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Dedicated to my cousin Doris for reasons she will understand–

When we awaken the ego does die, but it is not what many think. The caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, dies to its old form and can never go back to being a caterpillar. Yet, if you look closely, the main body of it still retains its caterpillar form. ~ Atreya Thomas

During the White Awake workshop described in the two previous essays, we were encouraged to mend the fabric of the inevitable disconnection with our ancestral roots. When I did, I began to realize why my family had been silent about their histories. Not only did I encounter their overwhelming religious persecution, but I began to understand my grandparents’ abject rejection of speaking about anything related to the old country, as they desperately tried to embraced a whole new culture of becoming Americans and all that meant to them. For them, it was about basic survival – a new beginning in a new country. Severing ties from everything that was familiar to them, including their parents, aunts and uncles, their grandparents, and their whole way of life was a prerequisite.

During the late 1800s in Lithuania, pogroms (organized massacres targeting Jewish communities) were instituted which resulted in mass emigration to America. Some emigrants chose acquiescence, desperately wanting to assimilate; whereas some who had become revolutionaries in the old country brought that energy of resistance to America. The latter group had sought to unite all the Jews in Lithuania in a class-based fight for social reform. They had organizing to demand: an improvement in living standards, a more democratic political system, and the introduction of equal rights for Jews. They were revolutionaries, socialists and communists. My grandfather brought these ideals with him to America. In his 80s, my father first acknowledged to me that he had gone to the Workmen’s Circle, a socialist camp during high school. He explained that there was a communist camp and a socialist camp and he attended the latter.

I wish I knew then what I know now. I would have told my grandfather that, perhaps through osmosis (or DNA), I had received the teaching that hatred of other, whether expressed as racism, classism, sectarianism or anti-Semitism, was something to fiercely resist against! I would have told my grandparents that their suffering was not in vain, that I got the message. My whole life has been about dispelling hatred in myself and others. And now, in the 21st century, many of those socio-political issues are still present and growing. Dad, you prepared me well. Although, I didn’t understand all of what our ancestors endured when we had this intimate, revealing conversation just a few years before he died, I did begin to piece together why our home was secular, devoid of God. Many of the revolutionaries from Eastern Europe who had experienced such trauma became atheists, at least my father, and I suspect, my grandfather did. I don’t know how this trauma manifested in his older brother Azer, the firstborn, born into a family of immigrants, trying to piece together new lives amid the catastrophic trauma from which they fled, to carry-on in America. The firstborn often carries more weight than the other children, more responsibility, and more of the raw, direct trauma from the parents and grandparents, whether physically present or not.

My grandfather, who arrived in America around the turn-of-the-century, was a craftsman who built furniture and started selling his creations and used furniture along the railroad tracks in Pennsylvania where the trains would bring them to his storefront. My grandmother was more of a pragmatist who chose to not eat their limited rations during the Great Depression so her children could. After bankruptcies and dire survival struggles, my father began working with his father while still in high school. As I mentioned in the previous essay, I suspect my father (who was a bit of a mama’s boy) rejected his father’s ideology and became a capitalist to save his family. He would sacrifice a great deal not have his siblings, wife, or children starve as his family had. With a high school education, my father provided for his family and left a legacy of abundance and philanthropy, not scarcity and financial hardship.

I suspect he rejected his father’s gentle, humanistic way of being and saw it as passivity, and maybe it was, as trauma can take the form of immobilization. I see these polarities of capitalism versus socialism, revolutionary versus pacifist in myself. During our present, tumultuous times, having this internal conversation between the polarities of ourselves is necessary preparation for contemplating how we want to express ourselves, both personally and politically. Understanding our ancestry is an important part of our identity. If you understand epigenetics, trauma from previous generations actually can change the expression of our DNA and manifest in devastating and mysterious ways. For an interesting article click here.

When I knew him, my grandfather had advanced Parkinson’s disease. Having been the only two people in our family with progressive neurological illness, I have developed a kinship with him that only increases as this illness progresses. I can viscerally imagine the despair this loyal, enormously strong man felt as his body began to fail him. He was known to have carried an iron woodstove up a staircase by himself, something no human I know could accomplish. As his body weakened, he had to surrender to his somewhat caustic, but faithful wife who likely didn’t understand how past trauma may have manifested in herself and her husband. I remember my grandmother’s fierce loyalty caring for her husband as he grew more disabled and her unwillingness to place him elsewhere, regardless of the excessive demands on her. Love and trauma, trauma and love. There are no heroes or villains in this Sacred Work that is Life.

I consider myself spiritual, but not religious. I dutifully attended Hebrew school and synagogue in my early years, but there was little continuity at home which seemed to reveal a fracture I didn’t quite understand until later in life when my father finally admitted to having been a staunch atheist his whole life (until his death which I described in previous essays – our most intimate moment).

