Members of the family were ready at the house when the large black mini-bus pulled up. The driver set up the steps and helped us all in, slid the door closed and then had to slide it open again, re-position the steps, close it up and open it again a few more times while we all remembered to bring along what we’d forgotten. Finally all packed in, we set off for the Funeral Home.
Inside the mini-bus, at each seat, there were bottles of mineral water and boxes of tissues. Larry sat up front with the driver to chat his way to the inevitable destination.
When we reached the Home, we were formally greeted and then ushered past the coffin with its ‘Shomer’, a guard who’d been watching over the body since Tuesday. The tradition is that someone needs to sit by the body constantly till the ceremony, at which time we’d officially thank him and take over the responsibility of guarding. When we looked at the 3-day roster, we found a few different names before the one who currently sat, wearing a keepah, and silently praying.
Our destination was an antechamber where we were to sit with the Rabbi of my parent’s Temple. He conducted a Q and A, asking us about experiences, memories, events that made Dad unique. We all had something to say. Jack, Dad’s brother, spoke how he’d always been a natural leader. How he’d led the gang of neighbourhood boys – they’d wait to see what he had in mind (stick ball or running through the Brooklyn water hydrants) and then they’d all do it. How in engineering projects, Jack was amazed to watch how he’d effortlessly organized hundreds of workers, offering respect and motivation, to guide the job being done.
My brother and sister spoke of Dad’s indication of anger – a raised eyebrow. One change in the symmetry and we’d know that there’d been a mis-direction of harmony. My nieces spoke of his openness and willingness to try new things. Ali and I had spoken about that on the way, how he’d learn from his past experience and reacted differently the next time.
After all our words, the rabbi culled a summary of Dad, which he later brought to his eulogy.
We went out to the hall, where we caught a glance of many friends, and faces I didn’t recognize. But, no time to gaze, as we were guided to our seats in the front row and the ceremony began. *I should mention here that due to Shavuot, all funerals had been put on hold till that day. The Funeral Home was overbooked and we were told that we had to keep things to 30 minutes.
Our rabbi had said that we’d have time to say what we wanted to say, but it appears that the Funeral Directors hadn’t given their okay to that.
The 30-minute Ceremony
The rabbi stood up at the podium and announced the reason that we were gathered together. Then the Cantor, a tall fellow opened his mouth and with his first tenor tone, melted the hearts of us all.
Jack went up, first to speak. He offered his love, admiration and his farewell. Then it was my turn. I’d written out what I wished to say – a haiku and a few words. Adjusting the mic, I looked out as I read my haiku and saw straight ahead of me the beautiful face of my friend, Jayne. She’d come and was smiling with empathy and I was touched. I spoke of the idea that had been shared with me by Doron, my t’ai chi teacher, that to pass away just before a holiday was considered a sacred time. With each phrase, my heart grew into my throat and just before the final few words, when it was time to officially say “Shalom” to my Dad, I couldn’t speak through the tears that were about to cascade. I turned to my sister and found a perfectly normal voice to request that she read the final paragraph.
Then it was Larry’s turn to speak. He spoke from his heart, no notes. He, too, made it most of the way through before tears flowed. Andrea took her spot at the podium whereupon she started to shake. I clambered up beside her to hold her firmly, to keep her grounded, to help her voice find its base. She spoke in flurries of memories and emotions and managed to speak through the tears. We three sat down. My mom was stoic, tissues in hand, and I held her hand.
The next generation stood up to speak. Tears, words, observations – each of them; Ali, Dania, Lea, speaking from their own point of view.
Kenny, my father’s good friend spoke of his Wild Bill, a treasure of a friend who blessed all with his divine Bill’s Dills.
Then the rabbi spoke, filling in historical gaps like my dad being in Dead End on Broadway, about his engineering career and his mission to help other engineers worldwide to make the world a better place, FIT.
Then it was over. Another prayer and we were ushered back into the antechamber, quick bathroom break and then into the black mini-bus. In the parking lot, some of us managed to greet some of our guests, but Jayne? I couldn’t see her, or Randi? My cousin Ana found me and hugged me. Time was short. We went to the bus. Those of us who managed to escape the firm hand of the Funeral Directors mingled a little bit longer, noticed a few more guests like George Brady, the brother of Hana (of Inside Hana’s Suitcase) and our dear friends Sam and Murray Cass.
