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End of the Synagogue School Year

            I need time to stop again. I keep needing time to stop; keep needing a chance to catch up with my life, because it’s running too far ahead of me.

“I’ll catch it for you, Mommy!”

            I’m looking forward to the end of the semester, and the beginning of summer vacation, because I need a break; but it’s sad that this will be the end of working with this particular group of kids, and probably this particular teacher’s aide, all of whom have had so much to teach me. There’s so much more I want them to learn, too.

            I feel pretty good about what my students have learned this year in Judaic Studies – both the ethical lessons from Leviticus and our virtual travels around the world to visit different communities of Jews throughout history. I keep finding more places and more eras where Jews have lived interesting and unexpected lives, and I love that I get to share all of this with the kids, and help them build a wider and deeper and more flexible idea of what it can mean to be Jewish. But their Hebrew needs work, and there are so many lessons I’ve had to cut from my lesson plans in favor of something else – a holiday, a musical event, etc. – and could never find time to add back in.

            But also, I get anxious before each class: worried I’ll leave something out, or miss something that’s going on with them. My expectations of what I should be able to do two afternoons a week, in eight or nine months, is out of whack with what’s truly possible, but still I always feel like I’m falling short.

“Did you just call me short?”

            Of course, part of my summer vacation will be spent revising lesson plans to see how I can fit more in, and teach things more effectively. I need to work on my ability to teach through games – especially games like Jeopardy, which my teacher’s aide did with the kids twice this year to spectacular effect. And I need to figure out how to repeat lessons more often, but in different ways, until the material really sticks, for most of them rather than just for some of them. And I want to revise my readings to better fit their current reading levels.

            But before I do that, I need a nap. And I need a chance to refocus on my own work and my own learning process and getting my own stories told. I tend to live in a state of high anxiety during the school year, and I need to transition out of that into something more sustainable that allows for more creativity and imagination.

“And you need to take your dogs for more walks.”

            But, I’m worried that my teenage teacher’s aide – a fourteen year old boy with the sense of responsibility of someone much older, and a really lively curiosity and comfort level with the kids, and of course, an endless supply of ideas for how to gamify learning and keep the kids on their toes – won’t come back next year; that he’ll go on to teach his own class, or leave the synagogue school completely in favor of brighter pastures, like, I don’t know, the school play, or an after school tech club, or starting his own business out of his parent’s garage. And I’m worried about all of the unknowns for next year – whether I’ll have a classroom of my own or stay in the cavernous social hall, whether I’ll have a teacher’s aide at all, and what new and unexpected challenges my next group of students will bring with them. And I’m excited that the kids from my first ever class are going into their B’nei Mitzvah year, and every other week I will get to see them coming into their own and claiming their Jewishness, surrounded by their friends and families. And I’m hopeful about our new educational director and all of the energy and ideas and collaborative spirit she will bring with her.

            But right now, I really need a nap. I need to rest and recover from all of the lessons I’ve learned over the past three years. I just need time to stop for a little while, so I can catch up with myself, and feel rested and ready for whatever comes next.

“Ah, nap time.”

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?

Cricket Has a Big Mouth

            Cricket has a big mouth. I don’t mean anatomically, because she is a pretty small dog, eleven pounds or so, but she just won’t shut up. She barks at anyone and everyone who dares to enter her yard (it’s a shared yard, for the whole co-op, so people are always coming and going), and she yells at us for all manner of sins: like, not giving her more treats when she’s already had three, or not taking her out as soon as she wants to go, or not being able to figure out what she wants when she’s explicitly barked it at us twelve times in a row.

“How do you not understand me?!!!!!”

            She doesn’t bark at her friend Kevin, the one year old mini-Goldendoodle. She usually just swats at him with her paws to try to get him to pay attention to her when he dares to lie down on the grass and chew on a stick. But she barks at her sister, Ellie, and at pretty much anything that moves.

            If Cricket were more trainable (and she has proven to be distinctly untrainable), I would get her some of those floor buttons that have become popular recently in so many videos, where dogs are able to express themselves in English by pressing specific buttons with their paws.

            The problem is that, if she could actually be trained to use the buttons, she’d stomp on them so hard, and so often, that she’d break the buttons for ‘out’ ‘treat’ and ‘lap’ on the first day.

