Remembering Sandy Hook School

Remember the 60’s? I was recently watching a fundraising telethon on PBS of music from that era. When the music was new, I was an American, and just on the cusp of being old enough to grasp what our country was doing in Viet Nam. The nightly TV news report, the litany of how many dead, wounded or missing, was one of the seldom times my family sat tamed of our domestic agitations, and watched quietly together, in awe and touched respect. The sense that this report could turn a tumultuous family away from its turmoil and outward toward the greater tragedy before us, was a formative testimonial in my life.

The outrage and tears I felt, the Jewish ‘veygeshry’ of my mother, and clucking tongue of my father, my brother’s chin quivering just a little, told me that there is always work to be done that is bigger than any one of us. Our smallness was exposed.

I did go with my mother to political meetings, dressed in solidarity with the antiwar protestors I saw on TV. My best friends grew up in Topanga Canyon, not far from the infamous Mermaid Café, hippies abounded in my high school. In Hebrew School, we talked about Civil Rights and created charitable events to raise money for HeadStart and other new programs for inner city youth and families. I was a Girl Scout, and we made Christmas hampers for inner city families.

There was a social consciousness everywhere I turned. The world looked good, our actions were making positive change. I Cycled for Life for cleaner air, chose Biology as my major, intending to help the environment by providing research evidence of how we could intelligently preserve our planet.

Finally, the end of the war in Viet Nam, the withdrawal of troops, came. I remember everyone wept with joy. Peace at last. Perhaps not.

This past summer I was a Chaplain at a Veterans Administration Hospital. One of my offerings was a music program for a substance rehab program. The majority of participants were—Viet Nam war veterans. Yes, still, since 1968, they were just getting support to process the traumas they suffered, and the decades of self-medication by recreational drugs they had all subsisted on since returning from the war.

Here were the men, only one woman came, who I had seen on TV back then, sloshing through rice paddies, jumping from helicopters, slashing brush with machetes, clad in army fatigues and black smudge on their faces. They became the face of the violence in Viet Nam, not the government that sent them there. Returning home, they were neglected and even abused, by their home country. The memories they shared in group, often stimulated by the music we shared, were as fresh as if they had just been in ‘Nam.  We were there for each other, finally. The gratitude always filled the therapy room. I was glad to be with them, even if it was over 40 years later.

How is this tied to the Sandy Hook massacre? The violence goes on: this time with civilian guns. Will it take the large-scale national protests of the Viet Nam era to push the government to put an end to this domestic war that has no declaration except when tragedies like Sandy Hook happen?

Perhaps a return that protest era is the way to go, this time to create a comprehensive gun control law to stop the violence: In the words of Rabbi Arthur Waskow:

“Hey Hey, NRA, How many kids did you kill today?

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18.

Plus 9 grown-ups. Teachers, mostly.

These numbers red for the bloodshed of today.

Hey Hey, NRA, How many kids did you kill today?

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18.

I don’t yet have the names of those children or their teachers yet…

Gatherings utterly committed to nonviolence, which the NRA is not —

Sitting down, sitting in, chanting the names of those 18 children over and
over again, interspersed with the chant above (resurrected from the
nonviolent campaign  against the Vietnam War, which pointlessly killed
50,000 Americans and a million Vietnamese)

Risking arrest — DEMANDING that the NRA publicly and clearly abandon and
reverse its opposition to a Federal comprehensive gun-control law.”

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NYTimes photo

Be horrified, sad, compassionate. Can you take action too?

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Difficult People

I have always been baffled by the complexity of this week’s Torah reading, Vayetze, the story of Jacob and Laban. I’ve heard the tale a million times, beginning in Jewish nursery school, with the Jacob’s ladder dream. Then, I guess as older kids we heard about the trick of giving Jacob Leah as his first wife, and how he had to work an additional seven years in order to keep Rachel, his first love.

Marc Chagall

In my books anyway, that didn’t earn Laban the bad reputation he was supposed to have. The depth of the sheep rearing part of the story wasn’t taught, maybe because the technical details didn’t resonate with my very suburban and later, urban, teachers. Basically then, Jacob had been simply ascribed to be an astute sheep breeder, and that was all that could be wrung from that section.

Upon my reading this week in preparation for Shabbat, I saw it all differently. First of all, I read a new translation, the New Jewish Publication Society’s gender-neutral version. So roles such as shepherd, could be a woman’s job as well as a man’s. What I started to see was two cunning men, tricksters in their own rights, Jacob and Laban.

