Monday, October 20, 2014

A Life That's Good

If you scroll through the photo gallery on my phone, you will see a whole slew of pictures that look strikingly similar. I would guess that there are probably close to one hundred of them now, all taken from the same spot - right in front of the first door leading into the waiting room of the White Plains Metro North station - the place I stand every morning so I can get the last seat in the last car of the 7:43 train, which is the most efficient place to sit for the quickest exit from track 21 on the upper level of Grand Central Station to the back door on 47th and Madison, which is the door I exit from for the shortest walk to my office.

I'm nothing if not efficient in the morning. Except the most efficient thing would probably be to time my morning so I reach the train platform just as the train pulls into the station, thereby shaving a couple of minutes from my commute. But I never do that. Instead, I get to the station and wait on the platform for a few minutes before the train comes barreling through. Just a tiny stretch of time between home and work where I can take a breath, check my email, catch up on blogs, or, a few times a month, take a picture of the view.

It's not a particularly breathtaking vista. There's the fence that runs along the far side of the tracks, a blanket of trees, a short stretch of the Bronx River Pathway and the highway from which the Pathway takes its name, and a parking lot filled with the cars of morning commuters.

And yet this view pulls at me.

Since the first day I took the train into Manhattan almost two years ago, this view compels me to take out my phone more often than not and document what I see. What I see every day. It should have become ordinary at this point and yet it never has. It should be something that I barely see anymore, for how familiar it's become, and yet it's not.

I have found myself thinking a lot lately about the passing of time. I have written about it a little here in these pages, but most of those thoughts are buried in my head, still waiting for their moment in the sun. Maybe now is that moment. I am fascinated, always, by the way that time can both stretch and condense depending on the situations I find myself in, and how my experiences, both good and bad, can simultaneously feel like they happened years ago and yesterday.

But time never stands still. It moves on and things change and so do people, and nothing stays the same forever. And there is a beauty in this, I think. Because the days that make up a life are both gorgeous and tricky, filled with both success and struggle. And the thing about time is that it tends to soften the hard edges and illuminate the good so that I can find clarity in the tricky moments and so that the happy ones stick with me. And all of this? It's kind of miraculous.

And this, I suspect, is why the view from the train platform pulls me in every day. Because in this view is tangible evidence of time. From snow-covered to green to golden brown, the picture keeps changing, and then it circles back and we begin again and nothing is really irrevocable because the leaves might fall from the trees in October, but by May they are back again.

For the two years that I have watched this view so much has happened in this life of mine. Big and little things. Hard and glorious things. And what I've learned more than anything over that time is to be gentle with myself. To understand that things are going to happen that are both good and not so good because that's just the way life is. And when the not so good happens sometimes the only thing to do is to just forge ahead because tomorrow is another day, and even if tomorrow isn't that much better, the next day will be, and the one after that.

Because I understand now in a real and profound way that I am more resilient than I ever thought I was or could be. And I understand that I have a deep well of gratitude for this life I am living that helps me to embrace the bad with the good and just keep on keeping on.

Lately I've been playing a song on repeat. It's called "A Life That's Good" and it's from the TV show Nashville. I remember the song from the show's second season, but I played it back recently and for the first time, I really listened to the lyrics and, well, they just knocked me out.

Two arms around me, heaven to ground me
And a family that always calls me home.
Four wheels to get there, enough love to share
And a sweet, sweet, sweet song.

At the end of the day,
Lord I pray,
I have a life that's good.

And the truth is, they really made me smile. Because they reminded me, as the song says, that "I already have more than I should." I am so incredibly lucky to have the family and the friends that I have. To live in the home and in the place that I do. To have people who lift me up and show me the way - people who mean home to me so much more than any four walls ever could. And to have a deep and abiding faith that helps me to believe that there is something so much bigger than myself out there with a plan for me that holds things that are right and good and exactly as they are supposed to be.

