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Jigsaw Puzzle Therapy

            I finally got my Covid vaccine booster a few weeks ago. I’d been putting it off, first because I didn’t think I qualified, then because it was unclear if I should get one, and then because I was worried about how my body would react to a third shot (Mom had a bad reaction to her booster shot back in September). My plan was to wait for winter break, so that I could rest afterwards and not worry about having to do battle with, I mean teach, my students. But then Omicron came along, and the doctors on TV who’d been questioning the morality of getting third shots in the United States while poorer countries still weren’t getting their first shots suddenly did a one eighty and said that we should go out and get our boosters, yesterday. And, of course, by that time all of the appointments had been taken, by other adults getting boosters and by the kids getting their first and second shots. But then my synagogue magically sent out an email about a booster clinic happening at a local college, and I found an appointment right away, and since the boosters were now half the regular dose, instead of the full dose Mom got in September, the only side effect I experienced was pain in my arm at the site of vaccination for two days.

“Two days without enough scratchies. Harrumph.”

            And yet, once that anxiety was out of the way, I was still anxious. Very anxious. So it wasn’t just Covid, or Omicron, causing my anxiety, it was more than that. At around the same time, I realized that I was not up to thinking about New Year’s resolutions this year, because I’m still struggling with the ones from years past: trying to get my writing on track, working on Intuitive Eating, trying to figure out better ways to deal with my health, etc. I was actually offered a good part time job as a social worker, by someone I really respect, and I couldn’t take it because two full days at work would wipe me out for the next two weeks. It’s become clear to me that I am an even slower turtle than ever, and that that’s where the anxiety is coming from.

            But I can’t fix my health issues all of a sudden, or become someone who makes changes at the speed of light, and I realized that what I still need to work on most is how to accept where I’m at, and respect my own pace, without letting the anxiety overwhelm me.

            One thing that’s been working for me lately is jigsaw puzzle therapy: whenever I feel anxious about all of the things I haven’t done yet, or feel so confused and discombobulated that I can’t even figure out what I’m feeling, I work on a jigsaw puzzle. I like everything about jigsaw puzzles: the sorting, matching the colors and patterns, the image gradually appearing in front of me like magic, the sense of accomplishment, and then the chance to start over from the beginning and do the whole thing again.

           I used to have piles of jigsaw puzzles in the old apartment, because they helped untie the knots that kept me locked in place. I was so thrilled when I was able to give those puzzles away, because I’d found other things that helped even more: like knitting and baking and cooking, and eventually going back to school. But lately, I’ve needed my jigsaw puzzles again. They don’t require a lot of physical effort, and they don’t inspire too much self-criticism; they just activate the analytical and visual parts of my brain and help me slow down my thoughts to a more reasonable pace, so that I can try to deal with them one by one.         

“Hmm. One toy at a time? Interesting idea.”

   And knowing that I have jigsaw puzzle therapy available whenever I need it makes it easier for me to test my boundaries in other ways, with more baking (a Mille Crepe cake that took all day to make and came out sort of Meh), and more outings (HMart, the Korean market, was a mushroom bonanza!), and more essays delving into the past, bit by bit.

            I’m looking forward to a time when I won’t need quite so much Jigsaw puzzle therapy to help me through each day, but until then I’m happy to have something that works for me (and, conveniently, pairs so well with binging on Christmas movies!).

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?

Part of me

            There’s a part of me that really really wants to be cool; wants to be liked not just by the nice people, or the empathetic people, but by the mean ones, the materialistic ones, the narcissistic ones who couldn’t care less about me or anyone else.

“Wait a minute. Why is my picture here?”

            This part of me doesn’t much like the rest of me: the chubby, exhausted, sympathetic, empathetic, creative, turtle slow, endlessly curious majority of who I am. She wants me to stop eating, completely, and to stop writing a blog that brings in no money, and to stop thinking about what I want or what feels satisfying and do what will make me rich and famous.

            I was not especially successful in my attempts to be cool as a kid or a teenager (or ever); first and foremost because I couldn’t figure out what “cool” might mean in any given situation. At first I thought it had to do with my clothes, or the music I listened to, or my clunky glasses, but over time I realized that it had a lot more to do with how cool, or cold, a person could be – seemingly indifferent to the opinions of other people while still being able to meet or surpass all expectations.

            I am not good at being indifferent. If I cause someone pain, even accidentally, I feel the guilt for years, not just hours. I don’t “play it cool” very well, or hide my emotions successfully. My eyebrows jump up and my cheeks turn red and I cry easily. I am no one’s idea of impervious.

