Managing Life’s Transitions Is Like Counting the Omer

— by Aviva Perlo

Imagine that you are walking through the desert for 40 years. Day after day, week after week. You and 20,000 of your closest friends and tribe’s members move through the wilderness, in hopes for a better life.

You get hot, and then cold, and then hungry, and then tired. Shelter comes and goes. Everything appears to be wide open. The uncertainty of the wilderness seems disorienting, yet exhilarating. To restore some order and structure to the wide-open landscape, you — well, all 20,000 of you — try to build a holy space in the desert using specific measurements and materials, and lots of detail. “Much as we may wish to make a new beginning, some part of us resists doing so, as though we were making the first step towards disaster,” explains English Professor Dr. William Bridges in his book “Transitions: Making sense of life’s Changes.”

More after the jump.
Vulnerable to environmental and situational conditions: desert storms, the winds, the sun, we start to doubt if we will ever get there, and we don’t even know where “there” is. After months of pitching a tent together, shlepping, hauling materials, and not reaching the goal, the people around you start to get on your nerves. Complaining and blaming seem tempting, because it’s easier than facing what is actually happening. Beneath the surface, massive changes are tugging at our hearts, as our identity, security and reality are being forced to change. Tension emerges as we wonder who we are, and where we are going.

This is the story of the Jewish people in the wilderness, as they prepared for revelation. This is also the narrative of what sometimes happens to individuals and families who undergo traumatic experiences of illness, injury and loss. Shift happens, and it’s not easy.

On the Jewish calendar, writes Jewish educator Dr. Erica Brown:

The transition time between leaving oppression [Passover] and arriving at the Promised Land [Shavuot] takes us to a desert that tests us and our leadership. That transition taught us a great deal about what it took to prepare and confront uncertainty, and how important vision is.

We count the Omer, or the wheat harvest, for 49 days. The Omer marks a major transition period for the Jewish people and for the earth. We are becoming a new people on a new ground, and letting go of our former identity and memories as slaves. The earth provides us with her bountiful harvest, which allows us to survive. Physically and psychically, we are tested.

Life also tests us. When tragedies, illnesses and accidents occur, our worldview morphs immediately. Its stability is shaken as reality turns upside down. We try to stop the suffering, but we can’t. The question emerges: what can we hold onto? What will help nurture and sustainin us? Dr. Brown explains that it is hard to “rebuild trust after authority breaks down,” yet it is possible.

The Omer offers three powerful lessons about life’s transitions:

  1. Go gradually — step by step, day by day. When traveling to new lands or trying out new lifestyles, go slowly. Make life manageable by breaking it down into smaller parts, especially amidst murky waters.
  2. Small steps count, and can be a source of blessing. Although grandiosity has its allure, short blessings enable us to get to the next day.
  3. Each step prepares us for what comes next. We cannot just jump from one big milestone to another. There is an invisible journey that we undergo in order to restore our energy and prepare for what may follow. Quiet time and a restful space are required. We cannot dictate the pace. We can cultivate support systems, count our blessings each day, and develop relationships with compassionate mentors and friends.

Transformative experiences involve a combination of pain, growth and wisdom. May we learn to mitigate the pain and be able to receive more of the fruits.

Michael’s Story: A Tale of Resilience in the Wake of Being Shot

— by Aviva Perlo

As I began to write this week, a wave of emotion hit me. Michael is a survivor of gun violence, and the timing now matched the mass shootings and homicides in Newtown, Connecticut. With profound empathy, concern, and a call to action; I share Michael’s story and some thoughts about gun violence. May families and communities from Connecticut, to Columbine, to Virginia Tech, to Arizona, to Louisiana, to Texas, Chicago, Philadelphia, and communities everywhere that are affected by gun violence, receive some sense of comfort and hope for better days.

More after the jump.
Michael and I met through the synagogue where I grew up. His father was the head Rabbi of nearly 5000 congregants for almost 30 years. (Yes, everything is big in Texas.)

Michael was shot 31 years ago. Michael was a student at the University of Texas at Austin when he and his girlfriend, Sharon, headed back to the dorm one night after studying organic chemistry. He noticed the gas gauge was on empty. Michael pulled into a convenient store, borrowed $2 from Sharon for gas, and ran inside to pay. “On one side of the door, I had a regular life, and another side of the door, I was just another statistic of crime” Michael said. The store was in the midst of a robbery. The thieves took Michael in the back to dispense of him so he could not be a witness to their crime. Michael was shot in the back of head, and no one thought he would survive. “The police and paramedics transferred my case to homicide,” explains Michael. “When the neurosurgeon saw I was still alive in the morning, he told my parents there was a 100% chance that I would be a vegetable. Obviously I beat the odds,” he said smiling.

“My dad told Sharon to leave and told her that the doctors said I’d be a vegetable” Michael said. “He told her, you are young, go live your life.” But Sharon replied, “Michael is my life.” She stayed in the hospital that day, and has stayed for decades. Michael and Sharon married years later and had a healthy child together who recently graduated college.

