Sunday, February 28, 2010

Good Advice

Everyone has, within them, something Judaism calls the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. When someone tells you to do something good, you immediately get the urge to do something bad. Like, you know you have to lose 30 pounds, but you still buy a chocolate bar. Not that I know about that personally, of course.

Today, during the holiday of Purim, we are obligated to be happy. So what's the first thing I wanted to do? Be sad. Be distressed. Worry about school, assignments, my children's grades. I have to admit, I have one heck of a yetzer hara.

I think that's why the Rabbis made it mandatory to be happy today. Because human nature is such, that if you do good things, you will become a good person. I remember a story I once heard about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, z'l that was so powerful, it has stuck with me for nearly 25 years.

A young woman once came to Rebbe, desperate for advice. She told him, "I'm not a nice person. How do I become a nice person?" He told her that to be a nice person, you have to do nice things. She couldn't understand the advice. This was a woman who went to psychologists with the same question. So the Rebbe looked at her and said, "the next time you sit down to eat and you need a napkin, get a napkin for everyone else at your table, whether they ask you or not."

The young woman was overwhelmed by the simplicity. Years of trying to figure out why she wasn't a nice person didn't make her a nice person. Doing something nice for someone else is the only way she could achieve her goal.

The moral of the story: we are how we act, not how we think. Thoughts don't feed the homeless, giving the homeless food feeds them. No one needs to be reminded of that more than me. All the nail-biting and whining in the world isn't going to finish my homework. It's going to take me, and my pencil or pen or computer, to make that dream a reality.

I believe the Holy One gave us free will so we could choose to do good and appreciate the choice. When in doubt, take action. For better or worse, we learn from what we do. And it gets us closer to being the person we want to be.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Tears of Joy and Sorrow

I know a lot of people are feeling down right now. The economy, recent deaths in the community. The stress of everyday life. Carpool.

Well, this morning I heard from my Aunt Lila. It's been a long time, partly because I'm so busy and partly because when Aunt Lila gets you on the phone, it's like the time-space continuum gets suspended and before you know it, you actually missed your birthday, which, when you began your conversation, was months away. I guess what I'm trying to say is Aunt Lila likes to talk. A lot.

But it's not just the talking, it's her voice. She's an 81-year old former New Yorker transplanted to Florida with a Brooklyn accent you could cut with a knife. She's my mother's twin sister, and they couldn't have been more different. Aunt Lila is outgoing, spirited, lively, at the forefront of things. Mother, well, she spent a lot of her early life in my aunt's shadow and she had her own spirit, but it wasn't quite as obvious. Plus, mom's accent kinda faded somewhat here in California, although with some words, it never goes away. And when her temper would flare, well, it was Brooklyn all over again.

I tried not to cry when I heard my aunt's voice, which got me thinking about mom. Then she brought up her sisters, both gone from this world, and I teared up. I thought for a moment what it must be like to be the only one left and it was a devastating feeling. I couldn't imagine life without my brother or sister because I've never known life without them. To add to the loneliness, Aunt Lila's only son and grandchildren live in Hawaii, thousands of miles away.

So this year I sent my aunt Shaloch Manos, a traditional gift of food for Purim*. She was so happy, she told me, that she cried. I cried because she was happy too. Sadness mingled with happiness. Tears of joy and sorrow. Nothing like it to show you that we are all in the hands of the One Above.

*Purim: one of two holidays not mandated by the Torah in which "our enemies tried to kill us, they failed, let's eat" is the motto. The other holiday is Chanukah.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Happiness You Make

Having taken my cue from previous episodes of nanaloshen, I decided happiness was just too important to leave to chance. So I woke up this morning (several times, actually) and when I finally leaped out of bed (as soon as my eyes remained open long enough), I decided to be happy.

Like most things, happiness needs to be organized. First, don't judge anyone. If they act like an idiot, take it for granted they're an idiot and G-d loves idiots and move on. Like the woman sitting next to me waiting for the subway. Snot running down her face, her sleeve pressed into service. I almost lost my breakfast. Instead, I reached into my pocket and retrieved 3 perfectly good, but scrunched tissues. She was very appreciative. So was I. Downright happy when the subway came and I could get away from her.

