Half Marathon Insights

I ran the Kooky Spooky Half Marathon yesterday. It was a small race (maybe 500 people or so) and the course was beautiful – right in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. I haven’t really had the opportunity to train for this race.  Usually the 5 or 6 Sundays leading up to a half-marathon I do increasingly long runs. So by the time race day arrives, I am ready for 13.1 miles.  This time, I did not have that luxury.  It has been a really rough few months. Rough in the world at large, rough in my personal life, and often rough in my head as I try to navigate through. Depression even overtook me for a couple of weeks. I am so glad it lifted, as that feeling of utter aloneness, even when among hundreds of people or even your closest friends and family members is torture.  Thank God, I spend a lot of time when things are “good” building up my immunity to despair through the study of EMUNAH (loosely translated as faith in God – that God is ONLY good and everything that happens is ultimately for the good – even though it doesn’t always feel or look that way).  So even though I was in a deep, dark pit, emunah became my life preserver. So dealing with all of this – Sunday runs were not 10 milers.  They were more like 6 or 7 miles tops.  So I would be out of shape, oh well.  Since my only desire for running a half-marathon is that I finish unhurt and with a smile on my face, I have never put pressure on myself to finish in a certain amount of time. So I go at whatever pace I can. And the non-timing pressure allows me to luxury to stop and take pictures along the way and enjoy the scenery.

This is mile 11.

This race had an unusually late start time.  Usually half-marathons start around 7am, but this was scheduled for 9am.  Sweet.  Its usually really really cold early in the morning and I usually FREEZE waiting for the race to start.  This time it wasn’t cold, but it was very windy.

The announcer pulled the start trigger and we were off. The first few miles were LONG….I have done enough of these half marathons to know that the first few miles ALWAYS feel the longest.  Once I hit the halfway mark it goes by much faster. So I was very happy when I got to mile 7.

I new it was all downhill from there.  Except it wasn’t.

The second half of the race – particularly around miles 8-11 were full of switchback hills and it was SO windy.  Wind and hills – a perfect combination to say “forget this….I’m calling an Uber.” However I found myself just putting one foot in front of the other.  And while I always take regular 1 minute walk breaks every 3 minutes (I do the “don’t-get-yourself-hurt-run-into-your-90’s” method known as Run-Walk-Run or the Interval method – don’t judge…its is STILL running!), I found myself walking more often or for longer periods of time.  I saw many people – even men and women who were younger than me, having to walk at times during that hilly/windy part.  I was not alone.  I just kept putting one foot in front of the other.  Whether it was walking, jogging, running, I just kept moving.  We all did.  I listened to my daughter’s playlist “Holy Music for My Soul” to keep me inspired. Listened to inspiring talks given by some powerful women like Esther Wein and Aliza Bulow.  Phoned a friend.  Talked to God.  I even said to myself “I think I can, I think I can” like the Little Train that Could.

Eventually, the switchback ended and we were running downhill. What a joy! I  made up for my extra walk breaks on the downhill as I had gravity in my favor and cruised along skipping a walk break or two.  And then….there it was…the hill that My Kooky Spooky running buddy Meredith warned me about!  She told me that there is a hill at the end of the course. I just figured it was the switchbacks I had just done.  But there was another one!!! Just when I was catching my breath.  MORE?????  Yup. Here we go again…..

And then at about 12.75 miles Meredith was there cheering me on.  She held her finish medal against her chest while she ran the last half mile with me. I usually try to “give it all I got” as I approach the finish line, but I couldn’t give any more than I had. I could only give the best I had at that moment, and it was good enough. I ran through the finish line with my arms in the air. I did it!!!

It was hilly and windy, but I kept putting one foot in front of the other.

And isn’t that how life is?  Just when we catch our breath, we are hit with another hill. (Or just when we get a chance to roll over and float, we get hit with another wave – that metaphor works too!).  That is LIFE. Judaism teaches us that life is about stretching ourselves to reach our potential. It is about getting spiritually stronger day by day. Last year I did some one-on-one strength training with a coach.  About 3 months into training, it felt so hard. “Melissa, why is this so hard?” I said.   “Chaya, don’t you realize that I have to keep adding weight? As you get stronger, you need harder exercises to challenge you.”    I feel like God is saying the same thing.  When it comes to lifting spiritual weight, my spiritual exercises get more challenging.  In spiritual growth, sometimes just putting one foot in front of the other feels like I have lead feet.  But the point is to keep on keepin’ on. God has a plan.  The plan is GOOD.  Everything God does is for the good.  These are basic tenets of Judaism.  And even when it is hilly and windy, we can always make it to the finish line….Until the next race of course.


