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The Book of Job

 

I’ve been missing the bible study class at my synagogue for the past two months, because it’s on one of my internship days. When I come home from work, I can barely move, let alone get back in the car after dinner and make sense of the Book of Job. My brain is like a block of ice by the end of the day, and it takes hours and hours for any melting to take place in order to allow room for new information to come in.

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“You want me to go out, again?”

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Cricket refuses to go.

I like bible study at my synagogue. It’s nothing like the way we read the books of the bible in my schools growing up. In elementary school (liberal) we read each book like a story, straight through, looking for plot twists and heroes and villains. In Junior high and high school (orthodox) we read everything line by line, or word by word, with three sets of commentators arguing about the deeper meaning of each spelling oddity.

My current rabbi likes to take a literary/historical approach, giving us a sense of when each book was written, and what lessons the stories were meant to convey, and who decided to include them in the canon.

I was in class for a few of the early chapters of the book of Job, where Job is pissed off at God, and wishing for an early death, and his “friends” are self-righteously correcting his thinking and telling him to trust in God and he’ll be fine.

Bullshit. That’s what I was thinking as I sat there reading those annoying passages about how a good person would think and act and speak, accepting fate and God’s judgement and blah blah blah. I came very close to screaming at my poor rabbi for making us read this crap. Can’t they see that this man is in pain?! What kind of friends would have such a lack of compassion?!

            Okay, so I actually said this out loud. But my synagogue is full of social workers and teachers and social activists, so I was not alone in my plaint.

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“We’re with you, Mommy!”

The rabbi rolled his eyes at me (he does this a lot) and said, they’re not really his friends. It’s a literary device (with a look at me, like I should have recognized this). Job gets to criticize God and cry out and get his words published for the world to see, as long as these straw men can put up their empty counter arguments too. Why else would the rabbis have chosen to include the Book of Job, about a non-Jewish man, in the Jewish Canon, if not to offer room for anger at God? They know their people. The Jews need to complain and rail at God, and this was a way for the rabbis to give them permission.

            You have no idea how disappointing this was for me. All this time I thought that my railing against God and orthodoxy and, you know, the weather, was unique to me and a sign of my special insight and intelligence and bravery. But, no. Everyone feels this way, or at least a lot of us, and the rabbis wanted to give us a safe container to express those feelings, without getting excommunicated.

I know that the trend is to do gratitude journals and focus on the positive and say all of the “right” things. But, in my experience, we all have things to complain about and if we can get those complaints out, and find validation with our friends, we’ll have a chance to survive the stress. Whenever people complain to me about something, and then apologize for complaining, I automatically tell them there’s no reason to apologize. Complaining is one of our best tools for maintaining good mental health. Make two complaints and call me in the morning. If we just pretend that everything is okay, and swallow the pain, and spout self-righteous messages on how to be perfect, our heads will explode. Poof! Poof! Poof! Brains exploding all around me.

It’s possible that I learned this lesson about complaining from Cricket, who never lets a complaint go unbarked. Or from Butterfly, who sits down when I try to pull her leash and just waits for me to get the message, I know what I need, Mommy, now f*** off. Though I don’t think Butterfly would ever use that kind of language. I would. But she’s a much better person than I am.

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Cricket is contemplating all of her complaints, and trying to choose the one to bark next.

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Butterfly demonstrating her sit-in techniques.

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And now they are exhausted.

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The Purpose of the Sukkah

 

I don’t have a Sukkah at my apartment building; not only because the co-op board would frown on it, but because I really don’t want to. I have a lot of grumpy “I refuse” moments when it comes to religious practices. I don’t want to bow or bend during services. I don’t want to kiss the Torah scroll when it is carried past me at synagogue. I don’t want to wear a Tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, even though many liberal Jewish women now wear them, and there are beautiful ones to choose from. And I don’t want to build a Sukkah and eat and pray in it for seven or eight days.

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This is a drawing of a Sukkah that I found on google images.

