The Shunamite Woman and The Rejection of Suffering

I often get replies and emails from people telling me how fortunate I am to have a life rife with unfortunate events.  I usually trash these well-meaning yet invasive, even brazen, suggestions that my suffering is in fact a blessing.

First I would say that compared to most of the suffering people I know and interact with, mine is petty, and I know it.  But it’s MY suffering, and I will not abrogate my right to express how I feel about it.

I would like to draw your attention to an illustration in the Bible that shows us that even the strong can suffer greatly, although they might not show it to everyone.  There are many such illustrations in Scripture, but this one has always caught my attention: the story of the prophet Elisha (student of Elijah) and the Shunamite woman (Shunam is a place-name): Kings II 4:11-37

True to a common theme in the Bible, the Shunamite woman was childless, and the Man of God (Elisha) caused her to conceive and bear a son.  The son grew and went to the fields with his father, and suddenly cried out “My head, my head!”  And fell down senseless, and his father’s attendant carried him to his mother.  His mother held him on her lap until he died, and then she carried his body to the attic room where Elisha was accustomed to stay, and she laid him on Elisha’s bed.

Then she took a donkey and rode up to the cave of Elijah in Carmel (I have been there and it is on the side of a cliff, no small feat to arrive there).  She called out Elisha and said, “Why did you give me a child if it was just going to be taken from me?”  And she threw her arms around his knees and vowed that she would not let go until Elisha came with her.

Which he did, and found the dead boy lying on his bed.  First Elisha told his servant Gehazi to lay Elisha’s staff across the child’s face, but nothing happened, so Elisha stretched himself out on top of the boy and blew into his mouth.  Nothing happened, so he walked around the house, first one way, then the other, and then repeated the mouth-to-mouth until the boy sneezed seven times and sat up.  Elisha said, “Pick up your son!”  So she fell at his feet in gratitude, after which she “picked up her son and left.” 4:37

This story illustrates that suffering does not always show on the outside.  Elisha knew that the Shunamite woman suffered because she had no child; and when her child died and she went to Elisha, she said, “Did I ever ask for a child?  Did you give me a child just to mock me?”

“What, is this some cruel joke you have played on me?”  says the Shunamite woman.   Elisha had nothing to say to that, so he had to come with her.

This is all very mysterious, and full of implied questions and gaps in logic.  The answers to the many questions raised here are addressed in the Gemara, the huge library of Jewish commentary and law.  One set of the books of the Gemara take up entire walls.

The Gemara is full of stories like the one about the woman whose child dies on Friday afternoon (the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday nights).  Not wanting to destroy her husband’s joy in the Sabbath, she waited to tell him about their son’s death until after the Sabbath, all the while acting as if there was nothing wrong.

I heard of a great scholar in my neighborhood whose wife died on Friday afternoon, and when the Sabbath came in he rejoiced, ate and drank and sang like usual, until the end of the Sabbath, at which time he sat down on a low stool and mourned bitterly.  This he did for the Shivah week, the week after her death, and the following Friday (for Shabbat is not counted in the seven days of Shivah) he got up from his stool, bathed and changed his clothes (part of the intense mourning of the Shivah week is that we don’t do these things), and rejoiced in the Shabbat when it came in.

There is a book put out by the Breslov brand of Hassidim called the “Garden of Emunah.” emunah meaning “faith.”  Since the Breslov sect’s founder, Rebbi Nachman of Breslov, taught (in the 17th century C.E.) that we must never despair, his followers often interpret that to mean “always be happy, never be sad, and depression is a depraved state of mind.”  This book, “The Garden of Emunah,” is filled with anecdotes about horrible things happening to children, and awful illnesses happening to mothers of 12, and the theme is that they all took it as a blessing from God that they got to suffer in these ways.

I am not that holy.

If that’s what it takes to get to….wherever…..it’s like, OK God, these humans are telling me that You don’t give me anything I can’t bear.

Um, let me let you in on a secret.

You made me, right?  And You made the shoulders that are supposed to bear my burden.

Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard the part about how You have wide shoulders, and all I have to do is give my burdens over to You, let go and let God, etc., but let me tell You, Boss, how long to I have to throw myself on the ground and cry out to You before something gives?  Am I a cruel joke, that you’ve created me and now you play with me like a cat plays with a toy?

Elisha, Elisha, where are you?  They say that Elijah the Prophet can appear anytime, disguised as anyone, especially a beggar.  I am certainly a beggar, but I am no Elijah.