The Gift of Grief #2 – Waves Can Sneak Up On You

I did not see it coming. Actually, I thought it had already come and gone. Grief can be that way.

My father’s 50th yartzeit (anniversary of his death) was on the second night of Rosh Hashanah. And I wrote about that here.  But this next wave snuck up on me – and has lingered- first, with no clue as to what was going on, and just yesterday, decided to reveal itself. And it is still there.  Tears and fears, hopes and dreams, missed opportunities. When your father gets diagnosed with cancer when you are five weeks old and then dies when you are six months old, even at 50 years old and with a masters degree, you still don’t have a clue as to what you missed.

You would think that a woman who works as a hospice social worker, I would have this grief thing down to a science. And I do to a degree..I support the families I work with by holding the space for all of their feelings, giving them permission to let whatever comes when it comes, let whatever go when it goes. And it is helpful to them.  I sometimes forget that I need that support too.

And grief does not just not emerge from losing someone to death. A month ago my daughter left to study for a year in Israel. What a gift for her, for our family, for the Jewish people, and the world.  What she will learn there will change her and the world for the better. But I miss her. We all miss her. It is not the same in our house without her here. Especially since she is the family cook! While there is joy in knowing she is in Eretz Yisroel, there is grief in missing her.

And changes in our community have brought waves of grief.  While ultimately EVERYTHING God does is for the good, due to my limited HUMAN capability to understand His ways, it doesn’t always look good to me. It think I am going to add a stage to the grief model that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross articulated.  When she first came out with it, we thought the stages moved in a linear fashion.


We now know that the stages are not linear, but are fluid. They come and go and mix themselves up.

I would add another stage.

And unfortunately insight does not come “on demand” like last season’s “This Is Us” episodes. But it is always streaming, waiting for an opening.  I have seen time and time again that there is always insight to be gained from ALL experiences in life. And the gift of grief is that it brings the gift of insight. Insight that can bring healing to ones own heart and the hearts of others when shared.

The insights I have gained from this latest wave of grief is not a curse, but a gift. It means that I am ALIVE because I am FEELING.  And God gave us the gift to feel a myriad of emotions. Judaism teaches me that. Try going to a bris, a funeral and wedding all in the same day.  Judaism also teaches me that the default setting for humans is SIMCHA/JOY.  In the month of Adar we raise our joy, and in the month of Av we lower it. But the default is joy.  And there can be joy in grief.  What got me through this last week or so was knowing that there is ALWAYS light at the end of the tunnel (and it is not an oncoming train, for the pessimists out there!).  I just don’t know when I will see the light but I do know that the light is always there.  That is a FACT.  Don’t just believe me. Get curious. And you will see it for yourself.

Why This Is Us Is Us

I don’t watch much TV.  For many reasons. There is one show, however that I do watch.  THIS IS US.
I watch it while running on my treadmill, and my sweat and tears combine.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that THIS IS US has gained a worldwide audience, and tissue sales have likely gone up. While the networks are generally filled with “reality tv”(which is anything but reality), and other shows that have desensitized us (and our youth – so sad) with explicit language, scenes and themes, I believe this show touches the heart and soul of a person because, although it is still Hollywood, the underlying themes are REAL. Themes we can all relate to on some level, no matter our color, sexual orientation, or income: fear, love, grief, loss, self-esteem, sickness, death, family dynamics, triumph, disappointment, facing challenges, the human desire for connection.

In today’s world that is totally upside down. In today’s world where the screaming at each side of the aisle is so loud that no one can hear anymore, THIS IS US is 40 minutes of escape into the things that really matter in life.  How we treat each other, how we work together, how we are all the same inside, no matter what the outsides look like or what our heads have been saturated with by the media.

I have to much to accomplish in this lifetime to sit around and watch TV every night. I hope you do too.
But at a time where the media is full of hate and things that truly should make us all blush, THIS IS US can be a refreshing oasis and a platform to have real, meaningful, conversations with our families, friends and fellow human beings.

This entry was posted on October 3, 2017. 1 Comment

Praying for a Wagon?

