Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I Do Not Forgive You

I woke up this morning after a really strong power dream.  In the dream, I confronted my father in a very powerful way about something he did that devastated me 45 years ago.  I said to him what needed saying, which I never had a chance to say in life.  I stood up to him and let him have it.

I said, very clearly and in a strong voice,"I do not forgive you.  I will never forgive you."  And in the dream, and in my waking state, that pain and anger no longer have any power over me.  

We have just come through the High Holidays, in which we ask for and grant forgiveness and are forgiven.  In the background, the group confession of sins we chant on Yom Kippur, Ashamnu, is playing in my head.  Wonderful word.  Nu on the end of a Hebrew word designates it as "we" (verb) or "our" (noun), depending on the nature of the word.  Ashamnu looks like it should mean "we are ashamed," but it actually means "we are guilty."

The timing of this dream may or may not be odd.  I am thinking about not-forgiving in a time of forgiveness.  I am wondering, as a parent, what thing I might have done to my kids that they would not forgive me for.  And hoping there are no such things.  Or that they have forgiven them.  What parent has not inadvertently said or done something in a thoughtless moment?  But this was a big thing.  One of those things that can only be rectified with difficulty.  One of those things that tells your child you do not give a rat's ass about it, that makes your child feel like a mistake for which you cannot quite atone. 

I am wondering what effect my refusal to forgive has on my father's afterlife, if there is such a thing.  Jews are all over the place on afterlife: no heaven or hell, but many other beliefs, from a permanent dirt nap to reincarnation and all permutations in between.  Does one's failure to forgive cause hardship on the one left unforgiven?  Must they suffer until forgiveness is granted?

I think being able to confront him directly in a vivid dream has enabled me to let it go, which in itself is a form of forgiveness.  And in my own belief system, I think maybe his hearing me say it has helped him grow,  too. 

My father walked out on us when I was nine.   He walked out on his business and his wife of twenty years and his only child, and even tried to sell the house out from under us as he left.  Though he left us practically destitute, my mother was strong and she pulled us out of it.  Her motto was "don't faint, do something."  She was really mashed flat emotionally, but she kept on moving.  He didn't show up again or contact me for about seven years.  When he did,  he offered neither apology nor explanation, though he said it was a religious conversion that prompted him to reconnect.  My relationship with him was restored.  Kids love like dogs do and will forgive a parent anything.  Usually.

During the time he was away from me he had imagined what I was like, and unfortunately, the actual me did not match the imaginary one.  I don't think he was able to reconcile the two very well.  We saw him only occasionally when the kids were small.

One late afternoon when we were living in San Francisco, he showed up at the  door at a very auspicious time: I was in labor with my daughter Madelyn.  I was so excited to see him and that he would be there for her birth, but to my astonishment, he was not at all interested.  Who knows how long it could take, and besides, he had dinner plans. He stayed about five uncomfortable minutes and left.  Madelyn was born three  hours later.  He did not call me or visit the hospital or send flowers or a gift or a card.  I think he finally met Madelyn when she was about 6 months old.   

And that is the act for which I confronted him in the dream.  I cannot imagine arriving at my child's home and discovering a grandchild was about to be born and just blowing it off to go to dinner with a total stranger.  I can't even begin to get into a mindset that would allow me to think like that or imagine an obligation that would drag me away from such an event.  It is truly unthinkable to me.  But then, he had quite nimbly dragged himself away from his only child's entire life. 

Maybe I do forgive him after all.  I have lived with dogs a long time and have learned a lot from them about unconditional love.   And he missed ever knowing what it's like to hold a newborn granddaughter in your arms.  I wouldn't trade that for the world.  

photo: royalty free images

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Wrestling with God

The name Israel literally means God-wrestler.  Jacob earned it after wrestling all night with God and being wounded in the thigh.  Anyone who has wrestled with God has been wounded somewhere, and healed somewhere, and most likely will continue wrestling forever. 

My mother called it tilting at windmills, a la Don Quixote, Cervantes' anti-hero.  She was not a believer, but she wrestled, just the same.

My wrestling today is with Yom Kippur, which begins at sunset tonight.  It is a 25 hour total fast -- not even water.  What about medication?  No medication either.  We are in shul tonight for Kol Nidre and tomorrow, all day for one thing and another.  It is the day of atonement.  For Christians, think Good Friday, cubed. 

I was never a fan of Lent, and in fact at the end of that phase of my God-wrestling, I was habitually giving up Lent for Lent.  I am struggling with the same problem translated into Judaism: every year I run into major problems with Yom Kippur.  I can't fast.  I have to take medication and drink fluids or my heart goes screwy and my blood-pressure goes screwy and my kidneys go screwy and my electrolytes go out of balance and I'm dead.  I'm not ready to do that for the sake of tradition.  Second, I don't believe God wants penitential stuff from us.  I think God wants action and right-living.  There is that wonderful passage from Isaiah 58:6-8:

6Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of HaShem shall be your rear guard.

That is not to say we don't need to focus inward and attempt to fix the broken parts.  Or say we are sorry for the mess-ups, and there are plenty of those.  That is not to say we should not all gather together on a specific day and not wear leather shoes and recognize we are all the jerks we know we well and truly are.  Tonight, in the most hauntingly beautiful way, we will all admit that we are so thoroughly jerk-like that you had better not trust our contracts and promises for the entire year. That's what the words to the lovely Kol Nidre actually say. 

