Already Whole: Day Two

My mother has blue eyes. So do both of my kids. Mine are green, with tiny brown flecks in them.

My mother’s hair was pin straight when she was a young woman. I think later she got a perm. Later, it seemed to get curlier on its own, but nowhere near as curly as mine.

People came up to me on the street my whole life, asking if my hair was naturally curly, telling me how much they spent to get hair “like yours.” My kids have straight hair, but Aviva has recently started showing signs of curls. To my surprise, she’s happy about this.

I married a woman with curls, and people have often asked us if we’re sisters. I have two sisters; they have straight hair. Genes don’t make sense so much of the time.

My Grandma Lee, or Nona, was the curly-haired one. It’s said I also got her eyes, the way they squinch all the way up when I smile. When I was little, kids used to ask me if I could even see when I smiled. Nona chain-smoked & fed everyone, which frankly doesn’t sound so bad to me. She was also known as a psychic and a seamstress.

Today Pearl and I went to a funeral. Someone told her she looks just like me. She doesn’t agree. She does look a lot like her dad. In fact, when she was born, my ex-mother-in-law pulled out a baby photo of him, and we couldn’t tell them apart. Meanwhile, Aviva has started looking more and more like my mini-me, and to my surprise, she doesn’t seem to mind the resemblance.

I didn’t know I was Jewish growing up. It wasn’t a secret but it also wasn’t common household knowledge, at least not to me. I loved Christmas morning & later spent years as a young adult trying to figure out where I belonged. I cried in synagogue after synagogue, feeling at once alienated and home. I dreamed of the ground itself in Israel & decided to become a rabbi, them instead kept being a poet and found other ways to whisper to God. I wanted to be a translator. I wanted to learn all the languages, disappear into the world completely. Instead I got married, had babies, and wrote my way to what I’d always known was true.

Women are my home. Challah and dancing and justice and poetry are my home. Babies, all the babies, and the kind of fierce listening I do when I’m alone.

What stories are you ready to shed or share?

Written as a member of the support team for Already Whole, a 3-day storytelling campaign created and hosted by Andréa Ranae Johnson and Cameron Airen to launch Whole Self Liberation

Take Off Your Shoes: Rachel Naomi Remen and Passover Blessings

Originally published on April 8, 2009.
** 

Jordan Whitt

Unknowable questions are on sale today at Price Chopper, right there next to the kosher-for-passover marshmellows. There is a confluence of ingredients here, cleaning out the pantry, feeling the gentle pressure on the top of my head of a living god dancing. Where once mastery was the goal, now it is mystery that overflows from the shelves.

What exactly am I talking about, you ask? I’m not sure yet, but I’m hoping to find out.

**

We went to hear Rachel Naomi Remen speak two nights ago. One of her books, My Grandfather’s Blessings, sits in duplicate on the bookshelf next to my desk here; two close friends have given it to me unbeknownst to each other over the past few years. When I began writing here about some of the longing and angst, the searching and seeking and finding home having to do with my Jewish journey, it is the book I read in three hours flat. And here it is, signed now by Rachel herself. “I’m a writer,” I stammered, second in line after the applause ended and the lights went up. “May your words shine!” she wrote.

She is an incredible storyteller. She also became a physician at a time when there was no place, no right, scarcely even the thought, to acknowledge the sacred and mysterious aspects of illness, of healing, of death. She spoke of creating space for this, quoting from Jewish sources here and there: Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground. No, not holy ground over there, not in the holy land, not in the temple or the church, the labyrinth or the sanctuary, but here, right here on your bathroom mat, in your oldest robe. Right here, in the kitchen where you spend so many of your waking hours, feeding and taking care. Right here, holy, as you weigh yourself or rush to work, late again, trying not to yell at your kids. Right here, it is holy ground. Take off your shoes.

