Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

Impromptu Tour Guide

Due to cutbacks by the United States Postal Service, our local post office has dramatically reduced its hours.  Now it’s open for transactions only M-F from 7:30 a.m. – 9:30 a.m, and 2:15 pm  – 4:15 p.m. in the afternoons.  The post office delivery truck drops off the mail around 8:30 a.m., and it’s placed in PO boxes around 9 a.m., so the window to get one’s daily mail in the morning is very narrow indeed.  The lobby without counter service is open during the middle part of the day if you have a post office box, but if you get a notice in your box that a package has arrived and you aren’t there during counter service times – – too bad.  You must return during one of the two-hour windows to claim your package.  It gets worse:  the routes of both FedEx and UPS work out so that they arrive at the post office between 12:30 – 1:30 pm, when the post office is closed, so packages headed to the post office cannot be delivered or redeemed if they are being delivered to your post office box as an address.  A solution to this problem would be for UPS and FedEx to place a delivery box outside, so the postmaster could access it during open hours, but UPS and FedEx have so far been uninterested in doing so.  It is very likely that in the next 2 years, our local post office branch will cease operating altogether.

I try to coordinate a visit to the post office with our transfer station – – also known as the garbage dump — which is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 – 4.  We have no trash pickup here – all self-generated refuse must be taken to the dump in our car. The post office is 6 miles away and the dump is another 2.5 miles further up the road, and what with the cost of gas nowadays, I try to limit my visits.  Also on Tuesdays, our tiny library is open from 5 pm – 7 pm (the other day is Shabbat, so I can’t visit then).  It’s a 3-mile trip one way from home to the library but it’s on the way to the post office and dump, so I try to stop by the library on the way home.  Still, I do have time to kill from the post office closure at 4:15 to the library’s opening time of 5 p.m.

So yesterday I stopped by the lake.  I couldn’t go swimming or kayaking due to it being the Nine Days (leading up to Tisha B’Av), but I was content to sit there and watch a 5-year-old boy fishing with his father.  The look of joy on the little boy’s face when he caught a fish (as well as the proud dad’s) was priceless, and I never tire of the serene view of the lake, clouds, and surrounding mountains, and the quiet.

Suddenly a minivan with Illinois license plates turned into the parking area, and a married couple with 2 preteen daughters stepped out and started taking pictures of the beautiful view.  I couldn’t resist asking if they were from Chicago – – one of my daughters lives there and I will be going there to visit next week.

“No, we rented this car from New York,” the man replied.  “We are from Denmark.  We are doing a driving tour of the eastern United States.”  He explained that one of his daughters had hurt her ankle, and as a result they had to cancel many of their planned activities for the day.   They were limiting themselves to sightseeing from the car on this day, and had driven about 90 miles from western New Hampshire, extemporaneously wandering the scenic mountain roads.  He had many questions about what there was to see in this part of Maine, as well as questions about Maine culture, the people, the lifestyle, etc.

Well, I had nothing better to do until the library opened . . .

“We didn’t care for New York too much, to tell you the truth,” he confessed.  “Such a big city is not really our thing; we really prefer being in nature.”  He proceeded to tell me how surprised he was “that many of the natives we encountered there spoke English with very strong accents that we couldn’t understand.”  I had visions of him encountering chassidim who not only dress differently than the mainstream, but speak “Yinglish.”  But he said, “I’m talking about Hispanics and Chinese people.  I couldn’t believe it, but we met people who are Americans who could not even speak English!  That was very surprising to us – – I don’t understand how citizens can live in a country and not speak its language!  How is this possible?”

As we chatted,  I made several suggestions of places they could visit nearby that were off the beaten track and were known only to locals.  “You won’t find these suggestions in any tour book,” I said, “but if you love nature, you won’t want to miss them.”  Still, I realized that many of the places lacked signage and were accessed by hidden dirt or gravel roads, and he was unlikely to find them based on my directions alone.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said, “I will take you to some of these places if you’d like.  You can just follow me in your car.”

I guess I looked trustworthy, because they were game.

I had a great time taking them all over the place – – I probably used up $20 out-of-pocket in gas.  I would stop my car every so often and they’d pull up behind me.  “Look – here are some moose hoof-prints!” I’d point out.  Or, “Check carefully along the road – last year at this time I saw a bear cub foraging here for blueberries.”  And:  “This little library was a one-room schoolhouse from the 1800s until 1963.  Now it’s used as a library, and the author Stephen King, who lives nearby, helps to fund it.”  And:  “This area used to be a heavily forested valley, until 1983, when a severe storm with 100-mph winds created a blow-down. The entire forest was destroyed.  Then the beavers took over, and gradually the dammed area became the desolate bog you are looking at now.  Isn’t the power of nature amazing?”  I also took them to a hidden glen with a beautiful stream and small waterfalls.  “Salmon spawn here in November!” I gushed.  They were impressed!