Even though Mondays are my day off from school, I went to campus to finish my kitchen hours. I forgot how much I love those Golden Eagle kitchen people. They received me like a long-lost relative. I was so happy I almost cried.

Happy too, that I have a friend like Maria, who took time from her day to tutor me on our lab calculations. Oh my gosh, talk about confusing. She was patient, like the mother she is and let a woman like me, old enough to be her mother, work out the math with her gentle guidance.

Home at last, I took my husband to lunch for his birthday. He ordered a simple soup, while I took a main course. Seemed wrong, but as long as he's happy, I'm happy.

So happiness reigned supreme this day because that was the plan. And that's G-d's plan too. As of this writing, I am fully prepared to spent tomorrow happy as well.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

You Know Who Works in Mysterious Ways

This past Shabbat, I was in a bad mood. Kinda cranky. I wanted to crawl under the covers and sleep it off, but like the jack let out of the box, there was no going back. Only forward. So I said Tehillim and went to the weekly shuir. It was so wonderful to be surrounded by happy people with tasty snacks. I started to uncrank.

Just then, in walks someone I dislike. I thought, oh no, why can't I finish Shabbat in peace? Why can't I finish Shabbat surrounded by friends only? But as I finished up Tehillim, I realized that I was surrounded by friends. As the sun set, I realized that I was the person with the problem.

My mother, may she rest in peace, always said that G-d works in mysterious ways. Mother was right. G-d sent this person to me to teach me a lesson: don't be judgemental against your fellow human being out of jealousy and bitterness. Heck, don't be judgemental ever.

I walked home with a spring in my step. The pain of being human is the lack of perfection and the mistakes we make. I make. Thank you, Creator, for the wake up call.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Forgetting To Smell The Coffee

Many years ago, during Succot*, my family shared a Succah booth* with our neighbors. When passions ran a little hot, my dear friend turned to me and said, "I'm going to Tahiti." That sentence became our code for escape, and we'd giggle about it from time to time.

This morning, my bus was 25 minutes late, I watched my train take off without me and on the final leg of my trip to campus, the bus driver forgot how to use the gas pedal. But the tone my day was set at the beginning of my journey.

When I finally got on my first bus this morning, I confronted the driver about being tardy. Complete waste of breath, as there is no accountability for the folks at Metro Rail. They show up when they want, and you just have to take it.

Devoid of options, I took my usual seat near the front. A soft spoken man about my age sitting next to me leaned over and started to explain the route the bus takes to get to me.

I could tell he wasn't what you would call 100%. Then he asked me if I was watching the Olympics. I just melted. No, I said, I wasn't. But I do check Yahoo about a hundred times a day and can read headlines with the best of them. I asked him about what I'd read and he confirmed it all, sharing even more about the events. We continued talking until my stop, some 10 minutes later. All the while, the lady on the seat across from me smiled and nodded.

It was probably one the sweetest, most spontaneous moments I've had all week. It reminded me that before I go to Tahiti, I need to stop and smell the coffee. Be grateful that I'm alive to wait for the bus. Grateful that a fellow bus rider, who probably also waited at his stop, reminded me that simple is best. I never thought I'd say this: Go Metro!

*Major Jewish holiday, part of the High Holy Days held in Tishrei (September) that commenorates G-d's protection of the Jews in the desert after the exodus from Egypt and on the way to Israel. Traditional for Jews to dwell in booths, wooden structures with 3 sides and no roof, which is covered with palm fronds which symbolize the Clouds of Glory.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Growing Up

I keep telling myself that I would rather be sleeping. Yes, that would solve my problems. But I'm so tired, I can't remember what my problems are.

Except, of course, not being able to get a good night's sleep. But the bigger problem is, I can't unwind enough to sleep. There's always one more thing to do, one more chapter to read, one last power point to print out.

It makes me feel like a kid again. You know, when you didn't want to go to sleep but your parents made you. Well, now I'm the parent. Maybe I should make myself get some sleep.

After I rest up, maybe I can figure out a way to make myself clean up my desk, put my clothes away and clean up my room.

Who knows? Growing up just might be the answer to all my problems. But before I do anything rash, I'll have to sleep on it.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

When The Going Gets Tough

When the going gets tough, the tough need to start reflecting on their life. Take, for example, me.

