The long road to desire

Bragging moment: I was accepted into the University Honors Program in college. I even got a scholarship.

That letter in the mail was likely the pinnacle of my academic career. That, or the poetry award I won from Mr. Schaeffer at the end of 9th Grade.

I was your classic underachiever in school. And in retrospect, I completely wasted the distinction The George Washington University placed on me.

In order to maintain the scholarship and my place in the program, I was required to take at least one class each semester offered by the honors track. As always, I did the bare minimum. I followed the rules and aimed for a grade acceptable to me and my parents. (A “B” or above.)

The only classes I remember are two semesters of “An Introduction to Soviet Cinema”– from which I walked away better educated about cinematographic license and with the easiest “A” I ever earned — and my senior seminar with Professor Harry Harding, an expert on Asian-American relations.

I don’t remember why I took this class with Harding, since my interest area was the Middle East. I probably heard from someone that he was kind or didn’t give a lot of homework. I do remember, however, the brilliant research thesis topic I dreamed up for the paper I had to write at the end of the year:

The Influence of Zen Buddhism on American Pop Culture

I wish I could get my hands on that paper. And, then completely rewrite it.  Because whatever I wrote was complete crap and/or borderline plagiarism, I’m sure.

This time, if given the opportunity, I’d actually do the research. I’d read more than the three required books. I’d actually do primary research. Find people to interview. Listen to their stories. Imagine what their lives were like. Swim in their memories. Meditate on them. And then produce a paper that truly encapsulated my brilliant findings and analysis.

But, like most 20-year-olds, I hated writing research papers.  And this was a 25 page research paper, which was the longest by far I was ever required to write before or since.

I loved learning, but I was too bound by the rules and the concern for a good grade  and the concern for a good job and a good career and a good paycheck and a good pitcher of beer to actually do what I imagine most teachers want you to do — learn about something and carry that education forward into your life.

I remembered this research paper yesterday when I watched a video a friend shared on Facebook.

It’s a series of images that illustrate a lecture given once by Alan Watts entitled “What If Money Were No Object?”

The name sounded familiar.  I Googled him. Oh, yeah. He was the guy  in my research paper from senior seminar; recognized as one of the key individuals responsible for bringing Zen Buddhism to the West.

I chuckled. Here was the voice of Alan Watts speaking to me — primary research, 20 years too late.

If only the internet had been more than a chat room on AOL when I was in college.

If only I had heard Watts say:

“What do you desire?
What makes you itch?
What would you like to do if money were no object?

How would you really enjoy spending your life?”

I might have spent more time on my research paper. I might have spent more time wondering if this Alan Watts guy was more than just page filler.

What would I have thought if I had been in that crowd? Would Watts have inspired me?

What message would I have taken away from that lecture?

Would I be the philosopher, the novelist, the soap opera star I sometimes wish I was?

 “Crowds of students say, ‘We’d like to be painters. We’d like to be poets. We’d like to be writers.’

But as everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way…

When we finally get down to something which the individual says they really want to do, I will say to them, “You do that. And forget the money.”

Amen, I thought to myself, when I heard Watts challenge the audience to “forget the money.”

And then, “I wish someone had said that to me when I was 20.”

Easy for me to say now.

Easy now, at 38 years old, with a steady paycheck and two decades of experience making it on my own.

But would I have been able to really hear Watts then?

Would his words have led me to walk a different path?

I don’t know.

My life might have turned out exactly the same.

I was a lot more stubborn then. A lot less likely to listen to someone wiser than me. I might have done exactly what I did. Graduate. Get a job in a non-profit. Be happy that I was finally earning my own paycheck and had my own money to spend on jeans at The Gap in Georgetown. Or on big scrunchies.

Jen in college.

Jen in college.

I really wanted my own money back then. I wanted freedom from my parents. I wanted room to make my own choices. I didn’t see any possible way to achieve both freedom and my desire.

Which makes me think Watts’ advice would have registered only as a temporary instigation.

Not inspiration.

Learn more at alanwatts.com

Learn more at alanwatts.com

Because in our current society set up, it’s practically impossible to forget the money.

We have to follow our desires in spite of the money.

What you need to know if you choose to forget the money is  how you will stay true to your desire when the rest of the world says you need money over everything else. You need to know how you will navigate the expectations of your family, your friends, your neighbors. You need to know how to avoid the pitfalls of consumerism. How to live without a TV; without an SUV; without a weekend getaway.

You need to build your life so that your life is your weekend getaway.

= = = = =

If anyone had asked me when I was 20, I wouldn’t have said then, “I’d like to be a philosopher.”