I didn’t roll my eyes or make snotty comments in the Sukkah at my synagogue during services for the first day of Sukkot. I sat amidst the greenery and decorations and prayed with everyone else. But I refused to borrow the Rabbis Lulav and Etrog (palm frond and other species, plus a large citron) to say the prayer and shake the Palm frond in every direction, like the Jewish version of a rain dance. I didn’t have a good intellectually-driven reason for skipping the ritual. My internal monologue sounded something like, “I don’t wanna! You can’t make me!” One woman suggested that I didn’t want to do it because it was a man’s ritual. (There’s something to be said for that, but not in the way she thought. The lulav has a phallic quality to it, especially with the Etrog – only one bulbous shape rather than two, but still – right next to it.) Someone else said that maybe I didn’t like the magical thinking of it (eh, I tend to be a fan of magical thinking).

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Not my Lulav and Etrog.

I’m not an expert on the religious significance of Sukkot – the seven or eight days when Jews are supposed to eat and pray in a hut-like temporary shelter, with greenery overhead, instead of a roof, so that you can see the sky and the stars. There are various points of view to choose from. There’s the historical significance: to remember when we were nomads in the desert. There’s a social action interpretation: sit in the temporary shelter and think about what life is like for those without a secure home. There’s a self-awareness angle: to force us to think about the ways that we are too protected in our daily lives, and separated from nature and the world around us. It goes on and on. Just ask your nearest rabbi, who has to come up with new sermons about the holiday every year.

I remember putting together our Sukkah as a child, with my father and brother, and getting my fingers stuck between two of the flattened pipes that my father used as the frame for the temporary building. I remember having to carry full dishes of food, to and from the house late at night, while my father sat at the table in the Sukkah on our front lawn, like a king.

There is so much baggage left in my Judaism; personal, crummy, anecdotal baggage that I don’t want to have to relive constantly. It’s a funny mix. I love going to shul. I love singing the prayers, and being with my community, and studying. I love just looking at the Hebrew letters in my prayer book, as if they are my old friends returning to me. But then I hit these bumps, like the Sukkah, or candle lighting, or kissing the Torah, and I trip over the invisible rubble in my mind.

I’ve been told that, next year, our synagogue will be inviting animals into the Sukkah for a visiting day, as they’ve done in the past. There will be dogs, of course, but also snakes and gerbils and parrots and on and on. Maybe, when I can bring Cricket and Butterfly with me, I won’t find the Sukkah quite as intimidating. Or maybe Cricket will think the plastic fruit on the walls were put there just for her delectation, and I’ll have a whole new set of horrible memories of Sukkot to carry with me in the future.

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Cricket is ready to go!

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She’s training herself, to see how much she can fit into her mouth at one time.

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Butterfly is practicing her facial expressions, for after Cricket misbehaves in public.

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This is her “I’m the cute one” face.

Sacred Space

 

The Cantor at my synagogue has taken up a new topic to study this year: the technology of prayer. I can’t say that I understand what he means by that yet, but the first lesson was about sacred space, and how we arrange it. Butterfly is very often in sacred space, because she listens to the sounds around her and stands still and lets them encompass her. Cricket prefers hidey-holes as her sacred spaces. She feels safe and solemn in those small, enclosed spaces, and it allows her to rest and reemerge more whole.

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“You can’t see me!”

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“I hear everything, Mommy.”

But, I am not good at interior design. When I decorate, I basically put things where they’ll fit, no Feng Shui or harmony involved, so the idea of contemplating the use of space made me whimper with anticipated boredom. The cantor talked about how most sanctuaries, Jewish and Christian at least, are set up with the congregation in rows of seats, all facing one way, with the clergy up on a riser, and the congregation a step down, like an audience watching actors on a stage. Then he showed us pictures of Jewish synagogues that were set up differently, with the congregation on two opposing sides, or even three sides of the sanctuary, and the clergy in the middle. The idea being to focus attention on the community, rather than on the clergy, who are there to lead the congregation, rather than to be the show itself.

The Cantor’s class on sacred space happened the night before Slichot, which is a service that takes place a week before the Jewish New Year, late at night. It is a preview of all of the themes of the high holidays, with all of the atonement, forgiveness, and cleaning of old forgotten laundry intended for this time of year. But for this one service of the year, the clergy members placed themselves with us in the congregation, and some of the ideas from the previous night’s class must have stuck with me, because as soon as the Cantor began to sing from his seat among us, I felt the change in the shape of the space. I got it. He became one of us instead of separate, and he became a voice only, rather than a performer to be watched. It was a small group the night of Slichot (not a lot of people come out a week before the high holidays, at ten o’clock on a Saturday night, to pray), which meant that the Cantor didn’t need a microphone to be heard, so that his unamplified voice, so intertwined with our own, made him seem even more a part of us.

