I enjoy being Judy Gumbo

At times. Such as yesterday at a 70th birthday/retirement party for my friends Ruth & Wendel. I had a warm, long rambling conversation with Dan Ellsberg. Dan is 84, he wears gigantic hearing aids;  in order for him to hear I had to speak directly into his ear, close up, which gave our conversation an unexpected intimacy. Somewhere between a father and a lover.  He asked about which folks had died ( sadly I can’t recall exactly who he asked about.) We discussed Vietnam, with special emphasis on my 2013 trip, so I handed him a flyer about our People Make the Peace book & an upcoming reading Oct. 17 in Berkeley with Rennie Davis.

“He’s been trying to contact me. I haven’t replied. Is he still with the little fat guy?” Dan asked, using a phrase all of us did to refer to the guru Rennie attached himself to after our movement died. I told him no, that when I last saw Rennie he was trying to work with folks in Vietnam to help mitigate the effects of agent orange. With some kind of organic chemical solvent. I applaud Rennie’s movitives but did not reveal how uncomfortable Rennie made me as he tried to “sell” the Vietnamese on this untested product. 

My time with Ellsberg was the kind of Judy Gumbo 1960s conversation I remember,  time-travelled into 2105. We talked about getting arrested at Mayday – Ellsberg did, I did not. A failure of leadership on my part; I got so stoned the night before I did not wake up my affinity group in time to get to the designated intersection. Which led an acquaintance to tell Ellsberg she had tried to get Rennie & other Mayday folks to set the demo start time later, but got nowhere. Then she owned up to having had an affair with Rennie. Which prompted Ellsberg to say his grandfather or perhaps great grandfather had an affair with Emma Goldman. How cool is that? I chose not to reveal my affair (save that one for the memoir). Protest  movements are hotbeds of schtupping- then, way back then & likely now. We may be gentle, angry people as Holly Near sings but that is no contradiction to being passionate. Hurray for protest. It brings out sexiness in all of us!

Visiting Stew & David & Atoning for My Sins

I have in the past used the High Holy Days as my opportunity to commune with Stew. He is buried far away in Portland, under a sparkly pink granite tombstone in a tree lined cemetery full of distant pioneers and  Jews more recently deceased. It has been less than a year since David died, while the upcoming anniversary of Stew’s yartzeit is ten years. I knew this Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur would be different.

I may be Jewish but I don’t think of myself as religious. Most of the time, I don’t even consider myself spiritual. Stew and I adoped a Yippie Jewish renewal version of Jewish practices in Portland. I feel at home here at  Kehilla with its empathetic, learned rabbis, feminist music, democratic services and reasonably radical politics.  But when it comes to actual worship – even Rabbi David says that when he’s asked if he believes in God (oops, better capitalize God given it’s the HHD) Rabbi David answers – what do you mean by God?

All of which  leads to me, this Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, to stand in front of my favorite front row seat in the balcony of Oakland’s Masonic Temple with its arcane carvings of faces, crosses and Jewish stars surrounding the stage, wearing my tallis (perhaps from Israel, certainly used in Portland) over my head and around my body, Stew’s yarmulke is on my head (possibly my father Leo’s but one Stew wore in Portland). It’s time for the silent Amida, the silent standing prayer. In years past I would use this holiday ( not a holidary in the celebratory sense but a holiday from daily life frustrations and tasks) to commune with Stew.  Now I visualize not one dead husband beside me but two: Stew with his blond hair & matching tallis  trimmed in gold, humming along to the prayers,  David, the cultural anthropologist, the observer, his bald head nodding off but determined to stay until the bitter end. I stretch out each of my hands – to Stew on my right side, David on my left.  I pretend they are  holding my hands. A single tear makes a channel down my right cheek. That one’s for Stew, I tell myself. It is followed shortly after by a tear down my left cheek, for David. More follow,  I loose count. Never before has this happened at any service.  Usually I just tear up – I feel the tears behind my eyes but they hide, they do not show themselves. In the past I usually tear up toward the end of  Avinu Malkenu. And the Mourner’s Kaddish. But I don’t truly cry. This time I let myself go. Deep in. To what others call the center of the Tabernacle, the holy of holies. Rationally I believe my imaginings have to do with my still raw grief for David, but emotionally all this is new. And difficult. Exhausting.  And at the same time healing.

I believe the liturgy says that you are not the person today you were this time last year.  Darn right I’m not. Here are some sins for which I was granted atonement today. I may begin to sin again this very same way tomorrow morning. (Do the Catholics do it better?  Is it easier to change your behavior by  confessing and being forgiven every time you feel motivated rather than once a year?) Still, this evening I have been forgiven for:

  • going automatically to worst case scenario
  • using fear as a blanket to keep me from moving forward
  • Being too self critical. Lacking compassion for myself 
  • holding myself to perfectionist standards
  • moving so fast so I miss the details. And as a result I don’t remember them

Here’s what Stew gives me: fire, courage and a syncretic way of thinking. Here’s what I got from David – the ability to go slow and be a Stoic about the bad stuff. Thank you my dear guys. You both loved me. And I will do the best I can this coming year to live according to your gifts. 

