Friday, October 22, 2010

The Bigger Picture

There is something much bigger than me. Much bigger than us, much bigger than this 9-month time span, much bigger than my patriotism or my religion. That something is Life. Vast and simple Life itself.

Yehudit is an 84 year-old woman who stands at about 5’3 with clouded brown eyes, wrinkly, freckly, thick skin, and appears to be somewhere between normal and over-weight. Her parents came to Israel from Poland during either the first or second aliya, which refers to the waves of immigration to Israel. After the War of Independence the country had only 600,000 Jews and needed to secure itself and to multiply the population if they were going to be able to stand strong and be resilient. She describes the personal mission of those pioneers of her generation to have without-question been simply to live and die for their country Israel. With this mission in mind there was no such thing as superficiality. No one owned more than 1 pair of shoes, no one cared about expensive jewelry, or had really had much of any tie to anything material.

Recently I’ve noticed my increasingly non-reactive approach to so many of life’s happenings. So the boys aren’t helping cook, big deal. So I’m living abroad for 9 months, okay cool. So I had to wear the same dirty clothes 5 days in a row, life goes on. So I have a Master’s degree, nice. So right now I have financial stressors, I’ll deal. So few things really feel like such a big deal ever… I don’t think it’s apathy (although I’ll keep challenging myself to look at that) rather I think I’m gaining perspective of a much bigger picture.

The day we visited Yehudit we also visited two cemeteries. At both cemeteries the grave plots were relatively all the same size, the tombstones had just about all the same info (name, dates of birth/death, parents names), and the overall physical appearance of them all were generally about the same. It didn't matter what someone had done in his or her life because at the end of it all they were just put back in the ground the same way as everyone else. It really forced me to beg the question of what really matters. How humbling an experience.

I have a set amount of energy to expend each day and it fluxes slightly from one to the next. When I’m lying on my death bed I am absolutely confident that I will not look back on my life and wish that I spent more time gearing that energy toward stress or fixating on areas out of my control. Likewise, I’m also confident that I won’t be considering my life a success because I earned a Master’s degree or because I traveled the world. Perhaps it's a luxury to be in my position but I can't honestly say while I appreciate those opportunities they don't really matter to me in the big picture. When Yehudit was asked "How are you?" Her response was "I'm alive aren't I? It's a miracle!" If that doesn't shed light on a bigger picture I'm not sure what does.

Something is only a problem if we make it one, right? Likewise, time only exists in periods if we create them, right? I was told the other day not to consider these 9 months a period in my life rather just try looking at it as life itself. What a different form it takes when I do so…

My ideas and my writing feel scattered which frustrates me because it feels unclear yet at the same time I think it’s an accurate reflection of the organization of these ideas in my head. It seems as though in this short time I’ve been away from home I’ve already been overwhelmingly faced with so many situations and experiences that seem to provide me with all these new perspectives and ways of looking at life and what really matters.  More to come on these thoughts as I get them more sorted out…

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Greetings from Kibbutz Lotan

I write to you now from the Arava region of Israel down in the south (about 40 km North of Eilat).  We drove down here from Jerusalem on Wednesday to spend the next several days at Kibbutz Lotan. Here we’re spending our time looking at intentional community life through the lens of this ecologically-sustainable community of this particular kibbutz. The last several days we’ve planted in organic gardens, created mud bricks, built roman arches out of mud bricks, taken several different kinds of tours of the land, had a pita party, climbed trees, engaged in really thought-provoking conversation about community, social justice, Judaism and much more, and tonight we’re heading down to Eilat for a few hours. A highlight of the week was undoubtedly spending last night playing around the sand dunes, rolling around in them, stargazing, and just trekking through this desert wilderness. At the moment my body is coated in dust, I haven’t washed my hair in at least 4 days, my skin is super sun-kissed, and as our assistant director just told me I already “look like an official kibbutznik.”  Yay!  Life here on this kibbutz is certainly a drastic difference from the way we live at home. It’s been fun to experience it and envision what elements of it I’ll practically take home with me.

The group is Forming!!!  Those of you Peabody-ers reading this can imagine exactly what I mean – it’s totally that first stage of group development.  There’s 7 of us total and we are quite a colorful group in terms of personality, humor, prior academic experience, and much more. Naturally, I have concerns about our dynamics and how they’ll progress, simultaneously I’ve got the confidence that there will be lots of laughing and good memories at the outcome.

Check out the pix below to see what I've been up to.  I took an awesome video of the group last night but the internet connection is poor and it's taking too long to upload so that one will be posted whenever I can get it up here.

Shabbat Shalom,

Phil (left), me, and Alex (right) standing on a Roman arch we made out of mud bricks

Mud Huts on the Kibbutz

Sand Dune Log-rolling Contest

Monday, October 11, 2010

Tel-Aviv Highlights and My Day in the Old City

Highlights from the last few days in Tel-Aviv:

- Shabbat dinner and services at Sarah's apartment. It felt like being back at camp and I felt so at home in the company of these 20 other young Reform Jews despite being thousands of miles from home.
 - Speaking Hebrew! I love it! I have to think a lot before I speak but I'm pretty confident that it'll get easier over time.
- My late night run on the tayelet (boardwalk) on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. I love my alone time, I love running/working out, and it was just such a liberating experience. Really amazing.
- Lunch in Abu-Goush (an Arab village just outside Jerusalem) to celebrate Sarah's one year anniversary of making aliya (also referred to as her aliya-versary :) ).
- Walking up and down the namal (port).  I saw lots of touristy shopping areas, found a yoga studio (yaaay!), and just got to spend more down time with Sarah.

