Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fortune Cookies and Other Sources of Wisdom

The thing with going through a scary, confusing time in your life, especially when you're trying to figure out your life, views, and future... that you suddenly start to hear all of those cliched pieces of advice that so many TV Specials and tea labels have to offer. And of those sayings, you find the ones that apply, and make sense, and occasionally even help. 

So now that things look a little better than they did a month ago, I've discovered a few immortal truths. Some are deep and oft-quoted, some are stupid and true nonetheless. Here are what I'm calling my October lessons:

1. If you're so stressed you can't think and your campus is offering free back rubs on Wednesdays, for the love of G-d take the back rub.  

2. Running away never solved anything. If you must run, make sure it's toward something and not just away from responsibilities and all of those scary things that make up life. 

3. Courtesy of my awesome friend: "Everything will be alright in the end. So if it's not alright, it's not the end."

4. Fortune cookie fortune I found in my coat pocket when I took out my autumn coat for the first time this year: "The major value in life is not in what you get now, but in what you become."

5. Another fortune cookie: "The most important relationship you have is the one you have with yourself" or the other version of the same advice: "If your friend spoke to you the way you sometimes speak to yourself, would you continue to be friends with them?"

This one especially was one I had to deal with when I realized that I've really got to work on this self-esteem thing I keep hearing about.

6. Watching Germans sing about Russians while dressed like Mongolian warlords will solve all your problems for five blissful minutes. 

7. Courtesy of Pushing Daisies (moment of silence): "A hug is an emotional Heimlich Maneuver. Someone puts their arms around you and squeezes real tight and all your fear and anxiety come hurling out in a big, wet wad, and you can breathe again."

8. William Safire: "The right to do something does not mean that doing it is right."

9. "If you truly want something, you'll find a way. If you don't, you'll find an excuse."

10. And the awesome Neil Gaiman: "MAKE GOOD ART."

It's autumn. I read a quote today somewhere on the internet which claimed autumn as the perfectly balanced season. Well, as a Fall Baby who loves autumn colors and all pumpkin-flavored things, I agree. And I gotta say, now that I have some perspective back, I realize I'd have to be nuts not to enjoy this season of cool breezes, pumpkin pies and kosher lattes, sweaters without winter coats, boots without wool socks, bat-themed merchandise, and not-quite too early sunsets. I love this season. I'm going to spend the rest of it trying to remember what I learned so far and enjoying what I've got until I figure it all out. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Megillah Project Again

For those who haven't seen them, here's the Megillah Project Parts 1 and 2.

I've finished the black and gray layers, which means that most of the cutting is done. There's still all of the text and the smaller color patches left. But still, this is a big step in terms of this project.

I'm seeing it as finishing the first stage of the process, of the semester, of the crazy. It feels awesome, like throwing a huge weight off.

Funny how this comes right when things have been turning around in life, too. A few good days, handing in my first paper, giving my first presentation, meeting some great new people, reuniting with some old friends.

It's like I've come in from the cold, and while it might not be summer out yet, I can at least take off the first, gray, heavy layer.

Here's what it looks like so far:

Three and a half feet long and that's where it's going to stop. I think I've been letting this thing spread long enough. Time for the next stage :-)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Muzzling the Dragon

Let's call this a small victory, or maybe just a few days of a better mood. I feel as though my crazy, trying semester  has received an upgrade of sorts. All of the obstacles and challenges are still there, but perhaps the terrain has been smoothed over.

In the past week, I've gone from whelmed and panicky to... questioning and confused. I suppose this isn't an ideal state to live in, especially considering the security I felt back in the days of Arbitribe, but that's neither here nor there. Either way, it's an improvement from two weeks ago. It feels temporary and shaky, like it could give away under my feet any second. But it's a good step. A cautious step.

Like I said, the tribulations are still there. Technically, nothing has changed in the picture of my existence other than that I finally handed in my first ever Graduate School Paper (Hurdle One: Cleared!) and just today, gave my first oral presentation in class. I've still got five more papers and a final exam to go this semester, but now, for some very strange, unreal, perhaps even nonexistent reason, I feel less afraid of them. It's like fighting your way through a forest and getting a sudden improvement in weaponry.

I'm reminded again of the Arbitribe post I wrote (Oh my G-d) a year and a half ago. In that post, I compared facing the big, scary future (affectionately named the BSF) to fighting off a two-headed dragon built of what are you going to do with your life and who will be there with you while you do it? I talked about the salivating, ring-accessorized Love dragon and the sharp-beaked, baggy-eyed Career dragon.

