Sunday, December 9, 2012

Solitude, Community, and Ritual

There have been other mornings such as this. Waking up before dawn. The house still, save for the clicking and whirring of various devices. Others asleep as I step purposefully through dark spaces to a place where I can light. Sometimes, as now, the cat joins me briefly. I hear her behind me crunching on kibble. Shortly she will go back to her warm spot nestled up against Debbie's body. Most significant about the kind of morning I have in mind—a morning after the night before—is an added layer of sensory stimuli—not quite a noise, or aroma, or image—none of the senses or all of them—it's a lingering sensation, maybe the inspiration for the Chanukah phrase Nes gadol haya sham—a great miracle happened there. Miracles do happen. They are seldom unnatural acts of Divine intervention. They are most commonly simple acts of human kindness. That is what my "birthday week" has been made of, that is the patina to the quiet hour before the house wakes up. That is what I would love to preserve here.

There are three components to the celebration of my sixty-fifth birthday that stand out for me. First, on the birthday itself, I had plenty of time for personal reflection, for peaceful solitude. Lately, I have been surprising myself by my growing need to be in quiet solitary space. Sure, I have meditated for decades and written journals, so that kind of space has been there to some degree for a while. What seems to be shifting is the ratio of such alone time with more interactive time. Formerly the noisy time far outweighed the quiet time. Not so much now. One might think it odd that I would so relish spending half my birthday going through old boxes and bins in the garage, sifting through ageing papers, preserving few, discarding many. Yet there I was. The first standout component of my birthday celebration was peaceful, quiet, alone timemuch of it dusty!
The second component—and perhaps better stated, the second blessing—was the polar opposite. It was the company of others. It ranged from a hug from Debbie as I sat crunching down my morning bowl of cereal, to the sweet arrival of our children from their Eastern outposts and our extraordinary weekend together, to standing before the congregation at Sabbath services receiving their energy and wishes through song, to the amazing din of chatter and laughter that filled this house last night as mostly extended family and a few friends gathered not so much for my birthday, but to light the first Chanukah candle. That din accounts for the lion’s share of the morning-after-the-night-before echoes in my mind. At one time we thought this gathering might incorporate some element of birthday celebration, but rightly we separated and simplified the events and let explicit references to my sixty-five (and Jacob's recent thirty-five, 65+35=100!) end at shul in the morning.
The third—I'll say it, blessing—was ritual. We have many. We waited for the seven of us to gather before singing "Happy Birthday."  That came after an "extra supremely joyous" (as Jacob would say in his youth) Shabbat dinner. At shul the next morning, a morning on which the Torah reading was identical to the one I read at my Bar Mitzvah in 1960 and Jacob read at his Bar Mitzvah in 1990, he and I ascended the bimah, took part in leading the blessings over the Torah, and then each received a personal, "custom" blessing from the rabbi. This is a ritual he performs so well. I have experienced it before and each time I revel in the depth of the blessing he bestows, how profoundly apt his choice of words are, his sincere appreciation of the recipient of the blessing and what specific aspects of their lives would most be in need of blessing. As in times past I stood transfixed by his energy, by the spiritual exchange, trying to hold onto his words even as they continued to flow over me, and ultimately knowing that this was a singular moment in time, never to be captured and fully preserved or relived—just savored. I know he made an important reference to my age-ing and sage-ing that I drunk in with thirst and appreciation.

Solitude, community, and ritual—these would be the big three, my formula for a blessed, joyous, landing into this new era. There were other manifestations of each of these components woven throughout the days of celebration. There was a quiet dinner for two with Debbie on my birthday itself. There was a more raucous lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant, Friday, after the arrival of the "kids." Suddenly, as I write this, I realize I should surrender to the fact that a fourth component—both curse and blessing—is food. Oh, how I have struggled to integrate the common practice of celebrating with food with my stumbling attempt to develop more healthful eating habits! I am definitely not there yet as the scale attested to this morning. More about that another time. Suffice it to say there is much work to be done, not only in losing some rebound pounds I’ve gained, but in the bigger picture, truly finding a safe path through the eternal land mines of personal and community celebrations.

Back to my reflections of these past days.... One activity that contributed both to the joy as well as my delinquency was making challah with Shira on Friday. Side by side we braided two loaves that each turned out uniquely beautiful and were blessed and consumed with gusto by all. As planned we also invited the kids to participate in our beauty and order campaign in the garage. We gave them the opportunity (requirement) to do as I had done on my birthday—to sift through their stored belongings in the garage, to dispose of those things that no longer were important to them, to take with them or ship to their respective homes what they wanted to have there, and finally to leave us with far fewer things stored on our premises for the time being.

Before dinner we conducted what may become one of our most memorable and important "family meetings." It had been many years since we had convened one of these. It used to be a somewhat regular event back in the day, replete with agenda, minutes, story reading, and refreshments. This was our first as a family of seven. The topic was the estate planning that Debbie and I developed last summer with an emphasis less on the legal aspects of it and more about some of our softer, unbinding requests concerning how we would like to be cared for at a time when we may not be able to explicitly voice these concerns. Jacob, who would have certain defined responsibilities after Debbie and I die was wise to voice what he saw as an important reason for this conversation—the need to create transparency, allowing all to know the terms and conditions well ahead of the need to engage them.

This was followed by a Shabbat dinner that looked much like the Thanksgiving we didn't have together in November, including turkey and most, if not all, of the traditional accompaniments. Pumpkin and pecan pie were replaced with a birthday cake inscribed “Happy 65+35=100!”

Saturday was huge. After Jake and I received the blessings from the rabbi I delivered some remarks at the rabbi’s invitation (viz., There was far more I could have said than I chose to say. I kept it well under five hundred words, and focused on appreciating the present moment, concluding with the Shehechiyanu prayer. A particularly sweet moment came later. With the recent renovation of the synagogue lobby one wall is now adorned with an array of different colored metal triangles each awaiting an inscription to mark a special event in the lives of congregants. The very first triangle to receive such words is pictured below

This was a sweet surprise that the family revealed to me during the Kiddush lunch after the morning service.
Later we spent most of the remainder of the afternoon preparing for our Chanukah party. The party itself was loud and fun. Jacob and Alana led us in havdalah, we lit candles, ate like horses, laughed over a gift exchange and talked into the night. Which brings me to this moment. The sun has risen. I hear the voices of others as the house awakens, and I much rather be with them than sit here tapping these keys. TTYL.