But if there is anything I have learned in my 71 years in this wrestling ring, it's that God uses jerks.  The best stuff we ever do comes out of those wounded places where the "messenger" struck our thighs and left a permanent mark. When we are too stunned and startled to think straight (and get in the way), God uses us to do the stuff that under ordinary circumstances we are not capable of doing.  And also, we are at our best when we recognize the wounded places in others because we know them in ourselves, and we show sincere compassion. 

I see the rationale beyond tradition in the Days of Awe and Yom Kippur, but I still have a great desire to hide from God and sit out the wrestling match.  Not a chance.

Delacroix's Jacob Wrestling with the Angel  courtesy Royalty Free Images

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bigots in the Bluegrass

There is a restaurant in Lebanon, Kentucky which is refusing to allow LGBT people to patronize it.  Will not allow them in the place.  Will not serve them.  I have never been refused service in a restaurant, but Laura has.  She and a friend sat for a long time in a Tennessee restaurant and were never waited on.  They were invisible to the servers and the management alike.

It's really incredible that such a thing could happen in 2009, but it still does.   It's hard to believe such ignorance could still exist, but it does.  It's hard to believe such hatred could still exists but it does.  And it is largely a product of religion.  It is founded on religion, fed by religion and encouraged by religion.  It is perpetuated every Sunday morning from pulpits across the country.  It is also spread by politicians who use hatred as a means of and getting money and votes.   Both the preachers and the pols spread lies so foul it's hard to imagine anyone conceiving such filth.  I have heard it myself from the mouths of innocent-looking little old ladies and clean-scrubbed looking young men, and if I hadn't heard it, I would never have believed it was possible for people to come up with such stuff.  

Actions like this Kentucky restaurant refusing to serve gays are a direct result of this disinformation.  No doubt the owners consider themselves to be exemplary Christians.  I'm not so sure Jesus would agree...

People die because of this kind of toxic rhetoric, usually by being beaten to death.  The people spewing it also claim it is their right to freedom of speech and religion and whatever else.  I want people to consider that free speech also requires responsibility.  Freedoms require us to be answerable for them.  My right to free speech ends when it endangers your life.  The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable and trump my right to trash you every time. 

It is time for people to begin acting like grownups.  No, it is time for people to BE grownups.  Words have enormous power.  So much hate speech is being spewed these days, is being encouraged by media personalities, by wacky politicians out to get attention, by angry, fearful, hateful people who are terrified that things have changed and times are changing.  It's time to tone down the rhetoric, do some self-examen and speak with charity.  Bring back good manners.

That Sodom and Gomorrah story on which the gay hater restauranteurs are probably basing their behavior has quite a different meaning than the one they are giving it.  Those towns were not destroyed because there were homosexuals there.  They were destroyed because of what was NOT there: hospitality.  It was the sin of inhospitality to strangers that caused their destruction -- the same one they are committing by excluding gays.

photo credit: New York Times (deli pictured is NOT the one excluding gays.) 

Friday, September 25, 2009

Health Care Dissembling

I am so tired of hearing that whining woman's voice saying in a sing-song tone, "Despite what the president or Congress say, their health care proposals do not guarantee you can keep your own doctor. There’s no guarantee you won’t wait longer for care...  face "rationing..." or "lose your insurance " altogether. 

This woman being is paid by former very much for-profit Hospital Corporation of America executive Rick Scott's CPR group to read these lines, which are really a list of what's wrong with the current system.  These problems would pretty much be cured by the heath care reform President Obama is proposing.  She's simply  an actor being paid to do a voice-over.  I think the writers and producers of the spot must really not understand how this bit of nonsense actually plays. 

Every one of their indictments of the proposed changes in the system highlights exactly the stuff the for-profit insurance companies now do.  Each time I hear this, my bad opinion of the current system is reinforced.  And I am also reminded of what liars these people are, because each of their allegations is false. If you doubt me, try this web site:

Somehow I doubt this is what they had in mind when they spent the millions to keep this one broadcasting. 

photo credit: Classroom Clipart


Jake was abandoned twice before he found us.  The second time, he was found wandering along a country road somewhere between Powers and Myrtle Point, Oregon.  There was a note pinned to his collar which read "My name is Jake. I am 3 years old.  I love children, water..." but he had found water somewhere along the way and the rest of the ink on the note was washed away.  I could fill in the rest:  "...sticks, tennis balls, peaches, fresh mushrooms, having my ears rubbed, and a good meaty marrow bone."   

It was love at first sight.  There he was in the big kennel at the corner of the Coos County animal shelter, looking so hopeful.  He had been there for weeks and at 85 pounds was too big and pushy for anyone to want to take a chance on him.  His days there were nearly at an end but no one wanted to euthanize such a wonderful dog.  I took one look at him and that was it.  It was mutual -- he looked into my eyes and slid down in the "fainting from love" gesture our old dog Clancy had done so often.  He had me for life.  We had the perfect set-up for him -- 4 acres of woods and wetlands on the banks of a slough.  He could run right out the door and hit the water any time he liked.  Chessy heaven!

