Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Laughing Buddha

I'm wondering about attitude as choice.

The other day I was standing in the kitchen, thinking about how miserable I am.  Miserable is perhaps an overstatement, but I'm definitely not as symptom-free as I once was. Actually, I'm not even sure if it's fair to categorize my various ailments as symptoms of cancer. I seem to have acid reflux, which means that I walk around feeling anywhere from vaguely to extremely indigested much of the time. Then there's my left vocal cord, which isn't working for who-knows-what reason. So I definitely have my share of symptoms, but symptoms of what I'm not exactly sure.

Anyway, back to the kitchen. On this particular day, I happened to look up from my usual grimace, and my gaze fell upon a magnet on our fridge. It's a picture of Laughing Buddha.

Image result for laughing buddha

Our Buddha doesn't look exactly like this, but you get the idea. I've seen that magnet hundreds of times, but this time it spoke to me, and said, "You know, Gina, you could just as easily be laughing." I could be laughing. I began to wonder if my mopey attitude was a matter of choice. Was this the attitude that I thought I should have? The attitude of the cancer patient? Of the acid reflux sufferer? Of the person with a malfunctioning vocal cord?

It is possible. I could be laughing. And, to be fair to the Buddha and to myself, I often am. But there's something scary about letting go of the mope factor - about laughing while suffering. I'm not sure what that's about. If I'm fine with how I am, am I no longer striving to get better? Of course I am. Will others no longer care for me or about me? Of course they will. 

Last week I was trying to explain to my students how meditation is not thought, and that we try to let go of thinking when we meditate. A student raised his hand, and with a concerned look on his face asked, "But what will happen to my thoughts?"  I assured him that he would not lose his thoughts, at least not the ones that matter. Perhaps that's my fear of embracing the Laughing Buddha - but what about my cancer? My acid reflux? My vocal cord?  Of course I know the answer. They will all still be here, at least for the time being. So now let's see if I can laugh in their presence.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Voice

One of my vocal cords isn't working. It refuses to move. This condition can be caused by many different things - a virus, trauma to the area. The bottom line is that at this point I don't know why it's being so obstinate, and I am hopeful that it will soon see fit to resume its duties.

Anyway, the upshot is that my voice is odd. Sometimes scratchy, sometimes warbly, and in general higher than it normally is. I can't stand it. You know how sometimes you hear a recording of yourself and you're like, "Ugh! That's what I sound like?!" But I literally cannot stand the sound of my own voice as I speak. I stand in front of my classroom, and as my mouth is saying things like, "So, is it still possible to feel sorry for Macbeth at this point?" My mind is saying, "God! How can they be listening to you? That voice! It's so grating! Are they just pretending that it doesn't bother them?"

So there's that. It's humbling, actually. The fact that my students - and colleagues, friends, family - seem just as happy to listen to what I have to say, even though it sounds like it's coming from an old woman in a Scooby Doo episode.

And speaking of what I have to say, I find that I'm a bit more selective now that the sound of my own voice pontificating is not as pleasurable as it used to be.  Sometimes I'm sitting with a group of people, and, even though a thought may come into my head, I often decide that it's not really worth the trouble of sharing it, and instead I just listen.

People say really interesting things when you stop and listen to them.

Oh yeah, and perhaps the hardest part is that I can't yell.  And by "yell" I mean speak in a normal-for-my-family tone. We speak loudly. That's just how we are. So I've had to ask my students to actually listen to me when I'm speaking, because I can no longer speak over the din of their inattention. And the other day, a friend actually leaned forward to hear what I was saying, because we were in a noisy restaurant.

Several lessons, then, from this annoying voice of mine. Can't wait to get it back.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The D word

Why are we so tolerant of death in some instances - flowers and leaves, the occasional goldfish - but so intolerant of it when it comes to ourselves? We are constantly surrounded by conditions that remind us that everything that comes into being will also cease to be. We finish books. We eat a delicious piece of pie. Sure, we can have another piece, but eventually the pie will be gone. Our moods come and go. It rains and then it is sunny. Sounds - whether the annoying roar of the neighbor's lawnmower (didn't he just mow his lawn two days ago?) or the melodic call of a songbird - arise and fade away. We have a precious possession, and then it is broken or stolen or worn out or willingly passed on.

But my life? That is mine! Sure, I know that I was not always here. There was, I am told, a pre-Gina world into which I arrived, and logic and nature tell me that there will also be a post-Gina world from which I will have departed.

Maybe our clinging and refusal to accept this absolute truth has something to do with size.  When a plant dies, I may be sad. A tree, though? That's way more tragic. A car hits a squirrel. Yuck. A car hits a deer. What kind of heartless asshole would hit a deer?!

Or maybe it's about time. The longer something - or someone - has been on my path, the more likely I am to forget that it is not an essential and permanent fixture on that path.

