Sunday, February 23, 2020

Why I Light this Candle

Monday night was my father’s yahrzeit, and I lit a candle.

He died in 1980 on the 23rd day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, February 10th by the American/Gregorian calendar. Since the Hebrew calendar follows a lunar month, the date shifts around every year, and I have to check each year to find out when Shevat 23 lands.

The candle is a special candle that burns for about 26 hours. I light it at sundown the night before his yahrzeit and I say Kaddish, a Hebrew prayer of mourning. Then I take a photo and send it to my siblings and my daughter.
My brother replied: “Saying kaddish? Praying? Do you guys do that? Is the religious aspect of Judaism important to you all? Do you believe in the Jewish God? Or any god?”

These are all good questions. I only started lighting the candle a couple years ago, so why exactly do I do it?

First, there’s the God part. I have a physicist’s view of the universe. Einstein and Hawking and Feynman and Thorne are my source material, and while I marvel at the amazing answers science has been able to provide, I am in awe of the unanswered questions. The mystery is what thrills me, the unknowable (so far). That mystery is what I might feel God-like (or physicist-like?) about.

So that really doesn’t have anything to do with “belief.” Or “higher powers” or the usual ideas about God. Prayer is a melody, not a request or a hope. It doesn’t do anything.

So if I’m not lighting the candle for God; am I doing it for Dad? Well, Dad is dead, and he has no idea I’m lighting any candle. I also tend to skip the part about telling stories about him, remembering him, reflecting on him. My Dad had a difficult childhood with ideas of parenting I have since rejected, but I made my peace with him. So I don’t think I’m lighting the candle specifically for my Dad (even though it’s his yahrzeit).

I am lighting the candle because I am part of a line. Other people lit candles for parents and grandparents and I am a daughter and it’s my turn in the line.

I didn’t really understand this line until I had a daughter. She was named for my grandmother, but she extended my line into the future. That’s a really earth-shaking realization – a total transformation of reality – and once you’re extended into the future, your link to the past is cemented, too. In our Third Thirds, it all seems so much clearer. That past comes with tradition, history, and ritual. In my pick-and-choose way, I pick the candle ritual.

In my case, the tradition is Judaism. This is what I believe: whatever you are, however you identify yourself, you have to be it wholeheartedly. You have to affirm it, learn about it, be proud of it, espouse it. At the same time, you have to enjoy that everyone else is affirming, espousing, and proud of what they are. If we don’t do that, we all become just white bread.

Ursula K. LeGuin wrote a fascinating book called The Lathe of Heaven. The protagonist has “effective” dreams, meaning they actually alter reality. A psychiatrist tries to steer his dreams to solve world problems, such as racism. But as dreams work, George dreams that everyone is now gray … and his girlfriend no longer exists. Being black was such a powerful part of her identity, she couldn’t exist in a gray world.

A gray world, a white bread world, is a world I don’t want to live in. I want big, vibrant African-Americans; big, vibrant Puerto Ricans; big, vibrant Norwegians (recognizing that might not be their style…), etc. etc. And my contribution to this is as a Jew.

So this is why I light the yahrzeit candle: I am reaffirming my place in the Jewish line of my grandparents, my father, my family, and my daughter. I am honoring them and our tradition, and I am being who I am. That’s all.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Illness Lesson

In a very smart move for our emotional health, Tim and I scheduled our annual trip to sunshine. This time, we were headed to Puerto Rico to add our dollars to their hurricane- and earthquake-ravaged economy. For its part, Puerto Rico would add its many hours of daylight to our psyches.

So why did I pick a three-leg return flight with an 8-hour layover in Philadelphia?!?

It could be any number of stupid reasons:
  • It was the one that “popped up” on the website
  • It was cheaper or took less miles
  • I thought, “Oh, we can take the SEPTA train into Center City and see a museum. I can check out Philadelphia for an urban infusion month. It’ll be like two vacations in one.” Was I delirious??
So after we were blissfully relaxed in Puerto Rico, we had to be at the San Juan airport at 4:30 a.m. for our 4½-hour flight to Philadelphia. An irritating little cough started on the plane, the kind that just tickles and doesn’t go away. A “non-productive” cough. We got off in drizzly, gray Philadelphia, got onto the train, made it easily to the Museum of the American Revolution. But somewhere around Washington’s Tent (the actual!), I was flagging. Sagging. We bought cough drops.
And then we had to get back on a plane for another six hours to Seattle. By now, the whole plane was coughing. I kept thinking of Japan, of people kindly wearing masks so they wouldn’t infect others. And then, at a pivotal point in my misery, I thought, What would I pay to not be on this flight?

Later, Sophie would tell me that she’s figured she’d pay $200 to get out of a horrible itinerary, but when she’s purchasing her ticket, she’s pleased with herself for “saving” $200. Note to self: I’m not 25 anymore. A penny saved may be a torture created.

In Seattle, I paid $1 a pill for Advil (because I’d checked medications so I wouldn’t have to carry them around Philadelphia museums…) Way back when we were taking Lamaze classes many years ago, I thought, “I’m a distance runner. I can handle anything if I know there’s an end in sight to pain.” Then the instructor gave us clothespins to clamp on our ears, and I thought my head would spin off from the pain. That flight was like those clothespins.
I am a wuss. This is only the second time I’ve been sick. The other time was when I caught bronchitis 25 years ago. Mostly, I think sick people failed to get their flu shots or … lack some moral fiber. Yes, I know that is totally ungenerous and lacking in compassion. It’s a serious deficiency in my human development, but I guess my current state is a reflection of my own lack of moral fiber.

Twenty-five hours from when we started in San Juan, we made it home. Since then – many days – I’ve been on the couch. My cough is now very “productive” and my body aches so much even my skin aches. If my hair flops from one side to the other, my scalp hurts.

Puerto Rico is a distant memory. I’ll have to reflect on it later. I’m not sure I remember it. So what have I learned?
  • I am very, very lucky to have a home that comes with a husband, a couch, a heating pad, a big blanket, Netflix, many library books, a teakettle, and a medicine cabinet.
  • I shouldn’t plan something that requires marathon strength. Planning should default to a higher comfort level; save the marathon strength for an unanticipated emergency.
  • I am very, very lucky to have a home that comes with a husband, a couch, a heating pad, a big blanket, Netflix, many library books, a teakettle, and a medicine cabinet.
  • Don’t put the Advil in the checked baggage.
  • I am very, very lucky to have a home that comes with a husband, a couch, a heating pad, a big blanket, Netflix, many library books, a teakettle, and a medicine cabinet.
So I guess I got more out of a trip to Puerto Rico than I thought.

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