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Musing for Meaning

Lost in the Forest

August 26, 2012

Have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t know how in the world you would get out of it? Well, this summer I had one of those.

Another couple and I, along with their teenage son, decided to go on what was supposed to be a fairly short and leisurely hike.

My husband dropped us off at the path, and planned on meeting us an hour later on the other side. I had one small bottle of water, my partially charged cell phone, and far from the sturdiest of shoes.

We continued on our way until we were far from any recognizable trail. We began to bushwhack, our legs burning from the poisonous plants. By the time we went another mile or so at a steep incline, I didn’t think I could take another step. There was no end in sight, and I was seriously doubting if we were even headed in the right direction.

We were out of water. We were out of foodWe were out of water. We were out of food. We barely had any battery left on the cell phone, and had no idea where we were, other than lost in the Vermont National Forest. If we continued uphill, the cell signal would be stronger (until the battery completely died). Yet uphill was quite strenuous, and likely we had miles to go until we would hit a road or some form of civilization. Heading back down was physically easier, but if we couldn’t find our initial path, we wouldn’t have the energy to make it back up.

I really began to worry when the most confident of our group placed a call in which he described who we were, what we were wearing and where we set off on the hike. He said, if we weren’t back in a few hours, to make sure a rescue team came for us.

We decided to head back down the mountain. We knew the risks, but felt it was the best bet. Fortunately, we did not get diverted, and eventually made our way back to the original dirt road, where my husband was patiently waiting with many cold bottles of water in the car.

While I had decided I would not be hiking for some time, when another opportunity came up to hike to one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Vermont, I had a hard time saying no. But this time we were hiking with my brother-in-law, a very experienced hiker who had previously done this hike. And we would be on a trail. A real one. With markings along the way.

The hike went off without a glitch, and we enjoyed every minute of the process. After the hike I realized that in total, this hike hadn’t been that much longer than the hike when we got lost. This hike also had extensive uphill sections and was fairly challenging, and yet it felt entirely different.

Comparing my two experiences, the reason became clear. When we were lost, and had no idea where we were heading or where we would end up, every step was difficult because a step in the wrong direction meant two more to rectify. And when you are not sure where you are going, it is impossible to enjoy or appreciate where you are. You can’t admire the beauty when all you can think about is how you are lost.

My two hike experiences became a great parable for my life.

I am often asked if I lead a Torah-observant lifestyle because I think it will ensure that I have a life of blessings. People often assume that I keep the rules as a guarantee that I will be kept from trouble. But in truth, it has nothing to do with that.

Does that mean it will be an easy climb? Not in the leastLiving life according to the Torah in no way means that you aren’t going to have difficulties, challenges, or even tragedies. But for me it means being on the right track, knowing where I am headed, and knowing what my final destination is. Does that mean it will be an easy climb? Not in the least. Does it mean I won’t slip or fall? No promises whatsoever. But it means there is a roadmap with signs along the trail letting me know I am on the right path and heading the right way.

Just knowing that I am on the trail means that I am not just hiking for the destination, but can enjoy the journey along the way. I can stop and smell the flowers (literally), and take pictures of the amazing view. My legs will still ache from the steep incline, and the bug bites will burn just as much, but knowing I am not alone, that I am never alone, makes all the difference.

I follow the Torah not because I think it provides me a shortcut or a free pass from the challenges in life. I follow it because I believe, with all my heart and soul, that it is my GPS, and will redirect me when I get lost, and will help get me to where I need to go, even if my journey ends up being long and hard.

And, funny enough, while others often see my decision to live life this way as a way out of making my own decisions, I see it as the road less traveled by. One I have most definitely chosen. And one that, for me, has made all the difference.

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.

Safe Travels

August 19, 2012
Picture I took at one of the bends in the road
Picture I took at one of the bends in the road

The road to the house in Vermont where we spend our summers is a narrow dirt road. It has only one lane, but accommodates two-way traffic. There are no lights. No rails. Oh, and on one side the road abruptly drops off down a steep cliff into an embankment.

Did I mention that I have no depth perception? Really, none. When I went to take an eye test, they had me put on those funny glasses and told me to pinch the wings of the butterfly I was looking at. I had no idea what they were talking about. The picture looked the same to me with or without 3D glasses. Yup, absolutely no depth perception.

Did I mention that I have no depth perception?So, needless to say, I do a lot of praying every time I drive down this road. I keep my window wide open, refuse to turn on any music, and—to the utter humiliation of my kids—I often disturb the peace and quiet by honking, just to let anyone who may be coming from the other direction know that I am on the road.

Usually, when two cars meet on this road, whoever is closer to a cut-out will pull over and let the other car pass. But, being that I lack depth perception, there is no way in the world I am going to reverse near the edge of a cliff. That is why I am so careful to let cars know I am coming, with the sincere hope that they will pull aside to let the tourist pass. (Honestly, who else would honk on this road?)

Recently it struck me that this road has a few important lessons to teach. At home, when I get into the driver’s seat, I feel pretty invincible. Even if I am driving 60 MPH (okay, 70 MPH) down the highway, I don’t really think or worry about the other cars on the road, and I don’t pay much attention to my surroundings unless I absolutely must. Scarily enough, I sometimes arrive at my destination so focused on some thought that I have no recollection of having driven there.

