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Author Archives: rachelmankowitz

Choir Rehearsals

            I can’t do choir rehearsals at my synagogue during the school year anymore. I tried.

For the past two years we’ve either had online rehearsals or did recordings on our own, so even if a zoom meeting came up on a day when I had to teach synagogue school, I could still go home, have dinner, unwind for a minute, prep for my next class, maybe even take a shower, and still be in time for the Zoom. But in-person rehearsals are a whole other thing. I have to rush through prep and communicating with parents and dinner then get back in the car, rehearse for an hour and a half, and only get home around ten o’clock at night. When I tried, a few weeks ago, I hit a wall around nine o’clock. I left the rehearsal early, but it still took me days to recover.

“Life is exhausting.”

            And I was frustrated. I’d already committed to singing at the Women’s Seder (a yearly event at my synagogue, a few weeks before Passover, to celebrate the women in the Exodus story and modern religious music by women), and I had to tell the musical director, and the Cantor, that I wouldn’t be able to get to the rehearsals, for that or for anything else during the rest of the school year.

            When I told the musical director that I wouldn’t be able to get to the rehearsals, he sent me the music (four songs we’d done in the past, and only one with two part harmonies) and said he trusted me to be ready on my own, which was both kind and a lot of pressure.

And when I reached out to the Cantor to tell him that I wouldn’t be able to go to choir rehearsals during the school year any more (after almost a week of working up the nerve to write the email), his response came back quickly and with a lot of understanding and compassion.

            But I still felt crummy.

I haven’t been able to go to many in-person Friday night services either. I know I’m not the only one who has fallen out of the habit of going to services in person, but I still feel guilty when I watch the Friday night Zoom and see that only two or three congregants are actually in the sanctuary. And I feel guilty when I choose to attend with my camera off, instead of showing my face on Zoom, even though I know I don’t have the energy to change out of my pajamas or even comb my hair.

“My hair looks perfect.”

I feel guilty when I set limits to protect myself, but I also feel angry, because I’d rather be someone who can do all of these things. I don’t want to be ill.

Hopefully I will be able to manage choir rehearsals over the summer, when I don’t have to teach on the same days, and I’ll be able to prepare for the high holidays and socialize with friends and feel more normal, but we’ll see.

            Even though I can’t get to choir rehearsals, I have been able to bring more music into my classroom. Not only does the Cantor come in to sing with the students, but a visiting teacher gave us an idea for another way to bring in more music. He suggested playing different versions of the same prayer for the kids, to give them a chance to see for themselves how well, or badly, the music fits the meaning of the prayer. He chose Oseh Shalom (He Makes Peace) for his example, because it’s a prayer that has been done in so many different ways, and I followed his example. I found seven versions of the prayer and we all sat together on the floor and listened to one version after the other. The choice of song became even more meaningful after the war in Ukraine began, because the kids have been watching the news, along with the rest of us, and singing about peace, and thinking about peace, gave them a way to feel like they were doing something to help.

Some of the kids danced to the faster versions of the song, and others took notes like the serious musicologists they are, talking about how the changes in language and instruments and voices added to our ideas about what peace might actually be: it isn’t just the slow and mournful kind of peace we’re used to singing about, but also the raucous, complicated, dissonant, fast and faster, loud and louder, one voice and many voices cacophony that can encompass everyone, if we let it.

We may have played the music too loud, because one of the kids came back from the bathroom saying they could hear it down the hall, but I don’t think anyone minded. Music has so much power to make us feel heard, and connected, to each other and to ourselves. I never want to lose that connection from my life, or my teaching.

And, maybe inspired by my students, I was able to practice the songs for the Women’s Seder on my own, and when the day came, I was ready to sing with the female members of the choir without too much anxiety. And it felt really good to be a part of things, and to be able to add my voice, and not have to stay home and watch it all on Zoom. I hope this is a sign that there will be ways for me to adapt to circumstances in the future and always find my way forward, but for now, this was enough.

In case you’re interested in trying the experiment:

Oseh Shalom by Nurit Hirsch https://youtube.com/watch?v=-ODQuc6PzVk&feature=share
Oseh Shalom (SATB Choir) by John Leavitt https://youtu.be/EzdeEuttarI
Oseh Shalom by Debbie Friedman https://youtu.be/scbPrzCicLk
Oseh Shalom by Elana Jagoda https://youtu.be/MhBtIWGsaCo
Oseh Shalom by - Nefesh Mountain https://youtu.be/IrDDeQxRepU
Oseh Shalom by Nava Tehila https://youtu.be/EFdngngTpqo
Oseh Shalom by Ochs https://youtu.be/1Rw-r6hrCOc
Peace.

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?

