Has it ever taken you so long to get dressed that you missed the event you were dressing for? This may or may not have happened to me. What I will admit to, however, is being guilty of misunderstanding the connection between clothing and happiness.
This week, I got up from my year of aveilus. I don´t know if getting up is the correct term to use, but it sure feels like an appropriate description. The laws of mourning a parents´ death prohibit us from partaking in joyous affairs, from listening to music, and from purchasing new clothing for a full year, allowing us to focus on and feel our loss.
Well, mission accomplished. Missing out on a whole years´ worth of new CD releases and newly discovered singers, sharing in familial and friends´ special occasions only by viewing their photos on Facebook, and watching all the up and coming style trends breeze by, waving, teasing, are all circumstances which create loneliness, isolation, disconnection, and sadness.
I´ve experienced these, and many other difficult emotions during this year. Some were expected and even anticipated, but others triggered certain reactions from me that made me wonder if I was possessed by a canine; mentally barking, chasing after, and leaping at my prey. ´How could all those families publicly and insensitively celebrate Fathers´ Day in front of me, when I DON’T HAVE A FATHER?!´
I know they´re not doing it to spite me, because I don´t have the word ¨Fatherless¨ tattooed into my forehead. So why am I reacting this way? What is wrong with me?
Living across the ocean from my family and friends has aggravated my grief. Losing a loved one heightens your awareness of all the other people you love, and helps you appreciate the ones you still have. Because of my geographical challenge, this heightened awareness worked against me. It created within me a desperate longing to be close to my loved ones, but didn´t allow me to satisfy that need.
So once again, I became possessed. The dog was replaced by a martyr: ´She just throws out her money and goes out to eat with her sisters whenever she feels like it…she lives right next door to her mommy like a clingy, immature child… she sees her friends more often than I look in the mirror…what a spoiled brat!´
Now, I know she´s not guilty of any crimes. She has every right to enjoy her wonderful life. So, why does it bother me? Is she not allowed to have it just because I don’t? Or is it because she has all this stuff, without recognizing that I don´t? That might be it. Sometimes I feel like interrupting any random, irrelevant conversation in my home with ¨Oh, by the way, my father died. More tea?¨ Yes, it´s my own problem and not hers. She´s not being insensitive; I´m being too sensitive. But admitting that intellectually is a whole lot easier than feeling it emotionally.
The year of mourning for a parent allows for a lot of time to think and feel. Having all that physical time to focus on so many different emotional dimensions, I have been able to clarify many muffled aspects of human nature and Torah concepts.
Let me introduce myself.
I am a music lover. My connection to music goes beyond my appreciation for meaningful lyrics or for a captivating melody. My primary means of self-expression is through music; through composing and singing my own music. I relax with a guitar in hand.
Have you ever been able to find better balance and focus in your life after listening to a certain song? There were days I urgently needed to hear my feelings in my ears, not just feel them in my heart. But I couldn´t; I needed to mourn. And mourn, I did.
Having spent my year completely music free, I learned that self-expression itself is the pinnacle of art. Up until now, music has been my medium, and guitar, my instrument. But this year has allowed me to find ways of creating art, through means of self-expression, using my fingers as my medium, and my voice as my instrument. The lack of instrumental sensation in my ears has showed me that inspiration and motivation must be available through other venues. Don´t deaf people ever feel inspired? I tried to replace the melodies with Torah classes, helping me advance in my learning and growth, allowing me to find the balance and motivation I would have found from a song. I also threw myself into poetry, both reading and writing it. Joining poetry blogs has done more than just introduce me to my inner hippie, it has helped me find the balance and mood lift I normally would have felt from a song of choice.
Another thing about me: I´m a vigorous extrovert. I´m outgoing, I´m social, I´m a leader, and I thrive in the presence of people. Needless to say, being banned from parties, events, and certain social gatherings has been challenging.
I recall a conversation between my sister, a classic introvert, and myself about our fantasies. With a dreamy look in her eyes, she began describing her vision of living alone in a big house on top of a mountain, overlooking the ocean, without a human being in sight, no cell phone reception or internet connection, just she and her books and a cup of tea. With each detail of her dream, she became more and more energized, more animated, and was completely brought to life. But, with each detail of her nightmare, I was experiencing shortness of breath and heart palpitations.