I wouldn’t have said, “I’d like to be a craniosachral therapist.”

I absolutely would not have said, “I want, more than anything, to be a full-time, paid-loads-for-a-living celebrated writer.”

I didn’t know it then.

And I couldn’t see the way.

And yet, I’ve been fortunate to find my way. To have either landed in or created circumstances in which I’ve been able to recreate my career based on my passions and desires.

I’ve been a children’s book author.

A magazine promoter.

A think tank thinker.

I’ve been a newspaper reporter and an editor.

I’ve designed t-shirts. That celebrities have worn.

I’ve been a web master.

A freelance writer.

A publicist.

I’ve been a business owner. A wellness pusher. A community resource.

I’ve been a brand strategist. And a stay-at-home mom. A Facebook goddess.

I’ve been a C-level executive. A blogger. A consultant. A coach.

I listened to and followed my itch; years before hearing Alan Watts’ speech.

But, along the way, I’ve had to give up desires, too. Ignore certain itches.

I’ve had to choose.

Sometimes I’ve been able to forget the money.

And sometimes not.

Watts does not talk about choices…and consequences.

It’s not easy to follow your desire instead of following the money.

= = = = =

What would I say to a crowd of young people today?

How would I guide them?

I might say something similar to what Watts says: “Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing, than a long life spent in a miserable way.”

I believe this to be true. And I like to think that somehow, accidentally, when I was writing that research paper in college, Watts’ advice penetrated my tired mind as I was lazily investigating the influence of Zen Buddhism on American pop culture.

Perhaps, subtly his words have been guiding me ever since.

But I would also suggest being as flexible as you are determined.

For who knows what you will be when you grow up?

You don’t.

I didn’t. I still don’t.

I still ask myself every day, “What do you desire?”

And then listen for the answer.

Forget the money, yes. But be flexible. At every turn, there is an opportunity if you are primed to notice it.

Ask yourself every day, “What do I desire?” And be strong enough to acknowledge the answer and take action, even if the answer is, “Money.”

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Vote me

If you’re going to blog on Election Day, you better blog about the election, right?

It’s what’s trending. It’s what people are talking about. It’s what’s relevant.

No one wants to read blogs about somebody’s else’s kid on Election Day.

But just in case you’re someone who, like I am, is still in denial about the fact that today Americans vote to re-elect or elect a new president, here is a light and fluffy election-related, but unrelated post from your favorite (or second favorite) Israeli immigrant blogger.

A few weeks ago, my 9 year old immigrant son did something extraordinary. He ran for class representative in the 4th grade.

This would have been only somewhat extraordinary when we lived in the U.S. — my oldest has always been a friendly and confident kid, but nonetheless, I would have been impressed with any one of my children placing their names on a ballot, the results of which would label him a winner or a loser (at least among his peers).

Who does that? Who sets themselves up for that?

But, even more extraordinary is that my kid, the nine year old who has been in this country and part of this school communuity not quite two years, decided to run.

Part of the requirements included a speech in front of the class on why they should elect him.

In Hebrew.

I am so amazed by my children sometimes.

Truly a-mazed.

The kid didn’t even tell us he gave a speech until after the fact. He worked the speech up himself and gave it — off the cuff.

(I think he promised them a really fun year… and maybe some candy.)

People often ask me about the impacts of aliyah on my children. I know much of our happiness here has to do with how happy our kids are, so I often feel very grateful when I tell them our kids are doing beautifully.

They’ve learned the language. They’ve made friends. They even dare to throw their hats into rings.

My son — who ran against 7 other kids — did not win one of the two representative seats from his class.

He was disappointed. And, honestly, so were we.

My immediate thoughts were panic and guilt — “Wait! He was so popular when we lived in America. Did we drastically hurt his popularity by dragging him to Israel? Did we screw him up forever?!?”

Then I realized, “That’s not the point.”

The biggest accomplishment would not have been in winning. We already know this kid makes friends easily.

The accomplishment was that he ran at all.

And, for the first time ever, I felt the truth in the classic, yet typically ineffective cliche, “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.”

Perspectives you don’t get from a degree…or a subscription

There is so much I didn’t know or understand about Israel until I lived here.

That may sound obvious, but it wasn’t obvious to me.

After all, I had visited this country six times before I lived here.

I majored in International Politics with a concentration in Middle Eastern studies.

I studied the Hebrew language for three years at a University level.

I interned at the Embassy of Israel. And worked at three other Israel-related organizations all before I was 24.

I was an assistant editor of a Jewish newspaper in the United States.

And then a freelance journalist covering Jewish news.

