To Build a Fire

“You attract to yourself what you give your attention and energy to, whether wanted or unwanted.” – Abraham Hicks

Re-evaluating the focus.

Are you focusing more on complaints or negative things that are out of your control, than you are on gratitude for the good things that are present, and the things you want in your life?

It takes a minor shift to re-focus the lenses and give no more energy to people or things that are draining.

Toxicity in my environment (neighbor burning wood smoke night and day) VS. doing what I can to stay healthy by nurturing my body with clean, nutritious, organic, whole foods.

People who are in psychic pain of some kind and choose unkindness VS. the many people in my life, home and community who are loving…my friends who make me laugh…

“Shoulds,” and More Societally Acceptable 9-5 jobs VS. Creating my own unique and incredible livelihood…

I know which I would choose to focus on, every time.  But when you let the toxic or negative things build up, it’s easy to get into reactive mode and let your mind churn away on little mean, petty things that unhealthy people say or do, out of their own pain.  Sometimes we go over and over the harms like we’re sliding prayer beads through our fingers… what if we shifted that, and replaced all those bad things with affirmations? What if we stopped trying to control others (which is part of what hanging on to perceived wrongs is all about) and started practicing radical self-care?

Let it all go, now…that is not your burden to carry.  Do what you can to clear it out. Take a walk, and breathe it out to the trees. Release it.  Do a mikveh… meditate…

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Climb into your dirigible, sail above it all, and let your imagination soar.

Worry is just negative daydreaming.  Sometimes it seems like adults have forgotten how to daydream…

What about practicing that again?  No rules, no limits, no self-editing – your beautiful daydream is waiting for you to open the door, come outside and play.

There will *always* be people who choose to remain safe, and there will always be people who try to tie everyone around them down to their grey vision of plodding, “should”-oriented life.  There will always be critical people – but one does not have to focus on these things. One does not have to try to please.

For heaven’s sake!  Shake them off!

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did so. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”  – Mark Twain

I remember when I began to (naïvely) tell people that Juilliard was my dream school.
“Better have a billion backup choices.” “No one *ever* gets in there.” “Why would you want that? You’d be better off doing something practical.”

I said I was going to get in, and I got in.

Doesn’t matter that my passion and drive shifted. Doesn’t matter that I am not focusing on acting right now– I use the things I learned at that incredible school every single day. (Alexander in boxing, you’d better believe it 😉

If you have a dream, don’t focus on the ones who want to chip away at it (even if – *especially* if- they are coming from a caring place, wanting to protect you from the hurt they’ve experienced. The fears, worries, concerns and attempts to stifle you, encourage you to dream smaller…all that is about them, not you.)

Focus on the dream. Focus on the desire. Focus on working toward it every day. Just a little every single day.

Do one thing every day that will bring you closer to, or hone your skills for, your dream- whatever it is you dream you can do. Begin it…and don’t stop.

That’s the secret… hone your body, mind and spirit; nurture your heart, and keep going.

This is a note to self.  I’m pretty hard on myself in this arena, and I’m learning positive ways to re-frame the self-talk, through my life coaching (life-saving!) program.  I’m learning to temper the inner Boxing Coach voice with much compassion and love…and I’m grateful for that Celtic fire in my heart that doesn’t give up.

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a Fugue: Kafka in Barney Purple OR a lesson in Letting Go

In a week, I am moving into a new home.  This new home is in no way ready for me (and Figaro) to move in.
Granted, my remodel plans were ambitious; some, (clearly lacking vision) might say “crazy,”
but as the plans developed and the contractors were found, I learned what to let go, what to save for later…I prioritized. (the TARDIS stays, but I haven’t begun construction yet; the tile and the Sherlock Holmes fireplace have to happen first. TARDIS happens before the Secret Passageway Bookcase. See? I am quite sensible.)

I also decided I wanted to paint some of the rooms myself (and my Dad did a *lot* of the work, too) because I wanted to get to know my home, and inhabit it in this way before I moved in.

Great! Sounds nice, yeah? Reasonable?

I was buying paint for an accent wall – a small thing, you’d think – and it mysteriously came out Bright Barney the Dinosaur Purple.