Anyway, I'm sure that none of this is news to any of you.  Nor is it news to me.  Perhaps that's why I find it so confounding.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Move over

Sometimes in a quiet moment I check to see whether I have some cancer thoughts worth sharing. And sometimes, if I find none, I actively dig around, like, "I know there must be something here that we can serve the guests."

Anyway, here's something that's rumbling around in my head as my daughter applies for post-college jobs and my son gets ready to embark on a three-month backpacking trip as the next step in his culinary journey.  They are finding their respective places in the world. And as they begin to take up more space on the human map, I begin to take up less of it.

Yes, I have lost a little weight recently, but of course that's not what I mean. Rather, I've been watching younger colleagues take up the mantle when it comes to the essential work of confronting bias and fostering an atmosphere of true love and respect for one's fellow.  One friend and colleague was incredibly passionate and successful in this area teaching a Contemporary World Issues history course last year.  This year, she was not assigned to the course, but you'd never know it from watching her plan her lessons. "You've discovered the secret!" I said to her the other day. "For you, every history course that you teach, whatever it's called, is actually Contemporary World Issues."  I was reminded of when I realized that every course that I taught - whether American Literature, English 10, or Modern Literature - could more accurately be labeled, "Anti-Bias Awareness and Training."

I also gave up leadership of my beloved Diversity Committee. (Come to think of it, they haven't held a meeting since that happened. Maybe I should call someone.) But they will regain their bearings and continue to make our district a safe and supportive atmosphere for all who work there. (If they don't, I'll have to kick some ass. In the meantime, I'm going to give them a chance to do that on their own.)

And I've stopped making stuff.  I used to love making things out of Sculpey, or repurposing things like jar lids.  Here's a sample:

Now, though, I'm not really drawn to putting more stuff in the world. Not that I begrudge others the joy of creation. It's just that I think I've taken up enough space in that particular way, and I'm happy to stop.

Then again, who knows what tomorrow's mood may bring.  You may find yourself reading a post about my new crafting passion or how I gave up giving up the Diversity Committee. As Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg reminds us, "Every day Creation is renewed." And that certainly includes us.

Monday, October 5, 2015

A few more

And here are a couple of thanks on a quiet evening after a sunny day with no back pain...

1. No back pain. Day Three of not a single capsule of Advil, Tylenol, Aleve, etc. My research oncologist will say that the trial drug is already working. My other oncologist will say that the Prilosec took care of the acid reflux. I don't give a shit which one of them is right. Let them both celebrate. I have no pain.

2. I'm alive. A friend has recently stopped treatment and gone into hospice care. In spite of, or perhaps with this all, she is brave and fabulous and remains entirely herself. There is a saying in old Jewish culture that you can know a person, "b'kaso, b'kiso, u'v'koso." I wrote the Hebrew words so that you can appreciate the alliteration.  In English, in his anger, in his pocket, and in his cup. Meaning that we show our true character when we're angry, when it comes to how we use our money, and when we're drinking. Some wisdom there, sure.  I would add, "b'cancero" (in his cancer) which is a total butchering of both English and Hebrew but I can't resist the alliteration. The depth of my friend's character comes out in the fact that she has not changed at all. She is not bitter; she is not angry; she is not afraid.

3. There's a Psalm (27:4) that we sing during the High Holydays, and it's been sticking in my mind. Here is a translation that I really like from Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. She has changed references to Adonai (often translated as "God) to "You": 

One thing I ask, I ask of You (Adonai), I earnestly pray for 
That I might dwell in Your house all the days of my life
Knowng the beauty, the beauty of You, and to dwell in Your holy place! 

Here's the Hebrew:

אחת שאלתי מאת ה'
אותה אבקש,
שבתי בבית ה'
כל ימי חיי,
לחזות בנועם ה'
ולבקר בהיכלו.

I was struck by these words when we sang them this year, because a) I love the beauty and simplicity of distilling all of our yearnings into one thing - to recognize and dwell in holiness, and b) For me that yearning is fulfilled. I don't mean that I dwell in holiness because I'm super holy - whatever that means! I dwell in holiness because most of the time I can see it.  I can see how incredibly precious this crazy, painful, mixed-up world of ours is.  And it is truly wonderous. 

Friday, October 2, 2015


Cloudy day with aching back - seems like a good time to think about what I'm thankful for.

1. My sturdy body. Specifically the fact that I fell down a flight of stairs the other night and didn't break anything. Yes, full-on slide on my back down a flight of wooden stairs. And nothin' but some bruises.

2. The incredible luck that I have to work in a place where I can say, "I feel crappy," and the response is, "Go home."

3. The fact that yesterday I spent a total of about half-an-hour talking to my kids on the phone.

4. And not because anything was wrong.

5. My spouse loves to cook.

6. We have money to eat out when she's sick of cooking.

7. My friends don't take it personally when I don't answer the phone.

8. And when I don't call them back for a few days, they just call again.

9. I'm happier when I'm working than when I'm not working. (Not counting vacations and weekends, of course!)

10. Bernie Sanders could conceivably be our next president.