(Wow. Let me just say, rereading that post now is SO WEIRD. I feel like a different person wrote it. So much has changed since then. It gives me chills to think about everything that's happened since then, and how much some of those issues have changed, while other points remain as relevant as they ever were.) I wrote later about how my faith in my beliefs and my people were providing me with some support in the battle.

I feel like I've been set upon by this nasty, reptilian beast again. This time, in a new arena: a bigger, scarier world I don't recognize, which I guess should be more frightening. But it's not.

And I really don't know why, because the monster isn't any less aggressive or smelly or difficult than it was in 2011. If anything, it's come closer and gotten ruder. But for the next few months at least, I've got the career head muzzled with a job and graduate school, so that's good.

But when it comes to actually tackling the thing, my mind is just too filled up with questions about this weird, scary, illogical terrain (see Peers on Piers). I feel like I'm telling the dragon, "I know you're there, I acknowledge that you're not going away. But right this second, you've got to wait, you stupid, drooling monster."

I feel like there's some vital piece of information I've been missing, which so many other knights already know. I know I need to fight you, monster, but until I figure this out, you've got to be muzzled.

I've got questions that need answering. That's really the only way I can put it. The world I've been thrown into now is so wild, and not what I thought it was. (This world is so weird. People are weird. Does anyone else feel that way?) I know (more or less) what I want to achieve sometime in that Big Scary Future. But... right now? (Shrugs.) I feel like I need to climb a mountain and ask some wise old sage a few questions first.

I got my upgrade, I've moved on to level two of this weird game of the BSF. Now I've got to examine my new terrain, my new weapons, and figure out which ones to use. And how to use them. BSF, I know that sometimes when people get confused, they think you're not going to sneak up behind them and bite. But I haven't forgotten. Don't think for one second, dragon, that I don't know you're there waiting.

Being confused is strange and discomforting. But it's so much better than being afraid.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Peers on Piers

So many times, it seems like everyone in the world knows a big secret, and you're the last to find out. I've spoken about this before in the context of being the last to know that a certain previously-kosher product was now no longer allowed.

But sometimes this happens when the issue is a little more complicated than a flavored drink. And then, when you've finally wised up, what to do with your newfound knowledge? Do you join the ranks of those who know it for a fact, or do you keep questioning until you've convinced yourself of its truth?

Do you jump off the dock when everyone else goes swimming, even if you hate the water or don't know how to swim or have been getting over a bronchiole infection?

Pier pressure. Ha ha.

So internet, I ask you. We know some things for sure. We've known them for a long time, because someone taught them to us. How much of what we've been taught is of actual value and how much is just what we've been taught?

How much is wrong with our society, and how much is just wrong with us? And why do some of us keep asking, keep questioning, when we know there are no answers, while others are content to just forget there ever was a question?

Maybe it's that they already know the answers? And if they do, how are they going to respond to our newfound realization, especially if we're taking a long time to figure out what to do with this information?


Neither one of these are bad responses, but they depend on the scenario. What fits at one time won't work at another.

It's at times like this, when I find out some things about human nature that I never realized before, that I worry I lack some kind of brain cell that most people have, right there with my inability to compartmentalize or remember certain Hebrew grammar rules. Maybe there are just some things I was never meant to understand.

Why are there priests who believe in Divine punishment but still embezzle money or molest children?

Why do people consider wearing skirts the epitome of modesty when the type they wear shows every lump and curve of their butt?

Why do people with allergies keep eating food they know will make them break out in violent hives?

Clearly these are not remotely under the same category, but they're all questions.

I'm just full of questions, aren't I? Isn't that how it goes? The moment you think you've happened upon a great epiphany, it turns out everyone knew it a year ago. And you find that all the epiphany did was open up a new can of preservative-filled questions. And maybe these suckers have no answers.

But then again, maybe they do. And maybe someone will be willing to just sit with us until we figure them out on our own.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Megillah Project Update

I've finished my first grad school paper!

And more importantly for the purposes of this blog, I've been working full-tilt on the Kohelet papercut project I mentioned in The Megillah Project.

Like I said in that post, this might just be one of the most difficult paper cuts I've ever made. It's absolutely nowhere near finished, but I've been making a lot of headway, I think, and covering lots of ground. I can't remember the last time I worked so quickly on a project, and yet taken so long to get through it.

