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Sunday, June 16, 2013

That Simple Thing Known As Emunah (Faith)

It's a typical Sunday here. I took my time davening (praying) this morning, and now I'm still sipping my morning cup of coffee. It's hard to believe that nine weeks from today my chosson (groom) and I will be preparing for our chassanah (wedding)! Reality comes in small doses of excitement, panic, anticipation, and everything in between. I'm in the final stages of preparing to leave Albany, NY at the end of next month and it was barely a year ago I was in the final stages of preparing to come here! What an amazing difference one year can make!

I remember last year on a hot and sticky summer day, while visiting the place I planned to potentially call home, that I sat at the Shabbos table of the head Chabad shlichim here. I was in such awe and shock to be there; they are a highly respected family in our community and worthy of that respect. They had some of their children and grandchildren visiting that day as well. Many of them have gone on to open their own Chabad houses in surrounding areas and university campuses. I was just some young woman coming from across the country with a Big Idea to move back to her childhood hometown.

Trying to get a sense of this Big Idea, one of the rabbis asked me:
"So, you have a place to live here?"

"No." I answered.

"Oh," he responded, seeming a bit surprised. After all, my cross country move was less than one month away. "Well you must have a job then, right?"

"Um, no." I answered.

"So you have a lot of emunah, then!" he concluded.
I, at that time, came to a different conclusion: I was completely off my rocker! What was I doing with a one way plane ticket, no place to live and no way to support myself?! And though I was very familiar with this word, what was this emunah I supposedly had?

Time and memory are an amazing pair that gracefully dance around one another. About a year later, I remember in theory that there must have been times I panicked and tears that I shed making a 3,000 mile move after 9 years with nothing but 15 medium sized boxes, one bicycle, 3 suitcases, a carry-on and some medical equipment. I recall my dear friend, my rebbetzin from Spokane, driving me to the airport at 4:00am. I remember the 13 plus hours of traveling with three connecting flights. I remember keeping a stiff upper lip (even though the lower one was getting a wee bit wobbly with each passing time zone). And I remember the moment my carry-on exploded on the tram at the Newark airport, letting loose a laptop and piles of important paperwork and documents on the floor of the bus just as it pulled to my gate. No matter, I thought. I made it this far, I'll just stuff it back in and keep going. But what do I recall the most? That last 45 minute flight from Newark to Manchester, NH. The weather was horrible; the plane was the size of my morning vitamin. And as it shook violently in a night sky flashing with lightening, I heard this song on my ipod and felt nothing but comfort and hope. I knew I was on the cusp of something huge and in that moment, it didn't matter that I wasn't sure what that was. All that mattered was that I knew that things would be good. I knew G-d was with me; I had nothing to fear. G-d was with me when I'd made that journey in the other direction 9 years before. He was with me when I got sick; He was with me when I got well. He was with me in times of plenty; He was with me when resources were scarce. There was no reason not to believe that He was with me now.
And what else do I remember? I remember thinking to myself that I was seeking my own Avraham. A man who could open his heart and his home. A man who could have enough emunah to "take us home" even if, like me, he didn't know for sure where that was or how to get there.

Fast forward about a year to a typical Sunday. My coffee is cold, but I'm still sipping slowly. I'm nine weeks away from marrying that man I believed so deeply I would find if I took 4 planes 3,000 miles away to a place I'd called home as a child. And do I find myself stuck in moments of doubt? Of course. I worry about leaving my job and having nothing lined up on the other end. I worry about missing the friendships I built over this last year. And yet, in the areas it matters most, I have no doubt at all. I know without a doubt that, with G-d's help, I've found my basherte (soulmate). Of all of his many good qualities, the one I most greatly admire is his emunah, his complete faith in G-d. It is present through his unwavering confidence in his Yiddishkeit. It is visible through his deep and complete love for his fellow Jew and the beautifully selfless way he will bend over backwards just to help a friend in need. Our ancestors before us have walked to the chuppa  (marriage canopy) in this way for thousands of years; we are just blessed enough to carry on in that tradition.

