Would You Do It All Over Again?

There’s a beautiful scene at the end of the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. After recovering the lost memories of their rocky relationship, the characters Joel and Clementine remember why they first fell in love–and why they broke up. They face a choice: should they go their separate ways, or should they make a new start–knowing that they will have the same struggles all over again? It’s like a version of the old test–“if you had to do it all over again, would you still marry me?”

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I won’t spoil the ending, but I’ve often pondered this question. If I knew what our life would involve–poverty, miscarriage, mental illness, unemployment, unplanned pregnancy, and so on–would I still have married my husband? The answer, of course, is yes–but not necessarily because I’m brave or noble. We were in love, and when you’re in love things like that don’t phase you. No suffering seems too great, as long as the two of you are together. So, even if I knew all the roadblocks we were going to hit, I’d still say yes again; because the force of love disregards such obstacles.

I thought of this the other day as I prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries. If Mary knew what was going to happen–if she knew that she would have to watch her son be tortured to death–would she still have said “yes” to the angel’s invitation? And at once I realized, of course she would–not just because she was brave and noble, but because she was in love with God. A woman in love with her husband considers the potential sufferings of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood insignificant compare to the joy of bearing her beloved’s child.

On this feast of the Annunciation, Mother Mary, pray for us to fall in love with God so that, like St. Paul, we can “consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

Image result for annunciation paul gauguin

Gauguin’s Annunciation–Mary pondering as the angel leaves

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A Feeling Just Is

Wave, Boat, Sea, Water, Ship, Wreck, Lake, Capsize

Today, for some reason, I’m awfully tired, and my back aches. It’s a pregnancy-like exhaustion, making me limp around and stop for breath. (No, I’m not pregnant.) But the familiar feeling of this exhaustion made me think of pregnancy, and suddenly I thought “well, maybe I will get pregnant, and then I’ll have a good excuse for feeling this way.”

A good excuse! As if I just woke up today and made the choice to feel tired. Unfortunately, I think this way a lot. When I feel tired, angry, sad, restless, or hopeless, I often beat myself up for having unwanted or irrelevant emotions. I have no reason to feel sad at the moment; I don’t deserve to feel sad; so why do I? Only when I step back and examine this thought process objectively do I realize how irrational it is. You can’t blame yourself for feelings; feelings happen to you. Obviously, it’s then your choice to act on the feeling or to push it aside; to entertain it in your mind lovingly, or to do your best to overcome it. But a feeling itself is neutral.

This can go the other direction, too. You can beat yourself up for not feeling a certain way–again, as if you had a choice! You can be angry at yourself for not feeling affectionate, or not feeling sad, or not feeling joyful. And once again, this blame won’t help at all, because you can’t just decide to feel a certain way.

One aspect of mindfulness is that it teaches you to tune into these unconscious thought patterns. Because I “listened” to myself having that inner conversation about my exhaustion, I was able to identify some unhealthy self-blame. Even just being aware of your emotions, without judgement–“I feel sad right now”–can help drive home the lesson that feelings come and go, and we are not to blame for them. A lesson I have to learn over and over again.

 

 

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Have you always wanted to read a book about a Jewish detective, his Native American partner, and a reluctant Messiah? Maybe one with organized crime run by an orthodox rabbi, a chess-playing heroin addict, a regretted abortion, mystical prophecies and portents, and a dog that insists on being tied up to await the return of its long-dead owner? Oh, and it should definitely take place in a slightly alternate future in which the Jews settled temporarily in Alaska. And yes, all that should take place in the first hundred pages.

Do I have a book for you!

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The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a gorgeous and heartbreaking book. It’s a noir-type mystery, an apocalypse, and a story of redemption. It’s also outrageously daring: in 400 pages, Chabon covers Jewish salvation history, the life story of more characters than anyone has a right to expect, American politics, a caricature of fundamentalism, and the meaning of redemption, homeland, duty, and identity–all in the present tense. And he pulls it off.

Even the writing itself is daring. The present tense gives the whole thing the feel of oral storytelling, which is enforced by the colorful descriptions. A short man, only mentioned once, is a “fireplug, his bowed legs and simian arms affixed to his neck without apparent benefit of shoulders.” It’s not just snowing; “the snow falling is like pieces of broken daylight. The Sitka sky is dull silver plate and tarnishing fast.” The Rabbi’s mind is a “library in a bonepit.”