“That’s one of the things I love about you, Mommy.”

            But I still have this part of me that believes I SHOULD be cool, and believes that I am all wrong the way I am, and believes that if I were cool and indifferent and mean then I’d be successful. And this part of me has always been there in the background yelling at me for being such a loser.

            I know where she learned this: at school, at home, at camp, at my best friend’s house, pretty much everywhere there were loud voices telling me that my problem was that I was too nice and too much of an emotional sponge and if I could just stop reacting to everything then people would stop picking on me. And if I would just do what was expected of me – marry the right man, get the right job, have the right number of children, etc., I’d be fine; if I would just stop being so permeable, and stop trying so hard to be good (which is clearly a waste of time) and learn how to climb the ladder, no matter whose neck is in the way, then everything would be right with the world.

            The reality is that the few times I’ve attempted to let that cool part of me take charge I’ve been unsuccessful, both at stomping out my empathy and at ignoring my shame.

            At a certain point, I tried to put that cool part of me in a box, on a shelf, out of the way, because she was causing me so much pain and because I was so afraid she would act out and the shame would last forever. But lately I’ve been wondering if, maybe, I overestimated the threat she posed, and underestimated the pain and fear behind her belief in the need to be so cool.

            What if what I really need is to open that box and let her out, a little bit at a time, in order to offer her comfort and to hear her stories and to help her figure out what she really needs rather than what she thinks she needs?

“She probably needs chicken treats.”

            But I’m afraid. What if I let her out and she pushes me into self-destructive behavior or behavior I will regret, or what if her pain overwhelms me, drowns me, because it’s so deep. I know that more than just her pain and fear got locked away in that box, that other valuable memories and feelings were locked up too. I’m just not sure I’m strong enough to deal with her yet.

            Therapy allows for growth, but it doesn’t make growth inevitable, or easy. It leaves room for the possibilities in all directions. And I still have a lot of calibrating questions to answer, like: when does a healthy amount of self-doubt (as in, I can’t always be right, and sometimes my assumptions will be wrong) turn into an unhealthy amount of self-doubt (as in, I can never be right and I have to trust what other people say about me, no matter how destructive); When does a healthy amount of self-care (resting when tired, crying when sad, eating chocolate cake when necessary) become selfishness (I should have my every desire met at every moment, no matter what the cost to others); and when is it safe to trust other people to see you clearly, and offer constructive feedback, and when is it as dangerous as offering a loaded gun to an enemy? And how do you know the difference?

            I feel like I’m vaguely moving towards a reckoning with this “cool” part of me, but I’m still tiptoeing around her, worried she’ll explode into a million pieces or take me down into the deep with her, instead of coming up to meet me in the daylight. I want to be able to trust myself, my whole self, but I’m not there yet.

“I trust you, 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?

A Day Without Water

            It wasn’t quite that bad; just a day without hot or cold running water in our co-op while the workmen dealt with the pipes. We’ve had days without hot water before, often, because of repairs needed to the old pipes, but all that meant was that I had to delay taking a shower for a few hours, and therefore delay exercising, so I wouldn’t have to sit around feeling sweaty and gross waiting for  the hot water to come back on. But no cold water meant that we have to keep buckets of water in the bathtub in order to flush the toilets, and wash our hands (I made sure to wake up before the water was turned off so I could brush my teeth without resorting to the buckets).

“You could use my wee wee pads, Mommy.”

            It’s really just an inconvenience, a nothing, compared to what most people deal with on a daily basis, but it was enough of an interruption to give me anxiety, and nightmares, and something to think about.

I don’t like to suffer. I’m sure that’s true of most people (though there are some weirdos who think suffering is good for us). I also, though, feel guilty for my resistance to suffering. I feel guilty for wanting to be comfortable. I feel guilty for wanting to avoid pain. I even feel guilty for saying that I feel inconvenienced, as if it should matter.

But this is who I am, and I am annoyed at not being able to press a lever to flush the toilet, and turn a faucet to wash my hands, even if it’s just for one day, or less than a whole day. I’m annoyed, and I’m uncomfortable and I have to deal with it. But how?

“Yeah. How?”

The first step was the practical one: planning ahead. We had to make sure that we had the buckets of water waiting in the bathtub, and fresh water in the fridge. And I needed to get exercise and showering done the day before so I wouldn’t feel so guilty if I had to miss a day of exercise, in case the lack of water lasted longer than expected.