Mom’s Birthday Bench

            For Mom’s birthday this year I bought her a glider bench. She’s been wanting a bench in the yard for years, and in my endless random searches on Amazon I came across this glider (and a hammock, and a small green house, and a few other things I thought she’d like), and she went to the board of the co-op to ask if it would be okay to put the glider bench in the back yard, and they said a resounding yes. So I ordered it, and it came in two days, faster than expected, and I decided to put it together right away, in the downstairs hall, because the box was too heavy to carry upstairs. Mom helped where she could, holding this or that steady, but I seem to have a knack for putting things together with an Allen wrench and blurry pictorial instructions.

            As soon as we finished construction and set the bench up in the yard, I ran upstairs to get the dogs (and our jackets, because it was getting chilly). The whole idea of the bench, or the vision I had in my head, was that Mom could sit on the bench and glide back and forth while Cricket spent hours (or minutes) exploring the yard.

Ellie guarding Grandma, and the bench

            We attached a long rope to the bench and looped the leashes through it and sat down on the bench to see how things would go. Ellie immediately asked for uppies, but Cricket set off on her adventure. She was frustrated when the rope stopped before she could reach Kevin’s building (her bestie, Kevin, the mini-Golden Doodle), but she survived, and pulled the rope all the way in the other direction, expressing frustration again when she reached the limits on that side and couldn’t explore the back of beyond.

Cricket hitting her limit.

            The glider bench is light enough so that the gardeners will be able to move it out of the way when they mow the lawn, though Mom was considering putting it right under the paw paw tree – to warn them away from doing any more damage. There really isn’t room for the bench under the paw paw tree, though, so maybe she’ll just sit on her bench, twenty feet away, and glare at them. She’s tiny, but she’s fierce when it comes to protecting her trees.

            And she has a stockpile of allergy meds ready for just such an occasion.

            I’m pretty sure there will be a significant amount of sewing done on that bench – especially now that she’s had her second carpal tunnel surgery, so she’s good for at least another year.

            She also likes to do sun prints with all kinds of flowers and leaves, so she’ll have a comfortable place to sit while the sun does its work. She could even move the bench over to her vegetable plot (or, I could move the bench over to her vegetable plot), so she can watch her garlic grow. I prefer to sit in the air-conditioning and watch TV, but to each her own.

Ellie prefers watching her people.

            I still wish I could set up a hammock for her, string it up between two of the tall trees the way she’s always wanted, but we keep deciding against it, because getting in and out of it would be difficult, and Cricket would be no help at all.

            I’m not a huge fan of Mom’s birthdays, to be honest. Mother’s day is better, because it feels timeless and universal, but birthdays mean that she’s getting older, and I’m against that. I need my Mommy to live forever, and stay superhuman, the way she’s always been. Cricket and I are on the same page here. Cricket is as much in denial about her own aging as she is about her Grandma’s. She prefers to believe that time stopped the day she first met her Grandma and nothing has to change ever again.

            Short of that, the plan is to revel in the ability to sit outside on the glider bench, two people and two dogs, letting time stop every once in a while. For as long as possible.

Puppy Cricket and her Grandma, the beginning.

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?

I am Cookie Dough

We started re-reading the Hebrew Bible from the beginning last year in the bible study class at my synagogue. When I first joined the class, eight or nine years ago, they were already deep into the prophets (the really really boring prophets), so it’s been exciting to go back to Genesis, which is chock a block with crazy stories. And right away, with the stories about the creation of the world, I found something I’d never understood before: God doesn’t create the world in Genesis; God looks out at the chaos and begins to separate things out and name them: light from dark, land from sea, male from female. And I realized, that’s what I’ve been trying to do, within myself, since I started therapy so many years ago. I saw myself as chaos, and I started to separate things out and name them, in an effort to make sense of what was already there. I didn’t need to, or want to, create a new self in therapy, I just wanted to organize the self I already had.

            Many theorists have attempted to organize the self in general: like Freud’s Id, Ego, and Superego, or Erikson’s Stages of Development, or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There are theories that focus on the structure of the brain: with the reptilian brain running on instincts, and the limbic brain running on emotions and social behavior, and the rational brain/neocortex running on thoughts, language and reflection. And all of these general theories of the mind/self are attempts to acknowledge the multiplicity of the self, while also controlling it.

And yet, most of us don’t fit neatly into any of these paradigms; they are all imperfect and incomplete, and I needed to map out my own chaotic self, in my own way, in order to feel seen.

“I’m here! See me!”

            Mapping out the various aspects of the self is hard enough, but for a survivor of childhood abuse the process of recognizing the different parts of the self is complicated by the dissociation and fragmentation the mind uses to survive the abuse. Some survivors have thick amnestic walls between parts of the self, that in someone who has had no childhood trauma would be much more fluid, and some have endless slivers of self that can’t speak for themselves. Each abusive situation is different, and each survivor survives in his or her own unique way.

“I eat chicken.”