The story begins with Jacob being sent away to Charan by Isaac after he had tricked Isaac into giving him the blessing of the first born that really belonged to Esau, his older brother. And that came after Jacob had previously drawn Esau into a bargain of giving away his birthright for a cup of soup. How? Esau was starving, and Jacob was a sharp; possibly even cunning as he was, he was surprised that Esau was so easily swayed to pay such a high price for a meal. Weren’t there any fruit trees or nuts or dates around for Esau, and how did he manage to come home empty-handed after a hunting expedition? Anyway, I understand this set up well after living in New York City for a year: I am sure I came close to being sold the proverbial Brooklyn Bridge many times while I was there, trusting honesty while being offered sham goods from desperate people vying for a living alongside millions of others offering the same wares.

leitesculinaria.com

Jacob meets Rachel and Leah in Charan, and their father Laban, who is Jacob’s mother Rebecca’s brother. Laban is also a trickster. He sees Jacob’s love for Rachel the younger daughter, and capitalizes on it. After laboring for seven years in order to marry Rachel, Laban marries him to Leah, only afterward reading Jacob the family fine print: oldest daughters get married first. Ouch. Now Jacob may have Rachel, if he is willing to work another seven years.

How do Jacob, Leah and Rachel feel about their father all these years, I wonder? The two sisters are in an extreme competition with each other now by bearing sons for Jacob’s favour. Laban and Jacob become enmeshed in their own competition, Laban thinking he will outwit Jacob by offering him all the spotted sheep he can breed, and secretly stealing the breed stock. As the sisters up their antes by offering up their hand-maids for producing sons with Jacob, Jacob ups his profits with Laban by using specially mottled sticks to increase the number of spotted sheep he can breed from stock Laban left behind.

danielkolenda.com

Finally, after Rachel, who herself has been barren, bares a son, Joseph, the whole household decides it’s had enough of Laban. It is time to leave.

They pack their things and go without a formal goodbye. They take everything with them. What has happened? After so many years of intrigue and oneupmanship, strife, hurt feelings, and purposeful subterfuge, the plug is pulled. The classic, dysfunctional, co-dependent family begins to be aware of the downward spiral it is in. Somehow, the turning point is when Rachel, who has been barren throughout the whole childbearing competition, has a child. It seems that this has been the fulcrum of the situation, her barrenness and pain was what kept the system going. Once she bore Jacob a son, the spell was broken. They left their tormentor behind.

Interestingly enough, there is one more piece of evidence of Laban’s almost sadistic hold on this family: Rachel takes her father’s household idols when they leave. Why? To show him that he is nothing? That she is taking his power with her, and away from him? One of the most beautifully poignant scenes in Scripture is that of Rachel sitting on a camel bag with her skirts spread modestly around her while her father ransacks the camp and that tent looking for his idols. She tells him she can’t get up because she is ‘in the way of women’, and enjoys watching him rant and panic, while she sits coquettishly on that camel bag she’d stuffed with the objects of his disarray.

bayareabags.com

What does this paraha teach us? It shows us what so many of us fall blindly into, those uncomfortable relationships with difficult people. Can we learn from this story how to recognize that we are in one of these relationship systems, and understand that finding the source of the energy that keeps the system alive will allow the possibility of resolution and freedom?

Laban follows Jacob’s family, insists they should have told him they were leaving, that he would have sent them off with songs and music. In his agitation, he will not leave them be until a pact is made. Stones are erected, this is Jacob’s side, this is Laban’s. They break bread together and then part. As we say these days, clear boundaries have been set with difficult people.

Why did Jacob stay with Laban so long, he could have fled years earlier? He needed to learn something there. In Kabbalistic terms, he needed to do the work to release holy sparks that were trapped in Laban’s household. This sort of repair of releasing lost sparks to their origin increases the flow of shefa, and that keeps us in balance with Unity, too.

When we are somewhere difficult and we don’t know why, perhaps this story will come to mind as a way to know that there is a purpose which we may not see immediately, and will eventually find, when we are ready to see it.

Shabbat Shalom!

Miracles Do Happen—

In Medieval times, the mystical language and meaning of Kabbalistic writings were purposely kept inscrutable and shrouded in the language of Torah and Talmud study. Why? Because it was believed that personal mystical experiences as described in the ancient scriptures were particular to Biblical times. Those sorts of engagements with the divine, it was determined, ended with the Biblical era. For a contemporary person to have expounded upon having had such experiences, would be just grounds for invalidating the scholarly works describing them.