There Is!

The rabbi invited me to receive a blessing at the Shabbat service near my sixty-fifth birthday, and to make a few remarks about what it meant to me. It was also the same Shabbat, Vayeshev, upon which I celebrated my bar mitzvah in 1960 and upon which Jacob celebrated his bar mitzvah in 1990. Between the two of us we are now 100 years old! Consequently Jacob joined me on the bimah to recite the blessings over the Torah and to receive blessings from the rabbi. My remarks are below.

Congregation Beth Jacob
Redwood City, California
December 8, 2012
Shabbat Vayeshev

Some of you were here five years ago on the occasion of my sixtieth birthday when I first asked you to call me by my Hebrew name, Yeshaya. A short time after that, at the suggestion of the young lady who is now my daughter-in-law, I adopted the nickname Yesh, for short. The decision to be called Yeshaya or Yesh in many ways came out of having an adult bar mitzvah earlier that year that launched me on a new leg of my spiritual journey.

Right now I am taking courses in chanting, Talmud, spiritual aging, and Biblical Hebrew. This week in Hebrew class, as we reviewed our new vocabulary words, on the list was the word yesh! Yeshaya, my full name, is Hebrew for Isaiah—which means God is my Salvation. Yesh is a very different word in Hebrew. It is the simple declaration—there is!

What I found fascinating in class was when our teacher told us that unlike most other verbs, “Yesh is always in the present tense.” I thought about that and felt what a challenge it is to live up to my name—for me to always be in the present tense.

At milestone birthdays, such as sixty-five, it would be easy to look back with regret or condemnation at some of the things I have done or not done, or at the terrible things that I may feel have happened to me. It is also tempting to become fearful or anxious about what lies ahead that might be painful or disappointing. The challenge is to always be present. In this specific moment I have only to appreciate that I am healthy, living in peace, standing among an extraordinary community in a magnificent synagogue, and most of all blessed with a loving family—this is true abundance for which I am very grateful.

This is what we call a Shehecheyanu moment. Approaching this birthday I looked at the Shehecheyanu prayer and wondered about the fact that it’s only recited with first person plural words—thanking God for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this moment. I couldn’t find an explanation of this. While a person may speak the Shehecheyanu alone, the fact that it’s written as a plural brings awareness that when it comes to our birth and our sustenance, none of us can do it alone, nor I suspect would want to. So it’s with full appreciation of all of you that I ask you to join me in this prayer.

Baruch atta Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha'olam she-hecheyanu ve'qi'eh'manu va'higiy'anu laz'man hazeh.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Finding Genius

DISCLAIMER: My apologies to the reader. I really don't have the motivation to refine this piece into any semblance of good writing— even at the level of my own low standards. So read this at your own risk! I am posting this with the sole intention of keeping these thoughts alive for my own future reference.*

We attended Michael Moore’s seminar Finding Genius in Your Life. It actually clarified a few things for me. Michael quoted Robert Bly at the end and encouraged us to write down our insights right away because we all have an inner Nixon that will erase the key parts of the tape. Ha!

Here is what I can access for now. More may come if and when I listen to the recording of the session.

One flash came when a woman I know a bit walked over at the break and essentially declared in so many words that my genius was to be a rabbi. Part of me would like to have denied it just as it has denied me the actual title of rabbi. A far deeper part of me was deeply moved just to hear her words. A part of me acknowledges and embraces the truth that I love Judaism, that I live it to some degree, that I continually study pieces of it that I find meaningful, and that as a rabbi in the broader sense—as a teacher—I lead others to live and love some of what I live and love in Judaism. Her words resonated within my gut. They began to bring tears to my eyes. In the context of the seminar she confirmed my genius—that piece of my spirit and my soul that is my gift to myself and others.

Later, in a one-on-one conversation with a fellow participant named Jim I reflected on that part of me that sang my song early in life—my art. Art is a fundamental piece of who I am. It has been speaking to me with a more insistent voice lately wondering when I will reclaim it or vice versa, when it will reclaim me.

Once I was asked by a “New Ager” at the Esalen Institute to describe myself in three words. I responded, “Artist, Teacher, Lover.”  I think I would amend that to describe my genius—Artist, Teacher, Jew. I must add quickly that that is very different than “Jewish Art Teacher!” Combining them that way makes each much smaller. I see the possibility of expanding each into its fullness—to experience the fullness of myself as an artist, the fullness of myself as a teacher, the fullness of myself as a Jew—and to bring these all together in different settings in varying proportions to reveal my fullness to myself and the world.

In my one-on-one with Jim I realized first of all that Michael’s premise for the exercise was a simple and powerful pedagogical tool. He saw that in a room of one hundred people not everyone was going to be able to voice his or her truth to him. (My hand was up all day and I was never called upon.) He also stated that there is a powerful difference between thinking about the issues that were coming up and speaking them. He was right. By voicing my observations to this complete stranger the words were given power (as they are, for me, by writing them now).

As I continued with Jim I observed that I had much more clarity about my genius than I might have been able to recognize before the seminar. Not only do I truly know that it resides in the arena bounded by art and Judaism and teaching, I can also take comfort in knowing that I have integrated all three of these into my life already and that I have engaged in important activities with them to continue along a path of growth in these areas (perhaps less so the art, but that is coming back with increasing awareness of late). 

Michael talked about the need to balance fundamental considerations of making a living with the spiritual/soul sphere. I think of the model of the shtetl craftsmen who plied their trades all day in order to go home and study Torah. I was also reminded in a dream last night of how my first job was a summer of commuting to NYC to pack crates with truck parts to send around the world. I used the proceeds of the entire summer to buy my $350 wardrobe to attend college in the Fall. That image alone could provide a personal model, a coping mechanism for continuing a few more years of work, as I save money not for a new wardrobe but for retirement. Moreover, there is a real possibility of feeding my soul at work as it had been fed up until the last year. I am hoping my new boss follows through with the idea of providing a better match between my skills, talents, and experience and the job responsibilities I have in 2013 (namely to develop and deliver training, rather than be limited to a few bureaucratic oversight functions as I was in 2012).