He was a beautiful dog -- a gorgeous mocha color common to Chesapeake Bay Retrievers.  His back was wavy and his whiskers and eyebrows were wonderfully curly.  He had the best ears I ever saw -- big, soft, silky and irresistible.  When we got home he decided his place was at my feet, wherever I might be.

In no time at all, we discovered how smart he was.  He understood human words like no other dog I had ever met.  He had a huge vocabulary, hundreds if not thousands of words.  He could follow instructions precisely.  "Jake, get the red ball."  He would pick out the red ball from among balls of other colors and many other toys.  "Get the blue chew toy."  He would immediately get the blue chew toy.  He figured out how to carry three tennis balls at a time.  he would put one in the back of his mouth and line up two more, one above the other, on the floor.  He would then quickly pick them up, one on top of the other, without dropping the first one, et voila!  Three at a time.  He was very proud of this trick.  He could also hold two or three sticks at the back of his mouth while doing this -- they went in before the first tennis ball.  He practiced for hours to get this just right. 

He invented other games with sticks and tennis balls and combinations of the two.  He would very slowly roll a stick or a tennis ball off the edge of the deck and try to catch it before it hit the ground.  He was very careful to move the object as slowly as he could -- inching it forward a foot might take 10 minutes.  He would arrange pillows at an angle and roll his tennis ball down them and catch it at the bottom.  He could actually throw the ball with his mouth and worked on the angle of its bounce for hours.  He would rearrange the pillows again and again to get just the right angle.  Of course, he caught it on the bounce.  He made a channel of his front legs and worked them into precise position so a tennis ball would roll down them very slowly.  He worked on this one a lot toward the end of his life.  His focus and concentration were amazing.  He would catch the ball at the precise moment it fell off his paws, before it hit the ground.

His favorite foods were peaches and fresh mushrooms.  After we left Oregon and settled in Nashville, his weight ballooned up to 106 pounds.  I tricked him by giving him mushrooms (nearly calorie-free) as treats.  He also loved "broccoli bones" -- the stems of broccoli. He lost the weight and never even knew he was dieting.  Well, maybe he did.  Not much got past him. 

He lived to be 17 years old.  The picture above was taken at the end of his life when his dear old face was totally white and most of his coat had gone gray.  At the end, he had dog Alzheimer's and though we slowed it for a while with medication, the inevitable came to pass.  One night we realized he no longer knew who we were, or who or where he was.  It was very hard.  There will always be a big hole in the world where Jake once worked his soft-eared magic.  Somewhere across the Rainbow Bridge, he is inventing even more wonderful games.

photo credit: Laura Hoffman 2007

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Big Empty Box

There is a huge new refrigerator in our kitchen.  The Mega Behemoth came to live with us on the morning of Rosh Hashanah.  At a time when we should have been at shul singing Avinu Malkeinu, I was desperately doing the very un-Rosh Hashanah-like task of removing what was safe to keep (mustard, pickles, carrots, cheese, cans of soda and iced tea, jam and jelly), dumping the perishables (sour cream, eggs, mayo, jalapeno relish, strawberries, milk) from the inside, and removing all the magnets, clips, grandchild art, prayers and scrawled recipes from the outside of the dead Black Behemoth. 

The Behemoth had a heart attack on Friday morning.  It had a blockage in its arteries, its coils, which would have taken too long and cost too much to fix.  The refrigerator doctors worked on it for two hours before pronouncing it.  They tried everything, but alas, it was gone.  When the cost of the repair equals the cost of a replacement, that's all.  I thought it was young, but it turns out I just lost track. The refrigerator doctor said this particular brand is prone to refrigerator heart disease far more than its cousins.  So sad. Its brand name actually became synynomous with the word refrigerator at one time, like Kleenex and tissue or Xerox and copier.  Writers had to be warned not to used the brand name instead of the generic.  They just don't make them like they used to. 

Laura was sick as a dog and running a fever, so off I went solo to the home improvement store -- see how careful I am to use the generic? -- the big one that sounds like the company that owns the luxury hotel chain (where our friend from shul is Executive Chef) as well, incongruously, as a number of offshore drilling and natural gas pipeline venues.  A helpful man in the paint department directed me to the desk at the center of the home appliances department where a young man was just finishing a sale.  I waited.  He talked.  I wandered off and looked at the merchandise for a while.  He talked.  I had checked out prices online and was happy see these seemed lower than the ones on the website.  They were really the same, but they seemed lower when connected to an actual appliance than to a picture.

When I came back, the sales guy was still talking, but now on the phone.  There were two men lounging at a desk nearby, not another customer in sight.  Nobody looked up as I opened doors of fridges and peered inside. There was one huge box, very nice inside and out and priced about $1000 lower than others similar to it.  I wondered aloud why it was so (relatively) cheap.  I was apparently completely invisible to the salespeople.  Finally, summoning up my best Strong Jewish Woman persona, I asked in a loud voice, "Is there anyone here who wants to sell a refrigerator?"   One of the loungers got up  and came over to help.  His explanation of the pricing made perfect sense -- it was just a basic box -- no bells and whistles -- and it worked well.  He had one -- with the bells and whistles -- at home.  I was looking for a basic box.  It did have sliding glass shelves and all the features I was looking for, just no ice-maker or water in the door.  The sides were black, matching the stove, but the front was stainless.  It was the same brand as the stove Laura gave me for my birthday last year, which I love.  That guy never made an easier sale.

