These Are The Names

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naftali, Gad and Asher. The total number of persons of Jacob’s issue came to 70, Joseph being already in Egypt.

So began last week’s Torah reading in synagogues — physical or virtual — around the world. 

It’s the beginning of the book of Exodus, the harrowing and thrilling story of how the ancient Israelites left bondage in Egypt; struggled against God, their leaders, and themselves; and finally began to forge an identity as a people responsible for and to itself. Think “The Prince of Egypt” and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Songs”: Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but yourselves can free your minds.

So much drama. And yet the book of Exodus begins not with God splitting the sea, not with the plagues, not with Pharoah or the birth of Moses. It begins with genealogy: a list of ancestors, an accounting of who was where at what time.

Some of the matriarchs in my family tree.

For many years, I sat in our synagogue every Saturday morning, listening to the weekly Torah reading. Often, I participated in the ritual of chanting the ancient Hebrew from a century-old parchment scroll. When I wasn’t chanting myself, I followed along in the printed bible. I listened to the sermon — literally, a d’var Torah, or word of Torah — and discussed the meaning of the week’s passage with family and friends.

Then my health problems made it harder and harder to participate in morning services, or even to attend. I was just too tired and sick. 

Saturday was still Shabbat, the Sabbath, which I still observed. But I felt less and less connected to the Saturday morning service, and even more distant from the weekly Torah reading. Covid-19 has only widened that disconnect. 

But I feel more connected than ever to my ancestors. Not so much the biblical ancestors — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel — but my personal ancestors. The ones I spend so much time researching and occasionally writing about. 

While the Torah names the men who left their homeland and went down to Egypt, I’m thinking about the women who came before me. 

I’m thinking about my mother and her mother, both of blessed memory, born into poverty in western Pennsylvania, making a better life for their children. 

I’m thinking about the women who came before them, struggling to survive the Great Famine in Ireland and the coalfields of Scotland and the peasant farms of west Hungary. They participated in their own exodus, joining the waves of immigrants who left semi-feudal Europe for the promise of the New World.

My quest to learn more about these women and their families is also a quest to understand myself better. Where do I come from? What have they passed down to me — genetically, materially, emotionally, morally? 

When I am up by myself late at night, researching one more ancestor or doing one more crossword puzzle, I sometimes think I’m turning into my mother. Her nocturnal habits were driven by a sleep disorder. What’s my excuse? I berate myself for not getting to bed on time.

My excuse, I guess, is that it’s not the simple matter of choice or self-control that it seems. Thankfully I don’t have narcolepsy like Mom. But there is something going on with my brain chemistry that propels this late-night anxiety and intellectual activity. It feels as though it controls me, rather than the other way around.

Berating myself is another way that I am like Mom but don’t want to be. Everyone else saw her generosity and thoughtfulness, her inner and outer beauty. She saw her “failings,” as she called them. I wrestle with a pervasive feeling that nothing I do is good enough — that I’m not good enough. 

My personal Exodus is a struggle to emancipate myself from this mental slavery. None but myself can free my mind. 

And all of a sudden, I have the feeling that my female ancestors are trying to help. Rather than judging me, as I once imagined, they’re cheering me on. 

“We left economic bondage in Europe, crossed the sea, built new lives so that you could be free,” they are saying. 

They knew hardship and tragedy. One of my great-grandmothers pleaded with a judge to free the husband who had hit her in the face with a shoe, giving her two black eyes. Another had a son who committed suicide after trying to kill his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Another lost a brother in a police shootout. The fourth great-grandmother was orphaned at age six, raised by her older siblings, and married as a girl of 17. 

My grandmothers had it better than that, but they both left school and went to work by age 13. My mother and her sister finished high school and won themselves full scholarships to college, which they needed because their father thought educating girls was a waste of money. 

All of these women broke the paths that helped me get where I am. These are the names: 

Rita O’Neil Smith. Anna Bosits/Bush O’Neil. Johanna Akerman Smith. Theresa Puskarits Bosits. Catherine Kelly. O’Neil. Elizabeth Schmidt Smith. Pauline Fritsch Akerman. There are many others. I will name just one: Debora Spira, my great-great-grandmother and the only female Jewish ancestor I have yet identified. 

These are the names.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.

Pardon me

For missing the mark with idle fingers that play solitaire instead of writing …
For missing the mark with stubborn legs that stay planted on the couch instead of carrying me to bed on time …
For missing the mark with an unsatisfied mouth that snacks late at night …
For missing the mark with hands that have not even begun taking down the sukkah …
For missing the mark with narrow eyes that see all of my flaws but few of my virtues …

For all of these, I forgive myself, I pardon myself, and I purge myself of shame and guilt.

Well, not really. But I’m trying.