So I know what I need to do. I am on a path that integrates much of it into my life as it is now, and is positioning me to have an even fuller involvement in my “genius” as I head to my next career (Call it retirement if you want, I’m not sure that that is the correct terminology). One could easily argue that it is folly to defer full involvement in one’s genius until one has developed financial independence. On the other hand it seems very appropriate, now that I am on the precipice of such independence to complete creating that platform to have the freedom that “retirement” will allow, to do what I want when I want for the rest of my life. If I were doing nothing to advance my “Artist, Teacher, Jew”  capabilities, then I would be more concerned. But the fact is I am doing stuff now—leading services, chanting and meditations, writing, etc. I am preparing for greater leadership—DLTI, Kol Zimra, Hebrew 101, Spiritual Eldershipso that I will be poised to pull all of this together in an amalgam of art, music, prayer, journaling, spiritual eldership, teaching, facilitating. However many days I have left there will be much to be and do and have. I have all the tools and I am adding to them.

As we drove home I mentioned to Debbie that I was feeling—somewhat antithetical to what I perceive my basic nature to be—that more order in my day-to-day existence may be of great value. I would do well to heed the lessons I learned and taught as a Covey instructor—weekly planning, integrating aspects of my key life goals into every week, including daily “saw sharpening” of meditation, exercise. I would add to that weekly food planning—developing a clear set of repetitive meals that provide a foundation for nutrition and satiety and still allow enough variety to be stimulating and emotionally satisfying. Moreover, my dream this morning instructed me to avoid the backslide that would come from abandoning the elements of success that helped me lose 60 pounds this year. Lately there have been far too many “exceptions” and far too few normal days of maintaining a healthy focus on food planning, selection, portion control, and journaling. 

My birthday is Tuesday. Rather than using that as another excuse to binge, followed by the kids visit as another excuse to binge, followed by Chanukah, and Christmas and New Years and Tu b’shevat, and every other excuse in the world. Let me make Tuesday a model of the year to come. Let it build on my four months of strict control and the two so-so months that followed by being twelve months of consciousness, of weekly planning and attending meetings that reinforce daily weighing in and journaling that document hour by hour exercise of conscious eating. Is that over the top or is that the only way?

As I post this two days after my birthday — I am aware that I was partially successful in my intentions for that momentous day. I did eat rather moderately. I did not achieve all my goals, and I am willing to forgive myself for those small indiscretions. Baby steps. As Michael Moore said about finding one's genius if it were easy he could just throw a PowerPoint up on a screen and we'd have it. 


* I can hear the boo birds chirping, "What makes you think any of the rest of your swill is any better?"

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Puberty of Old Age

When I turned fifty, the elders in my family told me not to get too upset about it. “Fifty is the youth of old age, “ they said, as if that was somehow going to make me feel better. They were in their eighties, or thereabouts, and could easily see fifty as young, and with equanimity acknowledge that it was edging up on “old age.” These days, even that part of the declaration might be challenged, but from my perspective at the time, I did seem to be getting a bit long in the tooth.

In two weeks, God willing, I shall turn sixty-five. If fifty is the youth of old age, I wonder what sixty-five could be. Fifteen years later—I must be ensconced in puberty! What else could it be? Instantly, all the ways that that seems true flood into my head. This is not like sixty, that for me at least, arrived with a wave of promise (I demurred at saying “Sixty is the new forty,” and was the first I knew of to declare it “the new sixty.”) For some reason I did not tiptoe into it. I grabbed sixty with relish. I had just finished the text of my ethical will. I rented a cottage in the countryside, gathered my family, and the five us had a sweet day of sharing deep thoughts, fine food, and the warmth of a fire. The seven of us now will gather and replicate some of that, but sixty-five approaches with a different sensibility.

How is sixty-five like the puberty of old age? For starters, whether I can attribute it to this milestone or not, it is coming at a time of relative angst. 

Take work, for example. Unlike sixty, which may have caught me smack dab in the middle of my most productive and rewarding time in my profession, sixty-five seems to be arriving at an interlude of change, exploration, and uncertainty. Like a teen, I am struggling to identify who I am, where I am going, whether anything I am doing is deemed worthy by my peers, if indeed I can even identify my peers. The job has definitely diminished in every respect. I no longer feel certain about my contribution and I am certain others share that sentiment.

As for my marriage, which I hasten to insert has weathered more challenging times in the last forty-two years, it is also a period of introspection. Both of us are confronting challenging issues that put a tinge of confusion into many of our relationships including this most fundamental one. This was the year that we, at long last, finally dealt in a mature manner with certain long-term personal planning issues. We finally abandoned a much out-of-date will in favor of a complete estate-planning package. While this provided a sense of accomplishment and relief, it did not do so without the price of forcing us to seriously confront our mortality. This may have had some bearing on our looking at several retirement living venues where our “puberty of old age” status was reinforced. Engaging with others fifteen or twenty years our senior had a dual effect of making us feel relatively young while simultaneously introducing us tangibly to the proximity of “the old age of old age.” 

As Debbie and I have been grappling with these issues we have been forced to speculate about a number of retirement related questions such as: when will we retire? What will that be like? What will we do as individuals and as a couple? Are our current mutual interests enough to sustain us as our respective individual interests seem to have diverged over the years? There are more questions that linger both consciously and unconsciously that can, on occasion, interfere with marital harmony, but I sense will ultimately make us stronger.

As a consequence of these first two issues I have had to engage in substantive conversations with my financial advisor about the feasibility of ever retiring. Up until the summer of 2011, when the company started to jerk me around in my job, I was blissfully under the impression that I would do this work as long as I cared to—easily until age seventy. Now I’m not so sure, and I need to be prepared to exit on my own terms at the optimum moment—whatever that turns out to be. To do that requires even more contemplation of the unknowable. What will I do? When will I do it? How will I live? Will I be able to afford it, etc.? This is an exercise that can bring enthusiasm and gleeful anticipation or fear and dread—more likely both.

