Sunday, November 22, 2009

On Passion: Thanksgiving-Related, Spiritual Thoughts

If we are vehicles traveling various roads to spiritual fulfillment, then passion is our driving fuel. Yet the price for that fuel is the full investment of oneself in living in the present—our Gift from God. Those who constantly live in the past, muttering over the “good old days,” or fretting over the “could’ve-would’ve-should’ves,” cannot feel true passion for any aspect of their existence; the best they can feel is heartfelt reflection, or a sentimental ache. And those who live longingly for the future, murmuring “Someday…” and gazing off to imaginary “better days,” sacrifice the chance for experiencing passion by miring themselves instead in mere anticipation. Those who never experience any intense inspiration, any awe for a process, any fervor for a cause or another living thing, or any overwhelming gratitude for an experience, merely exist, rather than live. Thus, the discovery and nurturing of passion brings with it a heightened awareness of the Now, and an acceleration toward what I call “Shalom Shalem,” meaning “complete peace” in Hebrew.

To pursue one’s passion with love for God and our fellow humans—that is the key to balancing the universe and healing the universe, for in receiving the joy of self-fulfillment, we give our fulfilled selves to our world. We “heal” the breaks between the pieces of God that we all are, those breaks representing the egos that separate us. We abandon our egos and glue ourselves together, thereby solving the puzzle that is GOD. In sum, the pursuit of passion along a road paved with awe, gratitude, and love, is a sublime journey toward Oneness with all.

We must find the sparks within us to be lights unto others.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Dishonoring the Power of the Word "Honor"

“To honor” is a verb applied to one deserving admiration for strength of character and/or good deeds. Why do people today throw it around as a term to apply to anyone who died, regardless of his/her character or the circumstances of the death?

I’m looking at a news article using “honored,” “honoring,” and “honor” multiple times to recount the death and funeral of a seventeen-year-old boy killed in a car accident as the passenger of a drunk teenage driver. The accident occurred at 1:45 a.m., in a wealthy suburb, long past the legal curfew for underage teens. The driver was reportedly drunk enough that his three passengers could easily have recognized that getting into the car with him posed a danger to them and any other car they encountered. The kids all attended one of our area’s most highly ranked schools, so they were presumably educated about drunk driving, probably with some special presentation at school involving a smashed vehicle and a tear-jerking reenactment of a fatal crash. In other words, not one kid in that car, even the now dead one being “honored,” had an excuse for breaking the law and the hearts of family and friends by 1) being out driving after curfew (the laws were created to protect kids, after all!); 2) drinking alcohol; and 3) getting into a car driven by a drunk.

And we “honor” the dead boy WHY?

“Mourn,” yes.

“Grieve,” certainly.

“Memorialize,” of course.

But “honor”? Was he an admirable asset to his community, a promising scholar, a selfless do-gooder, a pillar of strength for his family? The article says only that he was a surfer, that kids deemed him “funny and a good friend.” Either the journalist left out some very important details to show why he was worthy of “honoring,” or the journalist and all those quoted in the article who used the verb “to honor” in some form have misused, and indeed desecrated, a term that ought to be reserved for the worthy, not just the dead.

Death doesn’t make you honorable. Life, and good choices, do.

I sympathize with the mourners who feel the needless loss of a young man’s life. I really do. Especially with his parents, since I have precious teenagers of my own.

I am not negating the painful love and loss endured by the people at the funeral. On the contrary, I am calling attention to it, to the fact that his death is about pain and loss. Not about honor.

This seventeen-year-old boy’s funeral was deemed by one interviewee in the article as “a celebration of his life.” I see no cause to celebrate the probable misguidance of an irresponsible kid who died due to his own bad choices, pitiable and tragic though that may be. I do see a cause to mourn. And to memorialize, to prevent similar mourning in the future.

By “honoring” a kid for dying in a drunk-driving accident in which he was an accessory to his own manslaughter, we become accessories ourselves—to the denial of responsibility that will lead to the next drunken killing. Let us honor, instead, the power of words, used appropriately: their power to teach by implication.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Little Alliterative Commentary on Idiotic Idioms

All Litter Rationalized
By Susan L. Lipson

“My bad!” they say,
Moralizing minor mistakes,
Like leaving litter lying,
Forgetting familiar faces,
Dripping dirty dishwater,
Clumsily creating clutter,
Erroneously erasing email—
Instilling immorality in innocent interactions
by saying, “My bad.”

