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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Karen Armstrong, The Freelance Monotheist

"People equate religious faith with believing things."

"A lot of religious people prefer to be right rather than compassionate."

Most of all when mentioning Hillel's summary of the Torah ... “Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study"

Just a few of Karen Armstrong's words that moved me to reconnect with a religious practice. No one else ever described the need for religion, the legitimacy of wrestling with religious concepts and ideas, and the emphasis on behavior and doing rather than believing. It doesn't matter whether the ideas new, hearing her perspective completely reoriented me. Whatever they awakened in me, they have led me to Judaism.

Below is a video of her TED Talk (about 20 min), and here is a link to her interview that truly changed my spiritual life on what was then called Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett, (now On Being) "The Freelance Monotheism of Karen Armstrong."

Monday, June 27, 2011

My first date with Torah !

Today I read Torah!! I couldn't actually believe I was doing it. I read intently, and even read some parts more than once.

It may seem insignificant, but I haven't even picked up a Bible and opened its pages in about 10 years. I can distinctly remember throwing away a Bible a couple of years ago. I vowed that I would never allow any religious babble to brainwash me the way I had been in the past. I guided myself through the next few years with sessions on a therapist's couch, and episodes from Oprah and Sex and the City. I take comfort in knowing every episode (from every season) of Sex and the City, and the fact that I can recommend one for any particular problem a person is going through means that 55 Torah portions will be a piece of cake (to remember the gist and details, that is).

So a couple of years, a gender reassignment, and a few trials and tribulations later, I've learned that those same stories that I could never accept are giving me reassurance. I remember book studies and Bible studies as a child and teenager where I constantly heard about how Satan controlled the world's rulers and how the Bible had already predicted the horrible state of the world and the "Last Days" we live in. It was so refreshing to read this weeks Parshat Chukat and delve deep beyond the words that were written onto the page into something that strengthens me.

I've been watching videos from on youtube lately, but this is the first week that I've actually read the Torah portion, mainly because I just got my copy of the Tanakh from the Jewish Publication Society last week.

Here is the G-dcast video for this weeks Parshat Chukat (Numbers 19:1 - 22:1), I also read other writings on the parshat that focused on the red heifer, or Moses's anger, or Aaron and the kiss of death, but I was really inspired by this video, especially as I am looking beyond myself for healing and direction at this particular time in my life.

So on my first date with Torah, I think this might be the start of something special....
To Be Continued. . .

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Summer Fun

I had the best time this weekend lounging around in an $80 pool from Big Lots and drinking on a box of Pinot Grigio with a good friend. Between the lounging, ordering food, and watching Will and Grace DVD's, it was like a mini vacation, months worth of therapy, and weeks of visits to the tanning bed all wrapped in one.

It was a great time spent dreaming, planning, and relaxing....the first "real" summer experience I've had in about 2 years.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Inside of a Dog

Okay, so I've already mentioned my love of dogs, but since I'm too busy to have one, I'll have to just read about them, watch videos of them on online, and spend lots of time at my dog owning friends' houses.

A couple of weeks ago on CBS Sunday Morning, they examined our love of pets of all kinds, but they also had a segment focused on dog intelligence. It's crazy to think that there are border collies out there who can recognize hundreds of words, which, in my biased mind I think a cat could never do. I later watched a video about this topic on the PBS show, Nova Science Now, which I have always loved. the full episode. See more NOVA scienceNOW.

So apparently Border Collies have been selectively bred over generations for the CTNND2 gene (of course nobody knew that at the time) and this gene is connected to cognitive abilities in humans. I find that sooooo amazing. It kind of makes me want a Border Collie. I'm still partial to my Shih Tzu's, they really seem like little furry humans.

I finally ordered Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz after seeing her on the CBS Sunday Morning episode I mentioned earlier. It just arrived today and I have barely been able to put it down.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lightening Up

Even though I try not to write this as a journal, and at least imagine that people are reading it, I sometimes feel like the less serious side of me is not worth writing about. I haven't even shown how I truly make it through life by finding the humorous and sunny side of everything.

Of course, since I'm making progress on some of the big issues I've been writing about lately, such as singing and "finding religion" (so to speak), I sometimes forget about the blog completely.

So here's a list of what's missing in my life, and potential themes that will be running through my upcoming posts, be they light and fluffy, or stone cold serious.

1. A spiritual/religious tradition and community
2. A musical/artistic outlet
3. A Man (at least 5'9", nerdy and naughty, and not a neat freak)
4. A safe neighborhood where I can live, work, play, and walk everywhere (without a man in a beige Oldsmobile from the 1980's following me)
5. A city that as least has light rail or some form of public transportation that isn't just used or believed to be used by the disadvantaged.
6. After finally getting all this, I'd like to get another dog, preferably a Shih Tzu. (which I will not sell to a friend when I go back to school, only for them to then move to Las Vegas and start beauty school themselves.)

