Tag Archives: anxiety

Since sundown came, it’s officially the 12th of Elul by the Hebrew calendar.

Today is the day. When morning comes, I’ll be at the beit din at 8:30 a.m. Before the sun goes down again, I will be a Jew in truth and not just in hope and preparation.

Things will not happen in the order they did for Michael at Chicago Carless. For him it was beit din, hatafat dam brit, and mikveh. I have had my hatafat dam brit, and it will be beit din then mikveh, but there will be some differences.

  1. It isn’t going to happen all in the same building. Michael’s day was all in the same place, but the closest mikveh to my Temple is about 40 miles away, and I can’t ask the beit din to drive that far.
  2. It’s separated by about seven hours. Beit din at 8:30 am until whenever, but mikveh’s not until four pm. So there will be a largish break.
  3. We will not be going back to the Temple after the mikveh (at least, I haven’t been told otherwise), so the recognition of me as a Jew (including holding the Torah for the first time, and putting on my tallit for the first time) will very likely happen before I go to the mikveh. But in my heart I know that I will not feel like it’s done until, well, it’s all done.
  4. I am shaky and nervous, but I did get to talk with my rabbi today after our last class was over with, and when I went to Hebrew class afterwards, it became as much a class about being a Jew as it did about reading Hebrew. Everyone was very kind to me.
  5. My best friend and my husband will be with me throughout, which will help.
  6. In the break, I will have a good meal and get a very, very thorough shower and scrub-down.
  7. I will be bringing my own towel and a pair of flip-flops to the mikveh to try to avoid any untoward accidents like slipping on the tile or their towels or robes not being big enough to cover me. (Both of which I am honestly really scared about.)

Rabbi told me what would happen at the mikveh. After I do the ritual bath-and-scrub thing, which will be quick since I will have done a quite thorough bathing before coming to the mikveh, I will go out into the room where the pool is and put my towel down and take my flip-flops off before I go down into the water. After I’m under the water to my shoulders, I will let Rabbi (who is my witness) know that I’m ready. Then I will immerse, lifting my feet off the bottom of the pool so that I’m floating free, and the Rabbi will announce whether it was kosher or not by saying so. After the first kosher immersion, I will say the prayer for immersion. After the second, I will say the Shema. And finally, after the third, I will say the Shehecheyanu. There will apparently be a kippah at poolside for me to put on, to recite each prayer.

Michael was very clear about how this works to get the whole body floating free for that split second that’s necessary. You point your hands in front of you, jump up a bit to give yourself some momentum, and pull your feet up when you go under so that you float free. I am going to try to avoid pulling my back any worse than it’s already been pulled (I have a knot in my lower back that won’t quit no matter how much I stretch).

I’m bringing my tallit clips to the beit din, and my new kippah with me to the mikveh, for wearing afterwards. It has a Mogen David on it that covers the entire diameter of the kippah, a white kippah with a blue star. I have been saving it for this occasion since I got it last year.

I will pack a very small bag with toothbrush, toothpaste, and comb, and my friend will bring the tallit with her. So I’m mostly ready. I’m just scared to death that I’ll do something foolish or say something wrong, or that my klutziness will kick in at the worst possible moment.

Worrying? Me?

Yeah, a bit.

Because, you know, that’s not Jewish or anything…

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That Family Question…

“How does your family feel about your conversion?”

I know it will get asked, but I’m going to have to answer the question with another question: what do you mean by “family”?

The word “family” is fraught, for me. It’s actually a negative word, for the most part. I’m the oldest of three boys. I rarely met any of my extended family when I was a kid. Basically, I knew my grandparents, my father’s sister, and my mother’s youngest aunt (my great-aunt) and her youngest brother. The rest of the family was theoretical. I knew they existed, but I didn’t know them. They were just names.

My father was the older of two kids. He and his sister were about two years apart. He was raised Methodist, and converted to Catholicism to marry my mother. His sister has no children (she’s been openly lesbian since before I was born).

My mother was the fourth of six kids. All of them grew up in an abusive home. My grandfather was an equal-opportunity pedophile, and we know for a fact that he abused all three of his daughters and at least one of his sons (and me, when I was a toddler and a preschooler). My grandmother divorced him as soon as my mother and father got married, and her youngest son lived with her while their other younger son lived with my grandfather.

My mother’s oldest sister died when my mother was thirteen. The next sister got married to a fundamentalist Christian man, moved to the Midwest with him, had ten children, and was clinically insane for most of her life. We met her and one of her daughters once when I was about sixteen or seventeen, and they were just very strange to everyone in our home. She’s since passed away.

