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A little of this, a little of that, and a whole lot of blah blah blah....

Saturday, January 26, 2013

My Uninvited Shabbos Guest

Shavua tov! For sure this will be a good week! I can already feel it. Shabbos always has a way of concurrently pushing my "re-set" button while at the same time infusing energy and focus into the week ahead. It is a sacred island of time, serenity and connection. The work week itself feels much like climbing a ladder back up to Shabbos. A few rungs on Sunday, a few more early in the week... By Wednesday I am already shopping and preparing, by Thursday night I am scrupulously cleaning my apartment and by the following morning, my candles are set out in preparation of my afternoon arrival home when Shabbos will finally be back--and not a moment too soon!

And yet, this is what you might have heard if you were anywhere within a 30 foot radius of my apartment yesterday five minutes after the appointed time for candle-lighting and bringing in Shabbos:

"Oh my G-d, that's a mouse. There's a mouse! There's a mouse in my apartment! There's a mouse in my shoe! There is a mouse in my apartment, in my shoe and it's Shabbos and OH MY G-D, it's going in my

The following part I cannot type partly because it includes words I am not proud for having said and partly because it is impossible to fully capture with the English language what I can only describe as "screaming like a girl."

Then I did what any rational minded, level-headed adult woman would do. I picked up my Swifter Sweeper, climbed up my couch and decided to remain there. Indefinitely. Maybe even forever. And I cried like a baby.

How could there be a mouse in my apartment on Shabbos? It's already time for bentsch lichten, I am late, it is Shabbos, and now this mouse is ruining Shabbos!

Right around the time I finished screaming like a girl and crying like a baby, my uninvited Shabbos guest re-emerged from the bedroom and scurried across the floor. That was it; it was time for a face off. Swifter Sweeper in hand, I climbed off the top of the couch.

"You are only 2 inches tall," I said to this mouse "and you are not crying, so neither will I."

I walked...well, tiptoed and shrieked my way to the kitchen, got a mostly-empty jar of peanut butter and got ready for business. I removed the lid, placed it on the floor and, like a rational minded, level-headed adult woman, returned to my post on the ledge of the love-seat to await the inevitable.

And that is when I began bargaining with the little guy. He found it quite pleasing to just sit by that jar and carefully lick the remaining peanut butter from the outside. I realized this was like negotiating with terrorists--two inch tall terrorists.

"Listen, little guy, it's Shabbos. You're kind of cute after all. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here."
And in he went. And because, like I said, I am a rational-minded, level-headed adult woman, I was way too afraid to just put the lid back on the jar. So I got a box and put it around the jar. I got another box and put it around the first box. I got a large file folder and slipped it between the wall and the boxes. I got a large trash bag and put it around all of that and feeling quite urban and strangely pleased with myself, removed this unusual package from the premises. I placed it (bag unsealed) by the dumpster and returned home where my candles remained, unlit, now 13 minutes after shkiah (sunset).

I was somewhat disappointed in myself. As a ba'al teshuva, taking on the laws of Shabbos has been a hugely rewarding, challenging, and continuing process. I cannot remember the last time I didn't light candles on Shabbos and now here they were, looking at me sadly from my side table. Right next to them was the yahrtzeit candle I lit for my grandfather, still aglow even though it had been over 24 hours at this point. It was at once sublimely ironic and wistful. And looking at that, I took comfort. I recalled one of the final visits I had with my late grandparents when I was first becoming more observant. It was  over 5 years ago and we were there on Shabbos. I brought candles with me and when it was time to light, I did so in the guest apartment at their assisted living complex. My grandfather, OBM, was already showing early signs of dementia, now that I think back to it. But in a beautiful and poignant moment of lucidity--perhaps for us both--as I quietly made the brachos over kindling the Shabbos lights from the kitchen, I heard him join in from the family room. He seemed so pleased and expressed such joy at hearing these familiar prayers. Even though he was not a religious man in that sense, I knew and know he is proud.

So last night, I walked around the corner to some dear neighborhood friends for a delicious Shabbos meal, incredible company and inspiring words of Torah. I already had gained some humorous perspective on my Shabbos Mouse Situation and through swollen eyes could even laugh at it--and at myself. And by tonight, I can say I've even learned a few valuable lessons from my uninvited Shabbos guest.

Firstly, it is imperative to have a sense of humor. We must be able to make mistakes, but also to laugh it off and, when necessary, laugh at ourselves. When we make mistakes, we must also be cautious not to be overly self-critical. We must be cautious to have this same benefit of the doubt for others as well. This mouse, aside from being in the wrong place, committed no crime. I cannot even say he was here at the wrong time because everything is from Hashem and in that, everything is good. And that is where, perhaps the most important part of my learning came in.

