Monday, September 26, 2016

how to pray when you don't believe in god

Most of the time I am pretty sure there is a God, or at least some kind of order to the universe. Most days, it just seems impossible that we are pointlessly existing here on Earth.

But there are days, more and more of them lately, when my ability to believe is compromised. News headlines about children buried alive in Aleppo, too many police shootings of unarmed Black men to count, earthquakes that devastate communities, all lead my belief to wane. I ask the questions we all ask: how can a good and just God, the one I learned about as a child in Hebrew school, allow so much evil into the world? If God is the reason I have such a good life, then why is that same God allowing so many other people to suffer?

I don't know how to make sense of any of it. And as I prepare to spend a whole lot of time in synagogue when Rosh Hashanah begins the Jewish High Holy Days next week, I've been feeling increasingly uneasy about how I will enter into all those hours of prayer. While every year I look forward to the ritual of coming together with my community, uniting in song, and sharing special meals (or, in the case of Yom Kippur, uniting in our day-long hunger), I can't help but wonder: if my belief is fractured, is there even a point to my prayers? Without steadfast conviction, aren't prayers simply expressions of one's desires, fears and intentions? Isn't that just an exercise in selfish ego?

And yet, I cannot deny that expressing intentions is activating in itself. When I take inventory of my desires and needs, I feel motivated to make choices that help make them a reality. When I think about what I am grateful for, I feel happier and more able to face challenges (a phenomenon that has been scientifically proven). When I lean into the feeling of awe that quickens my breath when I see a mountain or the ocean, or that first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge when I exit the Robin Williams Tunnel, I feel the rush of connecting to something much bigger than myself.

There is a Jewish concept called kavanah, which is translated as "intention" or "direction of the heart." It's typically used to describe the fervor with which one should pray. But I wonder if, for purposes of this dilemma, I could think about kavanah in a more literal sense: as actual intention. Because even when I don't feel the passion for God that kavanah is meant to refer to, I can always set an intention.

So maybe this year, when the initial freshness of the service starts to fade, and I find myself growing bored and questioning the purpose of praying to the concept of a God I'm not completely at peace with, I will try to remember that the power of prayer doesn't have to be as literal as an old man in the sky hearing my requests and granting them, like an oil lamp genie. For those moments, when I struggle to believe in that which I cannot see or understand, I will try to focus instead on the things I can see, can touch, can feel.

Maybe then, my belief will start to flutter back into grasp. Or maybe it won't. But either way, my prayers will indeed have power.

Monday, May 30, 2016

things i know (this week anyway) #35

- When in doubt, take a bath.

- Radical gratitude solves most problems.

- Change is never not destabilizing, even when it's ultimately stabilizing.

- A crush is a projection of everything you think is missing from your life + physical attraction.

- We all just want to be seen, heard, and understood, even when we are wrong.

- Juice cleanses are bullshit. Your insides are not dirty and don't need to be cleansed by juice--that's what your liver and kidneys are for. Just eat a salad.

- Every June you can expect every single food magazine on the market to do a cover feature on grilling, and you can be certain that each one of them will have exactly the same information.

- Exfoliate, exfoliate, exfoliate. Moisturize.

- The wedding industry is incredibly sexist and antiquated.

- Sometimes you have to suspend disbelief about your potential for success.

- Bagged, riced cauliflower is one of greatest inventions of this decade.

- Once a day, visit and lose yourself to sense memory.

- Nobody else has any idea what they are doing, either.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

fair fight

If I had the sort of relationship with my ex-boyfriends where we got together every so often to sift through our respective memories of the past, attempting to more fully understand them, so as to apply whatever gleanable knowledge to our current lives, I would take them out for a beer (individually, of course--taking them all out at once seems weird), and apologize for how awful I was to fight with when I was younger.

Really, I was terrible. I was dramatic in the style of a CW teen soap opera. I sobbed. I yelled. I accused. I slammed down the phone only to immediately hit re-dial over and over again, until I was met with an answer. I demanded attention, and the less of it I got, the louder I became. Ultimately, I didn't care what the person on the other side of the fence needed--I just wanted to win. But even when I got my way, I never really felt like I had won anything.

The older I get, the more I have begun to see fighting as less combative, and more as a shared determination to figure out a problem. We settle in, going back and forth, conducting an archaeological dig of every crevice of our conflict, until we both feel resolved. We may be on opposite sides of an issue, but we are aligned in our determination to get to the bottom of it--to fight for the relationship. 

It's hard to try not to be defensive; to apologize when you're still angry, to stay open and connected when you would prefer to shut the other person out, fold yourself into a ball, and sulk. But the more I learn to tolerate the discomfort and stay present, the more I have begun to reap the benefits. After a good argument, I feel like I know the other person, and myself, in a deeper way, and I'm left with good, useful intel about how he and I both operate. It leaves me feeling like I know more of him and, therefore, have more of him to love.

