Me and My Big Mouth Keeping One Another Company on Christmas Eve

All of us can get comfortable doing the-same-thing-we-always-do-that-never-works-for us when we’re “triggered.” Some of us drink, some of us eat, some of us yell dumb stuff or send off an impulsive e-mail we may come to regret to release the tension of that I-Can’t-Stand-It-Another-Moment moment. Instead, I often suggest to my clients that they practice what Buddhist nun Pema Chodron has called “The Three Difficult Practices.” They sound so simple, but in real-life they’re not.

Here they are: 1. Notice when you are “triggered,” that is, when your reactivity is up. (like you feel almost uncontrollably upset or angry or you must do something right this very minute.) 2. “Go another way” or do something different; something else. In other words, if you want to storm into your boss’s office and tell him to put that pay-freeze where the sun don’t shine: DON’T! Or if you want to lecture your friend on his drinking until his eyes glaze over: DON’T! And 3. Keep doing this (the not-doing-what-you-always-do).

Oh sure, ‘sounds like a piece of cake, doesn’t it? Especially, # 3. But actually, it’s a lifetime struggle, a minute at a time. I can be very wise for others. In fact, that is actually my job description. But, sometimes, I myself, can do the very thing I tell my clients not to do. I am “outing” myself here because I want to confess that I am human. And that with almost twenty-five years of being a therapist, while I can apply my wisdom to others, I sometimes can fail miserably at doing this myself.

Just yesterday, I said something to my son which was terribly offensive. Once the words were out of my mouth, I realized that this was not what I meant. What I meant was that I was concerned about him and family: Was everything all right? My sister had once had post-partum depression and I was really wondering if any of the late onset stuff was going on in his family. And that’s what I should have said. It’s what I meant to say. But instead I said something that infuriated my son and was not at all what I meant. As my dear friend Nabeela might describe it: I snapped!

My punishment began immediately. I was beating myself up without mercy. I had hurt my son, meaning to help him. Impulsive words had flown out of my mouth! I also knew that, since my son fights back in his own way, I would soon be receiving a series of angry e-mails. And that there was a distinct possibility that I might never see my son, my very much loved daughter-in-law or my grandson ever again.

And, sure enough, the e-mails came, telling me I needed to stop blah-blah-blahing and no wonder I was divorced, not once but twice. (Hey, one marriage lasted 18 years; the other lasted 12!) Whew! He can get ugly when he’s hurt. Obviously, he gets that from his father’s side.

Then, being a woman of a certain age, I figured that he probably thinks I am losing my mind.

And sometimes, I wonder about that myself.

I started that conversation in a milder manner, but somewhere in-between my talking, my street mouth took over my brain and I said something I didn’t even mean! Is my brain connected to my mouth at all?

What can you do after your words leave your mouth and hit someone’s ears, and you realize that this isn’t what you meant at all, but once they’ve been said, you can’t take them back. You can apologize, but you may or may not be forgiven.

All I could do now was tell him that I was sorry and wait for him to forgive me. It was a case of  instead of going to my sad-place or my worried-place, because that hurts too much, I got ambushed by my angry place, which is a much easier place to hide. Even if it was my bad. It was my bad. What can I say?

And on Christmas Eve, I spent most of the night doing my penance for my error in judgement: pretty much kicking myself for snapping.

Postscript: After diffusing a day or so, I came to the conclusion that I have and just about everyone I know who-is-honest has, at one time or another, said something they didn’t mean to say, or used a tone that was not respectful. Maybe it wasn’t personal, but more a reflection of where the speaker her or himself was at the moment. Even, my favorite Buddhist Nun, Pema Chodron, has admitted to doing such things in her life. And that, in retrospect, she wishes she had “Gone another way.” Since we can’t roll back time and do things another way after they’re done, all we can do is apologize and try to do better next time. And, though this part is not within our control:  hope that the people we care about will forgive us.

