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My Nephew is Going to Israel

 

My nephew is going to Israel for his gap year between high school and college. It has become de rigeur for kids from orthodox Jewish schools to spend a gap year in a yeshiva or seminary (for girls) in Jerusalem, immersing themselves in Jewish studies, Hebrew language, and maybe even the political realities of the Middle East. I wouldn’t want to spend a year in Israel, though, even now. I’m kind of addicted to familiar things. I could manage a week away, maybe ten days, tops. Though even that would strain Cricket’s anxiety disorder to the breaking point. Mine too. I’m impressed by all of these eighteen and nineteen year old kids who have the self-confidence to go to another country for a whole school year.

And the state of peace in Israel is always shaky; flair ups can come at any time. The recent violence at the holy sites could be forgotten by the time my nephew even gets on the plane, or it could grow into a conflagration. Many parents will send their kids to Israel during wars or uprisings. I don’t know why they feel so confident that their children will be safe, but they do.

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This is how I’d feel about it.

 

My nephew probably won’t be visiting a kibbutz, because there aren’t many left. Israel is a tech crazy country with some of the best medical research facilities in the world; it’s not a country of people living on collective farms, picking oranges, anymore. Will the boys get to meet the Palestinians who live on the other side of Jerusalem? Or visit the Knesset (the parliament) to hear arguments from politicians from the many different sides? Or will they spend all of their time studying Talmud and meeting other Jews? Maybe even only other American teens like the ones they grew up with, instead of the Russian or Ethiopian or French or Indian Jews who have found their home in Israel.

It took me a long time to even dip my toe into the waters of modern Israeli history, and I still can’t say that I fully understand the conflicts and points of view of everyone involved. I know that my support for Israel is tribal rather than logical, but then, I think that’s probably true of everyone, on either side.

I have seen and heard a lot of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric recently, and some of it goes over the line into the anti-Semitic language used during the Holocaust. But I have also heard prejudiced arguments and comments from some Jews that are not only unconvincing but disturbingly racist in nature. Smarter and better informed people than me will have to figure it all out and find the compromises that will work. I don’t have answers, or ease, on this issue.

But what I do have is a deep understanding of the need to live somewhere surrounded by people who are like you. I grew up going to Jewish schools where we could each be who we were – the athlete, the musician, the artist, the brain, the druggy – and not be defined by everyone around us as “the Jew.”

I am an American Jew, though. America is my country, my home. This is where my family is, where my dogs are, living and dead. It would be nice to visit Israel, though, and see how it feels to be one among many, and no longer in a minority, surrounded by my people’s history, deep in the ground under my feet.

Unfortunately for me, the Jewish state is in the Middle East, in the desert, where it is too freaking hot. Maybe if the Jewish state were somewhere like Vancouver, I’d be more eager to go. I wonder how Cricket would take to traveling in a plastic crate under my feet.

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I mean, she has fit herself into smaller places.

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When she was a puppy.

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Physical Exhaustion

 

The level of exhaustion I can reach is hard to explain to people. Sometimes I seem fine. I can dress up and go out into the world and function well. The adrenaline gets me through, but then I go home and collapse, and I can barely imagine doing it all again, until I do. But each time, the exhaustion gets worse and the recovery time takes longer. Other people my age have three, four, even five times the schedule I have, and they would look at my life and think I was the luckiest person in the world, with so much downtime. I know that people, even those close to me, believe that I am overstating the problem, and that when I have to work five days a week I will be able to do it. But I’m really scared that they are wrong.

The other day, I saw a performance of a tap dancing troupe called The Red Hot Mamas, made up of women from age 59 to 87, and instead of being inspired, I felt like a loser. I would fall on my head if I tried one of the dance routines they were doing, with such obvious energy and enthusiasm. I used to love my tap classes (when I was four years old), and the sound of the taps when they hit the hard floor. None of these women were breathing hard or struggling for balance, but I would have fallen off the stage in the middle of my first high kick.

