10 October 2016

At This Moment in Time


This past year has been one of the most intense I've ever had; constantly tight-roping a kind of matrix described by none other than...Donald Rumsfeld, his words useful, despite their manipulative context: "There are known knowns. These are things we know we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we don't know we don't know."

This past year, I've watched, listened, learned, and felt--a lot--all along that spectrum of "knowing." Knowing how beautiful and life-giving this world can be, through the kinds of joy that can only come from seeing loved ones get married or pursue new experiences; dancing to music with people from across political divides; wandering the streets of fascinating places; making new friends and reconnecting with old ones; empowering myself to leave an unfulfilling situation; and much, much more.

And there's been another kind of knowing: that of how violent and painful this world is--an awake-ness that builds through the relentless onslaught of a binaried media, and that calcifies into a kind of sadness and sometimes despair that comes from recognizing explicit and also deeply insidious racism hurt people I know, and murder people I don't; watching the human-made profound catastrophe of Syria unfold; tracking the ongoing political resistance to do anything that might prevent impending, existential climate disaster; and witnessing this disorientingly surreal election both knock the bar for public decency and human dignity lower day by day, and transform what once might have been "fact" or "truth" into what-ever whom-ever says, loudest or most convincingly.

In that way, I think the realm of "unknown unknowns" is expanding--and it's fucking terrifying. What is real, and what is reliable? I vacillate--daily, it seems--between excitement and awe for our collective power and potential, and near-panic attacks from all amongst us that is shameful.

And leading up to this 30th birthday, especially given its intersection with Rosh Hashanah, I've (kind of dramatically) kept thinking about a poem Jews say during the high holidays, Unetaneh Tokef:

"On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many will pass and how many will be created?
Who will live and who will die?
Who in their time, and who not in their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by drowning?
Who by strangling and who by stoning?
Who will rest and who will wander?
Who will be safe and who will be torn?
Who will be calm and who will be tormented?
Who will become poor and who will get rich?
Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?
But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah (return and prayer and righteous acts) deflect the evil of the decree."

What WILL happen in the weeks, and months, and years ahead as this world navigates more interconnected complexities than ever before? What forms of human goodness will become elevated and wider-spread? And, what (and who) will be sacrificed as we collectively wade through the muck, still trying to discover our potential and capacities for that goodness? Rabbi Sharon Brous' remarks on Rosh Hashanah were exactly the antidote I needed to this strangling awareness of "knowing," https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BDmZ6oIg4co; please watch it if any of this resonates with you.


As she says -- and as it fitting to remember on #IndigenousPeoplesDay: "WE are the ones we have been waiting for" (Hopi Elder). So, as I embark on the next decade of my life, and as I think about the gifts, and strengths, and resources that have been invested in me over the past 30 years...and also as we go into #YomKippur, this is my public commitment for the year ahead, and for as long as I walk this earth: I will do everything I can to live with integrity; I will do everything I can to pay attention to people's thoughts, ideas, and experiences; I will do everything I can to live out the kinds of values that could contribute to safety and peace for everyone; and I will do everything I can do be in "right relationship" with YOU towards these goals.

My mom once joked that this photo shows "early leadership skills." May whatever strength was in my little arm draw me forward, arm in arm with you.

24 April 2016

"Until we are all free, we are none of us free"

Shared at a Passover seder in April 2016.


The period between Passover and Shavuot marks two kinds of movement through time: the passage of the seven weeks between the barley offering and the first wheat offering at the ancient Temple during these spring festivals, and the transition from slavery to true liberation. On Passover, we leave Egypt, but on Shavuot we receive the Torah, which gives us our purpose as a people, answering the question of the ultimate goal of our collective freedom.” (http://www.ritualwell.org/CountingTheOmer

So: if Passover is the process and experience of being freed from slavery, we can think about Shavuot as freedom itself; of arriving at a state in which we are actually, fully liberated. In which we have agency to operate our own lives, and make our own choices.

The tradition teaches that we should intentionally count each of the days in between Passover and Shavuot, to spiritually prepare for receiving the Torah. In this way, it’s a mindfulness mechanism that helps open us up to deep truths about what it means to live in the world in meaningful and ethical ways.