Fighting fair means being honest, loving, respectful, and thorough. It means pushing the other person to communicate what he needs, and pushing yourself to hear and receive it. It means holding back the impulse to be unkind at the same time as you tell the real truth. It means remembering you are both good, kind people who are invested in figuring it out. 

It is not easy, but nothing worth fighting for ever is.

Friday, July 31, 2015

test drive

When I was seventeen I started dating my first real boyfriend. For three sweet months, I floated through life in a daze of love, lust, and teenage hormones. News of this quickly traveled south to Los Angeles, where my grandparents lived, and one day I received an envelope from my Panta (my paternal grandfather, named for my inability to pronounce "grandpa" as a toddler), containing an article he clipped from an automobile magazine.

Test Driving a Car Before Buying it is No Longer Necessary, the article proclaimed. The piece made the argument that if a car fulfills your basic requirements, a professional inspection is all you to know whether it's worth your money--no need to take it for a spin before committing. Paper-clipped to the article was a note from Panta that read, "I heard you have a boyfriend now, so I wanted to send you some car advice. Love, Panta."

Since the only car in my life at the time was my parents' 1986 Volvo station wagon, it became clear to me that his intention wasn't to educate me on the art of buying a car, but rather to suggest, rather humorously, that I consider not having sex with my boyfriend until marriage--i.e.: skipping the test drive. I called him to thank him for the article, and told him that, though nothing had happened yet, if it did, I wouldn't be telling him. "I only ever bought one car!" he told me. "And she was the only one for me!" This exchange became one of his favorite stories to tell.

Sixteen years and several boyfriends later, I finally found the car I want to spend the rest of my life driving. Despite Panta's suggestion against it, I did ample field research to eventually find it. Like a twenty-first century Goldilocks, I test-drove everything from pick-up trucks, to Maseratis, to Subarus, Priuses (Priuii?), and even a couple of skateboards.

Test driving eventually shifted in meaning. At first it really was primarily about figuring out sex. As I grew older, I began to learn the value of test-driving a relationship--feeling for myself where my connection with a potential partner drove smoothly, and where it could maybe have used a better turning radius. With every spin around the block, I learned how to better gauge if a relationship seemed like a good fit--or if maybe it was time to put on the brakes. My driving skills got better and better.

By the time I met Evan, I had done my fair share of driving. I had learned to recognize worn tires and crappy paint jobs, as well as great cars that just weren't right for me before I even turned on the gas. Evan and I took our time test driving our relationship, gingerly approaching inevitable sharp turns and bumpy roads together, catching our breath each time we came out of them OK. Eventually the bumps and turns became easier to predict, and we learned to trust one another to navigate our way out of them. It became clear to us both that this was how we wanted to drive for the rest of our lives.

I'm thankful for every other car I test drove, though. With each one, I became a better driver, and from each one, I learned another rule of the road. And even though I didn't follow my Panta's advice, I'm pretty sure he would have loved the car I ended up with.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

swing your partner

My father taught me how to dance.

He would play music from the 50's in our living room, hold my hands in a partner dancing pose, and teach how me to keep the rhythm with my feet, while waiting for his cues for each move. On his say-so, we would spin, twirl, and dip to the sounds of The Best of Doo-Wop Uptempo.

Learning to follow was a challenge for me. Since early childhood, I have always been a little bit anxious. And, when you're anxious, one of the best ways to soothe yourself is to keep yourself apprised of what's happening next. This is not so easy when your dance partner is the one deciding your next move.

It took Evan and me some time to get our dancing rhythm down. He is an excellent leader, but, in the beginning, I found myself fighting to lead, if, for no reason other than to soothe my anxiety about what our next move was. I had to manually override my desire to take over, driven by the fear that I might fail to follow effectively, embarrassing myself by spinning out instead of in, or dipping prematurely.

Evan is a really good dancer. His embrace is gentle, but secure, and he holds my gaze as he twirls me away, before pulling me back in. With every spin around the dance floor, I've learned to trust his ability to navigate things. When he asks me to dance, I no longer feel like I have to choose between fighting for the steering wheel and giving up all control. It's something we do together.

On New Years Day, while on vacation in Austin, Texas, we went dancing at a famous Honky Tonk club in East Austin, The White Horse. We were surrounded by intimidatingly talented couples who wore Wranglers and cowboy boots, and knew the involved multi-step dances to each song, but we decided to give it a try anyway. I had a purse with me, and didn't want to set it down, so I kept it on as we headed out to the middle of the floor. The music was unfamiliar, my bag was cumbersome, and we were tired and still a little hungover from the previous night's festivities, but still, we danced. Together, we found the rhythm, we managed to work around my purse, and we moved to the music in sync with one another.

And there, it occurred to me that this is what being together is all about: sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow. You work around each other's baggage. You communicate. You catch each other. You hold hands. And even when it's scary, you find a way to see the unknown as an exciting adventure ahead, rather than something to fear.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

things i know (this week, anyway) #34

- For better or for worse, no one is ever truly, permanently gone from your life.

