year with more energy – but I’m still sick and tired, and we’re going back to masks and social distancing and possibly hybrid classes again in September.

I’m angry.

I’m angry that nothing has worked, and that my pain doesn’t qualify as significant because it’s not caused by the right things. I’m angry that I can’t lose weight, and that I can’t stop blaming myself for it. I wanted to make progress with Intuitive Eating and respecting my body, and I wanted to have more energy to live my life the way I want to live it, and it’s just not happening.

Next up. The nutritionist and I are planning an anti-inflammatory diet, to see if, one, nutrition can actually reduce the inflammation in my body, and two, if reducing overall inflammation will reduce my pain and give me more energy. I’m not especially hopeful, but I have to keep trying.

The Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) is coming up fast, and this is a time to make an accounting of the mistakes of the past year and start on a new path, so I’m not giving up yet. But I’m pissed off. Really, really pissed off.

“Grr.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?