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Ellie’s Progress

Ellie’s Progress

 

Ellie will be six years old this month and she is basically unrecognizable from when she first arrived as a shy, quiet, skinny little girl a year and a half ago. First of all, she loves to eat. She would eat second breakfast (aka Cricket’s breakfast) every morning if we didn’t keep a close eye on her. Cricket is often blasé about breakfast, but Miss Ellie is teetering on the edge of a weight problem, so we have to be careful. Second, she makes eye contact all the time and has learned to make puppy dog eyes at me to ask for more treats and scratchies whenever she wants them. She barks to go outside, and races across the hall to bark at her friend Oliver on her way out the door. And then she zooms! She does figure eights and spirals and circles out on the lawn out of sheer joy!

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“That’s me!”

She even lets me wash her butt in the sink, even though it scares her, so she doesn’t have to walk around with poop on her butt, the way Cricket chooses to do. And Ellie loves her people. At her most recent grooming appointment the groomer said, a little resentfully, that Ellie has really attached to me now (she was rescued by the groomer in the first place and then came to us).

Ellie with Gerry

“Who are you strange people?”

Ellie still pees too much indoors, though, and despite two wee wee pads (next to the front door and in my room), she still ends up peeing in the “wrong” places too often. But she seems to pee a lot more often than Cricket does, so I choose to blame her particular anatomy for this problem instead of blaming her.

Ellie is all love and enthusiasm, even when she’s sleeping, and she’s not self-conscious about her poochy belly (there used to be puppies in there, so she has an excuse!).

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I finally started to work on training with Ellie a few weeks ago, because she’s been getting extra barky lately and I wondered if teaching her some basic commands might help her as much as it would help me. Up until now I was reluctant to bother her with obedience lessons, because I was thinking of her as another Butterfly (a puppy mill mama rescued at eight years old), someone in need of freedom more than anything else. But Ellie isn’t Butterfly. She’s younger and healthier and less traumatized by her still-difficult early life as a breeding dog with a local breeder.

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“Ellie isn’t me. She’s her own special person.”

And it turns out that Cricket loves to act as role model for our training sessions, gleefully taking treats for every good “sit” and “stay” and “twirl” and “down.” Except that we had to go through an enormous amount of treats just to get a handful of good sits out of Ellie. And the process was exhausting. Ellie seemed to learn “sit,” and then unlearn it, ten times over. Cricket was a very quick learner, way back when (not that it’s done us much good), but while Miss Ellie really tries, training doesn’t seem to be her strength. She actually had solid name recall when we first brought her home (which Cricket has never managed), but that seems to have been the extent of her previous training. I have to use very small treats to train her, because she needs so many repetitions, and I ran out of the special tiny treats very quickly. I’ve been slow to re-order them, because those training sessions exhausted me so much more than they exhausted the dogs.

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“Cricket would have liked a few more treats.”

But even without formal training, Ellie has made tons of progress. When she first came home she was kind of stiff and inflexible, and I assumed it was just her body type. Cricket can curl up in a tiny ball and almost disappear, and I assumed that was just not possible for Ellie. But over time Ellie’s back has become looser, and longer, and she can curl up nose to toes just like Cricket, when she wants to, or stretch out across the couch to connect her people. Her back is like an accordion, contracting and stretching with each breath. She’s also stronger, and faster, than before, and she runs and jumps and begs for kisses while standing straight up on her hind legs.

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“Hi Mommy!”

I can’t train the sisterly relationship, though, so that’s still up to the girls. Ellie will lean on Cricket, and Cricket will lean on Ellie, but only if Cricket can pretend it’s not happening. They sniff each other for information whenever they’ve been apart for a few minutes, and they work together to demand outings, and to warn of incipient attacks by the mailman, but seconds later Cricket will act as if Ellie is a complete stranger who has wandered into our home by accident. Cricket gets especially riled up when she thinks her food and scratchies are being stolen by the interloper. And she can be quite a bully, intimidating Ellie away from the snacks.

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“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

When I try to intervene, Ellie lowers her eyes, as if to say, No, Mommy, Cricket knows best. I’ve tried to explain to Ellie that, clearly, Cricket does not know best, but Ellie doesn’t believe me and I haven’t figured out a way to train her out of her subservience, or to train Cricket into learning how to share. My hope is that, over time, Cricket will learn to find Ellie’s devotion endearing, and start to bend a little bit in return. There will be plenty of treats in it for her when that happens, and she knows it, but sometimes even treats aren’t enough motivation.