“We have traded mystery for mastery,” she said. “All of our beliefs are provisional, and life may be quite different than what we presumed it to be.” Surely it’s no coincidence that these words are so similar to the ones I quoted from Joseph Campbell recently: “We must be willing to get rid of the life we planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” She described meeting Campbell at Esalen in the early 70s; she was part of a group of medical doctors at the frontier of exploring mind-body connections, at a time when “holistic medicine” didn’t exist yet in the West. (There she and her colleagues were on their first evening there, sitting down to dinner in their suits and twinsets (she was the only woman), only to realize that half of their dinner companions were stark naked!) Anyway, Campbell went on to show a slideshow of sacred images and icons, including a life-sized projection of Shiva, who is dancing on the head of a little man. The little man is so caught up in examining a leaf, so intent on the physical world, so myopic really, that he doesn’t realize that the living god is dancing on his back. The doctors were humbled.

And we, the listeners Monday night, all saw ourselves I think, saw all the ways in which we miss it, miss the mystery and the magic that is happening all around us, right this very minute, right at our feet and on our heads. How our bottomless searching, striving, aspiring, consuming, improving and proving is all provisional. How we carry around such small beliefs about ourselves and about the world that limit what we see, how we see.

**

I want to see, to stand here, to sit, with enough stillness that the constant swirl of information and input can whirl around me without me spinning like a top. I want to open my eyes, like I did this morning after a ridiculous and particularly failed episode of parenting, when I sat down on the floor cross-legged, across from Aviva, took a couple of breaths, then spoke to her in such a hushed voice she was startled into listening. This led to a hug, and I decided to learn something from the botched morning rather than beating myself (or her) up about it.

Mystery demands nothing but our very presence, nothing but that we show up, recognizing where ego has become a fortress, acknowledging the answers we’re so attached to, the unknown simultaneously a source of fear and relief. It is mastery that enslaves us, for there is no there there – you just keep striving, trying harder, working towards, setting more goals, never really stopping to take off your shoes and stand on the holy ground of being exactly as you are, where you are, with whatever questions or answers might be flying about.

**

Passover begins tonight. Oy, how the Jewish holidays are still so fraught for me, such a mish-mash of connection and rejection. And I’m done. I’m just done. Not done finding my way, but done with the struggle. I went back yesterday and re-read an article I linked to this time last year. I appreciated its call to discover our own meaning in the holiday and its symbols, and have decided to give myself permission to experience the holiday in my own way, without the worrying about _____ and ______ and _____ (what goes in these blanks doesn’t matter one bit).

What am I enslaved to? Mastery, maybe, or at least the pursuit thereof. What can I give up, let go of, clear out of my mind/heart/house/life? The need to know. The unwinnable attempts to control, consciously or not, everything and everyone. The habit of being SO overwhelmed, SO busy, SO many moving parts. The attachment to drama, to story.

What will be my nourishment in this time, my simple source of sustenance, my matzo? Stillness comes. Not trying to change my thoughts, but simply letting them happen without having to be so invested in them, what they mean, where they’re from, where they lead. Just let them be, the voice says. The voice of the Universe, that ultimate source of mystery and comfort. Let them be and be still. And then you will be free.

I want to wrap this up neatly, something about the dance, about Shiva and Miriam and the women, the Red Sea parting, about making our way to freedom individually and collectively. But that’s not what this is, a sermon or a package. It is a practice, a waking up, and opening of eyes, an offering. The answers change from year to year, but the questions remain, and our task is to ask them. The questions are gateways.

**

May this season liberate you from whatever personal Egypt (Mitzrayim in Hebrew means “the narrow place”) enslaves you. May this season bring us all to freedom, to greater seeing. Now let’s take off our shoes and dance together on this holy ground.

The Man Who Spoke Too Soon

Just when I think I’ve learned the art of the pause, of waiting before speaking, of being all tuned in and blissed out. Just when I’m taking a walk in the rain and the rain’s picking up and I’m singing out loud — I have found a way to live / in the presence of the lord — and finding my stride. Just when I am taking some credit for my own hard work, knowing that it’s not dumb luck that has landed me in love and livelihood. Just when I’m giving thanks for smooth sailing and an iota of awareness. Just when I’ve moved from stagnant to sweat, from heavy load to lightning pace, from struggle to ease, from doubt to devotion.