I climbed up the cliff path to his cave in Carmel, and I inserted myself into a niche in the deepest part of the cave, and I prayed, and I went into another world.  I lost track of time, and almost missed my ride.  Four years later, I received a healing from something physical, Hallelu-Yah.

I have given up praying for my mental illness to be taken away.  I think of King David and King Saul, both of whom were mentally ill until their deaths.  Saul lost his kingship because of a manic act of disobedience to God.  David’s cycles of elation and crashing depression are clearly written in the Psalms.  Samuel I also illustrates the craziness of both Saul and David, as elaborated in the link above.

So to all you bearers of Sweetness-And-Light, please enjoy your easy lives and don’t envy those whose burdens appear to be heavier than yours.  As a physically disabled friend of mine says, “You are all Temporarily Able-bodied.”

I would add, “You are all Temporarily Sane.”

Dying On The Low Road

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When I walked into Dad’s room at the nursing home, he was writhing in agony and moaning.  He had succeeded in getting his hospital gown off, and was working on the rest of his attire–his diaper–and had the bedclothes tightly twisted around his legs so they stuck out at an unnatural angle.

I threw off my backpack and ran to him.

“Hi Dad, what’s wrong?”  I unravelled the sheets and put his top back on him.  He grabbed my hand and smiled, kissed my hand over and over, then a pain struck him and he rolled from side to side, moaning.

“Where does it hurt, Dad?”

He managed to get his good hand up to his head.

“You have a headache?”

Nods.  He has a hell of a concussion after his horrid fall a month or so ago.  I can relate, having had several bad concussions.  They give you a headache for a long time.

“OK, let me get the nurse to give you some Tylenol (Acetaminophen, Acamol, Paracetamol, etc.).  That will help your headache.

He looked at me skeptically, but assented with his eyes.

Since his last fall, Dad, who had been having difficulty speaking after a number of small strokes in the speech area of the brain, is now “locked in.”  He can understand a lot of what is said around him, but he is unable to produce meaningful speech.  It’s a horrible state to be in.

The nurse was very busy passing pre-dinner meds, but she knows my dad, and if he says he is in pain, he is.  She crushed up the tablets in applesauce and I fed it to him.  It tasted vile, and he gagged on it.  At least I was able to get some water into him, in the form of big mouthfuls to wash the taste of the nasty medicine out of his mouth.

The Tylenol did take his headache away, but it didn’t fix whatever was causing him to writhe and groan.

I called his nurse, and we made the joint decision to give him his morphine, which he has on order every 4 hours if needed, and it was clearly needed.

Thankfully, the morphine was just a few drops from a tiny syringe.  It seemed to help for half an hour or so, then the writhing and groaning began again.

I searched my mind and looked at the picture with soft vision.  I saw it.  He had to go to the bathroom!

I asked him.  “Maybe,” he says.

I called the Nurse Assistants, and the put him on the commode.  I stepped out for modesty’s sake.  Jewish children are forbidden to look upon their parents’ nudity, as we learn very early in the Torah where Noah gets drunk and takes off all his clothes.  One of his sons looks into his father’s tent, sees him lying there drunk and naked, and laughing, tells his two brothers.  The brothers get a blanket and, throwing it over their shoulders, back into their father’s tent and, not looking at him, drop the blanket on top of him, to cover his nakedness.  So I do not stay in the room whenever the nurses are doing anything that normally we consider private.

Now that we have opened the Jewish Thing, I want to talk about a concept that has been Jewish and Vedic and I don’t know what else, for 5,000 years more or less, that has recently been backed up by medical specialists in the art of assisting dying people.  Yes, there are such physicians.  They minister to hospice patients, for the most part.

The Jewish tradition, backed up by medical observation, is that there are two roads to death: the High Road, or easy death, like people who simply up and die in their sleep, just go to bed like normal and don’t wake up.  We call that “mavet be’neshikah,” or death by a kiss.  Whose kiss?  The kiss of the Master of the Universe, who says, “it’s time to come home now,” and that’s that.  Aharon ha’Kohen and Moshe Rabbeinu both went that way.  I pray that all of us go that way.

People who die like that have finished their soul’s purpose on Earth and will not reincarnate, usually, unless it is into a body that just needs a bit of  touch-up.  These are the babies who die very young, or in the womb after 4 months gestation.

Death on the low road is another thing entirely.  It is a slow and painful death, one that makes the sufferer long for the relief of suffering that death brings.  It seems as if the soul is having a struggle with the Malach ha’mavet–the Angel of Death.  They beat themselves up dying, like a moth beats itself to death on a lightbulb.  It’s not that they don’t want to die, although some of them struggled against Death out of fear of what awaits them on the Other Side.