Monday, June 20, 2011

What happened to my deep thoughts?

Over the past week I helped a friend grieve the death of his mother, and helped another friend make plans for her wedding next week. I gave my father his "best Father's Day" ever, and watched some inspiring documentaries.

I've basically been doing lots of little things for people that had bigger impacts than the grand gestures I would have planned on doing. Spontaneous events usually bring out the most authentic reactions out of me, and maybe others.

In other news, I finally met with my voice instructor and we had great chemistry and equal levels of enthusiasm about where this could go. It was a great experience and I once again feel less like a dreamer and more of a doer.

I just need to focus on staying committed, and as I've learned with so many other struggles and victories, the small gestures and small battles have much more of an impact than grand gestures and proclamations. Waiting for the opportunity for a grand gesture just leads me into procrastination.

I was soooo moved by a documentary I watched on hulu yesterday, and it renewed my faith in the importance of treasuring one's gifts, persevering, and letting that take you wherever it is you are supposed to go.

The movie is called Only When I Dance, and it shows how the gift of dance lifted a poor teenage boy from a favela in Rio, took him around the world, and eventually to the American Ballet Theater (where he is still dancing). It has subtitles which are easy to get over because the dance scenes are amazing.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Dana International

Today's post contains none of my inner workings, just clips of Dana International, the Israeli transsexual singing sensation. I remember seeing her picture and a small blurb about her win at Eurovision in 1998 in a magazine. I was sitting in the cafeteria of the student activities building in my first year of college. Even though I had been burying my gender identity issues in my studies, I felt a small rising of curiosity and warm optimism for what was possible, yet not knowing that within a few years I would be marching in the same direction.

Below is a clip of a recent interview she did on a late night show in Ireland.

So now Dana has competed for her second attempt in the Eurovision contest with the song Ding Dong (not what you think). Twelve years later, I still feel drawn into her story, even though I'm not so crazy about the song.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Another reason to sing

I've been watching a lot of videos about Jewish history and personal experiences over the past few days, and I've realized how important songs and singing are. All the more reason for me to cross this wall of fear and let songs come out of me. Will I fully be able to carry on any of these traditions if I am afraid to be heard?

It seems like pure fantasy to think that one day I'll know and sing the words and melodies to songs like Lecha Dodi and Shalom Aleichem with others(I kind of already know the words to the latter). Stranger and more monumental things have happened in human history, but that would be a big deal for me.

Today's clip is of a group of people sharing in an experience that both entices me and fills me with dread. It's funny that I gave a presentation at a national conference but something like this scares me.

Anyway, do enjoy (the two other people who read this...)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

To Jerusalem by way of Dharmsala

If anyone is actually reading this blog, you will not be surprised to find out that I am planning on converting to Judaism. I feel enormously content that I have finally opened space in my heart and mind for anything resembling religion to actually take hold in me. I used to think of being raised a Jehovah's Witness as being the worst thing that happened to me as a child, but perhaps it is the only path that would have opened me up to exploring every aspect of myself after my belief system was shattered.

Buddhism provided a warm, serene, and welcome home for me afterwards. I put my concept of an intervening God on the back shelf and learned to revere my Buddha nature. I learned to bow to it, light an incense for it, to ring a bell for it. Nothing will ever replace that period of discovery in my life, and I have said over and over again that meditation and chanting saved my life. It also opened me up to the world (in baby steps) and helped me see the Buddha nature in others. I began to see the oneness of the world and became a more fearless participant in it.

Last night and this morning I watched live streaming Shabbat services online. I felt enthusiastic that one day I would revel in the songs and in the Torah. I'm not even worried about the Hebrew, because I discovered a penchant for languages at 15, when I started teaching myself Portuguese because I loved Brazilian music so much (I had already learned Spanish).

It's funny to have read accounts of other people who converted to Judaism but first found refuge in Buddhism. I certainly don't feel as unique anymore (in that regard), and that is uncharacteristically okay with me.

Since I've developed the habit of sharing something that moved me at the end of each post, I wanted to share a quote that I came across today, from Rabbi Sharon Brous, in an article she wrote for the Washington Post. I think it captures the spiritual place I was in before exploring Judaism. She is specifically talking about the phenomenon of Eat, Pray, Love and the dropping everything for some unending spiritual journey that takes you away from the world we have to inhabit.

"You can't live in an eternal Shabbat, because the religious life is not about personal spiritual satisfaction, it is about pouring holy light into a tragically broken world."

Friday, June 10, 2011


I wanted to share the news that I will be starting with a new teacher next Wednesday. Not sure why I'm having a fear of commitment. I've actually heard from another as well in the past few days but I haven't called her back. It feels like cheating to try them both out.