Her older brother stayed with me and my two younger brothers as a house-sitter/babysitter once, when I was in my early teens. It was in the summer, while my parents went to a liturgical music conference in another state. He abused us all, physically and emotionally, during those three weeks. I think the last time I saw him was at a wedding twenty-some years ago.

I’ve met my mother’s younger brother once or twice, and her youngest brother was in the area but not usually around when I was growing up. He came to the occasional birthday party or Christmas dinner. I was part of his first wedding when I was eight or so, and I met his kids from that marriage, but they were ten to fifteen years younger than I was – not exactly playmates, if you get my drift.

So just starting with that, you can see I have a complicated relationship with the idea of “family.” Sure, I have cousins, but the word doesn’t really mean much to me. For the most part, family was where I got hurt a lot, and I left as soon as I could.

As for my family now, well…

My father is deceased, and has been for nearly six years. I know he would have approved of my conversion, but I have no way of proving that.

My mother and I have not spoken in probably three years, and I doubt we’ll ever speak again. She was seriously emotionally abusive to me when I was younger (and I’ve talked about that in these pages, more than once), so once I finally got strong enough to say “no more,” that meant no more.

I know for a fact she wouldn’t approve. First, she never approved of anything that made me happy, because it meant I wasn’t working on making her happy. Second, my mother is a woman of large hatreds. She was racist and sexist while I was growing up; I have no doubt that anti-Semitism is lurking in there somewhere too. (And yet, ironically, if I have Jewish ancestry, it’s probably through her father’s mother, who was Hungarian with the right kind of last name at the right time period. I haven’t been able to dig more out of ancestry.com anytime recently, though, and I’m considering 23andme just to see what they can find.)

So when it comes to my mother, she is bad for me, and I can’t risk contact with her, but I don’t know if the beit din will understand that. This is my big worry.

My next-younger brother and I have a similar problem as I have with my mother: we’ve been at odds for most of our lives, and if we were not blood-related, we’d probably never speak to each other. I see him post on Facebook occasionally, but he lives across the country and we don’t interact much. If you had to ask me what he thought of this, my answer would be “I don’t know.”

My uncle (my mother’s younger brother) is all for it. My youngest brother and his wife are all for it. My dad’s sister says that she knows my dad would have approved. My kids think it’s great (my younger daughter even said “If I was going to be a different religion, I’d probably be Jewish”). But that’s all the blood family I can account for, and that does make me sad.

If you want to talk about chosen family, that’s different. My husband will be going through the same thing a few months from when I do (and maybe sooner; he said “when I have more understanding,” and now he’s thinking October instead of next February), and he is totally supportive. His parents are, too, which shocked us both. Likewise my best friend and her husband. Likewise her parents and all the people who are part of their regular Pesach seder group. Likewise just about every friend I have, even my atheist friends. Even my ex-husband is on board with it.

But I don’t know – will the beit din count that as “family”?

I’m honestly not sure how to talk about this question when they inevitably ask it. Every convert who’s posted their beit din story has mentioned it, so I know it’s coming and I’m really anxious.

Suggestions are welcome.

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A further update on Mr. Christian, and other updates

Apparently he doesn’t hear very well. Yesterday, once again, he was back to his old ways of relating everything in the class to his religious views.

Husband and I are considering what to do. We’ll probably be writing a letter to the rabbi.

—–

Our Seder and Matzah plates arrived! So did our four boxes of Manischewitz gluten-free matzah – but every single one was broken. I’ve been told that there’s a GF grocery that sells them (hopefully NOT broken).

We’re going to be holding a small Seder for a few friends from the Bay Area who can’t get back home for their own Seder this spring due to work schedules. It’ll be the first one I’ve ever tried to run. My best friend is going to help with prep and setup, but I need to get a Haggadah that works for me. I haven’t found a good one yet.

Other news as I have time; this is going into the busy season for me with my work.

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Update on Mr. Christian

It’s been a busy few weeks, so I haven’t had time or energy to post here. But here’s an update on what’s going on with Mr. Christian in our Intro class.

Two weeks ago tomorrow, we got out of class (a great class on Purim). As my husband and I were leaving, Mr. Christian … not quite confronted us. He was asking about the “next class,” meaning the one being held for the people who are converting after the Intro class is over. It’s going to be a fairly intense seminar and only (I hope) for the people who are actually going through conversion, which wouldn’t include him since he’s not converting. He seemed very disappointed when my husband and I both said that it was probably only for people who were planning to convert. 

