A Gift Numbered Five

MayaFriday I finished radiation treatment #19 in my journey towards 40. I am at the center the same time every morning five days a week. The valet guy doesn’t even give me a ticket any more. He always greets me warmly. The other day his smile was bigger than I ever saw. The person who had just left had told him: “You always have a good word for me and this is just because I can and just because I want to.” And he was handed three one hundred dollar bills. (That put my bagels and donuts in place!)

This is what my daily radiation ritual is teaching me. This is what the valet guy and I learned. Life is filled with surprises. Some are good, some are challenging, some manageable, some frightening. But everything has consequences. Even that which is designed to heal and cure has the potential to injure and disable. One of the hardest parts is feeling you have no control and you don’t choose what you have been given or what just comes your way. I’ve been good so far – minor stuff and annoyances – but all within the range of “this should be the worst”.  So I am grateful but also a little anxious about 20 -40. I keep telling myself not to let my imaginary concerns about tomorrow disturb the blessings of today. I have learned it’s about feeling the sun on your face, smiling back and sharing in the joy of living through every minute.

This weekend our youngest granddaughter became a Bat Mitzvah. She was called to the Torah and we celebrated her growth, her accomplishments, her determination, her spirit, her smile, her love of life and her family’s love of her. I don’t think any of us could have been prouder. I started this blog off saying 19 out of 40. But the most important number is 5 out of 5. Maya is the fifth of our five grandchildren who have blessed us by their commitment to Jewish life. And they were all here this weekend. So if you want to talk about what I am learning – savor every blessing, big and small, whether they come in batches or one by one, or five at a time, because the challenges just keep rolling in whether you want them or not.

This is what I really know. Life isn’t meant to be easy. Life is meant to be purposeful and sacred. And the hard, the scary, the challenging intensify what really is important. This weekend was a gift: family, food, friends, sunshine, laughter, love. It was one of those mountain moments on the journey.

Maya, Maya, Maya – we love you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s Not a Microwave

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So this was day one; thirty-nine more to go. Forty is a transitional number in the Bible. It rains forty days and nights in the Noah story; Jonah walks through the city of Nineveh for forty days warning the people to repent. The Israelites wander in the desert for forty years until they can cross over and enter the land of promise. Even Jesus gets in the act being tempted for forty days and nights before returning to the Galilee to preach. It seems in Biblical times one enters this time of forty and comes out the other side different, changed, ready, healed. I’m counting on it.

This was day one of my forty radiation treatments. I was diagnosed with prostate cancer back in the fall and today I laid myself down and let the machine begin the healing process. It didn’t hurt; I felt nothing; even the sounds coming out of the machine were much less intimidating than an MRI. It’s not the only protocol associated with my treatments but this was a moment of so many thoughts and so many associations.

It is hard hearing this cancer word even though people I love and respect have told me that I will be fine. I will not die from this. I just have to follow the rules, keep strong and stay positive. Everything in this process has been stepped, like those of Russia. Wide swaths of time waving in the wind silently speaking that this cannot be ignored (not the cancer nor the emotions). When my PSA numbers first began to climb the Doctors said it was time to check my blood every six months and then it was time to have an MRI and then it was time to have a biopsy and then – I don’t have to go through all the details….

But today was real. I found myself looking for meaning in everything, looking for signs. It is the evening of my mother’s birthday; the color of the red light against the backdrop of the water and the sky where I make the left is redder than usual. The arms of the machine against the blue of the plastic panes are embracing. It is good – twice good – to begin on a Tuesday since on that third day of creation, God said it was good, twice. It will be fine.

I guess what it all adds up to is my finitude is catching up. I’m going to let it for a while, maybe 39 more times, but then: Watch out – I am crossing out the lines on the bucket list.

Who’s In?

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This is what greeted me on my phone from a New York Times feed yesterday morning. Deadly shootings in schools — that is, the killing of children in sanctuaries of learning — have become a distinctly American ritual, the rote responses as familiar as a kindergarten recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. It is the day after the day after the school massacre in Parkland, Florida and 17 funerals have already started.

Everyone I speak to is disheartened, sad, frustrated, angry that all our politicians do is offer platitudes. Is it ok with them that the new normal is that the American Flag flies at half-mast? I have posted and shared on Facebook cute and clever cartoons that Nicholas Cruz isn’t an immigrant, isn’t Muslim, signed petitions, sent money ….

But I haven’t done this:

https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/16/politics/three-billboards-rubio-trnd/index.html

Open the link. Even if you have to copy and paste it. I’m in. I have no idea how much a billboard cost – but imagine billboards all across America. Something’s got to shake up our elected officials. Something has to move the needle. I believe in the power of prayer to inspire us to live and act on our values. I believe in the power of prayer to help us console the bereaved. But prayer can become platitude. And our politicians pray for the victims. How about this? “Who rises from prayer a better person, their prayer is answered.”

Help our society become better. Remove easy access to automatic rifles. Tighten background checks. Do what has to be done to make our society safer, our schools sanctuaries of learning and not fear. Raise our flag to wave proudly across a nation that values life over guns.