Today's clip is Whitney Houston, "I Turn To You", which somehow I missed out on when she had her big comeback. I love this song.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Why am I so afraid of brown butter sauce?

I was watching a video on youtube on red snapper with brown butter sauce and all of a sudden I had a revelation that I probably wouldn't make this dish. I love red snapper and have been wanting to prepare it since I saw them whole at Costco. The first time I tasted red snapper was in the hospital in Thailand. You could order either a "Western" or an "Asian" breakfast in the morning and after I gave in to my curiosity over what congee was, I finally ordered the Asian option. To my surprise I actually enjoyed a savory breakfast of fish and rice porridge. The fish was of course, red snapper.

Before I run off on a tangent, I guess I'll get back to the brown butter sauce. Brown butter sauce, like red snapper and a host of other ingredients I've savored in the past, is something I've always wanted to make. I've watched countless videos, scoured cookbooks, and imagined the process in every minute detail. Yet I've never actually tried to make it. Although I'm a confident cook, I feel like something this simple would be way beyond me. In the instant that I watched this video and said to myself, "I'm not going to make this," I realized that making brown butter sauce and singing are likely impeded by the same mental and emotional roadblock.

What's the worst that would happen, that I would burn it instead of brown it and have to throw it out? What would I do then? I would clean the pan and start over. I can rationally tell myself this, yet expect that if I initially had similar results with singing, the heartbreak over failing would shrivel up my will to live (an exaggeration of course.)

Every time I've tasted brown butter sauce it nearly sent me to heaven, and I haven't given myself the gift of preparing it at home. I am also not allowing myself the pleasure of singing and making music.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Made a connection

I finally heard from a teacher. I googled and found someone who performs locally but also used to teach and sing in New York. I like that she responded promptly to my emails and is ready for our consultation in a couple of weeks. She takes a vacation between sessions (spring, summer, etc), so we will start in July. That gives me plenty of time to pick up where I left off practicing and get back in the groove.

I also heard from a piano teacher, but he only teaches classical. I'm still trying to hold out for a jazz piano teacher. Since I easily waste $200+ a month, I figure I might as well put them to good use and start taking lessons.

I fell in love with this clip yesterday of Nina Simone singing "My Man's Gone Now" and I must say it is my favorite version ever of this song, and I only heard it for the first time yesterday. A friend (who sings) told me he thought I should go for a androgynous sound like Nina Simone, and not correct some of the things I perceive as flaws in my voice. I'm still not sure about that, and although I love Nina Simone as well, I feel like I hear and feel different things in my voice. Time will tell...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

I REALLY need to find a teacher. I don't want to keep running on this wheel like a hamster. I finally have the drive, focus, and time that I didn't have in previous years. I JUST NEED A TEACHER!

Maybe I need to send out a mass email or something.

And here is a little clip I enjoyed today of Dame Joan Sutherland singing "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca. I like it, but I must say, I am much more enamored with Leontyne Price's version.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

God or Something Like It

The fact that I used the word God the other day in my blog has freaked me out a little, or at least gotten my wheels turning. I typically always say "the universe" because that's probably closest to what I believe, but I also notice that in the past few months I've gained a new perspective on God and religion.

I finally have come to understand that there are as many concepts of God as there are people and that even if we told all 6+ billion stories, we could never actually approximate the true nature of the divine. I will never believe in a God that can be understood by the limited perceptions of a human mind. A God whose limits of compassion, love, and grace can be completely described in a book written by men will never be sufficient to me.

However, I have come around to the idea that these stories and descriptions can serve a purpose in my life, as they have for others for thousands of years. If I can draw inspiration from a random person plucked from obscurity and put in a reality show, why can't the story of Joseph also inspire me. Why should I cut myself off from a tradition that has enabled countless generations to bring meaning and order to their lives?

I always thought I would never come back around to a Judeo-Christian tradition because didn't believe in personifying the divine. The Jesus story has always been problematic for me as well. However, as I have started to see this personification as more of a tool (under the most rational circumstances), I have found tremendous comfort in my explorations into Judaism, and it really has changed the way I've been moving through the world.

I find myself now, praying for people, and accepting the prayers of others. As I've seen some of these prayers come to fruition, I've realized that it doesn't really matter to me whether it could be simply a coincidence or not. Some people might say, "Well, that would have happened anyway," but I don't think that's the point. Even if prayer only helps me align my subconscious thoughts towards whatever the desired outcome is, it has proven to be a useful tool.

I'm not sure where this new aspect of my spirituality will take me, but I feel optimistic.

Murphy's Law

Don't have much to write, but it seems like everyone I know experienced Murphy's Law today, including myself. Other than that I keep checking my mail to see if the voice teacher will write back. If I don't hear back from her by Friday I will take that as a sign to seek someone else.

What a WACKY day!!