The paradigm of having multiple different parts of the self, without being limited to the ones named by the experts, has helped me to identify many different feelings and internal conflicts within myself, but the further along I get in the work, the more I see the parts blending and blurring at the edges, like sticky slices from a roll of cookie dough. Even after so many years of work, I still feel like there are parts of me that are left unclear or completely unseen, and I believe that my lack of ability to see them, or to tolerate them, is part of what keeps me stuck. It’s possible that I’ve got a handle on eighty percent of who I am, or fifty percent or forty. My best guess is that I’ve mapped out about sixty percent of who I am, and who I was, and what happened to me, and how I felt about it; but I don’t know how to get to the rest of it, and I don’t know if the rest is just blurry or still completely unknown.

            Part of the confusion is that it often feels like I’m starting from scratch each day, going through all of the same internal conflicts and trying to remember how I resolved them yesterday. Sometimes my memory for the work I’ve done in therapy is very clear, and sometimes I have to rely on my notes to remember that I went to the supermarket this morning, but mostly it’s somewhere in between.

“You did not take us out five minutes ago.”

            And yet, strangely, I’m a pretty consistent person in how I act, and in how I seem to other people. No matter how hard I have to fight with myself every day to resolve each internal argument, I tend to answer them all the same way I did yesterday. I exist as the same person every day, seemingly, but sometimes I see myself clearly and sometimes I see myself through a distorted mirror.

There are times when my memories are so richly detailed that I can figure out what time of year something happened, and how I felt, and how the people around me looked and sounded, and I can even remember the furniture in the room; and then there are times when those same memories are trapped behind a thick veil and I’m squinting to make out who’s who or why the memory is even important.

            The study of psychology, is, like me, still cookie dough. We are very early in our understanding of the brain, and in our understanding of how the anatomy of the brain and our life experiences create our individual senses of self. We cannot fully map our brains, yet.

Now that the bible class is (finally) moving from Genesis into Exodus, I’m wondering what new things I will discover, both about ancient ideas of God, and even more important, ancient ideas about people and how they acted, and why. And maybe going through the Exodus from Egypt again, but more slowly than we do it at the Passover Seder, I’ll find more details and clarity in the chaos than I’ve found before. Maybe that’s just how it is: understanding comes with repetition, and with a willingness to look at the same book or the same self over and over again from different perspectives, so that the picture gradually becomes clearer, though maybe never complete.

“You can study me, Mommy!”

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?

Why am I still struggling to write fiction?

            For a long time now I’ve been trying to be practical: I went out and got a social work degree because I thought I needed to have a practical career, and I discovered that wanting to be practical and being able to do those practical things is not the same at all; and then, or even before then, I tried to be more practical about my writing, and focus on what other people wanted me to write, instead of trusting myself and writing what I needed to write.

            I spent most of last summer working on essays about psychology and trauma, because that’s what I thought I should do, because it seemed more practical than writing fiction, and more likely to get published. But, while my therapist was somewhat happy with my efforts (nothing I write is quite how she would write it, so…), I found the writing difficult and frustrating, and alienating, and the rejections kept coming anyway.

“Oy.”

            Back when I went to school to be a writer, the message was always that there is a right way to write: there are rules you have to follow, and styles and techniques that you have to master. But four years of graduate school (two masters degrees) didn’t teach me how to be that writer, they just instilled a lot of stop signs in my brain, telling me what not to do, and who not to be (basically me). And then came all of the rejections from the publishing world, for work my teachers thought would get accepted. It’s demoralizing to be rejected both for who you are and for who you aren’t. It doesn’t leave many options.

            But it would be unfair to blame my fiction block solely on those rejections. I haven’t felt safe writing fiction for a while now, partially because of the external voices telling me that I’m writing all the wrong things, but even more so because I’ve been afraid of the truths that will come out if I allow my imagination to run free. At least with memoir writing, I only have to deal with the things I was willing and able to do in my real life; in fiction I would be opening the door to all of the forbidden thoughts: all of the dreams and ideas and impulses I’ve refused to act on.

            The thing I’ve always loved about writing fiction is that I don’t have to worry so much about the truth. I don’t have to worry if I’m misquoting or mischaracterizing someone (or capturing them exactly as they are, but as they don’t want to be seen). I can play. As a kid that meant that I could write wish-fulfillment stories, and send my characters to exciting places and give them of all the money and friends and good looks I could ever want. But even then I discovered that letting my imagination go where it wanted to go meant that other things came up too, darker things that I didn’t want to deal with. I’d try to write my version of Fantasy Island, where everything was supposed to be perfect, and monsters would start climbing up the walls and crawling out from under the beds.

“Monsters?!”

            I kept writing fiction, but I found ways to keep a lid on my imagination, listening to all of the No’s in my head, from teachers and family and friends and writing around all of those stop signs. Each story or novel took forever to write, with all of those interruptions, and the process was not fun, and I became more and more discouraged.