Whatever happened to “Oops—sorry”?

Monday, September 7, 2009

On Truth

What is Truth, really? Does it exist independently of perception? To paraphrase the philosophical question about the sound a falling tree makes in a forest: If a truth shows itself, but no one is there to perceive and record it, how can it exist or be shared? I do not believe that truth can exist independently of perception any more than sound exists without an ear to hear it. Furthermore, one ear might perceive the sound of a dropping tree as a crashing death, while another hears it as a soft thud marking a natural cycle; the same applies to our perceptions of truth. Thus, Truth appears to be a relative concept.

Given this philosophical theory of relativity (I nod to Einstein here), I have concluded that truth exists only in the intersection between all of our ideas. In other words, in a Venn diagram of disparate beliefs, the section where our circles overlap is the closest thing to “absolute” truth we can find. Ironically, humans have based most of our world religions on relative truths declared by prophets who received their “revelations” while alone, without numerous witnesses to corroborate and establish an intersection between their relative perceptions of the so-called “revelation.” Why do we accept one person’s perception as a basis for our beliefs? Why do we accept that someone else would be closer to God than we are, as if our own search for truth is unnecessary and meaningless because of some preexisting hierarchy of closeness with God? Are we so sure that our search for truth would only reveal the same truths revealed to some lone prophet from another time, culture, and spiritual place? Or are we lazy, satisfied to have let someone else’s search set precedents for us, without daring to overturn any outdated ideas of the “lower courts” by bringing our contemporary thoughts before the most Supreme Court of all?

In imagining this common view of a hierarchical access to God—through prophets and priests, popes and pastors, rabbis and imams, monks and nuns—I see a mathematical factor tree, with the individual believer viewed as the lowest common denominator. And then I think: but the individual, best represented by the number 1, is part of the top tier of every factor tree. Isn’t it “absolutely” true that 1 multiplied by any and every number equals itself? I don’t think that particular truth is a matter of perception, is it? One is the most important, closest factor of all. You can find it in any Venn diagram of factors, too.

The Venn diagram can thus illustrate figuratively that we, as factors in the calculations of Truth, are all One. Our Oneness is the common thread that connects each to the other. Therefore, we all should have the same power in the equation resulting in Truth, if we seek the intersection of ideas, rather than focusing solely on our own.

My goal as a person, and as a writer, is to share my perceptions, my truths, with the hope that others will find an overlapping point between their views and mine, and then share their findings with me, so that we can move closer to Truth together. That is how writers and readers come together, and how person and person come together as People.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Choosing Our Convictions Through Contrast

As the dusk defines the day, and sadness defines joy, knowing who we're not helps us define who we truly are. To fully discover and appreciate who we are as individuals, we must get to know individuals outside of our familiar social circles. Only by understanding the concepts and customs of those whose views differ from ours can we understand the meaning, and our acceptance, of the ways we call our own. We see most clearly with the help of contrast.

Contrast in our social groups enables us to see that many people's choices and actions often amount to no more than the circumstances of our births: our parents and our communities drive our earliest expressions of identity, until those expressions are challenged by contrasting expressions from very different kinds of people. And opening ourselves to challenges to our beliefs is a risky action. We risk developing doubts, or discarding our lifelong ideas. We also risk not even entertaining doubts, and stifling our thoughts with dogmatic certainty. Personally, I'd rather think, even if it does confuse or upset me; I'd rather know other perspectives to broaden my own views. I purposely choose friends who differ from me in fundamental ways, because I enjoy learning and growing from simply knowing them. That's not to say I can't experience growth with my "comfort zone" friends, who share my kind of background and beliefs; I can indeed grow with them, but not necessarily from them.

Exploring other perspectives via unlikely friendships can change us profoundly. We may reject our former identities, but that would mean they had weak foundations. On the other hand, we may discover that our own identities, by contrast, now ring much more true than ever before. In that case, we grow from knowing that we have chosen our beliefs and actions consciously and wholeheartedly, based on knowledge, rather than on social pressure or apathetic acceptance.