I feel guilty for being unwell, without even a diagnosis to name what’s wrong with me. I feel like I’m being lazy, and melodramatic, and should just get up off my ass and join a tap dance group. And I don’t really understand why I can’t.

I am jealous of Cricket’s great joy in running, and sniffing, and playing, as if every trip outside is her first. And I am in awe of Butterfly’s stubbornness. When she thinks a task is beyond her abilities, or wishes, she just stops. She doesn’t go along just because I want her to. She says, no, I’m tired, I’ll wait for you here. When it’s raining, she says, I don’t need to walk all the way down the block just because that’s what Cricket wants to do. I’ll stand here under the awning.

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“Nope, Mommy. You can’t make me do anything.”

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“Superpuppy!!!!!”

I wish I could do what the dogs do and nap between every activity. But when I take a nap, I wake up disoriented and still exhausted, and they wake up ready for adventure, or at least for snacks. Cricket generously tries to share her enthusiasm with me, however misguided her methods may be (scratching my face and blocking my airway are not pleasant ways to wake me up, Cricket).

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“It could be worse, Mommy. I could wake you up with my gardening toys.”

The fact is, the adrenaline that gets me through the day takes forever to leave my system, and until then I feel exhausted and hyper all at once, and constantly afraid that I won’t get my work done in time. I barely finish my school work for one week, when I’m already two days behind for the next week’s assignments. Unfortunately, working my fingers to the bone with typing, and note-taking, and revising, does not burn many calories. This is very disappointing.

I need a break. I want to read a novel. Heck, I want to write a novel. I want to bake, or go food shopping without a list. But there are all of these deadlines to meet, and expectations and obligations to live up to. I feel like someone has pushed me off a cliff, thinking I would fly, but all I can do is fall. And those crash landings really hurt.

Maybe what I need to do is to follow the dogs’ lead and cover my body with a coat of fluff, so at least the landings would be a little bit softer. That could work, or I could just cover myself with my cozy winter blanket and take a long nap with the puppies by my side, and hope that when I wake up, I’ll start to feel better.

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“Sleep well, Mommy.”

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Fingers and paws crossed.

The Research Class

 

The administration at my online Social Work program decided to change the hosting format, right before the new school year began. The previous format for our classes was a bit stodgy, yes, but you could find everything you needed. The new format is not just new to the students, but also new to the teachers, and there hasn’t been any time to work through the bugs and figure out how to manage the new layout. So it’s a mess.

And maybe that would have been okay, if I were taking a less stressful class to start the semester, but I’m in Research One, and each assignment involves group collaboration and has to be finished in less than a week. I have bad memories of working in groups in high school and college, and having to either do all of the work myself, or spend all of my time gently, nicely, pushing my classmates to do their share of the work, or editing their attempts before the rapidly looming deadline. Some people think that ten o’clock the night before it’s due is the perfect time to start working on a project. I don’t. I really, really, really, don’t.

I want to use my insight and imagination and empathy and creativity, and none of those are allowed for a research class. It’s all about formatting and organizing other people’s work. I feel like a marathon runner forced to do finger exercises for hours on end, in a seated position. Every once in a while I may be allowed to move my whole hand, but rarely.

I want to scream. I want to throw things. I resent that it feels like the online faculty at my school is running a secret experiment on us – testing the impact of unpredictable stressors on student work quality and psychological wellbeing (I wrote that to my teacher in an email, and he seemed to take me seriously instead of getting that I was, sort of, joking).

My anxiety about the Research class and the new online format is making me obsessive. I’m overworking and under-coping. I feel a desperate need to control everything that feels chaotic to me. I can’t find restful or fun books to read. I can’t find anything decent to watch on TV. My mind just keeps filling the gaps with more work.

I need to take a nap and rest and recover and focus on other things, but my brain keeps telling me to re-read research articles, and do more searches, and try more databases, and do the whole group assignment by myself. But I know myself, even if I managed all of that, I’d just start obsessing about the reading and possible assignments for next week. It would never end.

