Friday, September 18, 2009


It is the second anniversary of my father’s death. Aliki, my stepmother, in a model coat, brings a cake to the office. I order a pizza and she props an old college portrait of my dad in the center of the lunch table. She cries a lot and shares an extremely vivid recollection of caring for him when he was afflicted with dysentery from sepsis he’d contracted at a hospital. She is alone now but for her seventeen year old cat, who ails and is perhaps the victim of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. Aliki reports she wakes thrice nightly to provide cat ministrations similar to the ones she provided for my dad and which she describes with equal attention to detail. There is plenty of pizza left for the next day’s lunch.

When my father was alive, it was impossible to reach Aliki on the telephone. She was always out running errands. Since his death I am usually unsuccessful in reaching the answering machine. She is always at home. She diligently tracks the comings and goings of the other residents of her Pico Robertson condominium. Recently she reported to the manager an apparently drug fueled nine p.m. swim gathering hosted by one of the residents (a Doctor!), which to her satisfaction was immediately nipped in the bud. She hasn’t touched any of my dad’s possessions. His slippers still wait for him beside the bed. She puts the canister containing his ashes on the table when she lights Shabbat candles. She has stepped very slightly out of her grief and has taken on the role of nosy neighbor and is, to her credit, self deprecating in her acknowledgement of this.

She sees a bike rack on my car and I tell her that I am going to drive the boys to school with their bikes and in the afternoon they’ll ride them to the train station. I assure her that they are experienced bike riders but she is alarmed. I get home late after a miserable day of traversing myriad bureaucratic channels, none of which apparently lead to mortgage modification and sitting with my dad’s portrait and a strawberry cake listening to Aliki struggle to depict the precise coloration of his diarrhea. The kids are hungry and I have some cooking to do for a potluck too. Four pots boil on the stove, I am drenched with sweat, my feet ache and dinner is an hour late. Aliki calls, so hysterical it takes me a minute to recognize her voice. “You cannot allow the boys to ride their bikes! I am worried sick about this. What if they get abducted?” I manage to end the call relatively graciously. My dad would have exploded at hearing her suggest that I am recklessly risking the abduction of my children but he is no longer here to protect me from her. The saddest thing is that he is no longer here to protect her from herself.

My dad would have been 90 this year and I would have had a blow out party for him. On the anniversary of his death, I am invited to celebrate the 90th of Joe Feinman who is as close a kindred spirit to my dad as I’ve ever met. Joe remembers his L.A. visits and several genial coffee shop lunches with my dad and says, “If I’d moved to California and he hadn’t died, we would have been friends.” Dad and Joe were from a generation of Jews who had to be tough. Sometimes through the lens of my college education and expensive therapy it seemed my dad was hard and crass. But he grew up being as he had to be, his toil and his sins, the seeds of my softness.

Himself posted on his blog the results of his Belief-O-Matic test which confirmed my suspicion he’s morphed into a Buddhist. Based twenty questions, the higher a faith appears on this list, the more closely it aligns with your thinking. My gravitation towards Unitarian and Quaker, with their emphasis on social justice, makes sense to me, and at least Reform Judaism ranks in the top ten, although behind Neo-Pagan and New Age (wtf?) and even Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestantism and Buddhism.
Layne’s Belief-O-Matic:
Unitarian Universalism (100%)
Liberal Quakers (98%)
Neo-Pagan (93%)
New Age (82%)
Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (79%)
Mahayana Buddhism (77%)
Reform Judaism (76%)
Secular Humanism (70%)
Scientology (66%)
New Thought (65%)
Taoism (64%)
Theravada Buddhism (63%)
Orthodox Quaker (62%)
Baha'i Faith (62%)
Sikhism (60%)
Hinduism (56%)
Jainism (55%)
Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (54%)
Orthodox Judaism (47%)
Islam (42%)
Nontheist (40%)
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (39%)
Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (34%)
Seventh Day Adventist (34%)
Jehovah's Witness (26%)
Eastern Orthodox (24%)
Roman Catholic (24%)

I’m not going to get into a froth over an Internet quiz, although this one is more provocative and thoughtful than a lot of crap on Facebook I waste my time with, like “Which Disney Princess are you?” (Cinderella). It is erev Rosh Hashanah, one of the few times a year I go to shul. We were weekly minyan makers for a number of years and we have great affection for our tiny backwater temple but lately I go more out of a sense of obligation than with the expectation of sustenance.

