Tuesday, May 19, 2009

To beloved grandma (10.24.27 – 5.25.08)

Fly away my treasure…
May your beauty be chiseled into the book of life.

Fly away my beloved…
May your love energy embrace the whole universe.
May your legendary angelic radiance cure all ills and mend all sorrows.

Fly away my irreplaceable…
May your butterfly wings carry you all the way to heaven.
May your soul be as light as air.
May your eternal rest be as peaceful as a quite autumn rain.

Fly away…and stay with me forever.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

God 101

“Have you talked to your son about God yet?” someone recently asked me. Hmm, I thought, no I haven’t. I probably looked puzzled enough for the inquirer to continue, “What religion are you bringing him up in?” There was a long, uncomfortable pause and finally I said “None.” She didn’t give up, “Well, what religion are you? Jewish?” I just nodded (am I?) “Passover is coming. Are you going to celebrate it?” I nodded (liar!!) “At some point, you’ll need to introduce God into his life.”

That short discussion got me thinking…about many things.

Before I can set out to establish my son’s relationship with God, I had to figure out what mine was. Questions kept popping into my head. What religion am I? Well, let’s think about that one.
What’s Jewish? Isn’t it just my “nationality”? Is it not still printed on line #5 in my old worn out Soviet Passport? Isn’t being Jewish the opposite of being Ukrainian (at least back in the Soviet Ukraine that’s how it was)? Does the fact that I came to the US on the grounds of religious prosecution on a refugee status make me Jewish? Or does the fact that I’ve been called a “dirty Jew” since I was two years old count towards my Jewish-ness? Maybe it’s my name, which in Hebrew means “a happy song” given to me by my parents because it sounded Russian enough? Perhaps it’s my Yiddish nickname “sweet face” – shainer punim – that my grandfather gave me when I was born?

I tried to become more religious for years. Even went to the temple regularly, albeit a reform temple. Main reason – I wanted to be able to tell people that I am Jewish, without the longwinded explanation that came with the statement. My attempts didn’t work out, at least not yet – never says never, right? I had a hard time really connecting to the words spoken by the rabbi, maybe because they were in a language that was even more foreign than English. Oy, who am I kidding – I couldn’t even connect to the English words.

The only Jewish holiday I understand and appreciate (and follow) is the Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur. It’s simple in its profound meaning and requires that you are sincere about accepting and atoning for your sins. Check, check – got it!

Recently, my grandfather asked me “What kind of Jews are we? We don’t even know how to celebrate a Passover. Sweetie, do you feel Jewish at all?” I answered, “Yes. I do. You are Jewish and I’ve inherited your sense of humor. Therefore I am Jewish too. I laugh therefore I am …Jewish.” We laughed together.

What, I suppose, makes things even more interesting is that fact that I am married (happily, head over heels in love!) to a Turkish man whose relationship with God requires its own long thesis. What’s interesting though is that in naming our son, we used the Old Testament for references. After months and months of grueling debates we picked Adam to be our first son’s name. In the dictionary it said “This is the Hebrew word for a 'man'. It also literally means a "man" in Turkish. According to Genesis in the Old Testament Adam was created from the earth by God. A man of earth! What a message to the universe!

Well, all that is well and good. And being inquisitive, in a purely rhetorical kind of a way, is a healthy exercise, but it still didn’t bring me any closer to the original question. What will I tell my son about God? I had to begin somewhere. So, I started formulating my position on the whole “God question.” A sort of God 101:
  • Jewish or not, God and I are on the first name basis, except I often imagine him to be George Burns, just like in the movie “Oh God”. So, I guess my God’s name is George?
  • God and I have known each other for a long time. How do I know that? Well, for starters, we often understand each other without words. Sometimes it’s a breeze, sometimes it’s the subway train humming the first few notes from the “West Side Story”, sometimes it’s a white butterfly….Then, you know the feeling, you get comfortable with each other. You can voice your opinions knowing that you’ll be loved no less. So, I often voice my opinions…and they are not always pretty or even well thought out, sometimes they come with tears and begging. He always listens…
  • I imagine that instead of, or maybe in addition to, to the houses of worship, God lives on the internet. Seriously. I mean, I know that he is everywhere (do I know that for sure?) But the World Wide Web (how else could it be?) is where he receives his messages from humans, from our souls.
  • I regularly communicate with God through emails. Because I don’t know his exact email address (God@hotmail.com?) I send my messages to someone who loves me. The email system always delivers them promptly and even confirms with a nearly divine conclusiveness “Your message has been sent”
  • When it’s more urgent, or I am simply tired and desperate, I pray. There is a special place in my home where I stand on my knees and speak to God (in my mind’s eye God wears a baseball cap, has large glasses and barely noticeable all-knowing smile). That place is in my kitchen. It’s sacred. It’s by the oven.
  • Sometimes I cry, then I always feel guilty about it. Sometimes my prayers are soft whispers. Sometimes I say “thank you”. Sometimes I just look up and say nothing at all. He always listens…
  • Even after all the years of spiritual studies, I still get mixed grades on my spiritual exams. Let’s be honest, I often fail them miserably (the same way I failed ESL – English as a Second Language  multiple times). Then I curse at myself, I scream inside. He is always patient. He always listens...
And after all this introspection, I gathered all my courage and finally decided to introduce God into a  conversation with my young son.