Eventually, they rounded us all up and we travelled to the Cemetery. Two policemen guided us over the first intersections. Finally arriving, 7 pallbearers bore the narrow, but heavy coffin over the uneven terrain. Cousin Michael K was grateful he hadn’t slipped.
Around the grave, we were told that our role was to shovel dirt over the coffin after it was lowered into position. To indicate our lack of enthusiasm, we could use the back side of the shovel. Jack refused to participate. My mother was loathe but shoveled in some earth. We each took a turn, but as time was of the essence, the Rabbi and the Funeral Director stepped up to energetically shovel the earth until the coffin was entirely covered.
Then, we were pointed back to the bus. On the way, I shook some hands, made eye-contact with several guests- the pianist Yuval Fichman who had played a concert at Bridgepoint, my Dad’s hospital, a few weeks before, and his wonderful father who back in 1985 had worked out the astrological birthchart of Iris. I saw our old neighbours, who’d come to support us, and Alexina Louie and Alex Pauk, good friends of the family and composers involved with my brother’s films.
All the while I helped my mother navigate the way back to the bus where we sat and waited till the others joined us. We were to lead the procession.
The trip back home was quiet. We shared names of those we’d been able to see and wondered why we’d been so terribly rushed. If only we’d known that we’d have no time to be with our guests.
Arriving home, the driver slid open the door, set up the steps for our elegant disembarkation, and found ourselves greeted by cousin Michael W, the doctor, who quietly informed us that Bella the dog had left a few offerings in the house.
Andrea rushed to clean up. I entered the house and was greeted with requests for serving spoons for our catered food that should have been ready on the serving table. And could I please share the secrets of how to make coffee in the three urns set up for immediate implementation. Meanwhile, I also had the task of printing out Boarding Passes for Uncle Jack and Susan, who would then be able to stay a bit longer before heading off to the airport.
And thus, life continued, as we began the process called ‘Shiva’ – the seven day period of mourning (which we would be compressing into three days).
Larry headed out to Starbucks to bring back cartons of Caffeinated and De-caf coffee for those in dire need while slowly but surely we began to work the coffee machines, and watch our guests (who knew so many could fit in Mom’s house?) help themselves to delicious bagels, cheese, lox and fruit.
Later we brought out the salads and quiches as more and more people came to fill the house with life and support.
Sara K orchestrated a few family pictures before Jack and Susan had to leave.
At seven p.m. the Shiva officially closed for the evening. Only family members stayed on: Ana and Max, Sara and Michael K, and the rest of us. Cracking open pistachios, sharing red grapes, we sat back. My mother was okay. We were okay. Bella was not okay. She’d eaten something and kept us all busy making sure that her offerings were discovered before Mom found them.
We made plans to meet the next day for brunch and with that, people dispersed. Mom went upstairs to bed. I went downstairs to unroll my bedroll on the den floor. The surreal crept into our regular schedule.
As I write about it all now, I scarcely remember my dreams that night, but the words of Jack’s wife, Susan, lingered. She told us that there would be signs of Dad; things would be moved, or would disappear and then reappear. Grain of salt situation, perhaps, but there were brief glimpses of Dad sitting in his chair, smiling, wearing his baseball cap. I’d smile to him and then feel the tears well up.
Everyone has a story. There’s always a history behind the present moment. How you got to where you currently sit, stand, recline. When it began. What happened before that. And then what happened…
We can recall moments filled with details and colours and sounds. Some of them may be haphazard. Some may have been predetermined and cast into our DNA by our grandparents or their grandparents. If we consider all that, that too is our story.
It seems reasonable that when asked to share your story, there must be something you could say.
But, when I was asked, I discovered something else. What story? What have I done that when examined from a bird’s eye view looks or sounds like a story? I had lived through events, but were they interesting? Did they create a story-line? I didn’t see it.
Escape route 101: I asked my partner to tell me his story. I as interviewer could happily record his beginning, middle and end. “What’s your story?” I asked him. “Tell me what makes you who you are – the events, the encounters that brought you here.”
He answered: “I have no story.”
