Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Truth or Consequences

This morning, my travel buddy, A, and I woke up in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. It’s a tiny little town that rides that fine line between breathtakingly beautiful and that unique brand of Americana-trashy. But we’re staying at a spa/hotel that smells like lavender and herbs, so no one’s complaining.

We both expressed our wish for this trip to be one of renewal. Our goal is to be in the moment here, and return in a week feeling refreshed and recharged, and ready to face the new. This is the vacation we’ve been planning and saving for months (actually, years, really).

So it was interesting that it started as challengingly as it did. We awoke and made it LaGuardia airport at dawn, only to find out (after I’d gone through security) that they had moved the flight to JFK, without informing any of the customers. Despite the assurance that we would miss our flight, we were told that the only option was a mad dash to JFK airport, and so we grabbed a cab and flew, making it just in time (but only because the flight, being mostly empty of its LGA-intended customers, was delayed half an hour to allow people to make it). Even so, our connecting flight from Dallas was changed to one three hours later.

Once we made it to Dallas, now with three hours to spare, we informed our rental car, hotel, and other appointments that we would be late, and in some cases have to reschedule. And as we boarded our second flight, the woman at the gate stopped us in line to inform us that the carry-on bag I had carried this far was too big. But it would be fine if I took some items out. And so I did, and put them in the plastic bag we’d gotten with the water bottles and crossword puzzles we’d just purchased in the airport.

“Now,” said the woman, eyeing our shopping bag, “You have too many carry-ons.” And so we attempted to relocate those items into my backpack, which promptly tore open, spilling all contents onto the floor.

“Miss,” the woman said, with a suspicious hint of enjoyment, “You’re holding up the line. Get out of the way.”

I shoved everything into my now uncloseable backpack, which seemed to satisfy her, and we boarded the plane. During the flight, one of my pens spilled all over my shirt, and we disembarked in Albuquerque waiting for the improvement that comes once you’ve reached your destination.

And then they lost A’s luggage. No, not lost. They just hadn’t bothered to put it on the connecting flight, the counter man told us with a shrug. They’d send it along tomorrow, down to the two-hour away Truth or Consequences. In the meantime, A is without her stuff.

We went to the car rental, where they told us that the car we wanted wasn’t at THIS Albuquerque Airport station, but at the OTHER one across town. Which closed in half an hour. We could take a car here and now, but that will be 330 more dollars, please.

Another madcap dash in a cab. We made it just in time, got our car, and drove off down the wide desert highway.

I laughed. The entire time things had been going wrong, I had felt strangely calm and almost amused. All of this stuff going wrong was nothing we had done, nor could we change. Also, as stressed as I tend to be in my day-to-day life is how calm I am when I travel. On a plane or on the open road, little fazes me. And it was wonderful.

Also, no matter what had gone wrong, we had gotten everywhere we wanted to go in the nick of time. The shirt I had ink-stained was one I had debated throwing away, not because it was old or worn, but because I had been wearing it during one of my most vividly remembered worst moments of my adult life. I had rarely worn it since, always recalling with a pang the things it had witnessed. But I never could bring myself to toss it, because it was a perfectly good, comfortable, flattering shirt. How could I just waste it? Now, this pure white shirt was irreparably stained black, and I could throw it out without a qualm. It was one of those feel-good “signs” I mentioned. Time to move on, the stained shirt said.

On the highway, a storm began. Sheets of violent rain, lightning that cracked the sky down the middle, and yes, even that haunting, déjà vu of a rainbow. We played The Doors, Zombies, and Rolling Stones. It was a release. Catharsis. The road screamed with us.

And when we arrived to beautiful, warm, breezy weather to our destination: a quiet, desert lodge, we felt exactly what we’d been hoping to feel: renewal. Calm. The sense that we’d shouted and sang out every bad feeling we’d endured. One of A’s work friends texted her that this kind of experience is called “Traveler’s Luck.” Everything goes wrong at the beginning so that you can enjoy a better experience afterward. A Karmic equivalent of getting your store loyalty card stamped enough for the free Sundae.

I love that thought, whether or not it exists. And I love that literally and figuratively, I got to toss some of my achy past away. It’s freeing, and wonderful, and it smells like lavender and herbs.

Still, I’m never flying American Airlines again.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Closing Time

Yes, the Semisonic song is in my head. I played it on both guitar and piano tonight. After a pretty intense weekend (in some amazingly good ways and in some difficult ones), this morning finally felt like something new had broken through. I was very busy today. I ran lots of errands. I packed my bags. Tomorrow, one of my closest friends and I fly to New Mexico for some girly road trippin'.