Our family had an extraordinary Yom Kippur. We spent Yom Kippur with The Jewish Experience, the organization that I have the merit of working for, as I try to share the beauty of Torah with others. My colleagues Rabbi Danny Wolfe and Rabbi Yisrael Katz had the brilliant idea of bringing world traveler and world renowned Rabbi Yisroel Lashak to inspire the teens and adults over Yom Kippur. And that he did.  One of my kids said they have never had a Yom Kippur like this before and during the final hours of Yom Kippur, they felt the incredible presence of God. Rabbi Lashak spoke several times and told many stories. Some true and some metaphoric.  The following story had a mind-blowing, game-changing impact on me. It went something like this:

There was a city ruled by a King. In this city lived a man who had many, many health issues. He was so sick that he was unable to work, and therefore, he and his family lived in poverty. To feed and clothe his family, the man would walk the streets of the city each evening collecting the scraps of food and worn clothing put on the side of the road.  He did this night after night, and it was difficult and taxing on him.

The King, in his kindness, set aside a day where all of his people could stand in line and one-by-one ask him for ANYTHING they wanted. For this was a very powerful King who had the power to grant them their desires.

The poor, sick man stood in line to speak to the King.  When it was finally his turn, the King’s assistant brought him before the King. The King asked him what he wanted. “Your Highness, what I really, really need and want is a wagon to carry the scraps of food and worn clothing. I am too weak to carry them in my hands, and a wagon would really solve my problems.”  The Kings assistant started laughing at the man.  “Why are you laughing?” the man asked. “Why am I laughing you ask? You are standing before the King. He can grant you anything you want, and  you are asking for a wagon! Why don’t you ask him to heal your afflictions? Then you will be able to work and support your family! You can ask for the thing that will solve your problems, and instead all you ask for is a wagon? What a fool!”

Rabbi Lashak then brought the message home.  We are asking for “wagons” in the form of health, wealth, good relationships, peace on earth. We should be praying for Moshiach to arrive!  For when Moshiach arrives, the Oneness of God will be revealed,  ALL human beings on earth will have clarity and we will ALL live in Peace.
This Truth is one of the foundational principles of Judaism.

Some of you know I have a “Moshiach outfit.” It is a special white skirt and beautiful blouse and pretty earrings that I keep hanging on my closet door, ready to don when Moshiach arrives.  The only other time I wear it as I await the call of Moshiach’s arrival, is on Yom Kippur.  So get this… I was wearing my Moshiach outfit when I was hearing this powerful message!

While I will still likely bring my limited vision “wagon” prayers to God, they will now will be prefaced with a sincere plea for the one thing that I (and all of us) truly need, for Moshiach to arrive speedily in our day.

The Collateral Beauty of Hurricane’s Harvey and Irma

Around the time of Hurricane Harvey I was preparing a talk called Option G: Growing a Good Year Into a Great Year.  I gave the talk twice in New Jersey. The first time was the day before and the second time was the day of Hurricane Irma.  One of the points I speak about in this talk is looking for, and seeing the GOOD.  Even in the yucky stuff, there is always “Collateral Beauty.”

I realized the collateral beauty of these devastating hurricanes. During that time, for the first time in a long time, no one really cared who their neighbor voted for.  All they cared about was that each other were safe. People helped each other, no matter what color skin they had.

Have you ever noticed that people become color blind and “aisle” blind during times like these (remember September 11th?). Perhaps it is because it is during those times that we realize that we are all united in our vulnerability as human beings. We all have the same color blood and are created from the same Source.  I hope we can remember that without having to be reminded….

The Gift of Grief #1

Every year around Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, I get a little down. Most often it starts a few days to a week before the holiday. This year it hit me the day before and now, a few days after.  I never noticed this actually until my good friend Aviva pointed it out to me a few years ago.  I was feeling sad, tearful and “blue” as my mother, may she live and be well, call it.  I was telling Aviva my woes and she said “Chaya, I have known you for several years now. It’s a week before Rosh Hashana. Your father’s yartzeit (anniversary of his death) is the second night of Rosh Hashana. Haven’t you noticed that you always get a little down around this time of year? I certainly have!”

My father, Harvey Michael Werstein (Zvi Moshe ben Eliyaleb of blessed memory) died on the second day of Rosh Hashana 50 years ago. He was 28. My mother was 24. My sister Leslie was 4. I was six months old. Wow! I never noticed it before Aviva told me about this pattern she had observed. But boy did it make sense! So for the next few years, I wasn’t so puzzled when I landed up with a box of tissues on my lap. Then two years ago, after having some major insights into how we human beings truly operate psychologically (see http://www.3pgc.org), I innocently “expected” that I would be immune to my yearly grief experience.  So I was quite shocked when three days before Rosh Hashana I found myself all weepy. I was talking to my colleague and mentor Rivkah Krumholtz about my surprise and she said to me something that absolutely changed my whole attitude towards loss and grief.  She said something like “Chaya, did it ever occur to you that the feelings of grief are a sign of CONNECTION. Why would you NOT want to feel the loss of something so special as your father?” It was then that I realized that the Creator of the Universe gave us ALL of our emotions to experience. Not just the ones we label as “good.”  We get to experience EVERYTHING. And that is GOOD.