The Mega Behemoth was delivered and operating in less than 24 hours, no charge.  They also gently and discreetly hauled away the empty remains of the dead Behemoth.

The young salesman on the phone had been trying to help a woman whose three-week-old washing machine had gone out on strike.  He ignored me because he was doing his job, helping a customer in distress, just as I hope he will if I ever need help in the future with the Mega Behemoth. 

So the new year begins in an unexpected way, with a sweet bargain and a deep sense of Shalom bayit in the household.  Laura is feeling better and has gone out to buy food to stock the Mega Behemoth.  L'shana tovah to all.  May you have a sweet and healthy new year, and may your fridge always be well-stocked.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Bagel Shop Song

Look at those cheeks! Could this guy blow a shofar, or what? He was amazing.

Stirring up the old memories made me want to hear that song again, and so I found it on Youtube. I found many versions of it, including one in which Dizzy explained how he came to write it. That one is called "3 Nights in Tunisia" and is worth looking up if you're interested. There is another in which he does a duet with an amazing Cuban trumpeter -- in Cuba! The one closest to what we were listening to on the Bagel Shop jukebox in 1958 can be found here:

If I knew how to embed these videos, I would, but I am so pedestrian at this, I can only pass on the link.

A warning -- this is Bebop, a style of jazz that may clash with what passes as jazz now. Its practitioners included Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker ("Bird") and Lester Young ("Prez"), among many other greats. To us, it was exciting music that fed the mind and made us stretch intellectually. The musicians who played it were innovators of a high order -- geniuses -- doing things with rhythm and chord structure and melodic variations that had never been done before. Hearing it made us feel the possibilities were limitless, somehow. It fired up all kinds of creative ideas.

I was coming home from work one late sunny afternoon in the spring of 1964, enjoying myself, walking along lower Pacific Avenue in San Francisco -- the area that used to be known as the Barbary Coast at the turn of the twentieth century, but by 1964 was all interior decorators and upscale lawyers. Pacific is one street back from Broadway, where the Jazz clubs were. Just as I was walking along, I saw a familiar figure up ahead -- a pleasant looking man in an African cap a little like a Bukhuran kippah. I recognized him immediately and he gave me a broad smile, bowing slightly and tipping his hat. It was an enormous blessing and he absolutely made my day. That was my one and only Dizzy Gillespie sighting. I will never forget it. I could not wait to tell my jazz musician husband about it. He was as excited as I was.

Dizzy Gillespie was not only a genius, he was also a mensch.

Photo credit: unknown

The Co-Existence Bagel Shop

On the corner of Grant Avenue and Green Street in San Francisco stood an unimposing storefront deli called the Co-Existence Bagel Shop. This is my alma mater. I learned more from endless conversations in that place than I ever learned in college. My usual seat was up front by the window, against the wall. I survived on hot pastrami on Russian rye, generous helpings of potato salad and gallons of black coffee, mostly donated by the generous counterman. I was 19 years old and discovering life.

My "professor" was a wonderful old white-bearded guy named Ernest Alexander who knew everything. He was a wellspring of philosophy, politics, literature and human nature. He was the wisest man I had ever met. Every day, my roommate Nancy and I made our way down Russian Hill to "Mecca," as we called North Beach, to sit with Ernest and talk for hours while the juke box played Dizzy Gillespie and Horace Silver and Bird in the background. (I still call Nights in Tunisia "the Bagel Shop Song.") It was heaven. I could be in the picture above, but it's hard to tell. Do you see a young blonde in jeans and a navy surplus sweater up there? The sunlight is pouring in so, the people are obscured by the light. Funny, because I remember the bagel shop as always being a little dark.

One thing they never served there was bagels. It was a delicious irony. The only bagel in the place hung from the cord of the ceiling fixture -- at least it did until Pope Pius XII died. The night of the pope's death, the irrepressible poet, Bob Kaufman, jumped up on a table and took the thing down. He declared himself the first Jewish pope and proceeded to do a communion service using the bagel (staler than Jay Leno's jokes) as the bread. It was an event for the ages. We laughed and shouted and cheered.

If you have not read Kaufman's poetry, you have missed something. After the evening of papish fun at the Bagel Shop, we went to a party at the apartment he shared with his wife, Eileen. He showed me a poem he had written. I was awestruck -- I had not seen his work before and had thought of him as a sort of clownish North Beach character. He was clearly a master. I have read that in France, he is known as the American Rimbaud. In my opinion, he is the best poet of the entire "Beat" era, including a lot of better known names -- Ginzburg, Corso, Ferlinghetti, Patchen... Re-reading some of his stuff today I had the same amazed response I did when I read the first one.