Then he said, as we got to our car, “Am I monopolizing the class?”

So I was honest with him. Uncomfortably so, and not aggressively so, but I did say the following.

“The thing is, it’s a class on Judaism. Many of the people here came from Christianity and we’re not interested in hearing about that. We’re interested in learning about the religion we’ve chosen. It’s hard when you keep mentioning Jesus. I know that you are very passionate about your faith, and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but several people in there, including me, came from a Christian background and found it lacking or abusive or both. I admit it does make me uncomfortable when you bring up your religion, because I’m not here to learn about your religion. I’m here to learn about my religion.”

He chewed that over for a moment and then said “So I should dial it back about ten notches.”

When I said “That would help,” he said, “Maybe twenty notches.”

So we’ll see. I spoke my truth to him, at least, and maybe now he’ll realize how much he’s made people uncomfortable. We’ll see. There was no class on Purim (last Wednesday) so we’ll see how it goes tomorrow…

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Dear Mr. Christian, please take your ball and go away.

The Intro to Judaism class was interesting tonight. We had a visiting rabbi because our rabbi was out ill. The class topic was nominally about Rosh Hashanah, but we went all over the place.

Intro to Judaism is not technically just a “conversion” class, although most of the people taking it are either already Jews who want to brush up on their own heritage, or people moving towards conversion. But there’s a guy in this class who just can’t seem to stop talking about how he’s a Christian. He mentions it, oh, every third sentence at least – and he really likes to talk. Makes a point of reminding us that his savior is a Jewish carpenter. (Because, you know, we don’t already know this from the last twenty-six times he’s said it.) Every single time he opens his mouth (and he opens it a lot), it’s to tell us how what was just said relates to his religion. As if this isn’t a class on Judaism so much as a class on the Jewish background of his religious beliefs.

I truly don’t think this guy is here to learn about Judaism. It feels like he’s there to screw up the class. He keeps derailing the conversations, and I’m frankly sick of it. Yes, okay, fine, you’re learning more about your religion by learning something about ours. That’s not the point of this class – were you aware of that? Do you get that this is not a class about Christianity, and that you’re annoying at least half the people in the room?

I hope he got the message tonight, but I don’t know. We got on the topic of Moshiach, and the visiting Rab talked about a few of the various pseudo-Moshiachs we’ve had over the years (such as the Bar Kochba, whom even Rabbi Akiva was skunked into believing in). And yes, the rabbi mentioned “that Jewish carpenter” as an example.

The Rab made a point of saying to Mr. Christian that he was doing his best not to give offense, but he still shut him down, all very politely, with some pointed explanation. He covered a) why Jews do not believe the Moshiach has come, b) an explanation about what that word ACTUALLY means (king, not spiritual leader), c) how Saul of Tarsus was an opportunist who rejected everything taught in Torah, pretty much, d) how Jews don’t practice human sacrifice and, sorry, that Yeshua ben Yosef qualifies as an example of that very thing, and e) that the title Moshiach has been part of the titles of every Jewish political king in our history – “Moshiach Adonai,” to be exact.

Frankly, given this guy’s pushy behavior, I am impressed that the visiting Rab was so compassionate. But I’ll be honest: even he couldn’t resist getting a little snarky: “Yeah, Jesus of Nazareth had a few followers – twelve of them.” Which then segued into the point that most followers were not of Jesus but of Saul of Tarsus…

After that whole discussion, Mr. Christian was very, very quiet. Apparently he’s now facing that Judaism is not just “Christianity without Jesus.” And he doesn’t seem particularly happy about it.

He may be there to learn, but I just get the sense that his constant mentioning of his own religion qualifies as at least being pushy, if not quite evangelizing. And in fact, the Rabbi also said that, that most of the Christians Jews have had to deal with have been very pushy. I don’t think he liked hearing that, either.

And the Rabbi talked about why – because it seems that Christians think we’re stupid for not accepting their beliefs. And yet we don’t think Christians are stupid for not accepting ours. The guy then objected “Well, evangelicals do…” and the Rab agreed, “Yes, and fundamentalists, too.”

Did I mention this guy’s faith ends in “Orthodox”? It’s a fundamentalist faith.

(I also thought it was in supremely bad taste that he told the Rabbi – before this happened – that he had bought a used copy of the book this Rabbi wrote for use with this class, and was proud of it. That’s another thing he’s mentioned every single class so far, that he found all the books used on Amazon. To me that just seems tacky, especially in front of the author of one of the books.)