Of course, the number one issue of puberty for many of us was body image, and while I have fallen head over heels in love with my “new” body (If you haven’t been paying attention, I intentionally lost somewhere between fifty to sixty pounds this year.) it does present me with a continuing set of challenges. Along with many others I wonder, “Who is this guy? Will he keep it off? Is he healthy or dying in front of our eyes? Is he as much fun as when he approached food and life with reckless abandon? Does this sweater go with that shirt?" And so on.

I’ve always had a sense that a good memory in some respects can be a handicap—especially when it comes to carrying around the angst from past years. I know that at every age we deal with the unique issues of that phase of life, and that the problems of that time may seem massive, serious, and inescapable. Yet, as time passes and we go on to the next set of massive, serious, and inescapable problems, we look back at how we may have overreacted to what in retrospect seems so trivial. Like a huge throbbing zit on the nose of life, one problem after the next gets thrown in our faces. We stare in the mirror and wonder “Why me? Why now?” Yet, somehow we move past each one. Occasionally we move into periods of relative clear sailing, beset perhaps with some daily stressors, but less so with the continental shifts of physical or emotional change. There are those times, if we are so lucky to notice them, when we can say, “Life is good!” I have a friend who says that “happiness is a temporary state of illusion.” I think he means that there is no good or bad. It’s more of how we label what life hands us and how we respond to it. Sometimes I feel more capable of pulling out the “happy” label than others. I won’t know how that will manifest when I reach this coming milestone until I reach it, and even then it likely will be an ephemeral state.

When I was a kid, puberty seemed like it would never arrive and when it finally did it wasn’t such a welcome guest. At least sixty-five is on a clear and certain timetable. I don’t have to guess about when it will occur. (If it will occur is an issue that no one should take for granted.) Let me therefore pray that I have the strength and courage to meet it at the door with at least some of the enthusiasm with which I greeted sixty. I hadn’t anticipated sixty-five would be such a big deal, but when you get that Medicare card it brings a dose of reality that is undeniable. The last time I remember getting such a buzz over a little piece of cardstock was the arrival of my draft card forty-seven years ago. Maybe it's time to go back out on the streets and shout, "Hell no, we won't go!"

Monday, October 29, 2012

Ho, Ho, Ho!

Is it true that fat people are jolly? No, I’m not buying that stereotype. How about the reverse? Are jolly people necessarily fat? There may be some truth to that. Have you ever heard anyone apply the adjective “jolly” to a skinny person? Can you even picture a jolly skinny person? I’m gonna have to go with the idea that jolly is a term specifically reserved for the corpulent. Consider, for a moment, the loss to humankind if  “Old Saint Nicolas,” for one, achieved a normal body mass index. It would be devastating to children around the world, to the elves and reindeer, not to mention Mrs. Claus.

This issue of jolliness reminds me of the old joke—Q: How many Feminists does it take to change a light bulb? A: That's not funny!!! There seems, increasingly, to be an aspect to the new improved (physically that is) Yesh that is simply not funny, or more succinctly, not fun. This was something I had feared from the beginning—that is, what part of my very essence is attached to the reckless abandon and joy of immersing myself in the gustatory delights of the universe? How would a campaign of discipline and relative deprivation affect what had been an emotional as well as a physical feast at life’s table?

Feedback from people close to me suggests that someone not only has kidnapped the body of the old Yeshaya Douglas Ballon (by any name), but the spirit as well. This is a serious issue. I look at my last two blogs and I see a vexing trend. Is this disagreeable emergence in my affect a result of six months of relative food deprivation or is this a coincidence? Are there other factors at work (e.g., changes at my job, contemplation of retirement, an overfull to-do list, irregular patterns of exercise, writing, meditation, etc.) that are the primary causes? Or is this just a “perfect storm?” Can I even sort out cause and effect or am I in a vicious cycle spiraling out of control?

There are many challenges associated with achieving my goal of normal weight. In attaining any goal, there are always trade offs, some of which sneak up on us. I must note quickly that this transformation I am undergoing is by no means over. It has only just begun. The physical loss of fifty or sixty pounds was front loaded by virtue of a highly restrictive four-month diet. The maintenance part of the weight loss program is designed to be a long-term venture. Included in that, unquestionably, is a huge emotional component. For me that’s not only a question of returning to a life of eating real food in a healthy, life-sustaining way, but also finding a comfortable presence and a palatable demeanor in our food-centered social world. Another way to put it is—can a normal body and normal behavior coexist for me?

I was delighted this summer to connect my physical quest to a spiritual quest by selecting “lightness” as my focus. To that I must add an emotional aspect—to be lighthearted, to light up a room rather than cast a shadow, to rekindle what a friend suggested was a spark that I have seemingly lost. This seems much more challenging than losing the fat. No one said losing weight would be easy. On the other hand, I couldn't have anticipated the exact nature of these intangible unintended consequences either. As in any transformation, awareness is the first hurdle, and as I gain insight I can set new goals. As long as I maintain my new trim figure I may never be labeled “jolly” again. That I can live with. There’s an alternative that I strive for. Just as I’ve trimmed a few pounds from my middle, maybe I could judiciously trim a just few letters from the middle of “jolly” and at least be left with “joy!”

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rings of a Tree

“Why is it important to know when one can say the Shema? Why isn’t it good enough to just say it?—and why not at any time you want?” Debbie asked the perfect questions when I told her with excitement about the first words of the Talmud that our study circle had gnawed on earlier in the day. I had left that session with such an extraordinary sense of connection and enrichment. The question I was asking myself was whether there was any way to convey to others the immense power of studying Talmud—how enriching, enlivening, how relevant it is to every moment, and to developing the kind of consciousness so many people I know strive for. These are huge questions that I can only imagine rabbis have been tackling for millennia. Now it’s my turn.
To set some context, let’s start with a beautiful lesson that I received courtesy of Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan via a recording of a recent virtual Talmud study session (Gotta love that technology when it serves to communicate something of real value!) Like John Madden using a football telestrator, Peretz traced on the screen for us the literal and figurative concentric circles that start with a snippet of Mishnah. Growing outward from that is a section of Gemara. Medieval commentaries ring around the Gemara. Words of later commentators ring around the Medieval commentaries, and finally, sitting around the table studying all of this are members of the Bay Area Community Talmud Circle —like rings of a tree.
As long as these rings are growing the tree is alive. The moment that there are no more rings—that usually means the tree is dead.
Torah forever grows, and depends on ever-expanding circles of study. I may not be Rabbi Gamliel, but, by opening these pages I am continuing his work with Jews all over the world of all times. This doesn’t directly respond to Debbie’s question, but in one sense it is the answer. It may or may not be important to know when to say Shema, but it is important to carry on the conversation about it that was started so long ago. (Nonetheless, as I hope to demonstrate, it actually is important to know when to say the Shema.) So this is important work—this act of study— almost regardless of what we actually discover or conclude about the content per se.

