Tag Archives: learning

comeback

The way I look at life, there are incarnations, and there are chapters. And since moving to my new home, I don’t know whether this is a chapter or a reincarnation. In any case, it’s different from any life I’ve lived before. Nechama, my dear cat is still living with me. She seems a little older though, and she gazes mostly through her right eye. The pupil of her left is slow to open or close. She had some sort of eye infection, and never recovered fully.

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You might remember that I stopped posting here a while after moving to this new house. We were enjoying a wave of terror attacks here in Jerusalem, and this life around me became so absurd and obnoxious that I thought myself incapable of dealing with it; how could I describe it. Time goes by. It’s relative of course. A day is a much smaller part of one’s life after 80 years than it appears to be at 8. Aside from that, we seem to perform much slower when we’re old, and so it happens sometimes, that the day comes to a close before we’ve actually gotten into the swing of things.

Finding myself in a new home didn’t come smoothly for me. For some time I was still bouncing back and forth between my new home and the home of a friend. Truly, there was nowhere I felt at home. I was a ‘displaced person’. I am just now beginning to feel the generation of tiny new absorbent roots reaching out from the base of my existence. It’s a childlike experience and takes some work to integrate into the consciousness of an old cat such as myself. As I write you, I sit at my desk with an open window before me, looking out at a number of well cultured trees, and another building made of stone. I’ve read that the roots of trees can have a circumference three times that of the branches. It is easy to lose touch with a friend who no longer lives down the street… Some friends have died. Some have gone off in a different direction. When I try to meet with a friend I haven’t seen for a couple of years, I hesitate. I’ve changed so much recently. I hardly recognize myself. It seems quite possible that my friend has changed as well. Will we be able to understand one another? Will we still be speaking the same language? I remember my parents meeting friends after the war. They were bent, prematurely gray, scarred for life. And looking at one another, their eyes would light up, and they’d say, ‘you haven’t changed a bit’. I thought they were lying to be kind. Now I understand better.

It’s something of the same dilemma when sitting down to blog. Am I obliged to tell of the changes. If I didn’t, the reader might suppose that this Shimon fellow had gone turned himself into a corpse, and some other rascal continues to abuse the space hollowed out by that first fellow, why, who knows… maybe to sell coca-cola and attract likes on facebook. On the other hand, sometimes you can see through the wrinkles right into the soul. That’s what I thought when I heard Leonard Cohen’s last song. So maybe I don’t have to apologize before starting again… just thinking about it makes me dizzy. Still it is habit that keeps us alive. Hold on to your toothbrush, your walk around the block after dinner… and throwing out that ball across the field so your doggy can fetch it. Without them the chasm yawns.

There was a year that hurt like hell after my dear doctor gave me this pill that was going to prolong my life. What a disaster! I hurt every day. I started praying for death. And when you’re taking 12 pills every day, it’s easy to forget why you take the 13th. Well, I finally went to the doctor and he changed my medicines.

Then a delegation from Pitcairn Island came here to visit me here in Jerusalem. They were unhappy because I hadn’t filled out my tax return for 1967. My claim that I was never a Pitcairn citizen, that I had never lived there, and that 50 years had passed since last I visited were dismissed out of hand. A photo of mine had been published in a magazine, and a payment had been sent. And I hadn’t paid taxes. It was that simple. They threatened to freeze my bank account. My lawyer smiled when he saw me.

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After that, my downstairs neighbor decided to renovate his apartment. Immediately after replacing a good part of the sewer system he began with the destruction of his internal walls. They used an air drill called a Congo here in Israel, and this tool produced a sound which I can only compare to a crashing air liner. The only difference is that when an airplane crashes, it’s all over in a few minutes. But this renovation had all the longevity of inter tribal wars in central Africa, or revolution. It just kept going on and on. Though I bought ear muffs that supposedly protected my ears from the noise, my brain became all the more receptive and aware of what was going on under me. I felt like I was sitting on a volcano.

Through every one of these aftershocks, I kept telling myself that when it was all over… when things had returned to normal… when there was peace and quiet here… I would consider going back to writing. But these were trembling words spoken in the storm.

I found some comfort in a Scientific American article which claimed that after the dinosaurs were decimated by a falling asteroid (or monkey wrench, believe what you will), life bounced back in the vicinity of the mass extinction after a mere 30,000 years. So it seems, all I have to do is wait.