A notorious San Francisco psychiatrist named Francis Rigney decided to "study the beatniks." He came to the Bagel Shop every night for a while to pursue this. His findings sounded as if he had been studying a new species of insects. I particularly loved his comment, "The women were found to be grossly dissocial or subtly hostile. " He neglected to mention he was making overt passes at them and was more than twice their age. I clearly remember being interviewed by him and feeling distinctly hostile and "dissocial." Creeped-out fits, too. First, I was underage and he insisted on buying me a beer. The police were forever looking for a pretext to arrest any and all of us, and I had no desire to ever be arrested for any reason (so far, so good...), but least of all for drinking beer, which I didn't even like. Since my parents had been in the bar business, I also knew the Bagel Shop could lose their liquor license for serving alcohol to a minor. I hid the stupid thing under the table. I wonder what he made of that? He made me so uncomfortable, I couldn't get away from him fast enough. I think I had a lot of company, from his "findings."

The Co-existence Bagel Shop closed forever in 1960. Long live the Bagel Shop. To get the full effect, dim the lights and have Dizzy Gillespie's Night in Tunisia playing quietly in the background. That's my school song.

Photo credit: Jerry Stoll, who chronicled it all.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Comprehensive Health Care

Well, the boys in the backroom have come up with a plan that certainly rewards the insurance industry for their millions in campaign money. It mandates that everyone MUST buy health insurance, but offers no real solutions for getting it. There is a provision for health care co-ops, like credit unions for health insurance, but those will apparently only be open to people who have been completely without insurance for 6 months or more. The provision for making it illegal for insurance companies to use preexisting conditions as a pretext for refusing service is a masterpiece of ambiguous loopholes -- for instance the rules can be overridden based on smoking, age and "family composition," whatever that may mean.

The health care co-ops are like buying clubs for insurance. They will operate like HMOs and only MDs who subscribe to those services will be available -- meaning your own MD is probably not going to be one of them. Oh, but a "government option" will make you lose your physician of choice, says a commercial that just ran on CNN. Did I mention this plan has no government option? This bill also cuts Medicare, another thing the Republicans were swearing the "government option" would do, and the Democrats have sworn won't be touched.

My government-run heath care plan saved me financially and physically. I had gone horribly into debt trying to pay for the survivor's insurance I inherited from my late husband. It was costing me more per month than the amount of the pension I got. I had to rely on credit cards and a home equity loan to pay bills and eat. Finally I turned 65, and my health care coverage worries were over. Medicare made all the difference. The expensive company insurance fees dropped to a much lower amount as Medicare became my primary coverage. I kept my wonderful MD and none of the horrors that ad on CNN predicted materialized. I'm not sure that will be the case if this "no-public-option" version passes.

As much as I desperately want to see health care reform, I hope the bill they are proposing fails. It is a total sham. They gutted the best of Obama's original proposal and still have no bipartisan support. It is anything but reform. Max Baucus, the man who proposed it, is on CNN now, stuttering and red-faced, and you can see he knows it's a sham. His facial expression says it all. He's no doubt eager to be off counting his health industry pay-offs. After all, he has already received $3.9 million from them -- even more than most Republicans.

Should a man who has collected $3.9 million from the industry write the legislation to reform it? Should a fox be put in charge of redesigning the hen house?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mi Chamocha

Mi chamocha ba'elim, Adonai?
Mi kamocha, nedar bakodesh, nora tehilot, osei feleh?

"Who is like you among the gods," says the song, the one sung by the people of Israel as they walked to safely across the Sea of Reeds on their escape from bondage in Mitzrayim. "Who is like you, glorious in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?" The first chamocha has the guttural ch sound, as they begin to cross the sea. They move forward through the waters, still singing, and by the time they get to the second, their mouths are full of water and they can no longer make the guttural sound. It becomes the hard k sound instead. And then, the seas part and they go on singing. Moshe's sister Miriam leads the women, dancing and singing with tambourines, safely on the opposite shore. Mi Chamocha is Miriam's song of redemption.

Mitzrayim is the Hebrew word for Egypt, and also translates as "narrow places." To a Jew, this is the definition of redemption: to be brought out of Egypt, the tight spot, the narrow place, into safety; for the waters rising over our heads to be parted so we can breathe, so we can sing the praises again as they were meant to be sung, with the full guttural sound.

When you are drowning in whatever is getting you, it's very hard to sing praises with a full-throated voice.

I think of Mitzrayim as the tight-fitting shoes of the soul. I spent years crippling around in those, trying to make things fit that were entirely wrong from me. I thought if I protested long enough, made the right arguments to the right people, things would change. The worst was when I tried to be a Catholic, not realizing that the post Vatican II hierarchy had driven the bus deep into ultra-conservative territory. But I had a vision of the nature of God that had come to me when I was 7 years old and I have spent my life searching for an expression of religion that matched what I knew in my soul.

I joyously stumbled through the Sea of Reeds and onto the shore with my tambourine three years ago when I innocently attended a welcoming newcomers event at Congregation Micah with my partner Laura and stayed for services. It wasn't my first experience with Judaism, but it was the one that I was mature enough to "get" on a much deeper level than before. I had spend a lifetime developing my contemplative chops, and here was the ultimate riff, to use a musician's metaphor. This one matched my childhood vision exactly. The more deeply I went into it, the more my heart sang. It was all there. I had literally heard the words "welcome home!" whispered to my heart that first night at Micah. I was, indeed, home.