I don’t want to be annoyed by this guy any more. And I don’t want to come into the room in dread. And I don’t want to be flinching every time he opens his mouth, because I know what’s going to come out of it.

But the fact that it bothers me, bothers me. I want to be a compassionate person, but how far do I have to go with the compassion with a person who is trying to derail the class? Does it change the requirement for compassion if the person is malicious instead of clueless? If he’s doing it on purpose, instead of because he doesn’t know any better? I honestly can’t tell if he’s being clueless or if he’s being passive-aggressively malicious. Even writing about it here makes me feel like I’m committing lashon hara, but I need to work through this somehow.

My husband says “You can be compassionate because this is another human being who is trying to learn. And you don’t have to like it that he keeps saying ‘Well, MY god does this and this and this.’ You’re being compassionate by listening to him. You don’t have to agree with him.”

That’s true – and I don’t agree with this guy at all. But how obligated am I to treat this person kindly, when he’s trying to make the class all about HIS religion instead of OUR religion? And frankly, there are several people who are LEAVING his religion in this class – is he even aware that his constant mention of his religion is harmful to that group of people? To me?

No, I guess he’s not aware. But now I don’t know how to handle this. I’m considering a email to our rabbi, but it’s going to have to have a light touch. I’m honestly not sure how to say it other than bluntly: “This guy is making the class very uncomfortable for me in ways that are harming my ability to learn and listen to the lessons you are teaching.”

I mean, I have to deal with evangelizing Christians all the time. I shouldn’t have to put up with it in the class I’m taking to convert to Judaism, should I? Is that part of what I have to be compassionate about to be a Jew? Is there no good way to draw the line?

Edited to add: A friend, on reading this, said that he’s like the guy who takes a Women’s Studies class to say “But not all men do that!” But what it’s really like is a guy who takes a Women’s Studies class to say “Wow, this class is teaching me so much about how to make women like me!” Which has a Creepy Factor of 10/10.

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Looking back, looking forward

1 Tishri 5775

As I dip an apple into honey and taste the sweetness of the new year, I am also taking stock of my life for the Days of Awe.

“Dipping Apples in Honey.” From Elana’s Pantry on Flickr: http://tinyurl.com/oav6c9u. Used under Creative Commons license.

“In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person you are for doing something, the focus looks forward to aiming more carefully when you take the next shot.” – Rabbi Adar

Since this is my first Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) as a prospective Jew (and hopefully my last one as a prospective Jew), I have to consider more than just the past year. Whom have I harmed with my words or actions? To whom do I need to make amends, and how do I go about doing that?

The hardest thing about apologies, for me, is that words are never really enough to get my remorse across. I’m always worried that no matter how sincere I know I am, it’s going to come across to the other person as “just words” being said because I have to say them, not because I mean them.

But I know a few guidelines for making an apology real:

“I’m sorry if you felt bad when I…” is not an apology. It deflects responsibility for the problem onto the other person.

Any explanation for bad behavior comes across as an excuse, and thus negates an apology.

The formula that I read about for making a true apology (about teaching little kids to apologize and mean it, of all places) goes like this:

1. Say what you are sorry for. “I’m sorry that I said hurtful things about you/your __________.”

2. Say why you are sorry for it. “It was really inappropriate for me to say those things about you/your _________, and I shouldn’t have done that.”

3. Say what you will do differently next time – and frame it positively, not negatively. “Next time I’ll wait for you to ask my opinion before I give it.”

4. Ask for – but do not expect – forgiveness. “I ask for your forgiveness for what I did.”

But Judaism also requires that we make amends for what we did, if possible. I have been unsure how to make amends for hurtful words and behaviors when the harm done has no physical basis but is emotional and spiritual (which I am guilty of a lot more than I want to be – in fact, it’s the main thing that I find myself realizing I need to apologize for).

I have had people suggest that I ask the person I wronged for suggestions for how I should make amends, so today I tried that.

Today, I sent an e-mail to a former friend who is a devout Christian, whom I’m sure I harmed many times over the course of our friendship due to my antipathy towards the fact that she was religious. I also sent an e-mail to a colleague whose husband, one of my former professors, died this spring, to apologize for not reaching out to her when it happened. In both cases, I concluded with a request: if there is anything I can do to make amends, please let me know and I will do it to the best of my ability.

I may never hear back from either of them, but that’s not the point. The point is that I have done what I can. Seeing either of them in person is not really possible; we live nowhere near each other. Phone calls are difficult because I can’t hear on the phone very well. So, although it’s not ideal, an e-mail is actually the best way to apologize at this point.