This has helped me tremendously in my work as a Social Worker in Hospice.  I share this with the families that I serve and they all seem to give a sigh of relief when they hear it.  We don’t have to be afraid of grief. We can welcome it. Like the waves of the ocean, we can let it wash over us when it comes and watch it roll into the shore. Waves will always come. Sometimes the water is still and quiet, and at other times it is strong and loud.  Some waves are big and feel scary, some less so. But they all ultimately roll into shore. So does grief.

Inspiration: A Blast from the Past

I keep seeing this principle of life. It is becoming more and more clear to me. The world works like this:  1. A burst of energy  2. Work  3. Transcendence.  Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz spells this out in his incredible work Living Inspired. Since looking at the world and my life in this way, I am seeing it EVERYWHERE. And it has huge ramifications.

Think about it. An egg is fertilized in a BURST of energy (biologically and physically).  Then the woman works for 9 months to gestate that embryo into a baby – a human being.  And the moment of birth is the transcendence – the harmony of the first two parts.  It keeps going.  The baby is born is a BURST of energy – that last push, or more and more often these days, the emergence from the cut of a c-section. And all is (please G-d) wonderful and exciting. And then there is WORK.  Work for years to raise the child and hopefully get to a place where they can transcend and emerge an individual with their own purpose and direction. There’s more…I couldn’t wait to be a “grown up.” And when I became one it was exciting. And since then it has been WORK.  It takes inspiration to upgrade the iPhone, but it is the huge amount of work by the engineers to actually produce it. I like to think that I am an upgraded version of myself each year..and boy is that work. The Torah tells us that this is our job until 120. To “give birth to ourselves.” We are born (burst of inspiration), then we live my life (the work), and after 120 years our soul (the True “I”) transcends to the Next World of Eternity.

Marriage is like this too… The moment under the chupah (the wedding canopy), the two souls become one and the wedding celebration and the wedding night are that burst of inspiration.  I am a therapist and coach for people mostly  in their late 30’s all the way to 120 (ok, my oldest client was 101).  I can tell you from personal and professional experience that marriage TAKES WORK.  That burst of energy from the wedding day is NOT what a marriage is  made of.  It is the WORK, the day in day out, the ups and the downs and everything in between that makes a good marriage and makes a marriage last and transcend to higher and higher levels of unity and love.  After 26 years (bli eyen hara) I am starting to see that in my own life. And the marriages of 50, 60 and 70+ years  that I am blessed to see in my work proves this time and time again.  Burst of inspiration. Work. Transcendence.

We see this equation play out in good times and in bad times. Each year for the last 4 years I have been given the gift of taking a group of Jewish mom’s to Israel on an incredibly inspiring trip. It is amazing how we all come back so pumped up, so ready to implement the incredible insights we gained.  And despite everyone’s commitment to do so, most or even all of the burst fades. I am always inspired by the ones who really run with it. It is such a beautiful thing to witness and support them along their journey. Last year one of my kids came back from camp so inspired. She went on and on to me about how she wanted to implement these insights into her life. I said “Write it down! You are going to forget!!!” I forgot the rule of parenting teens…never tell them what to do as it almost always ruin your chances of it happening!  And most of it did fade.  She is a great kid thank God, however, the inspiration did fade. A more mundane example is how often people get inspired to go on a diet and after a while their commitment dwindles.  Many weight loss programs count on this happening and make lots of money because of it.  So do gyms. Gyms are filled in January! Resolutions are made and memberships are bought.  And sometime around mid-February they become less and less crowded.