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Mystical engagements were nonetheless, written about by early Kabbalists, in the form of metaphors and secret codes. Later in the Middle Ages, it became more acceptable to describe the nature of these experiences. A system of sefirot, or containers that held nothing, became a flow chart showing how holy energy flows from a source above Heaven, to the very manifest of creation on earth. In fact, our actions affect the abundance of this holy energy flow. Observing mitzvoth is one way to increase the flow. In the 19th century, with the drive to make Judaism a rationalist religion, all of this great mystery talk was once again devalued and forgotten, along with much of the meaning behind actions of mitzvoth.

In the Jewish Renewal movement, as with other Chassidic movements, the intention is to not only recapture the spiritual concepts of Kabbalism, but to return to the beliefs that we are the determinants of how bountiful the flow of shefa, divine energy, is in our lives and in our world.

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This week, I witnessed two miracles, two events that five years ago, I thought would never happen in my lifetime. One was the triumph of my friend, Paul Caune, who will be receiving one of the medals cast in honour of Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. Paul has relentlessly pursued every avenue available to promote equal rights for persons with disabilities in British Columbia.

Why is this worthy of a medal from the Queen, and why do I see it as a miracle? Because five years ago, Paul, who has muscular dystrophy, was confined and live out his life in an institution for people with severe physical disabilities. He was parked there after months of hospitalization and promises that he would be discharged to live independently in his local community. He was a man who was unable to breathe on his own being transferred to an institution that would no doubt have been his final resting place.

Eventually, a housing society reached out to him, and he was able to live in his own accessible apartment in the community at large. This experience informed him that it was possible for people in institutions living with physical barriers to have community housing. He turned his newfound energies toward putting the message out that people with disabilities have the same rights as anyone else, and being housed in unsuitable care situations is not necessary.

A man with a mission, he became the Executive Director of Civil Rights Now! and began advocating to the health authorities and legislators with his convictions, speaking with peers and their supporters, writing for print media, and appearing on television and radio.[i]

The outcome? Well, try standing up to a government agency. Where does your energy come from? Think of David and Goliath; standing up to a giant takes some faith that the outcome will be worth it, although it is deadly dangerous. It takes faith, a flow of energy that finds its source, like a circuit that becomes complete and can light up a city. This month, community roundtable engagements are slated for input on the redevelopment of the George Pearson Centre/Dogwood Lodge site. We can help determine that the new developments will have barrier-free community housing mixed in with standard housing units, and no new institutions.

 Someone listened, because two days ago, he was informed that he will be receiving one of the Queen’s medals. Kol HaKavod, Paul! Was this his intention? No, he did not do this to receive a medal, he did it because it was the right thing to do. Lives will be improved, and he still is on the campaign to get equal rights for voters with disabilities.

The second miracle? This past week, my Recovery Narrative Project writers spoke to an overenrolled room of health care professional students at the University of British Columbia. This was my day of seeing the manifestation of years of hoping and praying that the mental health consumers in our Province will finally be headliners, and not on the margins, of health care education programs. The day was called, ‘Allies in Health Care’[ii], and it was all about bringing the voices of the many patient interest groups, in addition to ours, into partnership with health care decision-makers.

Allies in Health 2012

 

 

This was a miracle too. Historically, mental health consumers were not partners in decisions regarding their care. In fact, decision-making rights could be stripped with the stroke of a pen, being committed, or ‘pinked’ as it is called, when a physician deemed someone was not speaking or acting in ways they believed they should. Institutionalization, with its complicated 250-year long history, was one outcome of being committed: being compliant was required to receive help and relief from symptoms. The stigma assigned to having a mental illness included having substandard housing, as well as marginalization away from health care dollars for care and research.

 

I became an advocate of the patient’s voice and a writing instructor. My primary mission was to awaken mental health service consumers to the value of their own voice, through learning how to write from their hearts. Like Paul, I too created an independent program, backed by supporters in the community at large, and poured myself into any channels I could find as an outlet for the wonderfully honest and important stories of the writers.

Who would have guessed from those past draconian days, that a small cadre of folks who were deemed mentally ill could be panel-speakers to an overbooked University room, educating student health care professionals about their life experiences and how we can partner for good mental health outcomes.