So when I take away all the noise and all the complexities, what I really know is that no matter what happens and no matter how quickly or slowly time marches on and what is marching in it, I have a life that's good.

And, well, that's just everything.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Memories of an Un-Ordinary Saturday Night

February 23, 2013. Saturday.

The Jewish holiday of Purim had come early that year. So early that there was still snow on the ground and it was freezing cold outside. So early that the kids who raced up the sidewalk towards my synagogue wore heavy coats over their costumes and winter hats on their heads.

And we followed those kids up the sidewalk, through the big double doors, and into the warmth and light of the sanctuary where in minutes, the rabbi would begin the recitation of Megilat Esther, the story of Purim that is read twice each year during the holiday.

And when that was finished the sanctuary went dark but for a flickering candle held high above our heads, and quiet but for the voice of the rabbi chanting Havdalah, the prayer recited at the end of the Jewish sabbath.

It had been less than four months since our move to the suburbs and everything about our town was still new, but that night, in that moment, I felt more at home than I had since the day the big truck pulled up and four men unloaded all of our things into the new house.

That feeling stuck with me for days, and the following Tuesday, I posted a piece on this blog that remains, almost two years later, one of my favorite things that I have ever written.

A few weeks ago that piece was republished as a guest post on the blog of an incredible writer who has become a friend of mine over these last few years. You can find it here.

I am thrilled to see my words up on her blog, and so  proud, when I read them back again, at how very far we have come.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Four Years

We had the best wedding date. That's all there is to it.

I knew that I wanted a fall wedding, sometime after the Jewish holidays were over but before the first snow flakes fell. And when we realized that October 10th was a Sunday - the day of the week when Orthodox Jewish weddings most often take place - nothing would do but that we pick that date. Because the year was 2010, there was no way we were passing up the chance to have our wedding on 10-10-10. 

So October 10, 2010 it was.

The day of our wedding the sky was bright blue and the temperature was in the 70s - unseasonably warm for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where it often starts snowing November 1st and doesn't stop until June. I thought it was a good omen, but the truth is, it could have been pouring rain and I wouldn't have cared at all.

It would have been a beautiful day no matter what.

Since this past Friday - our actual anniversary - was a Jewish holiday, I spent this morning looking at some of our wedding pictures for the first time in a long time, and going back to that day in my mind. The frenzy of it all, the family and friends who gathered, the disorganized mess that our chuppah devolved into which turned into the best and most hilarious part of the day, my fortuitous change into running shoes for the dancing part of the evening which probably saved me from breaking an ankle when an over-zealous chair holder accidentally dumped me off of mine during the "lift them up on chairs" portion of the evening, not having time to eat anything but cookies, and all the rest.

My photographer took more than 1,000 pictures, and in honor of four years, I am posting some of my favorites here.

To the four years past, and to the many, many more to come.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Very Suburban Succot: Part II

For forty years after our ancestors escaped from their Egyptian enslavement, they traveled the Sinai desert. The Torah tells us that, in a divine miracle, our people were surrounded with "clouds of glory" as they walked. These clouds protected them from the harsh elements of the desert, and provided an element of safety as they made their way to the promise land.

Tonight begins the holiday that commemorates that miracle and those years. The holiday of Succot.

For the past week or so, Jewish people all over the world have been hard at work constructing their Succahs, temporary outdoor huts that become our "home" for the duration of the holiday. For seven days we eat all of our meals and snacks in the huts, and there is even a custom to sleep in them, something I don't do now, but did when I was younger, back when huddling outside with snacks and sleeping bags on a freezing cold Pittsburgh fall night with my sisters and friends was an excellent adventure.

It is a time of fun and a time of celebration, and it has always been my favorite holiday on the very full and rich Jewish calendar.

During my nearly eight years of living in Manhattan we obviously couldn't build a succah of our own, what with our 23rd floor apartment on one of the busiest streets on the Upper West Side, so we often decamped to one of our families to celebrate the holiday the way that it is meant to be celebrated. But once we moved to the suburbs, building a succah was one of our first projects.