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“Wait, when are treats not enough? Cricket, is this one of those unanswerable koans?”

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“Do you see what you’ve done?”

 

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 Struggle to Breathe

 

I’ve started to practice breathing again. It seems like something I should be expert in, after so many decades of doing it every day, but I’m still a beginner. I was inspired to look for breathing exercises because of the opera singer who stood behind me in the synagogue choir for the high holidays. His Baritone was so secure and well-supported that even the sound of his voice made me feel like I had more air in my lungs. But I’ve also been feeling breathless more often lately, and that worried me. I was diagnosed with some kind of minor respiratory issue a few years ago, but the inhaler only made me cough more, so I decided to ignore the problem for the most part.

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“My breathing is fine, damn it!”

Years ago, when I had more energy, and less pain, I used to do Yoga and Pilates regularly, and breathing exercises were a regular part of the process, without much extra effort from me. And recently I realized that, even though I can’t do yoga anymore, maybe I should still be able to breathe.

I went online and chose three exercises from a long list of options: one breathing through the nose, one breathing through the mouth (like sipping from a straw), and one breathing in until my lungs were as full as possible. That last exercises felt impossible and I gave up on it pretty quickly, but I got used to doing the other two, ten repetitions each, every day.

It was really hard, though. I felt like I was drowning when I had to hold my breath. Even when I gradually built up to longer times, inhaling more slowly, exhaling more slowly, and holding my breath without collapsing, I still felt uncomfortable. And then one day it got really hard again. I could barely breathe in, or hold my breath for two seconds, let alone five, or six, or seven. And I got scared and started to picture a future of carrying around an oxygen tank everywhere I go and gasping for breath between each word. But I persisted with the breathing exercises, and after a few days it got easier again. Not easy, but back to five or six or seven seconds of holding my breath without feeling like I was going to die at any moment. And that’s when I realized that my new exercise routine could not only help me build my lung capacity (and my patience, and my voice), but it could also help me recognize the days when trying harder wouldn’t help. That’s a hard one for me. I tend to forget that weakness is real. I tend to believe that if I fail at something it’s because I’m not trying hard enough. But I knew that wasn’t the case here. I knew that I was trying just as hard to do the exercises, or even harder, but my body just couldn’t do it. And when that happens, rest is the right choice. It’s not laziness, or giving up, it’s about listening to my body.

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“I always listen to my body, Mommy. That’s why I can’t hear you.”

I still can’t manage a breathing practice that leads to long meditation sessions, and I’m not singing arias at the Met, but I’m more aware of my breathing now, and the ways my body reacts when I have more and less breath available. And maybe I can tolerate one more second of that drowning feeling than I could before, because I trust myself not to let it go on too long. I’m learning, slowly, what’s real and what’s possible, instead of what I think should be true.

Now, if only I could remember the lesson from one day to the next and not have to relearn it every single day.

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“You probably have dementia, Mommy. And by the way, you forgot to give me my 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?

 

 

My Turtle Shell

 

It’s so hard to stay focused on my own journey, and recognize my own accomplishments, when I’m too aware of how other people are racing ahead of me. I want to congratulate myself for taking the synagogue school teaching job, and for performing with the choir, and for self-publishing my novel, and graduating with a Master’s degree in Social Work and earning my social work license. But instead I’m berating myself for all of the things I can’t do.

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“Want some help with that?”

I am getting by, and functioning to the limits of my current capacity. I know that. I’m not setting the world on fire (as I’d hoped), but I am sending out resumes for social work jobs, and submitting essays to literary magazines. I am writing (though never as much as I think I should), and I am prepping for synagogue school classes as if I were teaching full-time instead of two hours a week. I am studying my languages, and practicing ukulele, and doing my breathing exercises, and trying to exercise my body when I can. But I feel like a failure on a constant basis. I am always trying, and, it seems, never succeeding.

 

People still look at me funny when I say I’m only looking for part-time work, because I seem fine, to them. I feel guilty for “imagining” that I am still struggling in any way, as if I’m choosing to suffer longer than is reasonable, and I should choose not to suffer anymore. I don’t know how to do that, but people keep saying it’s a choice and that I’m making the wrong one.