Our good intentions made this happen: The intentions to create a bridge between patients and care providers, communities and citizens, of all abilities. There is so much more to do, the door is opening, the flow of energy is passing through.

 Miracles still happen.  


[i] See Paul’s story in the Tyee:

http://thetyee.ca/News/2012/11/05/Disability-Funding/

Seeking Gd’s Face

“Are ya gonna give me some money now?”

“I have some plums.”

“I don’t like plums, do you have any bananas?”

“Sorry, I have plums, and I am happy to give you some.”

“No, I only take bananas…or money. Are ya gonna give me some money now?”

At that point, I fell from Heaven, the holy mystery of offering sustenance was lost here.

This scene happened as I was leaving my local food Co-op after picking up a few groceries. At first, I didn’t notice anything unusual from the encounter with the young man, except a Twilight Zone-like twinge as I shrugged and walked away. My personal policy is to not give money, especially to someone who is clearly using like this fellow; I offer food or transit passes. This interaction left me cold.

A day or so later I realized I was avoiding all panhandling people in wheelchairs and scooters, and those slumped against walls. Even avoiding eye contact. This was not the usual me.

I phoned my good friend who is an extreme civil rights activist for voters with disabilities and shared my new insight: people with disabilities are marginalized by society and governments because they are their own worst enemy. It is one thing to ask for equality, and even for charity, but all I could feel now after the plum affair was ‘beggars can’t be choosers’! I had fallen down into the realm of depersonalizing the very real people I live with every day. My friend was patient, especially considering I had missed the point of his work; they are panhandling simply because they are disabled, not necessarily because they deserve it or bear some moral failing.

That Twilight Zone twinge kept poking me. As I read Arthur Green’s book, Seek My Face for an assignment, I found the pathway back to my special place of Heichalot, heavenly mystery. He tells how Reb Nahman Kossover, a merchant and Kabbalist, hired an assistant to look at during work, so he could remember the name of Gd by looking at the assistant’s face.

We are all b’tselem Elohim, created in Gd’s image. I know that: in fact I’ve always lived that, having skipped the phase where children learn from their families and on school playgrounds who looks pretty, fat, cute, foreign, cockeyed, handsome, crippled. Those outer husks never really registered with me, until I met Mr. Bananas-or-Money-Only.

Had I been in Heichalot all those years until then? Is ignorance bliss? The young man who preferred bananas was my teacher. Who was being picky, me or him? I can’t change the healthcare or social services system overnight, but I can see him as my neighbor, and my reflection. The young man’s challenge to my platitudes caused me to seek a way back from the depths I had fallen to, a Merkavah, holy chariot, back to Heaven.

Next time I was at London Drugs, I bought some boxes of cereal bars and a pack of transit passes. I carry a few of each in my handbag now whenever I go out, because once again I am able to see Gd’s face in my neighbors’.

photos courtesy corbisimages.com, http://ancienthebrewwordsofwisdom.blogspot.ca/

 

Are You Prepared?

It was hard to find a good place to write onboard this Alaskan cruise ship. I finally found a spot to sit; it had been empty every time I passed earlier; too dark, too cold, and on the leeward side away from the sunset. Then, boom, thronging guests in formal-night dress converged: the moon has appeared, spectacular, over the glaciated mountain ridge in the view windows. Not just any moon; a full Alaskan moon, disk round as any voluptuous indigenous piece found in the many galleries on shore side.

Photos are snapped through the window; people mill all around in full dress, and I am here typing with my gingerale. Where are you right now?

It is Elul, and I am reading Alan Lew’s book, “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared”. Those of us reading this book are on the journey from Tisha B’Av to Sukkot, the historical Jewish communal passage from destruction to reflection and return. We are taking the personal passage of finding how to let go of what has taken us away from where we want to be, and finding our way to return.

I am returning to Vancouver after a remarkable year of learning and growing in the challenging people cauldron of New York. There, I saw face to face my core and values and realized it was time to return home, both internally and externally. This has been my time of teshuvah, of letting things go, get messy if need be, and stand again in the source that nourishes me.

As a Jewish woman, to confess, I have had trouble with this idea of ‘teshuvah’ and ‘return’ at the High Holydays my whole life. “What did I do wrong?” I would ask myself every year. And I easily found so many misdemeanors: I did not exercise as much as I wished to, said something I shouldn’t have, passed up opportunities to relax, was too serious, or did not follow up on potential relationships. The daily grind of remorse only seemed to make me more alienated and disconnected from myself.