I am still struggling over whether I should reach out to my mother. She harmed me, a lot, and I don’t know if I want to put myself in that position again. There are a couple of other people whom I’ve had fallings-out with, but where the falling-out was mutual, so I’m also not sure what to do there.

I have things I need to apologize for to my partner, but that’s between us, and that will happen this week when he’s home, calm, and rested.

But there’s one other person that I also need to make amends with. That person is me. I’ve been slacking on my physical health all year – saying “yes” to the ice cream far too many times, and avoiding the walks that I know are necessary for my health. I’ve also been a bit lax on the whole mental-health maintenance thing. I need to change my aim from the in-the-moment pleasure to the long-term goal.

So that’s what I resolve to do this year. I apologize to myself for putting the immediate before the long-term, and I resolve to do better this year.

Time for reflection on the past year

Time to figure out what we’re doing here

Replace the guilt with inspiration, and everything is clear

Life in the present seems more fun

Easier than regret, what’s done is done

Living in the moment lasts for a moment

Shana Tovah to everyone! 

– The Maccabeats, “Book of Good Life”

Depression means living in the past. Anxiety means living in the future. What does it mean when you live in the moment and only in the moment? Recklessness. Time to stop living in the moment all the time. I used to be very bad at this; now I’m way too good at it. It’s time to strike a balance.

Mindfulness is the key, I think. Obsessing over the past (which I cannot change), worrying about the future (which will be here when it gets here) and using the present to hedonistically ignore them both is not working. It’s time for mindfulness.

So this year, in 5775, I will aim for mindfulness. Not obsession; just mindfulness, you understand. Awareness. Observation. And because I’m way too good at beating myself up for even minor mistakes (that merger of a Catholic early upbringing and Jewish guilt can create a perfect storm), I’m going to work on not doing that. It’s counterproductive. Instead of beating myself up, I should be beating a fast path to the door of those I’ve wronged – and for minor mistakes that can’t be fixed, I need to learn to let go of it.

Shanah Tovah, everyone.

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The Spirit of the Law and the Value of NOT Doing It All

"Sunrise Los Angeles" by Bryan Frank on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

“Sunrise Los Angeles” by Bryan Frank on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

Things looked better on Shabbat morning. And fortunately, that continued for the rest of the day into our afternoon at home and our evening with friends. 

Things usually do look better in the morning, did you ever notice that? Something about sleeping on it really does help fix most of the problems of low spoons, lack of energy, and general overwhelm.

Of course, I was trying too hard. I was trying to live by every rule, everywhere, to be a perfect Jew, even as I had admitted that it’s okay not to be perfect. There’s a definite difference between saying it and practicing it, and G-d called me on it on Friday, I think. I was at the end of my rope, frazzled, tired, worn out, overwhelmed, and still thinking I could somehow put together the equivalent of a holiday dinner AND bake challah for the next day’s temple Kiddush service when I was almost completely out of cope and energy. I was convinced that I could still follow all the rules and make things somehow come out perfectly even though I was scraping the bottom of the energy barrel.

Reality. It hits you in the strangest ways. Obviously none of those things happened. I’m just glad that the fallout was a few pieces of dough hitting the coffeemaker and the carpet, and nothing worse than that (like a cut hand due to a knife accident, or a concussion because I slipped and hit my head on a wet floor). 

It occurred to me this morning that one of the things I find so healing about Judaism is that Reform Judaism is not a rule-bound system. I grew up with a strong and frightening sense that if I didn’t follow every rule perfectly, all the time, to the letter, then I was in big trouble. Yesterday’s experience at temple in the morning, where I participated in the mid-service Torah study, and where I was reassured that everyone has had kitchen disasters and not to worry – we’ll love to try your challah next week, showed me it’s the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law, that we’re trying to get at here. People (and G-d) don’t expect perfection. They expect an honest effort. They don’t expect me to do it all correctly the first time. They expect me to focus on doing my best to do a little bit better next time.

It’s not about perfect adherence to the rules. If that was all it was, any religion would do. 