That was the easy part. But then came the anger: Why do I have to put up with this? Why can’t there be some way to fix the pipes without shutting off the water? Why do they have to replace the pipes and the heating system and raise the cost of monthly maintenance? Why can’t I stay in a hotel until the whole thing is over?

I call this stage the Railing-at-God stage, because all of those decisions were made months, or years, ago and there’s nothing I can do about it now (except go to a hotel, which costs way too much money). But I’m still mad and grumpy and I need to whine and get it all out. Most people feel guilty or out of control during this stage, because, logically, whining is pointless, and if something is pointless why would you do it? But I find that the whining happens anyway, whether you like it or not, so you have to find a way to tolerate yourself while you whine and complain, and try to be compassionate. You don’t get to skip this phase just because you’re a good person, or a smart person, or even the person in charge who’s making all of the decisions. You just have to go through it.

“Harrumph.”

But then, for me, there’s the echoing stage – where experiences from my past that are even slightly resonant with my current uncomfortable experience start to pop up. If it’s an issue I’ve dealt with already, it’ll just pop up a little bit and let me know it’s there and remind me of the lessons I’ve learned. I have to be patient and tolerant while I remember those lessons, even if what I really want to say is – yada yada yada, I’ve heard this a thousand times already.

But then there are the memories, or feelings, or snapshots pieced together in a kaleidoscope, that I haven’t fully dealt with yet, and will now have to feel, against my will, for as long as they need to be felt.

Damn them.

“Yeah. Damn them.”

This time, as usual, that phase came in the form of dreams. There was the truly horrific nightmare about babies being suffocated at birth by mothers who felt they had no choice; then there were upsetting dreams about being back in elementary school, at my current age, and dealing with girls who didn’t like me and didn’t think I was cool enough and yet wanted me to take care of them anyway; and then there were those those endless bad dreams about not being able to find a usable bathroom and opening one stall after another to find stopped up toilets or no toilets at all.

And then I woke up and I raged at my brain for giving me so much crap to think about when I was already annoyed and inconvenienced with the no-water-drama. Damn it!

“Yeah. Damn it.”

But this stage required my patience and my compassion too, and most of all, my attention, because if I didn’t pay attention this time I would certainly have to deal with the same issues again, and again, and again, because the universe is like that. Or humans are like that.

And what’s the lesson I was being taught here? Don’t suffocate the parts of you that you find annoying. Don’t shut out the voices that want to complain or rant or in any other way make you uncomfortable, and don’t imagine that ignoring yourself will make you go away.

We like to say that time heals all wounds, and that this too shall pass, but we don’t spend enough time talking about the work that takes us from one side of that gulf to the other. Time heals nothing on its own. We have to be willing to use the time to heal, or else time just passes and we don’t heal.

“I’m healing, Mommy.”

It all sucks, and I hate it, and I resent it, and it goes on forever and I want to scream and make it stop. But I still had to live through the inconvenience of the no-water-day, and feel all of the feelings and think all of the thoughts, and maybe, if I’m lucky, by the end of the day, another one of my deep wounds will have started to heal. And if I’m not lucky, I’ll get another chance to do this work in the near future, and then twenty times after that, until I get the lesson. And even then it will still pop up and remind me it’s there, just to check and make sure I’ve got that lesson and can move on to the next one.

“How about this one?”

I so wish it didn’t work this way. I wish there was a pill to take, or a cave to sleep in for twenty-some-odd years while Time Heals All Wounds. But nope. It’s this tedious feel-your-feelings, think-your-thoughts, grieve-your-losses thing, over and over and over again.

But the water did come back on at the end of the day, and I was able to wash my hands as many times as I wanted and flush the toilet extra just because I could. And the next day I was able to get on the exercise bike and do my forty-five minutes while watching a French murder mystery, and take a shower, and imperceptibly, feel a little lighter as I went on with the rest of my life. And over time, each of these obnoxious, uncomfortable, interminable lessons can stack up into real change, and real relief, and real healing. Because, time heals all wounds, just not by itself.

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

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

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

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

“Never. Absolutely never.”

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

“What does invasive mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds good!”

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

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

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

“Wait. What?!”

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

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

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

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

I’m angry.

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

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

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

“Grr.”