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Loneliness: The Optical Delusion of Separateness

Magnetic Side of My Refrigerator
Magnetic Side of My Refrigerator

After several days of blue-ishness, I woke up, expecting more of the same. And, as I do every morning, I first check my iPhone. I had two important, but seemingly disconnected, ideas that I was drawn to on my e-mail. One was “The optical delusion of separateness” (Einstein said this)–and the other was “On their deathbeds people wished that they had ‘been more loving,’ rather than ‘been more loved.'” (This came from a workshop being offered on retraining the brain to be more loving.)

My noticing these ideas was what Arnold Mindell, author and psychoanalyst, might call “Flirts.”

Family Memorabilia Around An Antique Chinese Checkers Board
Family Memorabilia Around An Antique Chinese Checkers Board

“Flirts” are the ideas, things, and people that catch our attention. Almost like dreams, “flirts” can give us symbolic messages from–I don’t know–The Subconscious? Spirit-guides? Alternate Realities? Perhaps our Inner-Knowing? If we allow them in, they can be life-changing. In my case they were mood-altering.

So, I traced back my blue-ishness to a thought: “I am lonely”–So, next,  I asked the Byron Katie question: “Is that true? Is that really true?” And I had my addendum to the Byron Katie question: “Does that always feel true?”

And then, I remembered that just last night my sister texted me many times with inspirational ideas and an invitation to join her. Next, I received belated birthday earrings as a gift from my Arizona friend Ruth. And, although she had bronchitis and could barely speak at all, my New Jersey friend Lee attempted to talk on the telephone.

Blessings continued to arrive: my dear cousins had chosen my home–which really meant a lot to me–to host a shiva for their mother. My friends, Marina and Misha, who feel like family, wanted me to live nearby and found me an apartment in their building. My almostnew-friend Paul—brought dinner over and came to hang out.

And, almost best of all, I went to Roanoke to visit my younger son Dan and his puppies, which gave me great pleasure because we were able to spend the Passover holiday together and attend a Seder.

And speaking of the warmth of family, Dan and I Skyped with my older son Josh and his wife Flore. This summer, I’ll be going to France, where they live, to meet my first grandchild, expected to arrive in July.

As I corrected my faulty thinking, I became flooded with the other ways my life is rich: I am making progress in learning French, my sister dropped me off–and Marlene, the world’s sweetest French teacher, picked me up at the airport last week. And this week, I see my editor/computer-teacher/author-friend, Elaine, who always inspires me. Then, I had this epiphany: There have been times when I have been happy on-my-own and other times when I’ve been unhappy as one half of a couple or, even, being right in the center of my family or friends.

What is this mood-state I wonder? Is it a sensitive nervous system–somewhat like a painful back or the bleeding ulcers or migraine headaches that some people suffer when anxious or stressed? Faulty thinking? Brain chemistry? Food choices? A Spiritual Misunderstanding? Maybe it’s a combination of all of these and more. All I know, is that I got up today, found these important messages (“Flirts”), had an epiphany, and felt inspired to write about them here. And that the epiphany and all that inspired it, lifted me right out of my dark mood-state.

The Optical Delusion of Separateness. Yes, when I can see my way out of it, separateness does feel like a delusion. Most of the time I am aware that there are people who I care about and who care about me; that my life is filled with interesting experiences and people I enjoy being around. As a therapist, I do work that is very rewarding to me and connecting for me. This does not make me immune to depression, sadness, grief, anger, guilt, shame or any of the other more difficult feelings one has in being human. And why should I have to pretend to be immune. I think that kind of pretending, especially from therapists, tends to make people who are in touch with their blue-ishness feel worse.

Now, if only I can remember these concepts--the delusion of separateness and being more loving, rather than more loved….really feel it–while stuck in the delusion of separateness. I may have to re-read this blog and remember that I wrote it. Huh!

(Photo-credit: My i-phone–Who would’ve thunk a pocket gizmo could be so connecting & important in so many ways?)

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Homage to My Cousin the Bodhisattva*: Judy Samuelson

Painting of Olive Trees
Painting by Nabeela Rehmann

Oh, yes….there is just one thing I neglected to mention about aging: There is loss and death in it. (Wait, Wait! Come back!)

