May It Be My Worst Problem

I used to get very ordinary haircuts. I’d go to the closest barber about once every two or three months, and get a number 4 buzzcut right over the top. No frills. But then I started dating, and more than one of my girlfriends told me that they liked my hair and wished I would stop shearing it all off. And if a girl who liked spending time with me wanted more of my hair, who was I to say no. I told her I’d go to whichever salon she recommended. She picked a place, and I made a reservation for a week later. The price was a bit steep, but anything to make her happy, right?

I got there at 7 PM, and entered a room made for men. Animal skin throw rugs, rich, plush leather chairs, mounted trophy heads, a magazine rack holding everything from Car and Driver to Playboy, a beer tap, large selection of scotches, and, of course, four beautiful women doing the styling. It was a stunningly chuckleworthy caricature to masculinity. I suspect she chose it because she thought it would appeal to me. It did, but more to my sense of irony. As soon as I walked in, the receptionist greeted me, asked to take my jacket, and offered me a drink. I could get used to this.

I’m pretty introverted by nature. It may not seem like it to people who know me online, mainly because of how much I talk when they finally meet me in real life, but my close friends know that I don’t really do well with new people. It takes effort to get me to talk to you, because even if you do walk over to me and say hi, I’ll just smile and politely say hi back, and then go back to staring at a fixed point on the wall to your left, until you decide to say something else. I was still getting used to the amenities included in the $100 haircut experience, but what I wasn’t ready for, or comfortable with, was the conversation that seemed to be included.

The other men seemed to enjoy it just fine. Their stylists would play to their fancies, asking them about work, and vacations, and cars, and bars, and girls, and they’d go on and on, goaded forward by the stylists who were committed to making the haircut as enjoyable an experience as possible. And what more enjoyment can a man have, really, than having his vanities indulged by a beautiful woman. For me, it was a whole lot more uncomfortable, though. I had nothing in common with those men. I didn’t have apartments in other cities, or the pocket change necessary to fly off to wherever whenever I felt like it. More to the point, I really didn’t like talking. The conversations were like pulling teeth; she’d ask me some perfunctory questions about work, or travel, I’d give her short, clipped answers, and we’d fall into silence, until it was time to get rinsed.

After about six months of this, we finally developed some kind of rapport. The conversation was a little easier, and I felt more comfortable about it. When she asked about my life, I’d actually tell her about it. But something funny started happening. Somehow, right before my monthly haircuts, something unfortunate would happen to me, or several unfortunate somethings would happen to me, and I’d be compelled to tell her about it when she asked. One month my car was wrecked, another it was towed and I had to spend 6 hours getting it out of the tow pound, next month I’d broken up with someone I was dating, and on it would go, one long series of unfortunate events. And even though I told her these stories with a smile, laughing them off like they were insignificant, they bothered her, to the point where she (politely) asked me to stop talking about them, and changed the subject. I think the fact that I was laughing about things that to her were so plainly terrible made it even worse; how twisted does someone have to be, or how bad must things have been, to make someone laugh at things that make other people cry.

This month was going to be different, though. I was actually looking forward to my haircut so I could tell her about the wonderful time I’d had with my friends over the recent holidays. It really was fantastic. Atlanta for Rosh Hashana, Crown Heights for Yom Kippur, Boro Park, Canarsie, and Flatbush for Sukkos, including trips with friends for Chol hamoed. It was honestly the best time I’ve ever had on Yom tov. And I was so looking forward to finally having some good news for her, maybe make her smile instead of rolling her eyes. And then everything went pear shaped.

It started with the laundromat. I brought all of my clothing in on Erev Sukkos, but the computers were down. One of the workers handed me a slip of paper, told me to write down my name, phone number and address, and come back in a week for the clothing. When I came back, it was all gone. All of it. I even went behind the counter and sifted through all of the laundry myself. Hundreds of dollars’ worth of clothing, gone. Which was made even worse by the fact that because of Yom Tov, I haven’t worked a proper week this month, and barely had enough to pay my rent, let alone my credit cards. As if that weren’t enough, a student of mine crashed my car during a driving lesson last Friday, causing $1600 worth of damage to my car, and another $800 to the other guy. My car is going to be in the shop for a week, during which time I won’t be able to work.

