A Memorial To Diana

Our cat, Diana, died yesterday. We had her put to sleep because it was all we could do for her. It was time, and I have no doubts about it  being the right decision. She was ready. Nonetheless, it is hard.

Diana was with me for 14 years. I acquired her (or vice versa) during the weekend of July 4th, 2004. She was never what you would call a typical cat. When young, she loved to play fetch with some foam rubber  balls. As she grew older, she became more interested in seeing if she could teach the humans to fetch the balls, dropping them farther and farther from whomever was throwing the balls for her.

She wanted affection on her terms…which usually meant just as I was falling asleep in bed. She would come up to us and tap me gently with her paw to get my attention. Usually she would start by tapping on a hand or a shoulder, but if I didn’t respond to that, she would tap my nose or eyelids.

Diana was named for the Roman Goddess. She entered my household when she was 3 months old as a companion for Artemis (who was then just over a year and a half). Her name, on entry, was Tango, and she’d had a somewhat hard life. She was living in a tiny studio apartment with 2 humans and 3 or 4 other cats. In contrast, my much larger studio, with just myself and Artemis, seemed luxurious. She was tiny at the time. In the evenings, after work, I would come home and lie down on the couch to watch a baseball game. She would climb up on me, snuggle in the crack between my bicep and my chest (from the armpit to the elbow) and sleep. She was so tiny that all of her body would fit just between my armpit and elbow.

She grew, and became somewhat stand-offish. Eva and myself she could take or leave. However, there were some friends whom she allowed special privileges. Neither Eva nor myself would ever have been allowed to flip her upside down like this.

Artemis adopted her and treated her as her kitten, grooming her and taking care of her, which was a good thing, because Diana couldn’t really keep herself properly groomed. She just didn’t care that much for her appearance, though she was beautiful. For years, Artemis would groom her, and Diana would let her. Sometime, around the last 5 years or so, Diana decided she was too old to be groomed by Artemis, and she didn’t want to be bossed around by Artemis any more. As a result, I spent every more time cutting dreadlocks out of Diana’s coat.

She wasn’t always the most elegant cat. She had medium length hair, which got pretty hot at times. So she would sometimes sit in positions which were not the most elegant.

Diana was a brave cat, most of the time. Dogs didn’t phase her. In fact, for the year we had a dog (Snowball–named by a 7 year old, not us), she terrorized the dog psychologically. She would casually saunter between Snowball and her rawhide bone. Diana had no interest in the rawhide bone, but it flipped Snowball out, so Diana started to do it deliberately. It took us forever to catch

on and figure out why Snowball would suddenly start barking. Diana also loved to perch atop Snowball’s kennel and peer down into it.

Diana loved thunderstorms, and would happily watch lightening with me, no matter how loud the thunder was.

Diana did, however, have two mortal enemies: The UPS man and the doorbell. For reasons known only to Diana, the UPS man was terrifying. Not Fed Ex, not US Mail, just UPS. She could distinguish the sound of a UPS truck from half a block away. She tell the difference in sound between the UPS truck and the Fed Ex truck. And she would scurry away at her fastest speed. The doorbell was also scary. People at the door were okay, but the doorbell itself was terrifying. She was a strange cat.

Diana was not particularly motivated by food, which meant that we often struggled to get her to keep weight on. Note, here, Diana deigning to eat, if it doesn’t inconvenience her too much. She didn’t have any foods she particularly loved, and tended to prefer dry food to wet food.

Chewing on plastic was always a favorite pastime. She loved the heavy-weight plastics, like those found in ziplock baggies, but she was flexible. Any plastic bag we left hanging around she would be delighted to pattern with her teeth marks.

Diana had a close relationship with Artemis for most of her life. They would hang together, sleep together. They were usually perfectly happy hanging out together, though sometimes Diana did create a bit of trouble. She would at times hunt Artemis’ tail, or do other things to try to provoke her sister (not biological sister, but definitely how I thought of them).

Diana love to hide in small spaces. She would find a favorite hiding place, and use it for all it was worth. Whenever I moved, Diana would find a spot in the new house and stay there, sometimes for days. Usually it was a spot I just couldn’t find.

Diana was a wonderful cat. We will miss her terribly. She has been a part of my life for almost all of my adult life. I’m not sure what life will be like without her. I will miss her. I’m pretty sure Artemis misses her. I know Eva misses her.

General Rabbinic spirituality

Length of Days

I’ve been thinking about the length of days in a lot of contexts recently. Whether it’s the length of daylight, the amount I can get done in a day, or the number of days allotted us before death, I seem to be encountering the issues.

