Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Forgiveness, gratitude and joy

I'm having some seriously entangled thoughts about gratitude, joy and forgiveness.

The first of these is that I find myself longing for the joy that comes with wisdom and spiritual enlightenment. Descriptions of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and the Most Reverend Desmond Tutu (I love titles) almost always involve descriptions of embodied joy, often in the form of giggling. I find myself longing for that. I'm tired of being offended and upset and brittle. I want the freedom of living out joy.

But wait, Rebecca, didn't you just marry the man you never thought you'd find? Aren't you getting an extended vacation to quilt and bake while you look for a job? Don't you have a great spiritual community that values you? Isn't your family healthy?


And still, I find myself offended and upset and brittle more often than I would like to admit.

Meg, over at A Practical Wedding keeps talking about wanting to have a Brave Marriage and go traveling and having adventures and I love her spirit. It's made me think about what I do not want to regret about our marriage and I find that I'm not all that concerned about travel and adventure. I had a lot of that as a single person. As my friend Jess put it, "It about roots and investments for me now." Will that possibly involve a certain amount of radicality for Jacob and I? Probably. But new experiences for the sake of being new aren't what I'm looking for. I want to find joy in the life that I'm living at home. I want sustainability for that joy. Everything has been in such upheaval over the last year (finishing school, meeting Jacob, moving, marrying Jacob) that I want to spread my toes into the carpet and take root so that I can keep spreading my arms up into the sky and stretching my sideribs into growth. (On a side note, I want to keep practicing yoga, as well.)

I find that it is hard to live this out when so much of my energy is spent being offended and upset and brittle.

On the surface, it seems like these are reactionary emotions. People in my life are offensive. People in my life are upsetting. I rightly need to protect myself from some people in my life.

These people can be found in two different areas right now: my in-laws and friends of my ex-husband.

Let me explain. I have never been more thoroughly disapproved of than I have by my in-laws in the last year. High school was a cake walk compared to this family. Five out of the eight family member have told my husband at some point or another that they were upset by something I did. An email I sent, a voicemail I left, a decision I made, a story I told. Additionally, even though I have asked them to come to me directly, they still communicate their disapproval through my husband, so I have no recourse except confrontation, which has felt inappropriate.

I am not used to being disapproved of. My friends think I'm great and tend to know me well enough to forgive me if I'm insensitive. My family doesn't generally practice disapproving either. My parents have always said explicitly, "There is nothing you can do that can make us love you any less." And living that out has generally taken the form of live and let live. Sometimes my parents aren't happy about choices we've made but they believe their job is to love us, not to judge us, so it doesn't affect how we interact. So, it is a completely new sensation to find myself on the receiving end of disapproval from people whose opinion I care about. I'm just not used to people thinking I should be anything other than who I am and expressing it (however indirectly). Although I know with my head that their behavior probably has very little to do with me and very much to do with a pre-existing dynamic, I can't seem to help myself from feeling wounded by it. As a result of those wounds, I find myself offended, upset and brittle a lot of the time.

On the other side, I went to my friends' wedding last weekend and it was one of the loveliest weddings I have ever attended. It was full of laughter and funk music and a general sense of gratitude on the part of the guests that two people who are loved so well would take this step and make each other even happier.

However lovely the event itself was, it has had a certain amount of emotional upheaval on either side because so many of the guests know my ex-husband. Everyone was very polite and glad to see me and one woman even made vague apologies for how weird everything was, which I very much appreciated. I had a great time immersing myself in their particular brand of humor. But I learned that some of the people whom I really like, who never told me I was a bad person, who indicated that they knew he was lying, whom I would love to rekindle friendships with, are still actively friends with my ex-husband and his new wife. They have monthly dinners together and invite each other to parties. I am surprised by how angry this makes me. I feel like if someone knows how absolutely rotten he was to me, how could they keep being his friend? Who could trust someone capable of such atrocities? How could they reward his affair by letting their babies play with the child of his mistress? It hurts me that they would choose him over me. This hurt leads me to feel offended, upset and brittle a lot of the time.

This is very far from the joy that I would like to be living in.

As luck would have it, a perfect storm of commentaries has come into my sphere of attention to remind me about forgiveness and gratitude.

For the last three days, I have been confined to the couch with a raging head cold. Most of the time, I have not been able to open my eyes because they were so swollen. During this time, I listened to the backlog of podcasts in my iTunes. Randomly, the first three were sermons on forgiveness by Rob Bell.