Just then, the phone rings. The familiar voice on the other end asks me a question. I answer “yes” without thinking, though my body tells a different story, a hard-won story, a story of loving boundaries and fought-for clarity. I have betrayed my own knowing again.

I return to the song, the chanting, my voice merging with the rain, which is coming down hard now, hard enough that I cut through the woods from street to field, bare prickly branches grabbing at my wet pants as I make my way where there is no trail to open ground. Mind is on the loose, a poorly trained dog who won’t come when I call it home. I call my beloved, who is finding her own ways of living in the presence of that which has so many names and only one name, always the one. She says it is not dumb luck.

I tell her I forgot to pause. Old injuries — fears, stories — came rushing back, like rivers you can tame but take years to dam up all the way, and with them my mouth opened and words came out I didn’t mean. You can’t put them back.

I remember the Yiddish tale I once told to a group of students who had been careless and hurtful with words. A rabbi tells a boy to cut open all of the pillows in the village. This sounds like a fun assignment, one the boy readily agrees to and carries out with gusto. Before long, thousands of feathers float all over the little town. He goes back to the rabbi, greedy for praise.

But there is a second part to his mission: Now he must go and collect all the feathers and return them to their containers. The boy’s face falls and his heart sinks and his soul grows limp. “But rabbi,” he cries. “It is impossible.” He has learned his lesson. Until the next time, when he forgets its toll and once again speaks out of turn, too impulsive, not thinking. The pause has gone missing like a sacred bird to some hiding hole.

The rabbi is not easily exasperated. But after many times, he turns to the boy who is now a grown man, a father, a provider, respected in name and deed by his fellow villagers, and asks: “Why are you still throwing feathers all over town?”

The man sits down. He sits and sits and thinks perhaps he will never speak again, though he knows this is nonsense. Finally, he turns his face upwards to his teacher with tears in his eyes. He knows this old man will love him till his beard grows to his toes, far beyond the grave.

“I keep thinking I’ve found a way to live — to live in the presence of the lord. To live without clinging to dead truths or flinging feathers to the four winds. I keep thinking I’ve found a way to live that waters peace in my heart the way the rain waters our crops and sustains life. I keep thinking…” Now the man is crying. He has no more words.

The rabbi takes the man’s face in his hands and looks him in the eyes. In this moment, a bird lands on the sill beside them. It is not a special-looking bird, but an ordinary one, the kind that collect by the dozens in the treetops at dusk.

“The smallest birds make the biggest racket,” says the rabbi. He then kisses the man’s forehead, holds out a finger, and stays very still until the bird hops from the open window to his hand. Then he leaves the man to sit alone. “You cannot fix this,” he says, turning back once before closing the door. “But you can sit still.”

The man nods, and begins to sing once again, his voice a bit fuller, a bit deeper. And if you listen very closely, you will hear the honesty in his heart, slipping out like so many feathers.

Shabbat Shalom.

The Perils of Nowherelandia

Geetanjal Khanna

I dreamed about a misused apostrophe.

It occurs to me that this is my subconscious way of finding things within my control, when the fact is that most things are not. I can control what I put in my body. I can control what and I how communicate. I can control what thoughts to focus on and which to filter out (easier said than done, but still). I can control getting up out of my green kitchen chair and out into the day.

I can have the illusion of controlling my schedule, kids’ appointments, and future plans. Take that, Oxford comma! I sneaked three things into one neat and tidy sentence there. Illusion, indeed.

I can control whether I am paying attention to the thing I’m doing, whether that is commenting on someone’s writing, listening to my wife when she is talking to me, washing the dishes, taking a walk, reading an article — you name it.

Truth is, much of the time, my attention is spliced and split and splattered. It’s like I’m playing mental Twister much of the time, rather than standing where I am.