In our modern lives, these holidays and the act of counting the omer play out as metaphors; rituals that situate us in processes of reflection about the Jewish past. But what have we become if they only serve as a mechanism for remembering history?

A question: How many of us usually count the omer each year? How many actually celebrate Shavuot? Not so many. I don’t either!

...Why is it that we’re so inclined to celebrate Passover, to remember our collective communal experience of coming out of slavery and oppression, but we don’t really invest - with the same kind of interest, at least - in the next part of the process; in trying to understand and work towards “Shavuot” - the reality and experience of freedom - for ourselves as individuals, and as a community? Or with people in other (maybe intersecting) communities who are still shackled by oppressive realities like structural racism and white supremacy, sexism, homo- and transphobia, economic inequality... the list goes on - ? It seems like we’re willing to remember... but as a community, we channel that memory toward addressing modern slavery and inequity in pretty silo-ed ways, if we do at all. And I wonder, why?  

I think at least in part, the answer lies in Nelson Mandela’s idea that: “...to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” In other words, freedom demands responsibility. And I think actively living into that kind of responsibility scares or paralyzes us. Maybe we think that because many of us, or our elders, have survived oppression that it’s time to just enjoy the privileges that we’ve finally achieved. Or maybe we care about people and communities still “enslaved,” but we help them on our own terms, when its convenient - because we’re busy, we have priorities, or our own interests.

But as Emma Lazarus said, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

So we’re still living in this pre-Shavuot world; we’re in this perpetual state of counting - we haven’t arrived at that state of freedom yet. And we may never get there. We may be counting and preparing for our entire lives; for generations. But the important thing is to be actively participating in that process of considering what freedom looks and feels like, at a deep, almost spiritual level. And then joining up with others to create it...for ourselves, and with everyone who shares this planet.

We can recline and celebrate tonight. But we’re not off the hook. The tradition of counting the omer and celebrating Shavuot are built into Jewish life - are part of the process - to remind us that we’re accountable to (doing work to support) the liberation of everyone. Because we know that “If we are not for ourselves, who would be for us? But if we are only for ourselves, what are we? And if not now, when?” 

Now is the time to reconnect with that question: what does it mean to truly be free? And what does it take to get there?

--

A Dream of Warriors
 
Inspired by a dream of Thich Nhat Hanh's, taken from Margaret Wheatley's book So Far From Home

“They were exhausted. They had been traveling longer than they could remember. Their journey had begun with energy and enthusiasm, but that too they could no longer recall. They had lost many companions along the way—some had turned back, some had refused to go on, some had died of weariness. They all had suffered greatly.

They came to a narrow bridge that spanned a great river running swift and fast. On the far shore they could see what they had dreamed of during all these years of hardship—gentle green valleys and peaceful lakes reflecting clear blue sky. They stood there astonished to realize that what they had struggled so long for was suddenly here.

They began walking across the bridge with joyful steps. Midway across, they were stopped by children who had come to meet them. Tears overcame them for their own children left behind long ago. The children began to speak: “You cannot enter our land. You must go back. You will need to repeat your struggles. You must go back and do it all again."

The warriors stood there quietly. They gazed longingly at the pleasant pastures. They beheld the bright faces of the children. Tenderly, they bent down and kissed their cheeks. Then they stood up and spoke: “We are not afraid.” And they went back to begin again their journey.”

30 August 2015

"Home" // Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well


your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles traveled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i don't know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