And yet, I saw a picture on Facebook a few weeks ago, of a turtle who had been in an accident and lost most of his shell, and he resonated for me. The headline of the story was that someone had built the turtle a new shell, with a 3D printer, and painted it in beautiful designs and colors; and with his new shell, the turtle was able to go back to living his very slow, very long life, with his safety and dignity intact. And I realized that I am just like that turtle. I’ve been rebuilding my shell for the past twenty-five years. I don’t know if it never really grew in the first place, or if the one I had was so battered and bruised that it barely lasted into my teen years. And my shell still isn’t whole, and it’s definitely not painted and decorated to my liking, but after twenty-five years, instead of walking around naked and unprotected from predators, I have most of a shell to cover me.

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The 3D shell

I still feel the rain too quickly, and I still take in too much of what other people say to me; I still bruise too easily, and recover too slowly, but I take more risks now. I can even go outside on a rainy day and do a slow little dance between the rain drops.

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“Dancing!”

I’d like to think that, even at my slow pace, I am living my life with dignity, and feeling safe enough to do things in my own unique way. And maybe, someday, I’ll finish growing my shell and even decorate it in a way that celebrates my long, slow, full life.

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“Slow is 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?

 

 

The Harmony

 

When I was eight years old or so, I started going to Saturday morning services in the big sanctuary at my Conservative synagogue. Most of the children in our synagogue went to junior congregation on Saturday mornings, for an hour of prayers and trivia games, meant to fit in between morning cartoons and afternoon gymnastics or computer classes. My brother and I went from the short children’s services in the tiny blue sanctuary, to the long adult services in the cavernous, stained-glass spectacle of the big sanctuary. And we loved it, or at least I loved it. The prayers were more complex, the congregants were happier to be there; but, for me, most of all, there were the harmonies.

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Harmony, like this.

We had a female Torah reader, along with our male cantor, who sat with us in the congregation, except for when she had to go up to chant the Torah. When I was older, she taught me how to chant from the Torah for my Bat Mitzvah, and taught me the different chant for the Haftorah, and for the reading of the Megillah on Purim, but every week, during Saturday morning services in the big sanctuary, she taught me that there was such a thing as harmony. I learned by singing along with her, and somehow it made the songs sound deeper, and truer, and more complete. More than thirty years later I still sing her harmonies without a second thought.

This year, I finally sang with the choir at my synagogue, as an alto, during the High Holidays. The fasting and prayer and atonement, and the endless standing, of the long day of Yom Kippur is meant to be the final lap of the marathon; the gasping, I-don’t-know-if-I’ll-survive, final effort to change course before the rest of the year begins. But it’s not the repentance, or the fasting, or the standing that makes Yom Kippur powerful for me. In fact, if it were only that I would feel dimmed and darkened by the holiday. No, it’s the communal effort of it all, and the way we create energy and joy together, all of us participating – singing, reading, opening the ark, dressing the Torah, carrying it; for some, just the act of coming into the sanctuary to be with the community for hours at a time.

We read poetry and prose during the services at my synagogue, to dig into the crevices and corners of the prayers that we might otherwise ignore as we push our way through the service. This year we read part of an essay by a Reconstructionist Rabbi named Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, called Soul-AR Eclipse, about how we absorb so much of our loved ones that when they die they don’t totally leave us. I believe this. I’ve taken in so much from the people around me, some good for me, some not so good, but they’ve become so much a part of me that even when they are far away, they seem close by.

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Butterfly

dina smiles

Dina

And I think that’s what happened this year as I was singing with the choir. This woman who hasn’t been in my life for many years, was standing right next to me, even singing through me. I felt like an eight-year-old again, singing harmonies, and filled with awe for the music, and the all-of-us. So many years ago she taught me that music can connect us, and help us to express the all-of-it, not just the happiness or the devotion, but everything we feel and can’t find any other way to say. I couldn’t name the feeling at the time, but I felt such relief singing those harmonies, knowing that music could be a conversation, even within myself.

Towards the end of Yom Kippur I went up onto the bima to read a poem by Linda Pastan. I didn’t know why I’d chosen that poem, except that it was one of the shorter readings available, until I read the last lines to the congregation and finally heard the words fully:

“When my griefs sing to me

From the bright throats of thrushes

I sing back.”