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

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

On Loneliness

            Loneliness is a lifelong state of being for me. I was a lonely child, because I couldn’t share my world with anyone. I loved my big brother, but there were so many things he refused to hear, refused to say, refused to see. I loved my best friend, but she didn’t love me back. She tolerated me, she accepted my presence, but she didn’t understand me and didn’t want to. I thought that was my fault, by the way, because I wasn’t rich enough or pretty enough or clever enough, but, and this is something I’ve only recently figured out, it wasn’t about me; which doesn’t solve anything, or heal anything, for either of us, but it’s true.

            I loved my parents, but my mom was deep underwater, in an abusive marriage. And my father. Well. His idea of love was loyalty and control in only one direction. He was a bruised and broken child himself, who never healed, or ever tried to.

            I lived in this kaleidoscope of broken people, always moving around each other, never fitting together into a whole. And at school, even though the other kids didn’t know any of this, they knew. They knew that I bothered them, upset them, and scared them, just for being me: for being nice to people who hurt me; for helping people who looked down on me; for showing everything on my face that they were able to hide and thought should be hidden.

            I learned, over time, how to act like I was normal, or something like it. But there was still something too honest about me, and it hurt people to look at me, and so they hurt me, as if I’d done it on purpose; as if my sadness was an attack on their otherwise peaceful lives.

            I’ve worked hard to make connections with people, and to chisel away at the loneliness, but it is still there, and still informs everything I do. It makes me more desperate to have my say and to be heard; and it makes me more sensitive to the pain of others; and it makes me more frightened, of everyone, because I know how badly they can hurt me.

“I would never hurt you, Mommy.”

            In a way, isolation has been my way to protect myself from having to feel too much of the loneliness at once, because the feeling is most profound when I am closest to other people.

            I don’t know if any of this is true for other people, or for what percentage of other people. I know that some people use their loneliness to excuse acts of emotional and physical violence against others. I know that some people use loneliness to spur active and crowded lives. But most people don’t talk about their loneliness in public. Most people act as if they are fine; and even if I can imagine that there’s something behind the mask, I can’t presume to know what that is, and so my loneliness persists.

“I never hide my feelings behind a mask.”

            Loneliness is probably the echo underneath everything I write and everything I do – and it hurts, a lot. It doesn’t resolve. It doesn’t dissolve. It doesn’t disappear. There are other feelings that persist from my childhood, like shame and fear and guilt and physical pain, but loneliness is the most pervasive; it’s the one that follows me everywhere I go, even when I am otherwise happy and well.

            I don’t know why I wanted to write about this. Maybe because I’m starting to wonder if the loneliness will ever recede; and to wonder if I’m perpetuating the loneliness, even causing it, without any idea of how to stop.

            We have these ideas about healing – that it can be fast, and complete, and willed into fruition – but none of that tracks with my experience. Some wounds don’t heal, or fade, and sometimes we have to accept that our lives will always hold the shape of that pain.

I haven’t reached that level of acceptance, though. I still want the fairytale, with the happily ever after ending. I want, most of all, to be whole.

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?

How do I grow from here?

            I was growing before. I could feel it. My trunk was growing more stable and my branches were starting to leaf, even to flower. But I hit a wall this year, with the extra weight of Covid, and hybrid teaching, and maybe trying to move forward too quickly.

“I’m a blur!”

            I keep watching Hallmark movies, hoping that the gumption and confidence of the heroines will rub off on me. I want to be the kind of person who sees a problem and relishes the chance to solve it; I want to be the kind of person who can embrace change, and persist despite rejection, and believe in my vision of the future and fight for it; but I’m not.

            It’s been a relief, during Covid, to have an excuse not to move faster towards my goals, because my inner clock runs very slowly compared to the normal world. Covid time is much more my speed.

            I know I need to branch out in new directions, but I don’t feel safe out on those shaky limbs. I’ve struggled to decide which risks to take, because I don’t know ahead of time what I’m ready to handle or what will be too much. I’ve had experience with “too much” in the past and how deep the hopelessness and depression can be when what I thought would be a small leap over a shallow puddle turned out to be a swan dive off a cliff.

            I keep hearing the introjected voices in my head telling me what I should do and who I should be, and lately the shoulds have been taking precedence over what I want, and they’ve prevented me from investing the energy and patience I’d need to succeed at the things I really love. Like writing. I feel like the shoulds are yelling at me and the wants are whispering, and I don’t know who to listen to.