I was able to borrow a coworker’s car for the weekend to drive myself back home, and on the way I decided to check in on the laundromat to see if they had, by some miracle, found my clothing. They hadn’t, and rather than just give me the claims form to fill out, had me stand there for a half hour while they turned the place upside-down looking for a bag that was clearly not there, all in the hope that they could avoid having another claim from their store logged with the main corporate offices. Eventually everyone gave up, and I filled out a claims form for the lost laundry. As I was walking back to the parking lot, I dropped my car keys over a drain.

As I saw them fall, I almost didn’t care anymore. Of course this would happen to me. Of course. And right then. A perfect end to a perfect week. But then they bounced. The key had hit a piece of the latticework over the drain, and bounced off onto the pavement. And as I bent to pick it up, I couldn’t control myself, and burst out laughing. Some guy across the lot thought I was crackers, but it was the most incredible thing. For five minutes I couldn’t stop, and all that was going through my head was “My God, imagine how much worse it could have been.”

It really got me thinking about everything in my life, all of the abuse, all of the pain, all of the unfortunate things I’ve been made to experience. I’ve spent the past 6 years blogging about everything that’s gone wrong, about the anger I’ve felt toward God, the constant adversity I’ve managed to overcome, but it hit me in that moment, how little time I spend being thankful and appreciative for everything that has gone right in my life, how much worse it could have been but for God’s intervention. And I couldn’t stop laughing because all of that complaining I do, whether or not it’s justified, in that moment seemed so ridiculous, because the good is right there in front of me, constantly, and all I need to do, really, is open my eyes and see it. It felt like my whole life, everything I’ve ever experienced, had to happen to set the stage for that moment when I’d see my keys fall toward that drain, and they would bounce away onto the pavement.

I’ve had a very difficult life. But I’ve also had a very blessed life. I’ve been blessed with the best friends on the planet, a community of people whom I consider my new family, incredibly charitable people who opened their hearts and pockets when I had nothing, the most amazing and supportive readers on the internet (seriously, my comments section is wonderful). I’ve been blessed with health, and a job that (usually) pays the bills. I have a landlady that most tenants would kill for, a boss who is nice to a fault, coworkers who somehow manage to put up with me, and clients who pay on time. So what if things go wrong every now and again. What’s a night at the tow pound in the larger scheme of things. Dented cars can be fixed, clothing replaced, debts deferred, and wounds healed. May they be my worst problems. I have everything I need. And hey, at least my keys didn’t fall down the drain.

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T…Th…Thank…Thank you God…?

Author’s note: I use language in this post which some people might find offensive, especially in relation to prayer and God. I use that language because it accurately represents the situation. Those are words I have actually spoken aloud to God when I’ve been angry. I’m sorry if I offend people, but I felt this piece would be inaccurate if I censored it. 

I find prayer very difficult. I’m not alone in that. Many of my friends find it very hard to pick up a siddur (prayer book) and say the words. Some feel no connection to it; others are angry with God and can’t bring themselves to pray to a being about whom they feel so conflicted. For me it’s something else. It’s not that I don’t believe in prayer or find it unhelpful; it’s not that I have no connection to the idea of prayer, or that I don’t understand the prayers themselves. For me the problem is that the words codified by our Sages weren’t written for me. I don’t feel that they’re specific enough. True, most of the standard prayer service can be adapted to any specific emotion or thought, but getting to the point where I can connect the two is very difficult for me.