 

And I realized, yes, that’s what I do. I sing back. I sing in conversation with grief. I sing in response to grief. No matter what, I sing. And I’ve been doing it for a very long time.

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Cricket sings 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?

 

 

Nonbinary Hebrew

 

I’ve been told, for years, that things are never all black or all white, but shades of gray in between. And I believe that. But I didn’t consider that these shades of grey could be applied to gender as well. The subject came up recently at my synagogue, when the clergy added their preferred pronouns onto their email signatures. None of the clergy members identify as nonbinary, but there are young people in the congregation who do, and this addition was meant as a sign of respect for them.

This is all new to me, and I’m still not sure I understand why someone would identify as nonbinary, rather than seeing themselves as a woman with some traditionally masculine qualities, or a man with some traditionally feminine qualities. But I realized quickly that I would need to think about this in more depth now that I’m teaching in the synagogue school, because Hebrew is a gendered language, like Spanish and French, and there are no clear ways to refer to a person who is nonbinary. Even if none of my students identifies as nonbinary yet, they may have family members who do.

English, surprisingly, is a much more egalitarian language than most, and nonbinary individuals have taken to using the pronoun “they” to describe themselves. The flexibility of the language, and the constant additions that have made English so hard to learn have also made it more capable of meeting our needs as society evolves. Hebrew, on the other hand, is an old language based in a male-dominated culture. If there is one man in a group and the rest are women, we have to use the Hebrew word for “men,” period. If a group of children is equally mixed between boys and girls, we have to use the Hebrew word for “boys” to describe the whole group, because there is no non-gendered word for “children.” This gender preference shows up in all of the Hebrew prayers, which led me to the obvious conclusion, growing up, that God must be a Man.

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“That’s ridiculous.”

When I first read some Hebrew blessings written in female language, a few years back, I felt wildly uncomfortable. It just sounded so strange! And I’m not the only one who found the change uncomfortable, and unsustainable. Women have been trying to push the Hebrew language into more gender equality for decades, without much success.

This whole topic feels prickly and uncomfortable for me, because I default to male gender words in Hebrew without thinking twice. I automatically say boys or men, or refer to male doctors or teachers. And even when I say or write “I” sentences, as part of my refresher Hebrew lessons, I default to male verbs automatically, because it doesn’t occur to me that I might be talking about myself.

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“What about dog words? Is Hebrew all people-centric too?”

I decided to search online to see how other people have been addressing this issue and I found a few articles about a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder who worked with their Hebrew professor to come up with a possible non-gendered addition to the Hebrew language. The two of them were inspired by the introduction of gender neutral terms in Spanish (though I haven’t come across these in my Spanish lessons so far, and only recently heard the term “Latinx” to refer to people of Latin American descent without referring to gender). The system the teacher and student came up with adds a neutral gender pronoun to Hebrew, and a way to construct gender neutral conjugations, at least in the present tense.

This new system has been controversial, and people have found it hard to learn. It’s also not the only attempt to address this problem. A Jewish summer camp in the States (not the one I went to) came up with another gender neutral term, specifically for “Camper,” in Hebrew, though they don’t seem to have gone further than that into adding new conjugations. It’s hard to know if either of these ideas will generalize to society at large, or if a new system will be inspired by them, or if none will take off at all.

And the fact is, it’s been hard for me to get used to using the word “They” to refer to an individual, in English, so I can’t imagine the discomfort Hebrew speakers must feel at being told to learn a whole new system in order to speak their own language correctly. But if we leave things as they are, with no gender neutral terms, where does that leave the people who feel like neither gender describes them? How can they ever feel accepted if they can’t be referred to correctly by their communities?

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“Now you know how I feel. You keep calling me a dog. It’s rude.”

As a society, we make so many assumptions and have so many expectations about ourselves that are attached to gender. Would that change if we all used gender neutral language? Would we lose something that makes our lives meaningful by referring less often to gender? I don’t know. I’ve always considered myself female, and despite whatever discomfort I have with societal expectations of women it still seems like an accurate description of how I experience my gender. But it intrigues me to think about this question, of how much might be roiling under the surface of this dilemma of language. How much of our lives have actually been determined by the language we use to describe ourselves? And what kinds of surprises might we find if we take some small steps towards change?

