Browsing Tag

jewish

cancer, death, Guest Posts

Foxholy

April 9, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Janet Reich Elsbach.

“Smile, would you please?” said my sister as I came through the door to see if she needed any help. “Jesus loves you.”

There were a number of surprising elements to this interaction, beyond the fact that the room we now both occupied was the bathroom. For one, she might more reasonably have requested that I do a tap dance. My sister was dying of cancer, her beautiful athlete’s body wrecked and wracked, and we were just home from another two days in the hospital, where as usual she had questioned and refused 98% of what was on offer, where as usual the doctors and nurses had glared at me reproachfully behind her back, and where as usual I had done a non-stop theater-in-the-round cabaret of advocacy and placation for 48 hours. Maybe I had slept for two of those hours, and not in a row. So of all facial expressions, a smile seemed farthest from my reach.

For another thing, we’re Jews.

“He does, you know,” D. continued as I attended to her. “Don’t you know that?”

Once I became old enough to really put some muscle into talking back to her, some time in my teens or twenties, I pointed out that a large percentage of what she said to me (and to others, to be fair) ended with an audible or implied, “you don’t, do you?” As in, “do you know you’re supposed to put X on Y in that order, rotate your whatsits seasonally, never accept domestic yah-yah and ONLY buy organic hmm?” Here she would pause for a second to see if there was a flicker of agreement, then sigh or even snort a little when it failed to appear. “You don’t, do you?” Eventually the sniff or sigh could stand in for the four-word codicil. Sometimes I would say it for her.

Cancer had intensified her dissatisfaction with rubes and imbeciles in ways I mostly understood, as well as raised the stakes. As her prospects grew darker and her misery increased, so did the percentage of the population around her who could get nothing right. Since I frequently numbered among them, staying present and supportive was not easy, and with this new Jesus angle, she had managed, yet again, to sling a curve ball that could completely undo me. Having a front-row seat at an epic struggle with mortality, even if it is not your own, can inspire a person to feel around in their toolbox for some connection to a higher power. Over the 18 months of her illness, I hadn’t come up with much.

We aren’t especially Jewish, even though we are Jews. I majored in anthropology, so it’s easy for me to put it that I am culturally Jewish, just not spiritually. Meaning the cuisine, the mannerisms, the sensibility: yes. I like the food well enough and the rest I couldn’t shake if I tried. Bred in the bone. But whatever spirituality I possess, I don’t tune into it on that channel.

When I was little, we were high-holy-day Jews. We had a seder at Passover, and some excellent little hamentaschen from William Greenberg’s on Third Avenue at Purim. A menorah was lit at Chanukah, but the house saw a little Christmas action, too. Barring a funeral, wedding or someone else’s mitzvah (bar or bat), the only time we went to temple was on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur; on all these occasions everyone around me knew the prayers in Hebrew and I did not.

Our house was generally a mood tinder-box at the holidays, our parents reverential one moment and irritated the next, apparently with us for not taking it seriously enough. I liked to please them, but I didn’t have much to invest since my sisters and I had never gone to religious school. So I would feel guilty and anxious, as well as excluded and confused, and all in all it was not a pleasant base from which to grow a faith. For a long time I connected my not feeling Jewish to this history, and I bet my parents did, too.

Finally I asked my mother why they never sent us to Hebrew school, if their faith was strong enough to twist and bind them with what had seemed like anger when I was smaller than they were, but I now recognized as guilt. By then I was in college, and they had become more obviously and contentedly Jewish: studying, actively identifying as Jewish philanthropists, lighting Sabbath candles, and I had become more confused about where the faith I felt was rooted. I could tell I had some but I also knew it wasn’t found, or fueled, in a building or book that I had yet encountered.

“We didn’t want to force it on you,” she said. “We had taken a big leap getting a place in the country, and at the time I felt more sure that getting out of the city would be good for you three than I did about Hebrew school. And we couldn’t do both.” I scoffed a little when she told me this, but now that I am a parent I can see completely how a person could arrive at that kind of inconclusive conclusion as the rush of life came at them. Punt! I can’t say that I’ve done much better myself, for my own three.

Around this time I was in the habit of spending a weekend in New Orleans every spring, at Jazz Fest, with D. One of the notable features of that densely packed weekend is the stream of little parades, the congregation of here or there decked out in team colors, waving flags and belting out gospel songs at the top of their impressive and collective lungs. “You kind of need Jesus for that,” I remember saying to her. Judaism, Buddhism, anything else I could think of—none of these other belief systems really loaned themselves to this kind of ecstatic, toe-tapping spectacle of testament. It was enviable, to me—that pure devotion and utter certainty and frank enjoyment that characterized their faith. Jesus had a plan, and come what may, that was the raft they set sail on and clung to in a tempest. It seemed as comforting and appealing as it was out of reach.

I was amazed that my sister had found that raft. Both my sisters had certainly gravitated more resolutely towards Judaism over the years than I had, and I’d had many occasions to wonder how it had all skipped me as they both spoke knowledgeably and comfortably about things that felt utterly foreign, even alienating to me. D.’s son even had his bar mitzvah, a first (and only) in our family for generations. And I also knew that D. was pretty open, as a seeker. Around her house you could find a little altar to Ganesh and a portrait of Lakshmi as well as a mezuzah, some Buddhist prayer beads, giant crystals from Arizona and an Islamic knot. But Jesus, now. That was new. Continue Reading…

Friendship, Guest Posts, I Have Done Love, Inspiration, Video, Women

To Have a Friend Like This: On Friendship, The Holocaust & Survival.

March 18, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Jen Pastiloff.

Hi guys, Jen Pastiloff here. I don’t post my own stuff too often these days, but these videos, holy Wow, mother of all cups of coffee. Please do yourself a favor and take a few moments and watch these videos. Please. One of these women is a Holocaust survivor. Their friendship is so utterly inspiring to me that it brought me to my knees. I want to have that kind of love. It’s an honor to the guest speaker again here at Canyon Ranch. What a great honor and privilege. Thanks for watching and sharing these videos. May we all listen more. May we all pay attention to the stories inside of us and inside of others, because, do not be fooled, we ALL have one to tell. Listen. This is beauty hunting.

Continue Reading…

Guest Posts

Tashlich. By Bernadette Murphy.

February 27, 2014

By Bernadette Murphy

Tashlich (תשליך) is a ritual that many Jews observe during Rosh Hashanah. “Tashlich” means “casting off” in Hebrew and involves symbolically casting off the sins of the previous year by tossing pieces of bread or another food into a body of flowing water. Just as the water carries away the bits of bread, so too are sins symbolically carried away. In this way the participant hopes to start the New Year with a clean slate.

This past fall I spent Rosh Hashanah weekend with a group of women in a rented house in Ventura, California, a beach town perched between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.  The plan was to have a simple Rosh Hashanah dinner together on Sunday night and then half our group would commute back to LA to attend services in the city and the other half – including me – would take a high-speed catamaran to Santa Cruz Island (one of the amazing Channel Islands dotting the coast) for a day of hiking and open-water kayaking, a way of communing with God through nature and starting the Jewish New Year.

This was one of the first outings I’d made since telling my husband of 25 years that I no longer wanted to be married.  Though John and I were still living in the same house, trying to make it to the time when our youngest of three children would graduate high school some eight months hence, things were tense.  When he’d dropped me and my friend Rose at the train station that morning and learned from Rose when I was off buying tickets that our plans included open-water kayaking– something we as a couple had long wanted to do but, like so many things in our marriage, had never occurred  – he left my bags at the station and took off in a huff, not bothering to say goodbye.