            Our neighbors, even the ones who like us, say, oh yeah, we heard Cricket through the window. We always know what Cricket is thinking.

            But then, she curls up on her grandma’s lap, or next to Grandma on the couch, or in tiny ball in her own doggy bed, and she looks like the sweetest puppy on the planet. Even with her little pink cauliflower growths, and age spots, and thinning hair, she still looks angelic and adorable and incapable of being difficult.

            But only when she’s sleeping.

            I’m afraid of what’s going to happen when Mom comes home from her hip surgery in a few weeks. I’m pretty sure that I will be the lucky recipient of most of Cricket’s anger when I try to put the dogs in my room to protect the visiting nurse, or when Mom closes her bedroom door at night to protect her new hip from being used as Cricket’s sleeping spot. I don’t know how Cricket is going to survive, or how my hearing will survive, really.

            It’s hard to be wholly negative about Cricket’s big mouth, though, even though she’s also used it to bite me a few times over the years (for daring to bathe her or comb her hair). She is a perfect example of how you can love someone who is deeply flawed. I may not love the barking itself, but I do love how adamant she is about being herself, no matter what, and I love that she knows what she wants and makes sure to ask for it. And while it would be nice if she could lower the volume, or learn from her mistakes, or compromise every once in a while, I know that’s not going to happen. And that’s okay.

            The fact is, Cricket is going to be fifteen years old this July, and she is exactly the same as she was at six months. She has only intensified over the years, like a really stinky cheese. Luckily for both of us, I love cheese.

“Me 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?

Mom’s Hip Surgery

            A few weeks ago, Mom went to a new orthopedist and came home with an appointment for hip replacement surgery in May. She’d been experiencing spasms in her left leg and numbness in that foot for a long time, and while she was in physical therapy for that she noticed pain in her right leg as well. But before she could look into the new pain, she had to get carpal tunnel surgery on her left wrist (to match the surgery on her right wrist from last year), and then she needed a few weeks to recover, and then she got distracted. But in the past month or so she’d started to have trouble walking and was experiencing even more pain than usual, so she made an appointment with an orthopedist.

I barely noticed the appointment on the calendar in the living room, because the calendar was filled with so many other doctor visits, board meetings, quilting groups, and outings with friends, but then Mom became nauseous and so exhausted that she couldn’t get to all of her various appointments for a few days. We assumed it was a reaction to her second Covid booster shot (Pfizer this time), but it went on and on, so she called her Cardiologist’s office to see if it might be something more serious than a reaction to the booster. They gave her an appointment on the same day as her orthopedic appointment, so she decided to go to the orthopedist after all, since she had a few hours to kill before going to the Cardiologist.

            I woke up after she’d left for the Orthopedist, though not long after, because as soon as she closed the front door the dogs climbed up on my bed and Cricket decided to stand on my chest and stare at me until I got up. After breakfast, and a long argument with the dogs about whether or not they needed a second breakfast, Mom sent me a text to say that she was sitting in the waiting room at the new doctor’s office and she was bored. I tried to entertain her, unsuccessfully, and then took the dogs out for their second morning walk (I wasn’t up to another argument with them), and then I stared at the computer for way too long.

“Please play with me.”

I got another text from Mom a while later, saying that the nurse at the doctor’s office had had a similar reaction to the Pfizer booster, and it eventually passed (after three weeks!), but at least it was reassuring to know that this really was a reaction to the shot and not something more serious, so she could cancel the appointment with the Cardiologist, at least for now, which she really didn’t have the energy for after all of the sitting and waiting.

            I wrote back asking if the nurse had had any suggestions for how to manage the symptoms and Mom said she’d forgotten to ask, and then I didn’t hear from her and I assumed she was finally getting to see the doctor. I tried to get some work done (probably Duolingo), and read a few chapters about Disability Inclusion in the classroom, and The History of the State of Israel, and Intuitive Eating (three different books), and then I got another text.

On my way home. Will need a new hip.

Wait, what?!!!!

            There was no answer to my text because she was already driving home, but twenty minutes later I met her at the front door to our building and said, again, What?!!!

“What?!”