            But I can’t stop writing; that’s not one of the options. I want to be able to convince myself that the rejections are irrelevant, and that instead of writing what I think I am supposed to write, I should write the things I need to write. But even if I can overcome the first set of stop signs, I’m not sure I can convince myself that it’s safe to write whatever comes into my mind. I want to trust myself. I want to be ready to just write and let the chips fall where they may, but what if those chips explode in my face?

“Potato chips?”

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?

Disappointment

            I applied for a fellowship related to my teaching gig at the synagogue, which would have included a free trip to Israel this summer, but I didn’t get it. It was a long shot, because I didn’t have all of the prerequisites, but I applied anyway, because my boss recommended me for it, and because I wanted to go to Israel. It was a big reach, though, and I pushed myself to fight for it, and pushed myself to imagine that I could handle the trip to Israel in the heat of the summer, and I got as far as being wait-listed, which isn’t bad. I know I can apply again next year, and, really, three weeks in the heat of the summer in Jerusalem was probably more than my body could have handled, but…rejection is rejection.

“You were going to go to Israel without us?!”

            It was painful to feel all of that wanting again, too. I’ve almost gotten numbed to all of the hope and rejection around my writing, but this was a new kind of thing and the anxiety and pressure and hope of it didn’t sit well in my particular nervous system. It’s easier just to not think anything big or new is possible, because then I can go along day by day, living in the present, and managing my small amounts of energy while working on long term goals one step at a time. But hope and excitement and possibility revved me up again, and got me thinking about the future, and all of the things I want (and don’t have yet), and all of the things I can’t have and can’t do.

            It’s as if there’s a certain amount of hope my body can tolerate and anything bigger than that is overwhelming and sets up a roller-coaster ride I don’t want to be on. And I’m realizing that I’ve been actively stopping myself from trying a lot of different things, for fear of getting on the hope-and-rejection-rollercoaster. And that’s not good.

“Would I like rollercoasters?”

            I envy people who can tolerate more anxiety than I can, because they can take more risks in life without worrying as much about the mental health consequences if they fail. I want to become one of those people.

            The sadness I’m feeling now, for the most part, is that I don’t have a plan for how to get to Israel yet, and I really want to go. But this opportunity came up out of nowhere, so maybe others will too. And in the meantime I can continue working on my Hebrew, and saving money to pay for the eventual trip, and most of all working hard to build up my tolerance for the hope-and-rejection-rollercoaster, so I’ll be ready to take the risk when the next opportunity arrives.

“I’ll just rest here while we wait.”

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?

Overcome Yourself

I had a professor in college who told me to overcome myself – he said it to everyone, not just me, and he quoted Nietzsche, so he wouldn’t have to completely own the harshness of the directive himself (it wasn’t me, it was that Nietzsche guy, blame him). It was one of his mantras, and he believed it would work for everyone the way it seemed to work for him: overcome your needs, desires, limits, weaknesses, hurts, hunger, pain, exhaustion, opinions – in the service of becoming – what? He never said.

            My sense was that my professor had a very clear idea – from his family, community, religion, or whoever else – of who he was supposed to become, and therefore all he had to do was to make his own internal voices shut the fuck up so he could go ahead and live up to all of those expectations. And he expected me to be able to do the same – except, I didn’t have as clear an idea of who I was supposed to become, and even more importantly, I really didn’t have the skills at self-abnegation that he had.

“Oy.”

            I was, predictably, obsessed with him. I still lived at home, with my father sleeping in the bedroom next door, and I saw this professor as the ideal replacement father, and love interest, at the same time; not that I could articulate that thought out loud. If I’d been able to think those thoughts consciously I would have melted into a puddle of shame, but I can be more compassionate with my younger self, now, and understand that incest leaves marks on your brain that are hard to recognize and harder to remove.

            I’ve been thinking about this professor lately, maybe because of my father’s death last fall, but also because my attempts to figure out how to set my boundaries with other people, and to advocate for myself when my boundaries have been crossed, haven’t been going very well, and I wanted to understand why.

            The dictum – to overcome myself – resonated so strongly with me in college because it was what I’d been hearing my whole life up to that point: overcome hunger (anorexia – check!), overcome your body (over-exercising to the point of injury over and over again – check!), get all of your work done no matter what else is going on (can’t sleep at night but go to school anyway – check!).

“I refuse.”

            But none of those behaviors worked for me long term; because my self, whoever that was, refused to be overcome. When I found books, a few years later, by Geneen Roth, Natalie Goldberg, and Anne Lamott – all encouraging me to listen to those internal voices no matter what the outside world was trying to tell me – I was finally able imagine a path forward that might actually work for me.

