Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas Tales

"Christmas is a necessity.  There has to be at least one day of the year to remind us that we're here for something else besides ourselves."
 ~Eric Sevareid

Christmas Eve day came wrapped in a blue sky with a white cloudy bow, loosely trapping in the chilly sunshine that one imagines for Easter rather than Christmas. But we had a white Halloween, so it wasn't so hard to conceptualize that the holidays might be running ahead, at least weather wise. For me, it was less than a problem- I don't dream of white Christmas- I dream of bright Christmas.

I sat on the top bunk in a bedroom brimming with my childhood friend's, and her sister's too, where their parents had consolidated their young lives after both had relocated their residences to elsewhere, reading an essay that my friend had written in college to speak of who she was. (Sometime I will show it to you, but not today). As age packed the belongings she needed to bring to her current home, I breathed in the atmosphere - the familiarity of the house, and the understanding that I didn't know it anymore, and that in my adult life I likely would not know it at all. Growing up never seemed so bittersweet, sitting among someone else's memories, re-evaluating all the years that both she and I have endured.

Later, after she and I had parted ways, I met a few Christmas stragglers in the heart of New York city to have a small Havdallah service. Havdallah is the end of the Jewish Sabbath, the moment when the day of rest becomes the week. It is perhaps my favorite ritual- it is a blend of the special and the mundane, the point where we mark an end and beginning at the same time. It reminds me of my Savior, pouring His spirit into a body so that I may comprehend what He would mean to a lost world. In Havdallah, you extinguish a braided candle with a cup of wine, uniting the week and the Sabbath. In my life, I too have been extinguished- the old me was put out the minute I let my Messiah in, only it was the beginning, not the end, because in that moment the mundane fell away, and I became the special. So Christmas Eve seemed overly appropriate to hold a Havdallah. So we did. 

I spent the rest of the evening with the stragglers- a California man making a brand new life in NYC, a Brooklyn resident following her heart in Grad school, and her friend from home, a North Carolinian visitor, taking in the city. I haven't known any of them long, but they have all impacted my life already, and their names are already in my heart, a spot difficult to disintegrate. As we traveled together through a comedic rendition of Christmas, a late night diner feast, a Christmas of service, and the obligatory traditional Chinese food, I was inspired by them and the stories we shared, the strength that a group of young people learning how to live can hold when bonded together. We are not friends of convenience, the kind whose location or occupation require connection- we are friends who choose to get to know another, to open up and share. It's these choices that bring us together. 

I was inspired too, by Brenda, the waitress who brought out our diner delacacies. For 25 years, Brenda has served food to Brooklyn in a small location with many booths and happy owners. Day or night, she has been there to bring orders back and forth from the cooks to the tables. Brenda, in her white haired glory, has decided to go back to school. She doesn't know what she will do, but she knows she will go, because she is tired of serving food to strangers. She recommended a panini. The North Carolinian took it. I don't know if it tasted so good because of how it was prepared, or of how she sold it, painting the sandwich as if it were an American rarity. Maybe it is. Maybe good food is about the way that it's prepared and perceived, and who it is shared with. Maybe taste buds are easily tricked by anticipation. Maybe Brenda knows that. That's why she needs to go back to school. The world needs more people with experience to have a voice. We recommended she go in to communication. 

Christmas day brought us to a Senior Center, where we served food, took coats, and got to know people whose stories need to be told. I met one man who lived in New York all his life. His eyes sparkled as he described the days when Chelsea hosted picture shows and sledding competitions. He spoke of the streets as they used to be, and then, with a special affection, how much he loved some of the changes in them as well. He and I clapped, side by side, to the strains of "Jingle Bells" and the other tunes that floated around the lunch. One woman from New Jersey asked me if I would come back to see them all again. I told her I didn't know that I would. She said she would look for me anyone. I wonder what kind of faith she must have to believe that someone will come back to see her even if that person doesn't share such faith. She left, her pink hat slightly lopsided, and said to me "Let's do this again next year." I nodded, smiled, and tried not cry. 

The occupants of the Christmas brunch did not have families around them to spend their holiday with- I reflected on this as the bus took me back from New York to my small suburban street, where a small portion of my own family awaited my return for beef stew and my mother's shabbat soup- a food that consists of beans, noodles, a minestrone base, and tastes of rest itself. I sat with my father and mother, and my mother's mother, and laughed over the same stories I have heard time and time again. Sometimes they are old, but this time they were joyful- fun, easy, homely. A Christmas dinner to end a very full weekend it was indeed.