Recently, while helping a college-bound senior evaluate her college application essay, we discussed an article offering guidance in choosing the best college for one's specific needs and desires. The article posed a guiding question about the composition of the student body: Do you prefer to live among mostly people like yourself or among those who are very different from you? The student said she preferred to be among people like her. I found my eyebrows rising, despite my effort not to judge her answer. She preferred a lack of contrast because it felt safe to her. I imagine seeing her after four years in such a homogeneous environment. She will look older, have a bit more book knowledge, maybe even some social skills she never had before, but fundamentally, she will have the same externally formed sense of her identity that she had as a teenager. The passion of her convictions will stem from fear, insecurity, and ignorance, as well as from group expectations.

To know ourselves enough to assert our convictions credibly and passionately, we must get to know a stranger or two. The brown cliff viewed against a brown sky would not inspire a painter, nor would a blue seagull skimming a blue ocean. Beauty and truth illuminate us via contrast.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Polite Executioner: A Summertime Poem

Standing in an unusually slow line at the drugstore,
two spray cans of ant killer in my hands,
disgruntled customers in front of, and behind me,
cursing under their breaths and aloud
(one storming out after he slams his unpurchased bottle of mouthwash on the counter),
I imagine the ants in my house having a dance party,
celebrating their stay of execution
as I wait patiently and politely, thanks to my amusing imagination,
and to the notion that this ridiculous line at the store could very well be part of some divine plan to enable a certain, special ant to escape certain death,
or simply to give my six-legged houseguests a chance for a last hurrah
before I succeed in buying and applying their chemical nemesis.
And as the cashier sighs with relief when I greet her with a friendly voice,
I smile at my own method of anger management,
and at the irony of this civilized prelude to a mass murder.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Thread that Connects Us All

Nothing exists by itself; everything is part of a greater whole, an unwritten, unspoken Covenant of Being. Isolation is an artificial state contrived to work against the interconnectedness of the natural world. Even actions, as Newton proved, have equal and opposite reactions, and never occur without interconnection. The rock is part of the crumbled mountain—or the sandy beach, solidified. The lone wolf is still part of the pack, and part of his environmental system. The seed, via photosynthesis, is connected to the oxygen that sustains us, as well as the chemicals that break down our bodies when we die. The suicide bomber is connected to a community and to his victims, despite his attempt to sever that connection. The atom is part of a larger cell, and part of the universe. Humans are all part of each other’s existence, and the existence of every being, sentient or not, with whom we share this planet. Natural laws show us that a common thread always connects disparate things in this universe. Again, nothing exists by itself, and no one can deny this unavoidable connectedness between all things.

So, what is the common thread that connects everything? I ask atheists to identify this supreme Connector. They will, of course, try to find some scientific explanation, something that does not in any way acknowledge religious beliefs—despite the fact that many of the world’s most brilliant scientists acknowledged that their answers ended with that very question. But no one can deny the existence of this unifying thread, whatever they choose to call it. Both simple and brilliant minds identify it as “God,” or some alternate name related to this intangible entity. Thus, without any better name, I assert that GOD is the thread that connects you to me, and us to everything. And even the atheist, who denies that which connects him to his world, will learn this truth someday, when his brain expires and mere thinking gives way to understanding—the soul’s domain.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Raising Admirable Kids

To be an admirable Mom, one of my main goals in life, I need more than admiring kids. After all, it's no feat to get KIDS to admire you; if you simply show them gentle love, fierce support, and calm trust, you're a virtual superhero in their early years. But to get my grown-up children to admire, that's the kind of admiration that really matters, for it is based not only on how I treat them, but on how I treat the world. And such admiration from them results, most importantly, in their becoming admirable themselves. My desire for their admiration is thus not about feeding my ego, but about contributing to the world.