It's Sunday, the first of Adar, the month of joy. Also my son's birthday. Yet, literally, I had the day planned out in terms of studying. I could stick my face in my books all day and barely scratch the surface of what I need to know for this week alone.

So the Holy One, in His Wisdom, kept me busy for an hour this morning trying to figure out how to call Israel from Skype on my laptop and not get off the couch once. Yeah, I know, it's easy. Now. Spent 30 full minutes talking to my behor* in Eretz HaKodesh* and could just cry. Miss him so much. Hope he doesn't come home. It's a long story.

Then my dearest friend Sara Chava dragged me off to the Women's Tehillim* Group, where the saying of Psalms is SOP* in this community on a Rosh Chodesh.* Thank you Sara. You saved my life. It was getting a spiritual defibrillator.

Finally, I actually did get to study today. What little I learned I hope to put to good use. Somehow. But what I really learned is that I have great friends and great kids and a great husband. Now if only I were tough enough to actually get somewhere. . .

For Eddie and the rest of my dear readers:
*behor: firstborn son.
*Eretz HaKodesh: literally, the Holy Land.

*Tehillim: The 150 chapters of the book of Psalms.
*Standard Operating Procedure.
*Rosh Chodesh: first day of the Jewish month, when the entire book of Tehillim is said.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Know Yourself

I admit it. I'm not a cook and I don't like being in the kitchen, unless I'm on my way to the refrigerator and back. There, I said it. I feel so much better.

Therefore, I find it ironic that my nutritional coursework requires that I work in a kitchen, accumulating hours, under the general guise of "food service." I work in two kitchens, and the chefs, along with all the workers in them, are wonderful. I love them and love being around them. They are artists, skilled and knowledgeable in the ways of food. What else would you call people who have somehow managed to make tofu smell good?

But besides the social need, which I partake of generously, working in a kitchen is sheer torture. I don't want to know how to hold a knife so I won't cut myself because I usually don't hold a knife. If the food wrapper can't be torn open with my bare hands, I move on.

So when a professor winks at me and says, you never know, you may end up working in a kitchen one day," I have to smile and nod. I know myself. If I end up working in a kitchen, it's because G-d hasn't had enough to laugh about and needs some comic relief. For Him, and Him only, I'd be more than happy to oblige.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Who's The Boss?

This evening I made arrangements to meet a former professor from a former college to pick up a letter of recommendation. He is one of my favorite people, a microbiologist and one of the most amazing teachers I've ever encountered. He worked you hard, but you walked away from that class knowing your stuff.

And if you're me, you walked away with a small box of microscope slides as well. So I was extremely excited at the thought of finally doing the great mitzvah* of returning a lost item. Okay,the slides weren't exactly lost, but I didn't take them on purpose or for profit. They just turned up when I was cleaning out my backpack, long after class had ended.

Wouldn't you know it - as I prepared to meet my former professor, the slides, which I saw nearly every day for the past year, were no where to be found. Running out of time, I stopped rummaging around and started a conversation with G-d. It wasn't exactly friendly.

I told the Holy One, "Listen, I want to do the right thing and return a lost article, and You are standing in my way. I need those slides right now." I went back to rummaging. Found them shortly thereafter.

But when I got to the school, my former professor wasn't there (although the letter was). What to do with the slides? I combed the building looking for his office, an open door, anything. Once again, I turned to G-d, this time all alone in the elevator. Picked up where I left off during the last conversation.

Walked out of the elevator right into the janitor, who kindly escorted me to the micro lab and allowed me to put the slides inside.

So who's the boss? Jewish tradition says the world belongs to man. We decide how things go down here. It's called free will. But when free will isn't enough, then it's up to the one and only Boss to get you what you need.

*good deed.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sundays With Bubbie

For the past 20 years, for as long as I've known her, my family and I have spent Sunday with Bubbie, my husband's mother. Until just recently, Sundays were spent with Bubbie and Zaide*, but now, it's just Bubbie and us.

Bubbie is the kind of grandmother Disney portrayed in his movies. Loving, caring, always looking out for her kids and grand kids, complete with candy in the pantry for the ride home. If you're stressed out or feeling down, Bubbie's got chicken soup for you - the weight of many years' experiences telling you everything is going to be all right. If you're happy, well, that's chicken soup for Bubbie's soul.

