Sunday, October 5, 2014

I'm baaaaaccckkk!!!

One year on; one year off. One year on again; one year off again. And now I am back, about to dive into a new year of new practice. I started this blog in 5771/2010. The first year I wrote it, every single day, I did something I had never done before, and I wrote about it—and tied it to my mussar (Jewish ethics) practice. At the time, I was 47 years old, and was afraid that maybe my life was going to get less expansive as I passed the 50 year mark, when I really wanted was to feel more expansive. The daily practices (both doing and writing) were thrilling and tiring. The year felt both like exploration practice and also awareness practice; at times I intentionally set out to do something I had never before done, and at times I noticed that I was at a crossroads, where I could choose the never-before-traveled path. By the time the year ended, I did feel expansion, but I also felt tied some other things. I spent anywhere between 30 minutes and 2 hours a day writing up the blog posts. I needed a break from the pressure of producing a daily blog.  I also needed some time to absorb what had been meaningful about the year of practice. So when the year ended, I took a break.

The break turned out to be for a year. Fall 5773/2012. I wasn't feeling very good. I couldn't tell if I had felt better during the Never Done year because I was busy and distracted, or because doing something new every day was genuinely making a positive difference on my life, or if those are actually the same things. After much reflection, I decided on a new practice: A year of pure, selfish joy. Every day I would do something geared just for my own pure selfish joy. I also told you all that I wouldn't worry too much about the writing—that I would write something every day, but that the posts wouldn't necessarily be as well crafted as the first years' had been. When that year came to an end, I realized I had a problem. I wasn't actually able to feel joy. I was able to seek it, but not to feel it. I found that seeking joy definitely felt better than not seeking it, but I was worried that I wasn't feeling it. About a month after I ended the practice, I fell into what I used to call "one of my hard times". When I found my way to a  therapist, she suggested that my "hard times" might be depression. The minute she said it, I knew she was right, and I was also a little embarrassed that I had never figured this out before. (Also, a little incredulous that none of my other therapists had either.) So I spent this past year addressing my inner emotional life, and I'm doing a ton better now.

I've spent the past few months in deep reflection about what practice I might most want to engage in—and write about—this year. Remembering that this is primarily an ethics practice, that I am interested in the intersection between caring for myself and caring for others, I sorted through a range of ideas before ultimately deciding on ...

It was an intense summer. Police in the United States murdered and otherwise harmed African Americans at an even more alarming rate than was already happening. The war in Gaza went nuts, and the Israeli government bombed and otherwise harmed Palestinians at an even more alarming rate than was already happening. Lots of us (progressives, anti-racists, pro-African American, pro-people of color, pro-immigrant, pro-woman, pro-LGBTQ, pro-Palestinian human rights types) spent the summer asking ourselves what we can do differently. Asking ourselves, how can we create the world we wish we lived in? What we can do to protect each other? How do we effectively reach across the deep divides in our country (and other countries) to bring humanity, peace, and an end to violence? How to we finally end the structural racism that is devastating lives, families, and communities? How do we end the systemic sexism that limits women's control over our own bodies? How do we create a culture that welcomes and protects immigrants and refugees, rather than incarcerating them, and tearing apart their families? And above all, how do we each act in an ethical way that can help bring about these changes that we want to see in the world?

This coming year, I am going to try to address these questions in my daily practice and in my blog. I'm interested in the intersection of humility and humiliation.

More specifically, I think that fear of humiliation prevents us from asking questions that we need to ask in order to understand the world. We are afraid of being humiliated for not knowing already, so we pretend we know. We nod our head, and then Google the thing later. We mumble through conversations instead of just saying, "Hold on a second. I don't know that book you just referenced." Or "What's structural racism?"

At the same time, humility—one of the mides (middot, or Jewish ethical principals of Mussar) is the practice of seeking wisdom from others.

The words come from the same Latin root: humilis, meaning low. And from humus, meaning earth.

Humility is about not putting ourselves high above others; humiliation is about others putting themselves high above us (or trying to.)

It seems that some other people have already given this a great deal of thought. Even Jewish people. I found an uncredited Chasidic quote on the internet (does anyone know the real source?) that says, "The man who thinks he can live without others is mistaken; the one who thinks others can't live without him is even more deluded."

For my daily practice this year, I am going to ask questions I don't know the answers to. And I am going to ask questions I think I know the answers to, but want to know more answers to. Sometimes I'll ask them to real people. Sometimes I'll ask them to the internet. Sometimes I'll ask them to myself. But I'm going to ask, and I'm going to write about the process of asking and learning. And as always, I will try to tie the experience to my mussar practice.