I am not Jewish, but I joined in the ritual meal that night with delight, asking questions about the food, the holiday of the New Year, the coming of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and its rituals, asking why Jewish holidays always start at sundown when, as Catholics, we always started our holy days with the new day.  When this sundown rationale was explained to me, I glommed on.  I loved the idea of walking through the darkness of night, waiting for the light of the holiday to bring illumination and clear-seeing into my life.  That felt very much like the journey I was on – one of darkness and bumping around, feeling my way, stumbling, stubbing toes, afraid and trembling, waiting for a new day to dawn.

That night, Michelle, one of the women who’d organized the weekend, explained to me Tashlich, a ritual performed on Rosh Hashanah in which participants gather up leftover Challah from the meal and carry it to a place of running water – a stream, the ocean — and then cast this bread upon the waters, letting go of all the sins of the past year. The group wasn’t planning to undertake this particular ritual that night, but for me, it hit a spark.

Though I’d been no more sinful than usual in the preceding 12 months, I felt a deep need for forgiveness and asked the ladies if they’d join me in performing Tashlich.  We took flashlights to the darkened beach a block from the house, felt the sand that had been hot enough to burn our feet only a few hours earlier now cool and damp between our toes.  The moon was almost nonexistent and the ocean’s waves made a scrim of lace barely discernable in the flashlight’s dim glow.

I meandered away from the group and felt the bread, sticking together in my hand.  Reared in a devout Irish-Catholic home, I remembered making communion wafers out of Wonder Bread, its texture perfect  — soft, white, pliable – to form little body-of-Christ discs.  This Challah bread, though, felt different, with more edges and crust, sharp bits that bit into my palm like the pieces of glass that felt lodged in my lungs whenever I thought about leaving my marriage.  I tore the bread into little pieces, lots and lots of pieces for all the things I needed to let go.

First off, being a devoted wife.  I tossed a piece into the ocean, repentant. I had spent 25 years as loyal as I possibly could be, faithful, giving my heart and soul to my family only to find myself profoundly alone at the end of each day.  That hadn’t always been the case, but for the past decade or so, I could no longer ignore the low-grade ache of loneliness within the façade of couple-hood that never left, like a headache that eases on occasion but never departs.  I had wanted to be a good wife and had done all I was capable of doing in that way, seeking individual therapy for myself, working on my own issues, asking John to sign us up for couples therapy.  But after all that work, I found myself unable to be the kind of fully present wife I wanted to be.  To stay in the marriage and fake that devotion was to do us both a grave disservice. But I mourned the wife I had set out to be the day I made my marriage vows.

I tossed another piece of bread into the ocean – my desire to be a perfect mother.  Together, John and I raised three wonderful young people.  The work we did together as co-parents is a testament to our love of them and our desire to be the best parents we could be, a desire that I must admit trumped our need to be good spouses to each other.  Whenever I feel sad about the demise of our marriage, I remember the kids that are the product of it and I can’t stay in the sadness too long.  While we were unable to help each other in the way that I think the best couples are able to, to love and support each other as unique individuals, we had been fabulous parents together.  And maybe that’s why our marriage paid a price – always so focused on the kids.  But now that I was planning to leave, I knew I would have to give up the mantle of the good mother.  A good mother doesn’t leave her children’s father.  A good mother keeps the family together at any cost, is the glue that binds it all together.  My glue had long ago lost its stickiness.  And I had allowed it to.

I threw in bread for the marriage I thought I had been building all those years, for the household we’d created, for the house we’d lost to foreclosure 12 years earlier and the new house we’d managed to buy just a year-and-a-half ago.  I threw in a piece of bread for the many hardships we’d weathered together:  John’s near-death from a pulmonary embolism, our second son’s near-drowning at age three, that same son’s diagnosis with a severe anxiety disorder in high school, the death of John’s mother, the passing of my father.  We’d been able to weather those hardships as a couple – difficulties that might have ended the marriage long before this point — but rather than strengthening the bond, at some point, the troubles started piling on top of each other, saddling our relationship with a burden we couldn’t quite escape.  My sin, I suppose, was in letting it happen, in not speaking up sooner, in not knowing how to correct this trajectory.

I threw in bread for the young woman I’d been when I’d paired up with John –  22, wide-eyed, looking for security at any cost – and another piece for the older, wiser and more flinty woman I’ve since become, now staring down the barrel of 50.  Bread tossed away, like the hours of our lives, like the dreams and hopes we must relinquish in order for other, new ones to arrive. I emptied my hands of the Challah, letting go of all I knew.  My tears mixed with the salty brine licking at my feet.

A week and a half later, as Yom Kippur approached, I figured that since Rosh Hashanah had been so spiritually helpful, I’d observe that atonement holy day as well. I found it odd that Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, preceded the Day of Atonement, that the sweetness of the New Year came first, apples dipped in honey, when the fasting had yet to begin.  But maybe that’s human nature: we need a taste of the sweetness to lure us into doing the hard work.  I went to Catholic Mass in the morning on Yom Kippur – I know, an odd way to celebrate a Jewish holiday, but there you have it – and prayed my heart out. One of the things I’d learned about the Day of Atonement is that it’s a time to ask to be released from any contracts we were unable to keep in the past year.  And that’s what I prayed for: I acknowledged that I had entered into this marriage contract willingly and had said those words – till death to us part – of my own volition.  But I could see now how unable I was to understand their meaning when I said them.  I was, at the time, a woman with great emotional wounds.  The daughter of an alcoholic/mentally ill mother, I was an untreated alcoholic myself seeking in a desperate way a man who would keep me from going crazy as she had, and perhaps get me to tone down the drinking.  Now, with 23 years of sobriety behind me and the clear vision that comes with it, I see that I was incapable of making those vows that day in any real way, too desperate for someone to save me from myself.  I admitted this to God, kneeling at Holy Redeemer Church on Yom Kippur, asking divine forgiveness and love, requesting that I finally be released from those vows.  I didn’t hear any angels singing God’s acceptance of my request, nor did the heavens part and a dove descend.  Tears flowed, snot ran, sniffles ensued.  After I’d destroyed what seemed an entire boxful of tissues, I was cried out and left the church, my heart half a gram lighter.

Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, and as a Catholic, I’d always been a terrible faster, cheating every time I’d been given the chance, claiming hypoglycemia or whatever excuse I might dig up to support the fact that being hungry made me irritable, anxious and scared.  But this day felt epic.  I needed to atone for my part in the end of this marriage.  And so I fasted.  Oddly, it was not nearly the ordeal I’d feared and that told me something crucial.  The things I fear and run from are the very things, that when I sit down calmly and face them, are not nearly the boogiemen I’d anticipated.  Yes, there was a mild headache as the day wore on, yes, my stomach growled and I felt a bit weakened, but the hours passed.  I felt as if I were doing my part and that was reward in itself.

I broke the fast with the same ladies who had been with me in Ventura, the taste of food heavenly after a day of want, the flavors made richer by simple hunger.

A few weeks later, I moved out of the family house into a one-room guesthouse with a Murphy bed, a tiny kitchenette, and gorgeous west-facing windows that paint the wooden floors golden in the afternoon light.  I’d found out that once you speak the words “I’m done,” it’s nearly impossible to stay.  And more importantly, having undertaken these rituals with my Jewish friends, I’d felt strengthened and ready.  A person can only do what a person can do; I’d done all I could to make the relationship viable.  When I could not resurrect it, I’d had to acknowledge my limitations and make a choice.  Did I want to remain in a secure place, or was I ready to grow?

I’m grateful that I didn’t realize, before leaving, how amazingly painful and grief-stricken this transition would be.  I had foolishly thought that since I’d enacted these rituals and had undertaken boatloads of therapy and worked for discernment, that would be that.  I would walk away with a clear conscience and need not dwell on the past nor on what might have been.  But leaving children behind is never easy, even mostly grown children.  I feared abandoning them as my mother had abandoned my siblings and me.  And the grief?  I couldn’t have guessed there’d be so damn many layers of it.