When my son spontaneously hugs me after I've come home from visiting a sick relative, and whispers down (DOWN now, he's so tall!) into my hair, "You're such a good woman, Mom," I've begun to meet my goal. When my youngest teenage daughter says, "Mom, thank you so much for helping me follow my passion for acting and singing; I'm going to be the same way with my own kids," then I see HER as a future admirable Mom. When my oldest daughter, from college, tells me that her new friend is interested in reading my newest novel manuscript, I feel awed that my daughter admires me and my work enough to make it a topic of discussion with some young woman whom I've never met. "Oh my gosh, you told your friend about my novel?" I gush. And she replies matter-of-factly, "Well she loves poetry novels and yours is great, so I recommended it. I wish it would get published already!" My daughter, my fan. Sigh.

As I continue to raise my daughters and son into adulthood, I try to remember to ask myself, "Now how can I set the best example for the sake of my grandkids and great-grandkids (if I am so blessed)?" And though I might gripe about their lack of help with dishes or laundry, or try to instill responsibility with too many "No's" and not enough "Okay's" sometimes, I honestly, earnestly, try to be the kind of parent who catalyzes, rather than stifles, growth. Some of the most important words I can say as a Mom are "I trust you to make the right choice;" however, the importance of those words is contingent upon the value of my trust. Admirability must precede admiration.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Peace Lost

One pure moment of world peace, even if it immediately vanished, would do more to inspire us than all the moving words and often futile actions of peacemakers throughout the centuries, for having seen peace as a reality, we would certainly unite in desperation to REGAIN what we all lost.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

In Response to My Student's Prompt To Write a Poem Related to the Holocaust

My student came to me with a school assignment: write a poem in response to a Holocaust victim's poem, "The Butterfly," by Pavel Friedman. We discussed the particular juxtaposition of a yellow butterfly's beauty with the haunting images of life in the Jewish ghetto, and the symbol of hope amid the ruins of life. I asked him to imagine himself in a concentration camp: "So, as an inmate, what would you see every day as you worked, something that you could see in another way, a brighter way, out of both desperation and hope?"
He mentioned a barbed wire fence in front of flowers on the other side. I replied, "How about the barbed wire fence itself--how might a hopeful, yet hopeless person view such an ugly fence in a new light; what simile could describe the wire and the barbs as looking like something happier?" I drew a line with asterisk-like barbs across his paper. "What does it look like to you?" I asked.
He replied, "Flowers on a metal vine." And so his poem, and mine simultaneously, was born. He turned in his free verse to his teacher with pride; I'm posting mine here, hoping to elicit your comments.

by Susan L. Lipson

Metallic flowers on a silver vine
Stretch taut to keep us in their garden walls,
Where worms like us must dig, but never whine,
Must bury seeds of hope before they fall;
No birds alight upon these petal spikes,
Lest they get pierced like friends I’ve loved and lost,
Friends who were but “vermin,” “dogs,” or “kikes,”
Rebelling, not considering the cost.
To sniff these blooms brings blood, not pleasant scents,
Yet still the petal barbs tempt me to climb—
Just up and over!—leave behind this fence,
Escape to fragrant fields and summertime…
Confinement alters views, both tempts and taunts;
Like a relentless ghost, our minds it haunts.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

How My Kids See Me

To them, I am a laundress, a perpetual dishwasher and cook, a nag--"Put away your dish! Close your drawers!"--a chauffeur in a minivan, and an ever-ready editor (even though I can barely see straight, let alone THINK, at 11 p.m., when their first drafts are finally ready for my editing). I am the one who volunteers them for community services "without asking," but also the one they later thank for getting them involved. I am easier to convince than Dad, and quicker to forgive and forget--clearly the one to ask for money or special privileges (does that make me The Pushover?). I am unconditionally loving, even when I'm stressed, and they know it, because one of us always fails to conceal a smile when I still insist on a kiss goodnight, even after an argument.

Because of them, I have a lot of half-finished manuscripts, a lot of double-bookings, and a need to clone myself. Their busy lives make me frantic when I can't find my pocket calendar or my keys, because I struggle to know where I need to be and when, and to do so on time, so that I'm not constantly yelling, "Come on! I'm leaving without you!" Because of them, I'm a liar, because I almost never leave without them, and so I deserve the angst of having late kids, don't I?