But what is this emunah that allowed us to make our individual returns to the ways of our ancestors? How did having faith merit us the z'chus after a lifetime of searching to meet each other face to face on a sidewalk in Flatbush, NY? Is it trust or temporary insanity that allowed us to know without a doubt after barely three months and only that many face-to-face meetings that we are meant to be husband and wife? Perhaps it is a bit of both. Emunah is not blind faith, but what we do see versus what we don't is a huge part of it. As I took an evening Shabbos stroll through a local park yesterday, the setting sun shone brightly in my eyes rendering me completely unable to see the ground before my feet, let alone what lie ahead. Nonetheless, I kept walking. I didn't need to see to know the pavement just two steps ahead and two steps ahead was all I needed to know. Additionally, having the sun in my eyes didn't make me question whether or not I would ever see again. No one worries they are blind because the sun is in his eyes! We just inherently know that it is temporary, that if we keep moving we will see again or at the very least, time will move the sun. And we also know that this same sun that renders us temporarily blind also warms our shoulders and shines on our cheeks and paints the evening sky in shades of pink. So, too, can we know without a doubt that feelings of fear over the unknown are temporary. With G-d's help, if we keep moving, it will be revealed or at the very least, time will reveal it for us. We don't need to see everything that lies ahead in order to take next step; we need only to put one foot forward and then the other. Not everything is meant for us to see; not everything is our responsibility. But that element of doubt that characterizes our trust is just like that setting sun. It is temporary. Through time and space, it will pass. And G-d is very much there to gently warm our shoulders, to shine on our cheeks and to paint the path ahead in shades of hope. That is the very simply thing known as emunah.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Don't Worry About a Thing... And Other Life Lessons Learned In Preschool

June is a tricky month when you are a teacher, particularly of four-year-olds who will go on to kindergarten in the fall. All year long, it seems that June will never come. Some days, it seems that 1:00 will never come! And then, less timidly than September and with less fanfare then December, and hardly as subtly as March, June arrives and with it, Graduation Day. These bright and longing faces that walked into my classroom in September with combed back hair and sparkly shoes, with shiny backpacks and freshly creased pants are preparing to walk out my door and into the World. June, you did it again! Here you are and these kids are all seemingly a foot taller. Some have lost teeth. Some have gotten glasses. Their hair is a little more wild, their sparkly shoes a little worn for the wear. Those shiny backpacks are faded and wrinkled; those freshly creased pants no longer even reach their ankles. In many ways, nothing will change. Many of these kids will still come back to school come Monday morning when camp begins. And with my pending nuptials, I'll be leaving that classroom a bit before they do. But some things did change. Some of them are barely palpable and some of them tug at my heartstrings because in this year of teaching, more perhaps than in any other, I changed.
I walked into my classroom in September with combed back hair, sparkly shoes and a Muppet backpack.  (Later that month, a small school bus pulled to the side of the downtown sidewalk where I was awaiting the city bus and asked if I was the little girl who was supposed to be taken to a local elementary school; I promptly swapped the Muppet backpack for a tote and purse instead.) I walked in with all the confidence in the world, ready to teach my students. This was, after all, my dream job: an integrated classroom with a play-based curriculum in a Jewish school. In the end, however, it is my students who taught me. They taught me how to learn, how to play, how to love and how to forgive. They taught me how to fall and how to cry. They taught me how to feel and how to have hope that truly springs eternal. And this came in phases. There were lessons learned in the classroom, lessons learned in the hallway, and lessons learned on the playground. They are lessons I shall carry near to me as I continue my career in whatever realm that will be and they are lessons I shall carry dear to me when, G-d willing, I become a parent myself. My co-teachers and fellow staff, too, were invaluable in these lessons and became like family.
Today as I cleaned out and set up my classroom for camp, I could smell the change in the air. Something about the emptiness and the humidity of June just felt so disorienting, but at the same time so familiar. And it really hit home today that everything I've ever learned in life, I learned in preschool. It began in 1987 in my own preschool classroom at a synagogue down the street from the one where I now teach, and it continued 25 years later in this one with many other classrooms along the way. I could never adequately convey it all in one blog post, but here are some highlights:

Stop Talking! I talk a lot. A lot! Having a severe ear infection this year was one of the greatest gifts-in-disguise I ever received. For over a month I was in severe pain and my right ear was literally draining. I tried 3 rounds of antibiotics before the infection finally cleared, but my hearing didn't fully restore for four months. I was embarrassed to admit it, but for about a month and half, I really could hear almost nothing out of my right ear. All of a sudden, unless a child was looking at me and speaking toward my left, I missed entirely what he or she had said. I came to understand for a child with a processing delay how much time it actually takes to decipher and decode what a teacher is saying. I learned to slow down and leave space because the children had to do this now for me. It caused me anxiety especially at first. I felt frustrated and embarrassed when I had to ask people to repeat themselves one or even several times. Now, the anxiety, frustration and embarrassment the children felt when they couldn't respond to a directive right away made a lot more sense. In not being able to hear, I learned not to talk. I learned that the moments when my voice would want to be loud are the moments when my voice should become quiet. I learned to say less and to listen more.

That's It, I'm Going Home! It was my first day when I followed a student out of the room to his cubby as he put on his backpack, grabbed his lunch box and proceeded toward the front exit. "That's it, I'm going home!" he announced. How many times in my life have I felt that? How many times have I actually said it?! We've all felt that way. Done. Just done. And there really is no place like home. But what I learned from my students and from 11 places I called home in the last 28 years and soon to be 12, G-d willing, is that home is not a location. It's not a physical place and I don't need to go anywhere to be there. Home is a state of mind and a state of being. And everything I need is in the faces and the places around me.

You can pick your nose. you can pick your friends, AND you can pick your friends' nose. Ok, that one is pretty self explanatory. But my students taught me a lot about friendship, boogers and all. Together we learned that you have to be a friend to have a friend. And when I really think about it, this is true of all relationships. Even building the bond and connection between a husband and wife is not so dissimilar to the very basic foundations we learn about relating to one another as preschoolers. We must be confident enough in our individuality to be sensitive to that confidence in the other. We must be willing to share, and when we're not, able to take some space. We might not all like the same things, but we do like enough of the same things and even in preschool we can begin to appreciate that the common ground between us all is always of greater importance than the distance between things that make us different.

It's not too hard, you CAN do it, and it's OK to ask for help. About a month after the shine and sparkle of new shoes and backpacks began to fade, so did my confidence. I began to wonder if my supervisor realized how unqualified I really was for this position. I mean, did anyone even read my resume? I started to feel like an impostor. Sure, I was taller than the kids, so by process of elimination that would make me the teacher, but I had no clue what I was doing. For the first three months of school, I would be so nervous leading circle time I'd begin to sweat profusely. I stood in utter awe of my co-teacher who has significantly more experience and education than I do. She resonated calm and remained centered and always seemed to know what to do. I wondered if anyone picked up on the fact that I was totally winging it. And then I realized that success in this classroom would be measured differently than success in my previous classroom and differently still than success will be measured in classrooms to come. I told myself each morning as the city bus entered the parking lot to the building next door to the school that I would find moments of success. And I did. More and more and more. Moments,  minutes, hours and now, in my eyes, truly a year of success. The fact of the matter is that, like kids, success comes in many shapes, sizes and shades of joy. No task put in front of us is too hard to accomplish. I CAN do what I set my mind to. But if and when it feels too hard, again I take a cue from my students. It's OK to ask for help. It's OK not to know everything when you begin, because that is precisely why we are here; to learn, build, and grow together. And I am pleased to say that even though I lost 25lbs after a few months of unplanned runs down the school hallway, I definitely grew a lot!