In a way, I’ve learned that what works best for me is the opposite of overcoming myself. I’ve learned that what I really need is to have compassion for myself as I am right now, to sit with the pain, or frustration or failure, and offer kindness to myself, instead of impatience and criticism.

“I like the sound of that!”

But it’s so hard to give up the habit of self-criticism, especially when frustration and failure and pain are such regular experiences in my life. I’ve always been warned that self-pity, or self-indulgence, or being self-centered or selfish is dangerous, and therefore, self-compassion, which is another one of those self-things, seems like a slippery slope. I was taught to believe that criticism is the ultimate motivator to help you to become your best self, but it’s never been a successful tactic for me. I respond much better to encouragement and validation and support than to criticism, but criticism still feels much more familiar. Kindness is hard to get used to.

“Not for me.”

            The thing about that professor, looking back, is that he didn’t actually live up to his own mantra. He had a reputation, despite being “happily married,” of having affairs with his female graduate students. I don’t know if those rumors were true, but there was something about his belief that he should be able to overcome himself, and his endlessly imperfect efforts to make it happen, that made it possible for me to see his hypocrisy more clearly than I could see it in my father. I also found out that I could disagree with my professor without putting my life at risk, which didn’t feel true with my father, and that gave me the freedom to start moving away from my father’s world and see the possibility of a different future.

            I think I’ve been struggling with setting, and even understanding, boundaries because it’s a more complicated journey than the literature suggests. I can’t overcome other people any more than I can overcome myself, as if it’s just a snap of the fingers and all of the healthy boundaries are in place and consistent and as visible as neon lights.

            But just like I learned how to argue with my professor, and then to argue with my father, in real life and in my own head (where his voice was loud and persistent), I know I can learn how to argue with the voices around me telling me to accept treatment I don’t want to accept. It will just take longer than I want it to, like everything else. And it helps to know that I’ve been on this journey for a long time, and that I’ve made a lot of progress, at my own pace.

            I think I even said to my professor, though I probably only imagined saying it, that I disagreed with Nietzsche, because it made no sense to me that we should overcome ourselves, as if our real selves are, by definition, bad, lying, and unreliable things, when actually these are the only selves we will ever have. And, given that, shouldn’t these selves be precious, at least to us, and to the people who care about us?

            Yeah, I probably didn’t say that out loud when I was twenty. But I thought it, which was a good place to start.

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?

What the #@$% are Boundaries?

            My father created chaos in our house when I was little, intentionally and unintentionally, because it worked for him, but living in his house made me feel like the floor was going to drop out from underneath me at any moment. He resented closed doors, even though he wanted to keep his own door closed; and he used all of the bathrooms in the house, even when he could easily get to his own private bathroom in time, almost like a male dog marking his territory. He set the rules, and often broke them, and then yelled at us for breaking rules he’d never told us about. All of that has left me handicapped when I try to figure out what “normal” boundaries should be, and when I have the right to enforce them.

“I always enforce my boundaries. Preferably with my teeth!”

And when I realized, recently, how hard (impossible!) it was for me to set boundaries with my doctors, and limit the damage they could do with their comments about my weight and their minimization of my symptoms, I decided that I needed to do some more basic research on boundaries, and figure out what the hell they are.

            First and foremost, when I think of the word “boundaries,” I think of something like a fence or a wall, something solid and visible, but interpersonal boundaries aren’t supposed to be either. I think they’re supposed to be more like the semi-permeable cell membranes we learned about in High School Biology class, the ones that allow some molecules in and not others. But those molecules supposedly got through based on their size, rather than something more vague, and the cell walls were visible, at least under a microscope, and interpersonal boundaries just aren’t.

            Each article I’ve read seems to have a different idea of how to set interpersonal boundaries, and even what they’re good for. One said that boundaries are a way to set a clear line between what is me and what is not me. For example: my father’s feelings, needs, crimes, etc., are not my responsibility, no matter how many times he told me that they were. Another article focused on how boundaries are a way to determine which behaviors you will accept from other people, and which ones you won’t (though they didn’t explain how to not accept behaviors you don’t like, and the assumption that I can just walk away from a bad situation feels dismissive, of me). The articles also talked about different kinds of boundaries: physical, emotional, material (stuff), time, intellectual (this one was blurry to me), sexual, etc.

            My most obvious boundaries are the ones around my body, if only because my internal alarm system is so loud when my physical boundaries are crossed.

“Even I can hear it,”

I remember going to a new doctor when I was nineteen years old, probably transitioning from a pediatrician to my first official grown up doctor, and the nurse came into the exam room before I’d even met the new doctor and told me to take all of my clothes off and put on a paper robe. And I said, well, can I meet the doctor first, because I’m not comfortable taking off my clothes right now. I didn’t think I was being unreasonable at the time, or even setting a boundary, but the nurse got mad at me and brought in someone else from the office to yell at me and tell me I was being obstructive and if I didn’t take off my clothes I would not be allowed to see the doctor. So I jumped off the exam table and walked out. I didn’t choose to set a boundary, I just knew I physically couldn’t take my clothes off. I felt the boundary; though afterwards, of course, I felt guilty for being so immature and uncooperative.