He started each sermon with a caveat of sorts. He made sure to say that forgiveness is about the state of our owns hearts. It is a personal things. It is about setting ourselves free from the feelings of bitterness that can own us if we let them.

This is not new to me. Certainly, I have dealt with my feelings about my ex-husband with this understanding. But I've not done a very good job of applying it to the rest of my life. When looking for that last link, I found this post, which shows that I haven't grown much in the last seven months.

Anyway, to make his point clear, Rob says that forgiveness is not condoning the behavior. Forgiveness does not require forgetting. In fact, we should set boundaries to protect ourselves in the future. Forgiveness does not necessarily involve interrupting the natural consequences for someone's actions or forgoing justice. Finally, forgiveness is separate from reconciliation, which is a process that requires two people.

In his sermons, Rob speaks about the destructive nature of revenge. How when someone hands us a hurt, we want to hand it right back and that this can be a passive response, as well as an active one. I fear that this is how I feel about Jacob's family. I certainly repeat the litany of offenses in my head as I swim or fall asleep or wash the dishes. I form the words in my head of what I would say to them if I got the chance. And no matter how graceful those words are, no mater how well they utilize reconciliatory language, I mean for those words to hurt them as much as I have been hurt.

It is a form of revenge. And I know it won't work. I know it will escalate the situation, like the story of Sampson.No, not that one. The other one. In addition to escalating, it probably wouldn't hurt them anyway since my retorts all work on the assumption that they care how their behavior affects me.

So what do I do?

I will not act on these feelings. I have come that far in my spiritual journey. I have learned to stay quiet until I can speak from a place of tranquility and stable self-esteem. But if I can't hand the hurt back to them, what do I do with it? How do I keep it from eating me up, as it clearly has been since I feel mostly offended, upset and brittle right now?

This is where the perfect storm comes in. On Sunday, my pastor closed vespers with her usual benediction,
Let us go out into the world in peace;
Have courage;
Return no one evil for evil;
Strengthen the fainthearted;
Support the weak;
Help the suffering;
And in all these things;
Take courage in the Spirit,
Who nourishes us and makes us whole.
May the fire of God
Burn deeply within you
And shine brightly upon you,
Now and always.
There are a couple things there of note. It reaffirms the other things I have been thinking about returning evil for evil and reminds me that I am not alone in this effort. The shekinah of God will help. I probably need to pray to really access this one.

This reminds me of Alcoholics Anonymous advice that I've received: "Pray for the bastard." Of course, this goes along with Jesus's advice to pray for those who persecute you.

Also, I recently finished Eboo Patel's book, Acts of Faith, in which he describes Islam by paraphrasing Fazlur Rahman,
I learned that Islam is best understood not as a set of rigid rules and a list of required rituals but as a story that began with Adam and continues through us; as a tradition of prophets and poets who raised great civilizations by seeking to give expression to the fundamental ethos of the faith.

. . . [T]he core message of Islam is the establishment of an ethical, egalitarian order on earth. . . .The central aspect of this moral order is merciful justice . . . God . . . gives each human an inner light, which the Qur'an refers to as taqwa, the writing of God on our souls. [It] is the single most important concept in the Qur'an. It is the piece of us that innately knows the mercy of God.
I think that if I try to actively remember that God loves me and so forgives me, much like my family and she wants me to love others just as much. In other words, if I develop my taqwa, my sense of merciful justice, it might get me a little closer to forgiving my in-laws and the friends of my ex-husband. Also, I need to remind myself that God has set up a higher order of things and just because I do not see her justice does not mean that it is not being enacted. I do not need to be one more misguided vigilante for God.

I think that fostering this sense of taqwa might involve remembering the good things that I do have. Yesterday, our rabbi posted on the benefits of gratitude journals. Although it feels hokey, I'll do just about anything at this point to stop feeling so offended, upset and brittle.

Finally, I am currently reading Don Miller's new book and he writes, "And once you know what it takes to live a better story, you don't have a choice." I have been thinking a lot about volunteering during this time that I am looking for a job. My life feels so hectic and that it might even be irresponsible to take that time away from the search but I'm starting to think it might be essential. That this might be the better story that I need to be living. That it is part of the roots and investment that I crave right now. If I put my time into the children of our neighborhood at the Boys and Girls club down the street, I will make this place more of my home and find more joy here.