I asked Michael about his recovery. He explained:

My Dad has a true saying. Mile by mile is a trial. Inch by inch is a cinch. Yard by yard is hard. I was getting better slowly. The neurosurgeon told my family I was stable enough to be transferred to a hospital in Houston. A doctor came in my room there and told me I was not going back to college and to focus on more realistic goals. I thought to myself: Who are you to tell me what I cannot do. You don’t even know me. I made it my goal then and there to return to college one day. It was not easy. Life is not easy. I was paralyzed and had to learn to do small things like tie my shoe with one hand. A year and a half later I returned to University of Texas. I had to go to a lot of therapy. But four years later, I graduated with honors.

Michael worked hard to relearn some basic skills of reading, writing, walking, talking, tying his shoes, and more. He obtained a masters degree in counseling. He said his family was tremendously supportive, plus people of all faiths that he did not even know were praying for him. Today Michael works with individuals and families who have survived trauma, mainly head injuries. “I’m on the trauma floor… to help people cope with head injury and spinal chord injury. I do emotional support which means sitting in hospitals and waiting rooms to put a smile on peoples’ faces” says Michael.

One time Michael met a mother in a hospital waiting room whose teenage son had also been shot in the back of the head like Michael. She sat in desperation wondering if he would survive.  Then Michael walked in, introduced himself, sat with her, and gave her living proof of the possibility of hope. I asked Michael if he receives certain reactions from people due to his speech or his walk. Michael is partially paralyzed and walks with two uneven legs. The bullet modified his speech. “Oh is there a way that I walk?” he asked. I froze. He smiled. I laughed in relief. “I use humor religiously” he said, “It is very important” he said. We spoke briefly about the difference between survivors with visible and invisible affects. “I don’t know what it’s like to be a survivor without any signs of it because this is all I know” Michael said. I wondered if his presence raises awareness for others in ways that differ for those who have survived trauma without visible signs of it. “The most important thing,” Michael said, “is to keep hope alive. Do the best with what you have. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

Although gun violence has become a public health epidemic in America today, there is hope. Much is preventable if we can modify our thinking about safety and violence. The question is not are you pro gun or not? Gun violence involves many factors: managing emotions, lobbyists, access to weapons, access to health care, access to medicine, economic disparities, domestic violence, bullying, desires for instant gratification, fear, desires for security, critical thinking about what actually protects us, keeping kids creatively occupied after-school, establishing connections with friends, neighbors, faith groups, and more. It requires thinking beyond black and white binary terms. “I learned that anger is not necessarily a bad thing” said Michael, “It is energy. It depends on what you do with it, how you direct it. We have to use our energy for the good” said Michael.

Psychiatrist Dr. Sandra Bloom writes in her book Creating Sanctuary:

There is a large body of knowledge available about the effects of trauma, the necessary ingredients for healthy child development, [normative] processing of memory and emotions, the importance of human relationships…, problem solving,… and mediation. Unfortunately however, few people know… this. We spend too much time consuming news tabloids and over-sensationalizing… rather than looking at the complex nature of human behavior and interrelatedness that we have with one another….

Jewish tradition says that we are not permitted to hold a knife while praying because prayer is meant to extend our lives, and knives cut our days short. Some commentators extrapolate the same for guns, that guns too must be separate from prayer because they slice our days. Exceptions are made for soldiers in the line of duty. If only we could see that the ‘line of duty’ or the militia as stated in the Second Amendment is separate from America’s streets or schools or shopping centers or homes. These are not the militia. These are the spaces where we are meant to build healthy, beautiful lives. May we learn to value life and to separate the profane from the sacred.

Shabbat Afternoon Tisch at Limmud Philly

— Aviva Perlo

Peninnah Schram’s tisch on Shabbat afternoon at Limmud Philly was amazing.  She wove her own stories together while encouraging us to share as well.  Niggunim, or melodies, carried us in between each story.  The Schlibovitz front-and-center on the table reminded us that this is an age-old tradition of telling stories on Shabbat afternoon and it was time to exhale and enjoy.  At the end, she tried something that seemed artistically challenging but managed to pull it off quite well.  We were divided into three groups and each group represented a particular song and sentiment: love, peace, and faith, and the songs were woven into her story so that each of us contributed to the fullness of one story.  

I admire Peninnah’s storytelling skills and I wonder how many walls she must have knocked down in order to stand tall as a woman maggid years ago.  I look forward to learning more from her, and it was a pleasure to see her embody true talent at Limmud.

More after the jump.
Aviva Perlo lives in Philadelphia and is a social service project manager and improv artist.

Peninnah Schram, storyteller, is Professor of Speech/Drama at Yeshiva University’s Stern College. She is vibrantly elegant in telling Jewish stories of wisdom and wit. Her latest anthology is: The Hungry Clothes & Other Jewish Folktales and CD, The Minstrel & The Storyteller with singer Gerard Edery. Peninnah has received the Covenant Award for Outstanding Jewish Educator and the National Storytelling Network’s Lifetime Achievement Award.