My Hebrew name is Miriam. It was the name given to me by my Jewish mother-in-law 50 years ago, and the one I chose when I went to the mikvah. And I love to sing that song!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Ugly Un-Americans

Most people are too young to really remember the bestseller of the 1950s, The Ugly American. Wikipedia defines the term Ugly American as "an epithet used to refer to perceptions of loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless and ethnocentric behavior of Americans," especially when they are abroad. I am adding the prefix Un- to it to describe the loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless and ethnocentric behavior of the carpetbaggers -- I mean the tea-baggers -- and Republican flacks who are now traveling around the country on buses stirring up dreck nationwide. Seeing the photo above on the Huffington Post this morning made me feel like I had been kicked in the stomach. I cannot imagine what kind of lapse, not only of good taste but of sanity, would allow a person to think that sign would be even remotely OK, or for that matter, what kind of mind could conceive such an idea. I am often appalled these days, but this is so over the top, appalled doesn't even come close. (Oh, and by the way? This was by no means the worst of their signs.)

While I have never been a Kennedy fan, to so dishonor a man who spent his entire life in compassionate service to this country, and who was responsible for legislation that will continue to benefit its citizens for many generations to come, is beyond crass. The mind which could create this sign is in serious spiritual trouble. The person who displays it is lucky his face is not in the picture. Perhaps he is shameless, as he must be to do this, but if he is not ashamed now, he surely will be if he gives it any serious thought later. Or have we all become political sociopaths?

Beyond the 4-year-old's temper tantrum nature of all these acts, there is a terrifying breakdown of civil discourse. Congressman Joe Wilson's outburst, calling the president a liar as he addressed congress, is living proof of it and more so because he does not seem to understand there was anything wrong with his action. I don't think many of them are fully aware of the damage they are causing. I am beginning to get a feel for what it must have been like to live in the U.S. during the Civil War. Of course, some of these folks are still fighting that war and will never let it go. I am reminded of that every time we drive to our synagogue along I-65 and pass the hideously ugly statue of Nathan Bedford Forest, flood-lit and surrounded by confederate flags. Forest was a confederate general and founder of the KKK. It stands approximately across the road from the sign that commemorates the Battle of Nashville (my Lovier ancestors fought there on the Union side). The man who maintains that ugly statue is still fighting that war. And so are the tea-baggers.

If it weren't for the seriously destructive nature of what they are doing -- the unraveling of the civil fabric of our nation -- I would just turn a jaded eye to it and ignore them entirely. They don't deserve any more attention than any manipulative child's tantrum would -- don't reward it by giving credence to it and it won't be repeated. But these folks are like those hard core tots on Supernanny who must be dragged to"the naughty seat " repeatedly over several hours before they get the message. They are so totally oblivious to the effects of their prolonged tantrum on the political health of our country, they just keep on going, drunk with the endorphin rush of unfettered political catharsis.

Someone needs to tell them, as the president of the Sons of Confederate Veterans told the guy who put up that statue out on I-65, "The Woh-ah is oh-vah!"

And by the way, so is the election.

photo credit: Huffington Post

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Tashlich: cast your sins into the depths of the sea

We have a nice little ceremony on Rosh Hashanah in which we place our sins on pieces of bread and cast them on the waters of the Litttle Harpeth River, sending them away forever. I imagine the ducks eat them, but they don't cause indigestion or infect the ducks with bad behavior. Maybe they even nourish the ducks. Nice, when even your sins can do some good. Nothing is ever wasted. Perfect "green" living.

I can hear God laughing at this idea -- if God laughs in any way we can recognize at all, though I know God has a fantastic sense of humor. (If you don't believe me, just look in the mirror.) Since God is without form, laughing may appear as something else again. Maybe God's laughter manifests in hilarious ways we don't readily recognize, like showing up as the man I saw in the middle of our street today who was walking along pushing a working gas lawnmower. He had it running, mowing the paved and grass-less street. The engine stopped and he jerked it intently back to life, turning left up Kline, still mowing away. Maybe the manifestation of God's laughter is showing us something totally silly so we'll do the laughing out loud. Once I saw a man on little short skis with tiny red wheels pushing himself along a path in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco with ski poles. That was hilariously incongruous. Like the lawnmower guy, he looked totally serious and completely absorbed in his activity. That made it even funnier.

Tashlich dates back at least six centuries and is based on verses from Micah (7:18-20). Our synagogue is called Congregation Micah, so it's very appropriate for us to trudge down to the Little Harpeth and cast our bread upon the waters. In New York, I hear they throw their sins off the Brooklyn Bridge! If you don't have a river or an ocean, you can also use a mikvah. I think that would be a hot mess. I'd hate to be the one to have to clean up a mikvah full of last year's sins.

photo credit: Leigh Anne Embry Marchesi

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


When I was 8, my grandmother taught me to knit. I wanted to learn to make socks, because she was always knitting socks. She taught me to knit Continental style, which is fast and easy. I could never understand why people do it the other way, wrapping the yarn around the needle each time and slowly pulling the wrapped yarn through the loop, which is sometimes called "throwing". I am impatient and prefer the quick pull-the-yarn-through with the needle method -- which is sometimes called "picking". I learned these two terms -- throwing and picking -- from Knitting Daily, an email about knitting I read this morning. The writer said picking yielded uneven stitches, but I think that's only because she just learned it.