Without even wiping my rapidly perspiring face, I asked ¨But who will you talk to? What will you do all day? Who will even know you exist? How will you feel connected to the world? Who will you be friends with?!¨ I could hardly breathe.
¨No one. Nothing. I won´t. That´s the whole point!¨
Introversion tasted nauseating to me. But surprisingly, with some introspection and self- reflection, I´ve discovered that although human beings have dominant personality traits and characteristics, there isn´t anybody in the human race who is solely one-dimensional. Though, for some reason, which I have yet to explore, extroversion is celebrated and honored while introversion is not.
Being extroverted is in my comfort zone, and I discovered how healthy and even refreshing it has been to go beyond my point of certainty and to get to know and embrace my introverted side. Know what I´ve noticed? Introverts aren´t nearly as boring as us extroverts assume! Introverts do have a life! I even decided to join an Introvert Club, but when I got to the meeting, I saw it was canceled due to lack of attendance…
Getting better acquainted with my pensive side, having an opportunity to listen instead of speak, and learning to enjoy my own company has proven to me that a quiet leader is not an oxymoron. Between you and me and cyber space, extroverts are overrated.
But one challenge during my year of mourning surpasses the others. It has also taught me the most valuable lessons of all.
Hello, my name is Yaffa, and I´m a shop-a-holic. When I hear individual oddities so extreme like complaining about the sufferment of shopping, or how deeply someone despises going to the mall to purchase new clothes, those convictions actually carry me beyond the limits of human cognition. How could you not like shopping? The glamour, the color combos, the accessory building, the shoes… the shoes! THE SHOES! To not see this as a tremendously enjoyable activity feels completely unnatural and outside the realm of possible.
Now, don´t misunderstand me. I´m a spiritual person. I´m attentive to God´s unwavering presence, and I´m aware of His constant involvement in every minute detail of my day. I pray, I soul-search, I contemplate, I meditate. I even try to teach others how to better connect with God and spirituality. ¨Perhaps¨, I subconsciously muse, it´s not only permissible to be enamored with fashion, but it should even be applauded! After all, I need to be presentable to do God´s work!¨
Well, this year of official forbiddance of buying new clothing, new accessories, new shoes, or any type of new awesomeness, has led me to develop a deeper understanding and distinction towards materialism, even materialism l´shem shamayim.
Over the past 12 months I´ve given more thought to life after death than ever before. My fathers´ departure from the physical world created a deep and inexplicably painful reality; I will never see my father again. I will never hear his voice again. He will never see me again. The sadness was overwhelming. The longing was excruciating. And so, my mind became obsessed with the finite and the infinite, internal and external struggles, and how to find the proper balance between the physical and spiritual worlds in which we live.
If I were to spend the day on a NYC street, asking each of the thousands of passersby whether they thought they were a body or a soul, it´s highly probable that the majority would answer “soul”. But yet, if I were to follow some of them home, and shadow them around for a day or two, and not get arrested for stalking, I’m pretty sure I’d find that although they do believe they’re a soul, it doesn’t mean they live like one.
It’s not easy to be a spiritual being living in a physical world. Communication with my body is simple: I wanna eat. I wanna sleep. I wanna play. I wanna eat. I wanna party. I wanna chill. I wanna eat. But understanding the needs of the soul is close to impossible, and often misinterpreted. I often can´t remember if I bentched after I ate, but have I ever forgotten to eat?
Oh, how pleasant life would be, and how many mistakes would be spared, if only we understood the soul better. I know I can learn to speak Soul, probably by learning to develop a relationship with it, and by understanding where I stand in relation to it. Am I a body with a soul, or am I a soul with a body? Which one is the horse, and which is the rider?
At the time of Abba´s passing, I had a newborn baby, which put me in a complicated position. I´m not permitted to buy new clothes, but yet nothing in my closet fits over my expanded frame. Ordinarily, even without extras, I´m a size bigger than One size fits All. Who do they use to measure the One Size anyway, an elf? But now, as my woes gave birth to woes of their own, in more ways than one it became obvious that my body was the horse. The silver lining is that being banished from joyful affairs gave me no reason to remove my pajamas and force myself into ill-fitting garb.