My heart on many days feels like it is made of Jell-O, warm and creepy Jell-O that leaks all over me, staining my hands that indelible artificial red as I try to force it back into the shape of a heart, leaving a film of stickiness everywhere, a layer I cannot fully wash away.

Yet, now ensconced in my new place, a gift I can never repay, I enact new rituals.  I light candles and meditate and allow myself to feel as deeply as I can, to breathe into my heart the pain of this transformation, and to feel at that moment a sense of communion with all the other souls undergoing similar transitions.  I walk to the grocery store and buy only that which I can carry home, a reminder that I’m on my own now and need care for myself first and foremost. Give us this day our daily bread.  I cook in much smaller quantities – dinner for one – and am learning to find joy in doing so.  I live a block from my daughter’s high school and I lure her into joining me for homework or dinner or a sleep-over at least once a week; I drive to the family home to help her with college applications.  I’m learning how to be an active mother even when not sharing living quarters with my children.  And I ache in a new way – not the old familiar ache of loneliness within a coupled façade, but the bone-annihilating ache of reconstruction.  I remember reading about caterpillars turning into butterflies.  It’s not like the caterpillar gives up one leg – I can manage without this one leg this week – in exchange for, say, a wing, allowing transformation to happen little by little, piece by piece, exchanging one existence for another.  No.  The caterpillar basically becomes mush, he ceases to exist as a caterpillar for the time of transformation and becomes a pile of juice, a clump of nothing more than wet potential for as long as it takes to reform as a butterfly.  I’m in that mush state now.  Neither wife nor single. Neither fulltime mom nor absent mom.  Neither the scared young girl who said “I do” in a church all those years ago, nor the woman who is learning to live fully on her own.  It’s a tender-to-the-bone kind of transformation filled with ragged edges and messiness.  But it’s real and I feel genuine as I walk through it.  I’m grateful for Tashlich, for Rosh Hashanah, for Catholic Mass, for Yom Kippur, for candles and meditation, for my children’s willingness to try to understand my choice even though it hurts them, and for all the rituals – secular, spiritual, and motherhood-related — that are being redesigned to fit this new reality.  These are the elements that are carrying forward through this dark night, the ceremonies and graces that will one day deliver me into a new dawn that hasn’t yet arrived.

Bernadette Murphy-1 copy 2

Bernadette Murphy is currently writing “Look, Lean, Roll,” a book about women, motorcycles and risk taking, Bernadette Murphy has published three books of narrative nonfiction (including the bestselling “Zen and the Art of Knitting”) and teaches creative writing at the Antioch University Los Angeles MFA program.

 

Ring in New Years 2016 with Jen Pastiloff at her annual Ojai retreat. It's magic! It sells out quickly so book early. No yoga experience required. Just be a human being. With a sense of humor. Email barbara@jenniferpastiloff.com with questions or click photo to book.

Ring in New Years 2016 with Jen Pastiloff at her annual Ojai retreat. It’s magic! It sells out quickly so book early. No yoga experience required. Just be a human being. With a sense of humor. Email barbara@jenniferpastiloff.com with questions or click photo to book.

funny, Guest Posts

Shrinkage.

November 5, 2013

Shrinkage by Malina Saval.

There are many reasons that sleeping with my shrink would be a really bad idea, namely that he’s my shrink. My old shrink in grad school once slept with a patient and wound up getting his license suspended; if that happened to my current shrink, I’d have to switch shrinks again and I know from past experience that’s way too much effort.

My shrink is tall and athletic-looking, with eyes so blue you could dive inside them and swim a lap. He was on the varsity swim team during high school and college; his stroke was the Australian crawl. At night, I like to imagine him clawing his way through an Olympic-sized swimming pool wearing swim goggles and a green Speedo, drops of chlorinated water rolling off his pale, muscular back. My shrink is strong, virile, German. He’s got a tumbling crest of golden Gestapo-esque curls and comes from one of those upscale Midwestern suburbs with Methodist churches and lots of rosy-cheeked white people. He looks like one of those high school history book Vikings, with a small visible triangle of tangled blonde chest hair when he wears wool v-neck sweaters.

Because I’m Jewish and my shrink is everything that I’m not supposed to have, I want him even more. I like to pretend, and in various different historical periods from movies that I was forced to sit through during USC film school, that we’re madly, madly, madly in love.

In one fantasy it’s 1944. It’s winter. The end of the war is near.  I’m Jewish, he’s German, but it makes no difference. We’re standing on a dock on the shores of Hamburg late at night, the icy wind whipping through my long, smooth mane of retro Rita Hayworth curls, my bangs swept to the side, secured with a platinum-and-rhinestone hair pin (My real–life Jewfro is miraculously absent). My shrink is wearing a thick wool scarf and one of those terrific World War II-era pea coats that figure prominently in J.D. Salinger stories. My skin is dewy soft and my lipstick is perfect even though my entire family has just been wiped out by the Nazis.

“I’ve arranged a fake passport,” says my fair-haired, Aryan shrink, clutching me against his chest, guarding me from the sweeping gusts. “I’ve arranged safe travel to Sweden.”

“And what about us?” I whimper.

“Don’t worry,” he says, brushing a pear-shaped tear from my cheek. “I’ll come for you as soon as I can. We’ll be together—I promise.” He pulls me slowly toward his ripe parted mouth. “I love you,” he tells me.

And then we kiss.

In another fantasy my shrink holds me naked in his arms and that’s all that ever happens.

And then I wonder, are lapsed German Methodists from the Midwest even good at that sort of thing?

I wonder if he’s in bed with someone, or if there’s a pretty girl’s long blonde hair draped across his arm.

It’s ridiculous, I know. But I’m a ridiculous person that’s been in therapy for the past thirty years, even since I was six years old. I was a neurotic kid, my parents were constantly fighting, and I never slept. Now, I’m a neurotic adult, my husband and I are constantly fighting, and I never sleep. When my husband was away in a drug rehab program, my shrink was a place that I could go to in my head where everything was serene, peaceful, perfect. Therapy, like my escapist daydreams, has always been a constant.

I’ve told myself a thousand times that I should terminate our relationship and take up with some octogenarian Jungian with a Ph.D. from Harvard and two failed marriages behind him, but from Pasadena to Santa Monica, I’d still have to trek the two hours once a week back and forth on the 134, 101 and 405 freeways in the height of LA traffic, so I figure, what’s the difference?

Everyone knows that all the good shrinks are on the Westside.

Every Wednesday at one p.m., my heart thumps uncomfortably as I climb the stairs to his office.  Beads of sweat collect between my breasts in the crevice of D-cup cleavage. Blood rushes to that lonesome place beneath my underpants as I press the button next to his name.

He swings open his office door and motions me toward the lime green loveseat. Clean lines, metallic legs, and squared edges, it looks like it came from the set of Mad Men and, like the rest of the tidy, well-planned space with its trendy 1960’s aesthetic, makes me wonder if my shrink is gay. That and the fact that he went to the George Michael comeback concert in Vegas; saw Wicked at the Pantages and Avenue Q at the Mark Taper; and parties every New Year’s Eve with guy friends at a Palm Springs spa. Season One of American Idol he voted multiple times for Kelly Clarkson, but season eight was suspiciously anti-Adam Lambert. He also knows that baby wipes are great for treating sofa stains. And he once mentioned that he could easily eat his way through San Francisco.

Still, I’m not convinced, and I would never ask him to confirm. Because if I know for certain that my lovely German shrink is gay I’ll need to make some pretty major changes to my go-to damsel-in-distress sexual fantasies for those dim, depressing days when being married to a underemployed, sober alcoholic who recently got his 6-month chip, and raising two feral toddlers that piss in their beds and shit in the bathtub, becomes a classic textbook bore.