A word about mussar practice. I am in a mussar vaad (group) with three dear friends. We've been together for four years now. Or maybe five. We meet weekly, and we base our ethical practice around the 13 mides (middot) or ethical principles, of mussar:

Humility: seek wisdom from everybody
Patience: Do not aggravate a situation with wasted grief
Equanimity: Rise above events that are inconsequential
Truth: Say nothing unless you are 100% sure it is true
Decisiveness: When you have made a decision, act without hesitation
Cleanliness: Let no stain or ugliness on our self/space
Order: All actions and possessions should have a set place and time
Righteousness: What is hateful to you do not do to others
Frugality: Be careful with your money
Diligence: Always find something to do
Silence: Reflect before speaking
Calmness: Words of the wise are stated gently
Separation: Respect in sexual and intimate relationships

These are guidelines for Jewish ethical living. Other practitioners of mussar might have different interpretations of these principles. These are the ones we use. Each week we center our practice around one of these principles, and we let it guide our actions. When we aren't sure what to do, or when we aren't sure if we did the right thing, we discuss our actions with the group. We ask ourselves how our actions affect the other—and we ask ourselves, "Who is the other, in this particular situation?"

This coming year, I will ask questions that probe all of these principles, but underneath them all will be this question of practicing humility in order to overcome humiliation in order to know more about the other and the burdens of the other in order to protect and transform our society. Please (whatever god or spirit or force that we can believe in) let it help.

*****

At the same time, I am going to offer myself as an Jewish ethical resource this year, with an Ask a Musernik column here on the blog.

As we go through this year together, I invite you to send me your ethical questions. Not quite like the New York Times Ethicist column, which often asks about whether someone ELSE'S actions were ethical, I'd like to answer questions about your own actions—to help you consider who might be the other, and how to assess and value their burdens. To discuss the ins and outs of the daily decisions we make that affect ourselves and others. To help explore the sticky questions of how to balance our own needs with the needs of others. To look at those times when you thought you did the right thing, but then someone got mad at you, and you maybe get defensive and don't really want to consider their point of view, but you also know it would actually be good for you to consider it. To explore an upcoming decision you have to make, or an ongoing conflict with a friend, sibling, or co-worker.

You can send your questions to with the subject line ASK A MUSERNIK to amusernik@gmail.com


SO ... here are my first questions of the year. To all of you. What should this year's blog be called? What do you think about Never Asked? Something about humility? Should it stay on this Never Done page, or migrate somewhere new? Looking forward to hearing your ideas. Thanks in advance!



Sunday, September 22, 2013

Another year older, another year happier

If you're reading this, then you probably already know that I just spent a year doing (at least) one thing a day that was in pursuit of my own, selfish joy. This year followed a year in which I didn't do anything special, which followed a year in which I did one thing a day that I had never done before, and then I blogged about it in a way that connected the my never done activities to my mussar (Jewish ethics) practice. I did my Never Done year, because as I approached 50 (I was 47-48 during that year) that I wanted my life to feel expansive, and not diminished, the way society (really truly) pressures people 50+ to feel. I say (really truly) because I thought, as a life-long feminist and iconoclast, I would feel exempt from societal pressures around aging, but shit, was I ever wrong. If you're already 50 or near it, you know what I'm talking about, and if you're a lot younger, I sincerely hope it's eased up by the time you get here. So I spent a year doing something every day that I had never done before (and you can read all about it on this very blog by going to the very beginning) and by the end of the year, I was happier, fuller, more excited about life, in a new job, having completed an Olympic-length triathlon, having done, in fact, 365 things I'd never done before, much more connected to people I hadn't been in touch with in years, less frightened of aging, and .... tired. Tired not so much from the activities, but from the writing, which often took me a good couple of hours a day. I loved the writing, but I was very happy to be done with the daily writing. I also had really really hoped I could figure out how to parlay the daily blog into a book deal, but I never got the blog traffic I had needed to get  interest. So I took the next year off from this kind of project, dove head-first into my new job, and slowly got more and more depressed. Now, I don't use the word depressed clinically, but rather, colloquially. Let's put it this way: over the course of the year, I felt the life force get sucked out of me, and by the time the next yom kipper rolled around (oh, I forgot to mention that these practices follow the Jewish calendar) I was 49 years old, spending too much of my time fixing other people's lives and supporting other people's dreams, and not particularly engaged with my own life or dreams. I actually believe in helping people with their lives and dreams, and wouldn't want to stop doing that, but it was getting pretty out of balance.