Chabon is always on the edge of taking things too far. Then he pushes it over the edge, and brings it back again. At the very beginning of the book, one character describes another as “a broken man…like one of those sticks you snap, it lights up…[f]or a few hours. And you can hear broken glass rattling inside of it.” Okay, so it’s nicely done, but it’s a tired metaphor. But then, four pages later, Chabon pulls it back again and this time it pierces your heart: in an imaginary meeting, the detective and the dead man sit, “shedding the last of their fading glow on each other and listening to the sweet chiming of broken glass inside.”

But please don’t think it’s all darkness and heartbreak. For one thing, it’s funny. Darkly, ironically funny, in a very Jewish way, but funny. For instance, Chabon has created an entire dialect of Yinglish for his imaginary world, where “sholem,” literally “peace,” is an idiom for a gun–a piece.

And don’t worry, it’s not hopeless. It carries you through triumphantly, breathlessly, to an ambiguous, but somehow peaceful ending. It’s such a rush that only afterwards do you realize that Chabon has created such a full world that he’s left a lot of loose ends. But because it is a novel about what life is like, that doesn’t seem inappropriate. Although it doesn’t lack for plot, it’s about more than that. It’s a novel about fathers and sons; about identity, homelands, and assimilation; about the tension between waiting for Messiah and living life as it is, now and here. It’s a novel about a man who lives in the past, confronted with zealots who live in the future, learning to live in the present.

How Bad is Exclusivity?

Venn Diagram, Set Diagram, Diagrams, Logical, Relations

So my son’s elementary school, God bless them, wanted to throw a little Super Bowl-themed father-son event. But of course they didn’t want to leave out kids without fathers, so they changed it to be an event for you and “that special man in your life.” And of course, they wouldn’t want to leave out girls who enjoyed football too! So pretty soon the whole event was a kind of amorphous get together for any kid and any adult to come and do something vaguely football snack related.

I’m not trying to blame the school for being inclusive. In a world of blended and broken and re-blended families, they are trying to make everyone feel welcome. But in the process, a well-defined event turned into a mush. Imagine for a minute what would happen if you took the same attitude toward every school event. You couldn’t have mother-daughter event either, because what about all those girls who lived with their fathers or their grandparents? What about that girl with the transgender mother? What about that girl who identified as a boy? What about that girl who didn’t like “girly” things? What about that girl with a twin brother who would feel left out? It gets messy pretty fast.

In our rush to be inclusive, we’ve kind of forgotten what the point of these events was in the first place. Witness the mess that various exclusive holidays have turned into: Mother’s Day is touchy, because no one wants to offend those with dead mothers, or mothers who hurt them; and Valentine’s Day–well, I just got an ad on my phone encouraging me to listen to songs about “exes and revenge.” The message is that, if a particular event or day doesn’t apply to you, don’t just ignore it; make it into something that fits you in particular. And if we’re so worried about all the people who are left out, we forget about the one group of people who were supposed to be celebrated in the first place.

So if you can’t stop thinking about everyone who’s been left out by a father-son event, by all means go ahead and make a separate parent-child event, or a guardian-minor event, or an event where everyone’s welcome. But for those families who happen to have a plain old father and son, don’t ruin it for them; let them have their own day, too.

 

The Bible made Flesh

I haven’t thought about the phrase “Word made Flesh” in a long time; but yesterday I heard a beautiful sermon that gave it more meaning for me. Father J. explained that in the reading from Nehemiah, when Ezra read the scriptures from dawn until midday, it was because they had just returned to Jerusalem from exile and were rediscovering their heritage. In the Gospel reading, a rediscovery of scripture also plays a central role, as Jesus reveals that he is the one the book of Isaiah predicted. The way Father J. told it, in each reading, the people of God rejoiced to discover the word of God in their midst: in the Old Testament, through the reading of the actual words of the Bible; in the New Testament, through the presence of the word made flesh.

I have a strong background in philosophy, and I always thought of the Word made Flesh referring to the word of God in a metaphysical sense; God’s utterance so “living and effective” that it was a person in itself. But somehow I never thought of it as referring to God’s word in scripture! In this sense, Jesus as the Word of Flesh means Jesus as scripture embodied in a Person.

Jesus, of course, is so much more than that, just as the Body of Christ in the Church is much more than what we can get from scripture alone. But if you think about it, Jesus said that the sum of the law and the prophets was love. And who is love but Jesus? In a more-than-symbolic way, Jesus is the word of God, the actual literal written word of the Bible, standing in our midst.

P.S. I’m so excited to be writing again! I missed you guys. Hoping to write soon on the idea of inclusiveness, as well as a few book reviews: Sabbath by Wayne Muller, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon.