For the first time since this blog’s inception in 2015, I did not write about the Jewish season of repentance and return. I didn’t write about Elul, the month of preparation for the High Holy Days. I didn’t write about Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the new year. I didn’t write about Yom Kippur, the day of atonement on whose liturgy I based the confessions above. I didn’t even write about Sukkot, my favorite holiday, the Jewish Thanksgiving (although I’m sitting, as I write this, in our sukkah — the temporary hut that commemorates the fall harvest and underscores the transient nature of our lives).

So I’ve missed the mark.

That’s the more accurate meaning of the Hebrew word het, commonly translated as “sin”: missing the mark. On Yom Kippur, we recite a litany of wrongdoing known as Al Het: “for the sins we have sinned,” or “for missing the mark.”

On Yom Kippur, of course, we ask God to forgive our wrongdoing. That’s only for offenses against God: Judaism insists that when we wrong other people, we must atone directly, person to person, asking them for forgiveness.

By that logic, I have plenty for which to forgive myself. And Judaism instructs that when someone sincerely asks for our forgiveness, we are required to grant it. Or at least to try.

So in the spirit of better late than never, this is my Al Het, my confession of transgressions against myself. Now that I’ve named them, I am duty-bound to pardon myself.

That’s much easier to say than to do. But as I’m learning, simply stating intentions as though they are reality can play a powerful role in making them so.

This is a truth I’ve been reluctant to embrace. Affirmations, the power of positive thinking — even now, these terms make me squirm. They seem so … squishy, so self-deluding, so Norman Vincent Peale.

But you know what? They work.

Not by magic. You can’t wish your way to feeling better. But you can change how your brain works, which changes how your body chemistry works, which changes how you feel. It takes practice, hard work, repetition. It takes doing it when you least feel like it and when you don’t really believe it’s going to help. Just like exercise or any other discipline that pays off over time.

You can do it by saying things like, “Even though I go to bed too late, I love and accept myself completely.”

Things like: “Even though this practice smacks of [fill in your favorite billionaire self-help guru], I am open to letting it work for me.”

Things like: “I am choosing to feel better by going to bed at 11.”

Even if these statements are not currently 100 percent accurate. Especially if they’re not. If they were, I wouldn’t need to say it.

And you know what else? This post is not late after all. It’s a new year: 5781 is less than one month old. Jews all over the world have finished the annual cycle of Torah reading and are starting over: “In the beginning.”

So pardon me while I discard some old habits of mind and body, and cultivate new and healthier ones. Or don’t pardon me — I’ll do it myself.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.

‘The family of things’

I’m skipping ahead to the end.

When I read books and watch movies, I never skip ahead to see what happens. I want to find out what happens when it happens. To understand the ending, I want to understand what comes before.


Photo: Txllxt TxllxT/Wikimedia Commons

But today, as I did my morning yoga stretches in the still-warm-enough backyard, I heard a faint, persistent honking. Looking up, I saw a near-perfect V formation of wild geese, flying south.

Instead of reminding me of what comes next — late fall, cold weather, winter — it made me think of the end of “Wild Geese,” the Mary Oliver poem that inspired this blog:

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

My “Wild Geese” journey — my Mary Oliver Challenge — began at the beginning of the poem:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

It was a journey of liberation, begun at Passover — the season of freedom — with the startling notion that I “do not have to be good.” The radical idea that I am good, and that I can free myself from the voice that constantly tells me I am not good enough.

Some months later, still wrestling with those opening exhortations, I moved into the next line: Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. And then, years later, the line after that: Meanwhile the world goes on.

But now I’m skipping ahead to the end. That doesn’t mean I’ve completed my journey. I don’t expect I ever will. It’s likely to be a journey of direction more than of destination. Certainly not a journey of perfection. Even the wild geese I saw this morning didn’t maintain their near-perfect V formation for long. Two birds joined the V, but then others broke away, and soon it looked more like a check mark with some doodles in the margin.

What it does mean, this skipping ahead, is that a word from the ending jumped out at me this morning. A word I had not previously focused on: family.

I have previously paid attention to the inclusiveness, the universal and unconditional embrace: Whoever you are, no matter how lonely. And I’ve noticed the last verb, announcing. We don’t have to earn our place or even claim it; our place exists, we are in it, whether we know it or not and even though it may shift as we join the flock or break away.

But family. How did I miss that? Over and over announcing: You are heading home again. You belong.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked. You can read about it here.

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Hineini: here I am

Decades ago, I belonged to a therapy group that drew on both talk and movement. One week we did an exercise in which group members took turns leading the others in improvised movement: dancing, swooping, jumping, anything they felt like doing. When a leader had enough, they would pass the role on to someone else.

Afterward, as we sat in a circle, people said that I seemed half-hearted when it was my turn to lead. I confessed that they were right: I was tired, my back hurt, and I didn’t feel like moving at all. I felt like lying down on my back and resting.img_20200428_170718701_hdr-1

Well then, they asked: why didn’t you do that?