Here in my musings on my life as a woman in my sixties, these years that are considered by some to be “the youth of old age,” I have somehow left something important out: I have completely ignored the losses that we experience as we age—in particular, I have neglected to mention Death.

A little over a month ago, my younger-by-ten-years cousin Judy died. Until this time, I think I was in denial that death would really touch my doorstep. Yes, she had been sick; but we in the family believed that she would get better.

She had what people in-the-old-days used to call “The ‘C’ Word.” The world I grew up in, then, treated Cancer as if it were a curse (rather like diseases of the brain and nervous system are treated by the sadly uninformed, these days).

There was shame connected with being struck with ‘C’. Perhaps it was thought that ‘C’ was contagious; or that news of it in the family would make the rest of us unmarriageable. Or it may have been superstition that silenced any talk of cancer—the belief that if you didn’t talk about something, it didn’t really exist and thus it could never happen to you.

The amazing thing about my cousin was the truthful and open way she coped with her “C,” her cancer. It was as if she had been dealt what has been often considered to be an ugly fate, but that with her magical calligraphy pen she transformed it into a lesson–a meditation on the preciousness of living and dying–without leaving out the painful emotions and experiences she suffered.

So that even through her losses—perhaps especially because of these losses, she mindfully embraced the “little things” that aren’t so little, the beauty in life that many times I have overlooked or taken for granted.

As my cousin Judy Sue (“The Other Cousin Judy,” as she calls herself) has said to me, “Judy must not have had the anxiety and depression gene that you and I share!”

My cousin wrote her poetic and profound blog, “Word of Mouth,” right up until her last days. In it she documented her experience of hope and loss, never seeming to linger on feeling sorry for herself. In this way, Judy gifted those of us left behind with a legacy of courage and of gratitude.

These blog entries became her voice when she could no longer speak. They became our (her family and dear-friends) way to connect with her when we couldn’t see or support her—though we longed to.

She wrote of the bud vases she created out of miniature apricot juice bottles and of the loveliness of her garden and of the antics of Audrey, her cat. And she shared the joy in carefully preparing a  meal for guests, even after she herself could no longer eat solid food.

She told, in her blog, how she would put a little of her much-admired chicken soup or banana bread into the juicer so that she could take in some of what she had prepared along with her guests.

She spoke of her daily walks around the neighborhood and admitted (you can just see her impish smile, here) she guiltily plucked a lemon off of a neighbor’s many-lemoned tree. She reported that just as she did the lemon tree owner drove up in her car and yelled at her.

Now, if you saw a woman with a pad and pen around her neck, my guess is you would
take a moment, understanding that perhaps this woman had a difficulty that was challenging and that you could, perhaps, spare a lemon for such a person.

Judy blogged that she could not resist the urge to laugh, though she wrote an apology on her pad, explaining that she was a neighbor and then writing: “If I had a lemon tree with this many lemons, I would want to share them.” But Lemonwoman was merciless, shooting back: “I do share them, I share them with my friends!”

Judy told her experience to Allen her husband. (And how much she adored and was adored by her husband and her children, her beloved brothers and sisters-in-law. Oldest brother Mike and sister-in-law Marlene and their grown son Johnny were closest, living only blocks away! But she was close, too, to her brothers Chuck and Stu and her nieces and nephews and cousins and dear friends–But, I know, here I digress…)–Perhaps The Lemon Tree Incident, as some of us–her blog-followers have come to call it, made her aware that, despite her swollen cheeks, her inability to speak, and having a very short time to live—there were people in the world who were far less fortunate than she was.

Upon leaving the synagogue where Judy’s memorial service was held, I said to my sister Susan, “You can bet that if I were given the diagnosis of a debilitating and disfiguring cancer that would eventually take my life, I’d be a royal pain-in-the-ass! I’d be cvetching and obsessing and taking every numbing med I could get my hands on!”

“In fact,” I continued, “I might take them all at once, just to get it over with!”

She replied, “And that’s why you and I are still here; we haven’t learned our lessons on earth yet.”