            I’m still writing, but the voices keep telling me that I have no right to think of myself as a writer in the face of all of the rejection, and no right to spend time working through plot lines when I should be doing something worthwhile, like teaching, or social work. And when I sit down to write, the voices get louder and louder. I only feel safe working on short pieces for the blog, because the longer pieces are the ones that have collected all of the rejections. It feels like masochism to keep writing things that no one but an intern at a literary magazine will ever see.

“I like to reject people. Deal with it.”

            Is it okay to continue to write when so much of my work has been deemed unacceptable? Is it selfish? Is it self-destructive?

            I’m angry that the rejections have stopped me from writing more, and I’m angry that I can’t shut off my inner critics and get the work done, and then I’m angry at myself for being such a loser and a moron and an idiot, and on and on. My therapist asked me to write down all of the nasty things I hear in my head when I try to write and I filled six pages without ever feeling like I’d scratched the surface.

“It’s exhausting.”

            But I don’t want to give in to these voices and follow the shoulds instead of doing the things I love. I’m so tired of hearing what’s wrong with me, and what’s not enough, or what’s too much, as if the noise is blaring out of speakers everywhere I go.

            So this year, my resolution is to do the work that matters to me, even when it’s hard, even when I have to fill page after page with nonsense before I can get to one good, heartfelt sentence. I hate that it’s so hard to get to the good stuff, but it is, for me, for now.

            And I have to persist.

“I can teach you how to persist, Mommy. It’s my super power!”

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?

Goodbye, My Friend

Teddy

            A good friend of mine died recently. He was a black-haired, gentle-souled miniature poodle named Teddy and I miss him very much. I hadn’t seen him in a while, but just knowing that he was still there, still climbing through his doggy door and sleeping on his Mommy’s lap, was reassuring and made the world feel whole.

            He was fifteen and a half, I think, two and a half years older than Cricket, my cocker spaniel/miniature poodle mix, who adored him from the get-go. He was long-legged and skinny, with hair that quickly covered his eyes between grooming session. He could leap like a ballet dancer, pointed toes and all, or just race full steam ahead to play with a toy. He was full of joy, and love, and seriousness. He was a gentleman, in the way he held himself and in the boundaries he set around himself. If he could have spoken, he would have had a faint French accent, nothing too broad, more like the head waiter at a high-end restaurant.

Gentleman Pose

            Over the past few years he grew blind and deaf, relying on his younger sister to alert him to noises he needed to respond to, and by the end, to alert him to meal time as well. He had been slowing down for a while, but took great joy in his resurgence on CBD oil, it gave him a zest for life and an appetite and the energy to be his athletic self once again. But his final illness came on quickly, shutting down his kidneys. Treatment only relieved his symptoms temporarily, and when the symptoms inevitably returned he was even more confused than before, and unable to feel like his true self. When he stopped eating, his sister stopped eating too, to keep him company, to express her grief at what she instinctively knew was coming, and because when your loved ones are in pain, you feel the pain too.

            He died with dignity, in a way we don’t often allow our human loved ones to do, surrounded by love and by the knowledge that he had lived a full life, a generous life, and a satisfying life. I imagine that when he crossed the rainbow bridge he did a few leaps and arabesques and then raced towards his two golden sisters who were waiting for him on the other side. He would have had so much to tell them about the world they’d left behind, and they would have had so much to tell him about what comes after.

            We tend to think that our role models and teachers will be human, but Teddy was one of my best teachers, and he was truly, and fully, a dog, in the best possible way.

            Teddy was my therapy dog. Not only because he was my therapist’s dog, but because he offered his own version of therapy: a nonverbal, relationship-based therapeutic technique that they don’t teach in school. He modeled for me how to respect your own emotions and your own boundaries even while reaching out to others. He modeled how to be fully yourself and respectful of others at the same time. He, like Cricket, taught me that there is no shame in speaking up when you feel strongly about something. And that there is honor and strength in accepting your own limitations and not forcing yourself into situations where you don’t feel safe.

“I want out!”

            He was a picky little man, with specific tastes in food and people and dog friends, and he chose me. He trusted me, and I felt the honor of that deeply. Teddy taught me that it’s not arrogant or selfish to hold your own views, or to love only who you love. He showed me that you can have those preferences, and know yourself, while still being respectful and polite to those who don’t fit for you – unless they scare you or piss you off, and then you can scream.

“Let’s get ready to rumble!”

            He showed me that you can express your fear and pain, and if you express it fully and truthfully, there is then room for other feelings to come in. He taught me that there is no shame in asking for affection when you need it, and he taught me that there are people, and dogs, who will be honored that you’ve asked for their affection.