I was also face to face with a big decision I've struggled with since moving to NYC, namely, should I stay in NYC? Everybody who knows me knows that it it might be a hell of a town, but it's a real retrofit for someone like me, who likes to be in bed by 10 PM, wake up at 6 AM, go outside barefoot, garden in the early morning, swim outdoors in clean rivers and lakes, and, I don't know, breathe freely. But also, I like to go to the theater, and easily hang out with my friends, and I had this job as a Jewish performing arts presenter, which is a great thing to do in NYC, and even though I have large, vibrant communities in New England and Portland, OR, I didn't (and still don't) have work lined up in any of those places. So I spent all day on yom kipper 5753/2012 reading and working through a self help book called, Too Good To Leave, Too Bad To Stay. It's written for relationships between people, but I worked through my relationship with NYC, and not surprisingly, what I learned is that yeah, I probably should leave NYC, but it wasn't a clear cut and dry direction, but that the real issue? The real issue is that I was pretty bad at setting bottom lines, and I was pretty bad at putting myself first, and not just my needs, but more importantly, my wants.

You still with me? It's September 2012, and I was feeling pretty crappy, and reading a self-help book on yom kipper. On the beach. In the rain. While Josh napped in the car, because he was still in post-op recovery. Oh right, I didn't mention that Josh had just had aortic valve replacement surgery, and it felt kind of selfish of me to walk around saying I felt pretty crappy, because we were all pretty relieved that his surgery had gone so well, but let's be honest, it took a LOT of care giving and attention, and instead of taking a big wonderful exciting vacation, we had a big scary medical staycation, and those pretty much suck.

So in the face of all of this, I figured out (and by "I figured out" I mean that my BFF told me what I needed to do and I listened) that my new practice was going to be to do one thing every day that was in pursuit of my own pure, selfish joy. And I was going to blog about it again, because that helps me stay accountable, and because I do like sharing these practices, but I told everyone, on this blog, right from the start, that I wasn't going to worry about if the posts were long or well-written. I wasn't going to worry if I was letting anyone else down. I was going to be OK with it if the posts read more like jotted-down journal entries than tidy little essays.

And that's how this past year's practice started.

So maybe you're wondering how I'm feeling now, in September 2013?

Pretty damn good. BFF was onto something. I learned that even more important than actually experiencing joy (because with me, that is hit or miss) is actually seeking joy. Setting the intention, thinking of something I think I will likely adore, pursuing it, potentially excluding people who would take away the "pure" or the "selfish" part of the joy.

I learned that as important as it is to do new things regularly, it's also perfectly excellent to spend time doing things that reliably make me happy. Gardening, cooking, swimming in aforementioned lakes and rivers, walking, running, watching great movies, hanging out with certain friends (sorry, other friends), reading great novels, doing almost anything in Maine or Portland, OR, eating grilled haddock, watching the moon rise over water or a field, getting a great night's sleep, getting a great week's sleep, watching a Red Sox game, walking some more especially if it's someplace that smells good, making food sculptures ... wow, it turns out this list can go on and on, and I don't know that a year ago I would have known that all these things, if done with intention, could reliably bring me joy.

I'm much more balanced. I'm much much MUCH happier to do things for other people, which I truly do love doing. I'm better at saying what I want. I'm better at knowing what I want, for that matter. I'm better at saying no. I'm better at noticing that if I am in some kind of a downward spiral, I should probably take a walk or go for a swim.

I turned 50. I had a great party during which lots of friends and I performed for each other and then I served everyone lobster rolls, following a beautiful overnight (seafood included) and hike on Shelter Island. Turning 50 did not diminish my life. In fact, turning 50, combined with my daily practice has chilled me the fuck out. I moved to the best apartment I've ever had in NYC. And by apartment, I mean, the top two floors of a Victorian house, with access to the basement, driveway, and yard. I finally became a parent. I lost my job (and got much happier as a result.) I picked up plenty of freelance work (so far) mostly from old friends and colleagues, whom I love reconnecting with.  I didn't go to Hawaii, even though I promised myself I would. I am still trying to get there this year, or maybe early next year. I (along with friends) continued Soup Swap for the third straight year. I wore sunscreen every time I went outside and I did not get sunburned once, but I still got all brown and freckly. I got a bunch of iron infusions that I really hated, but they sure did make me feel better. (I'm not sure we actually addressed the cause of the problem, but as part of my chill the fuck out approach to life, I decided that feeling better was pretty damn good enough.) I co-wrote a movie that got made. (It hasn't posted publicly yet, but I promise I will link to it as soon as it does.)  I lay outside in Maine and stargazed. I bought a beautiful gigantic bed. I hung out with my family fairly often, for people who don't live very close to each other. I started writing for Jewniverse. (I've fallen off in the past weeks, and am about to start writing more for them.) I started a Modern Love column about the time the person I was together with got a head injury, but then someone published one about the person they were together with getting a head injury, and I got discouraged. So I started writing one about becoming a parent to someone who has spent a lot of their life in foster care, but then someone published one about becoming a parent to someone who has spent a lot of their life in foster care, and I got discouraged. I have more stories like this. I realized that I take too long with my good ideas.