Ok, this wasn’t what I had planned – I wasn’t remotely going for purple, but, being a go-with-the-flow type, I tried it for a bit and even tried to like it or see if I could make it work (maybe by hanging a wall-sized mural over it?)

a Fugue: Kafka in Barney Purple

Okay, maybe not.   

I took it back. They put it on a shelf called Mis-mixed paint, rather like the Island of Forgotten Toys.  I felt a little guilty. I found a new color entirely, and even switched to an entirely different brand,

but failed to note that it was the same person mixing my paint.

Looking back, I am quite sure there was a Malevolent, Dinosaur-ish, Purple gleam in her eye.

I went home again, tra-la,  and began stirring the paint with a sinking feeling…
put the paint on the wall (maybe it looks different ON?)

Barney the Dinosaur Purple.

Again.

Same. exact. Shade. If I had paid her to match it, she couldn’t have done a more impeccable job…not even if I had decided to hold a contest for the most Devious Mixer of Paint Who Could Infallibly, Impeccably Recreate This Abhorrent Purple.

I have a bad habit: I see symbols, metaphors, messages – in *everything.*

a can of paint could maybe just be a can of paint, I see that. I really do.

BUT.

Really?

I once auditioned for a dinosaur in “Barney.” it was a boy, six-year-old-ish, who was a “scat-singer” or rap artist.

Riff

Maybe I should be grateful that my wall color didn’t mysteriously turn out to be “Riff Orange.”

It was one of the coolest auditions I’ve ever experienced, as it was in a sweet little hidden studio with awesome exposed brick and crazy decor.

They told me after my audition that they felt like they’d just been to a Toots Theilmans concert. That felt awesome, which made it o.k. that I didn’t get the job.

Still, good memories and all, I don’t know how to live in a room with a Barney Dinosaur Purple wall.

And I think the lesson here is:  you don’t have to make something work, even if it’s *very* persistent. You also don’t have to stick with something “for Old Times’ sake.”

O.k., there is a time to stick with it and work at something. For sure. That’s my definition of “romantic,” actually… when people have positive connections that outweigh the troubles, and they stick together and work on things. (But the positive needs to outweigh the negative! that’s key!) Loyalty. Awesome. That and honesty are top things on my list of desirable traits in a partner.

But knowing when to let go is important.

I used to be one of those people who hung in there no matter what. I was a freaking barnacle. Through storms, through high seas with no rum in sight, I was stalwart. I Remained. I held on.  Even if people were horrid rotten little perishers, I was loyal. Stay at the party hoping it gets better! Stay till the bitter end!  Hang in there and keep hanging until you turn into an albatross!

Being like that is like having a business that is deeply important to you, but then hiring anyone who walks in and keeping them no matter what: your business is going to die in fearful agonies. It’s important to define what you’re looking for in employees (yeah?) and make sure that relationship (the work) has a sort of maintenance aspect- it stays healthy, or it needs to end. Yes? Why is this easier to see about business, and so much harder to see about our own amazing, precious and beautiful selves? And our lives which are finite and irreplaceable?

Letting go of caffeine.  Huge one for me. Maaaaajor detox symptoms. It was so hard, but I did it, and all of a sudden, I feel so much healthier and my hypoglycemia turns out to be non-existent.

Let go!  You may experience unpleasant side-effects at first, but still – let go!

That friend who chooses to see the world through complaint-filters, who dims your sparkle but is there! and persistent! and you’ve known them forever!
sometimes, it may even be HARD to find what you’re looking for – that Barney Dinosaur Purple may keep showing up – but hold on.

Hold on to the vision of what your soul needs.

“Letting go” is a passive-sounding phrase, but it is one of the hardest, most demanding-of-action things I have ever experienced…because carving out a new pathway takes persistence and awareness.  It’s so easy for the mind (and, by extension, our choices) to follow the well-worn habitual pathways. So letting go properly is something that requires you to be fully present, and very clear.