            Mom was in her own state of shock, so I had to wait until we were sitting on the couch in the living room and Cricket was ensconced on her Grandma’s lap – as God intended – before Mom could tell me more. The doctor had done x-rays, which, for some reason, hadn’t been done in a long time, and it turned out that Mom’s right hip had no cartilage left and was just bone on bone, and the left hip wasn’t much better. If the right hip went well, they would schedule surgery on the left one a few months later. When Mom asked them how this much damage could have come on so suddenly, the Physician’s Assistant said that people experience pain differently, and it’s possible that her body just didn’t register the pain until it was severe. Mom has always had (very) high pain tolerance, but even for her this seemed extreme. She ate some crackers (still nauseous) and drank some water (mixed with grape juice because that’s how she rolls) and then she convinced the dogs that it was time for a room change and an afternoon nap, but I just sat there on the couch, overwhelmed and struggling to take it all in.

“I’m guarding my Grandma. Keep your distance.

            I was angry at the doctors for not seeing this sooner, and for being so invalidating in their doctorliness over the years; and I was jealous that Mom had an actual solution to one of her health issues; and I was worried about the surgery and the anesthesia and any possible unintended consequences; and I was hopeful that this surgery could make a difference in Mom’s health overall, because maybe the more generalized pain she’s been experiencing is actually related to this hip situation and once that’s better she might feel better; and I was annoyed that she would be out of commission just when I needed her help (which I always do); and I was scared overall about her aging and her not being Supermommy forever, and, and, and.

            There was a lot going on in my mind, but within days it became clear that that her doctor – or his office, and the hospital in the city where the surgery would be performed – had it all planned out, with pre-op testing and webinars to explain everything and lists of aftercare devises and plans for a visiting nurse and a visiting physical therapist. All of those preset frameworks were reassuring, to both of us, and made it possible to believe that Mom might just be okay.

            But, all of this reminded me of when I was twenty-two and she (finally) had back surgery for her scoliosis. She was supposed to have it when my brother and I were away at camp one summer years earlier, but she’d had to cancel the whole thing because my father refused to be her support system, and the doctors didn’t have the same kinds of plans in place for outside supports back then. Instead, she waited to have the surgery until I was old enough to take care of her. I’d finished college a few months earlier and looked, from the outside, like a reasonable adult, but we were still living in my childhood home, with my abusive father, and I was still in a deep depression, and I was terrified that Mom would go to the hospital in the city and never come back.

            There were two surgeries, a week apart. After the first surgery, I sat up with her overnight, ready to drive her to the emergency room if necessary, trying to distract her, going out to get her medication, making toast and eggs, and then going to the library for recipe books so I could make her more food-like food when she was ready to eat it. She needed help washing her hair, and getting from one room to another, and I had to set my alarm for every three hours so I could remind her to take her medication overnight before the worst of the pain could kick in.

            My father drove me in to the city to see her after the second surgery, and being alone in a car with him felt like a hostage situation, wherein he pretended he was the best father in the world, but it was the only way for me to see Mom.

            My brother (who was finishing medical school) drove her home from the second surgery, and then we went through all of the same stages of recovery, with the alarm clocks and the toast and the hair-washing, until she could think straight and start to believe that the pain might eventually recede. The rest of the time, I sat alone in my room, shaking.

            But even before she’d fully recovered, Mom was so much stronger and she was ready to ask for the divorce she’d wanted for years. And, despite all of the fear and pain, those surgeries were a turning point, in both of our lives.

            I have been promised that this hip surgery, and the next one, will be nothing like those back surgeries: nowhere near the degree of danger, or pain, because they are so much better at this now, and so much better at the pre and post-operative care. And we have family and friends offering more help than we can even use, and I am so much stronger than I was back then.

            But, it’s hard not to be thrown back in time. And yet, I want to believe that Mom will feel stronger and more energetic and more secure on her feet once both hips are replaced. I want to picture her sitting on her birthday bench while she recovers, with Ellie by her side and Cricket sniffing every blade of grass in the yard, and the birds singing over their heads ignoring them completely. And I want to believe that this will be another good turning point, for both of us, despite the fear we’re feeling in the moment.

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 afraid of eating less?