Not so on our lovely Potter Road in Vermont. When I drive this road, it takes all of my concentration. I am acutely aware of the risks and dangers, and think of nothing other than the road ahead and other drivers who may have to share it with me. When two cars meet, each driver must be sensitive to the other. We are in this together and need to figure it out together.

You see someone, you smile, you wave. Period.Communication helps. That’s something I love about Vermont: All drivers wave to each other. It is an unspoken rule. When you pass another car, you wave, smile and say hello. When we first started coming here I thought I must have a really familiar-looking face, since everyone thought they knew me! But my husband, who was born and bred here, introduced me to this Vermont “law” that being friendly is par for the course. You see someone, you smile, you wave. Period.

We all get so busy with our lives that we can forget to slow down and recognize that there are others who need to pass. We can be so focused on our own situations that we don’t move to the side for another. But on this road, that isn’t an option. And that reminder is right there, where the road ends and the cliff begins.

In life and relationships, you must tread carefully (and a smile and wave to those we’re passing never hurts).

Lately, as I have been daring to make this drive alone more often, I have been thinking about the Prayer for Travelers. Whenever one travels by sea, air or car, there is a certain amount of danger involved. So the rabbis established that we should recite a prayer for a safe trip. This prayer is usually recited for longer journeys, but it may be recited for even a short trip in a dangerous area. I think my road counts!

Truth be told, the majority of the times when I recite the prayer, I am not really worried. Sure, I say it on the runway before the flight takes off, and we recite it during a long car ride, but I am never really concerned. I love to fly, and I fall asleep in the car (when I am the passenger!). I am not filled with trepidation, or even very aware of the possible dangers involved. And because I am not, I am not grateful when we arrive. I always assumed we would.

But every time I make it to the end of Potter Road, I breathe a sigh of relief, and thank my Creator for the fact that I didn’t misjudge the space, or swerve too far on a turn.

And this gratitude, this awareness, this realization sets the tone for the rest of the day. This road is not only a way of getting to where I am going, it allows me to remember how careful I must always be, and how fragile life truly is.

In life and relationships, you must tread carefullyI look down the embankment, and am unable to ignore what could happen on this drive. While it’s scary to think about, it also makes me truly appreciate the blessing of arriving safely at my destination. And that is the point of the Traveler’s Prayer. We ask for protection and safety, and we recognize when it has been received. For a blessing is a blessing only if you allow yourself to see it.

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.

The Simple Life

August 12, 2012
My daughter in our front yard
My daughter in our front yard

Every summer, before we leave, I ask myself the same question: what in the world are my kids going to do all day for six weeks? And every year, I am amazed at how their days are filled and full.

A few years back, we were in a situation where we weren’t financially able to send our kids to summer camp. We knew that keeping them home all summer simply wasn’t an option when their friends would be out all day, so we made the decision to pack up and spend the summer near family in Vermont.

It was the best decision we ever made.

Since then, every summer my children refuse to go to camp, because they don’t want to miss out on a single minute in Vermont. And yet, every June I have the same fear that they will be bored, will have nothing to do and be miserable.

What in the world are my kids going to do all day for six weeks?I guess that sometimes I tend to underestimate my children.

To be fair, they hadn’t been out of school a complete day when the whining began. There was nothing to do. There was no one around. They were bored. And no matter what I offered, it didn’t seem to do the trick.

Yet we take that six-hour drive to Vermont, and everything changes. For all of us.

Picture this: we are on the top of a mountain, on a dirt road five miles from the nearest house, with the national forest across from us. The only noise comes from the chirping of the birds and the occasional tractor that passes by. The air is clean and cooler, so we sleep with blankets at night (yes, while the rest of the East Coast is suffering from a heat wave).

We get our vegetables from the garden and our eggs from the nearby chickens, and when my kids want to swim we go to the lake. We close the windows and shades during the day to keep the hot air out, and leave them open at night to let the cool air in. That is our air conditioning.

Oh, and for a technologically obsessed family (with two parents who earn their livings through the Internet) we have no Internet connection from the home. (Which is why I am currently sitting in the Wardsboro Public Library, a transformed barn from the 1800s.)

The simple life.

There is something about getting away, getting back to basics, that puts everything in perspectiveThere is something about getting away, getting back to basics, that puts everything in perspective. Here, all we do is an adventure. Everything takes planning and time, since the nearest “market” is a twenty-minute drive away, as is the dump where we must bring our garbage. But what a drive it is! The trees, grass, mountains are incredible. We wind through the beauty seen in postcards as we stop to snap and make our own.

And, amazingly enough, the kids love it.

Why? I think it’s because we utilize all of our time. We spend it together. We make it count.

Back home, I waste a lot of time. Hate to admit it, but I do. There are so many errands to run and things to take care of that can drag out and fill much more time than needed. There is so much distraction that it can be hard to stay on track. And even when I work, I must check my e‑mail ten times an hour, and then respond when that little “ding” rings letting me know that someone sent me an instant message.