Hmmpf! I really hate it when my sister is right!”

What I have most feared about growing older, personally, and thus avoided here in my stories of life in my sixties, was the very thing my cousin seemed to embrace. Her way of living out her life, even in the challenges she faced made illness and death seem not quite as frightening.

Judy went through that first operation which altered her voice. Instead of bemoaning her loss, she shared being almost-tickled by her “practically English accent” (as her sister-in-law Marlene dubbed it.) And she dressed the long scar left on her throat with a variety of multi-colored scarves.

The next operation took her capacity to speak at all and her ability to eat—and it left her facing imminent death anyway.

Given the person Judy was, I can’t imagine the pain of the doctors who had tried so hard and yet had to give her the news that they could not save her life. They must have gone home and wept.

Still, Judy was not to be silenced. She used her voice in her writing, appreciating the beauty in life and keeping concerned family and friends posted on her treatment status. Read her on a day you’re feeling sorry for yourself and I dare you not to feel at least a little bit embarrassed.

In this way, she was able to rise above a self-involvement that would have been understandable, if not expected. And, doing so, she continued to comfort the many who cared for her.

Once she lost her speech, Judy wore a pad and pen around her neck, later to be replaced by an erase-board, and when possible, it was supplemented with a computer with its own voice. Even this loss she greeted with humor, donning one board for her good days and one for her bad; teaching us that even in the most dire of circumstances, one can still laugh and play and not take ourselves quite so seriously.

I admit I have, too often, not lived mindfully in the moment–rather I was preoccupied with some matter that seemed important at the time, feeling lonely or sorry-for-myself; worrying about this or that–some decision or relationship past, present or future–Not taking notice of the new buds in my garden or the changing of the leaves.

Judy Samuelson did not have as many years to live as we tend to expect these days. But, for those of us who loved her she left such an exquisite gift-even, and perhaps especially in her last four years, from when her cancer was first diagnosed, until when she took her last breath, she lived a life rich beyond most and taught lessons that can only be taught, as our cousin Stu* first noted, by Bodhisattvas; advanced souls who’ve come to teach us mortals great lessons.

Lemon TreeIn these last years, Judy used her sharp mind, her unscathed sense-of humor and her creativity to assuage our pain in even comprehending her loss among us.

In living and sharing her end-of-life experience the unique way she did, it was as if (as several of her friends had noted) she seemed to instinctively know that with the lemons she had picked–though certainly not the ones she would chosen, were she given the choice—with these particular lemons—still, and maybe especially—she could continue caring for others, leaving us with some truly unforgettable lemonade.

Note: My sincere apologies to those who shared some of these same thoughts on blog-comments or at Judy’s memorial service–I am sure that I was not the first to have or speak the same or similar observations about my cousin. (In Other Words: None of this was purposely stolen! Rather our like thinking whoever said it first,  proves how all of us are really connected!)

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‘Spec You’ll Find it ‘Bout the Same Round Here

Man on Porch SmallA young man and his wife bought a home in a little town in Vermont. As they passed the general store, kids in their car-seats in the back, the young man sees an old timer in his rocker, sitting on the front porch of the store. The young man drives up to the elderly gent and says: “What is this town like? I just bought a house here and me and the wife and kids are moving to your town from the suburbs of Ohio. Are we gonna like it here? How long have you lived here?”

The old man rubs his whiskers and he says: “Lived here all my life….But, fore I kin tell how you’ll like it; let me ask you, how’d you like the last place you lived; that town in Ohio?”

The young man said, “Oh, we loved it! Our neighbors were friendly and kind; the children had so many nice friends and so did we. And we loved our cozy little house.”

The older man said, “Spec you’ll find it ’bout the same ’round here.”

The young man drove off happily.

Several hours later another car came by the general store, and this guy gets out of his car, leaving his wife inside and he inquires of the old-timer on the porch: “We’re from Kansas and we want to know what’s it like here in Vermont? My company’s relocating here and I just bought a house. Are we ‘gonna like it here?”

The old gent asks the young fella, “Well, how’d you find your last place–that place you lived in Kansas?”