So I mean it – Who’s in?

https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/16/politics/three-billboards-rubio-trnd/index.html

Or I’m open to a better idea – but doing nothing is not an option.

 

 

Starbursts and Super Bowls

IMG_6782I am sitting outside on this partly cloudy beautiful South Florida Sunday morning. It is February and the tree with green leaves and purple undersides is just beginning to initiate its annual firework display of flowers. I looked up its name on the Internet so that I can look intelligent to you. It is officially Clerodendrum Quadriloculare, described as dark and sultry.  For those of us who can’t quite pronounce or remember the Latin name, it is also called Shooting Star or Starburst. You can prune it so it is tree like with one trunk or let it grow like a bush and watch it spread. I let it do both. That is until my HOA decides it is intruding on their right of way cutting it back from their side of the fence. But that’s a different story.

It is also Super Bowl Sunday. I thought the skit on SNL last night was hysterical, pitting patriots (small “p”) of Boston against the Mid-Atlantic colonials of Philadelphia. It is Philly cheese steaks against New England clam chowder – tough choices for heart-healthy diet. Not that I am religious about it – I look for any excuse, any holiday, any occasion to eat a Hebrew National Pigs in Blankets.

Tonight will be no exception. I guess I am just not a purist. I guess I just don’t believe in strict and fierce absolutes. I guess I am willing to admit that I am not always right and I am not always consistent. And that’s ok. And if I don’t follow football rigorously the rest of the year but want to pretend to be a loyal Patriot’s fan today, I am entitled. Emerson said, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

And so I will sit in front of the TV tonight and route for my “home” team. I am participating in a national phenomenon hyped by the NFL and NBC. By the time some of you read this, we will know who the stars of the evening are: the commercials, the QBs, Timberlake or just us – all of us brought together, all of us setting aside our differences and tribalism, just enjoying this modern gladiator spectacle in living color.

But I don’t want to end without coming back to my starburst tree. It is a marker for me. It indicates a fundamental truth of nature. We are destined for growth. We are born to flower. Exploding stars of red and white petals set against a blue endless sky are in our genes. It gives me hope that someone in Washington will see this too. This nation is too good for games. This nation has too much potential to be held hostage to politics. I want to be proud of those who govern and lead me. And if it all is a game: Then play it with honest referees and stick to the rules. Make me proud you are in my backyard.

bottom 3rd from the right

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I’m embarrassed. It has been months since I have written anything for this blog and I have an excuse but not a good one. I wouldn’t blame you if you have given up on me and unsubscribed from rabbiunplugged.wordpress.com (Don’t do that – just saying). But I’m back – at least I have all these good intentions to be back. It’s easy to let yourself get off track and to make up all kind of reasons why you are not doing what you should or could. Not that this blog is a requirement for graduation or even my self-esteem. I have been richly validated during this almost month long celebration of the 50th year since my Ordination as a Rabbi. And I loved every minute.

The picture of the 16 of us in our graduation gowns and hoods (the kind that go around your neck not over your head) capture us in time. We were all men; women Rabbis were to come five years later. And we were all young at least I think we look that way. I am pretty sure we were all first career Rabbis, most of us destined for what was then a typical career path in a congregation.

But life has a will of its own. Another way of saying that is to insert the word God in that sentence. Pathways open up before us and God calls us to choose which trail to take. I don’t mean that literally. But every turn and fork in the road is a choice and that includes even the unconscious decision to let inertia be the wind at your back. The challenge is to find the sacred and the holy, the meaningful and satisfying in the details and demands of each day.

And challenge is a good word here. There were stretches of time when routine took over and I just plodded away. Luckily, someone, something woke me to the moment and said: God is in this place – look at the bush, burning unconsumed. Notice it. (Yes, I have amalgamated stories and images – hey – 50 years – you get some license.)

I have tried to live with the words of Rabbi Alvin Fine’s poem as my prayer and mantra. “Birth is a beginning and death a destination but life is a journey a going, a growing made stage by stage…. victory lies not in some high place along the way, but in having made the journey (into) a sacred pilgrimage.” We choose what is high and what is low. We choose how to extrapolate the holy from the profane. We choose how to see/reflect/perceive the multitude of experiences life hands us.

Some (too many) in the picture are no longer physically with us. They are gone to what the ancient Rabbis often called the Academy on High. I miss them and don’t understand the why. But that too is a life lesson, one of the hardest to internalize. We don’t get to know it all – no matter how many degrees and accomplishment to our credit. There is a mystery at the heart of birth and death. And so I hold onto the unknown by saying Baruch – blessed. Blessed are the years; blessed are the paths; blessed are the people; blessed are the moments when I am aware of the “You” out there – patiently waiting to be embraced.

 

 

 

 

 

Irma and Jonah

Irma

Friday Morning, 9.8.17  Pre Irma

We sit and we sit and we sit. And personally I can’t sleep (not for long anyways) even though the hurricane shutters have cut off the light that normally seeps in through the blinds. I want to write that it is the hardest part, this waiting, this watching, this constant listening to the weather experts trying to figure out where will Irma turn, what is its path, how strong the winds, and how much more should we be doing to prepare. But as of today, I don’t know and I’m not in control, not of much anyway. Tomorrow and the day after will tell the story and looking back we will know more than we know now.