We can get these bursts in bad times too.   This past Shabbat a couple we have been friends with for over 16 years – the husband died. Since learning the news, I have had several conversations with various people who knew him and all of them said something like “Well this was a wake up call!”  And I saw it clearly…..the WAKE UP CALL is the burst of energy, the inspiration. Whether it is realizing that the thing I was annoyed at my husband (theoretically speaking of course!) seems so trivial now to “I need to never take my health for granted,” to “I am going to make sure I do everything I can to go to my friends kids weddings, because I don’t want to only show up for the funerals.”  All of these ideas are great and important and TRUE.  But they won’t last unless I follow through with work.  I will get annoyed at my husband as soon as today (hate to admit that), I will complain about a minor ailment without realizing how trivial it is (and I also work as a  hospice social worker – and I see over and over again patients themselves realize “it could be worse.” Or- they tell me that they regret not appreciating the health they had, their spouse, their children…

It am seeing over and over again that it is my job to take a burst of inspiration and then ACTUALIZE it thru what will often feel as hard work, or uncomfortable. However, that is the road to transcendence.  This actually happened to me last year when I went to my dear friend’s mother’s funeral.  She had been diagnosed a few months earlier a terminal illness. I thought to myself “I really should go visit her.” Yet I didn’t.  And then one day she took a turn for the worse and she was gone.  When I was at the funeral I was so blown away by the stories that people told about her. I kept saying to myself (as I have often do at funeral), “I want to be like that.”  And maybe I will think about it for a few days but then it fades away.  But this time something shifted.  I literally ran to my car after the funeral and typed into my phone everything I could remember.  I talked about it for days and since then I would often say “Although there are things in my life that I would definitely do differently if I could go back, I really have no regrets in life*, except ONE. I regret not visiting this person when they were sick. I regret that I missed the opportunity to be in the presence of such greatness. My work shows me over and over that there is greatness in everyone.  If I spend the time getting to know them. And I missed this. I could kick myself.”   I carried that regret for several months.  Until the father of another friend of mine became terminally ill.  It was right before Passover. And I had EVERY excuse not to visit. However,  I had the gnawing feeling that this was my chance to repair the error from months before.  So the day before Passover I drove over to his house and visited him. (I had met him a few times before then as my friend hasd brought him to my home for Shabbat lunch a couple of times.) I brought him some herring and we shmoozed for a couple of hours.  We talked about his daughter/my friend and how much she has grown since the burst of inspiration she got when she came on The Jewish Experience-JWRP women’s trip to Israel in 2014 (with me and the daughter of the one regret!)  He asked me how I got into hospice work and I told him the story of when my step-father died and how I somehow stepped in and knew what to do and part of that was making sure he had a proper Jewish burial. And then I said “Because that is REALLY IMPORTANT Joe (not his real name).”  Then he asked me how I became Torah observant and I told him that I started learning about what I like to call “pre-denominational Judaism.”  And he said “Do you think I could learn too?” I said “Of course, The Jewish Experience participates in a world-wide program called Partners In Torah.  We meet at the Center on Tuesday nights, but I can arrange for someone to come to your house.”  “Really,” he said with the smile of a little boy although he was a few months short of 90 at the time. I told him I would work on it.  I left him watching a TorahAnytime.com video of Rabbi Paysach Krohn. He was overjoyed.

I went home and posted on our local Jewish women’s whatsapp chat, asking if anyone thought their husband might want to learn with Joe.  And two people responded right away.  One of them is the son-in-law of the woman who I regret not visiting!  Since then, each of them visits Joe once a week.  A couple of months ago Joe said to one of them “You know, Chaya mentioned something to me that I have been thinking about.  She said that a proper Jewish burial is really important. What is a proper Jewish burial and why is it important?”  So the man said that they could learn about it!  Well, this man had plans to be cremated.  A HUGE mistake for a Jew. (See my colleague’s website www.peacefulreturn.com). And he was pretty set on it, and all of his children were fine with cremation except my friend. (Remember…she took that inspiration from the trip and has been growing in her Judaism since then due to her efforts. So she knew how important this was for his eternity.) However, I know that through the learning, the prayers and the visit from our community Rabbi (who happens to have a law degree and brought with him a codicil to reflect a proper Jewish burial and said “we can take care of this right now if you want.”), he is now thank God set up for a proper Jewish burial for whenever God determines.
I just saw him at shul on Shabbat yesterday.  He is loving life.

I take no credit for this chain of events. But I do see the power of doing something with the inspiration instead of letting it take its natural course of atrophy unless ongoing effort is put in.  There is such obvious transcendence on so many levels from this story.  Now I am blessed to say that I truly have NO REGRETS. I have said throughout these course of events that this is all l’elui nishmas (for the elevation of the soul) of my friend’s mother Shayna Sara bas Yosef Yisroel, and for a healing of the body and soul of Joe. And now, may we all merit to take our inspiration and may any bit of inspiration-work-transcendence that comes from this blog be also include l’elui nishmas of Nehemia ben Sarah whose levaya/funeral I am booked on a flight to attend tomorrow.

*Why no regrets…that is whole other blog about the Power of Teshuva.