YG with Cricket

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 Bird’s Visit

During the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the Days of Awe) a bird came to visit my apartment. She showed up midday on Saturday; she was just there when I came back in from walking the dogs, flapping her wings against the inside of the living room window, inches away from the space where she must have accidentally come in (there’s a space next to the air conditioner that Mom uses to give the neighborhood birds their snacks). I tried to show the bird the exit, as gently as possible, but she ignored me.

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“I’m staying.”

I, of course, took pictures of her flying around the apartment, from light fixture to curtain rod to picture frame, thinking she would be leaving at any moment. And when I left to pick up Mom from the train (she’d been out quilting with friends for the day), I was sure the bird would be gone when we returned. But she was still there, and Mom said that she was a (female) house sparrow, based on her size and markings.

We put a few pieces of challah on the window sill in the living room, to show her the way back outside, but the bird picked up each piece of bread and flew it to her safe place (a wooden loom on top of Mom’s bookcase) and ate in peace. Then she took a nap, head curled into her neck, half hidden behind the living room curtain.

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Sleeping birdie.

We were sure she would be gone by morning, after her meal and a long nap indoors, but she woke me up at seven thirty the next morning with a big squawk. She had ventured out of the living room at some point and found her way into my room. And decided she needed company; and that her company should be awake.

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“Something is very wrong with these animals.”

When we all decamped to the living room for breakfast, and the CBS Sunday morning show (Mom watches the whole show just to see the moment of nature at the end), the bird followed. She was very entertaining. She flew back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room to the living room, doing her own version of dog zoomies. She shared Mom’s breakfast (Mom got a picture of the bird eating challah on the kitchen counter), and pooped in all kinds of new places.

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“Don’t poop on me, Birdie.”

Later, the bird even followed me into the bathroom when I went to take a shower (I didn’t notice she was there until too late, but she was kind enough to wait for me on top of the medicine cabinet instead of hanging out in the shower with me. Small favors). Cricket was waiting right outside the bathroom door afterward, horrified.

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“Aaaaack!!!”

By the thirtieth hour of the bird’s visit, Mom was getting worried. She’d reached out to her cyber community and was reminded of the health risks of having a wild bird in the house, because of the poop she seemed to drop any and everywhere. So we removed all traces of food from the kitchen counters, and even got rid of the bread for the outdoor birds. But the bird decided to try the kibble left in the dogs’ bowls, and then she checked the living room floor for any crumbs the dogs might have left behind. Cricket started to notice the invasion at that point, because it was one thing to have a bird flying around in the light fixtures, but something completely different to have a bird calmly walking along the floor, trying to share her food. Cricket’s food is sacrosanct, just ask Ellie.

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“It’s true.”

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“Now where did that fluffy monster hide the treats?”

When it was time to go to sleep for the night, the bird set herself up on her wooden loom again, and she was still there the next morning, though she was kind enough not to wake me up this time. I do prefer to sleep as late as I can.

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Butterfly watching over Birdie’s meeting with Canada bird.

I was seconds away from naming her (Tzippy, short for Tzipporah, Hebrew for female bird) when the bird finally left. Mom plugged the hole next to the air conditioner with a tissue, to discourage her from coming back in, but the bird seemed to have finished her visit by then and didn’t return. There had been a lot of extra squawking outside the windows that morning, maybe from her family or friends, telling her that she needed to come back out to the real world.

 

The depression I felt after the bird left was pervasive. I felt like we’d exiled her. Yes, she pooped everywhere, and didn’t clean up after herself; and yes, she woke me up too early in the morning; and yes, Cricket was getting annoyed with her. But she made me feel special, just by being there. She made me feel chosen.

There’s a moment in the prayer service at my synagogue where we put our arms around each other to say the Priestly Blessing, as a way to celebrate family and community ties. It took me a few years to get used to all of the touching and closeness involved in that blessing, but for the forty-some-odd hours while the bird was staying with us, I felt like she was holding out her wings to be included in our little family group: singing the blessing with us, arm in arm.

And I felt blessed, and full of awe. We focus so much on self-examination and looking for the sins we need to atone for during the High Holiday season, but the bird reminded me that sometimes there’s nothing to atone for. Sometimes your assessment can tell you that you are on track and you are loved, and that you deserve the visit of a little bird to remind you that every day can be full of awe, if you pay attention.

