Jewish Guilt. The Gift That Keeps On Giving.

 

We all know the feeling. The one that rubs us like salt in a wound, that has us doing the unhappy jig for an agglomeration of reasons. For something you did, something you think you did, something you didn’t do enough to help someone, something you’re doing better than someone else. God, I can go on forever with reasons. Comprising a list stretching into infinity. But that’s not the issue. The issue is why does this emotion exist at all?

Throughout history I imagine the topic has crossed many a great mind. Freud for starters, viewing guilt as a national phenomenon. Nietzsche, on the other hand, insisted this emotion to be unnatural. A learned state of being. “In this way, man wounds himself, this master of destruction, of self-torture.”

Torture, oh yeah. What a perfect description for such a waste of energy. An impotence, a regret that has no business in our day-to-day. Accomplished by a shaming device that weakens the spirit to ensure things stay just the way they are.

Coming from Jewish roots, I grew up believing it was something to be tolerated. Something passed from generation to generation like my grandmother’s secret recipe for Mandlebroit. Ironically, I also believed it was synonymous with child-rearing. That in order to be a good parent and have well-disciplined children, you simply had to develop this particular skill set. Little did I know then, weedling the blame-game finger at one’s young had nothing whatsoever to do with being Jewish. Just being a parent. All denominations were welcome.

It’s crazy how easily guilt finds its way to our door. And equally crazy easy how we let it in, let it capture our sense of obligation. Becoming in time a permanent fixture on the shelf of our self-esteem until something snaps inside and you finally say, “fuck it. I’ve had enough.”

For some (especially those of us with deep anxiety issues attached) it takes a lifetime to get to this point. I imagine it has something to do with age, because the older one gets the less they seem to give a shit about things that are meaningless and the opinion of others. But the fact is you do get there. You can get there. And that in itself, is a great achievement. An empowerment over yourself and those demons that rule you. A beginning, because everything has to start somewhere. Joan Didion once said, “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life is the source from which self-respect springs.” This is where one always starts to rebuild. From within. Making the foundation once again strong. Finding the right tools, the right perspective to ensure the walls remain upright. Solid. After wading through the wreckage, deciding what we want to toss into the dumpster and what we choose to cherish, wrappers and all, that the light bulb finally comes on. A path illuminates. One which brings along a magnificent joyfulness in having the opportunity to be yourself and be okay with who that person is and the decisions you make moving forward. It’s one of those rare things I wish I could have told my younger self. That and a million other things that I suppose would have saved me from a lifetime of grief.

It’s never easy saying no. Especially to those you care about. But it’s one of those tools required. Putting yourself last comes with a hefty price. When I was married, when my children were young, I didn’t exist. My needs always came last. I was too busy doing and being everything to everyone. Caretaker. Official Nose-Wiper. Housekeeper. Expert Mac ‘n Cheese Lady. Errand Girl. And to make further compound an already tenuous relationship, when I said “I do” I unwittingly offered up my spiritual backbone for batting practice to a man who should have been on meds. But instead remained in utter denial, as did I. Why? Because I thought less of myself. Because I believed out of some distorted sense of guilt, this was the way it was supposed to be. Yes, I wrong, in a major way. But I had to figure that out for myself. And like most things in life, some lessons as painful as they may be, have to be learned to be appreciated.

It all boils down to this. You are number one. And that mantle is not an act of selfishness or defiance. Rather a declaration of self-preservation. And although I don’t live a totally guilt-free existence (who the hell does?), still encountering bouts of questioning as the situation constantly shifts, the perspective and tools I’ve gained along with years of wonderful therapy and mediation, have freed me.

The world is not a perfect place. And like Anne Lamott has so poignantly pointed out, “into every life crap will fall.” Just try and remember guilt doesn’t always have to be a part of the equation. The puppet master berating you to do those things against your will, only has the control you give it.

So I say this to you with love, cut the damn strings. Start living life on your own terms. And dance to your own tune. You’re worth it!

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Over Sixty and Definitely Not Looking for Mr. Goodbar

It was a beautiful Florida morning. Not a cloud in the sky, still early enough before the rest of the world took its first breath and perfect for the beach. Armed with a writing pad, a book I had yet to finish, lotion and a chair I bounded for one of my favorite spots isolated enough where I knew I could set up shop right in front of the ocean without having to hear anything other than the lap of waves, the rustle of grape trees and the call of seabirds. At least for a few hours, anyway.