Our morning of study was like a piece of poetry, very densely packed with experience beyond its apparent size. (I almost used a “zip file” analogy, but that can be rationally unpacked, so fails to convey the true immensity of the experience.) Under the deft tutelage of Rabbi Lavey Derby we made connections that defy description—to text, to philosophy, to spirit, to ancestors, to people in the room, and to people not in the room. It's the flip side of the famous When Harry Met Sally scene—I really wish others were having what we were having! So here is just a glimpse….

The introduction to Perek I (Chapter I) states that the rabbis were looking at a different question than Debbie was, but one that is at the heart of hers—“What are the practical implications of the text of Shema? Particularly, how is one to understand the terms, ‘When you lie down, and when you arise….’” Let’s look at that.

To talk meaningfully about this requires awareness that there is a unique version of the Shema that one recites as “you lie down.” Who knew? I used to say Shema with the kids as we tucked them into bed just as my dad did with me, but it was just Shema. I didn’t know about the paragraphs that the liturgy provides before and after the Bedtime Shema. Learning this fact alone is immense, not as information in and of itself, but because these paragraphs are so beautiful and powerful in their practical benefit to one’s life. 

The practice includes ideas that I have heard talked about, but had not realized were so elegantly woven together in a succinct bedtime ritual. It starts with forgiveness—for those who may have wronged us. Then it addresses seeking personal forgiveness for our own sins. It petitions for peaceful sleep and the miracle of awakening in the morning. Only after these acts of granting and seeking forgiveness, after prayers that demonstrate appreciation for the gifts of rest and of continued life itself—only then do we utter the Shema acknowledging the unity of all that is. 

These words are followed by the familiar paragraphs from Deuteronomy commanding our love of God and our obligation to keep God before us through various acts including teaching our children and reciting Shema when “you lie down, and arise.” This is followed by psalms and the lovely Hashkiveynu prayer seeking God’s protective canopy of peace through the night. The archangels—Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael—are invoked for added protection. It concludes with a passage familiar to most synagogue service attendees—the Adon Olam—which until recently I only associated with the grateful awareness that a long Shabbat service was ending and a tasty Kiddush was about to commence. Sadly, that does this prayer such terrible injustice. It was a revelation to learn recently (on the first morning of Shefa Gold’s Kol Zimra workshop) the magnificence of chanting just two lines from Adon Olam and bringing full consciousness to them: “Into His hand I shall entrust my spirit when I go to sleep—and I shall awaken! ...God is with me, I shall not fear!”

Learning the significance of the Bedtime Shema helped make more sense out of the conversation of the rabbis. When they ponder whether you can just say it at the beginning of the evening, as rabbi Eliezer states, or until midnight as the Sages suggest, or until dawn as Rabbi Gamliel responds—this makes a difference. If nothing else, it demonstrates that there have been, and will always be, different points of view—all with some validity—that must be considered. Rabbi Eliezer is wise to create a sense of urgency and timeliness by insisting that we perform the ritual right away. The Sages are right in allowing some flexibility. Rabbi Gamliel is right in tying the time, as he goes on to explain, to the hours available for the priests of old to perform a particular holy sacrifice in the Temple. This helps make the point that in a post-Temple world our acts of prayer replace the ancient sacrificial rituals, and that we are still connected to their power and sanctity.

The practical application of this in my life is being able to open my eyes in the pre-dawn darkness and start my day with God awareness that I seek to carry with me throughout the day. How good it is to appreciate awakening itself as a miracle, to start my day in gratitude, to realize that I can still say the Bedtime Shema and grant and seek forgiveness. I am only scratching the surface of what a morning of seemingly irrelevant Talmud study can do. Consciousness like this, applied throughout the day, can only help one to choose words and deeds more wisely to help sustain oneself and one’s relationships with others. Why is it important to know when one can say the Shema?—in more ways than one can ever know!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wheels of the Bus

When the wheels start coming off the Yesh bus I usually don’t have to look far for the probable causes. I have known for some time that four things sustain my sanity, my balance. Four things keep me from running off the road. They are diet, exercise, meditation, and writing. Every time I see life spinning out of control I just have to take a look at this short checklist and I know at least one of them has probably gone AWOL.

So let’s take a look.

Diet? I am pretty much on track with the whole weight management crusade, but not without a few significant spin outs in recent days—the pre- and post- Yom Kippur overindulgences; the lost weekend at my cousin’s wedding in South Carolina (loves me some Southin’ cookin’); and then (where the heck did this come from all of a sudden?) a new passion to bake fresh challah and other breads—something I hadn’t done in decades! I have managed to get back on plan, but not after doing some serious damage!

Exercise? Hanging in there with some walks and bike rides and visits to the gym, but not nearly as consistent as during the summer.

Meditation? Again, not doing nothing, but not doing the something with the same regularity I had been—definitely slipping there.

Writing? I squirmed a little the other day when a friend asked, “Have you not posted a blog since September 9?” That is what made me stop and inspect the tires. The treads are all wearing mighty thin. Ergo, I write.

Part of what has been hampering some of these activities is a sudden spike in activity in my work life. I hate when work interferes with life. It actually amuses me that the folks at work even refer to this issue as “work/life balance,” suggesting that work and life are somehow distinct from one another. Perhaps it is this spike in work that has led me to a greater awareness of just how distinct these two realms may have become.