I have been feeling in the past few weeks like this trip is long overdue. For one thing, I've wanted to see New Mexico for years. For the other, it's been a while since this friend and I spent an extended amount of time together. It's also been a while since I travelled with a friend. For me, at least, it seems like a while.

I've been discovering little things over the past week or two, items or messages which I've decided to take as encouragement, even though I don't think I believe in signs. As a friend told me a while back, "life isn't a book, Aliza. It doesn't have foreshadowing."

But still, I've decided to post some of the wonderful little things I've seen, so that when things look a little darker, I (or whoever reads this and might want to), can look at them and maybe see something nice. I decided weeks back, pretty much when I saw the rainbow I wrote about, that this trip will mark a new beginning for me.  So here are my little new beginning "signs":

I found this little card the day after I finished the internship I'd had all year. I was feeling this tentative mix of relief and fear. But I met up with a few friends that day, and conversed very encouragingly with a few, I remember, oddly enough. I called it a good start.

On the day I started packing up my apartment for my big move (the day after I get back from NM! Just what exactly do I think I'm doing?), I was leaving my parents' house when, under the tree out front, my mom and I discovered this perfect half of a robin's egg. At first, I was scared that it had fallen out of the tree, but then I saw that it was clean inside, and that the bird had, in fact, hatched. I kept the eggshell.

Those of you who know me well know about my sketchbooks. I have been journaling/sketching in these books since my year in Israel, almost six solid years now. I still have every one of my sketchbooks lined up on a bookshelf. For the last three of those six years, I have been getting my sketchbooks exclusively at a little stationary shop in Budapest, where they print their own paper and bind their own books. It's pricey, but worth it for me, since my shelf is now lined with these beautiful objects. I've developed a friendly relationship with the staff there, and every time I go back (about once every 1 1/2 years), they always ask to see my latest.

This last time, I stocked up again, and when I showed my sketchbook to the woman behind the counter, she told me she would be retiring and moving away to Balatonfured. This was going to be the last time I could visit her, the last time I'd know anyone who worked there, if the company managed to continue. I remember coming back to our apartment there and telling my mom, "I think it's time I stopped buying these." I don't know why, I just felt like my sketchbooks had run their course. I had enough books for about two more years. Who even knows where I'll be?

Then, last week, I was wandering around the Upper East Side, and I stumbled across the same type of shop. True, it was an Italian, not Hungarian company, but my desire to look at new, beautiful sketchbooks returned. I haven't actually bought one, but who knows? Maybe now I will.

I think I'll post more little "signs" (although I should really rename them, since I don't actually see them as signs, more as little boosts of encouragement) as I come across them.

Anyway, I recently finished a papercut in which I expressed what it feels like to escape from a tangle of fear and uncertainty that comes with a stressful year and an unsure future. Here that is:

Finally, I think I can say I'm starting to get some of that slime off. And tomorrow, I officially start my own private little new year. I would say I hope it will be good, but I say that every year. Not this time.

This time, I have projects and freelance work. I have no new expectations. I have school, student teaching, and a (!) gym Groupon. This time, I'm not going to hope for a good year. I'm going to MAKE it one.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Uphill Ahead

I recently took a look at a picture of me from almost a year ago.

I was in San Francisco, smiling like a lunatic over a bag of saltwater taffies labeled "Orthodox Chews," because I'm one of those people who finds things like that funny.

I'm smiling, but I look terrible, worse than I think I've ever looked in my adult life. I'm very pale and thin, having lost eight pounds in one week. My eyes are baggy, because I had been up all night worrying about someone I cared about and whether or not I was going to lose them. A month later, I would lose seven more pounds and a lot of my confidence. It was the beginning of a very tough year, some of which I don't prefer to remember.

Never in another year have I made so many mistakes. Never in another year have I taken so many risks. Never in another year have I changed so much in the way I view things, in both good ways and bad.

As they say, it's always darkest before the dawn. Here's hoping that's true. And here's why I believe it to be true. It's a very weird reason.

Yesterday was my last day at a yearlong internship, one I started right after I got back from San Francisco, right before my dark year began. This past weekend, I saw some close friends I haven't seen in months, and had a few long, amazing talks with them. A few gave me some good advice. And one of them in particular was very, very encouraging.

And then today, an old picture of that friend popped up on my newsfeed. And when I say old, I mean OLD (by Facebook standards).

It showed him years before, younger in appearance and attitude, smiling between two rabbis. He's got different hair and less experience. He's a completely different person from the one I know now. His thoughts are different. His attitude is different. His beliefs are different. That picture is a boy, a teenager. The guy I know now is grown-up. Sort of. Not really, perhaps, but in comparison.