It’s frustrating to have to see all of my flaws so clearly – my impatience, and rigidity, my temper, and need for control. I don’t want to know that there is so much still to fix.

For relief, I’ve been watching for the feral cats in the yard, and communing with them as much as they will allow. Hershey actually let me within five feet of her the other night, but then she scooted under the maintenance shed (her palatial estate). I also had a chance meeting with the neighbor-dogs, George and Zoe, and it made me unreasonably happy for a few minutes. Zoe barked a lot, and Cricket stared at her, in silence, as if this behavior, this barking at nothing, was completely alien to her. Then George clapped his front paws at me and asked for pats and a hug, and I willingly obliged. Zoe stood in her perpetual ballet first position and allowed me to pet her too. I even got to walk with the baby next door – or with his nanny, who was holding him as he slept – for a few minutes, and breathe in the utter, unspeakable cuteness of him.

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Hershey, hiding out.

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“Are you taking my picture again?!”

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Zoe and George

But mostly I work. I read and summarize and research, and I attempt to keep my emails to my fellow group members polite and reasonable. I try to follow the conflicting instructions from the teacher, and the disorganized new formatting, but all I want is for the class to be over, and for all of this self-knowledge and hitting-my-limits to end.

Cricket is doing her best to distract me by barking at every moving thing, and Butterfly has doubled up her requests for scratchy sessions (for my sake, of course), but it’s not enough to calm me down. Clearly, I don’t have enough dogs.

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“I’m doing this for you, Mommy.”

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“I work so hard to protect you, Mommy, and you never adequately appreciate my efforts.”

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“We do not need another dog, thank you very much.”

 

 

The End of the First Year

 

I finished my first year of graduate school in social work, but I still feel anxious, as if there’s some assignment I forgot to do. I did not get all A’s this year, for the first time in forever, and that’s been hard to accept. I did all of the assigned work, and more, but there was some essential disjunct between the work required of me and the way my mind works. I just felt at odds with it all year, but not in a self-righteous or confident way, more like, every once in a while they started speaking in a language I couldn’t understand, and I felt like a moron.

It’s not just a question of jargon, where, once I learned what they meant by certain words, I could catch up. It was something in the way they wanted me to think that just didn’t click for me, and I’m scared that this gulf will remain throughout the next two and a half years of school, and then out into the professional world, and I will never feel quite right in this profession.

I don’t know if the dogs noticed that I was in school this year, because most of the work was done online. They can’t tell the difference between schoolwork and the writing I actually want to do. Or if they can, they haven’t told me. The real difficulty, for them, will come in August when I start going to my internship two or three days a week, and I’m not home for their midday walk. Hopefully, Grandma will be home for lunch and they will not notice the difference, but naptime may be delayed and that will, of course, be horrifying.

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“Delayed?”

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“Seriously?”

Now that I’m free to return to my own writing for the summer, though, it feels like I’m jumping off a cliff. Fiction is unfamiliar terrain again, after being immersed in academic writing all year. I’ve heard people call it code switching, when you talk (or write) differently depending on your audience, but I don’t transition easily, and part of me is afraid that if I let myself fall back into fiction this summer, I’ll have to relearn a whole year’s worth of tropes when school starts again in August.

It doesn’t help that I’ve been collecting so many rejections for my writing over the past few years. The rejections, and the reality they laid bare, that my writing could not be relied on as my career, is what led me to social work school in the first place. But being in school feels like I’m validating those rejections, and saying that I never was that good to begin with. And I’m afraid that if I write something I’m proud of, I’ll want to send it out, to literary magazines and agents, and it will be the same horror all over again. I hate that the publishing industry has gotten me so defeated that I’m afraid to write any more novels. I’m angry that I can’t see a way forward, and to protect myself I seem to have shut myself down.

I’ve been working on blog posts, of course, and articles for my synagogue newsletter, which have given me an opportunity to practice my interviewing and research skills, and to get to know people better and offer something to my community. But I want to write novels. I want to be a writer, not a social worker, not a reporter, not a do-gooder. I want to tell MY stories. The gulf, between my social worker self and my writer self, is getting wider instead of smaller, and my resentment at becoming a social worker is growing.