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soul searching

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As human beings we live with an endless chain of paradoxes. We have a desire to know the world. And yet, the more we learn, the more we are aware of all we don’t know. For each step in the learning process widens our horizons, and allows us a glimpse of something more. Many have found that the most difficult subject to learn is the nature of ourselves.

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How well we know the situation in which someone we know is able to give advice and support to others, but is unable to help himself or herself when caught in the same situation. Our view of ourselves is subjective. When we first hear our own recorded voice, we are surprised. ‘Do I sound like that?’ we ask ourselves. And for many, a photograph of themselves can be a strong emotional experience. Some people can’t bear to be photographed… and not because they believe that the camera steals the soul from the individual. Which reminds me of a miniature poster I saw attached to the refrigerator of a dear friend I visited in Berkeley in the 90s. It said: ‘Denial is not a river in Egypt’.

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Early in childhood, we begin to see ourselves in a certain image relative to the people around us. As a young student, I enthusiastically adopted the viewpoint that we all have similar potentials, and that our education and environment direct us to the view we have of ourselves. Since then, I have become convinced that genetics have an important part in the forming of the personality, and I now believe that it is a combination of inherent personality characteristics and the early experiences of coming to terms with others, including parents, siblings, and general environment. But as important as these influences are, I also believe in personal choice. That we can work with what we were given, and that exercising this choice, we can find freedom. We know people who seem filled with themselves, positive, and self confident… and others who are painfully shy, and self-effacing. The better we get to know such a person, the more apparent it is that there is no true reason for such an extreme persona.

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A good part of the problem is the subjective nature of a person. If we are extremely self critical, a compliment can be interpreted as ridicule. If we are very self confident, a word of criticism may be interpreted as an attack, or as an expression of jealousy on the part of the person who criticized us. Most of us do not reach such extremes. We are somewhere in between. But there is always the danger of losing sight of ourselves. This is the nature of subjectivity. The antidote to that is objectivity; seeing ourselves from outside. Now and then it is necessary to detach ourselves from all the stimuli around us, and study ourselves… our behavior and our thoughts… the vision we have of our own image.

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The existentialist thinkers emphasized the present, and saw dwelling on the past or the future, a distraction from reality. It wouldn’t be true to say that the past no longer exists. Much of it does still exist. But it has been integrated into the present, and by becoming aware, as much as possible, of all that has been taken from the past and incorporated in the present, we have a better grasp of our own unique world than when we are relating to separate tidbits of experience and memories isolated in another framework of time. If we had a traumatic experience, for instance, each time we revisit the memory, we are once again shocked and crippled by the experience itself. However, if we were able to see ourselves objectively, including the scar that we carry from the time of the original trauma, we might come to a very different conclusion about the importance of that trauma, and might choose to relate to it differently.

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Denial has tremendous power. We can bury ourselves, or invent a false image of ourselves, all for the purpose of avoiding certain truths that we can’t bear to see. We might be conscious of making the same mistake over and over again… and try to stop this errant behavior. Yet our distaste for a certain subject, or a certain memory… our embarrassment or shame… may lead us while our efforts at repair go unresolved. This process, the examination of our own behavior, and looking at ourselves as others see us, is called ‘soul searching’. We are searching for the true individual behind the defenses, the excuses, and the persona with which we negotiate inter personal relations with others.

going back to school

Since I like to think that a great many of my readers are students in elementary and high schools around the world, it seems only appropriate for me to dedicate this blog post to ‘going back to school’… an international phenomenon, usually timed for September 1st. And it seems fitting to start out with a prayer. ‘Cause you know, whether it’s allowed by the courts or not… the school year usually starts out with a prayer. It’s called ‘the prayer of pupils’. And even if it’s not mumbled into the mustache, as we say… even if it only goes from the heart to the mind, and from there to god almighty.. what’s said is this: “please don’t let me die of boredom.” No matter if the proverbial notebooks have been replaced by laptops or tablets. Nor is there salvation in the classroom just because half the students have gotten their daily dose of Ritalin. You sit in a class with 30 other human beings who have been randomly assembled on the basis of the date of their birth, and try to absorb the wealth of information offered by the teacher at the head of the class… a person who has had only minimal exposure to the entertainment industry.