The perils of nowherelandia.

On Sunday afternoon, Mani and I went out to get some groceries, but we made a little date of it. Sometimes it’s just nice to get out of the house together, no matter what the reason, and after the recent cold snap, we haven’t been outside as often. On our way to the Starbucks drive-through, she put on the newest music from her iPod — a song by Laura Marling.

We listened quietly for a few minutes, and then I asked her, “Do you think I’m a gentle person?”

I can’t say exactly where this question arose from. But that’s the nature of driving and listening to music — it can induce the kind of beta state where the soul has a chance to come out of one’s mouth in the form of words and questions.

This opened to a deep conversation as we wandered the aisles of Famous Footwear, Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and Whole Foods. A conversation about what makes each of us feel nurtured by the other, and how feeling loved and feeling nurtured are not always identical.

I think people who know me through my writing groups and social media presence feel that I am a deeply nurturing person. And one thing this outing with Mani got me reflecting on is that our interactions with others — be they in person or virtual — are only as genuine as the way we meet and care for those closest to us.

If I am gentler or more generous with people I’ve never even met in real life than the ones under my own roof, who am I?

It is admittedly cringe-inducing for me to honestly acknowledge just how often I don’t put my phone down or lower my laptop screen when my wife or kids are talking to me, or when I’m talking on the phone. Or how often my body is doing one thing but my mind is a million miles away in nowherelandia. I’m increasingly convinced that whatever anxiety or depression I experience has its roots in this place that is no place at all.

Operators are standing by.

Instead or cringing and being hard on myself, I’m trying something different. I’m calling my very own personal AAA 800-number: Kavanah, a Hebrew word meaning “intention” or “sincere feeling, direction of the heart.” It has everything to do with devotion and what gets our full attention.

Benefits of kavanah include acceptance, awareness, and action.  In fact, we all have instant access to this wonderful service: All you have to do is dial in and (your inner) operators are standing by. You were born with a lifetime membership guarantee, and best of all? It’s free (and no, you don’t have to be Jewish to call.)

Acceptance of myself as human. As flawed. As so very susceptible to distraction in its many guises. Acceptance of the inevitability of losing my way. Acceptance that I will stray off the path, stumble in the dark, and let some people down. Acceptance that I have blind spots, and by their very nature, I don’t know what these are.

Awareness of how it makes me and others feel when I’m not fully present. Awareness that my most sacred priorities and deepest values are only as good as my actions. Awareness is like the moment when you see the blind spot, stripping it of its power. The flood of visual or emotional information that may come with this moment can be temporarily overwhelming. Awareness that the overwhelm is temporary.

Action based on these discoveries. Action as a kind of return to self and other. Action is “put your money where your mouth is” and “actions speak louder than words.” Action is making my love a cup of tea, without her asking. It’s following through on the thing I said was so important. It’s listening, all the way. It’s one tab at a time. It’s one dish at a time. It’s one word at a time. It’s awake and evident.

Consider these words from the 12th century Spanish rabbi and philosopher, Maimonides. See what happens when you replace the word “prayer” with awareness, acceptance, and/or action.

“Prayer without kavanah is no prayer at all. He who has prayed without kavanah ought to pray once more. He whose thoughts are wandering or occupied with other things need not pray until he has recovered his mental composure.”

These three As coexist. They tumble through the space-time continuum that is individual consciousness. Sometimes one gets eclipsed by the rush of the day or lost, like a missing sock. But as I sit here writing this morning, what strikes me as miraculous is that we can always come back. Like the writing itself, each of these is a practice and requires commitment and repetition.

Practice, not perfection.

Acceptance is a practice. Awareness is a practice. Action is a practice. (I suppose it would follow that prayer is practice, too, if you like.)