But here, I don’t waste a second. I sign into the library computer and I focus. I don’t respond to anything unnecessary, I don’t look at sites to get that mental break, I just do what I need to do—and actually, I do it much faster and much better. And when I get back to our house in Vermont, I can’t check e‑mail, so I talk with my kids, eat with them, focus on them and nothing else, since there is nothing else to focus on.

I was just speaking with a woman who is going through an extremely difficult time. I begged her to try to get away for a day, or even for a few hours, for a break. She needs some time for herself to refocus, regroup. She asked if I really thought that such a small break could make a difference, and I responded that I thought it could make all the difference.

We disconnect in more ways than one, which allows us to reconnect in the deepest of waysAs we spoke, I realized that this is one of the beautiful meanings and benefits of Shabbat. For six days we work, we are immersed, we create. But for that one day, only 1/7 of our entire week, we stop. We live the simple life. We recognize and allow creation to happen without our input. We refocus. We regroup. And because we are not allowed to do anything else, we appreciate what not doing feels like, and how important it is.

Shabbat is not the end of our week but the center of the week, the purpose of the week. This is why we say in the prayers, “Today is the first day of Shabbat . . . today is the second day of Shabbat . . .” The week revolves around Shabbat, not the other way around.

I think for us Vermont is like the Shabbat of our year. For more than ten months we are crazy busy, immersed with work, teaching, schedules, school, errands and life in general. But then summer comes, and we get away. Each kids packs two small bags, and somehow it is enough, and more than enough, for the whole summer. We disconnect in more ways than one, which allows us to reconnect in the deepest of ways. And we once again learn what it means to fill a day without distraction.

And then, when summer comes to an end, we will return home. Rejuvenated. Appreciative of what we have there, while remembering what we had here. And yes, those distractions will return, but so will having real air conditioning on a really hot day, and a supermarket around the corner when I forgot that one ingredient, and my garbage picked up from my back yard so that I need not fill my trunk with it for a twenty-minute drive!

Will we miss Vermont? No doubt. But I think that is the beauty and lesson of it all. To learn to be present in the situation you are in. To take advantage of its advantages, while trying to minimize those disadvantages. And to always have something to look forward to, that reminds us of what really counts and what it is all about.

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.

The Silent Scream

August 5, 2012

With my kids in the lake on a daily basis, I was reviewing once again the rules for swimming safety. And if you are like me, once you get started on one possible disaster, you find yourself reading about a variety of possible disasters. So drowning led to choking, and so on.

In addition to learning the warning signs and what to do, as counterintuitive as it may seem, I discovered a fascinating connection that most of these extremely dangerous and deadly situations have in common . . . silence.

I have been thinking about this a lot. How dangerous silence can be . . .In almost every scenario that I read about, the true sign that extreme danger was at hand was when the victim made no noise. In the case of drowning, a victim does not shout for help and wave his arms frantically; rather, the one drowning makes no noise at all and appears passive, doing not much of anything. Not to say that a person screaming does not need help, but that person is not actually drowning if able to scream.

The same is true with choking. If one is coughing, gagging, making noise . . . you are to leave them alone. They are in the process of trying to work out what is blocking the airway. But they are not completely blocked, or there wouldn’t be any noise. What is most dangerous, and what requires immediate intervention, is when the person is silent.

I have been thinking about this a lot. How dangerous silence can be. We all joke that we know our kids are getting into trouble when they are too quiet. Kids should make noise, and if they don’t, they are probably up to something. But in so many other situations we mistake quiet for being fine, when in truth it could be the biggest proof of a problem. We can be shocked to discover that the quiet kid is depressed or, G‑d forbid, took his life. He was always so well behaved! He never said anything! But he was saying something, we just weren’t listening. His silence was saying it all.

When someone can scream for help, be it in a pool, a restaurant or a classroom, that kid needs help. But the fact that he is screaming means he is much better off than the one who can no longer scream. The one who no longer wants to scream. When it comes to those around us, we need to learn how to hear what isn’t being said.

Sometimes it is the one not saying a word who is begging to be heardWe are in the month of Av, the most difficult of all the months of the Jewish calendar. The month that represents death and destruction, yet also provides the basis and opportunity for renewal and growth. According to Kabbalah (Arizal’s commentary on Sefer Yetzirah), each month in the Jewish calendar has its own “sense” which is most prevalent in that month. The month of Av is the month of hearing. Each month is also represented by a Hebrew letter, and the letter for this month is tet, which is the concept of something hidden. Inherent in this month, then, is being able to hear what is hidden.

It is easy to focus on the kid who is acting out and screaming for attention. And it is easy to ignore the quiet, well-behaved kid who is not making any trouble. But often we need to do the opposite. We can’t assume that if trouble is happening, we will hear it. Rather, we must look around and see who isn’t making any noise, and try to figure out why not. Because sometimes it is the one not saying a word who is begging to be heard. And if we listen to the silence, it might just tell us a lot.

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
Every situation we find ourselves in is a lesson waiting to be learned. That is what this blog is about. From the people I meet, the places I go and the experiences I have, stories emerge, each teaching me something that I hope you will find useful for your life as well.
Sara Esther CrispeSara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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