Everybody Gets Mad, and Sad, and Scared. My worst day ever was my best one as well. I think it happens to every teacher at one point or another and for me, it happened in February of this year. It was one of those days where for better or for worse, I was not feeling my best. I was tired. I'd just returned from a trip to see my now-fiance, and goodbyes were not easy even then. I was assisting a student who was upset to calm down and in the midst of it, without actually intending to hurt me, he got me right in the jaw. My eyes welled with tears initially from the impact or maybe the surprise, but before I knew it, my emotions caught up. I was about to cry. I was mortified. Not at getting hit, but rather that in that moment I couldn't help this kid, I couldn't help my other students and what was worse, I couldn't help myself and I was crying. I tag-teamed with another teacher; have I mentioned how priceless my co-staff are?? And I did what all mature, sophisticated, educated teachers do in a moment like this: I cried in the closet. Another teacher was able to help the student who was upset immediately; we both needed a change of scenery in that moment--sometimes everybody just gets stuck! But he was worried. Worried I was mad. Worried I would leave. I know that worry well--that gut-wrenching fear that you finally spilled one glass of milk too many and all the love and tolerance has run out like milk across the table. So I faced my fear of being seen in a state of vulnerability in favor of educational opportunity. I sat next to him and said very simply: "See? Everybody gets upset sometimes. Even teachers get mad and sad and scared and we cry and it's ok. We just need to ask for help, that's all we need to do." And I say it again and again to myself and to my students: we just need to ask for help. And that's all we need to do.

Something Different. One of the most challenging lessons to learn in preschool and in grade school and in college and in life is how to cope in the face of change. We live and thrive on routine in a world that is subject to constant fluctuation. Children are amazing. They feel their emotions and express them at full intensity. And in that, they let go; they move on. Somewhere along the line we are told or come to perceive that this full-intensity display is not OK and we learn instead and to our detriment that we must stifle our feelings and our reactions. Instead of that good 20 minute tantrum, we sit on 20 year grudges and cling to 20 year pains. We hold so tightly to what we can control because we are fearful of how much we cannot control. And things come and go. People come and go. Excitement about change can feel funny inside of us. We want to wiggle and move and make a lot of noise and instead we're told to be still and stay quiet. It's in those moments that I learned right along with my students that things do change. Sometimes things are different. Sometimes we don't know what will come, and that's hard. One student said it best: "I don't like not knowing." In those moments, I help them and help myself look for the things that are the same. The things that are always within and around us. Even when something is different, we still have everything we need.

It's hard to wait. Ever been a four year old in the late spring on a playground where the sprinklers are being tested and the teachers say you can't go in? It's hard to wait. One student in this situation said to me "They should just turn off the sprinkler so friends don't have to look at it and want to go inside." I could not agree more. Ever been a four year old waiting for her turn at a game or with a toy or on the computer? Or the four year old waiting for his mommy to come at the end of the day when the other kids  have already left?  Or the four year old waiting for lunch? It's hard to wait. And the fact of that matter is, we spend a lot of our lives waiting. We have ample opportunities to practice waiting in line, and on the phone, and for a test result or for our wedding day.... It's still hard to wait!  Too many times, the temptation stares us right in the face like that sprinkler on a sunny day when we're not allowed to get wet. And the same things that worked more or less when we were four work now to get us through the time and the distance. We distract ourselves, we change scenery or activity, and sometimes, it helps just to say it and get it out there: it's hard to wait.

These are all important and meaningful life lessons. I take away from preschool today very much the same things I took away from it as a preschooler myself 25 years ago. One of our very favorite children's book characters is Pete the Cat. He is notorious for having all kinds of potentially frightening and challenging adventures or misadventures, but does he worry or cry or get upset? Goodness, no, because it's all good! And the most important thing I would hope I taught my students, the most important thing I know they taught me is this: don't worry about a thing, everything is going to be alright.

We played the following song this morning as the students paraded into the room for our graduation ceremony. When we were first dating, my soon-to-be-husband sent me a clip of the original version. In a beautiful, simple and poignant nutshell, it reminds me again and again of preschool's--of life's most valuable lesson.