Compassion For Myself?

Rosh Hashana was hard. I tell myself I should have expected difficulties but I did not have a sense beforehand of the depths to which I’d go.    A theme of this year’s Kehilla service was to recognize and pay attention to the words one’s inner, still small voice is telling you before the gates close and your direction for the next year is sealed in the Book of Life. Here’s what I wrote about how I missed the mark.

“By being too self-critical and holding myself to perfectionist standards. By moving too fast and going to worst case scenario.”

” Do you believe in God? ” I remember asking Stew at a Yom Kippur service  at Havurah Shalom in Portland, whose building was that same style Masonic Temple with rows of creaky, uncomfortable, brown wood seats, tall opaque windows with trim decorated in carved mystic symbols that include both crosses and Jewish stars. I feel comfortable at Kehilla since in look,  feel and politics it replicates and in music surpasses Havurah, where Stew and I revived our Judaism.  Stew would stand beside me and hum along off-key to  Avinu Malkenu, but he never answered the question. He just put his arm around my shoulder and folded me into his Tallis trimmed in gold that matched his hair. The Tallis that I wrapped Stew in when I buried him in Portland. And David was an avowed atheist, culturally Jewish but with such an engineer’s brain his interest in spiritual practice was as an observer – Jewish or Buddhist.

At Kehilla this past Monday, during the Avinu Malkenu prayer with its soaring music I raised my arms, not high, but one on each side of my body, my hands low just off my thighs. I reached out to Stew on my right, David on my left.  I hummed along like Stew, but  I was so overcome with emotion, so overwhelmed by loss  I could barely get a sound to come out of my mouth.  Rational Judy tells me I am imagining all this to ease my grieving;  the Judy who believes in a spiritual universe feels comforted in the belief that in this new year I will have both my guys to support me, one on each side.

I  still can’t answer that question of belief in the divine, except to say a bearded old guy on a throne in the sky is not my an image  I relate to. I know, if I don’t believe in the divine, how can I turn away from my sins or even commune with my two ghosts? I have no answer to that either. And what about being too hard on myself?  About telling myself I don’t know how to extend the rachmonis, the compassion that is a hallmark of this holiday to my life. I do know this: if I can tap into the love I feel for Simon, perhaps I can figure out how to practice compassion for myself at least during these ten days.  I hope so.


A different Jewish New Year

L’shana tova. A good new year to all.  Since I met David, I’ve used Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services as my once-a-year opportunity to visit with Stew.  David knew, he didn’t mind, and only once did David  come with me – when we were courting.  He made it palatable for himself by calling himself a cultural anthropologist,  which meant he did insist on fasting and staying to the bitter end of YK.  I just now realized these high holy days will feel quite different from any previous:  I now have two dear departed ghosts to commune with.

I’ve been neglecting you dear blog friends. I promised more to come on the Barb 50th Anniversary.  And I did not come through.  That event took place mid August.  A huge success. 150 people, terrific PR.  I still hope to post what I wrote about it but in the meantime you can  get a good sense from my FB page and from http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Berkeley-Barb-underground-paper-50-years-later-6417936.phphttp://www.sfchronicle.com/entertainment/article/Lefties-come-home-for-Berkeley-Barb-reunion-6442444.php

David’s memorial was this past Labor Day. Another huge success. 100 people who sang, told David stories that brought him back to life and ate chicken & Portobello mushrooms barbecued by Dan, my wonderful son-in-law.  Had he lived,  Labor Day would have been our 6th wedding anniversary. I needed to be surrounded by friends & I was.  On top of all that, I sent 50 pages of Yippie Girl to a literary agent who turned me down with the best rejection letter ever.  “The writing has great style,'” he says then goes on “and doesn’t fall into the usual sins of memoir which are excessive misery and naval gazing…Yours is an important story and you have done a superb job of bringing to life a time and place that seems almost like a different country.”  While I liked this guy a lot I had qualms about him from the start after he told me didn’t really like the 1960s since his girlfriend had left him to become a hippie.  I am glad he saw on his own that he was not the right fit for me. So now I am on to another agent. We’ll see right?

On top of all this at the end of this  month I am going to Maine, then Woodstock for the opening of Justin Schein’s film about David’s cousin & Abbie’s and my friend Mayer Vishner. Film is about Mayer’s “existential project” – taking his own life.  After that NYC for 3 days then home Oct. 7.

All these are headlines.  Headlines that take up a lot of my time. Internally I still wake up way too early focusing on fear & creating my own worst case scenarios  “The night is dark and full of terrors,” opines one of the female characters in Game of Thrones – a show I can no longer watch because I find it is too scary.  Days are pretty much fine altho I am often tired.