As I mentioned  it was quite early and I wasn’t expecting to find anyone else there. However, there was someone else there. Someone I knew and well and had not spoken to in over ten years. I pushed aside the awkwardness of the moment, the reasons that pulled us apart, and just settled my chair beside hers where a conversation began and the details of our lives — what we’d been doing, where we were now — flowed out.

For what felt like hours I sat there listening to everything she had to say. She had recently turned sixty-five and despite all her monetary wealth, two successful daughters and the impending birth of her first grandchild, she was not happy. A deep hole existed where there should have been nothing but joy. This was not something I could tell her. I did not live her life. I did not see where she began, what she had envisioned for herself. Those paramount things she hoped to achieve.

Taking stock is a reality check. It’s something we all go through at some point, if not many points, during the course of our lives. And while I’m not certain they’re always productive assessments, I do believe they’re absolutely critical in helping us stay on track.

A feat, which for most of us humans, is not always an easy thing to do.

One friend when he turned forty suffered a heart attack. Another quit his job and went to work for Starbucks. And although I personally never experienced a mid-life crisis, per se, well, not the kind anyway that entails trashing your clothes, liquidating your 401 (k) to buy a sports car, or giving yourself a do-over with Miss Clairol Pink #3, I did however wind up around that same forty mile-marker in the throes of a divorce and menopause. Two messy hardships I did not ask for. And two hardships that would drive any normal woman way off the deep end.

So deep there were days I forgot to breathe, I forgot my children, and they, in turn, forgot about me. But somehow I got through it. Goo Goo G’joob hallelujah. I survived my forties, my fifties seemingly intact, and now that I’m here at the sixty plus stage over the proverbial hill sitting on a Cornflake after the van has come and gone, I can finally, honestly say I like where I am. I like who I am. Cellulite, age spots, jiggly bat underarms and all.

Yes, I stopped fighting that mother ship a long time ago. When shit happens around you, when those you love die, a ground-breaking seed inside your head grows. And like a breath of fresh air, the I’m-going-to-set-the-world-on-fire kind of dreams that once consumed you, are thrust elsewhere. On your children and your grandchildren, for the simple reason you’re just so happy to be alive.

Joan Didion summed it up best: “I no longer want reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted.” So much of our lives is spent reviewing parts of our existence that have become nothing more than wreckage upon a shore. Things that cannot be undone for all the tea in China.

I hope you realize this sooner versus later. I hope everything that bogs down your life, that keeps that hole in your heart from filling, falls away with the simple understanding what matters most, is what lays ahead. And the only person you have to make happy … is you.

Three years ago, after struggling with life butting in, with blank pages, with characters who wanted to tell a much different story than the one I intended, I finally completed my first book. It was the ultimate cherry. The sense of accomplishment that had alluded me for so long. And the interesting thing is, looking back, I realized it could have happened a lot sooner had I simply understood the difference between writing for others and writing for myself, and the flower of relevancy blooms from within.

I believe it takes great passion, great courage to live your life out loud with the sort of honesty of mind where things that feel shallow sink, and things that feel true float upon the surface as you give voice to all those inner frailties that makes us human. Because we’re all screwed up — to some degree or another — and I don’t see anyone exempt from this messy pool of mankind. Not you, not me, not even Mr. Rogers with his snappy sweater and picture-perfect neighborhood.

Look, all I’m saying is that the closer we get to our number being called, re-adjust the lens. Ride the peace train of happiness wherever it takes you. And if that means crusading for the homeless, opening a cupcake shop, knitting sweaters for Etsy, swimming the Atlantic, or simply retiring to the west coast of Florida with all your Jujubes intact to get you there, then by all means … go for it!

Me? I’m writing another book.

 

 

Photo credit: Martin Barraud/Getty

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Touring Across North Carolina. The Good. The Bad. And the Ugly.

As the year draws to an end, as I realize I’ve been somewhat amiss with my blogging for which I apologize in advance, I suppose now is as good a time as any to share with you what I’ve been up to for the past two months.

October 11th I was deployed to North Carolina to help the survivors of Hurricane Matthew. Like all deployments before there is a heightened sense of adrenaline making myself ready to dig in for a big job. But that pumped up feeling is now gone. I feel drained from top to bottom, happy to be back home where I’ve put my game face back on the shelf until the next time. While I love what I do, it’s hard, hard work.