Rob Bell leaves me with this haunting image. When we do not hand back a hurt that has been handed to us, we are left with the agony of holding onto it. That agony is like death. But as people following the Jesus Model, that death can give us hope for a resurrection and a new life and a new world order. I am hoping that my three days are up and this Thanksgiving marks a rolling away of the stone. I am ready to be thankful for what I have and so filled with joy that I have to forgive because there is no room in my heart for bitterness.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Shabbat shalom

Sometimes I think my challah look like Irving Penn's corpulent nudes. Check them out here. I'm serious.

Don't ask why the sewing machine is in the kitchen. It's that kind of week.

Friday, November 13, 2009

24 Hours from Tulsa

I am heading to Tulsa this weekend for another wedding after the wedding tonight. Is it terribly inappropriate to call my cousin, the bride and sing this song?
Just checking.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

But delivered a mule!

I have been thinking a little bit about my first marriage lately because on Friday, I will attend a wedding of a friend from those days and will see a bunch of people that I have not seen since before the divorce. I'm a little nervous because my ex-husband spread a lot of lies about me (For example, that I had an emotional affair with a co-worker, that I was a bitch in various ways including how I talked about people behind their back and how I demanded total control over decorating the house, etcetera) and I don't know how many of these lies have since been debunked for the folks attending the wedding. Even if they are no longer friends with him, unless misstated facts have been specifically retracted, they might still passively believe them. Because of these types of lies and the lies that he told me daily about himself and other people, a huge part of the healing process for me has been about letting go of my desire for control over how other people think about me. This has not been easy because I have always felt a strong desire to have people think the best of me, even if that meant emphasizing the "weird" part of my personality so that even if I could never successfully come across as polished and successful, like everyone else, at least I'd come across as interesting. However, I think I have made progress in letting go of that which I cannot control and have found a reasonable balance in my life to be comfortable with who I actually am. Still, when confronted with socializing with a bunch of people who may believe terrible things about me, I have found myself trying on a lot of different outfits to try to communicate that I am someone different than who I was.

Today, I was having lunch with a friend and she asked me how my relationship with my in-laws has changed now that the wedding has passed. I described for her the slackened pressure but also a couple of ways that Jacob has really stepped up and been an advocate for me, without my prompting. She said, "Well, you have told me before that you thought he was the kind of guy who, once he made a commitment, lived into it completely. This just shows that you were a good judge of character."

I broke out into tears there in the restaurant.

I was such a bad judge of character the first time around. It doesn't matter that everyone else made the same mistake about my ex-husband that I did. I paid for a bill of goods that was never delivered.

I am so grateful not to have made the same mistake twice and Jacob just keeps showing me that I haven't. A couple of days ago, I told him how much I loved his new business cards because although he uses his new married name on top, his URL and email address are still based on his bachelor name. Giving up the privilege of keeping his name for the sake of gender equality in our society makes his story (of being a newlywed) that much more transparent to folks and, as he looks for a job, makes him vulnerable to the same misgivings that women in the workforce have faced for 50 years. Will he want to start a family soon? If he's so progressive to change his name, will he want paternity leave? What if his partner makes more money than he does and gets transferred? Will our investment in him pay us back in the long-run? As I talked about this with him, he shrugged his shoulders and told me I was being silly. Once he made the decision, he was all about moving forward.

Further confirmation that what my friend said at lunch today was true.

I have chosen well and this good choice will affect my life so much more than my bad choice ten years ago ever will.

With that in mind, I think I can attend Friday's wedding in peace and with absolute joy for a couple that are making the same kind of good choice. (Of course, having a killer black dress doesn't hurt, either.)

Monday, November 09, 2009

Still moonlighting

I hate to send you somewhere else again, but I finally responded to a request for my spiritual bio. You can check me out here. The woman who pulls these biographies together is pretty neat and I'm happy to contribute. It's interesting to see who else is out there. I love being amidst the same ranks as Arloa Sutter, Julie Clawson and Bruce Reyes-Chow. I had listed the first two as some of my favorite websites even before I knew they had already participated. It is also interesting to to acknowledge that almost all of us are selling something. Maybe not money but everyone seems to self-describe as a writer or speaker of some sort, which means we're trying to get folks to see the world through our eyes. I bet most of us do it because we have been changed in some way and want to offer that opportunity to others but still, we're selling something.