Technically, my shrink is a cognitive behavioral therapist, but mostly we just talk about Hall and Oats and our dogs. Occasionally, he’ll draw a diagram on the yellow legal pad he uses mostly as a prop, drafting concentric circles with the letters A (Activating Event), B (Beliefs about Activating event) and C (Consequences) inside them. Once we did an exercise where he wrote a series of open-ended sentences: When I think____ I feel______ I do_____.

I sometimes want to plug in the words and tell him exactly how I feel, but I don’t want things to change between us. I’m nervous that he’ll make me get another shrink or worse, send me home with Xeroxed copies of long, boring articles about Freud and erotic transference. Because this is where Freud gets it wrong: it has nothing to do with self-love. When you want to sleep with your therapist you really do want to sleep with your therapist. Truth is, he’s the best conversation that I have ever had.

Because my Gentile, likely-gay, flaxen-haired shrink is serious about his career and isn’t interested in throwing it away on a married girl with boundary issues, two kids and a thing for one-sided relationships, he tells me scant little about his personal life. I know his astrological sign and that he drives a Toyota hybrid. But I don’t know if he wears boxers or briefs or what he’s like going down on a girl (or boy) or whether he’s slept with anyone else in the four years that he and I have been together.

Sometimes I GOOGLE him, but nothing much comes up except lecture dates at mental health conventions, and he’s not on Facebook, which limits my access to private information considerably. He is, however, on IMDB, because, like most shrinks in Los Angeles, he used to freelance for an independent movie studio.

A couple of years back when I was a staffer at a celebrity news magazine, I found my shrink’s address using a database program favored by the CIA and entertainment reporters when tracking down stars to construct fake stories about. I only did a drive-by once—ok, twice—and quickly realized as I sped past his Mexican stucco house in the Santa Monica Canyon that psycho girl behavior is really only cute in your 20’s. Now when I happen to be in the area, I venture no further than the street perpendicular to the one he lives on.

But lest you conclude that I am completely crazy, please consider this: because my HMO doesn’t cover out of network providers, my shrink charges me on a sliding scale. Naturally, I fell a little in love with him. You would too.

Not long ago, I finally mustered the guts to ask my shrink why he doesn’t wear a wedding ring, to which he promptly responded: “Because I’m not married.” I laughed and laughed, and he kept asking what was so funny. That day, he was wearing the powder blue sweater that matches the color of his eyes and makes me want to run away with him. And for a split second, I thought about coming clean, admitting that I was madly in love with him and that I would do anything to leap into his arms. But then I had a truly frightening thought. What if my shrink is in love with me, too?

After all, that one year when I sent him a Rosh Hashanah card, he called to thank me and we spoke for five minutes on the phone, during which time I corrected his pronunciation of the Jewish holiday and he practiced it until I told him that he’d gotten it right. Another time, we saw one another in the parking lot outside his office and he waved at me and smiled; he was carrying a Brita pitcher and we both giggled a bit about what a nerd he was toting his own water to work. And then there was that time when I suggested he read a certain book on depression and not only did he read it but recommended it to his other patients. During one session when I was feeling especially down, he said to me, “I care about you.” So when he told me that he wasn’t married, I kind of freaked out. What if he told me everything there was to know about him, including the fact that he wanted to run away with me, too? What if we got to know one another outside the confines of a square office space and discovered that we didn’t like one another? What if suddenly my shrink wasn’t there for me, unconditionally, no matter what I did or what I said or how I acted, no matter how crazy it sounded?

Since then, I haven’t asked my shrink anything, because if I’m honest with myself, I’m not sure that I want to know.

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Malina Saval is the author of “The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens” (Basic Books, 2009) and the novel “Jewish Summer Camp Mafia.” She has been a featured guest on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” Fox News, the Patt Morrison show and Tavis Smiley. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles TimesGlamourLA Weekly, the Jerusalem PostForwardVariety and “Now Write! Nonfiction: Memoir, Journalism and Creative Nonfiction Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers” (Penguin, 2010). Her website is www.MalinaSaval.com.

Q & A Series, writing

The Manifest-Station Q&A Series: Best-Selling Author Dani Shapiro.

September 29, 2013

I’m Jennifer Pastiloff and this series is designed to introduce the world to someone I find incredible. Someone who is manifesting their dreams on a daily basis. Someone like best-selling author Dani Shapiro.

When I read Dani’s book Devotion, my life changed. Just like that, I was on a plane to Bali to lead a retreat there, and if you told me that the plane had changed courses, I would have believed you. Dani’s latest book Still Writing, which releases on Tuesday, October 1st, is no different. I had the distinct honor to read an advanced copy, which I carried around like a dog-eared Bible of sorts. 

Dani Shapiro crystallizes more than 20 years’ worth of lessons learned from teaching and writing into the instructive and inspiring Still Writing ~ Vanity Fair

You know when you find a writer and you think “They are talking to me. They wrote this book for me. They are, in fact, a little piece of me.” That’s Dani.

Perhaps my favorite quote by Dani, “Everything I know about life, I learned from the daily practice of sitting down to write.” I remind myself of that quote every time the resistance comes up to sit down or to be present. It’s the daily practice. It’e the putting one foot in front of the other, or, one letter after the other. It’s the sitting down to do it.

Writers need hope. Writers need help. Thank you, Dani Shapiro. ~Michael Cunningham

It’s a huge honor to have her featured on this series. I have taken a break from it and what better way to make a re-entry than with Dani Shapiro? Please, whatever you do, pick up a book by her and hold it close to your heart. Read it. You won’t ever put it down. It will stay inscribed there on your heart forever. Isn’t that what good writing does?

Lastly, and this just makes me giddy to write, Dani will be on SuperSoul Sunday with Oprah on Sunday October 20th. Talk about manifesting! Without further ado, here is my beloved friend, Dani Shapiro…

dani - 12 copy

Jennifer Pastiloff: I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus from this series but I’d like to start with the question I always start with. What are you most proud to have manifested in your life? 

Dani Shapiro: I have two immediate and powerful responses to that question.  The first is that I’ve manifested a happy family.  I’ve been genuinely, deeply, happily married for sixteen years.  I have a fourteen-year-old son who I’m very close to.  Both of these could so easily––as the poet Jane Kenyon once wrote so beautifully––could have been otherwise.  I was married twice before.  Once when I was still a teenager (!) and once in my twenties.  I made epically lousy choices in my romantic life until I met my husband.  And I was terrified to become a mother.  I had a very difficult relationship with my own mother, and I didn’t see the attraction.  Some women spend their whole lives wanting to become mothers.  This wasn’t me.  I experienced a single, stark moment of absolute grace when I thought I could become a mother––and I did. 

The second response is my life as a writer.  I was such a fuck-up.  You never would have looked at me, when I was in my early twenties, and thought: oh, yeah, that girl – she’s going to become a bestselling novelist and memoirist and is going to teach in universities.  Oh yeah, that girl is going to sit down with Oprah.  No… I don’t think so.  But I climbed my way out of the dark place I had burrowed myself into, and in a beautiful piece of symmetry, becoming a writer saved my life, a word, a sentence at a time.  

Jennifer Pastiloff: How did Devotion come to be? I read the book on a flight to Bali and it was one of those life-changing moments for me, where I bolted up out of my seat and started writing. My copy is now dog-eared and I assign it often to my students at workshops and retreats. Tell us, if you would, how that book was born?

Dani Shapiro: God, I love hearing that so much!  Thank you.  I was in the middle of my yoga practice when Devotion came to me.  I had been in a trough between novels, waiting for the next work of fiction to materialize, and on this particular day I was in tree pose, and suddenly the word “devotion” flashed before my eyes.  Nothing like this had ever happened to me.  I’ve never had a title before I’ve had a book.  I’ve written whole books before I’ve come upon the right title.  But as soon as I saw that word –– devotion –– I knew that it was a book, a memoir, an exploration of the spiritual and existential crisis I had found myself in.  I had been grappling with questions that I finally wanted to address directly, deeply, and as a writer the only way I know how to address anything is on the page.  I discover what I believe through the writing.  But this wasn’t particularly welcome news, I must say.  I hadn’t planned to write another memoir.  Certainly not a spiritual memoir.  But when a feeling of rightness accompanies an idea for a writer, you turn away from it at your own peril. 