I was driving home from Salem on Friday night last week, watching the last light disappear from the sky. It finally became dark enough that I couldn’t really tell that the sky was at all illumined by the sun at 10:10 PM. I came out of CubeSpace yesterday after closing, at 9:05 PM, and it was still really light. I haven’t opened CubeSpace in the dark in over a month. There is just tons more light in the day than there used to be. Yay, Light!
Somehow, the longer days aren’t resulting in me being able to achieve radically more. The number of hours in a day, and more importantly, the number of hours in a days when I can work effectively, seems to be about the same. Which is frustrating. I am getting a little more knitting done (I just finished the second sock of a pair that I’ve made for myself–pictures to follow), but in terms of real work, not as much is getting done as I would really like. So I’m going to try to step up the pace a little over the course of June, because over July and August, I suspect it will be more difficult to get work done, what with people being on vacation and all.

Finally, I’ve been doing a lot of funeral-type work this week. A funeral yesterday, memorial prayers tomorrow. Death has this way of focusing one on what really matters. Is it the day-to-day, or the big picture issues that matter more. Does it really matter if I get that phone call made, or should I spend a little more time with family? Unfortunately, in the longer-term, making the phone call may enable more time to be spent with family. Somehow, the simple comparisons never are.

I am increasingly aware of the fact that I am again. I was keeping track of a baseball game via the internet the other day, and I realized that the only player on the field who was my age or older was one of the pitcher…and that he was a knuckleballer (you can throw a knuckleball into your 50s–it’s a pitch that takes much more skill than athletic strength or stamina). Yet one more marker of my aging.

Yet as I age, I also feel myself becoming more competent and comfortable in who I am. My body may not be what it was when I was 25, but I’m happier with who I am.

Rabbinic spirituality

Funeral for a Good Man

After last week’s sadness over the death of someone about to be 22, it’s almost a relief to be doing a funeral today for a 53 year old man. Most of the time, 53 seems very young. This week, a little less so.

I often find that I am doing funerals for someone I didn’t know. Most of the time, I have a little sadness of never having gotten to know this person who is being described to me so lovingly. Occasionally, I’m relieved never to have met a person who sounds like they were particularly difficult. And sometimes, I truly feel a loss of not having know the deceased. Today’s funeral is one of those. He would a truly good man, who made a difference in the world. He used a position as general manager to give people chances, to help them make good lives for themselves. He was a man almost out of another era, who believed in loyalty and integrity.

At times like this, I feel the loss a little more viscerally. A little more painfully, and a little more personally.

The eulogy is easier to write, because there is so much that is wonderful to say, but harder to deliver, because the sense of loss to the world is so palpable. Right now, I am between the writing and the delivery.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Funerals are among the most meaningful work I do. Usually not the easiest. Definitely not the most fun. But deeply meaningful and fulfilling. I always feel privileged to be let into a families feelings for there beloved who has departed. I am humbled to be allowed to speak the depth of their feelings for someone so important, though I did not know him. And I pray that I may be adequate to their trust.

Rabbinic spirituality

A Sad Rabbi

Sometimes, I’m running hard enough that I don’t really have time to emotionally process what I’m doing. This week has been like that.

There was a very difficult death in the community this week. Someone much too young. An unexpected death. Someone about to graduate from college and begin his life.

I knew it was a terrible tragedy, but it wasn’t until this morning, when I had my first opportunity to sit and knit in three days, that I really felt it. I’d felt his mother’s pain, and that of people who knew him, but until this morning, hadn’t really felt any of my own pain.

My pain in nothing compared to those who knew him well, those who loved him. But I can’t ignore it either.

At times like these, I begin to feel like I’m dwelling in the sad section of the universe: the part which is filled with pain, tears, anguish. It’s far removed from the neighborhood where weddings take place, filled with joy and laughter and possibilities. Love is constant in both areas, but in one it brings joy, and in the other sadness.

My role, as rabbi, is at least as important in the sad parts of life. Probably more so. It is fulfilling to be of service. But it is hard. And sometimes, some days, I wonder how I’ll do it. How will I be present the next time I meet with a family who have just lost a loved one. But then, when I do, I’m not meeting with “a family who have just lost a loved one,” but rather, I’m meeting with a specific family, mourning a specific loss. And somehow that specificity, the uniqueness of that family’s loss will draw me into their lives. And I will be their rabbi.

I am a rabbi to be there for people in the hard times as well as the good. The hard times are full of spiritual growth and meaning. But they also take their toll.