They tell me that they hope I won't sell "their" house, that I'll stay in our neighborhood so they can always come "home," that I'll dedicate a book to them, that I'll babysit their kids and always stay healthy, that I'll live to 110 and stay "cool." And I will try to fulfill their hopes as I now fulfill their needs, so they can still see me as cook, a pushover, a guaranteed kiss, and an editor (even if not a chauffeur or laundress anymore)--even when I've finished the half-done manuscripts and am busy squeezing in visits with them between book tours.

That's how I see my kids seeing me.

[This post was written in response to a writing prompt I gave my teenage writing students, a poem titled "How My Father Sees Us," by Kirsten Smith, in her poetry novel The Geography of Girlhood. You can read more about the prompt and how the kids responded on my other blog:

Monday, March 2, 2009

On Faith

On Faith
by Susan L. Lipson

People often say, “God gives me faith;”
But what faith is it that God gives?
Faith in oneself?
Faith in humanity?
Faith in God?
All of the Above?

Sounds like a kind of conflict of interest to me.
For if God just gives faith to us,
then our faith is not an achievement,
not a blessed state of mind
based on appreciation,
deep understanding,
and our suspension of doubts;
rather, such faith would be
a mere manipulation by God.
And since God does not manipulate us—
for then why would He have given us free will?—
it follows that our faith doesn’t come from God,
But from our coming to know God.
Faith is OURS,
to seek, find, and develop;
The faith we get from God
Is God’s faith in us.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Glowing Cross in Chopped Down Tree--Surely a Sign?!

Every day for the last few weeks, as I drive into my friends' driveway to pick up their kids for the school carpool, I notice the pile of tree chunks--yes, chunks, not trunks--in front of their home, left behind after they had an overgrown tree removed from their yard. The circular chunk of trunk that faces the street has a two-way split through its center in the shape of a cross, and the cross is surrounded by cracks like the rays a kid draws on a picture of the sun. I must admit, the image looks impressively intentional, and if I weren't a Jewish skeptic when it comes to alleged appearances of the Virgin Mary in cheese sandwiches, or tears and/or blood leaking from Christian iconic art, I might fancy that I even heard ethereal music and saw the rays glowing. I might even contemplate calling the Pope to report the sighting of evidence of the holy spirit....

But I'm too jaded for that.

And thus, I've been joking with my kids that any day now, the media will be at our friends' door when we pull up, and they'll be snapping photos that will appear in the local papers with the caption: "Holy Spirit Makes Appearance in Poway Tree"--or something like that. I also joked that my friends should put the tree on EBay, in slices, like the grilled cheese sandwich in which the blessed virgin's face supposedly appeared (I still marvel that people recognized her after so many years!). So imagine my surprise when I noticed on Facebook that a different friend had as her Facebook photo a picture of the very same glowing cross! I sent her a message, asking whether she'd taken the photo on E--- Road, and she wrote back that she had indeed, and was happy to hear that I'd noticed the cool cross, too.

Imagine again my continued surprise when I called my friend, the tree owner, to tell her about the funny Facebook coincidence, and she asked, "What cross in the tree?"

"You mean to tell me you haven't noticed it?!" I exclaimed. "You mean to tell me that you, the good Catholic, overlooked it? You let your Jewish friend notice the holy ghost in your front yard before YOU did?"

We both cracked up (my same friend from the earlier blog about my demented memory), and she had her daughter pull up the Facebook picture so she could see it for herself. She promised to go look at the log in person when it stops raining. It's still raining as I write this, but shouldn't the glowing cross be worth some wet hair and stained shoes?

"Maybe I can sell slices of the tree," suggested my friend between guffaws, "and pay for the backyard projects I can't justify doing right now!"

"Yeah, and maybe you can put the pieces on EBay and finance that new kitchen you want, too!" I added. "You can call it the Jesus' Kitchen Project."

Oy, such irreverence in the face of possible miracles!

The Problem with Memoirs: They Are Fiction

Given the fact that memories are unreliable as objective recordings of facts, and that memories merely offer perceptions of actual incidents, why call written recollections of the past “memoirs” at all? To create such a genre implies their “nonfictional” status, when in fact, they ought to be labeled “based on a true story,” to keep them from later being called “lies” or “misrepresentations” of the “truth” (whatever the heck that is!).