I pray every day, the standard stuff from the siddur, but all I’m really doing is mouthing words. I don’t feel more connected to God when I’m finished. I feel as though I have fulfilled my obligation, allowing me to get on with my day until my next God-related obligation. The times I’ve felt most connected is when the words come from me, when I am their author, and they are crafted for a specific situation, emotion, feeling, need, or expression. During Neilah (closing prayer service) on Yom Kippur, when I break down and cry like a child begging his parents for something, begging for forgiveness for my transgressions—the words I speak that elicit those tears aren’t written in my machzor (prayer book). I am talking straight to God, and it is the only time I feel God is actually listening to me. When I’m finished, I feel the way I imagine that begging child would when he thinks he may just get his way. It’s not easy asking for forgiveness, admitting wrongdoing, but one day a year, we are told that if sincere, our repentance will be accepted, and our prayers will be answered. That makes it somewhat easier.

Then there are the times when I’m angry, furious, hurt, frustrated, and feeling betrayed by God. These usually occur after when friends of mine are suffering. They are spontaneous and visceral. I remember driving down the BQE a day after spending the night with a friend of mine while she endured a rape kit, and suddenly bursting into tears, shouting at the heavens, asking God why the fuck He saw fit to torture the people I love. I remember the words of Neilah:

יהי רצון מלפניך שומע קול בכיות שתשים דמעותינו בנאדך להיות ותצילנו מכל גזרות אכזריות כי לך לבד עינינו תלויות

(May it be Your will before You, who hears the sound of weeping, that You place our tears in Your flask to stay, and that You rescue us from all cruel decrees, for to You alone to our eyes look.)

 It’s the basis for that Mordechai Ben David song, Daddy Dear. In it, a son asks his father if it’s true that when we cry, God cries along with us, collects those tears in His cup, and that when that cup finally fills, the Redemption will come. The father tells his son that it is true. “One more question,” asks the son, “Just how deep is this cup/ tell me when will it fill/ don’t you think it is time/ that the sun forever shine.”

 It’s the question I ask God every time I find myself at a loss to explain why people I love suffer. The words come easy, as do the tears. By far this is the easiest form of prayer for me, when I’m angry at God and confused by His judgment.

 The hardest form of prayer for me, is thanking God for everything He’s done for me. Sure, there’s Pesukei D’zimra and Hallel (prayers of praise), but years of rote make that equivalent to the half mumbled thank-you a child gives his mother before running out the door with a Popsicle. No, in order to properly thank God for something, the words need to be mine, with the object of my gratitude firmly in my mind. I need to open my mouth, and utter three simple words: “Thank you God.” To me, that is the hardest form of prayer. It takes me hours before I can bring myself to utter those words.

 I’ve thought about why it’s so difficult for me to get them out, and it’s taken me a while, but I think, through writing this, I finally understand. It’s not because I dislike God. There are things I will never understand, and I do find myself angry at God often enough. It’s not that, though. When I think about it, the most difficult part of saying “Thank you God” is the act of humbling myself to the point where I can acknowledge that whatever it is I feel compelled to thank God for, is something that I could never have gotten or achieved on my own without God’s intervention.

 As human beings we like to take credit for our possessions, our stations in life, our accomplishments, and sideline any contributors to that success or accomplishment. That doesn’t hold true only when it relates to God. How many times has someone taken credit for something you’ve done, something they could never have accomplished without you? It happens all the time in the corporate world, creative industries like writing, music, and art, even around the house, with one kid claiming credit for the spotless floor when really it was his younger brother who slaved away at it with a toothbrush, his left thumbnail, and a bucket of soapy water.

 That humbling is terribly difficult. In my mind I can easily acknowledge God’s role in my success. I can even write articles about it. But saying thank you to God remains difficult. Somehow when it stays inside my head, or between you and me in writing, it’s either personal, or between me and my fellow human being, and God won’t see it. I know that’s not true, but I can tell myself that God has other things to do, and that my admissions of humility in the form of thanks will go unnoticed, which makes it easier to think or write. When I actually utter the words, however, I know God is listening. God is acknowledging my humility, my admission that whatever I am thanking God for is not of my doing alone, and tacitly accepting my thanks. It makes it real. It makes it hard.

 Anyone else have the same issue with prayer? I’d love to hear some other perspectives on it. Share this around; get a conversation started.

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