Celebrating Words

I believe that I am now on #35 of my Celebrating 45 list. Peppered throughout the list you will see my love of reading/writing/and language of all sorts.

Today, I want to celebrate the importance of words in my life. It has taken me a long time to admit this. I still blush or stumble when I try to claim it in person, but here goes . . .

I am a writer!!!

My love of words goes beyond written language. I love hearing and seeing language used with power and flexibility. I am addicted to Podcasts and TED talks, where master’s of the arts of writing and speaking fascinate their audiences with perfect phrasing, eloquent language, and an ability to manipulate language for sound and meaning A memorable phrase that lives beyond the moment of reading or hearing it, gives me chills. I thrill in those rare and wonderful moments when my own words–through some source outside myself–come together to create that indescribable perfection of consonants, vowels, and phrasing.

I just finished reading Don’t Let Me Go  by Catherine Ryan Hyde (excellent book with wonderful characters and plot that makes you want to know more).  Two sentences of hers made me yell (in my mind) “That’s it!!!”:

“Hard work can sometimes substitute for natural ability, but natural ability almost never makes up for not being willing to do the work.” (pg. 149)

“Sorry doesn’t mean shit. Not if you don’t plan to stop doing the thing you’re so sorry about. There has to be more to amends than just a word.” (pg. 406)

However, this post isn’t about celebrating other people’s words, as fabulous as they may be.

This is about celebrating words in my own life.

In 1978, when I was 10 years old,  I sat mesmerized and terrified by the television mini-series The Holocaust. 

This was in the midst of my own Hebrew School years, and the crucial years leading up to my Bat Mitzvah. Although I have since lost some of the religious beliefs, being a Jew was (and to some extent still is) an important aspect of my life at that time.

At a Hebrew School meeting after the series aired, the Rabbi met with all the classes to discuss what we had seen. I raised my hand and said, “It made me scared to be a Jew, but prouder than ever to be a Jew.”

On Saturday morning (I’m told–I would have been at the children’s service if I was there) the Rabbi used my words as part of his reflection during the service. This was the moment that I became aware that the right choice of words–even when you don’t know that they are the right words–can be magical, powerful and reach beyond the pages or the circumstances where they’ve been created.

My journey through writing started in school, with my first poems written in 1st grade along with a puppet play. My first book was a collection of poems and short stories that I hand-lettered and illustrated as a project in sixth grade, for another fabulous teacher who influenced my life named Mrs. Jorgensen. My first published work was a poem written bout a piece of art in a museum, that then got placed into some kind of literary magazine someone put out.

I have numerous starts and starts of stories, novels, poems etc. scattered throughout journals and gathered in three-ring binders. Throughout my life I’ve found solace and friendship in words, probably more than anyone even knew. Because of this it makes sense to me that when life began to fall apart around me (for reasons I won’t go into here) I turned to words–writing my first real book, joining a book club, and creating  a small writing group. The two women from that writing group convinced me to take the step into a then unknown world, the one of blogging. Over 756 posts (spread across several blogs) and thousands if not millions of words later, my life is filled with words. Some of them sing with the beauty I yearn for, but most of them are mundane and some are even cliché. However, words fill my life and sustain me, so a celebration of my life would not be complete without celebrating the words that fill it.

What are some of your favorite words? What quotes live on in your memory?

 

Finding Queen Esther in Myself

Today is the 14th of Adar according to the Jewish calendar. Or, more famously, it is the Holiday of Purim, I was born on Purim. So, in terms of the Hebrew calendar today is my birthday. (It is March 14th according to the secular calendar).

Roly Poly Lisa

My Grandparents wanted me to be named Esther. Back then, that was the name for old women, although it has had a resurgence of late. So I appreciated my parents decision to name me Lisa instead. My Hebrew name is Leah Hannah.

Baby Lisa and Big Sister Deb

I was originally planning a different post today, about wandering alone through the snowy grounds of a botanical garden and discovering the difference between being alone and being lonely. However, a discussion on Facebook about Hamentaschen (sparked by my craving for that special treat) made me think about the Story of Esther, the story of Vashti, the story of women. It made me think about all the craziness going on in our country and the need for women’s voices. So now I am writing this post.