My life before Judaism didn’t allow a lot of time for contemplation or doing things deliberately. Due to some disabilities I have, for example, getting dressed in the morning can be a very complicated process. If I put on my jeans before I put on my socks, it’s harder to reach my feet, for example, because that restricts motion enough that bending my knees far enough to reach my feet becomes almost impossible. But there have been times when I’ve been rushing because I feel like I’m late (I rarely am) and then I have to undress and start all over again, usually berating myself for not paying attention well enough. Eating deliberately? What’s that? I have still caught myself being halfway through the meal before I realized I haven’t really tasted it (and that I haven’t said the brachot yet), and then kicked myself for it. I wasn’t raised with the habits of deliberation or contemplation. I was raised with the habits of rushing, doing it quickly, getting it done, and getting on to the next thing. While going to church was calming, it was only one hour a week. That’s not enough to get used to being calm and quiet (and for me it was always upset in the middle by the angry sermons I had to sit through). 

But with Judaism (at least as I’m practice it), it’s not about rushing out of bed and running around like a headless chicken trying to get six things done before breakfast so that things are always perfect. It’s about staying in bed when I wake long enough to remember to say the Modeh Ani before I get out of bed. It’s about taking the time to remember to say the brachot over my morning coffee. It’s about remembering to slow down and take time so that those become things I remember before I need to do them, not after. It’s about taking an entire 24-hour period every week to NOT rush, to NOT hurry, and to let that peacefulness carry over into the rest of the week. It’s the complete opposite of what I was raised with – reflection, rather than rushing.

The rushing seemed to me to be required. If you aren’t running around “looking busy,” you’re lazy, aren’t you? But then I wonder how many people would call a Buddhist monk “lazy” for his meditation practices. I know a few Westerners who probably would, but that’s not the point here. The Type-A personality should not be setting the standard for what reasonable effort looks like – they’re at one end of a very long spectrum. It is possible to be unrushed and not be automatically lazy. It is possible to take time to think and contemplate and not be lazy. 

And it is all right to take a day where rest, contemplation, consideration and thought take precedence over running around trying to do everything all at once. It is all right to live by the spirit of the rules as much as, if not more than, their letter. A blogger I follow on Facebook calls this “living hands-free” – to stop worrying so much about what everyone will think and start focusing on the moment, the process, rather than the goal. 

This is still very hard for me to grasp. We live in a culture that values speed and efficiency and the goal over reflection and deliberation and the process. But living a hands-free kind of life – which for me, more and more, means a Jewish life – demands adherence to the spirit of the rules over the letter of the rules, more often than not. It’s also about bringing that sense of reflection and consideration into the rest of the week, not just leaving it on Shabbat. I had had an entire week of no reflection or consideration, of feeling rushed, of trying to do too much at once, and I paid for it on Friday evening when things finally fell apart because I couldn’t keep all those balls in the air and the plates all spinning at the same time. 

This week, I will forgive myself for dropping the ball. This week, I will not punish myself for taking time to reflect and consider. This week, I will work on reducing my need to live up to every rule and stress myself out by rushing through every process. This week I will make room for contemplation. 

And next week will take care of itself. It always does – have you ever noticed that? 

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Shocheradam And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Erev Shabbat

Ever have one of those Shabbats that goes so fantastically wrong that you can’t imagine it ever going right again? Read on.


 

Sad

“Sad,” by Kristina Alexanderson on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

I really should know better than to write about perfection.

After I put up my post that I made just before the Friday Feature, it feels like everything just went south for me this Shabbat, or at least on erev Shabbat. I had to go to a job HR intake thing that I did not feel prepared for, for starters, having got the command, er, invitation to come in at 10 on Friday morning the previous night. I do not do well with “Surprise! Come here RIGHT NOW!” kinds of e-mails at the best of times, and this was not the best of times. It had been quite a rough week, all things considered. So, resigned to losing my entire usual erev Shabbat morning routine, I went in. The HR person was not a nice person. I felt very conspicuous in my kippah, which made me feel defensive. Probably not the best thing.

I wasn’t in the best of shape when I got out of that meeting. First there was the exhaustion that happens after I have to meet someone new under circumstances I don’t control. Then there were student emails to answer and other work to do that I normally do in the mornings, which was now pushed to the afternoon. Then there was the nap that took away most of the later afternoon. Then there was the realization that someone I’d added on Facebook was a person I had had a very bad interaction with under an IRC handle 12 years ago, and being shook up over that as I defriended them. And the issues the HR person continued to send to me in e-mail all afternoon, some of which are fires I can do nothing about until Monday. And we didn’t really have lunch as such; we just had a late breakfast, so I had a lovely low-blood-sugar episode that I didn’t realize was low blood sugar until I was far beyond the point of no return, and ended up babbling and incoherent, as well as weepy and unable to cope. The phrase that I, and most of my friends, use for this situation is “out of spoon error.” Go read this link for more on that. (Basically, when I’m that low on cope, I become a babbling idiot and I can’t even find my own feet without help.)