Last week, at the suggestion of my boss, I created two lists. The first one is of my responsibilities in the role I assumed this year. It looked great on paper—a decent mix of activities, many of which I am either good at or enjoy doing or both, and perhaps in a few cases neither. I compared this to the second list of the things that I truly am good at and enjoy doing. To be specific, designing and facilitating training are the activities that have sustained me in this job for the better part of twelve years! Somehow, as the year progressed, all of the potential instructional design and facilitation tasks evaporated. The one project I was most eagerly engaged in just imploded the week before last when senior management decided that more senior management needed to sit in judgment as to whether this was a worthy use of my time. That is their prerogative. Nonetheless, was the crowning touch on a work year that has clearly lost most of its fun.

My former mentor, John Kahl, of blessed memory, would call this realization Divine Discontent. I indeed appreciate the power that comes from seeing more clearly what is not working for me. It is what led me to speak with my current boss about providing me with more opportunities to do more of what I most want to do and has provided the greatest benefit to the firm over the years. If, on the other hand we discover that the firm no longer has an interest in such services, that is useful information too.

Is it the doldrums at work that have led the bus astray or vice versa? Not sure I can say, but it seems the biggest challenge is not my assignments, but resurrecting a positive attitude. The steps to attaining that remain clear. Today I’ve stayed on plan food-wise, this morning I fit in my daily constitutional (which included my “Walk ‘n’ Talk” meditation), and tonight I copped a long overdue writing fix. These all may just be rubber patches on the inner tube of my soul, but at least I’m back rolling down the road.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Cranky Old Man

When did I become a cranky old man?

I suppose, given sufficient length of days, it’s the inevitable state of a cranky baby. I can already hear a few friendly voices of disbelieving supporters protesting that I am being much too hard on myself. I thank them. I know I can be mirthful, charming, silly, childlike, funny, loving, and joyous. Those are all great qualities. However, that’s not the whole story and it’s not what spoke to me as I awoke from a dream yesterday.

It’s Elul, the month of preparation before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is the time to reflect on what one can do to become a better person in the year ahead. It sadly reminds me of coming home after receiving a lousy report card in high school and swearing that I would turn over a new leaf in the quarter ahead, and then compounding that lie by swearing I would turnover a whole new forest. In that context a leaf would have constituted significant improvement, but even that was often beyond my reach. It is so easy to give lip service to change. Real change seems so hard to do.

I mentioned my dream. In it I stood in the backyard of the house in which I was raised. In West Hempstead of the 1950s and 60s, unlike my neighborhood in Palo Alto, there was much more openness between adjoining properties, not the cloistered yards that we have here. Our next door neighbors, the Santis had a short open-wired fence that one could easily see through and over. The Santis were a mostly friendly, sometimes cranky, retired couple. Mrs. Santi in particular seemed prone to complainand I can hardly blame her—such as when she was trying to take an afternoon nap as I tossed my Spalding Hi-Bounce ball repeatedly against the brick exterior wall of her bedroom. The Santis were not in this dream. Instead, I saw and heard a small group of people engaged in animated conversation in what would have been the Santis backyard. This time I was the old person lodging the complaint. I walked over, placed my hands on the steel pipe serving as the top rail of the metal fence, leaned over and respectfully asked them to keep the noise level down. I calmly told them I had called the cops before, and I would do it again if necessary. Next I turned my head and saw my brother, of blessed memory, sitting among the party goers with a big grin on his face. “Jeff, what are you doing here?” I asked with astonishment. (Just a side note, this may be the first, at most the second time I have dreamed of my brother since his death a year and a half ago, so I ask myself, “Why now?” We’ll have to come back to that.) Then for some reason I felt obliged to comment on his weight, even though I had certainly seen him heavier throughout the years. He just smiled, and offered no response. 

I awoke. The entire scene was that brief, but very deeply felt. I extricated myself from the warmth of my bed, pulled on my slippers in the dark, walked down the hall to the bathroom, flipped on the light, gazed in the mirror, and that’s when I had to ask the question I posed at the top of this page, “When did I become a cranky old man?”

I know that a cranky old man is not all that I am, but I am afraid that it is a part of me that could gain the upper hand if I allow it to. It’s a piece of me that I would love to extricate. I add quickly that only a couple of days ago I posted a blog in which I accepted the premise that light and dark must co-exist. So the boyish, delightful side of me needs to make peace with the cranky decrepit side of me. How do I do this? How do I do this in a way that allows what I admire in myself to reveal itself more, and leads that part of me that I find troublesome to at least play a less active role, bearing in mind that it cannot be extinguished, and it will only rise in protest if I try to snuff it out all together.

In Judaism we work to improve our performance in life, without expecting to be perfect. Perfection is unattainable for us mortals. The High Holy Day prayer book uses the word “sin” to describe our failings, but even the use of that word fails to be perfect. The Hebrew word that is typically translated as “sin” is the word chet. Every year we are reminded that a chet is not literally a sin. It is a term that comes from archery meaning “missing the mark.” When one has missed the mark, it is possible to improve one’s aim and get a bit closer to the bull's eye the next timewith awareness, with concern, a little practice, and perhaps some coaching. It is not a sin to fall short of perfection. The only sin may be a failure to recognize these misses, a failure to acknowledge them, to make amends for them, and a failure to look for ways to improve upon them.

With the introspection that Elul prompts, a number of questions arise to which I have only embarrassingly poor answers. What gets me angry and why? Why am I so keen to react to the trivial trespasses of others—whether it be noisy neighbors, as in my dream and occasionally in reality, lousy drivers who always seem to be on the road around me while I glide innocently (and perfectly) along, waiters who don’t keep my water glass filled, or inanimate telephone recorded voices offering me a menu of irrelevant dialing options. What about these annoyances captures my passion? More importantly, why do I often raise my voice at insignificant issues and more often sit mutely in the face of genuine offenses?  There are things in life that truly demand anger. There are social injustices toward which I sadly turn a blind eye. If I can find answers to these questions perhaps I can live more as a discerning wise elder and less as a cranky old man.

Getting back to the dream for a bit, I still wonder why my brother was sitting there serenely among the noisy neighbors? My best guess is that the change I seek is something that he, at least in part, achieved in his waning months. No, he did not altogether eradicate a lifetime of his shadow crankiness, but he did shine in a new light, an or chadash in Hebrew, in which he saw love everywhere and conferred blessings on everyone. Perhaps seeing the end of his days gave him that insight. Yom Kippur is said to be a dress rehearsal for the end of our days—we abstain from food, water, sex, and wearing leather as ways to separate ourselves from our normal physical world. I am among the few in our congregation who wears a kittel, the shroud-like white gown in which one day I will be buried. Such an encounter with mortality gives me the opportunity to see what is truly important just as my brother did—to love and to bless.

