Saturday, December 26, 2009

Back Off, Mama Bear

On Christmas Eve my husband received a Christmas card from his brother. Before this card arrived, John hadn’t had any direct contact with his brother for something like 20 years. This is because, in his teens, the brother began to spiral down into a world of drugs and alcohol, as well as the things that go along with people who are desperate to get money for more drugs and alcohol. John and his parents tried to save his brother, but you can’t save someone who isn’t motivated to save himself.

We knew John’s brother had been in touch with his parents over the last few years, we understand he has been clean and sober during that time, and we know he has asked about seeing John, so I suppose this card wasn’t a complete shock. However, once it arrived, I began to do what I do best when I feel surprised and threatened: I over-react.

Fortunately, the following night was Shabbat, and about a quarter of the way through services I felt my anger and anxiety disappear. I realized I don’t have to be the Mama Bear right now. My husband is not my cub. He is a grown man, and what he needs right now isn’t my protection; he needs my support.

So it looks like next month John’s parents will drive down from Oregon, and we’re all going to meet John’s brother and his fiancĂ©e for dinner. And then we’ll see what happens from there.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Judaism Creating Connections

By Susan Esther Barnes

On Friday night during services Rabbi Lezak told two stories about how living in Israel means living in an inter-connected community. The first one, here, talks about how the plight of Gilad Shalit, the Israel soldier who has been in captivity for three years, feels personal to all Israelis, since all of them have family members who were or are in the military.

The second story, here, is an amazing true story about the woman who is the mother of the first soldier killed in Cast Lead, who goes to a concert and by chance (or perhaps an act of God) meets a couple who named their baby after her fallen son.

To some extent these stories are possible because Israel is such a tiny country, where everyone (with some exceptions) sends their children to military or other national service. These stories, combined with something else that happened at services Friday night, got me thinking about how the practice of Judaism itself helps to create these connections.

One of the situations Judaism is particularly sensitive about is the death of a loved one. There are many customs and rituals that surround this event, and many of them create and rely on community connections. When a mourner returns home from the graveyard, he or she is not allowed to eat his or her own food. Rather, the community is expected to, and in fact bears the responsibility of, bringing food to the mourner. This not only relieves the mourner of having to think about mundane acts like grocery shopping and cooking when just walking across the room may feel like a monumental act, but it also makes sure the mourner is not alone during this critical time.

In addition, the mourner is to say the Mourner's Kaddish on a regular basis throughout the first eleven months after their loved on has died. And this prayer may only be said when there are at least ten Jews present. Again, this serves to ensure the mourner is surrounded by members of his or her community during the first year of mourning.

After the first year has passed, we say the Mourner's Kaddish for the anniversary of the loved one's death, called the Yarzheit. When worshippers come to services on Friday night they are handed a program that contains various bits of information, and on the back is a list of those in the congregation who have died recently as well as the names of those who are having their Yarzeheit.

On Friday night, I was sitting beside a couple, when another couple sat behind us. The woman next to me was looking at the Yarzheit list, and she turned to the couple behind us. She pointed at the list and said, "I see this person on the list with the same last name as you. Is this your father?"

"No," they replied, "That is our son."

"How old was he?" asked the woman.


"Oh, I didn't know."

And thus another connection was created, because when you know a couple has lost a son, an incredible tragedy in itself, and further learn the son died so young, it cannot help but create an understanding, a bond, from the acknowledgement that these people have walked through the fire and have the bravery to carry on.

And it strikes me this is one of the ways Judaism seeks to connect us. Yarzheit not only serves to comfort the mourner, but its public nature gives us the opportunity to ask the questions that bind us together, like "Who was she?" "What is your favorite memory about him?" and to make the statements that bind us together, like, "I remember him" and "I miss her too."

Monday, December 14, 2009

How Are You?

The question, "How are you?" is a common greeting among people I know. The expected answer is, "I'm fine, how are you?" I find I sometimes surprise people when, instead of giving the expected answer, I say, "I'm doing great!" This is generally the most authentic short answer I can give, since my life really is much better than I ever would have expected. It's not that everything is perfect, but all the most important pieces are in place: The world's best husband, a great community, friends, mostly healthy family, full employment, etc.

A friend of mine told me recently how much she dislikes the "How are you?" greeting, since most people seem to ask it in passing and then rush on without even pausing to hear the answer. If you're not going to stick around for an answer, why ask?

A woman who lost her husband about six months previously spoke to my Bikkur Cholim (visiting the sick) group about what to say and what not to say to a person in mourning. She said the one question she wishes people would stop asking her is, "How are you?" She says she doesn't feel comfortable answering, "Fine" when that's not how she feels, yet she knows most people who ask the question aren't really interested in hearing her real answer to it.

Another person in the group related a story about a family she recently visited who were sitting shiva (the first seven days of mourning after a loved one has died). She said part way through the evening the husband taped a hand-written sign to the door saying, "Please don't ask me how I'm doing." I can't even imagine how difficult it would be to try to respond to that question when one is in mourning, particularly in the first days and weeks, when the mourner is still struggling to understand the enormous change that has occurred.