- Return your shopping cart to its keeper instead of shoving it between two parked cars. It takes 30 seconds and it will make someone's job a little bit easier. 

- If it can be made with a white potato, I will try to make it with a sweet potato

- Step-counting apps bring out my inner obsessive-compulsive, leading me to walk loops around my small apartment in my pajamas: "Sorry, honey. I'm at 9,925 steps for today, and I can't get into bed until I hit 10,000." 

- In this everything-is-available-on-the-internet age, we so often forget the importance of good etiquette. Web-based entrepreneurs (all entrepreneurs, really) put a lot of time and energy into building their social network following. As such, if you would like one to help you promote something, make a connection for you, or teach you how to improve your own digital content, you should ask nicely, and be sure to touch on the fact that you realize the value of their time and digital real estate, and would be very grateful for their help. You should also be willing to (or at least be prepared to be asked to) pay for it. If you don't treat their work with respect, why should they help you out? No matter the industry, it remains true that there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

- In this time of conflict, social injustice, outrage, and protest, it strikes me that one of the things the world needs most right now is good listeners.

- If you think you don't like tofu, that is probably because you aren't cooking it right. To make really good, crispy tofu, start with firm or extra-firm tofu, then press it in a clean dish towel, to remove excess liquid. Cut it into cubes or strips, then fry it in a decent amount of oil (2 tablespoons in a medium frying pan should do the trick), over medium-high heat. Let it develop a nice, thick crust on the exterior of once side, then flip it and do the same on the other side. Once it's cooked, drain it on paper towels, then salt it lightly and use it immediately, however you like. Properly-cooked tofu is a crisp, toothsome delight. Learn to do it well and you'll never look back.

- It's weirdly intimate to wear a mud facial masque in front of your partner. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

yom kippur

When I was a child, I loved going to Yom Kippur services at our synagogue for one very specific reason: I got to sit next to my father for an entire day.

I was minimally interested in the service itself. Rather, I relished the experience of being close to him all day long, running my fingers through his tzitzit (the strings on the corners of a Jewish prayer shawl), twisting them into braids. Just before the service started, he would lean over to me in the pew beside him and, as we are instructed to do on Yom Kippur, ask for my forgiveness: "Gab, if I have done anything in the past year to hurt you, I am sorry. I hope you can forgive me."

"I forgive you, Daddy. Do you forgive me?" I'd ask, breathing in his freshly-shaven cheeks, scented with aftershave I bought him for Father's Day at Bath and Body Works.

"Of course I do, sweetie."

In that moment, everything would be right in the world. And there would be no place else I'd want to be. For me, he was the conduit of an entire religion, culture and people. Sitting next to him in his just-pressed suit, listening to his recitation of the prayers, using the Ashkenazi pronunciation of Adonoy instead of Adonai (meaning God), just as his own father had, was the closest to God I had ever felt.

Until I was twenty-nine, it was the only place I wanted to be for Yom Kippur.

Almost three years ago, I fell in love with a man who also attends Yom Kippur services. In fact, he attends services, colloquially known as shul, nearly every week. In our first year together, I felt ready to be with him for High Holy Day services, here in San Francisco at his progressive but traditional shul, instead of with my family at their Reform temple, an hour outside the city.

In lieu of a traditional mechitza (a curtain separating men and women during prayer), my boyfriend's shul has a men's section, a women's section and a mixed middle section. He is a longtime davener (pray-er) in the men's section, and so I found a seat for myself in the mixed section. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the service, and by how good it felt to pray surrounded by people I knew and liked. What I wasn't prepared for was how much it made my heart ache to spend a whole day in synagogue without my father by my side.

Yet, tomorrow evening begins the third Yom Kippur since we began dating, and I will continue to attend shul in San Francisco with my boyfriend, where the services are nice but still not entirely comfortable for me, instead of at my hometown synagogue, where I know all of the prayer melodies, the Hebrew is transliterated, and I can sit with my family, next to my father, as I did for so many years. But despite my longing for my family, our San Francisco shul is where I want to be.

And with each year, it's gotten a little bit easier. The prayers have become more familiar; I love the collective, inviting spirit of the community. I have found friends and a place for myself within it. And on Yom Kippur, in the early evening, when I start to get bored or tired, or too hungry to focus on the service, I'll slip out for a few minutes, walk down the block and call my parents to wish them a gut yontif (good holiday).

When my dad gets on the phone, he'll tell me, as he always has, "Gab, if I have done anything in the past year to hurt you, I am sorry. I hope you can forgive me."

And, just for a moment, it will be as if he is right beside me in a pew, smelling of Bath and Body Works cologne and toothpaste, with his arm around me.

Of course I'll forgive him. And I'll hope he can forgive me, too.