            It feels silly to even be thinking about this when I feel so fat and ugly, and so far from being able to lose weight, but this is probably the right time: because I’m not losing weight, and I’m not making progress with Intuitive Eating, and I’m not sure why. I’ve noticed that when I get to those moments where I could stop eating or keep going, a lot of fears come up, and that’s part of what makes me choose to continue eating.

            One of my fears is that even if I lose weight, nothing else in my life will change; nothing else in my body will change, so I’ll still be sick and tired and in pain, and nothing else in my mind will change, either. And if that’s what I’m thinking when I’m trying to decide whether or not it’s worth it to eat the last few bites of something, no wonder I choose the momentary feeling of relief that comes with eating, instead of the fear that I will never feel any relief at all.

            Another fear I’m aware of is that eating less food will lead to depression. I rely heavily on food to make up for the happiness hormones I don’t have in my body (and that my antidepressants can’t seem to completely make up for), and I’m afraid that eating less will mean feeling worse.   But I don’t understand why I feel quite so wretched and impatient and frightened and hopeless over just a few more bites of food.

“We’re starving!!!!!!”

My theory is that, maybe, food has been the secret to shutting off a lot of uncomfortable feelings that I haven’t wanted to feel, and if I eat even a little bit less they will all come rushing back; I will be swamped by loneliness, and impatience, and so much more, like a sleeping giant that I have been drugging into a stupor for years.

            When I check in with myself during a meal I feel uncomfortable in my body, but most of all I hear this crowd of inarticulate mush in my head that I can’t identify, and I can’t tolerate sitting with those thoughts and feelings long enough to figure out what they really are, let alone to manage them.

            All of this makes it sound, to me, as if I should keep eating the way I’ve been eating, because if I stop I will be in hell.

“Sounds about right.”

            But what about all of the uncomfortable feelings that food doesn’t get rid of, and what about the discomfort that eating too much actually causes itself? And what about the idea that feeling these feelings could give me a chance to heal the wounds that created them in the first place?

Except, my brain is so programmed to believe that food is the answer to everything, that even when food doesn’t help I can’t quite believe it. In science I think they’d call that a confirmation bias.

            So I tried to figure out which emotions might be part of the big inarticulate mush I’ve been avoiding, in the hopes that starting to identify the specific emotions could make them more bearable.

“Just feed me.”

Shame is one of the biggest feelings I try to mute with food. I feel it like a heat in my belly, and I felt it most acutely when I was skinny, especially as a teenager. Eating didn’t resolve the feelings of shame in the moment, but as I gained weight the shame started to quiet down.

Anxiety is another big one. Anxiety makes me feel as if everything in my body is in the wrong place: my belly is in my heart and my shoulders are at my knees. Also, I feel sped up, even manic, like I’m jumping out of my skin, and if I eat something I can start to feel more grounded. There are often times when I can write through, or exercise through, a bout of anxiety, but first I have to eat something so that I can even think about a better way to handle it.

            Helplessness and hopelessness bring on an on-the-edge-of-tears feeling, in my throat and behind my eyes, and sometimes an overall body shivering, and food seems to settle my body down, even if it can’t relieve the underlying hurt.

            Disappointment, or feeling like a failure, feels like an overwhelming emptiness in my belly, which is probably why it seems so much like hunger to me.

Loneliness often leads to eating too, because food is like a good friend who knows me and knows what I need without having to ask. When I feel really lonely, the feeling of disconnection is inside of me and makes it impossible for me to connect with other people, but food starts to help me feel reconnected to myself, which is at least a place to start.

            These are the emotions I can identify, but I think there must be so much more that I’m keeping on mute, because I just can’t figure out how to eat less, no matter how hard I try and no matter how many writing/thinking/eating/breathing exercises I put in place. It’s not even that I eat so much; it’s that what I eat, and when I eat, and how I choose what to eat is determined by the need to mute those unbearable emotions, instead of by physical hunger. And until I can feel my physical hunger, and not confuse it with all of these other feelings in my body, I can’t figure out how much I really need to eat and how much is too much. No wonder I felt safer being on a diet for so many years, with someone else to tell me what to eat and what not to eat. As long as they did the thinking for me, I didn’t have to listen to the thoughts in my own head around food, and even if I didn’t lose weight from those diets, at least I felt safer. From myself.

“Oy.”

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?

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?