One year, a dear Rabbi friend counseled me that I am one of the people who reflect enough, implying ‘too much’, year round, and not to turn myself inside out during the Yamim Noraim. I gave myself a break, he was right, I did look inwardly too much. This year, though, has been different: I left my familiar places and people, and went off on my own, intentionally so.

Veterans Day 2012 New York

I have learned the power of having every decision I make as my responsibility: I make them with a lot of self care these days. When I miss the mark, I own it, and this for me, has been the opening for trust in the process of teshuvah.

What is my take on this annual process that we Jews engage in, more or less? I say ‘more or less’, because there are two kinds of folks: those, like myself, who feel the gravitational pull of introspection over the High Holidays: and then those who at the other extreme who feel this as an annual time of obligation, guilt, or humor (think of the episode of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, where the characters decide to save money by buying scalped High Holiday tickets).

Here is my take, this year:

We have in ourselves what we deeply dream of doing and being, we all have that. Can you remember what yours is? Really, remember now. Okay; and where are you now? Are you there close to that dream in your life? Yes? No? Are you sure this is your dream? Why not. That is what teshuvah is about: Why not.

What caused you to stray from yourself? A better paying career, self doubt? I say this because who else will convince you that you can’t do what you want. It’s not the outer voices of others; you can pass those up. It’s your own voice: yes, that one inside you. This is hard to consider, but please do for a moment. What if you spent this month with, as the Mateh Moshe proposed, an hour each day set aside to look inward?

Okay, that was a large idea. Do not attempt this without some guidance from a meditation teacher, or in community prayer! What may come your way is a landslide of feelings, and what you will need is a method for living with them, in peace. Meditation and prayer teach you to notice things as they arise and let them go their way, much like being afloat and observing objects drift by without grabbing on to them, staying afloat just as you are.

This is a good month to adopt a contemplative practice, and I say practice, because as you find your preferred place and time to meet with yourself and Gd, you will be teaching your body as well as your soul to look forward to this special time. Neuroscience is full of studies that show how adaptable our plastic brains are, and that they change as we change our habits. As we all know now, well-used neural pathways become the most natural ones for us. Elul is our annual invitation to begin the process of internal change.

During the year, when I sit as a Chaplain with patients who are suffering from spiritual distress, from a sense of loss of connection to themselves or others, or Gd, I ask them a simple question: can you recall a time when you did feel connected? Invariably, everyone can. This is the Gd moment. It is the moment when you know again who you are, in a way that is so natural you are not even thinking about who you are, you just ‘are’. A sense of peace and gratitude replaces the loss and disconnect at this memory. This is what we can hope to recreate intentionally every day, to reinforce our path to returning there, to our Gd place. This is a contemplative practice.

Another way I do this, is by playing my oboe everyday. Something happens when I play that instrument, so that no matter how fractured I feel, how much I am, as the Torah says, of ‘trafe da’at’, a torn mind, I become whole again.

I experienced the intensity of how this works for me the other week, a time of my toughest inner wrestling in my decision to return home to study. I went to my last oboe lesson, my mind gone in ‘trafe da’at’ and barely able to focus on how to get to the studio, but I did indeed arrive. My teacher finished blessing me with her wishes for my success in my decisions. Then we played an intense round of warm ups in unison, and by the end of a grueling ‘arpeggio boot camp’ drill, I was whole again. I had little time to reflect on what had just shifted inside as we moved into playing Lewandowski’s ‘Kol Nidrei’ together in duet. All I knew was that once again, oboe playing was repairing the tears.

What had happened was that my intense drive and love of playing the instrument overrode every intrusive thought and memory that tried to trip me up. I let nothing interfere with my intentions to play, and ditched any upwelling distractions, like others telling me what a folly it is to play such a devilish instrument. This is the ultimate meditative coming-home focus for me. The wholeness and love I felt after this lesson sealed the deal. I had returned to that place where I felt connected, just as I had counseled others to do, and decided I was going home. Gd was calling me by way of arpeggio boot camp.

I am now afloat, literally, on a cruise ship headed down Alaska’s Inside Passage toward Vancouver. It is close to bliss for me: the Alaskan landscape slides by under that full disk moon, a live jazz ensemble opens another set, passengers stroll about in their dinner formal wear and cheery talk. I enjoy their ambiance, and keep typing as they float by. I am heading home. Return to what you love. You can return home, too.