I shepherded 20 teenagers on a teen tour through the country.

I married an Israeli.

I thought this qualified me as an expert.

And perhaps I am more expert than some…at reading and writing about Israel.

But not at living here.

Which is okay. Because, now I know so.

A lot of people outside of Israel don’t. And they write about this country, and they flaunt an expert bio and CV they’ve earned through study and degrees and guest spots on political commentary shows.

I don’t begrudge them their bios and CVs. I respect them for their dedication and commitment to the topic of Israel.

However, I do think what’s missing from the bios and CVs of experts on Israel is detailed information about how long they’ve lived here. About what it was like for them to live as a community member among Israelis. To share the roads and the air and the land with Arabs. To walk among us.

Today, on the drive to work, the same I drive five days a week, I found myself passing through Kfar Manda again. It’s the Arab village right next to Hannaton. I pass it every morning on my way to work.

Some mornings I’m listening to the news, and concentrating so hard, I hardly notice the details around me. Some mornings I’m singing Michelle Shocked at the top of my lungs (or the soundtrack from Miss Saigon) and I just give Kfar Manda a nod as I pass through. Some mornings there’s a mix playing, and Kfar Manda is a backdrop for the wistful melodies.

Some mornings, like today, the village comes alive and poetry is born. And in that moment I am far from an expert. Just a student of life. Exploring the world around me. Understanding what I think after writing it all down and seeing what turns up.

I’ve gone back to school. And it’s opening up a world of discovery unlike any I’ve known.

I wish it was a prerequisite to being an expert.

What happens to the boys with flowers in their hair?

I have a theory about Israeli men.

The reason they’re so secure in their masculinity is not due to months of paratrooper training or mandatory military exercises out in the desert.

It’s because, from a very young age, boys are formally taught and encouraged to dance.

And wear leafy crowns.

And carry flowery baskets.

And hold hands.

And revel in the beauty of their own bodies.

Very subtly, the women of Israel (and in modern times, men as well) have taught our male children that moving their bodies in rhythm and wearing beautiful crowns are not signs of femininity. They are expressions of joy.

I was tickled pink the week I accompanied my then four-year-old son to gan when we first made Aliya last year. In addition to the culture shock I got as a mother – kids climbing on top of chairs to build block castles and digging through trash to find treasures in what seemed like a junkyard turned playground out back – I remarked at how integral both singing and dancing were to the preschool program.

Every day, the children would learn a new song, either about the approaching season or an upcoming holiday celebration, and most Fridays, I would arrive at pickup to find my son in the middle of a dance circle, made up only of boys, carrying and waving brightly-colored scarves and stepping in tune to the music.

Not a one stood outside the circle – ashamed to be holding a purple scarf or embarrassed to be moving his body and holding hands with other boys.

Instead, they threw themselves fully into the act – even the ones wearing cargo pants; even the ones who prefer toy trucks to dolls; even the ones who might grow up to be tough guys. They all danced.

Israeli children at gan, Shavuout

And, today, as our community celebrates the harvest festival of Shavuout, the young boys all arrived at school wearing olive crowns and carrying harvest baskets, decorated with white linen and flowers.

As a woman, but particularly as a mother of boys, it’s magnificent to witness – my son and his peers expressing their joy through movement and song without reserve.

But it’s also puzzling. What happens to these boys as they grow up? I wonder. How do they move from dancing to disrespecting and speaking harshly to each other on the soccer field? What happens to these boys who used to hold hands and dance? Who used to wear flowers in their hair and sing songs about the harvest?

I’m still so new in this country. And still so new as a mother, despite almost a decade of parenting.  It’s true, I don’t know yet of the heartache that hardens our sons. The burdens they think they bear. The walls they think they need to put up to protect themselves once they leave the safety of the garden.

I am also still naïve enough, however, to think that there must be something innocent that remains once they leave the gan – something that helps carry our boys through adolescence in a country where men often have to act like “MEN.” Where boys mock each other on the playground and fathers hurl insults at each other from their car windows. Where men, in particular, but all of us need often to operate in a “shuk mentality,” as my husband refers to it. Keep up your guard. Be wary of those who might want to cheat you or steal from you. Yell first, think later.

Something must remain. Something beyond the images the mothers hold dear to their hearts, images of young boys wearing white shirts and flowers in their hair.

It’s been told to me that men grow close to each other during the army. That bonds are formed there. Perhaps, this is true. It’s certainly the obvious answer.

But part of me thinks the bond starts earlier, and then is sidetracked by life. The bonds are built on top of foundations made from purple scarves and olive crowns.

The bonds begin with a dance.