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fish may swim in a school… but these fellows don’t

The clever kids catch it the first time around. But then… they have to listen to the good news explained over and over again, in a variety of ways, till the second from last dumbbell understands. Now that can be boring, no matter how hard you’re trying to keep a positive attitude. And those at the back end of the bell curve have given up long before the classy illustrations come into play. Listening to a teacher talk can be like your first taste of meditation. It can work like hypnosis. Your mind wanders freely. You watch the light refracting on the very edge of the nose of the girl in the row in front of you, a little to the left… as the words continue to flow meaninglessly, on and on. It’s soothing. If you’re not careful, you can fall asleep. Then teacher asks a question and someone drops whatever gadget it was they were playing with… and the sudden noise is a distraction. You look around to see if folks are smiling or sleeping. A few have their hands raised. Bob asks if it’s okay to go to the bathroom. There’s a lone fly moving slowly through space overhead. It makes you wonder if nano technology has developed a tiny camera which is strapped to the chest of that fly… and recording right now… you scratching your elbow… or something else. Time is relative, you think. Who said that? Einstein or Muhammad Ali? The class lasts less than an hour, but it can seem like three hours if you take it seriously. Muhammad Ali is 191 centimeters tall.

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portrait of a graffiti artist; extra curricular activities

Students in Israel have it easy. The first of September usually arrives just before the High Holidays. You meet your teachers and your fellow students and get reminded of all the rules, find out where you’re going to sit… and then it’s vacation for the Jewish New Year. You come back and listen to a few introductions to subjects you’re going to be learning, and then it’s time to take off for the Day of Atonement. If you happen to belong to a religious family, you know that atonement is mainly for adults. Children get to do whatever comes into their heads while the adults are busy all day in the synagogue. You can just play around. Or if you like to read, that’s fine. It’s a great holiday for reading. And you get to eat while the adults are fasting. If you come from a secular family, it’s even better. For seculars, the day of atonement is national bicycle day. Everyone gets on a bike and rides around on the freeways. Because no one drives a car on that day. And there are no buses or trains either. Just an occasional ambulance, coming for someone who’s fallen off his bike. And then you can always throw rocks at the ambulance for disturbing the peace. You’re not supposed to, of course… but since most of the police are atoning too, it’s not very likely you’ll get caught.

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a weed in a meadow; worth looking at

A few days after the day of atonement, comes Succoth, the holiday of booths. We move out of our homes and into temporary shacks with fancy adornments on the inside, to remember just how frail and temporary life itself is. That lasts a week. For those who don’t like temporary shacks right outside their homes, there’re always tents and camping in nature, so long as a little rain doesn’t bother you. The whole business called ‘the holidays’ lasts about a month. And just a few days of school, all that time. You get a whiff of it, that comes and goes. And you break into it easy. Of course, once the holidays are over, that’s really it. No getting around it. School every day. No teachers’ strike till towards the end of the school year. But you keep hoping for something that’ll break the routine. And you know, that can happen too. We’ve got to think positively…

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a man eating his lunch in a temporary booth in honor of the feast of Succoth

life and times of a species

We are by nature very self-centered. At every stage in our lives, we look at those younger than us as being ‘young’. And those who are older than us are ‘old’. People from other countries, or other cultures, are ‘alien’. But we’re okay, we’re ‘normal’.

When relating to the animal world, I myself have a special regard for butterflies and frogs. Both of them have two incarnations, and I can very well identify with them. I have a feeling that we too have more than one incarnation, so to speak. The butterfly starts out as a worm, and the frog as a pollywog. Anthropology has always fascinated me because of both the similarities and the differences between people around the world.

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I remember reading an article many years ago about the life of species. I don’t remember who it was that wrote it, and don’t remember the name of the article. But what impressed me then, was that some researchers had found a type of snail that had lived slightly off shore of a Greek island, and they were able to evaluate the age of the shells by carbon dating. They came to the conclusion that they had before them the history of that species; from when it was a very young species till it had grown old, and was nearing extinction. As the species became more mature, the form of the shell became more beautiful. But at a much later stage, some of the round areas became more angular. The species was getting decadent.