I tried re-framing the question. His words came out the same. No. No story, here. Now, I know he has a story. He has lived a life of experiences and relationships that could fill books.
So, what makes it hard to look at our lives and pick out the moments that when lined up would ring authentic and truly represent our path. Moments that when put on a page would offer material for a professional edit and a click of the publish button.
I know that, in the past, if an interested other has asked me what brought me to this moment, I’ve had lots to talk about, things that sounded unique and interesting. Why were those times different from being asked to listen to myself, and write?
The difference was plain. Then I had an audience. I could gear what I said to the look of interest (or lack of) in the gaze of my listener/s.
An audience. I could speak to the audience. Just like on stage or in a classroom. Instinctively, I’d find the light in their eyes and be encouraged.
So, I came up with an idea. This idea isn’t new to me, in fact it was my original plan when I first came to Israel. The idea is simple: Puppet Talk. Let a puppet tell the story. Let a puppet narrate and if need be, bring on important characters to be arranged onstage. Let the puppet show the small scenes of real life, in shameless accuracy, complete with blunders and embarrassment. Let the puppet express it all to provide clarity to past events that happened in a tumult of emotion or social upheaval, but which stick out in our minds: those events that we remember as pivotal in our route through life.
Let the puppet do the talking so that you can stand back and watch the story of your life from a comfortable distance.
This is the idea.
When I ask myself leading questions like:
What made you come to Israel?
What made you stay?
I think back and offer a phrase or a sentence. ‘It was the smell of orange blossoms.’
“I didn’t feel so short here.”
Yet was it truly so simple? Had I left a life in Canada for a new life in a strange land, just because of the fragrance of orange blossoms? Or that other people were short and I felt physically at home? Or the joy in meeting artists, musicians, philosophers at every corner? In the supermarket, in the office of the real estate agent, or with the vegetable vendor who traded us big green Granny Smith apples for the luscious guava from our tree. Those apples were juiced, warmed and served with cinnamon during a cold winter when we didn’t have money for heat.
There are questions that can be answered with a sniff of cinnamon or orange blossoms. Words hardly do them justice. So, why use puppets? Because the puppet can provide the distance and the voice for an emotion that might be difficult to express. The puppet seldom cries, but often shows empathy. Puppets can deal with life’s absurdities and still radiate patience and understanding.
Puppet talk. An idea that needs pursuing. What is my story? Let’s see!
My friend, C, used to tell me that in her bedside nightstand, she keeps a little kit. Inside there’s a good book she’s dying to read, suntan lotion, a bathing suit, flip flops and a towel.
She keeps the kit for that one moment when there’s no choice; when there’s no hesitation. That moment is when she’ll grab her kit and head out to the beach. For a day or two. If she has her charge card in her wallet, the required stay is open-ended.
That little bedside ‘get out of jail free’ option has been my vicarious secret for many years. When I would exercise that option was an inside joke, within the firm belief that I was still doing some good where I was and that the sun and the beach could live without me for a while.
Something’s shifted. I’m looking at my own escape plan. A retreat. A permanent retreat in Ein Dor with Tovana, in Plum Village with the Tibetan Buddhists. In my room with my meditation application. In my puppet workshop shed with my contact cement, paint and foam rubber.
Making a dignified run for it. Away from work. Away from teaching. Away from the bureaucracy that surrounds everything I do. The receipts, the accounts, the checking in and out. The computer programs, the bells that tell me when I can rest, walk, eat, pee.
An elegant tip of the hat as I blow a silent kiss to a machine that cranks out papers to sign while I am trying to connect my inner chi to the chi of countless pupils or teachers who are unaware of the changes of chi, or the empathy that is there for the taking.
The photo of the monastery on a hilltop. The snapshot of a pristine cell with bed and window. A place to meditate. Silent small meals. Early rising, early retiring. Others who also search for something inside that longs to grow in a separate daily routine.
A shift from a clock. A shift into a real flow of time.
This world that begins with a bedside kit – to grab and to go. My kit: a collection of books. My skin cream, my water bottle, some fruit and vegetables for the way.
Then it gets tricky. My phone. My charger. I need to be in touch. My partner. I love him. My children? My grand-child? This kit isn’t large enough.