Recently, a Holocaust survivor published a widely acclaimed memoir, but he enhanced his actual story with a romanticized fiction portion. Thus, he was deemed a fabricator, and his book, a phony memoir. He didn't intend to deceive with his words, though; he intended only to touch hearts. He could have avoided that misconception of himself altogether merely by calling his Holocaust romance a “mostly true” story, or a tale “based on a true story.”

“Memoir” is a bogus word anyway, one created solely for marketing purposes, I think. My siblings and I could write three different memoirs about the same incident in our family life, and each account would sound markedly different, because memoirs merely reflect perceptions of past events, not objective facts. A memoir is not necessarily an excerpt of an autobiography; its most important truth lies in its emotional resonance. Truth is a matter of opinion sometimes....

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sharing Thoughts with Strangers

Although I was at first disappointed about not getting to sit beside my husband on my recent long plane trip to New York, I discovered how a friend can materialize out of thin air--literally, considering our altitude!--when I started conversing with my seat mate, Donnie. Our conversation began with a handshake and my observation that Donnie looked like a younger Morgan Freeman. He laughed, and his eyes twinkled just like Mr. Freeman's, as he nodded. "I've heard that before," he confessed. From the mundane details about why we were traveling, where we live and where we are from originally, and who makes up our respective families, we soon found ourselves immersed in a heavy discussion about our own childhood experiences (with very similar family dynamics!), our shared philosophies regarding child-rearing and education, our views on love and marriage (we have been married the same number of years), religion and spirituality, life and death....

When the pilot announced we'd be landing, we both smiled with disappointment and told each other how much we'd enjoyed this surprise new friendship's evolution during a plane flight. I gave him my business card and told him to email me if he and his wife ever make the trip to San Diego that they have discussed in the past. I added, "Please don't think I'm just talking. I really mean it--stay in touch. My husband and I befriended a guy on a boat in San Francisco, and he gave us his card and told us to contact him if we ever visit Vancouver. We did visit, last summer, and we all had a fun lunch together. So please, don't hesitate to write, okay?"

I got an email from Donnie two days after I got home. He thanked me for a great conversation, and told me it was "exactly what I needed." Now, how 'bout that for memorable words?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Memory--the Operative Word!

My friend Cindy and I were teasing each other this morning about which of us was more forgetful, kind of like a battle of "Yo Mama" jokes about dementia--but WE are the Mamas. She assured me that my forgetting to phone someone, or to take the clothes out of the washing machine, merely reflects that I have three jobs--Mom, Writer, Teacher--and am approaching 50. Some assurance, huh?!

Not five minutes after saying goodbye to her, I reached into my cupboard for a cup so that I could take my fish oil capsule (per Cindy's admonition during our morning get-together--oy, do I sound old or what?). To my shock, I found a half-full cup of coffee sitting among the empty cups! "What the heck!" I could feel my eyes popping out, followed by my hysterical laughter. Alone in my house, freaking out my poor dogs, I howled till my eyes started streaming, and then I picked up the phone.

"Cindy!" I recorded something like this on her message machine: "Okay, I have officially topped you in the battle over who is more demented! I just found a half-full cup of coffee in my cupboard!" I could barely get out the words, I was guffawing so. She called me back within a few minutes, and we continued laughing together. She admitted that my "senior moment" topped all!

At least I called the cup "half-full."

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Blog--Not Meant as Onomatopoiea

When I first heard the word "blog," I didn't know it was a contraction of "web log." I thought of the word as onomatopoeia, because, after reading a few pointless rambling blogs, the word's sound--reminiscent of a burp or reflux noise--seemed an accurate representation of the verbal vomit I equated with "blog." Thank goodness I found out I was wrong.

As I read great blogger's posts, I found myself feeling overwhelmed by the wealth of ideas and talented communicators. Losing myself in perusing blogs, I felt simultaneously guilty and ashamed of "wasting" precious writing time. I wondered why these bloggers were not working instead on writing words for publication in traditional media--a more "credible" job. But then I started blogging...

Now I know why. And if you're reading my words right now, and maybe even smiling, then YOU know why, too.