Vashti was a queen, married to King Ahasuerus until he made an unacceptable drunken demand. He wanted to show off the beauty of his wife, and insisted that she appear in front of his banquet of guests. That might not have been an issue except that he wanted her to appear wearing a crown and NOTHING ELSE.

As any proud, feminist (before the term was coined) woman would and should do, she refused. In defense of his male ego, Ahasuerus (encouraged by other men) decided to replace her by holding a beauty contest.

Yes, the next queen would not be selected for brains or anything else but her beauty. And, let me point out, the contest was judged in this way:

English Standard Version(©2001)
In the evening she would go in, and in the morning she would return to the second harem in custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch, who was in charge of the concubines. She would not go in to the king again, unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name.” (Esther 2:14)

In case you are missing that, she had to spend the night with the king and then would be sent to the harem for concubines. So, she was not acceptable to marry until he had sex with her. Who is to blame if women are called whores?

Many criticize Esther, saying she should not have agreed to take the place of Vashti. But what is a young Jewess to do in a world where men hold all the power, including enough power to discard a wife for her refusal to appear naked in front of a group of strangers? In other words, in a world where MEN controlled the decisions a woman could make about HER BODY.

Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther, by Rembrandt

Image via Wikipedia

Esther became Queen, and then Haman entered the picture. Haman was a noble and vizier to Ahasuerus, who set out to have all the Jews destroyed when Esther’s uncle Mordecai refused to bow down to him. Esther had listened to the instructions of her uncle, and never told anyone she was a Jew. She set out to save her people (although some say she was pressured into it under fear of her own death) by reminding the king that Mordecai had saved him in the past by revealing a plot to kill the king. She also pointed out that if the Jews must die, then she must die. In the end, Haman was killed and Jews gained more power in the kingdom.

Perhaps Esther only became strong to save herself, but I don’t criticize her for that because sometimes it takes the realization of danger to gain the strength to fight. I am sensing the danger to myself and my daughter all around. I now want to fight.

This morning Sarah and I snuggled up for a chat in my bed. Yesterday I read “Am I Pretty? Really? You Sure?” over at Broadside, a post that in some ways directly relates to the story of Purim. All the women in that story were judged by their beauty, but they all had something much more important to offer. Vashti took a stand that basically destroyed her life, but she stood for what was right. Esther took a chance to save her people. Yet still today women are so often judged by appearance and sexuality, and we let it happen. So, while chatting with Sarah, I talked about where true beauty lies, and that it has very little to do with outer appearance. You’ve all seen pictures of Sarah. I know she is beautiful, but I would much rather her have the strength of conviction of Vashti or the courage of Esther then outer beauty.

After this conversation she jumped up and said, “I want to read something with you.” She ran over and got a book she had been avoiding: American Girl’s The Care & Keeping of YOU: The Body Book for Girls. We read the first chapter and she said, “I’m more comfortable reading this with you.”

She is growing up.

I am fearful of the world she is growing into. A world where women’s voices seem to be fading instead of growing in power. A world where men still try to control women’s bodies. A world where we are still being judged by sex.

I don’t want her to have to live in that world. So, it’s time to take on the mantle of  the Queens. To stand up for what is right like Vashti. To protect my people, other women, like Esther. To fight for a world which values intelligence over beauty, and equality over power.

I don’t yet know what that means, but I know I have to try.

But first, I really wish I could eat some hamentaschen.

The Anatomy of Others

“They are like animals.”

“They smell bad.”

“They are all thieves. Be careful.”

“They just want to take from us, and they are lazy. They do not want to work.”

These are phrases from my past, but they are also phrases from my present. They bring back unlived memories of people being pushed into cattle cars, torn away from their homelands, herded into showers, and ultimately destroyed. They are the words of rape and destruction, of death and abuse, of war.

They were the words used to describe the Roma as we traveled through Slovakia.

I woke up this morning in a moment of writer’s epiphany. While I am no closer to clearly explaining what story I wish to write, what novel I will commit to living and breathing for as long as it takes to finish, I have recognized something important. Every story that I think of involves being different, being other, and learning to look beyond those differences to our common bonds.