Again and again, they thanked me profusely at each new stop for being able to see things and learn things that would otherwise not have been possible.  Together we ended up spending about 90 minutes touring the area.  We developed quite a rapport.  I discussed everything from logging and woodsmen, to moose and bear hunting, hiking, fishing, locals’ acceptance of strangers, politics, racism (the lack thereof), local education and jobs, cuisine, odd Maine laws – – you name it.   I said that the motto of Maine should be “live and let live,” since people are quite accepting of letting people do their own thing, as long as they don’t try to stuff their personal agenda down another’s throat.

“Oh, you mean everyone in Maine is very liberal!” the man exclaimed with glee.

“Well, I guess that depends on how you’d define ‘liberal,'” I replied.  “I mean, just about everyone here owns a gun,” I said.  The poor man’s eyes grew wide as saucers.  Then I realized:  who knows what they were thinking as I led them with my car through narrow mountain passes, through pocked and pitted gravel roads, through forest lanes so laden with foliage that you needed headlights to turn the shadows back into daylight, in places where no other people or buildings were in sight?  And now that I had said that everyone in rural Maine owns a gun, they probably felt like they were in a replay of “Deliverance,” only I was the one who could have been the bad guy!

Alas, it was now 6 p.m. and I still hadn’t made it to the library.  I recommended yet another isolated mountain road that would ultimately lead them back to their point of origin in New Hampshire, and after ensuring that their GPS recognized my suggested route, we wished one another well and said our goodbyes.

I don’t know what made me offer this impromptu goodwill tour to a family of complete strangers from a distant land.  I know they loved it – – they told me so, repeatedly, and remarked many times how fortunate I was to live in such a place.  But I confess, I do not know who enjoyed it more:  I had a wonderful time sharing the beauty and lore of my surroundings, and making my experiences a part of their experience, however vicariously or fleetingly.

Amazingly, after we parted, I realized that neither of us had told one another our names!

Only a week before I had read a wonderful book called “All Natural:  A Skeptic’s Quest to Discover If the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier” by Nathanael Johnson.  The concluding paragraph reads,

It wasn’t the Yosemite sunsets that had filled me with such hale energy as a child, it was watching those sunsets with my family, the four of us huddled together, windbreaker against windbreaker.  It wasn’t the close clarity of the stars, but Mom pointing out the Milky Way, that gave me the vertiginous feeling of falling into the vast heart of our galaxy. It was not only the place that mattered, but the fact that in that place the family was together and uninterrupted. I’d gone looking for Eden in the places where human fingerprints disappeared, but paradise was empty without the human touch.

Jon Krakauer, in his book “Into the Wild,” writes about Christopher McCandless,  the young American adventurer who (naively and tragically) planned to live alone with a minimum of supplies in the Alaskan wilderness.  His body was found dead of starvation only 4 months later, along with a meticulously kept journal.  In one of his last entries, trapped there as he lay dying in isolation, he scribbled:    “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.”

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An Orthodox, Jewish, Feminist Rave

Some of you will take offense at what I’m about to say, but I just gotta get this off my chest.  I also would like to add that I’m not a misandrist, and that I love and respect my husband more than any person I know.

Being in Maine, far away from any sort of Jewish community is, I suppose, pas nisht (Yiddish for unbecoming, improper).  And the truth is, it’s a conundrum for me because this lifestyle goes against everything that defines living one’s life as an Orthodox Jew:  being  a symbiotic part of a community to facilitate observance of mitzvos.  Being Orthodox in the United States means that one is limited to an urban lifestyle, because that is where the community is:  a Jewish education for one’s chiildren;  peers that share your values, customs, and observance; a synagogue where one can daven with a minyan and turn to a rabbi for guidance; and a supply of kosher food and other sundry items of Judaica necessary for daily living and ritual.  The fact that one doesn’t travel on Shabbos means that one is “forced” to live within walking distance to one’s shul; ergo have other Jews as one’s immediate neighbors.

But what if you believe that living in an urban environment is primordially unhealthy?

There were Jews living in isolated rural areas of Europe before WWII but even if they were religious, they were looked down upon by the mainstream Orthodox community  as ignorant country bumpkins, because by virtue of their isolation they could not practically be a part of a community nor be especially meticulous about their practices nor attain excellence in learning.  In recent times, the few rural areas in the US that Orthodox Jews called home either built themselves up into small towns or suburban sprawls (i.e. Lakewood or Monsey); or they’re hopelessly fighting to stay afloat; or they’ve since died out altogether.

I can rationalize and say that Rav Nachman of Breslev used to go into isolated areas for extended stretches of time, to find himself and to better commune with HaShem.  And it was an acceptable practice for yeshiva students and their rebbis and teachers who were followers of the Mussar movement (a rigorous course of self-improvement) to go into the woods alone and cry out to G-d.  But at the end of the day, they came home to their community, to their shuls, to their yeshivos.  They never thought of their temporary sojourn away from it all as anything but temporary.