This same process is seen in individual people, and in societies… and in nations. Sometimes it evokes sadness. More often contempt. Life at the height of its development, has contempt for weakness… but even in decadence we often see ourselves as superior to others, more aware… more connected to the truth. It takes a rare wisdom to be aware of the world as a whole; to leave our egocentric point of view and start searching for the wonders outside of ourselves.

Why do it? Because we are connected to all of the world, and the more we learn, the more we understand the world around us, the richer this life of ours becomes.

students

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One of the most beautiful aspects of the summer is that it’s vacation time for students. And just as the rest of us are inclined to fall into routine, to live our lives automatically, like unfeeling robots (with a headache, at times), so too, students can get into the habit of learning bits of information by heart, and collecting them under the tongue or in the inner ear, till they start sliding out the nose. How wonderful, and how necessary, the vacation. And in honor of summer vacation, let me share with you my thoughts on this very special occupation.

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Unlike monks, priests, rabbis, nuns, religious or monastic men and women, there is one category of holiness that requires no ascetic self discipline. That is the role of the student, who follows his curiosity, and grows day by day, increasing his understanding of the world around and within him, his awareness of his fellow man, and his love for all living things and even the inanimate objects that make up our universe.

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Unfortunately, because society has deemed it necessary for children and youths to study certain functional bits of knowledge, and combined this need with the need of adults to be rid of children for the majority of the day… so that they, the adults, may be free to work, there has been an ever growing resentment towards study. This anger becomes more acute, and at times turns to outright hatred when the ‘baby sitting’ is accompanied by torturous tests which humiliate the so-called student.

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But those who have tasted the sweetness of study for its own sake, and have opened their hearts and minds to the thirst for knowledge, there is no pleasure that can compete with learning, for it is in itself a transcendental experience. The study hall is richer than the finest palace, and its occupants melt from pleasure as their awareness grows without bounds or boundaries. Nothing is forbidden. Everything makes sense. If not at first, then eventually. The student learns to be self assured in the knowledge that whatever is known by another human being can be learned by any man or woman.

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The true student doesn’t study for the sake of a degree. He has no need for prizes or awards. Even if graduated or accredited in his profession, he continues to apply himself diligently because learning is uplifting and fills him with joy. Our greatest teachers were simple craftsmen who didn’t make a profession either of learning or teaching.

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Study itself is best unselfish. Students take great pleasure in sharing their knowledge. And the best teacher is one’s fellow student who’s taken an extra step ahead. All the social stigmas fade and disappear in the study hall. One’s personal wealth is negligible. Beauty is skin deep. Toys and luxuries are forgotten. The more one learns, the stronger one becomes. Not like the muscle builders on the beach who become bound and crippled by their overwhelming muscles, the wise student becomes more sensitive and modest with each passing day, and more aware of the infinite presence of the universe. His or her determination to learn more is not for the sake of self aggrandizement, but out of love for the world as it is.

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Tests… yes, there are tests. Life is full of tests. As long as we are alive and conscious we are tested. We may choose to avoid, to evade, or try to escape those tests, but they come running after us with indefatigable determination. The test of knowledge is that it be clear in your mouth. So that if someone asks you something, you need not hesitate, and then tell it to him. You should be able tell it to him immediately, and in such a way that it is easily understood.

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The photos seen here are of students and their living quarters at the University of Ariel. Oh what a pleasure it is to be a student.

in the vicinity

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Nechama in the park

When I was going through the rather lengthy process of moving from my old home to my new one, I shared my adventures with you my readers. It was a period of instability and upheaval. There were times when I could only describe my sense of loss, parting from my home of forty years, in poetry. Meantime, I have resituated in my new home, as described in a previous post https://thehumanpicture.wordpress.com/2014/02/28/up-on-the-hill/ . Slowly, I’ve adjusted to the new conditions, most of which are an improvement on what I was used to.

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Though most of the work had been done for me by my dear friends, I had to unpack my personal items, and decide where things would go in the new house. As a creature of habit, everything had its place in my old home, and I could just reach out my hand and find the scissors or the radio. But once in my new home, even after I decided that a certain item would go somewhere, I sometimes forgot the chosen place when I needed that same item a day or two later. Sometimes I forgot where I’d put something only 15 minutes earlier. It was a challenge.