A Beliefnet survey indicates that 75% of Americans report that they engage in regular prayer but only 39% attend religious services with regularity. This statistic is noted in a New York Times article “The Right Way to Pray?” by Zev Chafets
A reform rabbi suggests to Chafets that there are only four basic prayers. Gimme. Thanks. Oops. Wow. I like to think that my own spiritual life is more complicated but this is what it really does boil down to. I do pray, usually by myself and with only short spurts of concentration. I seldom go to temple but we are helping Spuds pursue Bar Mitzvah and dedicated to keeping the experience a meaningful one. I write weekly to Jewish convicts, and while I am hard pressed to provide much Jewish content in my letters, I write to them as a Jew, and this correspondence is perhaps my best tribute to this heritage.

Services have always been tough for me because I haven’t bothered to learn Hebrew and while I’ve heard the same prayers over and over, I only have a vague notion of what they mean and my mind wanders. The temptation is to beg off and pursue my own quiet private attempts to tap into the divine. Yet, while I often attend services out of a sense of duty, inevitably, if only for a very brief instant, the experience of prayer is heightened by being surrounded by others in prayer. When I write to my penpals I tell them I am personally ashamed for belonging to the society that imprisons them in inhumane conditions and the truth of this weighs heavily on me and is a main focus of my private prayers. The Days of Awe though, exhorts us to share the responsibility and atone as a community and as a people for all that we should, and should not have, done. I will stand in the crammed old sanctuary and the sun will shimmer and the gray heads crouched over Torah shine silver. We will pound our chests with our fists, so great is our collective sin and so urgent our desire for tikun olam (to heal the world). This will fortify, and not too soon, my belief that the planet can be a more tender place. My private prayers shift from gimme, thanks and oops but perhaps it takes the rarified circumstance of praying as beams of light radiate through the stained glass in the jammed sweltering sanctuary to get to wow.

It is the 2nd anniversary of my father’s death and it is also 21 years ago this week that I met Himself. We have borne two sons and gone gray together. The memory of first laying eyes on each other is hazy. I was wearing a green wool jacket with buttons made from real buffalo nickels and a black silk skirt. I think he was wearing something tweed. Twenty one years later this meeting, a lifetime ago, is the thanks part of every single prayer and without even praying, a constant wow.

L’shanah tova


Fionnchú said...

Wow indeed. Life is taking us both for a rollercoaster lately, and I feel in the upside-down stage now. But, with your savvy and my -- uh, I can't say smarts -- we will endure. Not as long as the fabled "birthday of the world" 5770 years, but old enough perhaps to babble about cats and pizza and grandchildren's perils. Thanks for putting up with me for so long. And, you're more of a Catholic than me, after that long. As you say and say: "whoda thunk it?" xxx me

harry said...

Happy Birthday to Al who has left, and Happy New Year to those who are still here.

Neo pagan was my #1, so given I am unclear exactly what that means am I to conclude that I am confused sprititually, not mindful?

Jamie said...

I had forgotten that the day of my birth was the day your father passed away. 2 years ago I was turning 30 and not feeling any different for it. Today I turn 32 and think wow. Time, how it passes. Everyday is a gift and time past reminds me how lucky I was to come to your little stock footage co. all those years ago. I met a group of great people there, Al at the head. You and your dad are in my thoughts <3 Shotgun

Tito Tinajero said...

I did love the article and made think about how we miss the direction of prayer. I fleshed it out my response.