Recently, a new friend asked to see the project I'd been working on, and so I showed it to her, in all of its half-finished, unglued glory. Her immediate reaction was, "that's a lot of pain."

"Yeah," I agreed, "it's a pain to make this thing, but-"

"No," she corrected, "I meant, I see a lot of pain in it. You must have been screaming while you made this."

I thought about that. Maybe not screaming, but freaking out on the inside, quite possibly.

Like I've said so many times, it's been a tough couple of months. But ever since taking Neil Gaiman's advice to 'make good art' to heart, I've been pouring out my frustrations and stress into this thing. So yes, I suppose it is a product of stress. But that's the first semester of grad school for you.

My mom asked me the other day whether it's still in black and white. I answered that yeah, but now I've got some gray in there too. Been considering a little patch of yellow.

She told me, "Keep doing it. But don't make it too big, or you'll never get past it."

So far, this thing is 31/2 feet long with four layers. And I have to say, I do find that every time I finish a long session of sketching, cutting, and separating layer by layer, I always do feel a little lighter than when I started. I just have to hope that this will turn into something fulfilling to be born of my stress, not a long-term reminder of how I was feeling when I started. I think it'll be fine. That's something I'm strangely confident about. On to the next layer.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Challenge

On Friday, my professor paused in his highly-spirited discussion comparing the histories of French and German Jewry (let's get the inevitable stereotyping joke out of the way now):

... and gave a moment's hesitation. He told us:

"All of you are going into a career in Judaic Studies, so you are going to face a very distinct challenge throughout your careers, maybe your lives. Anyone who has worked in the Jewish community is faced with the challenge of having to explain to others, usually their target audience, why they should care about being Jewish."

He went on to tell us about a contest held once upon a time in Russia, where contestants were invited to send in essays convincing the reader why they should care about being Jewish. Not religious, per se, but just Jewish. Why should they bother having any pride? Why be part of a community? Why live with the stigma? Why not just throw it all to the wind, cut your hair, eat some bacon, and go do whatever it is you want to do with those care-free non-Jews who seem to have it all figured out?

Because, let's face it, even today, even here, even now in our cushy, SO EASY in this time and country, being a Jew isn't easy. (What comes to my mind whenever I think of this is the old adage that nothing worth having ever comes easy, but that just might be my own pride talking here.)

And even now as I'm procrastinating writing yet another paper, as I'm working through what may be the hardest semester in my schooling career so far, there's such a sobering sense of pause I get from the knowledge that... this is what I signed up for. A lifetime of THIS question.

Not that I wasn't already facing it at regular intervals before I picked it as a career path.

Freaking verbatim...

I don't know for sure when this started, but for I'd say well over two years now I seem to possess the reputation for being the person to argue religion with. I truly don't understand why or how this happened. But for a period of a few months it seemed to me like everyone was bringing their contrarian friend to meet me. Because they wanted to argue, apparently? I never quite got it. I don't like arguing. When it comes to religion my usual stance is the same as with taste in food:

Either way, somehow these discussions led me early last year to decide that maybe this was the path I was meant to follow. Not to be a missionary or anything, honestly, I'm not that interested in Kiruv, but just to educate people about my awesome, wonderful, rich culture. To educate those who share the culture with me and either don't realize how great it is, or don't care.

Which brings us back to that ever-present question. Why should I care?

To which I have the following answer, the one I always think of but never say (I'm not sure why. Maybe because it's not a "smart" answer? Just a heartfelt one? I've found people who are arguing with you about religion rarely want you to answer from the heart. They want to hear from your head. (And again, this is about identity, not religious belief. But here we go:)

I know that's not an intelligent answer. It's not my usual, this-is-a-serious-discussion answer. But it's what comes into my head now. I feel like as the days go by I see more and more people choose the easy way out about things.

They drop out of school because it's too hard. They quit a job or a team or a relationship because it would challenge them. They run the other way at the first sign of something difficult or unexpected. Right now, I feel like that's an option I haven't got.

Right now, I'm overwhelmed with work, and dealing with so many blows to my plans, self-certainty, and ego, one right after the other, I feel like this entire semester has been me stepping into the role of Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes.

But I digress.

You can't run the other way when it comes to who you are, especially the parts of you that you'd probably prefer to escape. Luckily for me, I have no desire to escape Judaism. I'm proud of who I am. And when I consider how I feel about the parts of myself I'm not so proud of, it makes me feel just awful for those who are ashamed of their background.