Saturday Morning 9.9.17

We know more. We know that Irma’s projected track has shifted. Good news for us on the Southeast Coast of Florida, bad news for the Keys and Fort Myers. There is a sense of relief but the 24 hour TV coverage keeps pushing the point: Don’t let your guard down. You may be out of the cone for now but just as it turned once it can turn again and the associated winds and rain are not to be taken lightly. The quote that resonates with me today is from the Kabbalah. (Full disclosure I saw it in a thank you note from the URJ.) “This world is a raging ocean and you should imagine yourself always in a ship at sea.” As someone with a phobia about getting sea sick, the imagery speaks to me. The deck is constantly shifting beneath our feet. We don’t feel it every day; we can’t; we wouldn’t be able to put one foot in front of another. That’s where trust and faith come in. Trust that we have made wise decisions and done what we can do to contain the chaos; faith that it will be “ok”; we will be “ok” and we will weather whatever comes.

Tuesday … Damage Assessment

We were very lucky. Our house seems to be on a grid that rarely loses power. So we were able to come back and have lights, air conditioning and the ability to recharge our devices. (Not everyone is so fortunate.)  Lost some screen panels around our pool; lost Cable and Internet, which turns out to be a surprisingly annoying piece of the puzzle. But on the good side, our grandson Jacob talked me through making my phone a hot spot both for my ability to connect to the outside world  and to watch some mindless shows using Apple TV. Who knew I was so dependent on filling time with such gratuitous entertainment? (That is kind of embarrassing to admit.)

Back to “lucky”. Or were we very blessed? It is hard for me to use that term in this context because does that mean that those who were in the more direct path of Irma were “cursed”? There is an implicit theology here that doesn’t sit well with me, although the biblical prophets would have bought into it. The God I believe in doesn’t direct storms, earthquakes, floods or any other natural disaster to chastise or instruct the people of Houston, Mexico, or Florida. The God I believe in is found in our ability to ask, what does this teach us. Does it instruct us to find love of neighbor and caring for the stranger in our responses? To reflect on our relationship with this planet that lives and breathes and twirls and swirls and reacts in a variety of ways to how we use or abuse our relationship with it. To act responsibly for the future and not ignore what our best scientific minds our telling us about Global Warming. To build our buildings to withstand the winds of the new reality and create an infrastructure that is less vulnerable to what nature can bring.

Come to think about it – storms can teach. Ask Jonah what he learned in the midst of the storm. Well actually ask Jonah what God was trying to teach him about acceptance and forgiveness, love and our common humanity. It is doubtful Jonah ever really learned – how sad for tomorrow if we are Jonah sitting under a gourd and caring only for ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

A Piece of Honesty

downward dog abstractI dabbled in Yoga this summer, making it my project, hoping I would be comfortable enough to continue some kind of Yoga practice when I returned to what I call normalcy and the South Florida heat and humidity. Today I made it happen.

I went to a Yoga class alone; I didn’t have a mat (I left mine in NC but you could rent one – interesting dichotomy between a small town where they were free for the borrowing and suburban sprawl Palm Beach County. I’m not judging just observing.)   I was the only man and probably one of the few over 60 in the group. I was also the tallest, the heaviest and the worst dressed – do they have Lulu Lemon for men?

We began on our backs learning how to inhale and exhale and find our breath as the instructor talked about vulnerability. My monkey mind said, “don’t talk to me about being vulnerable; here I am exposing to the world what a fraud I am. You think you know “downward dog”, you don’t know ________.” It was hard and it was good and I am surprised how heavily I perspired. I was grateful when the 75 minutes were up and we returned to our backs in what I remember being called “corpse pose” but had a different name this morning.

Besides some muscles speaking to me about what I have just done to them, I took away an appreciation of how hard you can work in slow motion. This was called a slow flow class and that’s what we did (I did more of the slow and less of the flow, but there is always next time.) Everything doesn’t have to be fast or pumped up. You can strengthen yourself both physically and spiritually gradually and incrementally.

But I really took away a willingness to reflect introspectively on my disposition to be vulnerable and I mean by that my sense of comfort in being open about my weaknesses, my doubts, my faults and failings. It is that time of year in the Jewish calendar. The Hebrew month of Elul leading up to the New Year is our prep time for new beginnings, clean slates, forgiveness and forgiving others and ourselves.

So here’s a piece of honesty. I’m not good at not being good at what I do. I need a lot of acceptance. I need validation from outside sources. I need to be praised and affirmed probably a little too much. I know this because at the end of the class, when the instructor and I were alone, I asked her: How’d I do? I asked it in the guise of what classes do you think would be beneficial to me, but I knew I needed her approval and being told: you’re good enough.

I wonder who or what did this to me? I wonder if this feeling of not being worthy is just built in to the human psyche. I know what my Elul work is this time around. It is finding the good; affirming the competent; believing in myself and loving the pieces that are still to be polished and refined knowing they are all good and isn’t it great I am not done?