As soon as this year came to an end, I relished the idea of not writing my daily blog post. I fear that it gets in the way of my longer form writing. (Even my shorter longer form writing.) I have a few projects that are just crying out to be completed. I am excellent at completing things for work, completing things for other people, completing things on deadline. But I am not as excellent at completing things that are completely self-generated. (I'm also not terrible at it; I'd just like to be better.) I have luxuriated in the days since I last posted, feeling free from the stress of getting my post out. At the same time, I know that a daily practice is good for me, and that the daily blogging holds me accountable and keeps me connected with a bunch of people. I have been trying to think of a daily practice that might use the blog form to advance my longer form writing. Maybe the blog is an excerpt of what else I'm writing, be it screenplay, essay, or song? Maybe I take a page from my own book and notice that this past year went well, and maybe I should just continue it? Maybe I home in on happiness, and spend a year following the advice of happiness researchers? (If I do that one, I will get the chance to address a life-long question, which is what does spirituality look like for me? I will also get to learn how to do something I know would be good for me to learn, which is to lose track of time.) I'm just not sure yet. Maybe it actually takes a chunk of time in between practices to figure out what I really need. Maybe it takes time in between practices to figure out what I actually learned from the past year.

So watch this space, and ... oh wait! I just remembered something I learned this year. I discovered that taking a little bit of time to myself every day is wonderful, but that I do even better if I take a longer bit of time each week. (Shabes, anyone?) And an even longer bit of time once a month. And that it would be truly great if I could go on that vacation to Hawaii. It also turns out to be critical that I take at least a full day away from the computer. So when I do strike up the daily blog again, I will be taking a day off each week. And if I make it to Hawaii, maybe I'll take a whole week off. In the meantime, thank you for reading.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Amazonian Butterflies Drink Turtle Tears

As a bonus for the end of the year. This is stunning to me.


The Last Ice Cream

Last day before yom kipper. Sitting at my computer again. Again. Again. Working hard, finishing a grant, proud of my work, tired butt from so many days of sitting. Finally completed. A sense of relief. I start a job application. Get partway through. Take a trip to Brooklyn Heights with Josh to deliver a bottle of Very Nice wine to someone who did us a Very Big favor. Take care of a little bit of unfinished business with a business, literally 4 minutes before they closed for the holiday. They are Jewish. They do the right thing, but only because they care what g-d thought—not because they care about us. That's OK; we take the cash. Pick up a challah on the way back. Looking for a very good ice cream. Just a little bit of very good ice cream, to transition out of the old year and into the new, sweet year. We don't manage to find good ice cream, but we stop for fine ice cream. Stand in the glorious Fall day, surrounded by brightly and florally colored 10-year-olds eating their ice cream, and say, "Yes. A big year. The last act of selfish joy of the year." But I'm not done with the day yet, and I dash back to complete the job application. I've never enjoyed a job app process as much as this one. I hope it's auspicious. I push the button. I take a shower. I make V-8 ish tomato vegetable juice in the Vitamix. We walk a block to Abigail's for pre-fast dinner with friends. Lovely. Lovely. Lovely.

I will write a summary of sorts. Probably soon. But not today.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The First Pear!

We got pears in our CSA. Josh bought delicious French sheep cheese (Brique de Brebis-Agour) at the food coop. I had a perfect early Fall snack, and said a little shehekhianu for the first pear of the season, thinking about how I'll soon need to stop jumping in lakes and rivers for the year, but will get to bundle up in sweaters, eat crisp fruit, and cook thick soups. Shekekhianu, tshuve, shekekhianu, tshuve. Newness, return, newness, return.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Water Lab at Brooklyn Bridge Park, or Science Friday

Mostly these days I am glued to my chair and computer writing a grant. It's going well. It's due Friday. Sometimes I need breaks. My friends A, C, D, and F are in town for a couple weeks. A and C are adults. D and F are 6 months and 4 years, respectively. They invited me out to play at the water lab of Brooklyn Bridge Park, which I've been meaning to go to all summer, so I grabbed the chance, and grabbed Josh, and we went on down. My phone was texting me heat advisories and telling me where the cooling centers are, but I was wearing a bathing suit and running shorts and soaking wet from a series of water sprays, streams, pumps, augers, and falls. Also, as F named it, the Heartless River.



It was super fun to get to see them, and to meet D for the first time, and to hear little bits and snatches about A and C's lives, in between holding babies and chasing floating hats.

Then I went home and got a bunch of work done, and I even declined an offer to go to a Broadway musical and sit in press seats with one of my best friends, and my favorite person to see shows with. But I have this grant to write, so I was diligent and stayed home, except for the 10 minutes I procrastinated and watched this. Don't you love that story we tell ourselves about being the most intelligent animals in the kingdoms? Yeah right.

It's not porn. It's HBO.

Kids, I'm in the thick of the grant I'm writing, but I did take a minute yesterday to watch something hilarious, and here I share it with you.

Enjoy!