Rabbinic spirituality

A Whirlwind Tour Through Life

There are weeks when my attention is more on CubeSpace, and there are weeks when my attention is more on the congregation (there are also weeks when my focus is more on knitting, but we won’t talk about that now). This is very much a “rabbinic week.” I am simultaneously preparing for the death of a congregant, a bar mitzvah and a wedding (the wedding isn’t actually members of the congregation, but definitely falls into the category of rabbinic work).

Moving between these three lifecycle events is a bit of a challenge. They, needless to say (and yet I’m going to say it anyway), have three very different moods, and the rabbinic role is different in all three. For a family awaiting a death, the rabbi is present to offer solace and comfort. For boys becoming bar mitzvah (it would also be true for girls, but in this case it happens to be boys), my role is more that of coach and teacher. For a couple about to be married, I serve as counselor and master of ceremonies, helping ensure that the wedding comes off as they want it to and that they are able to be focused on what matters when the day arrives.

Each of these three events are enormously important occasions in the history of their respective families. These are, literally, once in a lifetime events. It is vital that I bring an awareness of that to my conversations with families. At the same time, part of my role is to be able to say, “what you are feeling is normal,” based on the fact that I am in close contact with each of these events several times a year. I attend 5 – 10 weddings a year. Perhaps half as many funerals, and a far more variable number of bar or bat mitzvah celebrations. My role at these events is not that of the mourner, or the bride or groom, nor the young adult entering the Jewish community, but to be deeply empathetic with those people, and to lead them through it.

Which brings me back to this week. Trying to shift gears so quickly between joy and sadness is confusing. The one constant between events is that they are stressful. But I feel like I’m beginning to experience some emotional disjuntion. Not necessarily in a bad way, but in a way that highlights the emotions of each events.

Being present at lifecyle events is one of the reasons I became a rabbi. It is one of the most rewarding parts of what I do. When multiple events coincide, as they have this week, the rewards are highlighted, but I’m also much more aware of the potential for becoming emotionally drained. I am not yet running on empty. I cannot imagine officiating at a funeral without grieving with the family, or a wedding without celebrating. The real question is, what do I look like the day after. I guess we’ll find out next week.

WorkPlace Spirituality

Colliding Worlds

I am pursuing two very different careers simultaneously. I am working both as a congregational rabbi, and as the owner of a business that provides workspace and community for people who would otherwise work from home. Most of the time, these two activities seem to blend well. After all, both are about creating and sustaining community. Some days, the combination creates a distinct sense of disjunction in my life.

Yesterday evening, I went from figuring out how to set up a LCD projector to display Game 1 of the World Series to rushing out the door and going to the hospital in Salem to be with a congregant and family in the final hours of his life. At one moment, I was concentrating on how to make the connections between a VCR which I was using as a tuner, an LCD projector and a pair of computer speakers which were powered through a USB port, and the next I was on my way out the door and heading for the hospital as quickly as I could.

I know there are those who would regard sitting with the dying as one of those duties that unfortunately comes with being a rabbi. Although I find it to be emotionally painful and hard, it is also one of the reasons I became a rabbi: to be with people in times of extremity, to be able to help them through the hard times, just as I help them to celebrate and sanctify the good times. Death is one of the places where a rabbi can make a difference, offer some comfort. I find it taxing, but fulfilling.

Yet I cannot help but be struck by the contrast between that and what I do with the rest of the day yesterday. Other things I did yesterday included: showing people around CubeSpace and talking about how CubeSpace might solve some of their problems; restarting the server to install updates; setting up a room for a meeting; and a variety of other mundane tasks that make up the normal workday. For most of the people I interacted with yesterday, the day will be just another day in their lives. A month from now, they will be unable to distinguish it and remember much about it. For the family in the hospital, and for myself, yesterday will hold a unique place, sacred and sad. It will not drop into obscurity in the stream of time, but rather will be one of those days which remains distinct as the years pass on.

There is nothing new noting the dichotomy between everyday life and death; there is no unique insight in noting that life goes on for all the rest of the world, even as an individual dies and life is brutally interrupted for the family and friend. Nonetheless, in my dual roles I feel like I have a somewhat unique perspective, drifting between a place of death and mourning and an office environment where it feels oddly inappropriate to speak of anything quite as personal as death.

I try to bring my whole self to both of my careers. In general, I feel like I succeed. People at CubeSpace know (for the most part), that I am a rabbi. People at the congregation know that I own a workspace. I feel like I am fundamentally the same person in both places: I feel like I treat people similarly regardless of which hat I am wearing. Yet very occasionally, the two halves of my life feel disjointed, and cannot be made to reconcile. And when that happens, I seek to make meaning out of this disjunction by writing about it and sharing it.  Thank you for being willing to share this with me.