Aside from greeting mourners and friends with something more along the lines of, "It's good to see you," or some such statement rather than a question, I don't know what I plan to do with this whole "How are you?" question. It is still part of the oil that keeps the social machine running. Substituting something like, "Greetings and salutations" is a bit awkward. I guess it's something I'll just have to work on.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Articulation and Flinging

By Susan Esther Barnes

In her book A Spiritual Life: A Jewish Feminist Journey, Merle Feld writes, “What is a prayer? A prayer is the articulatiion of something very particular at the core of one's being, flung out into the universe. Perhaps it finds a mark, perhaps not. The essential thing is the articulation and the flinging.”

I agree about the importance of articulation and flinging. Although one may or may not call what I write prayers, what I do when I write is exactly what is described above. I do it because I feel compelled to do it, not because I expect to get anything back. However, I do also spend time pondering what happens to my words after the flinging.

After I write something, which for me is the culmination of the articulation part, I then need to decide what method or methods I will use to fling it. There are a couple of people to whom I email a good number of the things I write. The main reason they remain on my tiny email list is they often respond with words of encouragement and/or enthusiasm. This gives me the idea they don’t consider my emails to be a complete waste of their time.

Sometimes I send something to someone because what I wrote was inspired by them or mentions them in some way. These are generally one-time-only flings and I don’t add these folks to my email list unless they specifically request it.

There are a number of people to whom I have sent my writing but from whom I have received no response at all. This leaves me with a bit of an awkward feeling. I don’t know what it means, and I suppose in each case it probably means something different. It is unlikely I will send any of these people more of my writing, however, unless I happen to write something else that mentions them.

On the other hand, on at least one occasion, something I wrote was forwarded by others to a number of different email lists – a sort of turbo-flinging which was quite interesting to watch.

Another method of flinging involves my efforts to publish things I have written. Without much effort on my part, I have managed to have things published in my synagogue’s newsletter, a local newspaper, and a literary journal. To a certain extent, these venues provide some validation to the value of my flinging, since if the editors didn’t think my writing would be interesting to their readers, they wouldn’t be willing to participate in my flinging by publishing it. Unfortunately, with this type of flinging most people who read what I publish have no easy way of telling me what they think about it.

My newest venue for flinging is this blog. The idea of a blog appealed to me because it has the potential for a wide audience and also provides a method for easy feedback. After three months of blogging, the statistics tell me I have a small but steady stream of people viewing the blog, and they’re staying long enough on an average visit to read one or more of my posts. However, even after I started to allow anonymous comments, almost none of my blog visitors posts a comment. I suppose that’s normal, but it does leave me wondering what my visitors like or dislike about the blog, whether they’re passing on to others anything I’ve written, or what other effect, if any, my articulation and flinging has had on them.

Like prayers in general, it’s a matter of faith, this articulation and flinging without knowing what, if anything, happens after the fling.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Unseen Impacts

By Susan Esther Barnes

I’m beginning to suspect few of us, myself included, has any idea the impact our words and actions have on others. The Torah tries to give us a hint about the power of words. In the very first chapter, God creates the world by using words, as in the famous, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

It’s not uncommon for me to think about words and their impact. I try to write things in way that will, as accurately as I can, communicate how I see things as well as how I feel about them. I feel best about my writing when I feel it packs a punch, leaving the reader with something to think about after they have finished reading.

A couple of weeks ago a friend was struggling because she felt she was failing to get others to see the importance of something very dear to her. She said she felt she wasn’t communicating to others about it in a powerful enough way, and she was contemplating using more powerful language, but she didn’t want to be hurtful. I told her it’s possible to use words powerfully without being hurtful.

Often it seems being powerful and hurtful is much easier than being powerful and constructive. And yet, there are times when we say or do powerfully constructive things without even realizing it. For example, two and a half years ago, a woman introduced me as, “My friend Susan.” She said it as if it were no big deal, and to her it probably wasn’t one. She had no way to know it was the first time I’d heard those words in 20 years, so she had no idea how powerful those words were to me.

Earlier this year a woman said to me, “I value your friendship.” I thought, “You value my friendship? Don’t you mean it the other way around?” I had been so wrapped up in how cool it was to have a bunch of friends around me, it hadn’t occurred to me it might work both ways. She didn’t know what a revelation it was for me to consider someone might view my friendship as a valuable thing to have.

Yesterday, I received an email from someone who said, “Thanks for being a good friend.” It made me feel great, but I was surprised. Sure, I think of him as a friend, but I have no idea why he thinks of me as a good friend. We don’t have dinner together; we don’t go to the movies or other outings together. I don’t even know when his birthday is. Aren’t those things all part of being a good friend? Obviously, I must have said or done something in the past that makes him feel this way about me. And clearly, at the time I had no idea the impact I had on him, just as he has no idea the impact his words, “Thank you for being a good friend” had on me.

Just before we say the Amidah, the central prayer of each prayer service, we say, “Adonai, open my lips so my mouth may declare your glory.” Rabbi Noa says we start with this prayer because we want the prayers that follow to come out right. Often, when I say those words I’m not thinking about the prayers coming up. Instead, I’m asking God to help me, throughout the week, to say and write things which will have a positive impact on others. Sometimes I know I’ve succeeded. Sometimes I think I’ve succeeded when I haven’t. And sometimes, I’m discovering, I succeed without even knowing it.