Sunday, May 26, 2013

How Do You Measure, Measure How Far You've Come in a Year?

Monday night I went to my Birthright reunion.  I approached the event with mixed feelings.   At the most basic level, I always get a little bit of anxiety in any situation involving Judaism or Israel, because my obsession with exploring different views of Middle Eastern history makes it difficult to keep my mouth shut when I feel like only one perspective is being explored.   Unlike most of the people on the trip, I went to Israel when I was 18 on a March of the Living trip, and the closed-mindedness I encountered then was so confusing that it was almost ten years before I could begin to feel like I had a place in that conversation, so for me the trip was less about learning the history of the region and meeting Israelis for the first time than it was reclaiming my Jewish identity.  My initial impetus for finally deciding to go on Birthright was to extend my trip and not only connect with some of my family out there, but also travel to the West Bank and Turkey to get a more well-rounded experience than I had when I was in high school.  But at the last minute those plans fell through, and on our ten-day trip last July I spent a lot of my time frustrated about how our tour guides were subtly pushing this narrative of Israeli and Jewish history that conflated history, politics, and religion in a way that was deeply troubling to me.  I felt bad that I couldn't just relax and enjoy the ride like those who were visiting Israel and developing a relationship to Judaism for the first time. Though these issues were important to me, I didn't want to be the one to (figuratively) tell everyone that Santa Claus wasn't real.

But politics was not the only thing giving me stress that week.
My Birthright trip fell right in the middle of a huge transitional period in my life.  I was still settling into my third apartment of the year and had just begun working at Trader Joe's, which was giving me a hard time about leaving for ten days when I had been barely working there for two months, and the reason I was unable to extend my trip was because it would have pushed me beyond the maximum 21 days a crew member was allowed to miss and stay on track for health insurance.  I was so pissed off that some stupid job at a grocery store would get in the way of this once in a lifetime experience I had been planning since February, before I quit my canvassing job at Public Outreach.  And though I had recently received confirmation from Rutgers that I would be teaching in the fall, I was still reeling from the revelation that low student evaluations during the fall semester had almost caused the Writing Program to not take me back again. If I had more confidence, I probably should have just quit Trader Joe's and done the trip I wanted and trusted myself to find some other insurance-providing gig or even buy my own health insurance when I returned, but after a series of devastating professional setbacks, I had serious doubts in my abilities.    Better hang onto the situation I had, lest karma smite me where I stood for my lack of gratitude and upbraid me once again.  On top of all that, I was working on a children's play for a friend's theatre company that just wasn't coming together, and instead of chocking it all up to typical twists in the creative process, I was guilt-wracked and took it as evidence for my lack of ability to commit to a project and this was why I didn't even deserve the theatre residency that had rejected me the summer before.

So yeah...I was in a pretty low place, and it was hard not to feel even more inadequate next to some of the fascinating and accomplished people on my trip, from urban farmers, translators, to chefs, to journalists, to hospital administrators.  Even those who didn't necessarily have professional jobs had clear plans for their lives and were aggressively pursuing their personal goals while I was barely treading water.  On the flip side, there was the social pressure of being in a confined group of people and struggling to make the right alliances and align myself with the "cool kids," even though were well all grown-ass adults.  It was college orientation all over again.  I found myself crying at the fear that I wasn't fitting in, and then feeling horrible that I had let all these relative strangers into my crazy.

Given all of this anxiety, it's perhaps surprising that I would even pursue a relationship with any of the trip members after we returned.  But since my life has been so transient, maintaining continuity is extremely important to me.  One woman from the group that I connect with, Amparo, is one of those magnetic social butterflies has that magical ability to draw awesome people to any event she throws.  So I've pushed myself to attend some of her brunches and dinner parties, despite my feeling that I was still little more than a Debbie Downer.  There were a lot of other possible theatrical events to attend this evening popping up on my facebook feed, and I wondered if this reunion was the most productive place to spend my social capital.  I spent two hours stressing up and down the aisles of Trader Joe's that afternoon debating on whether it was worth splurging on the customary bottle of wine to bring to the dinner party I might not even enjoy or saving my shekels and opting for something more low-risk, as I am about to go out of town for the weekend and need to be spending responsibly. But then I worried that if I didn't bring something like wine, or worse, bought three buck chuck, I would be judged as cheap.

I spent the beginning of the dinner feeling guilty about my Orange-Peach-Mango juice that no one seemed to want to drink, wondering absently if maybe I should have gone to one of the many readings tonight or, I don't know WORKED ON A PLAY OR SOMETHING.

But then something shifted.  While a small handful of us had been meeting up throughout the year, there were four others in attendance who I had not seen or spoken to since last August.  Naturally, we exchanged updates on what was happening in our lives, and to my amazement I found myself discussing not the crushing fears that had consumed my every moment and interaction, but the exhilaration I felt after successfully completing two consecutive semesters at Rutgers and the reasonable assurance that I would be invited back in the fall.  And while last summer I was convinced Trader Joe's was cutting my hours because my negative attitude made them sure I was about to quit, I ended up having a terrific mid-year review that resulted in more confidence to   take more control of my experience their and request the kinds of tasks and schedule that would make me feel like a peaceful human being.  And not only was it May and I was NOT moving for the first time since I started college nearly nine years ago, and not only was I staying in my apartment, but the people who moved in were people I knew reasonably well rather than random craigslist people.  I had even just attended a fantastic panel discussion on Mideast Peace featuring Jason Alexander at the 92nd St. Y and discussed plans with a friend about getting a room together at the JStreet conference in October.  In short, my life was starting to acquire some measure of stability that had been yanked away when I completed my formal education two years ago.  Now that I was more secure in my position in life, I had less to prove and could actually be relaxed enough to appreciate their lives, challenges and and interests as individuals. Amparo has frequently told me how much she appreciates my presence, but until now I would meet her affirmations with quizzical groups.

In this moment, I "realized my selflessness," as Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman would say. But what I love about Thurman's work--and why I teach it to my expos students--is he appreciates that the point where we can let go of having a defined "self" and embrace our connection to others is something we can discover for ourselves. We intellectually "know" we need to be more focused on others and so when we find ourselves slipping we beat ourselves up for breaking the rules. We may have people telling us how wonderful and talented we are, but until we can actually believe it contestant affirmations can be maddening. There's a reason Glinda doesn't tell Dorothy she can click her own heels together and get home whenever she wants: before battling an evil wt h and helping her friends resolve their existential dilemmas, a little girl from Kansas had no conception that she could have power over Hirt own life or anyone else's.

I am realizing my own power. But I also know that tis is not the end of the movie. I will continue to have challenges that will test my resolve and my nerves and I will probably get petty and lose my cool and let the crazy out. And maybe that is okay too.

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