Last year's was a lot of fun, but this year I think we may have outdone ourselves. See, we have a bit of a theme going on in various parts of our house these days, so nothing would do but that we follow that theme with this year's succah. 

So here, for your viewing pleasure, is where we will be spending much of the next week.

Chag sameach, one and all.

C3PO Lights

Yoda lights

Storm Trooper lights

R2 Lights

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Year Behind Us, and the One to Come

Even as the sun rose this morning, we began counting down. We have filled bottles with water to hydrate throughout the day, and we have planned our meals with the precision of a five star army general in preparation for the 25 hour fast ahead. And we have begun to think about the minutes and hours that we will spend in our synagogues, prayer books in hand, reflecting on the year behind us and the one that is to come.

Today is the day before Yom Kippur, the holiest and most awe-inspiring day on the Jewish calendar. Tonight, just before the sun sets, we will gather together in the place where we will spend much of the next day, and we will ask forgiveness for things we have done, explore the things we have done right, and ask for the kind of future days we want, as the calendar turns from one year to the next.

I wrote a post last year on this very same day that I am reposting below. More than anything else, it expresses the thoughts and feelings I have about this day and the one ahead.

"Let Us Tell How Holy This Day Is" 
There is a prayer, midway through the morning service on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, that gives me chills. That gives everyone chills.  
The ark opens so that the Torah scrolls are visible. The congregation stands. For a second there is silence, and then one voice rises from the front of the sanctuary as the chazzan - the leader of the service - begins to chant the prayer. No matter what synagogue you are in around the world the melody is the same. Slow. Haunting. Timeless.  
The prayer is called "U'Netaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom," loosely translated as "Let Us Tell How Holy This Day Is."  
It begins by recalling the power of the ten days that encompass Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. Because it is in these days, our rabbis tell us, that each Jewish person is judged. It is during these days where all of the events of the year ahead are decided. We learn that on Rosh Hashanah, our fate for the coming year is written down, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed. And the days in between the two holidays are days of repentance, where we have a unique opportunity to change our fate.  
Even the customary greetings we give each other during these holidays reflect the power of this time of year. On Rosh Hashanah we say, "ketiva ve-chatima tova," meaning "may you be written and inscribed for good." But as Yom Kippur draws closer, the greeting changes to "g'mar chatima tova," meaning, "may you be sealed for good.  
U'Netaneh Tokef continues with a recitation of a litany of possible destinies that could befall us in the year to come. The chazzan recites the paragraph slowly, the ancient words explaining that on this day God will decide, among other things, "how many will pass from the earth and how many will be born into it," "who will live and who will die," "who will rest and who will wander," "who will be impoverished and who will be enriched," and "who will be degraded and who will be exalted."  
It is solemn and scary and powerful. But it is ultimately uplifting.  
Because the climax of the prayer is not the listing of all the gruesome ways in which we might meet our fates over the coming year, but instead when the entire congregation joins their voices together and declares "but repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree."  
Ultimately, the message of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is that we are masters of our own destiny. That there is a God who may inscribe us for a certain kind of year, but that we have the ability to control what inscription is sealed for us. The idea that we may transgress, but that we can - and will - be forgiven. By ourselves. By each other. By God.   
Even Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and prayer, has an undertone of joy in the spirituality of the day and the confidence that we will be sealed for a year of goodness and prosperity.  
As the beginning of Yom Kippur draws near, I find myself comforted by the thought of the 25 hours ahead. Hours where I will sit in my synagogue with my community and immerse myself in ancient prayers. Hours where I will think about the year ahead, and my wishes for myself and for my family.  
And tomorrow night when the sky darkens, the final prayer is said, and the single blast from the shofar is sounded indicating the end of the fast and the beginning of a clean slate, I will walk home lighter, happier, and hopeful for what is in store for all of us in the coming year.  
Wishing all who are celebrating a g'mar chatima tova. May you and your families be sealed for only the very best.