This unpleasant experience has led me to recognize that the body serves two main purposes. It clothes the soul, and it functions as a tool to assist the soul in doing its job. The ultimate way to enhance the physical body is to wear custom made clothing. Paralleling that, the ultimate way to enhance the soul, is to make its ‘clothing’ a perfect fit. Forcing myself to wear a size that’s too small, or vanishing inside a size that’s too big, would bring out the worst in my body. Actually, that’s exactly what I'm doing when I let my body lead the way, and force my soul to fit into it.
So, if my soul leads and my body follows, does this mean the body has none or little significance?
In reality, my body has the most important job in the world: It houses my soul. It houses God.
So here’s the balance. The great significance of the body due to the role it plays with the soul versus the realization that the significance of the body is limited by that same role it plays with the soul.
The function of clothing is to beautify my body. My body must operate well, and it also must be attractive since it shows my true essence, deep inside. The body also must be maintained. If a tool in my shed goes without oil treatments and maintenance, it will not do its job well. If a taxi driver buys a brand new car, its maintenance and upkeep is crucial for his work. But, if he spends an unreasonable amount of time cleaning and waxing his vehicle, he will never get to use it. If I spend a disproportionate amount of time getting dressed for an event, I can miss the whole reason for my primping up altogether! The key is balance.
When I hear the word modesty, I immediately picture knees. Or collar bones. Sometimes I imagine a certain behavior, or lack of. I have come to recognize an important aspect of modesty that seems to be greatly disregarded. It has nothing to do with inches or colors or textures. Nor is it about body parts. Traditionally we´re taught that modesty means reserve or propriety in speech, dress, or behavior. It also means a lack of pretentiousness; simplicity.
We live in a time of great affluence, and this has led to a sense of entitlement. I undoubtedly expect to live a lifestyle far beyond what my grandparents, and even my parents ever dreamed of at my age. Being mistapek b’muat (satisfied with less) is a forgotten concept for many.
Let’s face it: Most people spend way too much money on things they don’t really need. As the saying goes, ¨We spend money we don´t have, on things we don´t need, to impress people we don´t like¨. Is there anything objectively normal about that?!
The more money we make, the more we tend to spend. This endless cycle of materialism has led us to confuse the word “need” with the word “want.” As in, “I need a luxury car.” Or, “I need a new pair of shoes to go with my new outfit.”
Breaking free from the materialism trap means understanding the difference between “need” and “want.”
Our needs are relatively few, even from birth. We don’t need a lot of stuff, toys, or gadgets. We need shelter from the elements, clothing, food, love and understanding. We need friends and family around us.
We do not need baby carriages that cost as much as half a years´ tuition, brand new luxury cars which don´t even fit into standard parking spots, 5,000-square-foot homes in exclusive neighborhoods, lavish ski vacations, and smart phones that do everything but think for us. I´m positive that if I look at my monthly phone bill it´ll tell me that buying a dumb phone would have been smarter.
There is nothing wrong with wanting these things. But by buying impulsively or excessively, I get rid of the guilt that that purchase has caused by rationalizing my want into a need.
I´m an avid window shopper. Both by browsing in actual store windows, and by browsing through Windows 7 on my lap top. But mostly what we´re all shopping for is happiness.
This year of restraint and of boundaries has taught me what true happiness is. Being mistapek b´muat is not only an integral part of Jewish philosophy, but it’s the key to happiness and success. Simplicity. Being able to live with less, with smaller, with fewer things. Material objects do not make us happy, in and of themselves. Happiness is the inner peace that emanates from living in harmony with your true self, your conscience, and your principals; having convictions and sticking to them, choosing right over wrong, practicing self-control, and maintaining self-discipline.
I learned that I can appreciate and even enjoy something beautiful without having to buy it. I can be attracted to something without having to own it. I can live without music. There are other avenues of inspiration to drive down, roads I never would have taken otherwise. Reaching out of familiarity and touching hidden aspects of myself have made me feel born again. I learned to recognize how important it is to maintain and adorn my body and soul, but to distinguish the difference between what they need, and what they want. And, the tranquility and peace of mind that come from relying less on materialism to define success indisputably leads to a greater and deeper happiness.
Now, that´s a bargain I can use, at a price I can´t resist.