Over the summers, at our synagogue, we move from the formal sanctuary to the small sanctuary for Friday night services. It saves on electricity, especially for the air-conditioning of the sanctuary and the social hall, and it saves us from seeing all of the empty seats from the families who go away on vacation, or just don’t feel especially religious in the heat. But the side effect of moving to the smaller, less formal room, is that our whole tone changes. The clergy stands at our level, and not above. We sit closer together, instead of spread out across the room. We can hear each other sing, and breathe. The space itself, usually just an ordinary room, becomes sacred space because of how we live within it.

Maybe sacred space actually changes from person to person and moment to moment. A lot of the time, I think a space feels sacred because of the people who are in it with you. That’s why I wish that the dogs could join me at synagogue, especially when we are at our most informal and communal. Cricket could sit in my lap, or hide under my chair, and Butterfly could wander around the room and listen to all of the voices around her. That would be my ideal of a sacred space.

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That’s Cricket’s foot.

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Cricket in her sacred space.

 

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Butterfly’s not allowed in, but she makes do.

The Search For Meaning

 

At my synagogue, and in the liberal Jewish community at large, there’s been discussion lately about the search for meaning: that the previous generations came to religion for peoplehood and community, and the current generation is looking for meaning. But I don’t know what they mean by “meaning.” Alternately they use words like “spirituality” and “purpose.”

During my latest social work class, I read an article (Wong and Vinsky, 2009) about the use of the phrase spiritual-but-not-religious in social work. Its authors argue that the word spiritual, as we use it, reflects a Euro-Christian, largely Protestant mindset, just stripped of the trappings of religion. The authors of the article come from Buddhist and Jewish backgrounds, and both see spirituality, as they’ve experienced it, as based in the history and community they come from. They feel that when you try to divide spirituality from that history, it loses a lot of its power.

We want to believe that finding meaning in life is an intellectual pursuit, and a solitary pursuit, but usually we are searching because something has been missing from our relationships.

My journey to find meaning in life has been pretty literal. I needed to go through every event and person in my entire life, and find out what the hell happened. Was this person really as mean as I thought, or was I exaggerating? Was I a melodramatic kid, or was my life actually as dramatic as I thought it was? I had to work at organizing and parsing my life, so that the chaos I experienced the first time around could come into focus. I looked for paradigms and frameworks and theories, to help make all of those relationships become clear.

David Brooks recently wrote an article in the New York Times, arguing for the value of covenantal relationships among communities, and societies. With all of the globalization technology has brought, he says, many people have lost the social bonds they used to live by. People live more fragmented and isolated lives than they used to. The idea of a covenantal relationship is that it’s not a choice you make each day, it’s a choice you try to live up to each day. Brooks talks about a social fabric, which resonates for me, because my mom is a quilter, taking scraps from everywhere and sewing them together to make something new, and whole.

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Butterfly is working on a new design.

In a world where we have Tinder, and swipe-left-if-you-like-the-looks-of-him, we forget that relationships are about time and effort. It’s not that you should stick with a synagogue or religion or marriage that is wrong for you, or hurts you. It’s that you should make sure you’re not giving up on a good thing too quickly, or because it requires more input from you to keep working.

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Relationships take work? Or more treats, at the very least.

When both of the rabbis at my synagogue went to Israel for a conference two summers ago, just as the Gaza war began, many of us were holding our breath, wishing they would have stayed home. The conference was a way to give Liberal American rabbis a sense of the current tensions within Israel, between men and women, between ultra-orthodox and liberal, between Arab Israeli and Jewish Israel, and between Israeli and Palestinian. As soon as our rabbis returned, even though it was a Friday night in the middle of the summer, when we usually get twenty people at services at most, the room was filled to bursting with emotions and hugs and delayed fear – and we made meaning together. We brought our offerings into the soup of community and each took home what we could use.

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Where’s MY soup?”

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“I like soup.”