Inasmuch as I am patient and kind with myself, I must also be forthright and focused when there are ways I can refine and grow. Early on in my story, you may have noticed I first spotted my Shabbos mouse 5 minutes after candle-lighting. From the appointed candle-lighting time, there are technically 18 minutes before shkiah, eighteen minutes in which you can halachically still light the Shabbos candles before the official time of sunset. You may also recall, I had not yet lit the candles. There really was no reason for this. So many weeks, I come up in my head with just one or two more things I feel I need to do before I take on Shabbos and this week was no different. Had I lit right at 4:41, maybe I'd have seen the mouse beforehand, maybe not. But I would have surely had a different mindset. There is a unique and utter feeling of tranquility that overcomes me as I bring in Shabbos. It is an auspicious time for women in particular to make personal supplications, to connect one-on-One so to speak. It occurred to me this afternoon as I returned from the home of some other dear friends that I feel I am being called upon to be more stringent in lighting the Shabbos candles on time.

Beyond that and even beyond Shabbos, however, is this idea that in a sense we all let little two-inch-tall terrorists into our homes. And this is what I mean: we all have shdus that although minute and insignificant, we feel is overwhelming. We make it big, we make it powerful and we allow it to overcome us. We let it in on Shabbos, we let it in on the weekdays, we let it in our homes and we let it in our hearts. When I am truly in my rational mindset, I can say I have done and experienced many things in life which might actually be scary, overwhelming and powerful. In those times, I didn't falter. I relied solely on my emunah (faith) and called upon my bitachon (faith and trust in action, so to speak). Why then, when faced with a teeny tiny little mouse scurrying across the floor did I cower atop my love-seat holding a Swifter Sweeper? What might have been different if I had instead lit the Shabbos candles and daavened to Hashem?

And so, as we go into this week, I wish to all of my family and friends and to myself alike that we all find and nurture that ability to laugh it off. May we all continue with a good eye to see when we can grow and refine and may we have clarity along that path. May we also remember that while true emunah is always characterized by some element of doubt, much of our perceived pain and struggle could be eliminated if we at once surrender and take the reigns of prayer into our own hands. We cannot control the universe and, quite frankly, I wouldn't want to. But we can ask for help, for guidance, for support and for comfort. Time and time again, G-d has provided this and we have received.

This past Shabbos, we read Parshas Beshalach, highlighting the most intense aspects of the Exodus from Mitzrayim (Egypt). It is also called Shabbos Shira as we hear the song the entire nation of Israel sang as an expression of gratitude after the parting of the Yam Suf. It is noteworthy that the women, led by Miriam, accompanied their singing with instruments. Where did they get tambourines and drums in the middle of the dessert while fleeing Egypt and an angry mob to boot? The answer is that they had such emunah in G-d's continued miracles and goodness, that they brought them along before they left. In an act of complete bitachon, they already foresaw the gratitude they would inevitably have an opportunity to express. So, too, may we always be prepared to act graciously, humbly and with joy.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me...

"Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could."

—Louise Erdrich

I came across this excerpt a few days ago and it moved me. It created more than just a temporary stirring from within. It brought about the type of feeling that simmers even after the passing of time like the sweetness of that first fresh picked fall apple upon your tongue. 

While we do not live in a world of revealed miracles today as our ancestors once did, we do live in a world in which G-d works continuous wonders time and time again. Sometimes we are bold enough to let ourselves see it and we live with intention and abundance. Other times we turn away; we live timidly, halfheartedly, guardedly. We walk with the expectation that those with whom we cross paths are meant to join this path with us for all time. We face inevitable disappointment. Sometimes, that is not the case. Sometimes our paths cross and intersect. Sometimes, we hit an impasse, and our journeys continue in opposite directions. Other times still, our journeys parallel in a unique fashion that can at once look both self reflective and completely foreign.

In the past weeks, I cannot help but feel the awe and amazement of how and when my path has intertwined with others'. Some of these fellow travelers are quite familiar; we are old companions and despite the tests of time and geography, to each other we are always known and understood. Some of these fellow travelers are more recent inductions to my journey. Already we have left footprints in the sand behind us and there is much trail ahead yet to traverse. Some of these travelers are altogether new and unknown and I am astounded at how quickly a familiar glimmer in the eye or inflection in the voice can leave us feeling like we're old friends. 