Jennifer Pastiloff: As you know, one of my great dreams has been to be on Super Soul Sunday with Oprah. You, my friend, have had this dream become a reality. We’ve had a couple conversations where you have shared some gorgeous insight about this experience. I know you are planning on writing about it but would you tell my readers just a little about what that was like for you? The process of non-attachment, the letting go and having it return?

Dani Shapiro: I’ve learned so many things about myself, and about life, since I got the call inviting me to be a guest on “Super Soul Sunday” with Oprah.  The first revelation is about the nature of shock.  I had known for a long time that bad news could be shocking.  I’ve been on the receiving end of shocking bad news.  But what I hadn’t known is that good news can be shocking.  I had no idea that I was being considered for Super Soul.  I didn’t have a new book out when I got the call.  In fact, when Devotion came out in 2010, of course I had some faint hope that maybe the Oprah folks would come knocking, but who ever really thinks that will happen?  I don’t know why this is, but I really believe that things don’t happen when we’re trying to will them into being.  They don’t happen when we’re waiting for the phone to ring, or the email to pop up in our in box.  They don’t happen when we’re gripping too tightly.  They happen –– if they happen at all –– when we’ve fully let go of the results.  And, perhaps, when we’re ready.  I was much more ready for that phone call than I would have been in 2010.  I’d spent three years deepening my practice, thinking about spiritual matters, and living them.  I was more grounded and centered.  And that was my goal ­­–– when I sat down with Oprah.  My goal was to be centered and present.  Not to miss the experience.  Not to be all self-absorbed and self-conscious and up in my head.  I didn’t want to miss the moment.  I wanted to truly rise to the occasion. 

Jennifer Pastiloff: When will your Super Soul Sunday episode air?

Dani Shapiro: The air date is Sunday, October 20.

Jennifer Pastiloff: Expect to be delighted. I found this in a book years ago and I use it as one of the steps to manifesting in my workshops. Thoughts on this one? 

Dani Shapiro: Well, I love that.  Too often we expect the worst.  I spent a lot of my life being one of those “waiting for the other shoe to drop” people.  It doesn’t protect against the other shoe dropping, and all it really does is cause a lot of unnecessary anxiety.  But to anticipate delight is, perhaps, to cultivate delight!  What a wonderful way to live.  And why not?  I mean, we’re not in control.  We don’t know what will happen next.  Why not assume the very, very best?

Jennifer Pastiloff: What is the greatest lesson (or one of them) you have learned from being a mom?

Dani Shapiro: Being a mom has forced me to be more present, because I became aware, when my son was very small, that I didn’t want to look back on what really is a brief window in the span of a lifetime –– of early childhood, of his growing up, of his adolescence –– and feel like I had been elsewhere and missed it.  It’s easy to wish the time away.  Some of motherhood is boring, though most of us won’t admit it.  For instance, I do not like to play games.  I’m not a game-playing mom.  Not board games, not outdoor games.  And so I would find myself wishing those hours away, but I made myself stop living in the past or the future, and come to the awareness, instead, that this time of young motherhood would eventually become something I would feel nostalgia for.  I would miss it some day.  And so I wanted to be present for the very thing that I would some day miss.  

Jennifer Pastiloff: I know your husband is a filmmaker. Can you tell us a bit about what a day in the life of the Shapiro/Maren household is like?

Dani Shapiro: Every day is different!  When I’m working on a book, I’m home in my office in my yoga clothes, in a silent house, with just my dogs for company.  My husband has an office in a town near our house, and he heads there early in the morning, and that’s where he gets his work done.  But we both do a lot of traveling –– he directed his first feature film this year, “A Short History of Decay” and was in North Carolina for two months shooting.  That’s by far the longest we’ve been apart.  When I have a book out –– as I’m about to –– I’ll be on and off airplanes nearly every week for months at a time.  We live in rural Connecticut, which is very good for both of us, I think.  It’s a wonderful place to be based, and for our son to be growing up. 

Jennifer Pastiloff: Still Writing? I absolutely loved your blog piece about this and how people often ask that question. Still writing? In fact, your latest book is titled Still Writing. Can you tell us a little about the new book? When can we read it?

Dani Shapiro: Still Writing will be in bookstores October 1.  I began a blog a number of years ago about writing –– not so much about craft, but rather, what it takes to sit down day after day in solitude and with some sort of blind faith.  I was interested in exploring all the things that come up: resistance, fortitude, patience, frustration, the ability to withstand rejection –– all the struggles and challenges, as well as the incredible gifts and privileges, of spending life as a writer.  And the blog really caught on.  It took me by surprise.  I began receiving notes from all sorts of people telling me that they were reading it and getting something they needed out of it.  I never even considered writing a book based on the blog, but everyone kept asking –– and eventually it just seemed like something I should do.  I never once looked back at the blog, though, as I was writing Still Writing.  I wanted it to be a real book – part memoir, part meditation on the creative process.  I think of it as my love letter to creative people everywhere.  Writing saved my life –– in the book, I say that everything I know about how to live I have learned from the daily practice of struggling with the page.  And so I think the book is about those lessons, too.  

Still Writing by Dani Shapiro

Jennifer Pastiloff: Yoga. Tell us about how yoga has affected your life, as well as your writing? So many of my readers are a hybrid of yogis and writers and I find the crossover fascinating. One of the reasons I have them all read Devotion.

Dani Shapiro: I love that you have your yoga students read Devotion.  That means so much to me!  My yoga practice is so woven into my life as a writer that I can’t imagine one without the other.  In fact, the reason I work at home, rather than have an office outside of the house (which is sometimes very appealing!) is because I like the freedom of being able to unroll my mat in the middle of the day.  When I’m starting to feel stuck, or when my head gets too noisy, the one and only thing I have found that helps me come home to myself, and quiet my mind, is my yoga practice.  And while I love nothing more than a great yoga class (and am jealous of my friends who live near great studios all over the country) when I moved to Connecticut there weren’t any studios near my home, and so I built my own home practice, which I now love.  I unroll my mat in my bedroom, light a fire in my fireplace unless it’s the middle of summer, and I have these seven chakra sprays that Aveda makes lined up on my fireplace mantle, and a few crystals a healer once gave me –– this is my sanctuary. 

Jennifer Pastiloff: On being a Jew. Although you were raised with more structure around religion than I was, I felt I had found my soulmate when I read Devotion. You helped me arrive at the place of accepting that I absolutely did NOT have to put myself in a box or label myself as one thing or the other.

How does being “complicated with Jewishness” fit into your life now? It seems to be that a lot of the great spiritual leaders are Jews and that there is something inherent in Judaism that lends itself to spirituality as a whole. Tell us about being a writer, a yogi, a Jew and a spiritual seeker and a mom. I love this idea of I do not have to be just one thing. Watch me.

