Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What's in a Name

Leah (Weary One)

If all the world
were made of fire
sliding, shifting
blindingly hot
I would take shelter
at the edges which
chose to let some
slip through

If all the world
were made of marble
cool, smooth
I would slip into a crevice
that curved gently
and pillow my head
on my arms

I wrote this poem somewhere in my teen years, earlier rather than later, maybe ninth grade? It was a response to the Modern Hebrew meaning of my name; although Leah is Biblical its ancient definition is unknown. Leah is not very popular either as a traditional Hebrew name (compare the other Matriarchs – Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel) or as a Biblical character. She pales in comparison to her sister Rachel, the wife that Jacob truly wanted and loved and the tragic heroine who dies in childbirth. Rachel’s relationship with Leah is contentious: Leah envies (must envy?) Rachel’s ability to hold their husband’s love and Rachel envies Leah’s fertility, a gift from God that the Bible states (Genesis chapter 29, verse 31) He gave her because she was unloved by her husband. The rabbinic commentators soften this tension between the sisters by relating a number of stories: Rachel offers Leah the secret word that will help her trick Jacob into thinking she is Rachel when at their marriage bed, while Leah prays for a daughter (after six sons) so that Rachel will bear two of Jacob’s twelve promised sons and thereby be at least equal to the handmaiden wives, already mothers to two sons apiece. Rachel is reported a clear beauty; Leah’s eyes are “soft” or “weak: (“rakot” in Hebrew, described in Genesis chapter 29, verse 17). One commentator, Rashi, relates that Leah’s eyes were so because she cried bitterly at her fate to marry Esau, as people would say that the two daughters of Laban were to be matched to his sister’s two sons, elder to elder and younger to younger. By this explanation one might infer that her life as she lived it, married to Jacob who did not love her, could only have been preferable. Leah’s history hardly felt happy and as a child I was not strengthened by the association with such sorrow. Also, I am named after my father’s sister, the one just above him in family order and one of three Strigler sisters who perished in Poland during the Holocaust. She had straight silky blonde hair as a child, so different from mine, and aquiline features with high cheekbones. This personal family history was also heavy and a reminder of the aunt and other family members I was never able to meet, but I was happier to have my name represent that heritage because it was personal, a legacy that I found important. By chance my Sephardic grandmother, who I knew well as a child, was also named Leah in Hebrew and so we were able to say that my name was also in honor of her and followed Sephardic tradition as well.
I prefer strongly to have my name pronounced the Hebrew way. It is often a bad sign if I do not bother to correct someone on this point. Star Wars came out when I was nine and did me a great service as I could reference the movie in explaining how to pronounce my name. I often get called “Princess” as a result but that I can tolerate happily although I hardly think of myself as princess-like, in any way. But having my name evoke some levity is lovely, a relief from the wearying consideration of life and legacies.
©2010 Leah Strigler

Resolutions and Resolve

Two weeks or so into the New Year many may be ruefully reconsidering their new year’s resolutions, even if only in the privacy of their own thoughts. A number may have already “failed” to keep resolutions and/or decided that they are too ambitious to achieve. These first days can be heavy with determination, often too much so. The fifteenth was a potent day astrologically: a New Moon and solar eclipse as well as the day that Mercury turned direct after its last bout of retrograde motion. A number of astrologers noted that it felt like the true beginning of the year, so one may use that as an excuse for getting a late start on the goals for 2010 and mark one’s progress from then.
I have a general strategy to suggest for dealing with the stress of falling off the wagon in regards to resolutions. It is one that I try to employ myself when I am feeling weak in resolve – or at least a rationale that I use in retrospect, facing my own shortcomings. Consider your resolutions, especially the ones that have you chafing, and choose to break them - some or all - deliberately. If you can I encourage you to enjoy doing so, relishing in the bad behavior or habits. It is OK. Show yourself that the worst can happen, you can wallow in the state of being only human. You can still return to your new practice, get back on the horse. You may find that you have already begun to lose the taste for that which you decided was not good for you. Or, perhaps, you might realize that your resolution is one that you do not really desire or one that you need to refine. By breaking your new rule at the outset you can test your resolve and strengthen it. By forcing “the worst that can happen” you can start again with a clearer sense of whether your goal is suitable for this moment in time, how ready you are to undertake your planned changes and what it will take for you to move forward. Maimonides is famous for noting that true repentance occurs when one finds oneself in the same situation and does not repeat the same behavior. His point is that one has to face the same temptations and not repeat the same mistakes. With him in one’s ear it might be easier to forego the ice cream, keep oneself from shouting or haul out of bed for morning exercise. This strategy of mine offers a variation on that scenario, with a more forgiving twist. We humans tend to rely on our foibles and feebleness in order to excuse ourselves when we fall down on our intentions or high idealistic standards. Much personal growth literature would counter such weakness or fallibility with the kind of advice that I am offering, albeit with the truism that one can reform at any time. All too true, but I would add that the importance of experience as education and the pull of one’s intuition suggest that being drawn to old behaviors may also be purposeful; you may have something else to recognize or realize from succumbing. So do so, enjoy it, but pay attention to what you learn about yourself up until that moment and the changes that are already underway.
I went to Barnes and Noble over the weekend and was surprised that the sale table of calendars contained none of the business-looking datebooks or planners that Barnes and Noble publishes. What were left were wall calendars and page-a-day ones. Were all of the ones that I was looking for sold out? I find that unlikely and so this absence is a mystery to me. Wondering about it led me to think about all of the different kinds of available calendars and how they help us shape the plans of our daily lives. What would one look like if it was focused on helping us measure our goals and desires, how much we see ourselves improving and what steps we feel we need to take next? Lately I have also found myself having myriad discussions about how to self-motivate, especially important for those of us whose work lives are not typical, an increasingly growing group. More and more I describe the importance of making fun, creating a game and figuring out what sorts of counting and accounting motivate you. Improving and evolving need not be a chore and it is a process I think well worth documenting, even if just to yourself.
©2010 Leah Strigler