Ken y'hi ratzon--may it be so!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Fate & Destiny

Greg asked, “Yesh, what about you? How has fate influenced your destiny?” (When our men’s group meets we eschew the truly imponderable questions like, “Who do you think will be in the Super Bowl?”)

I had spoken earlier in the evening about how my pushing against my father and Judaism as an adolescent seemed to have set the stage for my passions for both in my middle age. I could have added something about the fate of being born the son of a Yankee rabbi and a Southern rebel.  Rather than speak to fate, I thought out loud about destiny. How does one ever know one’s destiny? Where does one find the clues?

When Debbie and I arrived in California in 1977 one of our early adventures was to visit a much ballyhooed psychic, Reverend Michelina Russo. Really. A friend swore by her ability to provide answers to questions that one offered to her in sealed envelopes. Really. We went to see her several times and though we retained a certain skepticism, we were nonetheless repeatedly amazed. The first time we went to her we had a private chat in which she calmly foresaw that I would one day speak before large groups of people, but that it would be a very long road before I got there. This is not a prediction that I consciously carry around with me all the time. Years may go by without it coming to mind. Then again, decades have gone by and I haven’t forgotten it.

Not too many years after that I saw another intuitive counselor whose specialty was reading auras. Really. She told me that Debbie and I had been together in past lifetimes, and that I had been a very severe, a very harsh rabbi in one of those lifetimes. Really. She said that my job in this lifetime was to demonstrate to others the joy of Judaism—quite a pleasant task to contemplate! Like the other prognostication, I don’t often think of this, nor have I forgotten it either.

I related these two stories to the group in partial answer to a question John had posed to me, inquiring as to the role food (meaning my healthy weight campaign) plays in the realization of my destiny. The way I put the pieces together is simply that given the current state of my Yiddishkeit (Jewishness), as well as my intellectual, spiritual, and emotional development—it seems that for me to fulfill these prophecies would still require much personal growth, indeed a very long time, just as Reverend Russo suggested. Too often, despite any wisdom I may have accrued over the years, I find myself without the knowledge, but more importantly without the patience and vocabulary to gently influence others, as I would hope to do—regrettably it is that harsh rabbi who occasionally makes his presence felt. Therefore, given the physical shape I was in, up until very recently, the odds that I would live long enough to fulfill that destiny were not great unless I ceased to be obese. It seemed prudent to drop some pounds to enhance the chances that my body will survive as a place in which my spirit can dwell on this planet.

Lest some of that sound too self-deprecating, I also reflected on my selection of a middah in my recent Kol Zimra chanting workshop—the quality of lightness (viz., Accomplishing lightness of body has been relatively easy. Attaining and maintaining lightness of being seems to be more of a challenge. Sometimes I castigate myself for lapses into darkness when that harsh rabbi speaks for me. Yet, as we have so often noted in the men’s group and in other places of inquiry, there is no light without dark. Our teacher at Kol Zimra, Rabbi Shefa Gold, warned us that each middah we chose would be accompanied by its shadow as well. If, indeed dark and light are inseparable companions, then it seems foolish to curse the night. And while it seems uncomfortable, to say the least, to embrace it, that is what I must do in myself and others. The path to lightness includes making peace with its polar counterpart.  

I also reminded John and the others of how I had asked the rabbi for advice on how to connect a spiritual quest with the physical one on which I had embarked. One outcome of that conversation is that I now, more times than not, pause to bless the food I am about to eat, reflect on the blessing of the nourishment it provides as it begins to circulate throughout my body, and express my gratitude in prayer upon completion of the meal. Making eating a spiritual act serves as a model for making any and all activities spiritual acts. Bringing consciousness to one of life’s functions spreads awareness to other functions as well. Increasing such consciousness is a long journey. Again, attaining and maintaining a normal body mass index has the potential of giving me a greater opportunity to be on that journey.

There have probably been countless fateful occurrences that have influenced my movement along my path. Perhaps none clearer than my almost accidental decision to attend the rabbi’s adult b’nai mitzvah class that began in late 2005. When the class ended early in 2007 I decided to participate in the formal b’nai mitzvah exercise even though I had already celebrated a bar mitzvah at age thirteen. In my remarks to the congregation I noted that when I was a lad I had no idea what it meant to be entering the portal of adulthood. I also surmised that if there were a portal I was entering at this point in my life it must be that of becoming an elder, about which I knew as little at age fifty-nine as I did about becoming an adult at thirteen. That did not deter me from declaring in so many words, “Today I am an elder!” which later led a few knowledgeable friends in the congregation to tell me about the brilliant book by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, From Age-ing to Sage-ing. I followed their suggestion. Reading that book brought me to what has already become an ecstatic journey of study within the Jewish Renewal community—brought on by a simple twist of fate!

I often quote a classmate from my first Jewish Renewal workshop—one based on Reb Zalman’s vision of spiritual eldership. This classmate happened to be a rabbi from New Jersey. Months later we ran into each other at another Jewish Renewal event and he introduced me to a congregant of his with the words, “This is Yeshaya. He still thinks his path is his choice!” One day I will ask him exactly what he meant by that since I am still somewhat mystified by the comment. We do make choices, or so we are given to believe. Are those merely incidental influences on a predetermined path? Of my choosing or not, what fateful occurrences lie around the corner? Will they affect my destiny, and what is my destiny anyway? Will I, one day speak to large gatherings of people and infuse them with the joy of Judaism? I suppose only time will answer these questions, and won’t it be fun to look back on them when, God willing, more of the story is revealed!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Screw It!

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that causes itself to come true due to the simple fact that the prediction was made. Some say it must, by definition, be a false premise that is caused to come true by such a belief. So whether I was a victim of “self-fulfilling prophecies” or not may be up for debate. Either way some ideas I recently heard may have indeed influenced my behavior. 