This afternoon I made my way into Jerusalem and met up with another friend of mine from home who's here on vacation with his dad for 2 weeks. We spent the afternoon walking through the Old City, eating falafel, visiting the Kotel (Western Wall), and now we're hanging out at his beautiful apartment in the Old City near the Jaffa Gate. Tomorrow morning I'll wake up early, grab my morning coffee, and head off to meet my group - I'm so excited!  A few pictures from my afternoon are below:
The Western Wall and Dome of the Rock

Mt. Olive/Har Ha-Zeitim

The Men's Side of the Western Wall

Just a cool picture :)

Pretty sunset and silhouette of the walls of the Old City

Bed time for me, I think a big day lies ahead tomorrow :)  However, before I end this blog, I want to share something special that I came across today. Exotic travels and unique international experiences mean nothing to me relative to this 

Friday, October 8, 2010

My Day in Turkey

I can hear my mom’s voice in my head with this certain comical tone saying, “So Abbs, what’d ya do in Istanbul?” Well, I walked the streets of Sultenhamet, I saw the Hagia Sophia, I burnt an unplanned massive whole in my pocket, oh yeah and I think I went on a date – all in 4 hours – wahoo!!!” So here’s the low down…

After waiting in a handful of different lines for what felt like a million hours I finally got my visa, passed through customs, exchanged money, and made my way out to find a cab.  I told the driver I only had 4 hours and that I wanted to go to Sultenhamet.  Well… apparently in Turkish that sounds a lot like “Please take advantage of me, I'm a naive American tourist!”  So, he took me to Sultanhamet, walked the streets with me, very sweetly in his broken English tried to share with me random bits ‘n pieces of Turkish culture.  I ate roasted chestnuts from a street vendor (so good!) and walked arm in arm through the streets (yeah, that's right, it was totally weird... the cab driver just linked arms with me... I couldn't tell if he was being a sketchy man trying to get all cozy, if he was trying to get in my bag or wallet, if it was a cultural thing, or if he was just being friendly... it was definitely weird.).  We stopped by a coffee shop, I got my Turkish coffee, we chatted about his family except for his wife because apparently and rather conveniently that's the only relative in English he doesn't know how to say, and eventually we hopped back in the cab to go back to the airport... or so I thought.

So there we were, stuck in rush hour traffic flagging down all the people in the street who were selling food. I'm not usually too adventurous with foreign foods but I went for it anyway and it was all so good!  He kept making jokes about how we were going to go back to his house (um, not so funny?) so I was quick to tell him I just didn't think there was time but, uh, thanks for the invite? As a result, instead of going back to his house he took me to his family's favorite restaurant for kebab. I really wasn't hungry, I didn't want to spend any more money, and I only really wanted to eat from street vendors or hole-in-the-wall type places.  Well, my niceness, my American-ness, and apparently my passivity got me into very expensive trouble. Next thing I knew we were having this candlelit dinner at this super fancy restaurant, he'd pretty much ordered one of everything on the menu, and guess who was paying for it... 

Ha, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard so many of you joke about how you think I’ll find the love of my life somewhere in Israel this year. Well, don't hold your breath, I'm not quite on the manhunt this year, but I guess if all else fails I’ve got a great Plan B awaiting me in Istanbul :)

After dinner we headed back to the airport, I hopped on a plane to Tel-Aviv and I made it to Sarah's safe and sound (my best friend who lives in Tel-Aviv. I'm staying with her this weekend until my program starts.).  It was certainly an unforgettable time in Turkey, and despite the fact I probably can't afford groceries for the next 3 months I would say that the adventure was worthwhile. I think I'm going to quickly come to see that my willingness to talk to anybody and assume the best intentions of them will be my greatest blessing and curse over the course of this year.

Check out the video below from Turkey and keep your eyes peeled for a quick glimpse of my man :)  A few more pix are posted below, too.

Shabbat Shalom for now... my jetlagged self is gonna sneak a quick nap before Shabbat dinner and services tonight at Sarah's with a bunch of her friends.  Should be fun, beautiful, peaceful, and kinda like the perfect way to kick off my year here :)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Separation Anxiety

Yep... it's through the roof. There's nothing logical about it, it's just that feeling I get where my hearts starts pounding so loudly I can hear it, my breath becomes shallow and fast-paced, my hands and legs get a little jittery, and I just have to remind myself to keep breathing...

Friday was probably the day that marked the onset of this underlying anxiety I've been feeling as I get ready to leave.  I woke up early in the morning and without any coffee (big mistake!) bolted out the door to head downtown for my exciting venture to the India Visa Center.  Long story short, my visa application was DENIED. Yep, that's right... it was totally denied only 5 short days before I'm supposed to leave the country.  First I got the whole "you're missing documents" then I got a whole other whack excuse about one of my documents not explicitly quoting that I "possess a skill set that does not currently exist in India." Ha, seriously? Sooooo... after some tears in the Visa Center and some more tears on State St. I found my way to Starbucks, got my coffee, took a deep breath and reminded myself it's all going to work out.

2 years ago when I was in Budapest I almost got arrested and taken to jail for not having a train pass (woops). My friend who I was traveling with and I were absolutely terrified in the midst of the near-arrest but of course everything ended up working out fine. We paid off the police officers and got off the hook.  It was one of the most unnerving parts of our month long European venture and undoubtedly a retrospective highlight of our trip.  I'm fairly confident a few weeks from now when I arrive in India and have spent at least 24 hours in the country with mishap after mishap (so I hear that's how it works over there) I'll look back at this experience and laugh. Regardless, it through me for a loop and I'm not sure that I've yet found my equilibrium since then.

These past few days (and I anticipate the next several ones) have been all about riding the waves. It's true that I'm anxious, that my mind continues to play that worst-case-scenario game, it's also true that I'm excited, and that I'm totally pumped.