I see no difference here. Do you?

I have grown up feeling like the Other. I have always been defined by the things that made me different: my intelligence (which separated me from my peers in school); my religion (as there were only a few other Jews in the classroom and I got to “skip” school on Jewish holidays); my height (always in the front of the line, always working harder to keep up); my financial status (I wasn’t wealthy enough for the other kids in Hebrew School, and when I went to college I actually had to work my way through); my race (live in Japan or Hawaii for even a short time, and suddenly you realize that you will always be gaijin or haole); even my pursuit of theatre and the arts as a career. I feel separate and different, not better or worse, but simply unable to be fully understood because I am OTHER.

I’m sure everyone can define their Other-ness, because in reality the one thing we have in common is that everybody is different. Everybody is Other.

Yet, this attitude of Us and Them or defining ourselves by our groups is the ultimate failure of humankind. Look at our world today. We fight wars of Otherness. In the United States, which was built on the premise of letting people live as they wished in all their glorious difference, certain factions of the government are trying to reestablish the Otherness of men and women and create a world where men have all the control and all the power.

After all, defining Others is really about Power.

Think about it. In Slovakia the hatred between the Roma and the Slovaks has existed for hundreds of years. They all eat. They all drink. They all dream. They all love, hate, dance, sing, smile, laugh, hurt cry.

Shylock:
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands,
organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same
food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases,
heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter
and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If
you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the
rest, we will resemble you in that.

The Merchant Of Venice Act 3, scene 1, 58–68

Polski: Kopia zaginionego obrazu Maurycego Got...

Image via Wikipedia

Replace the “Jew” with this speech with anyone from any group (Roma, Muslim, Black, Gay, etc. etc. etc.) and the words ring true throughout all time. That’s why Shakespeare was the master.

The Roma choose to live a life that is different, where their roots and values lie in a different family structure and an old tradition of wandering. While they really are not longer wanderers, their different perspective on life threatens the norm. Anything that threaten’s the perception of what  a majority sees as normal causes a defensive attitude, because after all in a world that sees things as black and white, there can only be one right. If we allow people to live differently, it threatens our power.

So the world becomes a constant battle between Us and Them.

What happens, though, if we recognize that we cannot survive without difference? What happens if we recognize that our differences make the world a fabulous, vibrant place? What happens if we recognize that grasping for power while destroying everything we don’t like will ultimately lead to our own destruction? Eventually, if someone controls difference completely, someone else will come along with a new idea of what is “normal” and what is good. The battle against the Other will never end.

So, whatever I write, I will be writing to celebrate difference and encouraging a life where being Other is how we live and is truly wonderful.

Vive la différence!

A little later. . .

 Beth over at It’s Just Life wrote a post called “Gratitude Dance’ today that included a YouTube video that really fits with my thoughts today. I can’t seem to get it onto this post, so please go visit Beth and watch the video.

Hell is Living in the Bible Belt

Roadside Religion

Image by jcbwalsh via Flickr

Has this ever happened to you? You are driving along at a decent clip on a long distance trip, reading the occasional billboard as a distraction from the monotony of sun glinting off of cars and white lines moving into the distance. Then larger than life you see in big block letters:

AVOID HELL! REPENT TODAY!

TRUST IN JESUS!

Signs like these appear out of nowhere offering redemption for those who accept Jesus into their hearts. But it is also signs like these that make me feel like I’m already living in hell.

I don’t know what I believe happens after death. Maybe I will go to hell, burning for eternity in a torturous world of flame and agony. (I’m sure many people reading this are nodding their head envisioning me engulfed in flame). Maybe I will float around with wings listening to angelic music. Maybe, given my fascination for the paranormal, I will return as a ghost to haunt the location of my death or the memorable places of my life. Maybe I will be reincarnated into a better being, with more knowledge and understanding than I have now. Maybe I’ll come back as a slug. Or maybe I will simply crumble to dust after having an epiphany on my death-bed (as I’ve written about before).

I really don’t care what happens. I am concerned with living the best life I can while I have this life; living in joy, day by day, and doing no harm.