Long story short, we didn’t even make it to the grocery, so I started Shabbat (such as it was) without any grape juice or challah, no new flowers on the table, and a sink still full of dirty dishes (morning stuff that didn’t get done thanks to the HR intake intervention blah blah). I resigned myself to a dinner of reheated random leftovers, with no candles, kiddush, or ha-motzi. Basically, my life became a whole big world of no, after the sun went down.

And then, thinking that at least I’d make a loaf of my grain-free challah and bring it with me to Saturday morning service’s Kiddush as I had promised to last Shabbat, I managed to instead make the stand mixer lurch across the counter, flinging hardened batter everywhere and wasting ingredients that don’t exactly come cheap.

Suffice to say that it was a really bad way to go into Shabbat.

Fortunately, after sleeping on it, things seemed some better. We did go to services on Saturday morning and it was refreshing, and my stories of the demon-possessed stand mixer after services were over made people laugh (although I promised that next time I would absolutely have grain-free challah for them for morning Kiddush). Singing the service is getting easier already; I’ve been picking up the melodies. The Torah teaching session that seems to be a standard part of the services was enlightening and made me feel like I belonged, since I could contribute to it intelligently. My partner looked, well, very Jewish in the green handmade kippah I loaned him. And just being among fellow Jews was a hugely calming thing.

Last week, when praying the Birkhot Haschachar, I sang Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam with everyone else. Where our congregation then sings the rest of each prayer in English, however, I fell silent at the line “Thank you for making me a Jew.” This week, I sang it out with everyone else, with tears stinging my eyes. It was a much-needed reminder: I may still be a ways off from my entry into the mikveh and full membership in the Tribe, but my soul is a Jewish soul. And like I said on Friday afternoon, I do not have to be perfect to be a Jew. I just have to keep trying to do a little bit better each time.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, she’asani Yisra-eil.

 

 

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A Complaining Fast

When you have depression (as I do) it’s very easy to fall into complaining. Not because you’re a whiner, but because the world really does look that bleak and it really does feel that bad. It’s hard to find positives when you are depressed, sometimes. 

I’ve had a rough couple of days with this year’s academic hiring cycle starting up, and realizing that my best choices for a tenure-track job application are not in the city I live in, or even anywhere near it. This troubles me because I do not like change and I’m afraid to leave the familiar area I live in. I also don’t travel well – I dislike vacations that involve Going Somewhere New, and don’t understand why people want to do that when they could stay in their home and relax. 

The academic job process for a professor hire usually involves a one- to three-day-long on-campus interview where you are on display all the time. From the moment your plane lands in the airport and you are picked up by one of the hiring committee or a graduate student, you are on stage. The only time you’re not is when you’re in the hotel room that the hiring school is paying for you to stay in. It’s a grueling process even for people who are not autistic. When you’re autistic and you have phobias about new places, though… well, let’s just say I’ve done this four times now and had no offers in two years, which is really, really depressing for me. 

This year I’m going to focus mainly on places I’ve been (to cut down on the terror of “this is a completely unfamiliar place”) and that are within two to three hours’ flight of where I live now, for several reasons: my kids, my best friend, and my brother and his wife and kids all live here. If there’s an emergency for any of them I want to be no more than three hours’ flight away from them. But that still means that (assuming I get an offer) I will have to face moving away from everything familiar, and that is not easy for me to face. 

Then there’s the interview itself. Again due to the autism, I freeze when I’m around strangers. I am going to work very, very hard on pretending that they are not strangers so that I can do what I need to do. But I do not expect that to work, because at my core I’m a pessimist and, well, I’m angry that I have to go through this just to get a job that will support me and my family. 

So there’s a lot of stressors, as you can see. Disclosing the autism is not an option. Neither is disclosing the depression. So I have to pretend to these potential future colleagues that I’m just fine, peachy keen. Which brings up its own set of issues, but anyway. 

When you’re under this kind of stress it’s easy to complain. It’s incredibly easy to get depressed. I am facing this right now. I want to complain, and I want to complain a lot. I can even justify it as part of my Yiddishkeit – as several Jewish friends have said to me, kvetching is a time-honored tradition in Judaism. But I don’t think I can afford to complain. It’s too easy to slide from kvetching into outright depression. So for the next 24 hours, I am putting myself on a complaining fast. I am going to catch myself and stop myself every time I want to complain – or at least try to (setting up an absolute is a guaranteed way to make yourself fail). And when I want to complain, I am going to instead find something positive and say that instead. 