This is the part where perfection tries to hijack the whole damn post. Here it is:

I’m so far from perfect. My life is far from perfect. I have no idea what “perfect” means. The mourning dove on the branch outside my kitchen window is perfect. This moment, for all I know, is perfect. I’m tempted to delete this whole paragraph, since I’m not sure how the stranglehold of perfection factors into this particular conversation. But for the sake of seeing what happens, I’m going to leave it here.

OK, here it is: Perfection ties right back in with that part about cringing. If I get stuck in shame — in other words, fuck, I suck for looking at my phone while Mani is talking to me or while one of my kids is asking me a question — then I’m really not even close to the AAAs. Hanging out in a place of guilt and shame is just another way of being self-absorbed and missing in action. This notion of getting it right as a fixed target has got to die.

It doesn’t feel good to live on autopilot. At some point, life throws cold water in your face and says: WHERE ARE YOU? WAKE UP!

I think it’s possible to experience this reawakening ten thousand times a day. For me, a key question is whether I can bring some gentleness to it. Going through the motions leaves me feeling like a shell of a person, with that vaguely empty feeling in bed at night: Where was I all day? Who was I all day?

Come Back.

As surely as the light of day comes with morning, we all have the face we put on for the world. More than anything, I want to be genuine. The thought of having a “persona” makes me want to go live in a cave. Being honest with myself — without the cringing — is the doorway I must come back to throughout the day.

I can’t control where things go, but I can be intentional about the direction my heart is facing and the orientation of my mind. That’s the bottom line. Come back, come back, come back. Be all the way here, wherever “here” happens to be at any given moment.

Accepting the complexity of this being alive thing, awareness that there are few things I control but taking responsibility for the ones I can, and acting accordingly — this is my kavanah.

What’s yours?

We Have to Learn the Whole Script, Not Just Our Own Lines

Photo: Allef Vinicius

Saturday, 4:30pm

The indoor soccer stadium is teeming with movement and noise. Boys’ and girls’ teams of various ages on multiple fields — from fifth grade on up through high school. On my right, two girls climb on the underside of the stands, their dreads flying beneath them as they dangle from the crooked slats. My youngest, Pearl, has a game at 5:00. It’s the first time I’ve ever brought my computer here to write while her team — the Amherst Hurricanes — practices.

Today, she yielded to my suggestion of wearing long underwear beneath her soccer shorts; after all, the wind chill is well below zero. But the moment we got here, she bee-lined to go change. Since Pearl presents as male and prefers to use the men’s bathroom, I stood sentry near the door, far enough away not to crowd her but close enough to sate my inner mama bear.

I love watching these kids play; they’ve got the teamwork thing down — their pats on the back and fist bumps after near misses, successful blocks, and, of course, goals all make me melt a little.

She’d probably die that I wrote that, and full disclosure, hormones make me even mushier than usual, which is already on the high side. But I really am a sucker for the friendship thing.

This weekend, Aviva took the train with her cousin — they are three months apart and we’ve called them the Bobsy Twins for the entirety of their 14+ years on the planet together — to NYC to visit a posse of summer camp friends. They planned meticulously; in addition to saving money for the trip, part of the “yes” on behalf of all of the parental units was that they take charge of the logistics (rules for unaccompanied minors and a detailed plan for the weekend itself, from phone numbers to sleeping arrangements).

Needless to say, I got a little teary at the photo of them standing on the Amtrak platform, on their way not only to the City but clearly to the Rest of Their Lives, too.

Pearl and I attempted to brave the cold this morning with a new frisbee, but the wind forced us to toss it back and forth under some bleachers at the Amherst College lacrosse fields — not ideal. We threw in the towel after 10 minutes or so, opting instead of hot chocolate at home. The fact that she wants to spend time with me feels like this thing that could go *poof* at any minute. And since there’s no way for me to know when that will be, I’m inclined to say sure, let’s play frisbee even though it’s colder than a witch’s tit out there (OMG don’t you love that expression?).