This Christmas, I found all the elements that I think the holiday should have- all the things that Jesus was born to teach us about. I found family and community. I found laughter and happiness. I found second chances and a chance to serve. I find that I love these things more than any gifts I've ever received. 

It wasn't white. I didn't watch a parade or a sports game. I didn't even spend the whole day in my pajamas. But I'll never forget this Christmas as the start of my own life. We are not children anymore- we are starting our own traditions. And my traditions will be themed around these things that ignited my weekend. 2000 years ago, my Messiah came, and for the last 23, I've been trying to figure out what makes Christmas feel exceptional. 

And this year, I found Christmas my own way. And it came wrapped in a blue sky, with a white cloudy bow.  

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Celebrating Miracles

"To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle."
~Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Ok, so heres the scoop- a long time ago, a band of brothers got their people together and beat their oppressors so they could take back their place of worship. And when the one ritual that was supposed to happen continuously proved to be impossible, a miracle happened, and gave us Jewish kids something so big to celebrate, that it needed eight nights.

I'm not going to recount the entire story of Chanukah here- the synopsis above is the best you're gonna get. (If you want more, google it). But I am going to talk about it. Because since Tuesday night, my people have been partying it up with Potato Latkes, driedles, gelt, and gifts. It's a good time of year to be alive.

This year, I think I've grown up a bit- I'm finding the "getting" part of the holiday far less exciting than the giving. I pride myself on knowing what I'm looking for, and how to get it (thank you, internet) before it's time to hand it over to those it was intended for. I'm loving the look of surprise and delight when people find something they wanted, even if they didn't know they wanted it, has made it's way into their lives. I like the feeling of knowing I got it right, and someone is very happy with what I've given them.

But that's not the best part.

If you've never played driedle, give it a try sometime. It's a four sided top, and whether it's for quarters, swedish fish, christmas mints, or the chocolate coins that we love so much, it's my favorite kind of gambling. The game relies on getting the right hebrew letter, and I've played hours of it with my family and friends. It's basically a bonding tool- less lengthy than monopoly, but just as intense.

By that's the most exciting commedity.

Chanukah has three distinct blessings- two that run for all eight nights, and one that happens only on the first night. These blessings thank and exalt God for giving us light, and for giving us reason to celebrate. They are sung to a beautiful melody, but in my family, we sing them in our own traditional way. We really get into it, emulating my father's tone deaf nature with vigor and love.

By that isn't my favorite part.

My favorite part, the best of the holiday, the excitement, for me, is the focus on miracles. See, Chanukah, when the presents and the games and the blessings are put away, is about miracles. About one where a lamp stayed lit much longer than it should have. About another where a rag-tag group of people who just wanted to worship become victorious. About a miraculous promise of a Messiah- one who was to come to be the ultimate light of the world for the Jewish people. (Somewhat ironically, that last one is the major miracle of Christmas for most Christians.)

Sometimes you get to see a father and his daughter, reunited after years of not speaking. And every now and then, a solider, or a patient, is released and gets to go home for the first time in a long time. And more than once, I've seen someone whose in too much debt to ever get out make their bills because of the generosity of a third party.

Chanukah, for me, always feels like a beginning. It comes around New Years, when the air is awake with resolutions and starts. The families all send cards and get together, and there's talk of seeing one another now more then before. And the practical gifts, (like the socks and the pjs) are new and fresh and ready to be worn down.

And this year, I'm seeing the beginning of a year of miracles. Things beyond my imagination are going to happen in the coming months- I can feel it. I can see it- it's already started. And I'm excited about what it might mean for this coming time.

Over 2000 years ago, a bunch of Jewish guys stood up for what they believed in, and today, we get to celebrate their victory. I wonder what kind of miracles will happen in 2012. And which ones I will be there to witness and feel, and even be part of.

And which ones will still be celebrated long after I'm a memory, because some miracles are always worth celebrating.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Stressing the point

"God doesn't play dice with the inverse."
-Albert Einstien

I've been thinking about that incomparable little twit of the emotive world. You may know him- he's the stupid little minion that we always end up visiting with, no matter how much we detest his unfortunate whim's and desires. We find all kinds of ways to avoid him- yoga, vacations, bubble baths- anything to take the time that he wants to spend with us away from him. And yet somehow, despite all our modern world distractions, we never seem to get away forever- he always comes wheeling back in.