            His acceptance of me, his love for me, and his trust of me, was healing on a very deep level. He reflected me back to myself as I really am. He told me that I am kind, I am trustworthy, and I am loveable. And I believed it, from him. I think the fact that he could never communicate in words, which are my stock in trade, also played a role. He reached the parts of me that can’t speak and they heard him and felt comforted by him.

            I know there were times when it wasn’t easy being Teddy. There were a limited number of people that made him feel comfortable, and when he couldn’t be with those people he suffered. I can relate to that, completely.

            He stayed with me a couple of times, in the period after Butterfly died and before Ellie arrived, and after a short period of vocal grief and longing for his Mom, he settled in with us. He set his boundaries with Cricket early on, and she respected those boundaries, and appreciated his respect for her space too. They went on walks together, and ate dinner together and took naps together peacefully, as long as I was there to referee. By the time he had to leave Cricket was forlorn, sleeping in his makeshift bed until the scent of him dissipated.

Teddy on his bed

            The most important lesson I learned from Teddy is that love is a gift. His love for me was a gift. And the love I felt for him in return made me feel strong enough to raise Cricket with love, and then Butterfly, and now Ellie. He taught me that having enough of what you need makes you feel like you are enough.

            Dogs, maybe because they live such short lives, focus in on the most important things: love, food, joy, and safety. They don’t get distracted by appearances or wear the masks we humans wear to get through our days.

Cricket and Teddy napping with Grandma

            I will miss Teddy, but I will also keep Teddy with me, as part of me, for the rest of my life, as a guide, and as a source of energy for the lessons I still want and need to learn.

            Goodbye, my friend. May you feel all of the love you have inspired throughout your short life, and find peace and community on the other side.

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 Fourth Year Dreams

Up until recently, my dreams kept throwing me back into the fourth year of high school, telling me that I still had credits to finish in order to graduate, even though I have three master’s degrees in real life.

The literal truth of the dreams is that, when I went there, my high school had a three year program. It was an Orthodox Jewish high school, and the idea was to graduate us a year early so we’d feel obligated to spend a year in Israel before college. The other literal truth is that I fell apart during my last (third) year of high school, and even though I went to college the next fall (at age sixteen), I was unable to stay there.

Looking back, I think part of the reason for the dreams was wish fulfillment. I wanted to go back to high school and do a fourth year, because I wanted to believe that my collapse in college was caused by not being old enough to handle it. Maybe, I hoped, if I could go back and finish that last year of high school, I would be all better.

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“Hmm.”

And in those early versions of the dreams, my orthodox Jewish high school had a drama department, and art classes, and a therapist (none of which we had in real life). But the dreams still focused mostly on the anxiety and stress of high school, with all of the social failures, and the tests in math, or physics, or social studies that I was wildly unprepared to take.

The dreams kept going, even as I got older and worked to get better. It was frustrating to keep returning to high school as I slept, because when I was awake I knew how much progress I’d made in therapy, in writing, in self-awareness, and in my overall mental health. But the dreams kept reminding me of all of the things I still couldn’t do. With each year I fell further behind my peers: in relationships, and work, and money, and independence. I never stopped trying to move forward, but for every mile my peers traveled I made it about a foot into the future.

Ellie and the Afikomen

“Every step counts, Mommy.”

There’s a theory that if you can work through the issues behind your dreams, then you’ll stop having those dreams, but for a long time I felt like these fourth year dreams were going to haunt me for the rest of my life. And the thing is, along with all of the anxiety and failure and humiliation of the dreams, there was also a sense of possibility; that I could have another chance to learn what I couldn’t learn the first time through.

Gradually, even during the dreams, I was able to remember the work I’d done, and the degrees I’d earned in the real world. And then, after graduating with my Masters’ degree in social work last year, the dreams changed again, and even though I was still back in my fourth year of high school, this time I was surrounded by my former classmates, all at our current ages, and all trying to finish those last few credits. And then, sometime this past fall, around the same time I started teaching synagogue school a few hours a week, my high school best friend appeared in the fourth year dreams with me, despite being married with four children and living in Israel, and it was such a relief to have her there with me, and to feel like we were in this fight together, even if it was just a dream.

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And I started to realize that I’m not alone in this unfinished feeling. When I looked at everyone else’s lives on social media, they seemed to be overachieving and rushing ahead and having a great time, but the dreams were telling me that maybe we each had our own unfinished tasks that we needed to go back and work on. Because we’re all still trying to figure out how to be okay. I started to think that maybe all of those kids I grew up with were having the same fourth year dreams that I kept having, stuck back in those old classrooms while they were sleeping, and maybe that’s why I saw them there so often.