So – here’s my lesson from the paint store today:  define what you want. Set your intention. Get clear, and then  let go of anything, any color, or anyone not in alignment with the way you want to show up in the world.

and here’s the really hard part:  go in and try again, try as though it is the first time and you haven’t just been given one gallon after another of Barney the Dinosaur Purple.  Hold your little paint card and valiantly ask for Eggshell or Winston Churchill Buttercup, completely believing that it’s going to work. Show up fully.

I pretty much failed to do that today… I stood there looking at all those little cards and clever little pamphlets showing perfectly painted rooms (no purple in sight) and all I could see was that Lurid, Eye-bruising, Artist Formerly Known As, not-found-anywhere-in-nature, purple.

I finally had to leave and ask my saint of a mother to go request a color. I felt Jinxed. I felt Cursed. I felt that if I looked one more time into the clearly-plotting-some-kind-of-purple-colored-revenge eyes of that Wicked Paint Mixer, I would blurt out “PURPLE!” and get another can of you-know-what.

So I’m still learning this…

Letting go completely, so you can focus your entire heart in a positive way on the intention ahead of you. That might be a lifelong master class! (I wonder who teaches it? I hope it’s Morgan Freeman.)

Letting go of that job that is wonderful, but isn’t your genius work or dream and is using up time that you need in order to do your Real Work-

Letting go of that friend whom you love, but who is dragging you down –

Letting go does not require disapproving, disliking, disengaging, or dysfunction. It can be done with love, and it can be a compassionate and very kind thing to do. Sometimes it can be a blessing for the ones you let go, too – it can be a springboard for them to find where and with whom they fit- now that there is not space and time filled up by trying, trying, trying to mesh with you.

Barney Purple, I don’t care how many times it takes, I’m replacing you with a restful, warm, elegant parchment-ish color. It’s not that I don’t think you’re great, in areas where you are appropriate (like the big huge costume of a dinosaur character for kids)  – I do. It’s not that you don’t bring back a wonderful memory – you do,

but your persistence , your insistence at being in my house and on my wall is puzzling in the extreme. Please, go tell Kafka I’m hiring another writer to conduct my life…

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his name is P.G. Wodehouse, and he has a much more restful color sense. (pay no attention to that lurid dinosaur purple cover. I am quite sure Plum did not choose it.)

Ha Makom (the Place),OR Gladiator and Lion

The way others treat you is not a reflection of you; it is a reflection of them.

These are tough words to remember sometimes.

In Judaism, we have 72 different names of God.  I like to explain it like this: our human minds are too small to hold, all at once, in tangible form, the concept of God as everything inside and out. So these names are different images we can hold in our minds, to work on one aspect of God at a time, depending on what we need at that moment. Ha Makom is one of these names; it means simply “The Place.” If God is in the place where I am standing, if I am aware of that with every breath, would I treat others differently? If others thought more about “Ha Makom,” would they make a different choice?

It’s been almost a year since he left: the very persuasive, persistent, deceitful, adorable, wonderful-but-awful, manipulative, completely self-absorbed, gentle, sweet, complicated and fascinating must-have-his-way man who was like a tsunami in my heart and life. Almost a year; I have been fighting a really tough battle to heal the post traumatic stress disorder that his abrupt departure caused…

a year in which there have been people who felt they needed to be cruel.  On top of the pain and confusion of his illness and leaving; on top of the deep psychic wounds that left my body shaking every day, shaking like I had an earthquake inside, for over six months.

It’s hard to describe the experience of ptsd.  It is humbling. You think you are fine – you go to pick up your coffee in a staff meeting and your hand is shaking so violently, you immediately snatch it back and hide it in your lap, clench it with the other hand, try to calm your breath.  There is a shaking inside, which (ironically enough) was my love’s burden daily as well from his own illness.

This shaking was a daily reminder of him.

So were the tears that would come without warning. I began to call them “Miriam’s Well,” a well I would carry with me everywhere – I began to see them as a healing mikveh, (ritual bath) so I could step away from the secondary emotions that came along with them: shame, fear, despair of ever healing and being whole again.

Once I distanced from/ simply observed my reactions to the symptoms, that is when the healing began, very gradually. I wasn’t judging myself any more- my Self was grateful for that small mercy.