The younger man said, “We hated it! The people were terrible and the schools were awful and our house was just one problem after another.”

The old timer said, “Spec you’ll find it ’bout the same ’round here.”

The point is that, “Wherever you go,” as they say, “there you are.” You can change your surroundings, move to anyplace and you’ll still be there when you get there. If you’re cranky, you’ll invite cranky. If you’re warm and friendly, you’ll very likely get the same.

I mean, isn’t life a lot about perception and about us, what we bring to the table? I remember in grad school one of my professors handed out the exact same photocopy to each member of his class. He had given us pictures that told a story. In one of the pictures a woman was taking a big step with a handbag on her shoulder. There was a man just behind her.

The professor said to the class: “Now you’ve all gotten the exact same picture. Who can tell me what’s going on in the story?” A man raised his hand, “They’ve had a fight. He’s trying to reason with her, but she won’t give him the time of day–‘won’t even talk to him.”

Another student, a woman, raised her hand to answer the question. The professor called on her and the woman answered: “That man is following that woman; he’s trying to steal her handbag!”

So, you see, we can’t be entirely objective about even what our senses tell us. All of us have past experiences and preconceptions and moods that color the way we look at today’s events. As with my grad school professor, people can have entirely different perspectives about the very same thing.

As the old gent realizes: it isn’t so much your surroundings that create your reality; it’s what you bring to your surroundings: your past experience and you, how you are. It seems to me that the reason for the saying “When it rains, it pours” has to do with us–if we are in a positive place we seem to attract a lot of positives; when in a negative place, we can “‘spec we’ll find it ’bout the same ’round here”—wherever here is.

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I Believe in Miracles/Part One: I Contact My Hero

I had just passed my 32nd  birthday, and it had occurred to me that some of my adolescent dreams of what life was going to be were not likely to come true.

I comforted myself with chocolate and by gazing blankly out my Levitt-development, Jamestown-model kitchen window. What I knew for sure was that, although I loved my husband and our two young sons, as well as most of the responsibilities and festivities of being part of a family, the course of New Jersey suburban housewifery–however noble–was just not for me.

Reading voraciously in trying to get a handle on some of my dreams, I was attracted to the short stories and novels of Isaac Bashevis Singer. This, because of our common ancestry: a long line of religious Polish Jews.

I threw my ennui into “Gimpel the Fool” and Yentl and all the Singer characters torn between themselves and others, love and lust, worldliness and asceticism, art and tradition.

With the gift of his years and his historical perspective, Mr. Singer seemed to understand human ambivalence. I read him in the hope that he would cast some reflected light on mine.

When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I followed the publicity, read all the articles and saw him on television.

Mr. Singer had suggested that an author could be less interesting than his work. To me, in reading about him in the Arts Section of the New York Times and seeing him on television, he became more interesting:

Dick Cavett: “Mr. Singer, you once said that your wouldn’t go out of your way to meet Tolstoy.”

Mr. Singer:   “I might go across the street, but I wouldn’t go to Queens.”

Cavett: “I understand that you are a vegetarian. Is this for reasons of health?”

Singer: “It is for the health of the chicken.”

Cavett: “Mr. Singer, many of your characters are religious Jews. Are you religious? How do you feel about the ten commandments?”

Singer: I think that with nine of God’s commandments, I would still agree.”

His haemischer* wisdom was obviously not confined to his writing. And that accent–that self effacing sweet Yiddish lilt, the self-conscious legacy of the Polish Jew–was just like my grandmother’s.

As crazy as it may seem, I felt a connection with this man, a mysterious and irresistible feeling that either I had known him somehow or that he had an important message for me. Either way, I had to contact him. So, I sat down at my kitchen table, and typed the following letter on my Sears Manual typewriter:


I am not at all sure I believe in this, but I feel, from seeing you on television and from reading your stories, that I’ve known you before.

My grandparents were from Grydyk, a little town outside of Warsaw. Their family names were Pomerantz and Lieberman, and they were (and still are) very observant Jews. But I am 32 years old and have never been to Europe, or any place where we could have met.