And this is what I've learned. This is what I know. We all have shdus. We have stories. We have sadness. We have triumphs and trials and childlike fears. And more often than I think we allow ourselves to realize, we all want very much the same thing: company, companionship. And within that, we also long for permanence. Since this is a factor over which we have no control, often we grasp and cling to the little things in life over which we convince (and often fool) ourselves that we have mastery. Sometimes, maybe often times, it would behoove us to loosen the reigns, to smile and to enjoy the ride. To at once taste as many apples as we can but also not cling to one that was bitter or the one that was the sweetest we had ever tasted.

This Friday corresponds to the date in the Jewish calendar of my late grandfather, Harry Blustein's yahrzeit (anniversary of the day of death). My grandfather passed away five years ago. Even though the old photos grow blurry and fade with the passing of time, my memory of my Poppa is as vivid as though I am still beside him here on these stairs in our family's old house. He was a man who was unafraid to live passionately, intentionally and abundantly. He loved intensely, completely, and without fear. These are characteristics I strive to emulate. I truly pray and believe he would be proud today to see his children, grandchildren and now a beautiful great-grandson named in his beloved honor. 

Not everyone is blessed and lucky enough to say that they have seen, witnessed, and experienced a love as sincere, full and complete as the one shared for over 60 years between my grandparents, both of blessed memory. This was a love that not only radiated between them but also emanated from them toward the many other blessed and lucky souls they touched along the way.

The following excerpt is from HaYom-Yom, an anthology of aphorisms and customs compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe from the talks and lectures given by The Previous Rebbe. These passages are arranged according to the days of the year and this is the one for the 14th of Shevat, corresponding to my grandfather's yarhzeit:

Our Holy forebears, the Rebbei'im through the generations, appealed to G-d and evoked Divine compassion toward their Chassidim, those bound to them. This was not all; they also had an Avoda (service/work) of bringing their Chassidim to mind, inwardly, pondering their affection and attachment to the Rebbe, reciprocating that affection and attachment. Bringing someone to mind has the effect of arousing that person's innermost powers. We see that when one looks deeply and intently at another he will around and return the glance, because the penetrating gaze awaken the core of the soul. Thought has the same effect.

Today, even though my grandfather's footsteps walk a path in the World to Come rather than in this physical realm alongside me, the thoughts and love my family and I have for him very much keep the power of his holy soul alive. May we all find comfort and companionship as much in the relationships we share in this moment as to those we share across the borders of linear time and space. And may my grandfather's neshama have an aliyah.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Shabbos Schmooze: The Priceless Gift of Removing Your Headphones

It's time for a story! So take a break from the cleaning, let the warm, fresh challah rest and cool as it fills the room with smells of Shabbos. And join me for a brief schmooze about an all too familiar scenario and a uniquely different outcome.

It was 4:15 this afternoon and my workday was done. I love my job and I was very ready to go home! I have a lot to do tonight to get ready for Shabbos. It's been a busy week at work as well as outside of it. By the time I finally made my way out the door to begin my mile long trek to the city-bus stop, all I wanted to do was put my headphones on and listen to some music. I was deep in thought about my ostensibly important to-do list, thoughts of the workday I'd just completed, worries about this and frustrations at that when I saw her.

She is small in stature, 83-years-wise and quite the little pistol! I've seen her often. She walks slightly stooped at a slow and steady pace up the same street I take to get to the same bus stop. She pushes a cart and I've never bothered to look and see what's inside. Her trek is interrupted every few feet when she stops, leaves her cart, walks up to a nearby tree and gently pats its trunk, quietly mumbling. She stops at every tree. There are a lot of trees along that street. She ends her trek at the bus stop where she waits, quietly peering into the distance for the arrival of the bus. After a while, her anticipation becomes more vocal as she anxiously awaits the bus that is ostensibly always late.

The first time we were together at the bus stop, she asked me if I knew what time it was. I responded, smiled, and we commiserated on the woes of waiting for this bus. She seemed so sweet and kind and as the bus finally pulled up in front of our stop, I extended my hand and offered to help her with her cart. Her sweet and kind demeanor suddenly shifted. She grew enraged and loudly declined my offer. She yelled at me, at the driver, possibly at the whole world, that the day she needs help she'll just stay home. "I'm terribly sorry ma'am," I said. "I didn't mean any offense." And I sat down in my seat. I put my headphones on. I tried to blink back the tears burning in my eyes.