            Covid’s social distancing and zoom meetings have been a godsend for me, because finally everyone else’s physical boundaries have had to be more like mine (no touching and at least three feet away, I don’t know anyone who managed the six foot distance), but I’ve also become more aware of how much less personal space other people seem to need or want, and I’m worried about how I will deal with that again once the Covid precautions end.

            I’m also a big fan of time boundaries – like the ones created by a forty-five minute session with my therapist, or an hour and a half limit for a class, but I’m not good at setting those time boundaries myself, like for phone calls or conversations that I wish were much shorter than they turn out to be.

“I think the phone should never ring.”

            I’ve been told, many times, that my boundaries are too rigid and keep me isolated from other people, but my rigid physical boundaries are there to protect me from my more blurry emotional boundaries: like my inability to recognize what’s my fault and what’s not, or what’s my responsibility and what isn’t, and my fear of telling people to stop hurting me when their weapons are words instead of hands.

            It seems like, in order to relax my rigid physical boundaries, I’ll need to learn how to say no to conversations I don’t want to have, and to believe that I have the right to my own feelings and beliefs and opinions even when someone else disagrees with me. But it all feels so uncomfortable. I struggle with navigating the gradual boundary crossings required for building friendships, because each small step closer to another person feels like I’m losing control over my boundaries completely.

I remember when we adopted Butterfly (an eight-year-old Lhasa Apso rescued from a puppy mill after many litters), and her boundaries almost glowed around her. When she was in the cage at the shelter, she was desperate for contact and outgoing, licking me through the bars of her cage, but as soon as she was taken out of the cage she was terrified and unsure where to look or what to do. She healed so much in the almost five years we had with her, but she never became like Cricket, who always needs to be physically attached to, preferably suffocating or pinning down, her people.

Miss Butterfly

Butterfly knew she had a home, and enough to eat, and a lot of love, but she was never quite sure that the people who were being kind to her one day would still be kind to her the day after that, and she seemed to wake up each morning needing to test the air, just to make sure her world hadn’t changed again. And that resonated with me. I still do that, unconsciously but consistently, every day, worrying that my good fortune is about to run out.

Ellie, who came to us from a home breeder, instead of a puppy mill, and was retired from breeding at age four instead of eight, is still unwilling to stand up to Cricket’s boundary crossings and bullying, choosing to walk away rather than fight. And I see myself in her too: the way I can be overly accommodating, at times, because I’m afraid of what will happen if I say no.

“Uh oh!”

            It’s interesting, though, that I am comfortable sharing so much of myself in my writing. It’s as if the writing itself acts as my most secure boundary, allowing me the time I need to choose what to share and what to keep to myself. If I could take a time out during a conversation, in real time, and think about what I want to say instead of saying the first thing that comes to mind, I’d feel a lot safer. But I haven’t figured out how to stop time, yet. It’s been a lifelong goal, though, and at this point I have about equal faith in my ability to develop magical powers as to figure out how to set healthy boundaries and enforce them.

“Could we have magical powers too?”

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?

My Latest Symptom

            The most recent embarrassing symptom of my autoimmune/connective tissue/who-knows-what disorder was a wound on my lip that refused to heal. Actually two. The first one was on the right side of my lower lip and lasted at least three weeks, and as soon as it healed another one opened up on the left side. I can’t even explain the frustration I felt when, after less than a day with actual normal skin, a new wound opened up.

“You looked really weird, Mommy.”

            This would have been fine, though, if every time I was in the view of other human beings I was wearing a face mask, but I teach online once a week, and take a Hebrew class online twice a week, and I was supposed to record another choir video, so it was been an exercise in holding my head at funny angles, rejiggering the lights, and trying not to feel embarrassed when my still bleeding lip, or any of the many different scabbing stages, were visible. Only one of my students mentioned it, and I’m assuming that everyone else was either being polite or not actually paying attention to me (which is more likely).

“Were you saying something?”

            The oral pathologist said the lip wounds were probably caused by a combination of the Lichen Planus (an autoimmune disease that impacts the inside of my mouth and also my lower lip for some reason), and the way the face masks keep moisture in, and the steroid gel I have to use to control the Lichen Planus (which barely works, but successfully thins my skin). He wasn’t concerned, though. He was also unconcerned that there was an ulceration on the side of my tongue, and raw red skin on the inside of each cheek, and gum irritation that will lead to more and more problems in the future (his nurse joked that I should save my money for all of the dental work I will need – Ha ha! So funny!), all of which has made eating a painful experience for quite a while now. But other than that, sure, no big deal.