As you can see from the socks and the red silk and cashmere scarf in the picture, my stitches are as even as can be. I have been using this method for about 62 years, so that may have something to do with it. I have the tension on the yarn down pat. I have also learned that the needles themselves determine the regularity of the stitches even more than the tension. If you push the new stitch on the needle just so, it will match its mates exactly. It took me a long time to learn that. In truth, my stitches used to be all over the place. When I was 8, my work looked like what they call Jazz Knitting, which has stitches of every size and holes deliberately worked in it. While I was expecting Judd (now 50), I made him an egg-yolk yellow polo shirt with a little collar and a gray crew-neck sweater. Those gray Shetland sweaters were the height of style in 1959.

I like the Continental method because it's faster and less awkward-looking to watch. I am not a patient person. I want the quick method, the shortcut, the simplest way. I also want the most aesthetically pleasing way. Of course, this is not always the best method in life. It can be disastrous. Making it look less awkward, pretending you are not struggling with your uneven stitches -- these things are not the best life plan at all. They work just fine for knitting, which requires no transparency and can be unraveled and reworked if the mess gets too bad. It's just not as easy to go back and pick up the dropped stitches in your life.

photo credit: MAJ

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Queen of Everything

The Queen of Everything demands personal attention. There is an imperious tilt to her head. She holds herself just so and demands absolute compliance.

We are her furniture. She walks on us, finds just the right place and settles in. Nobody moves until The Queen deigns to rise and vacate her couch. Ordinarily, I would not put up with this, but she is the Queen of Everything.

When she was a kitten, she was hit by a car and her pelvis was broken. She was found in front of the emergency animal clinic and taken inside. They repaired the damage and Laura adopted her. Nineteen years later, she has earned the right to use us as furniture any time she likes.

She owns us. She has the deeds. She sublets parts of us to the other cats for a price. When their time-shares expire, she reclaims us. She patiently grooms us and sees that we are kept in good working order. She continues to get a good return on her investment.

She is treated with deference by every animal in the house. She walks where she pleases and sits where she likes. She has personally mothered every kitten who arrived to join the household. Her gait is slow now and she walks haltingly, tail held high. Her injured pelvis won't allow her to jump, so she climbs things instead. She weighs no more than a dry leaf. She spends her days perched in a sunny south window, watching that part of the world that unfolds at this end of our little cul-de-sac.

We dread the day that is surely coming, but for now, Hobbes is the Queen of Everything. Long live the Queen!

Postscript: On September 22, 2010, Ms Hobbes went to the Rainbow Bridge.  She used up every ounce of cat she had in her and went out in true Hobbes style.  I am happy to have been a part of her life.  

photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Monday, September 7, 2009

Dragonfly fly-by

It is my job to correct people. Wrong word usage, mistaken historical references, crazy notions that needs disabusing? I'm your girl. If your inaccuracy gets my attention, you're in for it. It's referred to around here as being "MAJ-ed." I am somewhat related to that hopelessly self-involved man on Flipping Out. Not genetically -- but I have a real sense of dread that on some level we are kindred souls.

I'm trying really hard to sit on it, because I know this behavior is wrong, rude, and boorish to the max. But can you tell me why people insist on saying "for-tay" (Italian for loud) when they really mean "fort" (French for strength)? I know they're spelled the same (forte), but they don't sound the same at all. And why do people say "HEENY-us" when they mean "HAYnus" (heinous)? Or "misCHEEvy-us" when they mean "MISchev-us? Are you feeling my frustration yet? (Don't I have anything better to do? Of course I do, but here I am, facing a blank screen and a promise to myself to be disciplined and write something on it every day.)

I think it comes from being frequently corrected as a child, and later as a wife. It became part of who I am and I perpetuate it out of a sense of duty. When I switched from wife to partner, did it stop? No. When one is sharing life with an English professor, grammar becomes an issue.

When I moved to the south from the west coast, my grammar began to slide. I when I was commuting to Nashville while we were waiting for my house in Oregon to sell, I overheard one of a group of men waiting in the Minneapolis airport say, clear as a southern bell, "He dudden like it."

"Hicks!" I thought to myself. "Dudden." They looked like business men. "Must be selling snake oil," I thought.

Now I catch myself saying "dudden" all the time. It's a perfectly good word. It covers didn't, doesn't and who knows what else. Don't have to even think about being precise. Laura doesn't even correct me. She's so used to being around firemen, she doesn't even hear it anymore. She has, however, cured me of saying "lay" when I mean "lie," and that was not easy.

Another southern-ism I've adopted is sitting on the front porch in a wicker chair, watching the world go by. Not much world on our little cul-de-sac, but enough. Watching the trees turn now. The Redbud is going rusty gold from the edges, at least those few leaves that are still left. This sunny afternoon, a dragon fly flew by. In some cultures, dragon flies represent self-awareness. I'm hoping she brought me some.

photo credit: John Kereny

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Several years ago, standing naked and chest-deep in the startlingly bathtub-hot water of the mikvah, hair dripping from the second of three dunkings, I said this prayer for the first time. I stumbled over it and had to ask Rabbi Laurie to repeat part of it because the words were unfamiliar. "Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha Olam, shehekianu, v'kiamanu, v'higianu l'zman hazeh." Blessed be our God, Sovereign of time and space, who has sustained us, protected us and brought us safely to this this very moment in time...who has allowed me to live to see this day.