For dogs, meaning comes from their relationships too. They are dependent on their people for food and walks, yes, but it’s more than that. They depend on us for attention and structure and the basic feeling that they matter. We humans like to think of ourselves as independent, and able to take care of ourselves, but it’s a sham. Just ask Cricket. She can have a warm place to sleep, plenty of food, and frequent trips outside, but if Grandma isn’t with her, she becomes deeply unhappy. She can pull herself up to mildly unhappy, by spending extra time with me, leaning against me on the couch, following me from room to room. An outsider might even think she was fine, but that’s because they’ve never seen the absolute joy she can feel when Grandma returns, or the peace on her face when she can fall asleep on Grandma’s lap.

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“Grandma!”

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“You’re home!!!!”

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All better.

Brooks, D. (April 5th 2016). How Covenants Make Us, New York Times, Op. Ed., A27.

 

Wong, Y. & Vinsky, J. (2009) Speaking From the Margins: A Critical Reflection on the            ‘Spiritual-but-not-religious’ discourse in social work, British Journal of Social

            Work, 39, 1343-1359.

 

p.s.   Kristina Stanley, fellow author, blogger, and dog Mom, has written The Author’s Guide To Selling Books To Non-Bookstores, which is both a how-to on how to be more pro-active in selling your books, and a good friend spurring you on to more success. Her expertise in this area is hard won, and she wants to share it. We all dream of the perfect writing buddy who’s there with us for the journey and prodding us along the way, well this book is your marketing buddy, giving you advice and encouragement and letting you know you’re not alone.

https://kristinastanley.com/

 

 

 

The Shul Rat

 

I grew up going to synagogue (Shul is the Yiddish word for synagogue) every week, starting when I was four years old. Mom would drop me and my brother off at junior congregation on Saturday mornings, and then pick us up an hour later to take us to our afternoon activities (gymnastics for me and computers for him). I liked that the service for the kids was only an hour and in a small sanctuary, and that the leader of the services was kind of a kid himself, in his early twenties and doing bible trivia with us and giving out candy for correct answers. There was something special about being there with only my brother and no parents around. It gave us a chance to take ownership of our Judaism, and our synagogue, and not have it be filtered through anyone else, or through a sense of duty.

I also liked that after services we could wander around the synagogue, until Mom got there, and it was like wandering through the White House without supervision. We’d sneak around and make it feel really mysterious and dramatic. The ceilings were high, and the setting was so formal, and everyone was quiet so as not to disturb the goings on in the main sanctuary. There was also something wonderful about having a community outside of my family, and a building to explore. My extended family was not next door, or down the block; we didn’t even have big family dinners more than once or twice a year, so the synagogue was my sense of family.

I liked the older people at shul. They weren’t always warm, but they paid attention and looked me in the eye. I felt like my best self there. At school I was a good student, but got teased constantly. At dance and gymnastics classes, I was barely keeping up and certainly not a star. At home…eh. But at shul, I mattered.

When I was seven, my father started to go to Saturday morning services regularly, and not long after that, my brother and I stopped going to afternoon activities and just stayed for the rest of the adult services with our father. The main sanctuary was a big deal. There was a high ceiling and stained glass windows, and tapestries on the walls, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. I liked the smell of the prayer books, and the hard covers, and the golden type on the cover. I liked that I knew who was a regular and who was new. I liked having a set seat that I went to every time. I loved when the Torah reader, the mother of one of my brother’s good friends, would sing harmonies, and I could sing along with her, and learn from her.

 

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My synagogue was not quite this grand, but I can dream.

For special occasions, like an engagement, bags of candy were made up and thrown onto the bima, and the kids ran up to get as much candy as they could reach. I never see this at my current synagogue. Maybe it’s been outlawed because someone could get hit, or someone could miss out on candy. Better to just have a table full of candy to choose from after the service, they think. Phooey.

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Bags of candy! (not my picture)

After my father got involved in the synagogue, we started to go to Friday night services, which were a formal affair. Kids came with their parents, and the cantor sang his complex loops of song, and everyone dressed up.  After the service there was a sit down oneg (dessert and talk) in the social hall. Tables were set up in a u-shape, and tea and desserts were set out. There were always non-dairy brownies with chocolate frosting, and I always ate off the frosting and left the brownies behind. Then the rabbi would hit his teacup with his spoon to start the discussion, and the kids would rush out just in the nick of time. The rabbi resented this, and forced his own children to stay put, but the other adults seemed to understand that kids could not sit through a long and boring discussion so late at night, when there was a whole building to explore.