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Certain Something

I remember one day in the early 80s when I waited on the corner of 79th street and Madison Avenue for the M17 (now the M79) cross-town bus to travel home from school. It was relatively cold – everyone was wearing coats – and the bus was taking a long time to arrive, so the prospective riders grew increasingly annoyed. One woman finally lost patience and hailed a cab. The one that stopped was dispensing a passenger and the man took his time. The waiting woman became more and more aggravated at his slowness, puffing up and readying to yell or strike when he emerged; imagine the Big Bad Wolf getting ready to blow. I was attentive to the moment, sensitive soul that I am, because I was anticipating her outburst with mild dread. His business done, the man finally emerged from the cab – and when his face turned out he was immediately recognizable as Warren Beatty. I have never seen a woman’s face change so fast; she near melted as he straightened up, glanced down at her briefly but did not smile or speak and then started walking away. I do not remember exactly what she did next – I think that she took awhile herself as she was climbing in while trying to follow the movie star with her eyes. I too was watching him, as who could not. Even for native New Yorkers glimpses of stars are a treat and I was a young teen. Also, he was not just famous and good-looking but incredibly suave in his gait, a fair swagger. I do not know if he had any idea of how angry the woman had been; I believe that he knew the effect he had on onlookers, but I am likely projecting his reputation onto this memory. I well remember how tall he appeared and how square the shoulders of his coat seemed, matching his face and jawline.
This sighting remains one of my favorites and one of the funniest I have experienced. It came back to me as I saw a headline about the new Warren Beatty biography and the report that he had slept with almost 13,000 women. At the time that I saw him I had some sense of his reputation but it was pretty tame compared to what I later understood. I know that at the time he was quite at the height of his fame and handsomeness. It became clearer on that day just what the fuss was about in regards to his particular self. He was also a striking example of how attraction is not just about one’s physical attributes, however beautiful, but also about one’s aura and air. He had a certain something that was broadcasting loudly, even in the absent-minded moment on a street corner.
Part of the fun of this memory is how many ways I can spin it. I wonder what any male onlookers thought of the scene. I wonder too how Beatty would have behaved differently if he had decided to hold that woman’s attention and even return it. I muse over how celebrities pique our curiosity and devotion and that even with their domination of screens of all sizes there is something different about them when seen in person; it is sometimes more magical and certainly notable.
©2010 Leah Strigler

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Power of Ten

The turning of the decade had me thinking about the classic and cliché application/interview question: Where do you see yourself in ten years from now? Where indeed? Today I am less certain of the answer to that question then I have ever been in my life. I should be petrified perhaps but instead it feels OK; I believe that is because everything in the world seems like it is shifting so. I am no doomsayer but I do have a more than passing interest in the New Age; I am finding 2012 a useful benchmark to contemplate, more manageable since it is only two years out and it is long familiar - I remember the stories and prophecies about the date from my early days of reading science fiction.
In a related vein then, I wonder as well where our universe will be in ten years, or at least our planet – I should downscale my goals and wonderings, since I do have the tendency to be too ambitious and macro in my thinking. The world, the scale of things, and the power of ten all make me think of the classic short film by Charles and Ray Eames, which was also imprinted on me in childhood:

I am not sure why ten is such a powerful number, even though I understand how useful it has proven to us humans in creating counting systems for so many ideas in our world: years, ages, money and more. These things are the building blocks of our lives. In the same way that our bi-furcated bodies echo the dualities we so often notice, groupings of ten underscore much of what we are concerned with on a daily basis. As I embark on this new decade I want to keep this mystery about ten an open question, a thinking game and something to wonder about on occasion, no matter what answers have been given in the past.
Getting back to the interview question, we humans do tend to put a lot of faith in our ability to imagine the future and make it come true as we desire. But our lives, especially whole decades of them, contain twists and turns that make what we imagined seem suddenly or in retrospect impossible, unappealing, or beside the point. Without getting into any debate about the Law of Attraction, I think that part of the appeal of a decade is that it is still so far in the future that it seems like science fiction, a world that we cannot yet fully imagine and so carte blanche for us to let our imagination rip. Thoughts do become things but we need not be attached to all of them or hold them forever. It is sad then that in so many contexts where the question is asked the range of answers is actually quite constricted, a narrow band of what would be considered acceptable or pleasing. In my career counseling sessions I do bring up the question occasionally; most often I emphasize the irony of it or remind people that the point ahead in time is in reality a moving target, subject to revisions and romantic flights of fancy. These are personal lessons for me; I have experienced the limitations of holding onto both the past and the visions of the time to come even as they shift. A resolution for this year is to be more aware of how all is fluid and all is now.
On New Years Day a friend commented on the bliss of being in the present moment and how so much of our troubles stem from fretting about the future. This may be all too true, but if we would like our world to be here in ten years from now, in whatever form we may desire and presumably with humans still inhabiting it, then there are some things that we should be worrying about. Perhaps the power of ten can help here – letting us enjoy the moment (picnic in the park anyone? Well, maybe in the Southern Hemisphere…) while offering a way to remain alert to all that is happening simultaneously in the larger world and on other planes. A question of perspective, and framing and how to experience time; these are all good things to think about at the outset of a new year when we use our counting system to give ourselves a fresh start. Here’s to a decade of growing awareness, widening perspectives and multiple answers.
©2010 Leah Strigler