I cried because she reminded me of my own late grandmother and in a way, causing pain to this complete stranger felt no different than the possibility of ever having caused pain to my beloved Nana, may her neshama be blessed. But I also cried because even if my intentions were right, my actions caused this woman hurt and that was wrong. I felt I should say something more to her. Apologize again and explain that I understood I'd been insensitive. And yet, I was silent. I said nothing because I was embarrassed and ashamed and stubborn. And also a little indignant that because I was only trying to help, I was right and had nothing to apologize for!

The woman reached her stop and as she made her way down the aisle of the bus to get off, she angrily muttered at everyone in her path. A few stops after when I prepared to disembark, the driver stopped me and told me that this lady is all sugar and spice until she's offered help. Apparently I was not the first to be on the receiving end of her soliloquy. He told me she is 83 years old and has lived here her whole life. She was a school teacher and still tutors children around town. "Don't offer to help her, though," he admonished, "'cuz she gets mean!" I shrugged the incident off that day. Every so often I saw her again. Sometimes I saw her yell at grown men who fell into the same unfortunate trap of a scenario. (Some of them also had tears in their eyes afterward.) And until today, I didn't even speak another word to her.

So when I arrived at our bus stop with my headphones on, my hood up and every means of remaining camouflaged I could think of, I was not at all wanting to be disturbed. Surely all of my personal thoughts were more important than even taking a minute to extend a friendly smile--especially to someone who may not receive it so well. But then she asked me for the time. I somewhat begrudgingly removed my headphones and reached into my coat pocket for my cell phone. "It's 4:35," I responded.  "The bus should arrive in about ten minutes." I put my headphones back on and turned up the volume to my i-pod. Barely a minute later, I saw she was speaking to me again. I turned off the i-pod. I took down my hood. I removed my headphones and decided to listen. She spoke at length about the weather, the temperature, the bus routes and other daily minutia. When the bus finally sidled up to the curb, she asked me to board ahead of her. I thanked her and proceeded and then I took my seat. I thought for a moment to put my headphones back on but then thought better of it. For the remainder of our short ride together, we talked. Nothing deep, nothing life altering, just friendly conversation between complete strangers who happened to board a city bus headed downtown.

When she reached her stop, she bid me a pleasant day. She smiled and waved at the driver, offering well wishes to everyone in her path. I put my headphones back on and turned on my music thinking to myself that I must really have brightened her day and what a gift I had given of being willing to listen and smile. And then I immediately felt foolish. For I realized as a warm smile and tranquility spread across my own face that I, in fact, was on the receiving end in this scenario. This woman truly gave me a priceless gift. No more was my mind corrupted by meaningless thoughts, worries and frustrations. Rather, I was arriving home to prepare for Shabbos and fulfill my evening chores b'simcha--with joy! Moreover, I learned that to act kindly from a place of selfishness may still have a pleasant outcome, but to act kindly from a place of selflessness is what constitutes true chesed (Hebrew: kindness).To step outside of the ticker tape of our own mishigas (Yiddish for nonsense, craziness)--opens up our souls not only to be truly giving people, but also truly receive the innumerable lessons that can only be gleaned from a complete stranger at a city-bus stop.

I thought back, also, to the way I watched this woman walk. Stooped, slow, and steady, stopping every few feet to gently pat a tree before she'd continue on her way... And I wondered what it is about those trees that incites her loving reaction? Perhaps, it is their familiarity. Surely this woman who has lived and walked here her whole life has known some of these trees from the time they were saplings. Surely she has seen people come and go. Surely she has been offered help and maybe at times she has received it. But today she walks alone. Stooped. Slow. Steady. And with confidence. Wisdom. Dignity. Those trees don't offer her any unsolicited help, they just stand sturdy and strong through the inevitable arrival and departure of city buses and pedestrians alike. They may change with the seasons and bend with the storms, but internally they remain the same: predictably upright, silent and strong.

Lessons come in many forms and education is invaluable. From the trees, and from this unique individual, we, too, can learn the beauty and kindness of being able to stand upright, silent and strong. We, too, can relate to the tug of time and the passing of the seasons. But like the trees and like the old woman, we must bend with the storm rather than allow it to break us. We can be overcome or we can overcome. And when all else fails, may we find the humility and kindness to take off our headphones, smile, talk less and listen more. Shabbat Shalom!