When I told him about the picture I'd seen, he jokingly referred to the boy in the picture as "loser me." And we talked about how different the two would be if they ever met. And an idea popped into my head. What if me last year met me now?

She'd certainly be disappointed in how things turned out. But then, now me would have to explain why they weren't necessarily bad things. This year was the year I learned to trade temporary satisfaction for a shot at long-term happiness. The year I learned that they who look like they've got it all now may be doing so at a terrible future cost. And they who are honest with themselves and others, even when it's uncomfortable, usually come out alright in the end.

How would I explain to last year me what she was about to encounter? And for that matter, how would next year me talk to me now?

It's been a tough year, and I don't know if next year will get easier or harder. But very recently, I've finally felt something I hadn't dared to entertain in months. I felt hope. And apparently, it showed. Someone very close to me told me that I looked pretty. "Happy looks good on you."

I looked long and hard in the mirror when I got home. I was no longer pale and baggy-eyed. I've gained back nine of the fifteen lost pounds. I wasn't grinning like a lunatic, but I looked happier nonetheless. And though I could be as easily wrong as right, I'd like to think that what they say about the dark before the dawn is true. I'd like to think it's all uphill from here.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Pathetic Fallacy

Britannica Online describes Pathetic Fallacy as "poetic practice of attributing human emotion or responses to nature, objects, or animals. It is a form of personification as old as poetry, in which it is common to find dancing flowers, angry winds, brooding mountains, or happy larks." 

We were driving back from a long, complicated weekend, and an even longer, sort of bizarre day.

It was a day of contradictions. People wearing wool suits in 90 degree weather.  Driving miles without pause and then getting caught for an hour in a parking lot. Watching battle reenactments while trying not to stage one yourself.

We had gone to the 150th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. It was hot and humid and unbearably sunny. I must have gone through five bottles of water and I was still thirsty, but had eaten practically nothing all day and had no desire for food. We were exhausted and grumpy and burnt to a crisp, sweating like pigs and not smelling much better. A 150-year-old battle was being fought before our eyes, all loud booms and smoke rings and napalm-esque stink.

One among our number asked out loud in a way that annoyed another, "when is this going to be over?"

And then the last shot was fired, and within two minutes, the hot and steaming sun vanished, and Gettysburg was enveloped in a raging thunderstorm.

People ran for cover or their cars. We got soaked to the bone, squelching through mud, suddenly freezing where we had only minutes before been sweating. We got separated from each other and lost. Eventually we found the car, but by then we were soaked past clothes and hair and into skin and organs. It took us half an hour to get out of the parking lot, the traffic was so bad (I was later told that another car took over three hours. Phew.).

But then we were out on the highway, whizzing through the storm, until we pulled over at some crappy rest stop to change into dry clothes and warm up with hot cocoa. An hour earlier, we had been begging for snow cones. I had no clean shirts, so I borrowed a friend's extra one.

And then we were driving again. The songs on our driver's playlist turned to ones I hadn't heard since high school or my year in Israel, ones that ranged from unbearably angsty to bizarre and melancholy. Even though I hadn't listened to any of them in years, I found myself singing along, the old lyrics coming back to me.

And then suddenly, the sky was no longer gray, but orange. And the open sky before us displayed the most vibrant, dazzling rainbow. Next to it, a faded second one. We leaned forward and out windows to take pictures. None of them even came close to doing the sight any justice.

And then, clouds gathered above the rainbow, and the sky burst open with webs of cracks of furious lightning. The rainbow and lightning came and went for most of the hours-long drive. All the while, we spoke and sang and joked about how with such a display, the sky must really want some attention.

Eventually, the sun set and the lights of New York appeared, and the drive was coming to a close. And I felt like if I tried, I could replay my whole life in a movie before my own eyes. It felt like the end of some pretentious indie flick. No answers, just a long drive, and pathetic fallacy.

I described the scene later to a friend, realizing as I spoke that I could have made it up to describe exactly what's been going on inside my head and heart lately. I don't care to attach the details of battle reenactments, hot cocoa, and Gorillaz songs to my own experiences in the past year, except for that sky. Because at the core of our conversation, my friend asked me, "How are you feeling now?"

And I thought of that sky as we drove. All wild colors, rainbows, and dangerous lightning storms. On the one hand, we looked like we could be struck dead at any moment, or witness a forest fire or falling tree. On the other, if we looked straight ahead, it looked like we could drive right into that rainbow.