I'm so lucky the parts of me I'm not proud of are little things like past mistakes and girly self-esteem issues. I'm so lucky I'm proud of where I come from. I'm so lucky I know who I am.

I know enough to be secure enough to take on this lifelong challenge. I'm sure enough to be able to face the barrage of why should I care, even if I can't answer it to everyone's (or anyone's) satisfaction. And I can't expect to. People a lot smarter than me have tried and failed. (No one won that Russian essay contest, by the way, because no one came up with an answer that appeased all the judges.)

Why should you care? Maybe you don't. No one can tell you why you should care. They can only tell you why they care, and hope maybe you'll relate.

But maybe you find some pride in it. Maybe you find some meaning, or something, if you're lucky, you  enjoy it. Heck, maybe the people you love find meaning in it, and maybe that's enough for you.

But even if it isn't, even if you don't want any part of it, remember. It's the identity of those who made you. It's a part of you even if you hate it. Maybe the key is, like our fears and uncertainties, to embrace it. I have no real answer. This entire post is a ramble. But man, does it feel good to ramble when it's about something I'm passionate about.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Megillah Project

I've been getting a few questions from people regarding the art project I mentioned in my last two posts, and elsewhere. I figure since I picked up my wonderful, shiny, new art supplies yesterday and banged out an outline for the paper I WILL have written by next week, hey. My blog is as good a medium as any to explain this thing.

The Megillah Project:

For years I've been intending to create some kind of big, huge project series revolving around all five Megillot (Kohelet, Esther, Shir HaShirim, Ruth, and Eicha). I've always been drawn to these books as an area of study and artistic inspiration, and I'm determined to create a grand artistic work for each, something that will be deeply personal, but also include every word of the actual text.

Every word. Even twelve-chapter Kohelet. Apparently I'm a glutton for punishment.

Until recently, I was at a loss of what this project should look like, what form it should take (illustrated book? giant painting?), and in what order I should take them on (shortest to longest? favorite to least favored?).

I tried several times. I still have the first pages I prepared over three years ago for what was to be an illustrated Book of Ruth.

Over time and several attempts, I stopped trying. I stopped talking about this project for a long while. And then, this past summer, inspiration numero uno struck.

I would try again, and this time, I'd emphasize the personal. Who needs another illustrated text? There's got to be a million of those, and among all that, mine would be nothing special. So I'd go for the mood and the visuals instead of literally showing a picture version of the text.

It made sense to me that when I felt a connection to a certain Megillah, whether because of some life event or state of mind or because I happen to be learning it, that's when I'd take the Megillah on, and really record the process of my state of mind through the reading and creating of the visual Megillah.

Sometime in the last two weeks, I had my inspiration numero dos, and I started on my first, and perhaps the most visually difficult Megillah: Kohelet.

You may be wondering why. Or, if you read my last post, you may not be wondering at all.

In a nutshell, Kohelet is (so far) the only Megillah I haven't heard read in shul, although hopefully, this coming Shabbat that will change. Until recently, it was also the only one I'd never bothered to read in depth from beginning to end. But school assignments, the upcoming holiday reading, and my own state of mind led me to finally buckle down and read it. Twice.

The past month has been a rough patch for me, getting adjusted to my new grad school surroundings while also dealing with some unexpected turns life has taken. It's a scary place to be. A few times, I've caught myself thinking a little like Kohelet, wondering what the point of several events, efforts, and prayers were. It seemed a fitting place to start.

So last week, I sat down and started sketching and cutting. Last night, I finished the first layer of what's to be a four/five layer project. It doesn't look very impressive so far, but it is only about a fifteenth of the way finished. It's just one layer, my first existential question. Here it is, as of last night:

It may not look like much, but it's actually one of the most grueling cuts I've ever tackled, courtesy of that decorative border on the top and bottom. Hopefully, by the time this thing is finished, it'll be twice as long as it is now and contain several more layers, plus the full text of Kohelet hidden among the cuts.

And I've got to tell you, it says more about my questions than I can ever write. It's this thorny, sticky process of trying to make it through a challenge, freeing yourself every time your sleeve gets caught, but all the while, hoping the effort has a purpose. Maybe that's a little flowery for a blog, I don't know.

Anyway, this post is here to explain the project so far, and hopefully as it progresses I'll be updating with pictures and info along the way. An update may not happen for a while, since the only reason I even had time to type this out is because I'm in bed with a fever today. But that's life. Hopefully the fever will be gone by the time I've got to go to shul this Shabbat and finally hear this thing read aloud.