Me: “Hi sweetie, do you know what God is?”
Adam: “Yes! No! I don’t know, Mama, what is it?”
Me: “It’s too late now, but I’ll explain it to you tomorrow.”
Adam: “No, no, I want to know now!”
Me: “Okay, but you have to promise that you’ll always remember what I tell you”
Adam: “Okay!!”
Me: “God is love. The essence and the energy of love. Do you understand?”
Adam: “Yes Mama. I understand”. Thinking a moment. “Do you love me?”
Me: “Of course I love you. So much”
Adam: “Me too”, smiling sheepishly “Can we read five books tonight?”
Me: “No Adam two books and that’s it”
Adam: “No, at least four!”
Me: “Okay three”.
Adam: “Fine”
Well, that didn’t go so bad, huh? Nobody said “God 101” was going to be simple course.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

To Paris and Back

In the air
“Flight attendants, please be seated for take off”, a reassuring and confident (always a hesitant traveler, I desperately wanted to believe that it contained both of these attributes) voice of the pilot resonated through the speakers. The engines roared, the airport structures started to flash through the window like in an old black and white movie, and in just seconds the plane was in the air. Every single time I fly, I am genuinely surprised when this happens. Could this heavy metallic bird lift its weight up and stay in the air? A miracle.

I looked out of the window and a breathless “wow” escaped out of me. It was a dark and clear late evening. No clouds to mess with the view. New York, in all it’s glory below the belly of the airplane, illuminated by hundreds of thousands of lights. I thought to myself “this looks like an overturned contents of a jewelry box.” I imagined that the sparkling is generated by diamonds, pearls, emeralds, sapphires, aquamarines….all scattered around and glistening.

I sat like that glued to this incredible show of lights until we reached the Atlantic Ocean. My eyes fell on my wedding ring…a much more modest diamond and most important one in my jewelry box. I smiled.

The lights in the cabin were turned off and I dosed off for a while only to wake because of a small commotion around the lavatory. “We are still in the air. The big metallic bird is still flying”, a comforting thought registered in my mind. A window, my constant companion, lured me back into the abyss beyond.

Stars! More jewels, sprinkled generously on the vast black background. I thought, “this high up – are we closer to God?” And just then, a shooting star, exploded, painted a trajectory and disappeared. “Is that a ‘yes’?” I pondered…

First day in Paris
I love New York, almost as if it were a person. I feel married to it and it's a great marriage - loving, supportive, passionate. The first day I spent in Paris, though, this city managed to steal my heart. I felt that I've begun an affair that could last a lifetime. Or maybe it was the beginning of a stereotypical French-inspired fling. Time will tell.

I was eating a scrumptious chicken sandwich, watching Parisian life buzz with activity, I couldn't help but wonder...Is it okay to cheat on NY? But I knew it was a rhetorical question – it was too late. Paris’ magic has already seeped through and under my core. Like a fast-acting drug, it was making my head spin, creating an un-wipeable grin on my face.

How did it happen? When was I “drugged”? Hard to say. It all seems like a blur (is that the first confession AAA members make at their meetings?)

Could it have been the views from the tour bus that took me around the Sienna?
Could it have been the wind blowing through my hair?
Could it have been the view of the famous Notre Dame or the "0km" mark on the square in front of the cathedral from which all the roads in France are calculated? Could it have been the smell of croissants and coffee?
Could it have been the Louvre? Mona Lisa who may be smiling because she just had a third child?
Could it have been two vivacious elderly French ladies who seemed to have argued and then hugged each other before parting their ways?
Could it have the bridges, the intricate architecture, elegant lamp posts and myriad other things?
Of course it could.

Yet, among all this beauty, there was a turning point – the first time I saw the sun rise on the Champs Elysses. The bright, bold, blinding sun, stretching its rays, smiling, warming up freshly washed, broad sidewalk …I couldn’t help but return the smile, thinking “I could really get used to this”. The symbolism was unmistakable: in the beginning of the day I walked towards the sun (and the Egyptian obelisk) in the direction of my new Parisian office, and upon return the sun was saying good bye to me just slightly to the left of the Arc.

Love at first sight
In the elevators of the Eiffel tower, I really experienced the feeling of “butterflies in your stomach”. I promised the majestic lady – the Eiffel Tower - that we were going to see each other soon. She shone her bright lights on me and said, "Of course we will. You won't be able to stay away. What can I say, Chérie, I have that effect on people." “What a lovely French accent”, I thought, walking backwards away from her. She thought I wouldn't notice, but she blew me a kiss...

What I learned
One night, I had a fancy dinner at my company’s headquarters, in a room that looked like French kings just stepped out of it. I felt like I was in a museum. My colleagues around the globe looked at each other nervously, not willing to break the silence, clearly shy to speak.

To make things a bit more casual, I proposed that they share their childhood dreams with everyone, namely what they wanted to be when they were growing up. Usually, people don't dream of being in insurance.)So, the stories are often wild. It was no different this time. I heard everything from a flamingo dancer to a famous writer to a cook to a rock star to a train operator…to a flower.

And then in one flash, light bulb, “Aha” moment, I realized – all the people around the world are the same, we are one big whole. They dream, they love, they cry, they live, they love, they laugh, and they come to boring long meetings and day dream about what they wanted to be when they grew up. Now, I know it sounds ridiculous that it’s actually somehow surprising to me. Theoretically, I’ve always known this, but sitting at this elaborate table, in Paris, eating one of the most amazing dinners (albeit small) I’ve ever had, drunk from the enormity of it all, with my new-found friends from Japan, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, England, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany...more than ever I felt connected with the rest of the world. I will miss them.

And back…
The car service pulled up. I rang the door bell. John’s face lit up. Our son was crying hysterically “Go back, Mommy, go back!”, upset that I’d disturb his idyllic daily routine with Daddy who adores (and spoils) him.

“How was it?”, John asked, relief and happiness on his face. “It was amazing. I’ll tell you all about it later. How was it here?” John lowered his eyes, “It was great. I love being with our son but without you this isn’t a home…” I kissed his scruffy cheek (didn’t he shave all this time??) and thought “Ah, Paris, the shootings stars, the ebbs and flows of the river of life…It’s here and now that I am closest to God.”