I really am not a nut. Nor am I seeking contributions, interviews, photographs–anything, other than to explore this feeling and my accompanying compulsion to write to you.

Please write if it would be at all possible for me to meet with you.

Most sincerely yours,

Linda Benjamin Kline

I considered the futility of sending a message to a famous author, and I made a final impulisve gesture, scribbling my telephone number as a postscript. Not knowing his address, I sent my note to his publisher.

Then I forgot the letter and resumed my Hebrew school-to-soccer field suburban car-pool route and the preparations for Hanukkah.

*Haemischer: Homey, warm and familial

(Part Two: I get a telephone call. Really!)

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I Believe in Miracles, Part II: I Get a Telephone Call! Really!

A Hanukkah Party With Isaac Singer Three

I’ve always loved it when Christians and Jews celebrate our holidays together. Everybody feels festive.

On this first night of Hanukkah, which was also Christmas eve, our house smelled of cinnamon and peanut oil. I was making applesauce for the potato latkes* that my husband and sister were working on for the family party that was to begin in a few hours. Between applesauce stirrings, my sons and I danced around the table to some Russian balalaika music.

The telephone rang.

A ploy to buy a newspaper that I already subscribed to?

A free estimate from a carpet-cleaning company?

“Linda Benjamin Kline? said the unidentifiable, yet vaguely familiar voice. (A Polish-Yiddish accent. Perhaps a long lost relative, a Holocaust survivor who had somehow traced the family from Grydyk to Chicago to Skokie, Illinois to me.)

“Yes?” I responded quizzically, motioning for someone to turn down the music.

And then, “This is Isaac Singer.”

(A joke? No–the letter. He got my letter!)

“Mr. Singer, Mr. Singer, you got my letter!”

“How else shall I be calling you?”

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, but the gist of it was that, if I wanted to meet him, I could come to his home. Now.

Strange how you wait for something you’ve dreamed about to happen, and when it does you wish you had more time to get ready.

Maybe I should prepare some questions? Look over his books? Lose some weight?

What to wear? And what to bring for Hanukkah? It was Christmas Eve and all the stores were probably closed.

Hadn’t I told her, my sister said, that Mr. Singer was a vegetarian, and so why not bring him a plate of homemade latkes and applesauce? the bag was warm in my hands as I left my own family party to drive to Mr. Singer’s home in New York City.

I climbed the four flights to his door, then knocked. He answered himself. Staring at him nonplussed and needing time to collect my thoughts, I stammered my first words:

“M-m-may I use your bathroom?”

He smiled kindly and gestured for me to follow him.

“Come,” he said, “I’ll make light.”

In the high-ceilinged, unpretentious Old/New World living room, I sat, wordless, on the sofa. I had seen this very room in The New York Times Magazine, and now here I was in the picture. I couldn’t manage a coherent sentence.

“Oftentimes,” he said sympathetically, when I told him how nervous and disbelieving I felt (and I am paraphrasing here), “when I was a younger man, I would fancy a woman, desiring her from afar.

“I would dream about meeting her, and perhaps sometime later we might actually meet. If she fancied me too, we might keep company. Then a time might come when we would make love.

“At that moment, I would ask myself, ‘Am I really here? Is this a dream? Afterwards, perhaps on the way home, it would hit me.”–he slapped his cheek, “‘I did that? That happened to me?'” The truth-teller of Eastern European Jewry had caught at that moment just how I was feeling.

Mr. Singer spoke very little that evening. He listened, really listened to what I, finally relaxed now, had to say, and asked many questions.

And he told me it was a good thing that I had written down my telephone number because he found it difficult answering all his mail. Also, he asked me to come (if it would be all right with my husband, of course) to a Hanukkah party that he was giving the following week for a few friends.

Then, with a paternal peck on the cheek, Mr. Singer led me to the door.

I felt refreshed, lifted out of my ennui, as I glided home on heightened spirits and the powdered-sugar snow that covered the New Jersey Turnpike.