Dani Shapiro: Just yesterday, a writer friend who had just read an early copy of Still Writing paid me the ultimate compliment.  He told me that Still Writing felt to him like a prayer book.  That it felt Rabbinical in some way.  He felt the influence, he said, of all those Saturday mornings I spent sitting in synagogue with my father.  I tried not to deflect the compliment and really take it in.  These last years, since embarking on the journey that led to writing Devotion, have been a continuation of a path that I hope to wander for the rest of my life.  I am indeed complicated by my Judaism, in the way I think so many of us are “complicated” by our experiences of childhood religion.  Being Jewish is incredibly important to me, but I’m not observant.  At the same time, I cared deeply that my son know himself as Jewish –– not just culturally, but be steeped in the traditions and rituals.  His Bar Mitzvah last year –– which was completely homegrown, eclectic, held in a church, led by a female Rabbi with whom we’ve become close, with readings from Coleridge and Hannah Senesh, as well as the whole congregation singing Leonard Cohen’s “Broken Hallelujah” –– with my son playing his ukulele and me on the piano –– was one of the highlights of my life.  I looked around that church at all of our family and friends gathered and there was such love in that room, such a feeling of being part of something meaningful and real –– and I had built it –– we even made our own prayer books –– by necessity, and by choice, and out of a tremendous amount of focus on finding a way to do something that would truly resonate. 

It has been one of the biggest shifts in my life over these past few years, this feeling that I can be this and that.  Be Jewish and a great reader of eastern philosophy.  A messed up girl who grew up into a thoughtful and (hopefully not too messed up) woman.  A yogi who likes a good steak along with a bottle of Barolo.  An urbanite living in rural Connecticut.  All these things.  So what?  Why not?  I’ve been shrugging off definitions that have limited me.  The only person who can place these limiting definitions on us is ourselves. 

Jennifer Pastiloff: What would you say to yourself at 25 years old in terms of your career?

Dani Shapiro: Oh, dear girl, be patient.  Know that there is no well-lit path.  Know that your dreams for yourself at this moment are small and that you have no idea what life has in store for you.  Some of your disappointments and setbacks will turn out to be your greatest lessons.  More than anything, be in competition only with yourself.  You have the opportunity to spend your whole life getting better and better at what you do. 

What would you say to yourself 5 years ago?

I would say that worry is a waste of time.  That anxiety doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t protect us from anything.  All it does is sap us of our creative energy and impede our flow.  The things I’ve tended to worry about do not come to pass.  The difficulties I’ve had in my life are not ones I’ve anticipated.  So why not at least try to let go?  

JP: When was the last time you laughed at yourself?

DS: Yesterday.  A photographer was at my house, photographing me for a piece for The New York Times.  I was all dolled up, makeup, good hair, the whole deal – and they decided they wanted to take a picture of me on my yoga mat.  So I changed into my yoga clothes and sat in lotus position “meditating” while he took my picture.  Imagine the noise in my head!  Absurdity always makes me laugh.  All I could think was: “it’s come to this!” 

JP: Victor Frankl was able to mentally survive living in a concentration camp by finding beauty in a fish head floating in his soup. In a fish head.  Learning this is what inspired me to start the 5mostbeautifulthings Project. What if we walked around looking for beauty instead of looking for things to be stressed about or offended by? What if we trained our eyes and our hearts to tune into that which makes us cock our head to one side and close our eyes gently in an effort to memorize what we were looking at. What if it is all we got? What if all we have is our 5 beautiful things? What’s your fish head? What are your 5 most beautiful things right now, Dani?

DS: Literally right at this moment:

My son’s face.

My two dogs lying curled up in a patch of sunlight.

The changing leaves outside my window.  Autumn in New England.

My husband across the kitchen table me, both on our laptops.  A team.

The quiet and beauty of our lives.  Hard won.  Ephemeral.  Taking it in.

JP: Tell us about Sirenland. I just visited Positano after my Tuscany retreat and per your recommendation I went to Le Sireneuse, hugged the owners and had pink champagne with them. Le Sireneuse is where you hold Sirenland each March. I can safely say that it took my breath away. It’s a dream come true that you do this. What is Sirenland? How did it come to be? Who is teaching with you this year? Why Positano?

DS: Sirenland was born at a dinner party in Connecticut.  I had absolutely no dream of starting a writing conference.  My husband and I were at dinner at our friend Nancy Novogrod’s home –– she is the editor in chief of Travel+Leisure –– and she had invited, as she told me, her favorite hotel owners in the world.  These would be Antonio and Carla Sersale, owners of Le Sirenuse.  We had an incredibly fun evening together, and then a week later, I received an email from Antonio asking if I’d like to bring some writers to Italy.  This was eight years ago.  Sirenland has grown into one of the best writing conferences in the world.  We have thirty students come to Italy for a life-altering week.  (By the way, applications are now open at www.sirenland.net)  My son has gotten to grow up going each year to this miraculous place.  And we’ve made so many incredible friends.  I always teach one of the three workshops, and the other faculty rotates.  We’ve had Jim Shepard teach for a number of years.  Last year, Karen Russell (who just became the youngest person ever to win a MacArthur “genius” Award), this year the wonderful writers Meg Wolitzer and Andre Dubus III will be joining us. 

JP: I often ask “what are your rules to live by?” because I think it’s a fun way to hold ourselves accountable. Some of mine are: Don’t take yourself too seriously, sing out loud, write poems (even if only in your head), don’t worry, everyone on Facebook seems like they have happier lives (they don’t.) I ask people of all ages to do this, including children, and to see what people write is a joy. What are some of your rules to live by?

DS: Always tell the truth.

Practice discernment.

To have a friend you have to be a friend.

Use the Internet –– don’t allow the Internet to use you.

Try to live in the moment.

Love, love, love.  Spend it all.  Every little bit.

Hold nothing back. 

JP: Kripalu. I love that you lead workshops there, as I do. It is one of my favorite places to teach.  The beloved Berkshires. Tell us about Kripalu. When will you be there next?

DS: I love Kripalu, and love teaching there too.  I’ll be there to teach my first workshop based on Still Writing from November 1-3.  And as a special treat, my dear friend, the great yogi, scholar and writer Stephen Cope will be joining me on that Saturday night for an honest, open, deep conversation about writing, creativity, doing and living the work.  I’m so excited to be doing an event with Stephen.  And next June –– the 6th through the 8th – Stephen and I will co-teach a weekend writing and yoga retreat.

JP: I know you talk about it in Devotion but can you share with us how you met Stephen and how that relationship came to be? Sylvia Boorstein?

DS: That story is such a life-lesson in putting one foot in front of the other.  In saying yes, instead of no.  I first met Stephen on the page.  I was reading his gorgeous book, That story is such a life-lesson in putting one foot in front of the other.  In saying yes, instead of no.  I first met Stephen on the page.  I was reading his gorgeous book, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self.  It was, for me, one of those life-changing books.  I carried it around with me, underlining, doodling exclamation points in the margins.  And one summer afternoon I found myself at a library fundraiser –– I had promised ages before to attend –– and I was grumbling to myself the whole way there.  Didn’t want to go.  It was hot, humid, a bad hair day, and I was annoyed at myself for having agreed.  It was one of those events where authors sit behind piles of their books, in a sweltering tent, and people in linen jackets and madras shorts walk by carrying plastic cups of white wine.  Sound fun?  Anyway, I was shown to my table and sat grumpily down.  Then the author next to me leaned over to introduce himself.  “Hi,” he said.  “Steve Cope.”

He and I became immediate, fast friends.  I had his book with me in my bag!  I just couldn’t believe it.  Shortly thereafter, I signed up for a retreat he was teaching at Kripalu –– which was a place I had wanted to visit, but had always felt intimidated and resistant.  But now I had a pal there, so I pushed myself to go.  That weekend, he was teaching with a Buddhist named Sylvia Boorstein, who I hadn’t known, not being of that world.  Attending that retreat at Kripalu changed my life.  I made two of my dearest friends, teachers, fellow travelers, guides.  And now –– only four or five years later –– I am a part of the Kripalu family as well, and love leading my retreats there.  I’m going to be on the West Coast for my Still Writing book tour, and Sylvia and I are doing an event together at Book Passage in Marin County.  It will be one of the highlights of my book tour.  All because I showed up at a library event in Connecticut.  We never know what life has in store for us.    

JP: Who have been your greatest teachers?