02 July 2015

The Egg

By: Andy Weir
You were on your way home when you died.
It was a car accident. Nothing particularly remarkable, but fatal nonetheless. You left behind a wife and two children. It was a painless death. The EMTs tried their best to save you, but to no avail. Your body was so utterly shattered you were better off, trust me.
And that’s when you met me.
“What… what happened?” You asked. “Where am I?”
“You died,” I said, matter-of-factly. No point in mincing words.
“There was a… a truck and it was skidding…”
“Yup,” I said.
“I… I died?”
“Yup. But don’t feel bad about it. Everyone dies,” I said.
You looked around. There was nothingness. Just you and me. “What is this place?” You asked. “Is this the afterlife?”
“More or less,” I said.
“Are you god?” You asked.
“Yup,” I replied. “I’m God.”
“My kids… my wife,” you said.
“What about them?”
“Will they be all right?”
“That’s what I like to see,” I said. “You just died and your main concern is for your family. That’s good stuff right there.”
You looked at me with fascination. To you, I didn’t look like God. I just looked like some man. Or possibly a woman. Some vague authority figure, maybe. More of a grammar school teacher than the almighty.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “They’ll be fine. Your kids will remember you as perfect in every way. They didn’t have time to grow contempt for you. Your wife will cry on the outside, but will be secretly relieved. To be fair, your marriage was falling apart. If it’s any consolation, she’ll feel very guilty for feeling relieved.”
“Oh,” you said. “So what happens now? Do I go to heaven or hell or something?”
“Neither,” I said. “You’ll be reincarnated.”
“Ah,” you said. “So the Hindus were right,”
“All religions are right in their own way,” I said. “Walk with me.”
You followed along as we strode through the void. “Where are we going?”
“Nowhere in particular,” I said. “It’s just nice to walk while we talk.”
“So what’s the point, then?” You asked. “When I get reborn, I’ll just be a blank slate, right? A baby. So all my experiences and everything I did in this life won’t matter.”
“Not so!” I said. “You have within you all the knowledge and experiences of all your past lives. You just don’t remember them right now.”
I stopped walking and took you by the shoulders. “Your soul is more magnificent, beautiful, and gigantic than you can possibly imagine. A human mind can only contain a tiny fraction of what you are. It’s like sticking your finger in a glass of water to see if it’s hot or cold. You put a tiny part of yourself into the vessel, and when you bring it back out, you’ve gained all the experiences it had.
“You’ve been in a human for the last 48 years, so you haven’t stretched out yet and felt the rest of your immense consciousness. If we hung out here for long enough, you’d start remembering everything. But there’s no point to doing that between each life.”
“How many times have I been reincarnated, then?”
“Oh lots. Lots and lots. An in to lots of different lives.” I said. “This time around, you’ll be a Chinese peasant girl in 540 AD.”
“Wait, what?” You stammered. “You’re sending me back in time?”
“Well, I guess technically. Time, as you know it, only exists in your universe. Things are different where I come from.”
“Where you come from?” You said.
“Oh sure,” I explained “I come from somewhere. Somewhere else. And there are others like me. I know you’ll want to know what it’s like there, but honestly you wouldn’t understand.”
“Oh,” you said, a little let down. “But wait. If I get reincarnated to other places in time, I could have interacted with myself at some point.”
“Sure. Happens all the time. And with both lives only aware of their own lifespan you don’t even know it’s happening.”
“So what’s the point of it all?”
“Seriously?” I asked. “Seriously? You’re asking me for the meaning of life? Isn’t that a little stereotypical?”
“Well it’s a reasonable question,” you persisted.
I looked you in the eye. “The meaning of life, the reason I made this whole universe, is for you to mature.”
“You mean mankind? You want us to mature?”
“No, just you. I made this whole universe for you. With each new life you grow and mature and become a larger and greater intellect.”
“Just me? What about everyone else?”
“There is no one else,” I said. “In this universe, there’s just you and me.”
You stared blankly at me. “But all the people on earth…”
“All you. Different incarnations of you.”
“Wait. I’m everyone!?”
“Now you’re getting it,” I said, with a congratulatory slap on the back.
“I’m every human being who ever lived?”
“Or who will ever live, yes.”
“I’m Abraham Lincoln?”
“And you’re John Wilkes Booth, too,” I added.
“I’m Hitler?” You said, appalled.
“And you’re the millions he killed.”
“I’m Jesus?”
“And you’re everyone who followed him.”
You fell silent.
“Every time you victimized someone,” I said, “you were victimizing yourself. Every act of kindness you’ve done, you’ve done to yourself. Every happy and sad moment ever experienced by any human was, or will be, experienced by you.”
You thought for a long time.
“Why?” You asked me. “Why do all this?”
“Because someday, you will become like me. Because that’s what you are. You’re one of my kind. You’re my child.”
“Whoa,” you said, incredulous. “You mean I’m a god?”
“No. Not yet. You’re a fetus. You’re still growing. Once you’ve lived every human life throughout all time, you will have grown enough to be born.”
“So the whole universe,” you said, “it’s just…”
“An egg.” I answered. “Now it’s time for you to move on to your next life.”
And I sent you on your way.