At the beginning of each deployment while everything is still in critical mode, we’re working twelve hour days. Seven days a week. We’re up before the sun. And once the waters have crested and subsided (if it’s a flood disaster), we’re out there in the field knocking on doors, in the mud, in the heat, in the rain, fighting flies, and sometimes you’re even up against folks who are not at all happy to see you. These are people who live so far off the grid, along back dirt roads with their guard dogs, “No Trespassing” signs and KKK flags flying high that you’d be an idiot not to think twice before stepping onto their turf, especially me with my “Levine” badge roped around my neck for all to see.

But this is the job. This is what I signed up for. And even though I’m aware of the danger every time I knock on a door, my thoughts are much more focused on helping someone who might have otherwise fallen through the cracks. That is why I do what I do. I want to make a difference to someone because it makes me feel good. Makes me feel like I am doing something important. Something authentic while living each day congruently with the values I hold dear.

For me working with FEMA has been a dream fulfilled. And beyond the hard days and pockets of devastation that penetrates the experience, I know each and every time I will come home with a new treasure trove of life lessons that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

I get to travel to places and see things I wouldn’t normally.

This was my first trip to North Carolina. For the time of year, it was unusually warm and yet Fall somehow showed its face. And what a glorious face it was. Cotton never felt softer than it does when still young and bursting from its pod. Streams teaming with trout and glittering like diamonds against the afternoon sun just as I caught this shot. And the frying pan and ice cream truck … well those were just added bonuses. Perked up my day like you wouldn’t believe!

 

 

 

I get to meet new friends.

 

Some might just be passing through, but some are more. Much more. With each deployment, like an old woman gathering acorns in her basket, I have found the most remarkable people I now call “friends.” People who have enriched my life and under different circumstances I might never have spoken to for one reason or another.

A James Cromwell (Green Mile movie) tall wisp of a man who shared my passion for writing. A tiny redhead from Puerto Rico I met during Hurricane Sandy who became my voice of reason. A guy with the last name Jimenez that didn’t speak a lick of Spanish and made me laugh at moments when I wanted to cry. A bald as a cue ball, ex-biker with an earring and tattoos up the yin yang who held me captive in the car every day forcing me to work by his side while he talked about the paranormal and whatever else he felt like discussing for the day. The list of those people who have come into my life through FEMA goes on and on. I am so grateful that our paths have crossed. That they dared to open their hearts to me. And never moreso grateful that I had enough sense to pay attention to that old adage, “Never judge a book by its cover.”

Shit happens.

I’ve been fortunate when I go out on deployment. Other than falling here and there, I’ve never gotten hurt on the job. And I’ve never been in an accident of any kind. Well, this deployment certainly changed all that for me. Less than two weeks into it, while driving, I was hit by an 18-wheeler. The front left side of their car was crushed like a pancake. And four weeks after that, the second rental was again demolished when I hit a dog on the highway. I can’t begin to express all the things going through my mind during that two-second clip from the time I saw the dog stopping in the middle of the road as I came barreling down upon it at 75 miles per hour, other than I broke in two.

Patience is a virtue I’ve yet to master.

I’m constantly reminded of this. And sometimes I wonder if I ever will.

My first month of deployment I was saddled with a crew lead who not only didn’t know what the hell she was doing, she like many aging people, kept repeating herself. Oh my God. Talk about torture. But I kept thinking about my mother. I kept thinking about the fact she’s losing her words, she’s no longer connected to a chain of conversation for any length of time and I must do better. For her. And for me I suppose knowing it’s only a matter of time before I too ride that choo-choo into La La Land.

Your health is all you’ve got.

I’m not one to make resolutions, but for 2017 I’m making an exception. When deployed, I tend to do all the wrong things. Eat the wrong things and not take care of myself like I should. Not because I want to. But because the job forces the situation. That and I think we get lazy riding around a car all day, out in the boonies where we’re lucky to find a McDonald’s or Hardees. So we grab what we can, when we can.

Which was my exact thought when I found this little kiosk. Was this luck or what?

As I look back on my time in North Carolina, there were many days my heart was heavy. For the families who’d lost everything, and their whole world was left piled out on the street in one soggy heap for all to see. For the animals left abandoned, abused, their limbs quivering as we drew near wondering if we were going to pet them or beat them. I can’t wipe those images from my mind. But I can counting my blessings. Every single one of them. Especially this beautiful one I know is waiting for me when I get home.

As I push through all these thoughts, I can’t help but wonder are the choices we make in our lives fated. Are we truly the masters of our domain? I like to think we are. That nothing in this crazy world of ours is set in stone. And that the best has yet to happen.

On that note, I will end with much thanks. Thanks for reading. And thanks for letting me share my thoughts with all of you.

Peace and love.

 

 

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