DS: I had a great high school English teacher, Peter Cowen, who is still in my life.  Ditto for my 19th Century Literary Professor at Sarah Lawrence, Ilja Wachs, who taught me the art of close reading.  Grace Paley and Jerome Badanes were my teachers when I was in graduate school and I owe a tremendous debt to them both.  In recent years, Sylvia Boorstein and Stephen Cope.  My friend the great Rabbi Burton Visotzky, who gave me a new lens with which to read the Torah.  Then there are the teachers I’ve never met: Virginia Woolf.  Thomas Merton. 

JP: Advice to new writers reading this?

DS: Read my book!  Seriously –– I wrote it for you!  And if you don’t read my book, the one piece of advice I have is to read something worthwhile every day –– the poet Jane Kenyon describes this as “keeping good sentences in your ears.”  Reading is your best teacher.  Also, get used to rejection.  Get used to discomfort.  Who said it should be easy?  Writing well is hard, hard work.  Develop the ability to endure.  To stay in the chair. 

JP: I couldn’t be more excited that you are now writing for Positively Positive, along with Emily Rapp and myself. Writing for this site has definitely changed my life. I am humbled to be in your company there. What is up next for Dani Shapiro?

DS: I love writing for Positively Positive as well!  As for what’s next, I will be traveling to teach and give readings from Still Writing for the next bunch of months.  I can’t write and travel at the same time –– I need to sink in deeply –– so I will wait for the shimmer.  I will try to be patient and keep good sentences in my ears.  I will try to take care of myself and my loved ones, body and soul, and endure, so that I can sit down come spring and be…still writing!  

JP: G-d willing. We should live and be well. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

DS: Thanks, Jen!  You’re a beautiful force for good in the world.  I’m proud to know you.

And So It Is, Awe & Wonder

So Much Depends.

August 12, 2013

By Jen Pastiloff

Let’s say it’s like this: He leans over to talk to me. We’re at an airport. Let’s say we are at an overpriced fish place in the Los Angeles International Airport. Flight’s been delayed five hours. Imagine that both of us traveling to the same place: Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He leans over to tell me he’s been married 58 years and that he and his wife normally share dinners and would I like half of his? He lost 4 of his fingers on his right hand 45 years ago on a rotary lawn mower, has an adopted son who is 6 foot 10 and he’s a Christian. He told me to keep talking to God before he passed me half his trout.

He told me he’d “just met so many nice people at the airport.” He’d been there since 6 am. It was now 6 pm. While I was huffing and puffing at all the time wasted he was looking around for the miraculous in the mundane, in the faces of people searching flight status boards or shuffling through security, begrudging the fact that they had to take off their shoes or remove their laptops.

When I told him I was a Jew he grasped his heart as if the fact was astounding enough to actually pain him. One of our neighbors was Jewish and they were just the most wonderful people, he’d said. I laughed (it reminded me of when someone says “I like gay people. I have a friend that’s gay) and told him I wasn’t a practicing Jew. He reminded me that I was one of God’s chosen. I wondered if there were any Jews in South Dakota but didn’t ask him. I knew there was at least one family, his neighbors, The Wonderfuls.

I drank my wine as I watched him carefully cutting his fish and smiling as he scrolled through his cell phone (a Blackberry.)

The man has on this light red raincoat and as my red wine slides down the back of my throat, I think of William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
 chickens.

He leans toward my table. This is a picture of my beautiful wife.

So much depends on how we react to things.

His fingers, for example. How did he react 45 years ago when he was showing his father the newest features on the rotary lawnmower and the blade just sliced his four fingers off like they were irrelevant as dead grass? Nothing more than meat under a glass case at the butcher’s. Hurry, I’m a rush. I’ll take a pound of American and a pound of provolone. Slice it thin, please.  He told me that when he’d lost them he quickly had to learn to laugh about it. I guess I’m going to have to learn to pick my nose with my left hand now.

I didn’t react well to the flight delay. I’d felt entitled and ornery. Ornery is a word that makes me think of old people but my hair is greying (not for much longer, I swear) and I had my glasses on and a face free of any makeup, so I felt like an old person. An ornery old person. Sometimes with my hearing loss, I would mistake horny for ornery. I tend to imagine each word containing parts of the other, like distant relatives.

Doesn’t this airline know how busy I am? Huff. Don’t they know I am trying to write a book proposal? Puff. I made a stink and rolled my eyes and couldn’t believe I had to wait. The flight was meant to leave at 2:40 pm (it didn’t leave until 8:30 pm.) I even thought about going home and canceling my workshop in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

I couldn’t cancel the workshop. People were driving 14 hours from Canada! They were coming from Minnesota! I couldn’t cancel simply because I had to wait a few (okay, 6) hours at the airport. I got my meal voucher from Allegiant Air. (I had also never heard of this airline before this trip. For good reason, apparently.) The meal voucher was for eight dollars which made me chuckle. because really, what can you get for eight dollars besides a half glass of wine or two Snickers bars and a pack of gum? With 8 dollars  (okay $7.69) I bought a New Yorker magazine so I could read the latest by Joyce Carol Oates and a story on the Steubenville rape trial and Twitter. (When did the New Yorker get so pricey?)  I took my eight dollar voucher and with a huge chip on my shoulder, a chip weighing as least as much as a small man, I headed to a restaurant to sit and sulk.

So much depends.

So much depends on where we are. Where we are born. Where we park our asses down to eat a meal. Where we sit to write. Where we lay our head at night. Where we find ourselves on a map changes the course of everything, and whether it’s literal and full of pushpins and highways and mountains, or an emotional one, you better believe that life is an exercise in mapmaking.

I get led to a table for one. There are two men on each side of me, also eating alone. Let’s say I get led to the bar. It then becomes a whole different story. The map is then green instead of red, perhaps.

So much depends on so much.

I was content on being pissed about my wasted time, all the while wasting more time. I got no writing done, no reading done, nothing productive to speak of. So when this older man leans his body towards mine and says something I can’t really make out but which sounds like something to the effect of I’ve been married for 58 years, you know, I smile.

Here, an opportunity for you to connect. Here, someone to talk to. Here, someone offering you his food. Here, some fish.

A red jacket. A red wheelbarrow.

So much depends on where you look.

I loved him immediately. He became my grandfather, my priest/rabbi, my meal ticket, my companion, my cartographer, my reminder to pay attention. He also wore hearing aids (like me! He also became my twin!) He was my fellow conspirator against the hearing world. I heard this story about a man who, after 40 years, finally got a pair of hearing aids, he told me, and ever since he’d had to change his will twice, he laughed. I’d thought he was going to tell me that the man gave the hearing aids back because not hearing had been better.

So much depends.

The fact is, when you can’t hear well you have to pay attention. Closely. You see that lady three tables over licking her fingers and although you can’t hear the slurp, you imagine the suck and the little quack it makes, and the man across from her? You see him eating his chicken sandwich without chewing even though his back is to you. You can tell by the way his jaws move from behind. You can see all this while your ears prick for any sound at all, and, when no sound arrives, your eyes scan the room and notice every painful exchange, every empty gesture, every goddamned chicken finger being picked up and put back down by every child in the world.

There’s nothing you can’t see when you can’t hear so you have to be really careful where you sit or you will see it all.

So much depends on where you sit.

His name was Dick and the thirteen year old in me wanted to laugh when he told me his name. He said dick! Haha, he said dick! He gave me his card and wrote down my name on the bottom half of his own meal voucher for eight dollars, which he tore off and put in his front pocket, next to a pen. Would we ever see each other again? Let’s say: no. Let’s say we leave it at that.

And that that is enough. One of those rare moments in life when we say I don’t need more than this.

The having had it happen. The exchange of two human beings in an airport enough to sustain you for a while. Let’s say that’s the case here.