So I told him, I don't know. Right now, I could be driving into either a storm, a sunset, or a beacon of promises fulfilled. All I can say for sure is, I'm definitely moving toward something.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Megilla Project, Eicha - Great Expectations

Rarely do things ever turn out exactly as we expected. Oftentimes we are disappointed. Sometimes, though, we are pleasantly surprised.

When I started Kohelet, I expected to find it cathartic, or comforting, and really it was neither one. It did, however, turn into one of the most intricate and difficult paper cuts I'd ever made.

When I embarked on the second installment of my project, Eicha, I expected at some point to be using it for comfort. And mostly, I expected it to take at least three weeks, if not a month. I set a goal for myself to finish it by Tisha B'Av.

Instead, I finished it this morning, on 17 Tammuz, the first day of the dreaded Three Weeks of mourning, which culminate with Tisha B'Av. The Three Weeks have barely even started, and I've already finished this project.

I could take this as an example of exceeding my own expectations. I could see it as something not turning out to take as long as I feared. I could also look with some dread at the coming weeks as if they were saying, "you thought you had us figured out? We haven't even begun!"

But that prospect seems overly negative and frightening, even for someone who just spent the last two weeks immersed in arguably the most depressing book in Tanach.

So what do I take from this? I guess that sometimes things don't take as long as we think they will. Other times, like with Kohelet, they take much longer, but even those projects are ultimately completed.

And now here come the Three Weeks, and so continues my search for those things that will make up my next year. And on to the framer's.

Total Side Note: In looking for a sturdy case in which to store this piece, I happened across some small prints of some of my older paper cuts. I am hereby selling these prints for five-ten dollars each. Keep in mind, they are unframed, and not professionally printed. They do, however, look pretty darn nice. Sizes range from 10x10 - 11x17. Message me or comment below if interested.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Megilla Project, Eicha - What to Think?

About a week into my Eicha project, and already the process is entirely different from that of Kohelet. Then again, the situation surrounding it is different as well. And new sorts of verses stand out to me.

Today, I finished the paper cut portion of the project, and started the ink-written text. I was feeling frustrated at the moment, and resolved to vent said frustration into the paper.

As during Kohelet, frustration stemmed from disappointment. But whereas Kohelet's was toward what others were doing and saying (or not doing and saying), Eicha's was aimed at myself, and at the impossible questions of the future.

It was aimed at myself because I had made a mistake. Nothing intentional or even hurtful, just inconsiderate in the moment. I was distracted. I wasn't thinking. I was also, admittedly, a little tired and tense. And so I was shocked when my mistake got called out. I hadn't even noticed that I'd done anything wrong. Naturally, I was embarrassed and felt guilty. I added a garbled "sorry," along with assurance that I hadn't meant to do anything wrong, and would make sure not to in the future. The subject was soon changed to something more titillating, like internet cats.

It was aimed at the future because once again, I am finding myself at a crossroads of sorts. I will be moving somewhere new soon, and hopefully, HOPEFULLY starting a new job. I will be meeting new people and going new places. But I have no idea where, and the changes are proving slower than I'd like. My patience and confidence are tested.

And later today, while I was writing Eicha's text, the feeling returned. As I hit the second chapter of Lamentations, I recognized a certain verse from what I had grown up knowing as a Carlebach tune.

"שִׁפְכִי כַמַּיִם לִבֵּךְ, נֹכַח פְּנֵי אֲדֹנָי"

"Pour out your heart like water before the face of G-d." Before now, I hadn't really connected this verse to anything especially tragic. It was just telling me that if something was wrong, I should tell G-d about it. And I started wondering about times when I have poured out my heart like water to my room's ceiling, since when I talk to G-d I instinctively raise my eyes.

I'm a spiritual and religious person. I talk to G-d, usually in English, sometimes in Hebrew, and occasionally even in Hungarian. I'm unsure why I do this in the way I do, since a debate always runs in my mind of whether my asking questions will ever result in answers. At the very least, it must be therapeutic to ask questions even when they're rhetorical. At times, though, I could swear someone is listening and taking some kind of karmic note. All I know is that I pray.

Eicha is Lamentation following ultimate tragedy. Horrific events and an aftermath from hell all reside in its text. Children die of hunger. Young men are slaughtered. The streets run with blood. And yet, as I mentioned before, I find less despair here than in Kohelet, where one man, presumably a rich king, reflects on the pointlessness of existence.

In Eicha, we cry out to G-d and ask why our Temple was destroyed. We ask the Divine to step in and save us. We ask why the Presence has left our side. We did wrong, and we feel terrible. We want the feelings of guilt and sadness to leave. But at least we cry out. At least we ask the questions and don't pretend to know any answers. At least we haven't reached any despairing conclusions.