But I was still under attack both from people I used to think I knew, and people I didn’t know at all, but met with him on occasion after our “engagement.” People who were his friends.

He called me best friend, love of his life, his greatest teacher, his deepest blessing; he called me an angel, his wise raven, his beshert and his reason for living, and yet these friends of his had a hunger to tear me to pieces with their claws and teeth, one angry, vicious bite at a time.  I asked him to tell them our story, so they didn’t have to rely so much on their assumptions or on gossip – but he was a person who liked to hide. He did not like to talk about himself or share anything personal. I think that trait of his, his dishonesty and distrust of others, is what eventually led to the legacy he left me with: the lions in my gladiator’s arena.

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I was a broken thing, and I was under siege.

It’s a hard thing when you are not well, when you are grieving, and when you are asked to bear even more.

I never found out why these people decided they needed to be cruel.  For a long time, I kept asking myself “why?” “Why would a person try to actively harm someone who has so much grief and harm to bear already?”

I asked the questions over and over, until I learned that wasn’t a healthy way to live. There will never be answers to the question “why”.

Hypocrisy seemed to be everywhere I looked.

But then I learned to focus on the kind people; on my angels.  Thank God for them – the good people, the ones with integrity.  Because of them, my spirit did not break; because of them, I did not lose my faith.

I have healed now, and I am beginning to process this into a novel. I feel I have actually become even stronger and more whole than I was before I met him.  And yet these people are still carrying their hatred. It is a year since he’s been gone, and they actively pour their energy into showing me how much they hate.  I do not understand why, and it makes me sad for them.

I took a friend to see 42. It was such a lovely night with this person I have known for over a decade and haven’t seen in a long time; catching up over a small meal, going to the movie screening which felt old-fashioned somehow and really lovely; connecting with him was connecting with my old life, the innocent and happy life of theater… (incidentally, how very odd that the most I have ever experienced dysfunction, cruelty, hypocrisy and pain is inside the synagogue? Are artists just healthier because they express things and explore the shadow side all the time? Are people drawn to the synagogue in deeper need of healing, or are they more apt to hide and shame their shadow-selves? I am writing this here as a side-note to think about later.)

All was really lovely and sweet: The popcorn, the joking of the audience, the speeches beforehand and the haimish feeling that abounded.

And then afterward, there was a nasty little thing that threatened to put a damper on the whole lovely night (if I let my mind dwell on it, which I did not):

the man glaring…actively, malevolently. This person I used to know. This person about whom people have said “he wouldn’t behave that way. You might be reading into it.”

(Really? How many times can someone scowl, glare, and look at you as though they are seeing a murderer, before it’s not “all in your head”?)

his wife in the bathroom, stuttering out “I have to go,” and ending her conversation quickly so she could get out  after I walk in.  These were people I used to know and be very friendly with.

Myself, defiantly, angrily, putting on lipstick and looking into my own eyes in the mirror.

Eyes that had no tears, this time. Eyes that have seen enough unkindness, thank you very much.

There is no one on this earth I would treat the way these people are treating me.

I have done nothing to harm them or theirs…

That night their behavior did not break or harm me; it hurt, which developed into anger.

Anger and defiance.

I have been through enough.

But I refuse to carry the anger.  I am going to try to understand, because I refuse to be like them. I am struggling to find a spiritual way to encounter this kind of cruelty, and all I can think of is that somewhere in myself I have to find compassion. They are behaving this way out of some kind of pain, and that pain leads them to find an object to blame other than themselves. I am convenient; they don’t have to know me as a person, so they don’t have to worry about how their behavior might harm. They don’t have to be understanding or see anything from my point of view or care. If they are able to think of me as a thing, not a person, they can safely put a lot of cruel, nasty behavior on me and not even think twice about it.

What bugs me is this: these people go to the synagogue regularly, for more years than I have been alive. They do all the synagogue functions. HOW can they not have learned by now about compassion and loving kindness?

how?

All these years at the synagogue, and they see a young(ish) woman, 21 years younger than the man who pursued her, and they blame HER? and continue to do so a year later?

how?

Are the clergy not doing their job, or are the people not learning? How can Judaism address this … lack of bridge?