My father is one of these.  He is a World War II Veteran, and saw and did some horrific things.  He is terrified that he will be held accountable for these actions, which he deeply regrets and spends each night living them over (he has classic PTSD), such that sometimes my mother would have to go sleep in the guest room in order to avoid being a partner in hand-to-hand combat.

The unfortunates who get Death on the Low Road suffer and suffer, and experience all of the unpleasantness and pain of slow death, even to the end, where they have the agonies of air hunger, hallucinations, thick secretions, and even seizures.

What does this mean?

In the Jewish mystical tradition, Death by the Low Road means that the apparently unfortunate sufferer is actually engaged in a process that completes and cleanses the soul from the difficult life it’s been through, and the suffering atones for misdeeds done in life, even if they had a good outcome.

For instance, my father once walked up a small hillock that happened to be on the battlefield of Alsace-Lorraine, and on reaching the top, found himself looking straight into the eyes of a German SS soldier.  For a brief moment, the two teenagers looked into each other’s eyes and saw…themselves.  They saw normal young men who liked to drink beer and chase skirts.  In other circumstances, they might have been buddies.  Then the German pulled his duty pistol, and my father ran him through with his bayonet before the other teenager could fire a shot.

To this day my father regrets that action.  He really, really regrets it.  And by taking the Low Road out, that necessary transgression will be cleansed and forgiven, so that his next incarnation will not be dealt with as that soldier was dealt.  We are held accountable for our deeds, for better or worse, and the blemishes in our pure original souls that these deeds cause must be repaired in one way or another.  This kind of Death is one way of doing it, and in the end it is a much more pleasant way of repairing one’s Godly soul.

But we can’t know.  Take me, for instance.  I did some pretty unsavory things as a young person, and even as an older person.  None of these were intentional or premeditated, and most of it was due to my undiagnosed, untreated Bipolar Disorder.  Yet according to our tradition, these blemishes must be cleansed in some way.

With the Days of Awe, from Rosh ha’Shanah  (the Jewish New Year, the Day of Judgement) through Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, almost upon us, I am trying to make a Heshbon Nefesh, a close examination of my character and deeds, so that I may, through the Days of Awe repent of my misdeeds, whether intentional, whether accidental, whether hidden or revealed, please my G-d look into my heart and find it clean.

And please, please, Master of the Universe, grant me a judgement for a Death on the High Road, b’neshikah.

As it turned out, Dad’s pain was indeed caused by stomach cramps.  After relieving his intestines of their burden, he fell into an exhausted sleep.

I took my leave then, fiercely warning all of his nursing staff NOT to wake him for vital signs or anything else until the next time they had to turn him in the bed, another two hours.  Whether they did that is anyone’s guess, because Dad can’t tell me.  God help us all.

Dissociative Identity Disorder

I LOVE THIS POST!!!! You Must Read It.  I found it on Kat’s blog.

Heathers Helpers

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is portrayed in the media as some sort of wacky, wild, really cool to watch phenomenon. If that isn’t their angle? They are usually discussing the controversy of the diagnoses. I understand all that but I feel that perhaps if I share what it means to me, it will take the confusion out of it for some people. I can try right?

Everyone has multiple personalities/identities. Yes, even you.
If you stop to think about it, you are not the same when out with your friends as you would be if you were out with your children. You are different with your spouse than you would be with your parents. You can become professional at work then transform to a carefree spirit when you go out for an evening with your best buddy. Even your pets get a different side of you. Yeah… I know all…

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‘No Human Involved’: Filmmaker PJ Starr Discusses Her Documentary Telling Marcia Powell’s Story

A sorely needed project, featured by Ruth Jacobs on her brilliant blog. I hope whoever is able will click the indiegogo button and help this amazing project get off the ground.

Soul Destruction

PJ Starr Photograph by Mike Shipley taken during filming PJ Starr – picture taken during filming
Photo credit: Mike Shipley

Can you tell me about your current project No Human Involved?

In 2009 my friend and colleague Cris Sardina (who is now the co-coordinator of the Desiree Alliance) sent me an email about the death of Marcia Powell in Perryville Prison outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Marcia had been serving a 27 month sentence for solicitation of prostitution and corrections officers had left her out in the sun in a metal cage in searing heat until she collapsed. Soon after, in hospital her life was ended when the Director of Arizona Department of Corrections removed her from life support.