But then I pass signs like this dotting the highway through Indiana and Missouri. These signs and symbols announce in gigantic glory that I am going to hell. But no, I realize, I am already there.

T o me hell would not be a place of torture and heat, but rather a place where I am not free to question and think, to challenge ideas and form my own beliefs and understanding of the world. My idea of heaven would be a place where the basic tenets of belief were: “I believe what I believe. You believe what you believe. As long as our beliefs don’t hurt each other, then all is good.”

But sadly, I am now living in a place where I feel the need to censor myself. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are warm and wonderful people here.  Yet, I am always conscious of being different somehow. I think differently. I was raised differently. I have different beliefs. That difference is subtly glaring, like I have horns growing out of my head that true believers can see.

I admit, when surrounded by people who embrace certain beliefs as passionately as people here do, I cling even harder to my difference. I’m not really a religious Jew, but when confronted by a wall of Christianity my Judaism shines like a menorah in the window. It is a defensive act. I know I cannot win against the unspoken judgments that surround me, so I hold tighter to my own understanding of the world.

I would call myself more spiritual than religious, incorporating into my own personal religion the ideas and attitudes that are welcoming and comforting. I cannot condone any element of religion (in any religion) that says one group is better than another, or one sex is superior, or only one lifestyle is correct. That is where religion fails.

I don’t know the true answers. I do believe

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet I.5)

In many ways I envy people who are true believers; who can live life with blind faith and trust that Jesus (or whatever god) will solve their problems and bring them safely home. If heaven is home.

But I can’t.

So, while I respect the right of each individual to believe whatever he or she wants and I recognize the importance of free speech, I would really appreciate it if I didn’t have to be reminded that I am doomed as I innocently drive down the highway. That makes for an uncomfortable ride.

Kindling the Lights of Hanukkah

A Brooklyn resident lighting candles on Hannuk...

Image via Wikipedia

My daughter quivers with excitement, unable to sit still or concentrate on homework. It is the first night of Hanukkah, and she cannot wait. I wonder though if to her this night is only about opening one of the presents that are piled on the table. She counts the number daily to see if there are more. Eight presents, eight nights, but she hopes for an extra one.

She watches the sun waiting for the minute she can light the candles. My orders are clear, “Mommy, you light the helper candle (the shammas) and I get to light the other one.”

“Of course,” I say, thinking back to my own childhood memories of Hanukkah.  I remember wondering if it was my turn to light the candles that night (since we alternated between the three of us). I loved the sound of the match striking, the smell of the sulfur sparking, the sizzle of the candles lighting. I loved deciding how to put the candles in, alternating colors some nights or using all one color the next.

I also remember debating the present issue. Should I open one present or all of them? Should I open the big one or the littlest one? (Often the best things came in the small packages as I soon learned). I know that presents became the focus often, but I don’t think it was just that for me.

To me the holiday was about light in darkness. It was my little bit of color in cold winters.  I had this tiny little ceremony that warmed up cold winter nights. The colors of the menorah were as bright to me as Christmas lights. It was what made being different, being Jewish, worth it.

I think that is why I still light them with my family. They represent something joyous to me. I’m not super religious. I’m not even sure what I believe. But I cannot let go of the tradition. I want so much to leave Sarah with fond memories of candles lighting the house on a cold winter’s night.

I worry that all she sees is the presents.

As I type this, Sarah runs into the room, a smile on her face. She doesn’t say anything, just glints at me with a twinkle in her eye. She runs into the other room and says “The sun is down!” as if I am not sitting in front of a window watching the colors of day fade.

I ask Sarah, “Why are you so excited to light the candles?

“Because it’s fun.”

“Do you know why we light the candles?”

She answers, “I know part of the story. The oil lasted eight nights. I think we have a book.”

“Would you like to read the book?”

“Yes, after I finish my homework.”

Maybe I am creating a tradition that goes beyond the presents.  It’s time to light the candles.

It’s the Loneliest Time of the Year

Bah humbug!

Okay, maybe I’m not that bad. I like Christmas. I like the holiday season. But, every year at this time I feel lonely deep inside.

Maybe it is the number of required festivities that bring me down. There’s nothing like an Office Holiday Party to make me feel like I am a stranger in the midst of people who have only one thing in common, the place they work.