At synagogue yesterday, we were made a little uncomfortable because a man joined a conversation we were having, which was fine at first. Then, he shifted the conversation to the Leadership Institute that he is involved in and even went so far as to hand us brochures for an upcoming conference at the low, low price of $995. I was simply uncomfortable because he had clearly lost all perspective on interactions with other people except as a means to sell his viewpoint (literally) but Jacob was offended that the man would be selling at temple and on Shabbat. When the man followed up with Jacob asking again for his phone number instead of just his email, Jacob explained his feelings directly and I was really proud of him for that.

As an update, I have to tell you that I'm starting to feel some of the magic of marriage. Being home so much with Jacob is allowing us to work out a harmony of movement in our home with the chores. We have also had the opportunities to have some big fights that have gotten a good portion of my insecurities out into the open. Second marriages are hard because it has been difficult to believe that this one is for real. My pastor once said, "Sometimes we push against love to see if it is fragile." I have been pushing a lot and Jacob has been so good about proving that our love is not fragile by wrapping his arms around me and pushing back that way.

Last night, during the 10 minutes of silent meditation at church, I ran through a series of words to focus on for my centering prayer and settled comfortable onto "closeness." I sat with Jacob and felt closeness. I sat with my community and felt closeness. I sat with God reflected in the candles and the music and the icons and my husband and my community and felt closeness.

This is what everyone has been talking about.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Chicagoland peeps

First of all, is there anyone who lives near me who needs packing plastic? You know, bubbles and those little packets of air that come with your mail-order stuff? If not, does anyone know an organization that re-uses it? Pottery studio or something?

Second, as my unemployment stretches on, I am getting to practice more and more domestic skills like cooking. I'm making some pretty amazing soups and breads and I am finding that buying grains and legumes in bulk in good both for our pocketbooks and for the environment (pesky plastic bags). However, our appetite for dried bits in overcoming our appetite for the spaghetti sauce that provides the jars to store them in. Does anyone have jars - spaghetti, canning or otherwise - that they'd like to donate to our increasingly earth-mother-y kitchen?

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Where's Rebecca?

Folks, unemployment is hard. I'm super-busy trying to do all of the networking necessary to find a job, acknowledging the "who you know" part of the success equation. Also, Jacob has recently been downsized so we're home together, which is delightful and a little scary. We're trying to take advantageous of this unique opportunity to extend the honeymoon-ish period and to get to know each other better in a setting that is not vacation and where individual work still needs to be done while we are in each other's presence. Mostly, we love being together and sometime conflicts arise. I am confident that we are setting good precedents for the rest of our lives together because we have the space to do it deliberately and for that, I am grateful, even if the opportunity costs of our salaries seems a little steep.

I have recently begun to realize that my family has had a similar unique privilege of getting at least a decade to be in an adult child dynamic without the distraction of little kids. My youngest brother is 30 and my oldest brother is 42 and in April, the first grandchild of my parents will be born. We have had the luxury to mostly grow out of our childhood insecurities, jealousies and baggage and get to know each other as adults. This includes my parents, who are remarkable in their willingness to be self-reflective about their habits and the way that they raised us, examining and acknowledging the mistakes they made and accepting our thanks for the vast majority of things they got right. It would be so easy for them to settle into their senior citizenship with blinders on like so many people do and yet they do the hard work of continually changing and becoming more loving so that we are sustainable as a family unit.

On another note, I have been spending some of my energy creating a new online community with another blogger. We are done debating whether or not intermarriage is killing the Jewish community. Nowadays, fifty percent of marriages that involve a Jewish partner are intermarriages. Folks like Jacob and I are intractably part of the Jewish community and now the hard work needs to be done to change the community norms to value what families like us have to offer rather than continuing to hold us at arms' length for fear of contagion. Hannah and I have started a blog that discusses how that work is being done through stories and thoughts from our own lives. We hope to create a forum for others like us who want to be constructive in determining the Judaism of the next generations. Please visit us at and participate in the discussions or just read what we're up to. If you have a blog of your own, I would appreciate if you would link to us in your blogroll and consider writing a short post about our project.

I love this blog and this community that has been created around my adventures. So many of you have expressed privately that you gain something important from my writing. Do not fear that I will love my new child more than my older child. It's just not possible. Hang in there. We'll sort out this new family dynamic and be rolling again soon. I couldn't be gone for too long. I promise.