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“Hmm.”

 

I haven’t had a fourth year dream in a while now, and that seems to be a sign that I’ve passed a marker of some kind, and filled a void that needed to be filled. Unfortunately, other bad dreams fill that space now, with other unresolved issues that need my attention, and they seem to think I need to be hammered over the head on a constant basis so that I won’t forget that there’s more work to be done. And, really, I know that there’s still a mountain of work left to do, but it’s nice to take a moment and celebrate that some of that mountain may have finally been chipped away.

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“Did you say 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?

Six Weeks into the Apocalypse

 

After the anxiety phase of the shutdown, which I wrote about two weeks ago, I moved into the depression phase. I got really tired, and started to feel hopeless, about everything. The idea of putting on my mask, and gloves, just to go to the supermarket and possibly find out that they had no toilet paper, or paper towels, or mushrooms, or fat free Greek yogurt, overwhelmed me. I stopped arguing with the voices in my head that were telling me I wasn’t doing enough, and just accepted that they were right. And the nightmares continued. Night after night, from the safety of my home, where I have more than enough, I imagined myself lost and lacking in everything.

In my waking life, I did everything I could think of to manage the gradually lowering clouds, and the thinning air, of my emotional world: I watched Steven Colbert, and his dog; I watched Rachel Maddow, and wondered why she didn’t bring her dog to work with her; I watched the news as selectively as possible, and I went to my Zoom events, and worked on my lesson plans, and exercised, and played music, and cuddled with my dogs. But I couldn’t push the grey clouds back; they just kept coming closer and closer, squeezing me into an ever smaller corner of my world.

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I tried to count my blessings, and my successes from the past year, but my brain turned everything into the wrong thing. And, suddenly, all I could focus on was the wasteland of Cricket’s hair; her matted ears had become the measure of my self-worth. No matter what else I might accomplish, the fact that Cricket wouldn’t let me brush out the mats on her ears meant that I was a useless piece of shit, not just as a dog mother but in every possible way.

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“I look beautiful. I don’t know what you’re kvetching about.”

Ellie, reluctantly, let me clean her eyes, and her tushy, when necessary; and, with very sad eyes and a light grumble in her throat, she even let me comb through the more stubborn mats in her hair. Cricket, on the other hand, got crazy eyes and bared her teeth at me if I even looked at her ears. Cricket tends to see grooming as a war, and a war that she usually wins.

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“Grumble, grumble, Mommy.”

I tried everything I could think of. I loaded her up on treats before even introducing the comb or the scissors. I tried raising her dose of anti-anxiety meds, and even giving her the Ace pill she takes before a regular grooming visit, but her anger only increased.

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“I won’t back down!”

A few days ago, I finally had the energy to put Cricket into the bathtub, despite my rapidly depleting sense of self, and I was able to remove about twenty-five percent of the mess (fresh clean butt!); and then, during her after-bath-zoomie-tantrum, she wiped her face on every piece of furniture and dislodged even more of the muck, some even under her eyes, where I always worry that she will get an infection from the clumped, wet hair, that absorbs her eye goop.

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“You cannot take my eye goop!”

But despite every effort, and my increasing attempts at stealth, there’s still so much left to clean and trim, and I have very little confidence that she’ll let me do it.

It’s a sign of my looming depression that I am taking Cricket’s behavior so personally. I’m not in a full depression yet, thank God. Therapy and medication have made it harder for my system to fully shut down, the way it’s done in the past, and I’m doing everything I can think of (diet, exercise, social connections, entertainment, etc) to stay above water; but I can see the cliff coming, and I’m afraid, because once the depression takes over it’s very hard to pull myself back up.

I’m hoping that Cricket reads this essay and, out of pity, allows me to at least trim the hair under her eyes, to help stave off my depression. She’s a very smart dog, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s taught herself how to read; but making a sacrifice to save someone else’s life? That might be expecting too much. Even if that life is mine.

067

“No. Just no.”

Obviously, Cricket doesn’t think her sacrifice is necessary yet, and maybe she’s right. I’m not looking over the edge of the cliff yet, I’m just worried that it might come to that, the longer we stay shut down and unsure of what’s to come. But, really, if Cricket walked up to me and offered her ears for combing, that would be a true sign of the apocalypse. So, maybe I should count my blessings and be grateful that we haven’t crossed that line, yet.