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There was a period when my personal space extended only as far as the clothing I was wearing. If an object was in one of my pockets, I knew where it was. Otherwise I wasn’t sure. Little by little that personal space began to extend to facilities within the home. There was a closet with three shelves where I put some things that were essential… I knew it was a temporary solution, but my wallet and my credit cards, my camera, eye glasses, cell phone, and flashlight went there. And the external hard disc, reserve batteries, a tape measure, my car keys, a prayer book, and a few other indispensable items. After a week or two I began to get the feel of the house. I noticed that my cat, Nechama, was quicker at finding her bearings than I was.

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checking out the area, Nechama

The process hasn’t been completed yet. The desktop computer hasn’t yet been returned to full service. My scanner and printer are still under wraps. But I am beginning to feel more at ease at home, and have begun an acquaintanceship with the neighborhood. In my old neighborhood, there was a path that led from the back of the house to a forest nature reserve where I would occasionally meet with wild animals. Nechama and I used to like taking walks in nature.

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one of the lawns of the park behind our home

Our new home is adjacent to a well groomed park. And though it is pleasant, with benches to sit on, grass lawns, and bushes bearing a variety of flowers, I worried that it might be too civilized for Nechama. Aside from that, there is more traffic on the street where I now live, and this too had me worried. I thought Nechama might not be able to perceive the dangers of our new environment; might get lost once I gave her back her independence. But she was anxious to be free, so we did venture out together. She met other cats in the neighborhood, and already has three new friends, with which she maintains social intercourse. One of them even gained entrance to our home through an open door from the balcony and sampled my supper before I managed to convince him to depart. Her friends come by quite often. They call to her from outside the cat flap. Sometimes she is willing to go out and join them. But other times she prefers to converse with them by way of the window; she inside, and her visitors on the balcony.

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with one of her new friends

The closest grocery is farther from home than the grocery was at my previous residence. Getting there means going down a hill, and then a climb on my way back. I found myself without smokes one morning this week, and decided to walk there to buy cigarettes. Nechama wanted to accompany me, but I thought it too far for her to go, and was worried by the fact that we’d have to cross a few streets. I told her that she would have to wait for me. She expressed the opinion that I was too square, and unaware of the full extent of her capacities. She made it quite clear that she thought I was becoming a despot. What rot!

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the commercial center

Ignoring her arguments, and with some elegant foot play, I managed to open the front door and squeeze out of the house, while at the same time preventing her from leaving with me. After closing the door, I listened to her analysis of the situation from inside the apartment, and honestly, I was embarrassed by the way she was taking it. She seemed on the verge of hysteria. But I was resolute. I locked the front door and proceeded to the commercial center to buy cigarettes.

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it seemed almost too civilized for us

The walk down the hill was quite enjoyable. I had my camera with me, and took a few photos so that I could show you what it looks like. Aside from a pleasant lane, there are also a few places where one can use a public stairway to descend from one street to the next. On the way back, I noticed that it had gotten a little warmer. But even so, decided to take the stairway in order to save myself the distance that I would have had to traverse, had I followed the switchbacks of the road. By the time I was nearing the house, I looked forward to sitting on the balcony with Nechama, and having a cool drink of soda with freshly squeezed lemon juice while she would enjoy some cold milk.

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the park is surrounded by residential homes

But then as I climbed the steps from the street to my apartment, you can imagine my surprise at seeing Nechama waiting for me in a flower bed by the side of the highest steps. She was sitting erect, and her eyes following me as I ascended. Presently, she joined me and accompanied me to the front door. It was clear that she had used the cat flap to exit the house and get on the balcony. From there she’d hopped over the balcony’s parapet to the park, and then taken the footpath to exit the park; walked down the street and up the stairs to wait for me near our front door. She was telling me in no uncertain terms that she already knew the lay of the land… and could go wherever she pleased.