I need to find a way to survive the process of becoming a social worker, because I really do want to help people; I want to hear their stories and find ways to relieve their anxiety and confusion, at least a little bit. I want being a social worker to develop into something (almost) as satisfying as being a dog mom. I mean, sure, I get annoyed when the girls wake me up early from a nap, or bark incessantly and refuse to tell me why, but mostly I feel shaped and calmed by taking care of them. It’s a set of rituals and a relationship that I rarely take for granted, and I rely on them heavily for my sense of self, and structure, and love.

 

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The oxytocin rush alone is staggering.

 

Christmas Movies

 

I have been gobbling down Christmas movies for the past few weeks. Partly because my regular TV shows are on hiatus, but also because the world is so upsetting and dark lately that a little true-love-wins-out is necessary.

I’m exhausted. I can’t quite tell if it’s about the political noise, or the news, or the end of my first semester in social work graduate school, or the endless disappointment of getting my writing rejected that’s wiping me out. I just feel like my motivation tank is getting close to zero, and these movies are keeping me from scraping the bottom.

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Exhausted puppies.

Sugar helps too. I did my own Chanukah Cookie Jamboree, but I only got to four types of cookies before I ran out of space in the freezer. There were the triple chocolate cookies, chocolate chip with Macadamia nuts, almond thumbprints with lemon curd filling, and fruitcake cookies (surprisingly yummy!). I gave away a lot of cookies, but there were enough left over to help smooth out some of the anxiety.

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Cricket likes to bake.

I didn’t realize that taking one graduate class at a time, online, would wear me out so completely. I thought I’d have energy left over to get my own writing done, but I’ve just barely been able to keep up with the blog this semester, let alone work on the other ten projects piled on my night table.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the school work, for the most part. I like the feeling that I’m really starting to understand something about this country I live in, and how social policy actually works, and more often doesn’t work. I feel more grounded because of the reading I’ve done on social justice. I feel like I understand the news better, and understand more of the history that shapes today’s issues.

But instead of feeling inspired and energized, I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. And then I eat a cookie and watch one of these Christmas movies, which are more about love and family and magic and hope than they are about religion, and I feel a tiny bit better.

Mayim Bialik (a more Jewish girl you could not find) was in a Christmas movie this year. They explained away her very Jewish looks by making her mother Jewish and her father Christian, so she went to Hebrew school but the family still celebrates Christmas every year. Her movie was one of my favorites, because there was only a little bit of magic, in the form of a Santa Clause-esque man who helped her find her plane ticket and nudged her in the right direction. She wasn’t the perfect, blond, success story, she was just an interesting, hardworking, grumpy woman with bad taste in men. And she got a happy ending. Falling in love didn’t land her a great job, or a good friend, or a loving family, because she already had those things. Falling in love only brought her love.

I’ve watched almost all of the Christmas movies, no matter how silly, and there seem to be more than ever this year, with different channels competing to flood the air waves with hard luck stories and plucky heroines. I try not to get too angry about how easily the undiscovered writer/artist/musician finds success before Christmas, and it helps that a lot of these movies are made in Canada and have lots of Canadian accents to cut through the bitterness.

My favorite message in these movies is to slow down and open your eyes to what you already have. Listen to the music. Play in the snow. Laugh with a friend. That’s where the meaning of life has been hiding all along. It’s simplistic, yes, but it’s still true. When I wake up to Cricket’s doggy breath in my face, or watch Butterfly bring her kibble into the living room so she won’t have to eat alone, I feel so much better. These are the moments that save me.

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Cricket’s doggy breath. Can you smell it?

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“Hey Mommy, I have doggy breath too!”

Though I wouldn’t mind if Santa, or the Jewish equivalent, would perform some magic for me this winter and nudge me in the right direction to find a publisher; validation that a lifetime of work really can pay off would be a nice way to start the New Year. And more cookies.