There’s also the points that Telushkin makes in the Book of Jewish Values, about how asking cheerfully is not a choice, and that we should occasionally go on a “complaining fast” and remind ourselves of what we’re thankful for. Kvetching may be culturally Jewish, but being thankful is spiritually Jewish. And I need to remember to be thankful, even when things look dark or frightening or both. 

We’ll see how it goes, eh?

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On Robin Williams and Depression

This post might look like it has nothing to do with Judaism, but bear with me. It does.

Ever since I found out about Robin Williams’ death yesterday I’ve been sort of in a state of shock. The man who created Mork, Garp, Airman Cronauer, the Genie, John Keating, Armand Goldman, Peter Banning/Pan, and Vladimir Ivanoff dead? Impossible.

But even worse: his death was by suicide? Incredible. Unbelievable. This brilliant, vibrant, funny, successful man killed himself? How can that be?

And yet. And yet.

Finding out that he suffered from depression makes all of that completely believable – both his successes and his death.

You see, I have depression. I have always had it. I always will have it. It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t disappear. And I have heard that inner voice saying in a very calm, rational, completely believable way: “Nobody would miss you if you died. They’d celebrate if you were gone because you’re a waste of space, energy, and air. You’re worthless. You’re pointless. Anyone could have done the things you did. You’re not that special. You deserve to feel this way because you are scum. Your partner could do better, and probably is doing better. Your kids are ashamed to be seen with you. Your family thinks you’re an embarrassment. So why don’t you just give them all a break? The knife is right there on the kitchen counter. The pills are in the medicine cabinet.”

Life with depression is a constant fight against that voice, because that voice never shuts up. I’ve had three suicide attempts in my life. The first one was when I was fifteen. The second one, I was sixteen. The third one was in my thirties and very few people knew about that one until just now. Thankfully none of them were successful, but at the time I was just disappointed (and ashamed) that I couldn’t even kill myself correctly.

It. Never. Stops.

If you have depression you find ways around it. You find ways to shore yourself up against it. Comedy is a big one. Music is another. Publishing a book. Writing a screenplay. Getting a doctorate. All of these are bulwarks against depression and the lies that it tells. But even those ways don’t always work. Sometimes the levees break. Sometimes the foundation crumbles.

To this day I still have far too many times when I don’t think I’m a very good or important person. Despite all my accomplishments, I still have depression living in my skin. It tells me that my doctorate is no big deal, that the students I’ve reached would have succeeded anyway, that my family and friends see me as a bother rather than a blessing. Sometimes I believe it. Sometimes I fight it. Not always.

If you have never known true, clinical depression, be thankful. It is worse than being sad. It is worse than being “blue” or down in the dumps. It is worse than feeling grief when a loved one dies. Depression is the sense of total worthlessness, of feeling that you deserve every bad thing that happens to you and that you don’t deserve any good that is part of your life. Depression is an endless black hole of suck, like a tar pit. On a good day you might be able to claw your way up to only waist-deep in it. On a good day you might be able to draw a few breaths thinking that you will be able to keep breathing without a struggle tomorrow.

But it never goes away. Medication can help manage it for some people. Therapy can help manage it. Learning strategies to cope like cognitive behavioral therapy can help manage it. But it never. goes. away.

Robin Williams’ death and the circumstances surrounding it serve as a stark reminder that we must address this problem as a national public health issue, just as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death reminds us that we must address addiction as a national public health issue. But in the meantime, until our policymakers get off their collective asses and start doing something about depression, here’s what I have for you. And here is where Judaism informs my approach. When I am in pain nowadays, when that low, rational voice is telling me that I’d be better off dead, I turn to G-d as well as to my friends. I cry out for help instead of holding it in. I pray. And when I see someone else in this kind of pain, it is a mitzvah to reach out to them and help.

If you have a friend in pain, reach out to them. Reach out to them. Reach out to them. Send them a note, an e-mail, give them a hug or a phone call. Take them to a movie or out to lunch. Don’t let them struggle alone in the endless black hole of suck that is depression. And don’t be fooled by their shiny happy exterior – it’s a front. Let them know you’re here. Let them know you care. Let them know they matter. And say it again, and again, and again, because depression can be louder than you are.

If you are in this kind of pain, if you think that ending it would be better than going on, if you can’t see the point any more, please, please get some help. Please reach out. Please call a suicide helpline –http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ even has an online chat program if you can’t handle a phone call. But don’t wait. Don’t give up.

Because my life is better because you’re in it.

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