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she waited for me at the top of the stairs

I told her that I was impressed… but. And she said, no ‘buts’ about it. I was thinking, sometimes we think we know all about something… but there is more that we don’t know… But I didn’t know how to explain it to her. We still have our differences on this particular subject.

up on the hill

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When I was just a little chap… before I’d learned to drive or read the newspaper… I had a visit from Moses Ben Amram, our beloved teacher, forever famous for writing those wonderful best sellers, the holy bible and the book of Job. He said, Shimon, my boy, you’re about to go out there… and have the most wonderful life. He told me all the secrets of life on this earth, and how to recognize sanctity in the midst of banality, how to please god… and the very best recipe for chicken soup with matza balls. But I wasn’t impressed by any of that. I said, ‘I’d prefer to stay right here, dear teacher’, and curled up in my mother’s womb, determined never to leave. He pressed his index finger against my upper lip, and said, ‘don’t tell a soul’. I’ve had a depression on my upper lip ever since…

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That’s the way I’ve been all my life; trying to appreciate what I have, and not looking over the fence, envious of my neighbor’s greener grass. I’ll smoke my own grass, thank you. And so, when my dearest friends came to the conclusion that my neighborhood had lost its youthful charm, and that my home, having embraced me in warmth and security for the last 40 years, no longer suited me, … and offered to find me a better place to live, I said, ‘No thanks, guys. No place could possibly be better than this. I’m surrounded by my books and memories, live on the ground floor so that my cat can come in and out without an elevator, and everyone in Jerusalem knows exactly where to find me’.

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checking out the scene from the edge of the balcony, Nechama

But you know, I can tell a story… and I can sing a song… I can even photograph a picture… But I’m just no good at arguing. And when these friends started arguing with me, and proving without a doubt that they were only pressing for my own good… I just gave up, and wrote a couple of poems about how life sucks. What do we have friends for, I wondered… if not to listen to their advice? So my old home was sold, and a new home was found… snails were hired to drag my books and furniture from the old home to the new… and meantime, I went off… to find refuge in the country, and then back in the alleys of my city… moving from one place to the next, inhaling the dust deposits on the curtains of rented rooms, and rediscovering the magic of life as I smelled roses in the company of village cats outside of Jerusalem. It was a learning experience. It was almost like getting reborn.

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looking up at me from the back yard

The process started at the beginning of October, and this week, the last week of February, I moved into my new home, joining my beloved cat Nechama who seems to be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder as she drinks tomato juice through a straw and avoids meat and fish. She barely recognized me when I first arrived. I tried to reason with her. ‘I was as much a victim as you were’, I told her. ‘I couldn’t take you with me… I stayed in a house with a dog!’

‘You think that’s bad?’, she countered. ‘I had to live with children!’ She knows that I too am unable to withstand the assault on my nerves of the screeches and shouts of happy children…

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she likes to relax while I work

So here I am at the top of a hill, with a living room that is surrounded on three sides by big beautiful windows… work tables in every room, music easily available, a library separate from the living room, where guests may entertain me, a large refrigerator in the kitchen, and air conditioners that have been designed to warm me up in winter, as well as to cool me off in summer. My old cuckoo clock, once attacked and defeated by a previous cat of mine, has been repaired, and now cuckoos on the hour. Looking out the window in the right direction, I can even discern when there’s a traffic jam on the freeway that leads to my neighborhood, and plan my exits wisely. I would never have thought of such comforts, and am overwhelmed by the upgrade of the quality of my life. I don’t believe I deserve all of this. I keep thinking it must be some terrible mistake. But I can’t wait for spring, so that I’ll be able to take advantage of my new balcony, which is roomy and surrounded by flower pots under the blue skies of Jerusalem.

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my neighbors, seen from the stairway up to my apartment

Nechama has already learned to use her cat door… to traipse through the cat door and out to the balcony. With one graceful leap, she is able to land on the hillside behind our home, and to visit the park, with me or without me. And being an existentialist cat, she’s already halfway to forgiving me for deserting her, and busy smelling the plants the trees, the grass and the flowers in our new surroundings. She doesn’t smile… and her eyes look piercing… but it does seem that she’s happy. I’ve been smoking as much as I can, drinking whisky, and listening to music, as I try out the speakers in each room. There are a few boxes of my things that haven’t been unpacked yet, and I use this readily available excuse to complain to my friends. I don’t want them to get too smug thinking they were right and I was wrong.

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guarding the groceries that have just been delivered

What do I know about life? Was there anything more important about this move than the many lessons I learned along the way? I am grateful for the kindness. Overwhelmed by my good luck. This evening I will welcome the Sabbath surrounded by dear friends, and a wise cat who turns from time to time… sometimes to look out, and other times, to look in.