He pays his bill and shakes my hand. I have a styrofoam container of fish sitting in front of me like a gift and I will remember him by it. The man who gave me half of his dinner. The man in the red jacket with the missing fingers.

He leaves his jacket behind so I reach over and grab it. I drape it over the back of my chair knowing I’ll see him on the plane and can give it to him then. I’ll carry the fish he gave me in one hand and his red coat in another.

For a few minutes I feel calm, as insular as a cave, as sturdy as the land I would soon be visiting in the southwestern part of the state of South Dakota. I am as protected as the Badlands I would be at in just two days time, that rugged terrain I’d dreamt of seeing again ever since I first saw them at 18 years old on a cross country drive I took in a mini-van. Mako Sika, translated as “land bad” or “eroded land”, my beloved Badlands, which beckoned to me with their otherworldliness and various personalities (how human of them!) I was part of them and no one could come close to me in the safety of my red vinyl jacket. I was on the interior.

My insides warm from wine, the red jacket a heart on the back of my chair, holding the world in place. Knowing it’s there enough to keep me sane.

So much depends on a red jacket.

Ah! You found my jacket, he rushes back up to my table.

So much depends.

Yes. I was keeping it safe.

Let’s say it ended like that.

We finally boarded the plane. A few rows up, he sleeps, while my legs shake uncontrollably (too much wine and coffee and too little sleep) and I rest my head on the shoulder of a stranger.

Do you mind if I lean my head on your shoulder?

The stranger was on his way back to Iowa. Football scholarship. Young. Polite. Kind. No, I don’t mind. Lean on me, he says.

So much depends on where you sit.

So much depends.

Let’s say two days later I am standing on the edge of the world, at Pinnacles Overlook right by Route 240 at The Badlands National Park, and let’s say I wished that right then and there I could ask that man in the red jacket if this is what he meant by talking to God?

**This essay is dedicated to Melissa Shattuck for having the chutzpah to get me to South Dakota. And to Dick, naturally. Red wheelbarrows. All of them.

(a p.s. to the story: after I posted about it on my Facebook, through the serendipitous nature of the universe, a woman commented: “The man in the red jacket is my dad!”)

Find the miraculous, even in the mundane.

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Dick. The man in the airport.

Dick. The man in the airport.

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Jen will be back in South Dakota May 28th for one workshop. Click here to book.

 

Inspiration, my book, Owning It!

The Undoing of Yourself.

December 2, 2012

The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are. ― Joseph Campbell

My original ancestors must have been beautiful.

I have traced of them, healed scars, visible only after being pointed out. And I don’t usually point them out, just so you know. There’s one on my neck, however, that I am pointing out to you. A red line that looks like a hickey until you look closer and ask. I was 16 when I had it removed and the last thing I remember is them asking me Do you have a boyfriend? I didn’t at the time and I thought This is not working! The anesthesia is not working and I am going to feel when they cut into me and

That was that. I woke up and the lump that I had ignored for years was gone and along with it the diseased lymph node that had been living in my neck for as long as I could remember, and, which I ignored profusely until a guy I was (sort of) dating, that way you “date” when you are 15 and 16, wrapped his arm around my shoulder and touched my neck. He asked me what it was which made it real. Until then, I could pretend it was my imagination but as soon as he said Baby, what is that lump on your neck? I went into a panic. I am going to die. Oh my God, am I going to die?

The way we can ignore something and let it silently torture us and not until another points it out do we acknowledge the realness of it. I am making this up. This is not real.

This is not happening.

There’s also less visible ones like the one on my head where the point of an iron came down after my cousin bit me in the thigh. I didn’t feel it until I saw the iron lying on the floor next to me, on top of all the dirty laundry. Then I got scared and cried and thought I was going to die with all the blood on the leggings and underwear and socks.

I remember riding on the back of a bus, going from Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where I had a fellowship at Bucknell University, to Philadelphia where my boyfriend would pick me up with my own car. I had lent him my car because I wouldn’t need it for the month I was at my fellowship but sitting on the back of that empty bus I wished for my sweet car. If I’d had one wish it would have been to have my little grey Volkswagen Fox so I wouldn’t be so swallowed by the night pressing its black body into the morning in those towns. I could tune in to the road or the traffic or nothingness but there on the back of the bus I saw how darkness never let up, just kept pressing down. The buildings so used to that darkness that any light made them cringe and sink further in. They would turn their tar faces from the sky and droop bloated toward their floors. I saw myself in them and couldn’t stand it. The ride felt like it was 17 hours. I hated those buildings.

I sat on the back of that bus and thought of my ancestors and of my Bubby and my father. And Shetland ponies. How they’d been trained to trudge in coal mines, through dark damp spaces, weight on their small backs, taking fast uneven paces and how they’d been used to it. I imagined the sound of their steps. (What else was I to do on that million hour bus ride?) Hooves hitting hard ground and how they must have sounded like the tongues of sewing machines, clicking to my mother, keeping her company as she worked all night in basements, the television on mute. My mother with pins in her mouth, fingers pinching the fabric in place.

I thought about what coal mining could do for me as I sat on the back of that bus, not being able to drive or change the radio station. What else could I do?

The lift, descent of a hammer, breaking open dark parts of the earth, splitting what’s solid. Cracking. The pattern of days. Falling into one another the way all things without change tend to.

The original ancestor of these ponies gradually grew over centuries, changed forms over and over, emerging from swamps to enter coal mines. Like him, I could adapt to living in muck I thought. To traveling and feeding in marshes and swamplands.

I could get used to anything. 

And I have.

(Ask me what it’s like to have gotten used to hearing loss.)

I too have changed forms. Emerged from dark wet tunnels, basements, buses.

Capable of all kinds of change.

My ancestors were short and stocky, at least on my father’ side, and I see parts of me when I look at old photos. My hands are thick and I notice this more often than I care to admit as I am adjusting someone in my yoga class, in savasana, my hand over their heart. How can I have such ugly hands? until I feel the person’s chest heave remining me of my task at hand which is simply to be here, be here now. Be the net. Be the love. No one cares if you have fat little hands or long hand-model fingers in this moment. Be here now.

My ancestors knew me as I rode on the back of that bus all those years ago, perhaps even rode along with me, a few rows ahead. Just as they know me now. They have built me and formed with me with discarded pieces of heartache and hardship and love and geography and food.

My grandfather on my mother’s side (the only one I have ever met) is obsessed with our genealogy, making maps and taking trips to town to visit the Native American Tribal Center. He is a proud Native American and I always sort of scoffed at his pride. Ok, we are related to Pocahontas. Okay, Pop I would say as a teenager.

I get it now though. This privilege of understanding, of unscrewing your limbs and draining your own blood in search of answers and questions. This undoing of yourself to find the us and the we. 

This What has built me? looming every time you react in a way that surprises yourself or breaks your own heart.

In the afternoon of my life ( I am not sure if that is a thing or if I am even there. I may be in the morning or the twilight or the night but I sure like the way it sounds. So.) In the afternoon of my life I realize now why I turned away for so many years.

I did not want to know.

I did not want to understand why a certain sadness found its way into my face in photographs, why I am inexplicably drawn to a certain stories and people and moments in history. Why being Jewish and Native American and all of it felt like one big Who gives a shit as I counted the grapes I would allot myself for the day.

If I knew where I came from I would be accountable. I would have to turn my face upward and take on the challenge. As it stood, I did not want to know so I kept looking down until I was underfoot and broken.

I am not my past.

But I want to know. Were I came from. Whose blood courses through mine? Who in my family was in the Holocaust? Was my grandmother’s brisket really all it was cracked up to be? Does addiction really run in my family?

(Many. I am not sure. Yes and yes.)

I will not be defined by it but I will look upon it as a duty, this privilege, before I let it was away and disappear like it never existed.

My dad and I at the Jersey shore.

My dad and I at the Jersey shore.