Do I take the train or a bus? Do I need a ride to the station?
Maybe just my bike. I’ll get as far as I get and then breathe.
A break from classes. No class relax last Monday, this coming Monday and perhaps only half a session the Monday after that.
I’ve had time to step back, pick up some books for my own practice, and note down a few observations.
Here’s my list of Spring Cleaning of the Mind Post-its
Wish students well and then step back. Contact should be positive and easy.This is no time to keep a tight leash.
Wish myself well and repeat often – Lovingkindness meditation. More than ever, self-kindness is a well-needed nutrient
Clean my space and throw out what I don’t need and check the inventory of what I’ve so diligently collected
Allow new connections to form. Get a step away from old traditional routines emphasizing others, allow for the chance to vibrate to a new beat. Top suggestion – open the book Search Inside Yourself and let Meng provide some inspiration.
Do something I love. Do it. Sing, make puppets, practice.
Investigate location of sense of humour and encourage it to reappear. This is a challenging one. Where has my humour gone? On-going search
Do not take everything personally. Not everything is an assassin hit. Not everything is intentionally pointed at my sore spot. Probably not anything. Listen and detach.
Do not take, but notice and appreciate. It is not necessary to own a moment or a comment. Appreciate it as it appears.
Drink water, walk and listen to body. The physical form needs attention. My own schedule, no need to postpone food or rest because of an externally imposed agenda. Listen to what I need.
Old habits? Are they still around? Notice. Who said that the thing I once worked on to conquer forever is truly gone. When I least expect it, that thing might just be leading me into past paths.
11. Meditate. A lot. Whenever and however. Investigate new guided meditations from new voices. Find the sounds that inspire me to focus.
Read. Eat. Walk. Hug. Drink. Laugh! Smell the blossome. Listen to the birds. Move on. Offer what can be given. Do not hold back.
Spring is the time for affirming what it is I’m doing on this planet. My time.
So, this week I read in one class’s Whats App group, that I don’t know how to get mad.
stop, pause and continue.
This was an interesting comment and brings me to think about how I appear from a student’s point of view, or at least that student. Who is the student, one might first need to know.
He was presented as someone with problems, who can fly off in outbursts of rage and that as teachers, we are not to yell at him or go ‘head-to-head’. We were told to leave him alone, and to respect his learning accommodations so that he could function at least during tests.
This particular student made the decision with his parents’ agreement to join our Partnership 2gether Project, a living bridge connection between some of our 7th grade students and Bet Shraga school in Albany. We communicate via New Year’s cards, posters, internet joint projects, emails and of course through Web Conferences.
This said pupil conformed to the first few requirements but stopped at the 3rd and 4th. No card made, no youtube clip made, but he wanted to come to our meeting this past Thursday when we would be working on a joint Tu B’shvat project (birthday celebration of trees and plants) and then a Hangout with our partners in the US.
When I instructed them to pick a plant or tree native to this area, pupils got busy choosing and learning how to work with Google Slides. This pupil ,maybe I’ll call him “M”, chose a hand grenade. In Hebrew, hand grenade is the same as pomegranate. He thought it was applicable. I told him to get to work, and to choose a proper plant.
As I was walking around the room, I saw Tal, the head of the entire Partnership 2gether Project in our Western Negev area, take the computer from M and tell him that he was formally out of the project. M got up, kicked the computer cupboard and left the building.
A few minutes later, other pupils started to say, ‘Hey! My picture disappeared.’ ‘Mine, too’. and more voices chirped in until someone said – ‘It’s probably M!’
I went outside to inspect. Sure enough, there was M, reclining on a bench outside the Grade 7 building with his phone in hand, clicking onto a picture and pressing delete. I looked, uttered a reproof and quickly took his phone to prevent further damage. I went back into the classroom and removed his name from the joint Google slide file.
He came in, took his phone, left and as we all prepared for our Hangout trans-Atlantic conversation, another pupil came to me with a Whats App conversation in his hand. ‘Judih, look at this! Take him out of our group!
Then the phone rang and I got busy answering.
While the phone rang and my US partner and I worked out the bugs, apparently little M was busy trolling our whats app group. I removed him from the Whats App group and carried on.