            The thing is, if I could just be sanguine about my symptoms and accept them as a passing experience, maybe I’d be okay. But instead, I end up feeling like these symptoms are proof that I am a disgusting and unlovable creature. I feel like a throwback to biblical times, when Miriam (the sister of Moses and Aaron) was punished with a skin disease for being a gossip. I’ve been putting off teaching my synagogue school students about Tzara’at – the skin disease Miriam, and others, were supposedly punished with for their “bad speech,” because I really don’t want to risk them thinking this lip thing is going to happen to them too. And, really, I don’t want to risk convincing myself that there’s something to that argument. I mean, if gossip caused skin disease none of us would have any skin left!

“What?!”

            As soon as my lip healed – mostly – I rushed to do my choir recordings before a new wound could open up, and I made it with one day to spare before the deadline (I really did not want to explain why I would need more time). And instead of worrying about my lip, I was able to worry about the glare on my glasses, and the break in my voice when I had to move from the lower notes to the higher notes, and the flyaway hairs escaping from all sides of my ponytail, etc., which was a relief.

            I don’t know what my next weird symptom might be, because it’s generally unpredictable, and I’m not so evolved as a human being that I can be blasé about symptoms that impact how I look. But for now, I’m going to make the most of the feeling of freedom that comes from being able to turn my head from side to side while I’m on screen, and eat salty food without fear of excruciating pain, and knowing that if I fall into the depths of despair in the next few days it will be about something other than how I look on Zoom.

“I think I look pretty good.”

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?

Self-Advocacy, or The Sky is Falling

            Ever since we moved into this apartment nine years ago there’s been a sort of splotch on the ceiling in my bedroom, next to the overhead light and the broken ceiling fan. We were told early on that the splotch was insignificant, because there was no mold or mildew or any water leaking in from the roof, so, just ignore it. And since the splotch never seemed to change color or get bigger, we ignored it.

“It looked like a chicken to me. I didn’t ignore it.”

            But a week or so ago, I noticed big white flakes of something on my bedroom rug. We had just recently gotten rid of the old couch in the living room, the one that left tiny black flakes of fake leather everywhere, so I sort of thought I was being punked (by Cricket?). My other thought was that Mom was making a quilt with small pieces of white fabric and the leftovers were being tracked into my room by doggy feet. Up close, though, the flakes looked like pieces of eggshell, and then I was annoyed, because Mom has a habit of giving the dogs special treats while she’s making dinner, that they then drag into my room and spread on the floor (I can’t count the number of times I have tripped over carrots on my way to bed), but I couldn’t imagine she would have given them hard boiled eggs with the shells still on, so I called Mom in for her opinion of what the hell was scattered across my floor.

            As soon as Mom saw the eggshell-like pieces on the floor she looked up, so I looked up too, and then it was obvious what the problem was: my ceiling was shedding flakes of white paint. The splotch on the ceiling was bigger, and pieces of white paint were missing and others were dangling from the splotch.

            Mom made some phone calls and found out that my splotch was not the only one in the co-op – there were vents on the roofs of all of the buildings and when we had our recent heavy snowfall everyone who lived under one of these vents had the same leaks, and probably the same splotches. The advice Mom was given was that we sweep the excess paint off the ceiling and ignore it, because we’d have to wait until the weather warmed up before the roofers could get to the repairs.

            And when Mom told me this, I said, oh, okay and I shrugged. The sky is falling. Oh well.

            I’m not proud of myself for being like this, there are just certain areas of my life where my self advocacy skills, or my willingness to fight, are nil. I’m lucky that I have Mom, because she’s much better at making the phone calls to at least demand answers, but I won’t have Mom forever, and I don’t know how to teach myself to become more like her, or even feel empowered enough to believe I have the right to ask for what I need, let alone what I want. I’m much more likely to hide under my bed, or hold my breath and wait.

“I can hold my breath, too.”

            The need for self-advocacy has also come up – a lot – with my health, and it presses all of my buttons: my feelings of invalidation when people ignore me, my lack of self-worth because I feel like they’re right to ignore me, my anxiety about saying the wrong thing and getting in trouble. And the reality is that my attempts at self-advocacy have, historically, left me feeling depleted instead of empowered, because I couldn’t convince the doctor, teacher, publisher, etc., to take me seriously.

“I’ll bark at them for you!”

            As a result, I’ve been doing a lot of research on the subject of self-advocacy, to try to build up to being better at this And so far, the advice has been overwhelming: reward yourself for every attempt at speaking up; decide what you want, and what you are willing to settle for; be clear and concise; be consistent; identify when the other person is being unfair; remember that you have the right to change your mind; make sure to ask for what you want; feel free to express your feelings; and to say no, and to make mistakes; and demand to be treated with respect. And that’s just the short list.