I found the Old Testament scary, presented by a rabbi who had little rapport with children. A punishing, threatening God was more of the stuff of my worst nightmares than a power that informs and heartens me. When I later learned of the atrocities perpetrated in the name of the church, this further reinforced my resistance to organized religion. The Jesus that was talked about in my early years, the prophet who was killed by Jews, created further shame in me for being different, for being Jewish.

Always having been a spiritual person by nature, the more mystical aspects of Judaism appealed to me when I later studied Kabbalah. I found that the mystical aspects all major religions seem to converge at the same point, the point where Jesus and other masters spoke from – Love. When we live from the soul, there is no other; there is only We.

The spirituality that I gravitate to is inconclusive, profoundly compassionate, deeply mystical, and emanates from my heart and not my head. That being said, I came to realize through the workshop that I had blatantly and aggressively rejected all aspects of the religion in which I grew up – the baby with the bathwater – and with that I had rejected significant parts of myself and my lineage.

The facilitator explained our relationship with our ancestors brilliantly – like with any intimate relationship, if one person has not achieved wholeness, they are like two halves of a whole, but two whole people can move past duality and co-create.

Today, we live in a world where capitalism has run amok and we have forgotten how to take care of each other. We have work to do. I am so grateful to stand on the shoulders of those who went before me, to reintroduce myself to them. The courage, the grief, the fortitude is quite a legacy they left for me to recover, by my willingness to feel shame and grief fully. This is what I contemplate when I sit at my altar to my ancestors.

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Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it. – Helen Keller

balance

I have been practicing Marshall Rosenberg’s seminal work on nonviolent communication for over nine years. Recently, I have been remembering his statement that every communication is an expression of either “Please” or “Thank you.” No matter how skillfully or un-skillfully the communication is delivered, all communications are either requesting something one needs or expressing gratitude. We don’t always get what we want or need from people, but we can always choose a response that is more conscious. A more conscious response will move the conversation closer to love and forgiveness; forgiveness of other, and more importantly, forgiveness of self. A less conscious, more impulsive reaction would likely keep the expression of pain going. It requires much skill to interact consciously with other human beings; I believe that is why we are here, learning with and from each other.

It is essential that we understand the feelings we are experiencing during conflict and that we understand the unmet need triggering the feeling. Identifying our feelings can take much spiritual maturity, because allowing oneself to be vulnerable during conflict is like what Stephen Levine calls, “opening your heart in hell.” Once one is feeling and need literate, conflict is easily reconciled. Here are some common examples:

Wife – You are always working, it’s like I’m a single woman in a marriage!

This is an expression of please. This is where the real work begins. The wife might only feel anger, but sadness or grief is always under anger. She might not even realize she is sad and missing her connection with her partner. In our culture, acknowledging our vulnerabilities is grossly undervalued, perpetuating an illusion that we are self-sufficient islands. Allowing one’s vulnerability, in my opinion, is how we can achieve world peace, one person at a time. At the core of this existential shift is the ability to find empathy for the self. To me, this is the prerequisite and the gift that neutralizes conflict and increases love of self and others. Once empathy is achieved, there is more self-reflection, and her communication might be, “My need for connection with you is not being met and I’m really sad about it. Would you manage your time so you can spend more time with me and the children? With practice, one can move more swiftly to vulnerability and affirming one’s love for the other can render more love.

Husband – I cannot do enough for you. All you do is nag nag nag.

This is an expression of please. It is important to hear beyond the pain. What he may be unable to express if he is not feeling literate is, “I feel so much pressure to provide financially, emotionally, and physically. I feel like I’m dying on the vine. I need some help here.”

The most difficult work is identifying the feelings and needs. Cultivating empathy for one’s self, leads to empathy for the other and will ultimately lead to feeling less isolated. This is the power of duality, or interacting intimately with others; the power of community.

Once self-empathy becomes natural, one can respond to these please requests with gratitude, rather than the automatic reaction of withdrawal or acting out our pain. Whether the communication is skillful or not, we can feel gratitude, because the other person is willing to express their unmet needs. Moving out of one’s own pain through self-empathy allows one to hear the other’s pain. Here is where love and connection can be restored and please can become thank you.

Recently, I reached out to a significant person in my life who has been disconnected from me, disconnected from my heart. As I move toward the end of my life, I know this is not truth. I reached out asking if we could reconnect. (Please.) I was met with a very cold, defensive response. I knew that we were not both in the place of reconciliation and I needed to honor that. In the past, I might have pushed for my needs to get met and it would not have ended well. I recognized the opportunity to honor where the other person was and more importantly, not to sacrifice my own well-being, knowing how open and vulnerable I am in my life right now. My reply was merely, Thank you.

And I meant those words, completely. “Thank you” to her for letting me know where she was. And, “thank you” to me for letting go, for having the wisdom to know that because we are disconnected on the physical plane, in another vibration where love is the only truth, we are connected forever.