Have you figured it out yet? I'm talking about stress.

Stress and I have a long relationship- we've been close to each other for years. No matter how hard I work to avoid him, he seems to always seep back into my life. I suppose I might be predisposed for stress- I am, after all, a jewish woman, who lives in a fast paced place, who fills up a good deal of my time with obligations and business. Or maybe it's just that I am an overachiever who desires to have things go perfectly. One friend that I have insists that any stress we feel right now is related to the holiday season- she's got a countdown until the end of the stress days. Whatever the truth of the matter is, I'm working on overtime to avoid him at this point- even cutting out people and activities that might bring me closer to my old friend stress.

I believe that stress becomes bigger and more important in our lives when we feel helpless or overwhelmed with things that we can control or change, or things that we feel we should be able to control or change. We need to feel like we are on certain tracks when it comes to that which means something to us. It's a struggle to figure out where we really can make change and where we can't. And sometimes, when we make assumptions or take responsibility for something that doesn't actually fit into that category, we start to feel the achy, sweaty, unstoppable stress creep back up on us.

Of course, the things we think we have control over are much more numerous than those we actually do have control over. We want to be in charge of every element of our days, but life happens in it's own schedule, and takes no regard for our pleas for responsibility. Many times, I know that I am guilty of being stressed over things that,I reality, I cannot change and could not have foreseen or made any difference in. I can't control others who impact my life. I can't control the weather. I won't impact the bus schedule. I can't control the world around me.

But I can control my stress.

To be plagued by worry, to wonder about what might have been, to spend time dwelling on other endings, these are things that make us miss life. And let's face it- life is short enough as it is.

On a final note, I believe that God does everything for a reason. I am confident that His plan is bigger than me or my ideas. I know that He uses all things for the purpose of His will, and for the good of me, who loves him.

Dear stress- you can choke on that.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Obligated to be me.

"All we are, we are. And every day is the start of something beautiful."
-Matt Nathenson

Little kids in school are always scheming about what they want to be when they grow up- sometimes it's a doctor, sometimes it's a fireman, sometimes it's an astronaut, sometimes it's a teacher. The dreams of little ones are endless at a young age, when the world is big, life goes on forever, and there are no such things as responsibilities and limitations. 

Of course, then we grow up. And the world turns out to be pretty small, life pretty short, and we feel defined by that which we can and cannot do.

See, as children, we are not concerned with the life surrounding our dreams. We don't realize that the people who impact us and are part of our lives have lives outside of where we see them. We don't realize that our babysitters go dancing on the weekends, or that the nurse in the doctors office lives at home with her husband and three kids. We don't understand the intricacies of a paycheck, the concept of tax, the escape of late night television. I don't know what age it is when we become aware that everyone else's worlds do not center around how they impact ours, and I don't know that it's even at that point that we understand that one day, our worlds have obligations all their own. 

I've been thinking lately about the obligations of someone in their 20's. As a college graduate, I'm supposed to be thinking about what my next steps are- will I get a job? Join the peace core? Become a slacker who lives in my parents basement and whines about the world and how it hates me? I'm still working on the answers to these questions. But I'm also still figuring out another question- one that I am much more focused on- who am I? 

Some people want to be defined by their work. Others want to be defined by their family lives. Some want their monetary status to be the first thing people think of when they hear their name. These definitions are the equivalency of those childhood aspirations- we want to be (fill in the blank). The difference is the understanding of how realistic these dreams are now. 

I am a writer; a singer; a philosopher and a dreamer; a poor but happy dancer; a working girl; a lover of rainy days; the daughter of two people who have made a life in a small town; a teacher for young people; a friend and confidant; a dog owner; an aunt to children not related by blood; a messianic Jew who believes that Jesus is the Messiah; a debater; a walker; a flight risk when it comes to running away and seeing the world, an editor that can't spell... I am so many things. I do not know which one defines me. 

And to be honest, I don't think I want to be defined by any one part. Because all of these things make up me and who I am, and all are interconnected. I wrote the songs I sing. I have learned to teach through the lessons I have learned by being a friend. And I learned to debate at a very young age by defending the faith that is extremely controversial. And when that faith presses on my heart, I start to write... it all comes full circle. 