10 June 2015

Anniversary

Yesterday was the six year anniversary of my accident in Mumbai, and for the first time, I didn't even remember until I was reminded... How strange it is to recognize that, what has been, such a large part of my story has settled deeper below my surface, like the ink of a tattoo fades into skin over time. Layers and layers of experiences, memories, happy moments and also painful ones seem to have filled in around that June 9, 2009-wound. In facing the anxieties and awkwardness' in my "now" life, how do I sustain and channel that well of confidence that sprung from knowing I was strong; I was resilient; I survived. I think, somehow, through gratitude. Thank you, thank you, thank you to the people that literally and figuratively carried me, and have continued to carry me, through - and to this world, for revealing itself in all its beauty and complexity every single day.

08 May 2015

For Papa


My eulogy for Papa, Harold Gillman, on 5/7/15:

Since Papa’s health took a sharp turn for the worse two weeks ago, my mind has continued to circle back to a photo that hangs in my parents’ dining room. In faded sepia tones, Papa sits in the center, surrounded by Uncle Jerry, Uncle Lou, Aunt Fran, his parents Jacob and Sarah, and grandmother, Charna. This photo – now, as of this week, a sacred relic – was taken around 1945. Papa must have been 12 or 13.

There’s something powerful about his placement in the picture – sitting in the middle, surrounded by loved ones – because it’s symbolic of what his life would become focused on as he grew up, and older; as he built and sustained his own community of loved ones…even as the rhythms of the world transformed around him. Relationships, whether with family or friends or community members, are what fueled him, brought him joy and brought those in relationship with him, joy – always. It’s easy to understand why all of us have such great love and respect for him – because he was utterly and unabashedly generous with his love and respect for others – in words, in spirit, in physical affection and of course, in action.
Papa was a mentor, a coach and a cheerleader, to all of us…in ways unique to each of us. In his last voicemail to me, he talks about his Passover plans, listing all of the people together with him in Florida for the seders – Sharon and her family, Ruthie, Lauren, Susie and Judi. He remarks on how wonderful it is having mishpacha together. He says he hopes all is well with me, and then he says something particularly resonant; clairvoyant, even: “Keep that smile on your face, honey…I love it when you smile. I love you sweetheart. Bye bye.” …

We didn’t know at the time of that voicemail that the end would be so shockingly near. But it’s almost as if Papa was encoding a message for me, below the surface and in the inflection of those words. Over the years, we regularly talked about the complexities of the world… He knew that I have a tendency to dwell in the serious realm of things. I often shared with him my concerns or frustrations about the sometimes-distressing state of society and community dynamics. So in this message that I now understand as an almost unknowing goodbye, he gave me one of his final gifts of affectionate encouragement.

Papa was – and will always be – a giant in all of our eyes and hearts. Though the youngest in his family, he became the essence of a patriarch, sustaining family bonds, traditions and legacies. I like to think about the things that evolved or changed and, also those that that stayed the same in the world, throughout Papa’s life – since that family photo was taken. I like to think about the innocence and earnestness in his 12 year old eyes… And about the deep wisdom and perspective he developed in the more than seven decades of his life that followed. Eras went by. Technology advanced. Society, and the ways people relate to one another within it, have shifted. But through it all, Papa was a rock, a foundation for all of us – of values; of intelligence; of stories; of lightness and laughter; and of commitment to things bigger than himself. He was a tether to our past, and a link to our future. He was a giant.

It comforts me, even if I don’t think I necessarily believe in it, to imagine Papa now reunited with Nana, looking down on all of us here in this moment, in this building and amidst this community they helped build, feeling infinite pride and happiness about the legacies they created, simply by exhibiting their love, care for and investment in others. Let us honor them both by doing the same. Let us go out of our way to show kindness and radical affection to others. Let us invest in belonging to communities, and in building things bigger than ourselves.

I am so grateful, I am so grateful, Papa, to have been your Numero Uno. I will love you forever. I promise to smile when thinking about you and the wonderful memories you have helped our family create. Having you in our lives – and now, your memory – is one of our family’s most sacred blessings.

20 April 2015

Yigdal