All statements express please or thank you. Vulnerability is the key to open communication and inevitably leads to empathy. Empathy is the balm that changes poison (pain) to medicine (intimacy). You cannot give to others with an empty internal reservoir of love. This reservoir needs to be attended to constantly and consistently. This is the basis of most spiritual practices and the hope of heart-centered psychotherapy.

Marshall’s books can be purchased on Amazon, found in many libraries and YouTube videos are available online at no charge.

World peace can be achieved, one person at a time.

“[Spirit] needed a player, someone willing to get on the field of action, learn the plays, take the risks, get injured, play through the setbacks and defeats and continue to grind their way to the goal line. NOT to sit on the bleachers as a spectator…” -Burgess Owens, cornerback for Oakland Raiders and Super Bowl winner in 1980 in reference to me.

Burgess

When I went to the University of Miami for college from Scranton, I had no idea the explosion that was about to happen in my life. After all, I only had one significant boyfriend for most of the four years of high school. He was my first lover and we naïvely began discussing marriage at sixteen. At that time, there was no doubt in my mind that this would be the trajectory of my life. As life would reveal, she had other plans. To say that I was an inexperienced sixteen year old was an understatement. My idealism and my family dynamics did not prepare me for a life of simplicity and joy. It did not prepared me for the suffering required for maturation. Although Miami was not a good fit for my heart, I made it work for the four years required as a prerequisite for the deep initiations I apparently “signed up for” in life.

Early in my freshman year I was walking with a girlfriend and I crossed paths with a young junior who, unbeknownst to me, would drastically change my life. I remember specifically stopping in my tracks and saying, “I’m in love.” Burgess was a starting football player on the University of Miami football team. He was also a marine biology student. I knew nothing about football, so his celebrity eluded me. All I knew was that he was handsome and deep, gentle and loving. I began to tutor him French and he helped me with my sciences. We would frequently drive to the Florida Keys on the weekend to snorkel and collect sea life for his tropical aquarium.

B and II soon became aware that this relationship would alter my life, but I had no idea of the degree to which it would explode open. I immediately called my boyfriend and told him what was happening. Our plans had been for me to transfer to a college in New York State that was closer to him, but my life was taking a whole new tract. Good or bad, happy or sad, I was being drawn into a tsunami and all I could do was let go.

The next two years were expansive for me. Unlike the focus from my family of origin, my first two boyfriends supported my educational/intellectual pursuits. I became the president of the freshman women’s honor society and received recognition from the mortarboard and several other honors. Left to my own devices, I probably would have taken the easier path joining the waterski team that was seeking me out after seeing my slalom abilities. Education had never been my focus. My older brother was the first person to finish college in my family. Escaping the pogroms in Russia and surviving the Depression while speaking broken English was more a part of my history than higher education.

I knew that Burgess believed in me and that gave me the courage to pursue honors programs and to graduate cum laude. However, there was a deeper initiation into the vicissitudes of life that would take me to my edge. Opening my heart to this young, charismatic, and idealistic man transported me into unknown territory. Crossing the “racial barrier” was an initiation that required a level of courage I did not know I had. I can remember looks from people imbued with much fear, fear of crossing a line. After all, I was in the South. I remember Michael telling me that prejudice in the North was just as prevalent as in the South, it was just more hidden. I clearly felt the pain of bearing a scarlet letter across my chest not unlike the yellow stars my ancestors were forced to wear. I felt the shame from the projection of other people’s fears. However, this was an initiation I was willing to undertake. After all, the feeling in my heart was undeniable.

I can remember that day I looked at Burgess and no longer saw a black person looking at me. This was the young man I loved with all my heart. I didn’t realize the depth of initiation I was undergoing.

And now, forty years later we have reconnected on a soul level. We are revisiting the influence that connection had in our lives during such formative years. Despite Burgess and me practicing completely different religions and ideologies, there is still a spiritual connection that transcends the social constructs that would otherwise force separation.

After forty years we are reconciling our differences and acknowledging both the idealism of our youth and the excavations we have courageously and willingly undergone building bridges instead of walls in our hearts. I know these bridges will filter down to our children and our grandchildren to affect a world that is more inclusive.

Sharing what we have learned over the last forty years and revisiting our limitations from the past is bringing a healing that would otherwise have been unimaginable to me. Saying the things to each other we were too immature to grasp at that age has brought a deep level of completion and clarity.

When I crossed the racial boundaries, I opened up a level of empathy for the vulnerability and potential terror a mother of African-American children feels; I opened my heart to the multicultural families I would work with in my career. Burgess and I raised our children to cross cultural lines as well, and to not just believe in diversity, but to live it, to marry people of different cultures, giving birth to grandchildren who have the courage to bring in the New World.

These personal communications between Burgess and me are not just healing our human hearts, but they are changing the world, or they are showing us how we have already changed the world.
Disclaimer: Burgess and I have remained friends, but our philosophico-political leanings are diametrically opposed. I, in no way, support his political beliefs and, frankly, believe he has gone off the deep end. Although I will always love him, I cannot, in good faith, have a friendship with him and this saddens me.

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Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. more...

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