Maybe it is the number of parties I don’t get invited to. Last year, we didn’t get invited many places because people felt bad about our leaving, this year, we won’t get invited many places because we are so new we only know a few people.

Maybe it is leftover from my childhood, when Christmas was something I saw only from the distance. Friends celebrated and I did not, being raised in a Jewish household. Of course, I always had the obligatory explanation of Hanukkah in school, which only served to make me seem even stranger to my peers.

Maybe it is the constant explanation of Hanukkah which is not really the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar, but has taken on the aura of Christmas. I love lighting the menorah, but at the same time it is a symbol of my difference. This year in particular our menorah will be one of a very few.

Maybe it is the hope of magic and mysteries that fill the airwaves, or the movies that always end with new love or Christmas miracles. Hope is high at this time of year, but after it is over we go back to the status quo, and that feels discouraging.

Maybe it is the fact that, since I work in education, I’m always facing my failures at this time. The students who should have done better. The grading that shows nothing has changed. True, I often have successes as well, but as any instructor knows, the pain of grading has the tendency to cut into the joy of the season. At least usually that grading can be supported by the decadence of chocolate, cookies, and egg nog lattes.

Or maybe it is that I look back at the year and see all the things I promised myself last year and did not achieve. Where did my weight loss go? Down and up on the scale as usual. Where is the sense of achievement? My portfolio keeps growing, my cv gets longer, but I’m still looking for something.

 

Maybe it is watching my daughter soak in the joy of the season and knowing that she will be a little disappointed when she doesn’t get exactly what she wants, or misses out on some festive fun. I love the smiles of children at this time; but the “I want” attitude really bothers me.

Whatever it is, at this time of year I find myself withdrawing just a little bit. I love the songs. I love the lights. I love the feeling of hope. But somehow, each year, it just feels a little bit lonelier.

Does anyone else feel that way, or am I alone?

In Search of Faith

 

Observing the shabbath closing havdalah ritual...

Image via Wikipedia

 

Questions without answers

burn in the flame

of the Havdalah candles.

Twisted wax of blue and white

drip to the end of the Sabbath

sung out with the strum of a guitar

but my questions remain.

What does it mean to be a Jew?

Racial history of a tribal people

etched into stone

and into the flesh of an arm.

Pain of rejection

and loneliness

as you fast,

light candles,

eat special food off of pink glass plates

learn a language nobody speaks

celebrate holidays nobody knows.

Christmas carols come from other homes

but our menorah plays

Ma ozur Y’shu a ti

eight candles flickering flames

of pride

announce to all

“Jews live here.”

Always a symbol of difference

the yellow star

the pointed hat

the tallis.

But that was years ago.

My search continues.

A search that started on a cool spring night

running with friends to find

Elijah.

He never came.

We never found him.

I chanted to the memory of grandparents lost

on the bima of adulthood.

I became a woman

through the words of my haftorah

but they took on more meaning the following year

asked to repeat my performance

with no ceremony attached.

I sang with pride.

Where did my pride go?

Rejected by my community when we could not pay;

rejected by a Rabbi who could not see the value

of a star and a cross printed on the same t-shirt,

not on top of each other

but reflecting the value of

differing beliefs.

The circle of equality in difference.

Was I still a Jew?

Judaism rediscovered in the middle of Japan

a Passover celebration with Israelis

bonded by a ceremony

a language

a song.

Rejoicing over non-kosher food

and a smoke that brought us closer to heaven

floating from spirituality

and community.

Am I still part of that community?

Being a Jew is

contradiction

confliction

reality

confusion.

It is kinship and isolation.

It is daunting and authentic

It is who I am.

I am a Jew

but I am also a Buddhist.

I am a Hindu.

I am a Wicca.

I am all religions and I am no religion.

I am belief and disbelief.

I search for answers

in a world of prayer and ceremony

in spirituality that feels

beyond my grasp.

I want to dance in glory

a circle of holiness and faith,

celebrate love and essence,

rejoice in community.

I want to honor both earth and spirit.

I am Apache

I am rebel.

I am black.

I am white.

I am outsider.

I am Jew

I am lost.

I am found.

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