Not that life has been easy for Bubbie. She's a Hungarian holocaust survivor, one of the few who walked out of Europe with parents and a brother, but little else. She married a sweet man and made a wonderful life here in America. Yet, she always looks back and talks about the old country, fondly remembering a world that no longer exists.

On those Sundays with Bubbie, we eat pizza and drink soda, looking forward to the week ahead. Twenty years of pizza Sundays. Twenty years of amazing memories we'll always have. Thank you, Holy One, for the gift of Bubbie.

*Bubbie and Zaide are Yiddish for grandmother and grandfather.

Making Happy Thoughts Happen

There are people who wake up happy. It's a gift, I'm sure, but it's possible. The rest us, well, we have to work at it.

Frankly, I've been working at it pretty hard. There doesn't seem to be a moment when I'm not working, period. Either I'm studying or I'm thinking about studying or I finished studying and I go to sleep. Somehow, in all this work, I haven't managed to actually be happy.

What is happiness? I think it's a contentment you feel that makes the world around you seem so wonderful. I have felt it. It's great. I want to feel it all the time.

So I thought I would begin by making happy thoughts happen. Like, hey Nana, you're gonna make it. Pretty simple, but effective. Makes me feel happy. And that happiness filters down to everyone I meet and interact with. It's like a Divine Presence that envelopes you. You feel safe and secure. It's a feeling we all crave, and sometimes use synthetics to get.

Happiness is getting high on life. It's about connecting to the Creator inside you. It's best summed up as, think good and it will be good.

One final thought on happiness. The Rebbe ReShab* taught us to go over our obstacles. Don't deny they exist, just overcome them in an open, revealed way. I think that's one of the keys to happiness. Whatever is holding you back from getting what you need, face it directly and deal with it that way too.

Not bad advice. Now all I have to do is put it to good use.

*The fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneerson, z"l.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Saving The Date

Until just recently, I marked time with the birth of my children. The calendar in my mind recalled the date of events in terms of who was born and who wasn't. For example, we owned a Chevy station wagon more than 10 years ago. How do I know? Because my 10 year old never rode in it. But alas, it appears those days are over.

Now I date my life in terms of which quarter I was in school. For example, it was during the Spring quarter that my neighbor moved out. Or, my son got his braces off during the Winter quarter.

Every civilization marks time in its own way. Right now, my own personal civilization happens to be marking time by the school calendar. Will it last? Yes, but only for events that happened during my school days. Does it matter? Not as long as the Holy One marks all our days with joy.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Back From The Brink

My day started out as commercial for Prozac. Spring course enrollment began at 6am, and I had forgotten to file my petition allowing excess units or prove prerequisites (again) for permission to enroll in two of the four classes I need. I live at least an hour and a half away from campus by bus, and with the kids, I couldn't leave before 7:45 am.

It seems I've been so preoccupied with completing dietetic internship applications that I completely forgot to take care of business. Silly me - if I don't complete these classes by June, an internship won't matter.

Adding insult to injury, the bone density test my partner performed on me in our Nutritional Assessment lab came up osteopenia. (Yeah, you guessed it - one step ahead of osteoporosis.) To make matters worse, my professor tried to make me feel better by saying it's common in women going through menopause, but I'm not going through menopause.

By noon, I wanted to: (1) cry; (2) scream; (3) sit quietly with my hands folded in my lap. I think I'm having a problem dealing with pressure.

I admit, it's all my own fault. I'm a last minute person. Probably not the best strategy when the competition for internships in Southern California is so stiff. So as the deadline draws near (February 16), I find some things are not finished. Things like, let me see, oh yes, my statement of intent, which defines why the program director would want to choose me.

So when I found myself, at 6 pm, leaving class and still able to smile, I knew I was gonna make it through the night. Thanks goes, in large part, to Dr. H, my long-time professor who has been my one-woman cheering squad. She offered even more help than the amazing letters of recommendation she penned - the piece of mind I get from her advice. Thank you again, Dr. H - for bringing me back from the brink. And thank you, G-d, for Dr. H!