Sunday, January 06, 2013

In Perpetual Pursuit: A Journey Toward Oneness & Wellness

It's officially 2013, and in keeping with my tradition, I am not making any New Year's Resolutions. In each day and in every moment, I strive to do what I love and love what I do. Today that looked like three miles of quality time spent on the treadmill. Running again is still so amazing to me. As I pick up speed and distance, I am reminded of the blessings I am continuously bestowed. I spent years fervently pursuing control over my health and body. All the while, time was chasing closely after me, with the inevitability of disaster nibbling at my heels. With G-d's help, the life I live today is not at all the one I foresaw as possible even three years ago; every moment has surpassed even my loftiest dreams from those days. As I run, I find myself meditating on the words: "Oneness" and "Wellness." They are indicative of all that I joyfully pursue at this point. I am humbled by the oneness and omnipotence of a compassionate G-d Who has enveloped me and carried me every step of this journey. I am grateful to be living a life of health and wellness that, please G-d, will continue as I continue to work toward it. And with that said, it's time to be honest.

Those who know me closely or who have followed this blog over the past years are likely familiar with my journey toward wellness. Many are familiar with the misdiagnoses I received and know that I spent years living with the affects of a yet-to-be-diagnosed and untreated sleep disorder. It tailored how I saw my life options. It tailored how I saw my abilities. It tailored at times how I saw my personal worth. In January 2011 when I received my diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea, I felt utterly liberated. I was still in pain, still twitching, and still experiencing the full manifestation of my symptoms, but I carried my C-PAP machine home with the belief that it was my way out. As much time as I spent in full on rage against that machine--and let me tell you, at times, it really blows! (pun intended)--I believed with all my heart that it would work. That I could make it work. I affectionately referred to it as my Get Out of Jail Free Machine. And it did work; I'm free! But two years ago, when I was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, I'd received another misdiagnosis.

So when I met with my new sleep physician here who had looked at the test results and showed them to me, his curiosity and concern were unmistakable. I'd received an OSA diagnosis and had plenty of apneas during my original polysomnogram; but the vast majority of them were not obstructive in nature. Rather, they were central apneas. In other words, there wasn't some aspect of my throat or airways that was being blocked or collapsing; my brain was not signalling the normally involuntary trigger to breathe. I did have a second sleep study in which I was allowed to use a C-PAP machine and my own mask but the pressure was reduced in the hopes of inducing symptoms. This doctor wanted to see once and for all what was happening and if it was being effectively treated.

The beginning of the night was rough to say the least. The pressure was much lower than what I'm used to. I couldn't stay asleep; I couldn't stay awake. I was hooked up head to toe to electrodes and wires. I was moving around so much some of the equipment broke and had to be replaced in the middle of the night. The technician came in to do this and asked me "Why are you having trouble sleeping?" I was so frustrated. How should I know?! Wasn't she the one with the bird's eye view on this?? Actually, she did know why--45 minutes after falling asleep I'd already had my first full on central apnea. At that point, the process of not initiating respiration occurred repeatedly at a duration that is longer than even typical with most mixed/complex or central apnea cases. My blood oxygen levels got lower and lower until I started twitching to wake up. The only aspect of that I was aware of was the part where I woke up with a racing heartbeat, drenched in sweat, tangled in wires and utterly exhausted.

I got out of bed at that point, took a breath, remembered how comforted I'd felt as I went to sleep knowing that friends near and far were saying Tehillim (Psalms) on my behalf. Meanwhile, the technician manually raised the pressure on my machine back to what I use at home. At that point, I went back to sleep and slept--while breathing, cycling normally through all four stages of sleep--for the rest of the night. I met with the doctor at the end of last month. He looked at the results; he showed them to me. He expressed his level of astonishment that the C-PAP was working at all let alone that it was completely treating my symptoms both on a clinical and physiological level. Yes, central apnea is rare; yes, central apnea without an underlying cause is rarer. But in that moment as in many moments over the last few years, I decided, once again, to let go. What difference does it make if the part of my body not functioning at sleep is in my throat or in my brain? We don't always have to know why something happens or how it works; it's not our responsibility and it's not our burden. The level of humble gratitude I felt in that moment is indescribable. Everything is from G-d. Had I known two years ago that there was even a chance let alone likelihood that C-PAP therapy might not work for me, I'd never have pushed through the discomfort and frustration of finding a set-up that--for whatever reason--actually keeps me breathing and sleeping through the night.

I've said it before and I can say it again: the best gifts in life come in some unique packages. Running away from everything is exhausting and living timidly is death. Running in pursuit of my own holiness and healthfulness feels comparatively effortless. Experiencing this world's abundance in every form--the good, the bad, the ugly and indifferent--that is life. I choose, with G-d's help, to live abundantly.