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“Can you blame me? This is what happens when I let them near my hair!”

 

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?

When My Therapist and I Disagree

 

My therapist and I usually agree, so when we don’t it’s jarring and upsetting, to me if not to her. Most often when we disagree it’s about how I’m doing. She generally thinks I’m further along in therapy than I think I am. And it’s annoying, because when I walk into her office feeling discouraged or overwhelmed by tasks I don’t think I can do and she says, Nah, that’s not a problem, I feel, suddenly, all alone. Because she’s not offering me any path forward. She’s telling me that I’m somewhere I know I’m not, and that means I’ll have to make the rest of the trip from A to B alone.

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“Alone?”

Usually, my therapist is able to hear me when I say that I’m struggling, and she’ll ask me questions to figure out what the real struggle is made up of. Is it a general self-esteem issue, or a wave of panic or depression? Is it a concrete problem that we can solve with some detailed plan of action, or a temporary low caused by a negative experience that will pass?

All of the years spent working through these things with her have made this process automatic for me, and I go through it a lot on my own, sitting down and going over an event to find out where the negative mood set in and why, or coming up with practical steps to address a problem that genuinely needs solving. But it still hurts when I tell her that I’m struggling and she doesn’t understand.

IMG_0713

“Harrumph.”

There are times when I’ve been on the other side of that kind of glitch. When I see my students struggling, part of me just wants to say – but look how smart you are! You’ll be fine! And you know who will be reassured by that? Just me. Not them. Because what I’m actually saying is: I trust you to handle this yourself, without any help from me. Why would I choose to say that? Maybe because their anxiety is scaring me, or frustrating me. Maybe because I don’t know how to help them, or I don’t really understand why they’re struggling and I don’t have the time to find out. But all of that is about me, and for me.

If Cricket, God forbid, got off leash and ran into the street, I would be terrified and I would be yelling at her and chasing her – because I wouldn’t be able to think strategically with my baby racing out in front of cars. Intellectually, I know that chasing her makes her run faster, and yelling at her makes her ignore me and act more erratically. But in my anxiety, I wouldn’t be able to think all of that through.

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“Grrr arrgh!”

I don’t know what it is that causes my therapist to not be on the same page as me sometimes. I know she always believes that she knows better than me, or has more perspective than me, because of her wider experience in life and in therapy. In those moments, she probably believes that I am temporarily thinking with the wrong part of my brain, and if she lends me her confidence then the right part of my brain will snap back online.

I think sometimes the gap opens up when my therapist is most aware of her own age, and my mom’s age, and she’s scared that I won’t be better in time to take care of myself. Her fear, for me, makes her try to push the therapy faster by brute force. But, if anything, that just scares me more and sets off my anxiety, and despair, and prevents me from seeing any path forward.

My therapist is very well trained and very experienced, but the horrible fact is that she is a human being. And it sucks. I preferred it when I believed that she was perfect and all-knowing and that I could rely on her to tell me everything I needed to know.

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“You know everything, right Mommy?”

The thing is, a lot of things are harder for me than they seem. When I tell people that I need two naps a day just to function, they think I’m kidding, or exaggerating. It used to be one nap a day, and it will probably go back to that eventually, but I’m in a two-naps-a-day phase at the moment, and it makes everything hard to do. Like laundry, or driving or teaching or writing.

I tend to schedule my naps so that I can have the most possible energy when I know I’ll need to be around people, which means that they then think I’m fine, because I look my best when they see me. And most people, including my therapist, trust what they see with their own eyes over what I tell them about myself. My therapist only believes that I’m struggling when she can see me looking exhausted or walking badly or she can hear me slurring my words or forgetting simple words in front of her.

Mom and the dogs, who see me in every mode, have a better sense of what’s going on with me, but even they get confused sometimes, between what I can do and what they want me to be able to do.

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“Huh?””

And the thing is, I don’t want people to lower their expectations of me. That’s probably why I try so hard to be at my most functional in public. I hate how it feels to be around strangers when I can barely hold my head up, and I don’t feel safe being away from home when I’m so close to the edge. I want there to be a way for people to adapt their expectations of me to fit both what I am capable of and what I want to do. But maybe, and this makes my head spin, I’m expecting other people to be able to do more than they can do, and I’m being just as unreasonable in my expectations of them as they are being unreasonable in their expectations of me.

Now my head hurts.

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“Mine 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?