Sometimes we’d end up sitting in the dark, in the far reaches of the building, looking through the toys left out by the preschoolers, or telling ghost stories. Other times, we made up elaborate games that required running through the building, and hiding under benches in the small sanctuary, and even sneaking up onto the bima in the main sanctuary to see what the rabbi kept in his lectern.

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“Are there toys at shul?”

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“Or pizza?”

I would have loved to bring Cricket and Butterfly to shul with me, to run through the halls of the building and play tag and have an excuse to laugh and jump and not be so self-conscious. But I never struggled to feel “spiritual” at shul, it was just there, in the building, in the occasion, in me. I wish every kid had a place like that, where God is infused into the walls of the building and doesn’t have to be spelled out; where history is just there all around you, waiting to be discovered.

Cricket would be more interested in searching for the left over bags of candy, but then I’m pretty sure God is in the candy too.

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“Candy?”

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“Candy!”

Dancing Girls

 

One night at synagogue, a little girl sat by herself, because her mom had to leave the sanctuary to make sure her hyperactive older brother isn’t getting into trouble. Her father was nearby, but she sat alone, with a whole row of seats to herself. She did back bends and leg circles and all kinds of dance steps, holding onto the back of the chair in front of her like a ballet bar. Did she realize we could see her? It didn’t seem like a performance, but it did seem like a kind of talking, though talking mostly to herself.

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Butterfly often talks to herself.

I was torn between two responses, both of which were more about me than about her. Do I feel bad for her because she’s alone? Or do I admire her for being so un-self-conscious with her body that she’s just moving without thinking of how it impacts anyone else?

When I watch dance on TV it is always a performance, even when a ballet class is filmed, it is a performance of a class. Are there people who don’t think about what they look like when they are dancing? There is rarely a time, when I’m writing, that I don’t imagine someone reading over my shoulder as I put words down on the page, even when I’m writing for myself, in a journal, in a first draft, in a shopping list. Is there such a thing, after a certain point in our lives, as un-self-conscious behavior? And does it make a difference? Would my behavior be more interesting or profound or beautiful if I were not editing myself at every step?

I used to hum in the hallways at school – elementary school – and forget where I was, and skip along every once in a while, or hear a rhythm in my head and dance to it, until people told me that I was really weird and I should stop. Pretty much everything I did as a child was criticized, by classmates, teachers, parents, friends and brother (of course) so most of those automatic behaviors, once I became conscious of them, went away. Until there was nothing.

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“Oh Mommy, that’s a terrible story.”

I went to Friday night services as a little girl too, but I was always self-conscious about how I looked, or how I was dressed, or how I sounded. I felt like there was a video camera watching me all the time. Don’t pick your nose! Don’t do silly dance steps! Don’t skip along the road! They’ll laugh at you!

Children express so much of themselves physically. Rage is a tantrum, with kicking feet and red faces and screaming at the highest possible decibel level. Joy is dancing or running or bouncing from foot to foot. What they feel becomes movement, instead of just thoughts or words. Once we have enough words, we think we should use them and keep our bodies silent and motionless. But why?

Dogs are like children forever, because they never develop words and continue to use movement to get their feelings out. Butterfly runs full out, flying across the lawn. Cricket hops like a bunny rabbit and twists and turns in the air. They both bark, and use their feet to stomp and use their eyes to plead for mercy. Watching dogs express their emotions through movement is such a relief, for us. We feel something in our own bodies in response. Oh, that’s what happiness looks like! I can feel it!

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“I’m a bunny rabbit!”

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Joy!

 

Olive, the Morkie

 

At Cricket’s last vet visit in October, there was a dog standing on the welcome desk barking a greeting. She was small, but mighty, with silky grey and tan hair and a willingness to be petted by almost anyone. I talked to Boopy, the African Grey Parrot who had always acted as greeter in the past, but my eyes kept going back to the dog on the desk.

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“Hey, keep your eyes on the parrot. I’m still cute!”