            So it’s not surprising that I still wasn’t up to doing anything different when I went to my most recent doctors’ appointments, but I felt like a failure anyway, because I fell back on my usual coping behavior, which is to make jokes and smile, even when I feel crummy; and to remember the crazy things people say to me, but still smile and nod while they say them. That’s what has allowed me to survive a lot of bad doctor visits in the past, and a lot of everything else, so it’s been hard to give it up.

            Even so, I’m still trying to push myself to fight harder for the things I want, especially to not take failure as an inevitable proof that I am undeserving. I believed, for a long time, that if I deserved good things they would just happen, and therefore when those good things didn’t happen, I must not deserve them. I’ve started to rethink those assumptions, but fighting for myself is hard. It means being willing to keep sending my writing out despite endless rejections, and it means trying to believe that my work is still good, even when ten, or fifty, or a hundred publications tell me that it’s not what they’re looking for right now.   

“It’s exhausting.”

            I wish these lessons could be easier to learn, or at least simpler to understand, but as with everything else in life, it’s complicated. Sometimes taking no for an answer, either from my own body or from something or someone out in the world, is the best choice, so that I can conserve my energy for the next fight. And sometimes the fight itself, convincing myself that I deserve to be heard, is worth the effort, even if a good outcome is unlikely.

            Looking back at the list of advice for how to become a better self-advocate, the one thing that sticks with me is the idea that I should reward myself for each attempt, no matter how unsuccessful. I’ve always done well with rewards as motivation. If I can watch a fun movie while I’m on the exercise bike, then I’m much more likely to make it through the full forty-five minutes, and look forward to getting back on the bike the next day. And if I know that the dogs will be at the door as soon as I come home, throwing themselves at me with relief, it’s much easier to go out in the first place.

            So I’m going to start thinking of possible rewards to pair with speaking up when a doctor tries to blame my health problems on my weight, or to pair with sending out an essay to a new publication. At this point, though, I can’t think of any reward good enough to make me willing to allow a stranger into my room to fix the splotch on the ceiling, so that one will have to wait.

“Have you ever tried chicken treats?”

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?

The Unseen Coyote

            As the title of this blog post suggests, I have never seen the coyote rumored to live in the woods behind my building. The first I heard about the coyote was late one night, in the freezing cold, when Cricket and her Goldendoodle friend Kevin were having a battle in the yard, and Ellie was trying to sneak back to our front door, and Kevin’s Mom said, so, did you see the white coyote?

“The what?”

And my first thought was, nah, probably just a new cat, with long legs. Humans have vivid imaginations. We get a lot of stray cats visiting around here. There’s the brown and black striped cat, and the black cat with two white feet, both way too fast for Ellie to catch them, though she always tries. Sometimes we see raccoons and possums and voles, and of course we are inundated with brazen grey squirrels, and then there are the mourning doves, and wrens and starlings and cardinals and robins and blue jays, etc, etc. But a coyote, that’s new.

Not my picture

            I read an article that said urban or suburban coyotes rarely attack humans and can easily be scared away by hand waving and loud noises – which could explain why I’ve never seen the coyote; I’m always out there with Cricket, who makes a lot of noise, and Ellie, who runs like she’s ready to fly in three directions at once.

“Weeeeeeeeeee!”

            Also, coyotes are generally nocturnal and my dogs are easily spotted at night – being white and fluffy – so the coyote probably hides behind the huge downed tree at the edge of the yard and waits for us to go back inside before doing whatever it is that coyotes do.

            Supposedly, when I hear what sounds like a goose being strangled by a cat late at night, it’s actually the coyote. I don’t know if this is a single coyote or a mated one, out searching for a light meal for two. I guess we’ll find out in a few months. Coyotes mate in February (for Valentine’s Day?) and give birth in April.

Not my picture

            It’s possible that I did see the coyote once, actually because I saw what I thought was a really long-legged cat running up into the woods one night, and was surprised that Ellie didn’t try to chase it. Ellie seems to have given up on catching a squirrel, but she still believes she’ll be able to outrun a cat, one day.

“I can do it, Mommy!”

            I’ve made a point of holding onto Ellie’s leash after dark, ever since I heard about the coyote and was warned with horrific stories of pets being abducted never to be seen again (similar to the horror stories of small dogs being carried away by hawks), but given that some of my neighbors leave food out for the stray cats, and others leave food out for the birds, the coyote can probably live pretty well here without having to hunt for anything larger than a mouse.

            So, I guess we’re okay for now. And it gives us something to talk about when the dog walkers meet up in the yard at night. I wonder, though, if while the humans are sharing scary stories about the dangerous white coyote who stalks the woods, the dogs are rolling their eyes at each other and saying, oy, humans are so silly. Bob’s harmless.

“How did you know?”

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?