Cris Sardina of Desiree Alliance holding pictures of Marcia Powell Photo credit: PJ Starr Cris Sardina of Desiree Alliance holding pictures of Marcia Powell
Photo credit: PJ Starr

After reading about what happened, Marcia’s story was always with me.

Later in 2010 at the Filmmakers’ Collaborative at the Maysles Institute in Harlem, NYC, I…

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Enter The Twins, Pain and Aggravation

First I sincerely apologize to everybody to whom I’ve promised various things.  Life is not going in anything remotely resembling a straight line.  I feel caught up in a whirlwind–no, more like the vortex of water flushing down a toilet.

I don’t have a toilet, but other people usually do, if they live in developed nations.

Dad just got home yesterday from the nursing home where mom dumped placed him for six days while she went to visit her relatives.  Dad did not enjoy it, and I ran myself ragged going back and forth to the nursing home, which fortunately is not far away, to my house, to the store to get him things, to therapy an hour and a half away….

Dad was discharged from the nursing home Friday at noon.  Mom came home in the evening.

I settled in for some deep Shabbat rest yesterday, but my phone rang at ten a.m.: It was Mom, sobbing that Dad had fallen and blood was coming out of his head and nose.  He was unconscious but seemed to be breathing.  She had called 911.  Shit.

CALL HOSPICE NOW!  I screamed into the phone.  We are not supposed to call 911 without calling Hospice first, but she panicked and did it anyway.  Now we would be covered up by the fucking millions of Keystone Cops that stand in place of an Emergency Medical Service here in West Bumfuck.

I grabbed my knapsack, which serves as my 24 hour kit as well as a purse, threw some food in my bewildered pup’s dish, and ran out the door hoping to beat the ambulance to my parents’ house.  Dad was on the floor, unconscious and bleeding, just like she said.

He looked like he was in the process of checking out, and I didn’t blame him a bit.  But I did lean down to his ear and softly sang, “Shma, Yisra’el, Adon-ai Elo-heinu, Adon-ai Ehad,” which is the central prayer of the Jewish faith:

“Hear O Israel, Adon-ai is your G-d, Adon-ai is ONE.”

Well, damn me if he didn’t start singing it with me!  He was almost drowned out by my mother’s loud sobs, but I heard him, and he started cussing me out for leaning on him, which I might have been.  I sat up and he still cussed at me for leaning on him, so I knew that he was very much alive, although in rough shape.

After a while I heard the screeching siren shriek of the meat-wagon, driven by a team of bozos with spanking new uniforms.  They looked like milkmen on a spree.

They were planning to strap Dad to a backboard, but I talked them out of it, citing his spinal stenosis, so they scratched their heads for a spell and then brought their ambulance gurney into the house and strapped him onto it.  At least it had something that passed for a mattress.

The trouble began when they tried to get him out of the house.

My parents’ house is not built for ambulance gurneys.  A steel spiral staircase blocks access to the only egress in the house, and the bozos couldn’t figure out how to get out, since they had raised the gurney up on its pneumatic legs, and it wouldn’t pass by the stairs anymore.  So instead of lowering the gurney to the ground and picking it up and over the stair rail, they tried to pick it up with the bed part four feet off the ground.  So the idiots actually lifted this thing, with my dad on top of it, over the railing, grazing the ceiling and taking a layer of paint off the stair rail.

I tried to move my car out of the driveway, because I had a funny feeling we were not done with the Keystone Cops.  I was right.

As I was backing up the dirt-road hill that stands in for a driveway, I looked in the rear-view mirror, and glimpsed the gigantic red nose of the county Heavy Rescue truck.  Trapped.  Shit.  Hit the parking brake and cut the engine, since I was out of gas and running on fumes already.

I got out and said “Hey” to the driver and he said “Hey” to me.  Introductions over with, I advised him that heavy rescue was not needed, as my dad was already in the ambulance.  He cut his eyes at me and said that first of all he wasn’t Heavy Rescue, he was just driving their truck, but since he was a First Responder and had heard it over the radio he was obligated to go and check things out.

Suit yourself, I told him, but you’re going to have to move your vehicle so I can get out, and so the ambulance can get out, because there is no more room in the driveway.

Well, the Heavy Rescue truck backed up the hill, spewing gravel, and tried to find someplace to turn his rig around.  I admit that I smirked a little when he backed right into the ditch you have to watch out for on that dirt road.  I backed around him and got onto my own road after negotiating the tricky spot where the road does a wiggle going over a creek.

I’m too tired now to write anymore, so you’ll have to stay tuned.