One thing I could never understand is why some women get upset with or feel threatened by the blessing in morning prayers thanking HaShem for making us according to His will.  If HaShem is a Master Designer incapable of error, and women are singled out as having particular attention and care in HaShem’s design and creation, what’s there to be upset about?  Do men get the same flattering mention?  No!  They get nothing, so instead they’re stuck with thanking G-d for “not making me a woman.”   Ask a rabbi and he will tell you that this is because men are supposed to feel privileged that they have the opportunity to perform certain mitzvos that women are not required to perform, so men are happy they score some “extra credit.”  It sounds good, but I don’t think it’s the only reason.  I don’t have the wisdom of a rabbi but my simple take on it is that men have grandiose egos and they cannot handle feelings of insecurity.  So they say their bracha because it empowers them, while reminding  (chiding?) them that they have to submit to someone (HaShem) higher than themselves – they have to relinquish control so they don’t lose control – of themselves!

Kind of pitiful, isn’t it?

By not making women responsible for observing certain time-related mitzvos, HaShem is telling women that they have something else that is even more important to do with our time and energy!  So important,  that we are not held responsible for doing a mitzva that, if a man were to avoid it, he’d be held accountable!    And you can’t say it’s exclusively about raising children, because after one’s children are grown and gone, and women then have more time for performance of mitzvos without distraction, women are still not required to perform those “man only” mitzvos.  Understanding the male psyche and ego and the potential for depravity, HaShem creates positive “busy work” for men in the form of mitzvos, to keep with the Program, so that a man may elevate his own soul. A woman’s neshama (soul) is already on a higher plane; she doesn’t need this extra reinforcement.

So when I’m up here in Maine, and I’m not going to shul, I might be missing out on a powerful prayer experience of davening with a quorum, but I’m not sinning by not doing so.  A man is not so easily excused.  So if I feel any guilt about our time away, it’s that I’m aiding and abetting and even instigating my husband’s inability to fulfill certain mitzvos, precisely because living in a rural location, we are not part of Jewish community life.

That is not to say that we cannot keep Shabbos or keep kosher or learn Torah – we do.  We also have an opportunity to make a kiddush HaShem because in a place where many people have never met a Jew, and have a negative stereotype of what a Jew is made of, we can act with kindness, integrity, honesty, and pleasantness.  We can demonstrate a commitment to living an ethical, moral and religious life, and contribute intellectually and professionally in such a way that we will be an ohr l’goyim, a light unto the nations, especially if we conduct ourselves with humility and without pretension.  We have more of an opportunity to do this here, surrounded by gentiles, than we do in our home town, surrounded by landsman.

That’s very nice, but it still doesn’t solve the practical problem of  why Jews can’t be rural if that’s where they are most fulfilled.  Which is why it gets difficult for me.  I love it here. I am so happy here.  I am growing here.  And despite a loving family and adorable grandchildren whom I miss, I think I could settle here long-term very happily if circumstances would allow.  Even if I were to live here permanently, I’m not kidding myself – I will always be an outsider and not a part of Maine culture.  I am living a strange existence, not really feeling at home in any one place – a wandering Jew, if you will – involved and part of two communities but for divurgent reasons, not really whole in either of them.

Perhaps I need the equivalent of a shtetl?  How can our experience in Maine be “pas nisht” if I’m growing in a positive way?  Is my happiness selfish, hedonistic, and narcissistic?  And what if I need more time here – maybe months or even years – to continue to grow?

Yesterday I received an email from an Orthodox rabbi from my home town.  He was less than enthusiastic about my adventure when I informed him of our plans (unlike another Orthodox rabbi in my home town who gave us his blessing and was truly happy for us) .  He asked me  how I was doing, and if “Maine is treating you well.”  Here is what I answered, with complete sincerity:

I absolutely love it up here in Maine – what’s there not to like?!  It’s so beautiful here.  HaShem’s glory is reflected in everything you see, and in every bit of pure air you breathe and in every drop of sparkling mountain water that you drink.  I am internalizing it with such kavana (with meaning, concentration, sense of direction, and intensity) and relishing each and every precious moment.  It has been a wonderful 2 months of healing – spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically.  I only hope that I can retain all that I have gained when I return to my home town. This life I am now living is such an amazing experience and privilege and so restorative.  I am so grateful for this opportunity!  While it’s true there are few Jews here, and most gentiles have never in their lives met a Jew, there are therefore many opportunities for making a kiddush HaShem (acting in a way that increases the respect accorded to God or Judaism) and being an ohr l’goyim (light unto the nations) with one’s behavior – living consciously and conscientiously – concentrating on sever panim yafos (having a pleasant countenance), etc.

Hodu LaShem Ki Tov, Ki L’Olam Chasdo (Give thanks to HaShem because He is good; His kindness is everlasting)!”