I've found that this is the silver lining to my self-disappointment. I am still shocked and upset when I or someone close to me does something hurtful. I think it would be a lot worse if I just accepted them as the way things are. I'm disappointed, and so next time, I'll do better. Next time, I'll point it out if others err toward me, and change things so that there will be improvement.

I haven't accepted Kohelet's futility of life. I still believe in success after I've paid my dues. Which is why, behind the smoky text of tragic events on my Megilla, there there will be "Nachamu," comfort, hiding in the negative space.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Back to the Megilla Project

I know, it's been months.

And here I am, returning to a blog that mostly documented a time of extreme confusion and disappointment for me. I suppose my return to it could indicate another such spiral.

Not this time.

Thus the new look, and the new description, and even the subtle change in title from "Arbitrator" to "Arbiter". This may be a return to a blog and an internet domain, but it's definitely not a return in any other way, shape, or form to that part of my life. Things are very different now.

Of course, some things haven't changed. I'm still technically in the same chapter of life, a mid-twenties grad student navigating whatever this time may mean to me. But I'm starting a few new things. A new summer, a new apartment soon, and ultimately a new year. And, perhaps most significantly to those who might be interested, a new Megilla Project.

Last time, I spent almost three months on a careful cut documenting my confusion and disappointment in Megillat Kohelet. Fitting, I suppose. Which is why I assure you that this time, the choice of Megilla has little to no relevance (Bli Ayin Hara and all) to my life right now.

It's Megillat Eicha.

I felt it was time to do another Megilla. I never start a piece (unless it's on commission) unless I'm truly feeling it, feeling like THIS IS IT, time to do THIS project. A few weeks ago, while in Hungary with my family, I felt that feeling. Megilla time. Though honestly I had no idea which one I would pick.

Then why Eicha? Why, you might ask, out of the four remaining books, did I choose the harshest, the most depressing, the most tragic piece right here, right now? Well, for several reasons.

1) Because, as someone very close to me advised, "If you're going to cover all five, eventually you're going to have to do Eicha." It was a quip to me sort of in the vein of that one from The Little Prince: "I must endure one or two caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies." Fine, they have entirely different meanings. But the point is, I've got to plow through the depressing ones if I want to say I did them all. Better get those over with now and have only Excitement (Esther), Love (Shir HaShirim), and Fulfillment (Ruth) ahead. I don't want to go through all my fun favorites and end on a low note.

2) Because it's the beginning of the summer, and Observant Jews know what that means: the three weeks. The saddest part of the Jewish Calendar, culminating in Tisha B'Av, when we actually read Eicha out loud. I figured the timing was appropriate, and my goal is to finish this cut, this Project, by Tisha B'Av.

3) Because to me, it's a psychological step up from Kohelet. A lot of people disagree with me on this. Kohelet, after all, is not entirely negative, while Eicha is mournful throughout. But to me, Kohelet has this terrible ring of loneliness to it, like an air of clinical depression. I was depressed reading Kohelet, and it was during a time when I just couldn't pull myself out of my funk. Things really did seem to me like "vanity of vanities" and that everything was pointless. My sadness led to my decision to study and depict Kohelet, not the other way around.

Eicha, on the other hand, is a joined suffering. It is a tragedy endured as a people. It is a sudden whiplash, a fire, and need to recover, not a slow spiral into darkness. It was composed following the destruction of the First Temple. To me, Eicha is an outcry following a sharp pain. There is recovery. After the darkness, there is hope. The Temple will be rebuilt, with the whole nation pushing together.

Not so with Kohelet, which is a lonely rumination on one person's depression, a funk from which there is no escape and no recovery, at least not in the foreseeable future.

And so last week, I found myself in a confusing and stressful spot again, suddenly needing to find a new job, a new school project, and a new place to live. It was overwhelming, and I was scared. I genuinely feared falling into this dark hole again.

But then something cleared in my head. Something that said simply, Nah, you'll be fine. It'll all work out somehow. You're not going to end up alone, unemployed, and homeless. You've got too much potential for that. No depression spiral this time. You had your cry and your panic attack. Now it's moving forward time.

What do you know? Sometime in the past week, my long dormant self-esteem came out to play. And so I'm tackling Eicha, for the calendar year appropriateness, because I've got to get through it to complete all five, and because I've got to get through Tisha B'Av if I ever want to see Shabbat Nachamu (Sabbath of Comfort).

And so I began, and I've been working a lot faster than I did during Kohelet (which I take as a good sign). Here's what I've got so far:

We've already seen the flames of the Temple. Now it's time to rebuild.