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Bye bye Birdie.

 

 

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?

 

 

A Greek Orthodox Funeral

 

A few weeks ago, I went to a funeral at a Greek Orthodox Church. The death was expected, though still sad. I’d kept in touch with one of my clients (from my senior center internship), visiting and calling her on a regular basis for the past two years. She had been actively dying for at least fifteen years (from cancer), and inspiring everyone with her persistence and her capacity to live fully within her limitations. But for the last year, things were slowly coming to an end and we talked our way through it together; coming to peace with her death, as much as that’s possible.

The funeral was open casket. Jewish funerals are, traditionally, closed casket, so this was not something I was really prepared for. Even from my seat six rows back, I could see her head clearly (they cranked up the bottom of the casket, with an actual crank, to make her visible during the funeral, and then cranked her back down at the end so they could close the lid). I think I was the only one in the room who didn’t go up to talk to her. They had dyed her hair, and put on makeup, so she looked sort of alive, but not really like herself.

The only people I knew at the funeral were from the senior center, and a few family members; everyone else was a picture I’d seen, or a story I’d been told (she was a great story teller). She told me, often, that I should write her life story for her, and I told her, just as often, that I wanted her to write it for herself. But she never did. I know there are rules about this in the social work code of ethics (avoiding dual relationships), but also just for me, writing her stories would have felt like stealing.

I didn’t start crying until the eulogies started. The director of the senior center talked about my former client as if she was right there in the room (she was!), and I used up all of my tissues within minutes, and had to reuse them, until I was basically wiping my face with snot (don’t judge me, I was desperate).

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The saving grace was the distraction of the Greek orthodox rituals. I could focus on my curiosity and hold the grief at bay, just a little bit. The sanctuary had a domed ceiling, and gold painted apostles on the walls, and hidden doors where the gofer (I’m sure there’s a more dignified title for him, but I don’t know it) would sneak in and hand one of the clergymen something they needed. One clergyman was dressed in all black and stood in front of three microphones. The other one wore dramatic white robes, with an overlaid floor length scarf, and had a microphone attached to his head so he could walk through the room and swing incense around the coffin and down the aisle.

They both kept talking about how my former client had “gone to sleep” (at least in the English, I can’t tell you what they said in Greek or Latin). And with the raised pillows, and the hair and makeup, you could almost believe she really was just sleeping. The fact is, she would have loved to have been there, just to hear what people were saying about her, and of course, to critique all of the performances.

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As they wheeled her (now closed) coffin out of the building, the crowd followed her out through two enormous steel doors into the fresh air. Everything about the setting was so dramatic and impressive. She would have loved that.

I knew she was ready to die, and that her body had been ready for even longer than her spirit, and I was relieved for her when the end came. But she took up such a big space in my heart – as one of my first clients as a social work intern, but also as a friend. And I miss her.

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It was a hard day. I sat with my former supervisor afterwards, both of us trying to absorb the loss and put it into some kind of safe, protected place where it wouldn’t leak out into the rest of our lives. But grief doesn’t really work that way. I remember everything: the times when my client was heartbroken, and enraged, and confused, and as lost as a child. The times when I couldn’t wait to see her, and couldn’t stop laughing, and the times when she cut me so deep I could barely breathe.

The idea that social workers can have a full caseload of clients and not be impacted by them, and not care about them, or miss them, or hate them, or love them – is crazy. We’re human. Yes, we have to choose how to behave, given those feelings, and follow our codes of ethics as far as we can, to make sure we are doing no harm, but the connections are real.

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My former supervisor goes to a lot of funerals. That’s what happens when you work with seniors as your life’s work (and maybe why I’m reluctant to follow her down that path, even though I really like the population). You meet people and make connections and do as much as you can to help them, and then, often, you watch as they slip away. Seniors are just as complicated and troubled as everyone else, but maybe more so because they are usually more aware of death, and sometimes that makes them angry, or depressed, or desperate to fit as much as possible into each day, and it can be hard to live up to their needs and expectations.

The funeral did what it was supposed to do: it let me grieve, and it let me say goodbye. But I feel sad that I never wrote my client’s stories down. Even in my progress notes, I didn’t quite capture her voice, and that feels like a loss. For me, for everyone who didn’t get to meet her, and for everyone who did. But I will always remember her, and that’s a good thing.

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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?