Next: Part Three: A Hanukkah Party With Isaac Bashevis Singer.

I Believe in Miracles, Part II: I Get a Telephone Call! Really! Read More »

Part III: A Hanukkah Party With Isaac Singer

A Hanukkah Party With Isaac Singer Four

Seven or eight people, all young artists, were at the party; Mr. Singer’s secretary, Dvorah, an American Jew and aspiring writer, and her Israeli husband, Avram, a photographer and New York City cabdriver; one of Mr. Singer’s editors, several dancers and a male model/actor, the boyfriend of one of the dancers.

“Surely,” I thought, “Mr. Singer and I are the only ones here over 30.” (I wondered at the arrogance of youth as the others, none of whom had children, talked authoritatively about child-rearing.)

The other guests worked in and around the kitchen. Avram stirred an aromatic vegetable soup, two dancers gracefully tossed a gigantic salad and I helped Dvorah with the latkes.

Isaac, as everyone called Mr. Singer, was the proud host. His compact form looked scrubbed and his blue eyes twinkly, as he, handsome in his vested gray suit, popped into, and was shooed out of, his own kitchen.

The communal supper was appreciated with “mmm’s” and “ahhh’s” and the sharing of secret ingredients. There was wine. We ate and drank.

And Isaac Singer told stories: Of the past (his father’s world), of how he couldn’t say ‘No’ to a shoe salesman and so owned a closetful of ill-fitting shoes and of vignettes from the Nobel Prize ceremonies. (Mr. Singer’s napkin, it seems, kept slipping from his lap, and so he asked Princess Christina of Sweden, who was sitting next to him, how she managed to keep hers in place. She answered in perfect clipped tones and a mischievous look, “‘I sit on it,'” he said.)

Most often, the master storyteller listened to or asked questions of his guests. After he understood exactly what the male model/actor did, Mr. Singer said that the model had been supporting him for all these years.

When all around the table looked at him incredulously, he explained that since the model displayed, and thus, sold, the products that sold the magazines, editors could afford to buy stories from writers like himself.

After supper, we lit the hand-carved menorah–a homemade Hanukkah gift from Avram—and played the ‘dreidel’ * game, using dates, raisins and nuts as our winnings. When the game was over,  we told jokes and ate our booty.

I have never seen Mr. Singer again, although I have thought about him often in the six years since.

When I sent off my urgent message to him, I had followed an instinct in search of some intangible thing, and I came away from my meeting with him satisfied.

I had no material thing to take away me that Hanukkah, only the tale and the experience itself. I think what I learned was something about miracles; that a suburban housewife, without connection or fame, could send a letter to a Nobel Laureate and have it answered–a perfect lesson about the Festival of Lights. That, even in modern times, it is possible for an ordinary person to manifest a miracle.

Just as he had promised when I first appeared at his door, expectant, with my plate of latkes, Mr. Singer had indeed “made light.”

*dreidel-a top, the sides of which have Hebrew letters, which together form the acronym for “a great miracle happened there.” The letters also form a mnemonic for the rules of a gambling game played with a dreidel. One letter stands for the Yiddish word for “nothing”; another for “half”; another for “all” and another for “put in.”

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“Maybe Plan B is the Real Plan A” Shimona Tzukernik

Print by Alice Sostrin

Here’s an answer to the “Why is this happening to me? This is not the life I’d planned!!!” that many of us feel from time to time. I heard it from Shimona Tzukernik, Kabbalah (ancient mystical teaching on spiritual transformation) teacher extraordinaire: “Plan B is the Real Plan A.” Pretty profound. Our challenges in life as paths to our spirituality. Oh sure, we’d be comfortable in the lives we imagined in our heads, the ones we’d planned. But, we would never have been challenged by them–those make-believe lives.

If we’ve lived long enough to have disappointments in our lives, we tend to get
stuck. That is, we believe that life should have turned out the way we planned: Maybe finish school, find a job, find our practically-perfect soul-mates, have some practically-perfect kids, launch those kids, have some practically-perfect grandkids, and end up as Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones (with Steve Carrell’s help) in the comedy “Hope Springs.” Yes, the couple–Kay and Arnold–have some stuck-points; but, ultimately everybody grows and ends up laughing together and saying uncharacteristic things at the end of the movie.