He used to talk about this, my ex-rabbi.  He said “It was my biggest struggle for 20 years.”  that people bring their synagogue-face in on saturday mornings, nod and smile and sigh about lovingkindness, forgiveness and compassion, and then step right outside even into the oneg (I had this happen to me) and turn around and yell at someone “You are not welcome here.” Many simply do not live their lives as though God is where they are standing at any time, all the time.
God, for them, seems to be received passively in a seat in a temple.

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How does one teach people that God is a verb?  That God is a way of walking in the world, and that this is why we have lessons come to us?  Things don’t “happen TO us,”  just to be reacted to and endured and then forgotten – every thing that unfolds in our lives is an invitation to be an active participant in the growth of our own souls. By examining, by learning, by making a different choice next time we have an opportunity to be either unkind or kind, thought-full or thought-less.

That person, incidentally, who yelled at me in the Temple — I would never treat him the way these people are treating me. The person who screamed at me and roughly grabbed my arm – I would stay away from him for safety’s sake, but I would never glare or actively seek to show him unkindness.

I searched my heart and found compassion for mental illness, psychic distress,  and pain.

SO.

The way others treat you is a reflection of them, and only of them.  You did not “earn” either kindness or unkindness.

The way you treat others is a reflection of you. You can improve that reflection at any time! We spend so long trying to improve the reflection we see in the mirror… we spend so much money and time on facial creams, blemish removal… what if we spent even a fraction of that time trying to improve the reflection of our soul in the way we treat others?

I wish I could teach this to the teens who are being bullied, who despair and want to end their precious lives as a way to escape.  I wish I could teach this to every person who ever felt the sting of someone else’s blaming, judging, or cruelty.

I was in Boston once, about to attend a summer session at rabbinical school; I had just arrived from a drive across the country and was exhausted. At that time, I wore my kippah all the time… there was a bus of young school kids pulling out of a parking lot.  This beautiful little African-American girl stuck her head out the window and yelled “Fucking JEW!”  She said “Jew” as though it were a curse.

It was a shock, but my compassion was immediate, because she was so young, her sweet face all twisted up.  I thought: is that face twisted up in pain? in agony, in anger? My immediate thought was, “Where did she learn that hatred?” and “How many names has she been called in school, that little one?”

What if my compassion could be that immediate with these people, even though they are not young?  Part of my anger-response comes, I think, because of their age (in their 70’s.)  I feel they should “know better.”  Well. That is my own judgment coming in.  If I were aware of “Ha Makom,” God being present in me in that moment, perhaps my compassion would come faster.

If I could, this is what I would teach those who bully – and I find as I write it that it is a lesson I need to teach myself, daily:

Ha Makom is a name for God meaning “The place.”  God is in the place where you are standing.  God is not to be found in a synagogue or church : God is where you are standing, sitting, waking, dreaming: all the time. (and yes, in Judaism we even have a blessing for after going to the toilet. That is holy too- the workings of the body are miraculous.)

Bring your shadow-self, bring your light, bring ALL of you to prayer or meditation, because it is only when you bring your entire being, that you will soften and learn compassion for yourself and others. If you hide the part of you that feels it has to glare with hatred at a young(ish) woman whose story you don’t know, you will not be acknowledging that part; it will be shoved down, hidden, and thus will never be softened.  Bring that, too.  Bring it to God – here and now! Ha Makom! – and say “Here it is. This is also me.”  Breathe into those dark places with compassion –and you will find God in those places.  Those dark places will soften with your acceptance, just as my healing began when I stopped shaming and judging my own tears and shaking body.  You will heal, then.

You will no longer need to be cruel any more.

I stand there wondering how to meet these pettinesses, these cruelties, with kindness…and I find that my response is coming out of MY shadow-self.  The self who says “how can you go to temple and behave like this?” the self that is judging. the self that is puritanical and preachy. The self, in fact, that is just like these people in that cruel moment. Just like them.

And I have to laugh.

This year has been my gladiator’s arena. I chose to stay here; I fought hard to stay. I chose to live my life in this place that was toxic, where I was treated like Hester Prynne and I so longed to be given a chance to speak my heart –

but I was never given a chance, because people do not want their scapegoat to have a voice.