My response: I didn’t think I was supposed to. I thought we were supposed to move, and so I moved, even though I wanted to lie still.

In a way, that’s the story of my life: trying to live up to other people’s expectations of me, or what I think they expect, even when I need something different. (Well, that’s part of the story of my life. Another part is where I disregard what other people think and feel, because I’m so sure I know better. Fortunately, I think that part is mostly behind me.)

Continue reading

Have a good day

“Have a good day.”

We bestow that wish upon strangers: cashiers, call-center employees, mail carriers. Or, if we work in one of those service jobs, upon customers. When I say it, I mean it.

SmileyEven if the person hasn’t helped me very much, even if I thought they were rude, I do want them to have a good day. Especially if they’re stuck in a crummy job where people treat them poorly.

What does that “good day” involve? I suppose I’m extending a wish that the person’s needs be met: financial security, good health, fulfillment on the job and/or in other pursuits. Love and happiness.

What I wish for myself, however, is a different story.

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Falling out of the pose

“Falling out of the pose is part of the pose,” I once heard a yoga teacher say.

This advice goes beyond “if at first you don’t succeed…”

For sure, trying and trying again are essential to the practice of yoga — that’s why it’s called practice. And for sure, there is an ideal way to do any given pose.yoga-woman-tree-pose

But the saying about falling out of the pose contends that there’s more than one way to succeed. That if you can’t achieve the ideal, or a modification of the ideal, you can still succeed, simply by external-content.duckduckgo.comtrying. That trying and failing is a form of success. And that falling out of the pose is not a question of if but when: there will be times when you have to make repeated attempts. There will be times when a pose simply eludes you, no matter how hard you try.

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‘The soft animal of your body’

In a novel I recently read, a character’s hands were perpetually clenched. She wasn’t looking for a fistfight. She was steeling herself for the next struggle that her hard, sad, painful life would bring.

For me, it’s not the hands that clench involuntarily. It’s my jaw, my neck, my shoulders, my glutes, my legs.

“Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,” Mary Oliver writes in “Wild Geese,” the poem that inspired me to quit my job, start this blog, and try to live Oliver’s advice. Mostly I have understood that advice metaphorically: giving myself permission to do what makes me feel whole and happy, and not to make the to-do list — or worrying about the to-do list — my main focus.

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Lately I am also thinking about the literal, physical animal of my body. It is not a soft animal. (Unless we’re talking about flab.) Deconditioned though I am after years of chronic illness, many of my muscles are not soft. They are tense, hard, painful. Continue reading

Take out the trash

I have a recurring dream in which I’m at someone’s house — sometimes I live there in the dream, although not in real life; sometimes I’m a guest — and I need to take out the trash.

Well, not the trash exactly. Not stinky smelly nasty rotting garbage. Sometimes it’s recyclables, piled up in a garage or basement or storeroom. Sometimes it’s yard waste — bags and bags and bags of it.

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Either way, it’s a large accumulation, weeks’ or more likely months’ worth. And now it’s the eve of the pickup day, and I need to shlep it all out to the curb. It will take numerous trips, and it’s getting late, and even if the people who live in the house (my parents, in some dreams) aren’t worried about it, I know it’s my job to clear it out.

I don’t remember having that dream last night, but I woke up this morning thinking about it. Why, I wondered, do I repeatedly dream about this mundane household chore? Continue reading

Lessons relearned

In genealogy research, a cardinal rule is: work from what you know. Paper records and family members’ recollections will get you further than hunches and what-ifs.

In my life, a cardinal rule is: ask for help. Even if you’re afraid that no one will respond, or that their responses will be disappointing, or that you’ll look stupid for asking. Truly the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll come up empty — the same place you’ll be if you don’t ask.

When I recently learned these lessons — again — they produced the breakthrough I’ve been searching for.

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Press ‘publish’

In 1935, my grandmother’s brother ambushed his ex-wife and her boyfriend, shot and wounded them both, then killed himself.

Around 1975, I heard the story for the first and last time. You can imagine that it made an impression.

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Sometime in the 2010s, I decided to investigate this family tragedy/scandal/secret. Then I decided to write about it, more for therapeutic reasons than anything else. I finished a draft that I liked a lot, but it was written for myself and family. Revising it for a general readership turned out to be harder than I expected. (By this time my Lyme-induced brain fog and anxiety had kicked in big-time.) So I sat on it. For years.

Last May, I finished a new draft. But I wasn’t sure where to submit it for publication. So I sat on it again.

Why the hesitation, the procrastination? Well, you know: perfectionism. Fear of failure. The “not good enough” feeling. I had to get past those obstacles and a few others: concern about what some family members would think. The notion that I need to get paid for this labor of love. The notion that it should go in a “real” publication. The need to find the right photos in an old album, remember how to use my scanner, and put the whole thing together.

And now, finally, here it is: “The Ballad of Frank and Tookie.” Let me know what you think.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.