But, outside of the realm of motion pictures, all of us ordinary humans have troubles of one kind or another that challenge our coping skills and continue to aggravate us until death do us part.

As a divorced woman in my sixties, with two grown sons who live (as grown-children often do) far away from where I do and having moved around a lot, myself– I sometimes wonder: “Was my life supposed to turn out this way?” I mean, I expected to have my sons grow up and leave home. What I didn’t expect was that I would not have a partner with me or a community of family and kin living nearby who held my history; people who knew who I was before I qualified for movie discounts and Social Security.

When I think back to what I came to expect in my childhood, it was a life, not unlike my parents’ lives. People married in their twenties and lived a long life together, surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins and old friends. I guess that was my Plan A. However, as Shimona says, Plan B is the real Plan A.

I find that being without a partner or without close family nearby, I have learned to rely on myself. And when I do stretch my comfort zone and find new ways to solve problems, I find I feel pretty darned good about myself. When I have to find a way to deal with a flat tire or take myself to the airport and take myself home–I may have an inner-tantrum about it, but I always end up solving the problem and feeling proud of my independence.

Lately, there are those nights when I come home after work and find the phone isn’t constantly ringing. In these times, my i-phone texting, my e-mails, and you–who I talk to through my internet connection–have become my best friends. There are times I love this quiet creatively-conducive life. There are also times where I wonder: “Why? Why hasn’t my life turned out the way I thought it would?” That is, why aren’t I with a loving mate who has known and loved me forever, surrounded by family and friends who hold my history in their memories along with their own.

The answer to that “Why?” is simple.  Nobody’s life entirely turns out according to their plan. My old friends and family (who live in Jersey, New York, Illinois, Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and France), even those who do have family/friends-with-history all around them have other challenges: their children; their grandchildren; their health….They, too, are looking over at someone else’s life (perhaps mine, at times) and wondering why their lives haven’t turned out the way they assumed they would. My guess is that when they wonder about that particular why, they are only looking at the part/s of their lives they find challenging.

That’s why 12-Step Programs, whether focused on compulsive overeating or compulsive drinking or gambling or sexing or what-all–all of these programs look at the particular challenge–once considered a block–in one’s life, as a path to spiritual connection. If our lives were storybook-perfect, would any of us have looked beyond ourselves or our perfect lives for help? Would any of us had looked for a deeper connection to our Soul’s journey? For meaning in our pain?

Let Go“Plan-B-as-the-Real-Plan-A” is a really Feels-True way of finding purpose in what hurts us the most. Rather than seeing that substance-abusing partner or acting out child or those painful physical symptoms as “Poor me, this never should have happened”; we can see these difficulties as a path we needed to trod in order to uncover our connection to Spirit, whatever form that takes for us. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to do some limit-setting in the now; but, it does mean there’s a lesson in the difficulty. We can learn it or we possibly (and, stay with me, here, this is important!) have to repeat it.

Okay, now it’s time for a story–and you may have heard this one before–but it’s worth telling again. A man dies and is taken to the afterlife by an Angel. When they arrive, the newly-crossed-over man sees a table of delicious-smelling soup. The table is surrounded by people with spoons, but their arms don’t bend, so they can’t get the spoons in their mouths. “Is this heaven?” says the man to the angel. “No,” says the angel, “This is hell.” Then the angel takes the man to another room and says, “This is heaven.” And the newly-passed man sees another table and another delicious smelling soup. Like the last room, everybody has a spoon but their arms don’t bend enough to reach their mouths. The man is confused and he says to the Angel, “I don’t get it. This is just like the last room. There’s a wonderful smelling soup, and everybody has a spoon, but the people around the table can’t bend their arms either.” The angel tells him, “Look more closely…” And, as the man does, he sees that, here, the people are feeding one another.  Now, tha’s what I’m talking ’bout: Plan B as the real Plan A!

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