Since then, I have said it many times, spontaneously, and I no longer stumble on the Hebrew words. Sometimes my breath is taken away by the beauty of life around me...Shehekianu! Sometimes I feel so loved...Shehekianu! Sometimes everything clicks into place and I am aware of the sheer elegance of creation...Shehekianu!

In July, for the first time in many years, all of my children and their children gathered to celebrate my son Judd's fiftieth birthday. As I, an only child who grew up with almost no family, looked at the joyous array of my five kids and eleven grandkids and their wonderful "married-ins" (as my daughter Cheryl put it), I was overwhelmed with love and gratitude. I realized that what I missed out on as a child, I had managed to provide for my children: those beautiful young ones swimming and laughing and enjoying each other, the older generation settled into easy, friendly enjoyment of the moment, Lindsay and her wonderful Alex a sort of in-between generation, enjoying each other and being with all of us, and me, the matriarch, enjoying a true Shehekianu moment. (see picture at the bottom of the page)

And even though I say this prayer truly from the heart, I don't really believe that God micromanages our lives in the way suggested by the prayer. I believe we are loved in a mystical way and I have felt that love so tangibly so many times, I can't doubt it at all. Still, I was reading through some of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy last night and feeling glad we do it almost entirely in Hebrew so I am not fully aware of what I'm saying. It's all about getting your name inscribed in the book of life or the book of death -- as if some transgression will cause God to kill you at some unspecified date during the year to come, and doing good deeds will cause God to let you live for another year. I don't think most Jews believe that in any literal way, yet we all show up. I mean, all of us show up -- for you Christians, think Christmas and Easter. In about two weeks, the walls will be bursting with people we only see at this time of year. Jews we never knew existed will come to shul by the droves, exchanging L'shana tovas and kisses. The vast rolling lawns will be covered with parked cars. They will run shuttle buses out to taxi people to the door. They will be seated in every inch of space we have, folding doors opened up and space expanded out into the broad hallway and the social hall. Of course, we are celebrating the birthday of the world. The new year begins.

And then, those of us who have been allowed to live for another year, joining together again for yet another go at getting it better this time, will say (or sing) -- what else? Shehekianu!

photo credit (below): Loyd Sherwood

Saturday, September 5, 2009

When someone shot a hole in the moon

When my sons were little, there came a really terrifying time. I have never been so scared for my children or my own life before or since. It was at the heighth of "the cold war" -- a time hardly imaginable today, when the two major superpowers, The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were like two alley tomcats, head to head and threatening mayhem. And they were armed with nuclear weapons.

It was not so long before when the U.S., the only country in history ever to do so, had actually used nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We knew what those places had experienced. We knew the deadly consequences visited on generations yet to come, yet we kept building up the stockpiles. Both countries were bristling with missiles.

After the Cubans overthrew their oppressive U.S. backed dictator, Bautista, U.S. relations soured with the now communist country. (Like we didn't see that coming!) An abortive U.S. backed raid known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion spurred further enmity and Cuba called in mother Russia for help. The Russians set up nuclear missile sites in Cuba, aimed at the U.S. When these were discovered, President Kennedy set up a naval blockade of Cuba to prevent any more missiles coming in. There was a tense standoff for two weeks, then it was resolved diplomatically.

For those two weeks, we lived in hell. I stockpiled food and water in a closet. I knew it was useless and would all be spoiled by fallout if they ever did exchange nuclear fire, but it was all I could do. I dreamed we all went outdoors and looked into the sky and someone had shot a big chunk out of the moon. I thought in the dream, "Now I will never see my grandchildren." I was 23 years old at the time. Odd that having grandchildren was my primary concern! In the dream, both sides were equally at fault for the damaged sky, as they would have been.

As it turned out, both sides were responsible, period. Diplomatic agreements settled the problem after all. Mssrs. Kruschev and Kennedy behaved well in the end. The moon is in one piece and I have lived to welcome eleven grandchildren.

We are now in another precarious time as a nation. It doesn't involve the old enemy from the past, but rather our own blindness. Groups of people within the country have poisoned themselves with hatred and fear and are spreading it like homemade jam on a fresh baked biscuit. They are intoxicated with themselves and the power they have to derail the common good of the nation in order to spread their own agenda. There is religious intolerance and racial intolerance and political intolerance and just plain stupidity driving it. They are behaving as irrationally as ravening junkyard dogs. They admittedly would rather see the nation fail than have their duly elected opposition succeed. It is a time as frightening to me as those days of the missile crisis.

This time stockpiling food will not make me feel better or more hopeful. I am not hopeful. I am wondering if my oldest granddaughter, now almost the age I was when the missile crisis scared me out of my wits, will live to see her grandchildren, or even graduate from college, which is surely her current goal.

I am wondering if there are any diplomats left.