We spoke to the kids! The kids introduced themselves, said thanks for shared Chanukah cards and were happy to talk. We then presented the Tu B’shvat idea – ours and theirs. And we signed off.
Meanwhile, M decided to take his complaints to my regular English class whats app group. He explained that for no reason, he had been removed from the Project group. He had done nothing. Then, only because I was incapable of getting mad, I took his phone.
When I spoke to his homeroom teacher, I reported some of M’s chosen phrases to post in our chat group and I was told that the things he said were typical (calling us all “Hitler lovers” and “may you all burn”). I was advised to update M’s mom and especially emphasize the fact that his phone was a key player in the drama. (The phone being a sensitive object in M’s life)
M’s mom informed me that his use of a hand grenade as an object for focus is a known phenomenon with him. She told me that he’s PTSD and in any situation remotely possible, he’ll revert to weaponry to express himself.
This was new to me. No one had previously mentioned this. One would think that a pupil having PTSD would be information worth sharing with his teachers. But now I knew.
And as I ponder how to deal with this student, I recall his words that I don’t “know how to get mad.” I wonder what constitutes getting mad. Is getting mad yelling at them, turning red? Is getting mad punishing them till they want to shrivel into worms? Is just a little punishment considered getting mad?
If M is judging my show of anger in relation to his own, I expect I should start kicking computer cupboards and finding interesting curses for my students. Kicking something is good, but only with protective shoes. Cursing might work if I can think of something in a Shakespearean style, perhaps.
I’d heard that M had died. At such a relatively young age, death could only have been from disease – M never would’ve been in an accident. It’s not conceivable.
I looked it up, google, facebook and sure enough. Over a year ago, M passed away from lung cancer. In pain but with his family’s support.
He had a family – a few from a few marriages.
Gone but not forgotten. He had been an incredibly paranoid man, highly intelligent, absolutely neurotic. He had the power to cause others to try to make him content, just because his cute smile of delight was so much nicer than his manic rants and attacks if he’d believed that he’d been slighted.
He once offered to teach me how to control others, how to wow them with my pointed cleverness. How to read behind gestures, how to use my findings to manipulate.
An offer that I was dubious about accepting, but still found interesting enough to watch him in action.
I was malleable in those days. I was interested in observing dynamics between sources of power and receivers of its vibrations.
Does that sound cult-ish? Perhaps I was interested in the concept of cult: them vs us
I’d been in a Gurdjieff group in Toronto. I’d seen it in various venues and had experienced the exercises of self-observation and self-remembrance. I had listened to its leaders and looked at the irony of wrong-doing together with the mantle of being better than.
M was wearing that cloak. His brand of ‘better than’ was a large brand and he wore it with the help of many who chose to surround him. That group changed over the years but for a while I was amongst them. I did what I could to smooth his day, although I never knew when his bloodshot non-blinking gaze would fall upon me. I never knew what would set off a tirade of psychological analysis from which there was no escape until I’d admit his points or until we all fell down near dawn.
Funny how he named his daughter ‘dawn’ – perhaps he knew that time to be special – to allow for a new way of thinking when the old way was no longer viable.
I now and for some time have been waking up at dawn.
It’s a delicious free zone – no judgment, no demand.
Back in the day when i lived with M and the rest of the gang, dawn was the time when they were sleeping and I was awake in a large house, cool tiled floors, daylight not quite ready to stream in.
I would drink a morning cup of coffee and head up onto the roof to exercise with the first rays of light.
Working my body parts became my daily ritual.
M taught me how to separate between him and me: between what I needed to do to find space for myself and what I needed to do for the collective.
Out of that, I wrote ‘Getting There’ – my own monologue done in dance but more importantly offering me the therapy of finding out what running towards meant to me.
His obsessive compulsive need for cleanliness taught me how to keep outer appearances even when the inner mind was a million miles away from the accepted order.
From that I learned how to maintain spaces – my puppetry workshop, my batik workshop, my voice workshop.
I learned how to explore being different while keeping a framework of ‘same’.
I learned that I loved fabric and dying and creating. I learned that I could only sit still so long before falling into a daze.
When I knew him, I learned that expression is a large part of joy – no matter what the price.
He’s dead now. He’s left his imprint on a few people.