The first one came from our weight management program facilitator, to the effect that sometimes, when people go off track a little, they may temporarily throw in the towel. I wish had a clearer recollection of her exact words, but for me it sounded like, “Well, now that I’ve blown it today by eating this [fill in the blank] I might as well say 'Screw it!' for the rest of the day.” It not only sounded like that to me, it happened like that—not quite as abruptly, or consciously—more insidiously—but the net effect was the same. The real danger is that this can lead to a succession of  tossed towels…

The other statement came from the reading material the program hands out about this transition phase we have entered, where we gradually are moving from 960 calories a day of food replacements to increasing amounts of real food and a normal sustainable level of calories. This I can quote directly from the text. It said, “Many people, but not all, experience an increase in appetite as they start to eat real food.” Ya think?! When one subsists entirely on imitation food pellets it isn’t as challenging as one might think to turn a blind eye to the real food that abounds, but like one sip of wine to an alcoholic, just tiptoeing into the world of real food sends the eyes and the taste buds into a state of high alert. Therefore, in stark contrast to earlier in the year, when I took in some real food as necessary nourishment during my long bike rides, or partook in a single wedding meal, when confronted with (sort of) similar occurrences this past weekend I found myself completely without discipline. With only slight exaggeration, the word “insatiable” comes to mind. 

What happened? And more importantly, what did I learn? 

Saturday morning I met a friend for cycling. I had anticipated two or three hours on the road, including the likelihood of some rigorous climbing. In the current weight management phase, two small meals are prescribed, and even though carbohydrates have not yet been reintroduced, I figured some oatmeal before riding would be appropriate. I had calculated the calories in a third of a cup of rolled oats with two loosely packed tablespoons of raisins, a tablespoon of chopped walnuts and a tablespoon of real maple syrup to total 211. Not a bad start to the day at all…but then, to play it safe before going out on the road, I downed an Optifast shake—160 calories. I was still pretty much in a mindful state—I think. From then on I nourished myself much as I did when I took a gargantuan ride to the ocean and back the week before last—half of a protein bar every half hour. I may have even skipped one after the relatively easy descent from Skyline Boulevard back down Old La Honda Road. The real problem was not during the ride, but after. Unlike on the Hazon Ride where I calmly, methodically just slipped back into my routine of bars and shakes, Saturday’s reentry was more tentative—okay, it was downright unruly.

New size small cycling regalia
Timing was one issue. I got home and felt that aforementioned “increase in appetite,” but it wasn’t mealtime—or was it? Having had more bars in the morning than according to plan it was hard to determine where to pick up for the rest of the day. Moreover, even before we began this official transition to food I had been snacking on very low calorie items (i.e., pickles, kimchi, rice cakes, viz., to get me through some of the rough patches. These have their benefits, but I can’t say that I have approached them with the discipline and rigor that I might. The result is that even if they provide little physical harm, psychologically they recreate the old excitement of binge eating that I need to tame.

Well, one thing led to another on Saturday. We went downtown to the Palo Alto Art & Wine Festival—can you say Oaxacan Taco Truck? Later we decided to go to a movie that was timed to conflict with my scheduled "real food" dinner. What to do? What to do? Do I eat before? After? Or during the movie? I opted for all three, munching a bit of the previous night’s leftover chicken breast before heading to the theater, more than a handful of Debbie’s very small bag of very lightly buttered popcorn before the feature started, as well as the protein bar I brought for the second reel, and Lord knows what else I ate the rest of the night. Earlier we had  purchased some groceries for a brunch we were to host Sunday morning. Wanting to give my visiting nephew, Daniel, something he had not tasted before, I opted to prepare one of my favorite (read “trigger”) foods—chilaquiles—kind of a Mexican matzah brei with tortilla chips and chile salsa. (You can already spot this disaster coming!)

I certainly didn’t journal the rest of the day—or any of it really—especially when the day ended with my wiping taco chip crumbs off my face, standing over the counter with a spoon in one hand and a dangerously delicious container of Haagen Dazs (that I “bought for Debbie’s Shabbat dessert”) in the other hand, thinking, “Screw it! I blew today, better shove in all I can before tomorrow comes and I start over with a clean slate.” It was the kind of thinking that spawned the month-long Farewell to Food tour that preceded participation in the program.

That might not have been a bad strategy had Sunday truly been a return to plan, but remember the brunch? I got up early Sunday to prep the meal, and since I had not made chilaquiles in a few years I needed to make a practice batch—just one egg. I even calculated the calories of a handful of chips and salsa and some sautéed peppers and onions and a little cotija cheese. It wasn’t terrible—not if I had stopped there at least. Fast forward—I ate more chilaquiles during the brunch (which I told myself I would not do), and ate some more when I cleared the table…ended the evening taking Daniel to a dinner of Indian chaat including the mango lassi I told myself I would not drink, and once again closed out the day leaning over the counter spoon in hand thinking, “Screw it! I blew today….”

Is there a moral to all this?

Life truly is a succession of exceptions—bike ride one day, guests the next, funerals, bar mitzvahs, weddings, celebrations, food festivals (was there art and wine?)—it’s always something. Gotta plan. Gotta stick to the plan. Gotta have a Plan B to deal with the inevitable, perpetual curveballs. Gotta get back on Plan A as soon after straying from it as possible.

I did not have Plan B in mind this weekend. The good news is that two days does not a complete relapse make (but it’s a slippery slope!). I learned from W. Edwards Deming, the guru of Quality and a professional statistician, that when a system goes out of whack (technical term) twice in a row it still does not constitute a trend, but three times in a row means it’s time to take a closer look. So despite the fact that the bathroom scale crept up two consecutive days in the wake of my indiscretions, they did not constitute a trend. I’m glad to say that’s where it stopped. Monday I was solidly back on plan and it had the desired effect—weigh-in went much better this morning. (Yeah, yeah, dieting doesn’t always work out that way.)

Maybe the best message is knowing that I can and did say, “Screw it!” and it truly wasn’t the end of the world, and therefore did not lead to a lasting “screw it” mentality. The key was to note that two-day lapse and make sure it didn’t become a three-day trend by making a return to mindful, disciplined, structured eating. I did it, and I commit to doing so if/when the need arises again. Let’s put it this way—if I ever need any incentive to do so, all I need is one look at my "before" picture!
Never again!