As a child, I don't remember what I wanted to be. I don't know what aspirations I had before I started to understand the borders that surround life.I know that as an older teenager leading into college, I felt those borders had already defined my life and my path. But as a recent graduate, I've come to a different conclusion. 

Maybe we don't need to be so narrow minded as we were in children now that we know that life doesn't consist only of one thing. The elements that make us full people make us fun. I don't want to be defined by any one passion. Maybe I can just be defined by passion in general- I would love to be known as the kind of person with big dreams, big loves, and big aspirations. 

If I'm obligated only to that, I know I'll follow through.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Entitled to contentment

"I can't imagine going on when there are no more expectations."
Edith Evans

Being people, we start to develop pet peeves- those obnoxious habits that make us crazy, even if they really aren't very big in the grand scheme of things. I've got a number of these little aversions of my own- riders who clip their nails on the bus, women who talk about their love lives in the bathroom on their cell phones, any movie that has Kevin Bacon in it. These little grievances are enough to make me crazy by the end of the day.

But there is one that bugs me above all others- entitlement. 

In every element of my life, I run into people who feel that they deserve things they have not worked for. They believe that something in their lives, whether it be social class, education, ethnicity, public services they've contributed to, accomplishments they've made, or anything else that they believe to be honorable about themselves, gives them the right to special treatment. Without explanation, they want what they think they deserve, and if they have to explain why to you, it makes them very angry. And many of them throw tantrums if they don't get their way.

I shouldn't really say they- I should say we.

In life, we all feel that we are entitled to something. We feel that just by living the life we are living, we have certain rights that no one should be able to take away from us. I have been the person who doesn't understand why it isn't obvious to the person on the other end that they should do what I want because it's only logical (at least to me). I've gotten mad before, (not just disappointed, actually mad) over things I thought I deserved that I didn't get. And on occasion, I've even been so crazy, that I've figured out that I'm being a little bit out of my mind in what I'm demanding.

Even more so, I've gotten over-the-top about requests that I've made of God that He hasn't answered with a yes, or even a yes-right-now. I've gotten very angry about things that I thought I should have that He hasn't seen fit to give me. I've gotten upset over promises that I thought meant one thing, but really meant something else, and didn't play out the way I wanted. I've had a huge sense of entitlement when it comes to God.

But stopping to step back out of myself for a minute, I can see the bizarre nature that I've fallen into. So let me clear the air here first: God owes me nothing. I have done nothing to earn any of the good things He has put before me. And the blessings He has given me have had nothing to do with me- they are all in His own mercy and grace.

Let's backtrack a minute here: God has made numerous promises to us that He has ALWAYS kept. He's given me permission, when I am truly following, to expect many of these things, and He does follow through. But the key word is expect- I have to EXPECT these things, not feel entitled to them.

So what's the difference?

When we feel entitled to something, we think it's our own merit that has earned it for us. We believe that we deserve what's coming to us because we are, or have, or have done, or whatever it may be. But expecting is when someone tells us, and we believe that it will be so. It is usually not about what we do, but what we are waiting for. We want things, we believe they will come, and we are thrilled when they do come through.

When we receive what we are "entitled" to, we feel content- not elated, but pacified. When we receive what we've expected, and waited for, we feel satisfied and happy.

With life, we can expect many things. We can even be disappointed if those things don't come to pass. Not temper-tantrum mad, but a little let down. But the thing about expecting is that we can actually be grateful when they come to us. They are not our rights, but gifts given to us. And it's much easier to look at them with happiness, as blessings, when we think about them in this way.

I won't be my own pet peeve- I am learning not to feel entitled. For God's promises, for life, for anything. I want to see everything as a gift. I want to feel like I can expect great things, but not that I get them for what I've done. Because when you feel entitled, you miss out on the wonder of the good things. If we only get what we deserve, most of us can anticipate a life in which we are unhappy with what we're given.

The way I see it, those moments when something we've hoped for, and expected, happens... well those are the moments when we learn what happiness is- and how to share it with others. How much nicer is it to make someone happy when they don't feel they deserve it? It's the difference between making someone feel gratified and making someone feel good.

And God's promises are suddenly worth much more in their fulfillment.