P.P.S. This must all be related to the Jewish mystical idea of the meaning of letters and numbers in gematria and kabbalah, but I don’t know enough about it to say more. 

The Happiness Project

I first discovered Gretchen Rubin through a magazine article she wrote that included her genius “one-minute rule:” if you can do something in one minute, do it now. Hang up your jacket instead of leaving it on a chair; throw out your junk mail instead of throwing it on the table; respond to that email instead of leaving it for later. Her book, The Happiness Project, is a lot more wide-ranging and interesting than this household tip, but that’s what first intrigued me.

Happiness Project

Rubin decided to spend a year reading every book about happiness that she could get her hands on, and trying almost every tip she found. Her goal was not to go on some grand Eat Pray Love-type adventure, but to find ways to make her current life happier. The result is kind of a cross between a memoir and a self-help book; some of it is relevant only to her, and some of it is startlingly insightful and universal. She’s a great writer, too; the book flies by.

I loved her point about expanding your identity through searching for more ways to feel happy and fulfilled:

One reason that challenge brings happiness is that it allows you to expand your self-definition. You become larger. Suddenly you can do yoga or make homemade beer or speak a decent amount of Spanish. Research shows that the more elements make up your identity, the less threatening it is when any one element is threatened. Losing your job might be a blow to your self-esteem, but the fact that you lead your local alumni association gives you a comforting source of self-respect.

After I had my first child, I felt like I lost my identity in a lot of ways, and gained the new and unfamiliar identity of motherhood. It took me many years to reconcile the two. I think this book would have helped. Rubin does a wonderful job of navigating the guilt and assumptions that keep you from trying things that make you happy, or stopping things that make you unhappy. She realized that

just because something was fun for someone else didn’t mean it was fun for me–and vice versa….I tended to overrate the fun activities that I didn’t do and underrate my own inclinations. I felt like the things that other people enjoyed were more valuable, or more cultured…more, well, legitimate.

There’s such great freedom in allowing yourself to do something you like, just because you like it. (And it’s heartening to hear that even Gretchen Rubin, an accomplished lawyer and bestselling author, worries that her pursuits are not legitimate enough! Self-doubt strikes everyone.)

Because of this book, I started doing light reading again. I gave myself permission to read things just for fun, and not only things that were edifying or “important.” Rubin includes her a great quote from C.S. Lewis:

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including of the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

Rubin is secular, but she was also fascinated by the life of St. Therese of Lisieux–not just by her “little way,” but by the way she always appeared happy and cheerful, even when she was going through interior suffering. Rubin distills this into one of her major rules: “act like you want to feel.” She noticed that St. Therese didn’t just make herself act happy; she made herself be happy. It’s not easy, and it’s not fun (not at the beginning, anyway), but it works.

(Please note here that Rubin is not talking about people with depression; she’s only talking about people who want to live their best life. A lot of her tips are actually quite helpful for depression, but if you’re depressed you may find many of the suggestions in this book inadequate and irritating.)

 

 

This book is uneven. Her discoveries about gaining more energy, cultivating habits of gratefulness and cheerfulness, and discerning what really makes you happy are valuable. Her chapters on money and meditation are particularly vague and muddled. Overall, this wasn’t just an interesting read; it changed my life for the better. I’m excited to read her next book, Happier at Home. I’ll let you know when I’m done!

Turning Your Life into a Story

I’ve been making my way through Anna Karenina over the last few months, and my mind has been immersed in Tolstoy. The other day I was happily preparing for a little family road trip. The weather was beautiful, I was going to have a few days off work, get time with extended family, and get to go to a wedding too. Then my 7-year-old came out and confessed that he had sat on his brand-new glasses, and they had snapped. It put a little dent in my good mood, and I automatically thought, Tolstoy-style, “a cloud settled over her happiness.” And you know what? It helped! Thinking of my very small suffering as a story helped me to see it objectively, and let the emotion pass.

This reminds me of something Viktor Frankl said in Man’s Search for Meaning. One of the ways he coped with the suffering of the concentration camp was to imagine himself, many years after he had been released, lecturing about his experiences there. Viewing his experiences as a story helped him put a little distance between him and his suffering. My mother used to quote this to me when I was a kid, and I still use this technique once in a while. I like to remember that someday whatever’s going on will make a great story, and I’ll be able to laugh about.

This ability to see your suffering objectively has a lot in common with the idea of mindfulness. When you are mindful of what thoughts and emotions are passing through your head, you can put some distance between them and you. Simply being aware of a negative thought, as objectively as you can, takes away some of the negativity’s power.

More on this coming soon. In the meantime, try narrating your life and see if it helps!