I did glance ever so briefly at Facebook this morning. I saw headlines and stories that made my blood run cold: A rally in Maricopa County — Phoenix — where pro-Trump folks called for “liberal genocide” and the deportation of Jews. A move that can only be called a purge of the Justice Department. An interview with Nigerian feminist author and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in which she states that experiences of trans women shouldn’t be conflated with those of [cis] “women.”

Then I closed the computer and said to Mani, “Who do we think is going to save us from this?”

This is why I take one day a week “off” — mostly, somewhat — from interacting online. This is why we do Shabbat.

Shabbat saves me.

Sunday, 7:30am

The birdsong conceals these temperatures; you’d think it was a balmy 60-degree morning by their exuberant greetings. Daylight Savings Time means moving slowly this morning. With Aviva still in New York and Pearl having had a sleepover, the house is otherwise quiet.

This weekend was Purim. It falls among the nine-word Jewish holidays and festivals: They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.

In this case, it was Haman, leader of Persia, who plotted to destroy the Jewish People. The hero in this story is in fact a heroine, Esther. And interestingly, Purim takes place during the month of Adar, a fortuitous month when joy is said to increase, ushering in a season of miracles that culminate with Passover, the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.

One Purim tradition is to dress up and wear masks, making all kinds of loud boo-ing noises every time Haman’s name is mentioned in the story (we read Esther’s scroll, aka “the whole megillah”). One thing I love about Hebrew is that words all have roots that reveal more layers of meaning: in this case, Adar has its origins in Adir, suggesting strength and power.

Just take a quick minute to let that sink in: Joy has its roots in strength and power.

OK. So we wear masks on Purim, and recall the story of this greedy king, Ahashverosh, who has one primary policy: Himself (read more). I tend to agree with this interpretation by Jay Michaelson, presciently written a year ago, before nominee Trump was so-called elected to be President Trump. Bannon is the real Haman here.

Will the women save us? Will we throw off our masks or don them in mockery of demagoguery and evil?

There is, of course, more to the story. But in the night, it was the masks I kept returning to the tradition of dressing up on Purim, trying on different aspects of ourselves even as we condemn evil and celebrate victory.

“It is our practice to cross-dress on Purim – find the other in yourself. Dress up and try on Esther’s role, be Haman the villain, the king and the assassin. The Scroll of Esther invites you onto the stage of history. For what cause would you risk giving up your privilege, position, and lifestyle? For what would you risk your life? For what principles or causes ought a person to risk life? Is the King of unawareness and apathy, Ahashverosh there inside too? Better to discover these qualities in play than to act them out and destroy what it means to be a Jew.” ~ Rabbi Goldie Milgram :: read more

I think often of blind spots: What don’t I know I don’t know? How do I remember what I’ve forgotten and further pull back the opaque curtains of my own ignorance? How do I save my people and where am I unknowingly contributing to my cousins’ peril?

We have to put ourselves in the shoes of all the players. We have to learn the whole script — not just our own lines — in order to fully grok the show. And a show it is — a comic-tragedy of epic, real-life proportions.

Against this backdrop, right on this stage, my kids are coming of age. They are learning how to play fair in a landscape that’s anything but. They come with many advantages — not the least of which are fair skin and good looks. This alone is so many kinds of wrong my head wants to explode, but rather than wringing my hands, I must keep helping them see what everyday experiences they undertake that would not be imaginable for an undocumented kid, for example.

Also in Jewish tradition, I seek out more questions rather than claiming to have answers:

What does my white privilege have to do with agreeing to allow my teenager to travel unaccompanied by train? What does class privilege have to do with allowing my biologically female child to use the men’s room in a public arena? What does being Jewish have to do with our role in this unraveling world, where in our tradition, we are commanded to ditch all of the commandments if it means saving one life — Jewish or not?

Time for another splash of coffee. Time to kiss my wife good morning (again). Time to shower, get dressed, and look in the mirror, directly into my own eyes, to make sure I’m all the way here. No masks. No deceit. May I move into the day awake. No one is coming to save us.

“That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — [and now] go study.” ~ Rabbi Hillel :: read more