They don’t want that tied up goat to have a story. They want it to be an object that can carry all of their darkness, so they don’t have to sit with it.

And living in this perfectly imperfect place, I was given so many lessons, so many tests.

I have learned so much.

Ha Makom – the place where I am standing, here is God. Here is my synagogue. If I take care of my own synagogue and make sure I am behaving in alignment with my core values, make sure I am acting in integrity, it doesn’t matter how other people choose to treat me, or what they choose to believe about me. I know my synagogue is a holy place, a beautiful place.

In my personal “temple” or “ha makom,” the place I am standing, I would never treat someone unkindly or glare at them or snub them; I simply don’t behave that way.  Now I am learning I can go one step further and not judge them for their behavior. I can take out the pain-response and simply breathe to myself “Ha Makom,” when they are cruel.   I am grateful for this arena in which I have learned to fight by not fighting: by simply growing larger in my heart and more compassionate.

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The gladiator can observe the lion, set down her weapon and focus on her own power to choose.

just carry a pebble.

So…on with the theme of “what you focus on grows,”

It takes a tiny – minuscule- shift in thinking for huge changes to occur. HUGE!pushing-boulder

I’m reminded of a story I was once told about an enormous boulder blocking the main road.  There were all kinds of people walking along this road, as everyone had to go this way… Some people saw the boulder blocking their path, and sat down by the side of the road and cried. They gave up.  Others jumped to blame- they cursed the King for not keeping the roads clear, they cursed the other people who crowded behind them as the road grew more and more congested…they cursed everything they could think of to curse, and felt only angrier and more miserable.  Still others fell into co-dependent-ville, and ran around trying to make sure everyone else was okay with the boulder.  Some were artists, and the boulder became their inspiration …they put on plays in which The Boulder featured symbolically, they painted it, they sang about it, they danced in front of it; and the Maggidim, of course, wrote and told stories about it. (wink wink, nudge nudge.)

Finally, the King, who was actually a woman  (she didn’t want to be Queen as that was boring, so she was King)  solved the problem.

“Hey everyone,” she said, in her most royal manner, “here is a chisel for each of you. Take one small pebble from the boulder, and carry it with you to remind you of the choice you made when you found this boulder in your path.”

So, each person took a small pebble.  Soon, there was no boulder left, and the people continued on their way, each carrying a small pebble in their pocket.

What is your quickest reaction when there is a boulder in your path?

If you had a pebble in your pocket to remind you of that reaction, would you pause and make a different choice next time?

Deep stuff, Rivkah…so deep…

So, here’s the thing.  I have been really ill, and, I have to admit it, GROUCHY as hell.

I’ve had interactions that in the past would have led me to jump into reacting with anger or snappiness; but since I’ve been doing all of this coaching work and life work and learning work and Maggid work and counseling work,

I’ve realized that it is possible to pause, breathe, distance, and then respond from a centered place, rather than the usual easy quick reaction.

Your quickest reactions are coming from your five-year-old self who still lives inside you! That is when our conditioned responses are formed – “conditioned response” is just a fancy phrase to describe each of our individual reactions, the ones we don’t think about.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to let a five year old make my decisions.  She isn’t thinking; she’s just in a feeling/reacting place…but those reactions are choices, too.  So with a small pause and a breath, I calm down that five year old, and make a decision from my adult self, who has learned that kindness is always a better choice, no matter how someone else might be behaving.

And guess what?  This small change in the way I walk in the world has made huge changes in my life.  The boulder is cleared from my path (see what I did thar…oh there you are, metaphor!), and I’m striding freely and confidently down the road.

But I am not perfect; I still fall into reaction, especially when I am tired or hungry or not feeling well…but I don’t want to beat myself up. If I tried to change everything all at once, I would get overwhelmed, and I would give up and go back to habit, which is comfortable even if it’s not serving me any more.

That’s what the pebble is for.  Just carry a small pebble with you- don’t try to tackle the whole boulder.  One tiny change in your life can clear the entire road.

Join me next week as I discuss the art of stretching a metaphor until it goes “Eep!” like a small furry animal.