Cricket was in a panic. She peed on the floor and refused to sit still on the scale and she did not want any dry dog treats (as usual). The dog on the desk was put on the floor and given free rein to walk wherever she pleased, and Cricket was horrified when the little dog decided to walk into one of the examining rooms of her own free will!

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“We’re going to the vet?!!!!!!!”

Eventually it was Cricket’s turn to see the doctor and when we walked into the pristine examining room, Cricket tried to hide behind my legs. I picked her up and she climbed behind my neck like a monkey. The doctor came in and I removed Cricket from my neck, very carefully, and placed her on the stainless steel table. I expected him to take some blood and give some shots; I did not expect him to gasp and shake his head and tell me that Cricket needed to have the hair pulled out of her ears. He was not pleased with me, or Cricket’s groomer, for being so lax about such an essential hygiene issue.

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Cricket thinks this is comfortable for me.

A vet tech had to come in to hold Cricket down, because I was no help, and as Cricket started to squirm on the table, the little dog came in to the exam room and walked over to my feet and sat down. I squatted to pet her and she seemed to say, I see that you are anxious, I am an anxiety dog, pet me.

Cricket peed on the exam table, and cried pitifully as the vet ripped hair out of her ears with a rounded, bent, tweezer-like device. The little dog stayed with me, and leaned against my leg. She seemed to think I was taking the whole thing as badly as Cricket, and she was probably right. I kept petting the little dog and talking to Cricket and working very hard not to slap the vet’s hands away from my baby’s ears.

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This is what Cricket looked like on the exam table.

Once the trauma was over, and Cricket was back in my arms, I got the little dog’s C.V. from the vet. She was a Maltese Yorkie mix (a “Morkie”), and her name was Olive. The vet brought her to the office sometimes to help keep the humans calm.

 

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This is not Olive, but it captures her expression. (not my picture)

Cricket’s vet is tall and awkward, and not especially warm. He’s so good at his job, in part, because he can block out the anxiety of the dog on the table and do what needs to be done to make them healthy. It’s not a lack of compassion, though every once in a while, I get the sense that his compassion for humans is limited. He looks like someone who would have black labs or German shepherds and take them hiking in the woods, but there’s Olive, the sweet, little, silky-haired girl with the bedside manner. And she’s his dog.

He seemed surprised by the idea that once or twice, at least, he’d had to retrieve Olive from the parking lot when someone “accidentally” tried to take her home with them. But I was surprised that it didn’t happen more often. I had a visceral response to Olive – maybe because we’d been through a traumatic experience together (Cricket’s cries were truly harrowing), or because she is a born comfort dog. Or maybe it’s me, because I have this dog magnet embedded in my belly and I have to fight hard against taking every dog home with me, but Olive made the magnet supercharged. And I felt the tug, and the loss, for days afterwards.

My Rabbi still has not gotten a dog. I made a blanket for his potential dog, thinking, if I knit it she will come. His daughters even threatened to choose a dog for him and just bring her home. He has his reasons for not wanting another dog yet, or ever. I just don’t know what those reasons are.

The thing is, despite everything that I love about my synagogue, there’s too much of me that doesn’t feel safe, or welcome, when I’m there. And I feel totally accepted by dogs. They don’t care how many times my writing has been rejected. They don’t care if I make funny faces or don’t wear fancy clothes. Dogs care that I show interest in who they are, and listen to them, and give them scratchies and honor their unique energies. I do the same with humans, but humans have more conflicted reactions to being seen as they are. Dogs appreciate when you read their body language and respond to them as individuals, rather than just being the same polite, charming, whatever you try to be with everyone else.

Cricket and Butterfly are too much like me to be community dogs. They need to be in their own safe place with their familiar people in order to let down their guards. But Olive the Morkie was different. She sent out calming vibes to the room, even when she was barking.

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Cricket and Butterfly are home puppies.

If Olive were the synagogue dog, she would walk through the rows of people, listening for an erratic heartbeat, or feeling for a tremble in someone’s legs, and she would try to heal what she could. She’d run up to the bima to check in with her Dad, or stand still and listen to the cantor, or cozy up to the piano when the magic noise came out, but she would be there, and that would make me feel like I belonged.