Rx Elul: Returning, Recovering, Repenting and Reimagining

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-21-12

Building toward the Days of Awe, Jews impose on themselves a period of rupture, repentance, recovery and rebirth, which requires resilience and strengthens it.

The first time I plunged into a swimming pool after my surgery, the water’s buoyancy was liberating. For weeks I had felt leaden, earthbound, extremely fragile, and more anchored by gravity than usual, as my leg healed.  My Jerusalem half-marathon run had ended in excruciating pain and me collapsing with my legs feeling like jelly, the result of a fracture in my femur just below the neck of the bone, meaning the hip socket. One Hadassah hospital emergency surgery later, I had a metal plate, five ugly pins, and an unexpectedly long road of recovery ahead. Five months later, although experts tell me I am ahead of the norm, I still have Trendelenburg’s sign, a fancy name for my persistent limp.

My physiotherapist — like his colleagues among the most patient, fastidious, generous-minded and far-seeing of our species — recommended I try swimming. Still using a cane, I hobbled to the Jerusalem Pool, with its fabulous long lanes. I felt great, as my arms propelled me forward, my feet splashed happily in the water, and I enjoyed some exercise that wasn’t formal, repetitive, torturous physiotherapy for the first time since my injury.

This summer, during a three week family vacation in the Laurentian mountains northwest of Montreal, I kept swimming. Whenever I plunged into our lake, the greater resistance in the water due to the currents surprised me. And I was struck by the contrast between the pool’s artificial sterility, with its clear chlorinated water and its brightly colored floor, versus the lake’s delicious mysterious muck, with all the natural particles floating around as you swim.

Feeling stronger, I decided I wanted to swim across the lake, a daunting project I had never attempted in twenty years of summer visits there. My wife swam it annually and quite effortlessly, as I happily kayaked alongside for safety. As a New York City kid, I am not from the water-people or the jocks. I never undertook an athletic challenge when young — my schoolyard status came from mastering baseball statistics not running, jumping, or swimming.

It was a bizarre twist of fate – perhaps a punishment from the gods for defying my sedentary destiny – that the first time I had undertaken a major athletic challenge, the marathon, I somehow ended up injured.  I therefore approached this lake-crossing with trepidation. If my first big challenge ended in the hospital, where could that next one take me?

Fortunately, on the day I decided to cross the lake, I was not alone. My fifteen-year-old joined me, and we each had an escort – my twelve-year-old and ten-year-old kayaked alongside us, armed with floatation devices.

I started strong.  My rhythmic stroke-stroke-stroke-breath, stroke-stroke-stroke breath crawl, created a soothing, symphony of sounds in the water. But about two-thirds of the way across, having considerably lengthened my route by veering off course, my heart started pounding faster. The shore was looking mighty far away.

With each stroke-stroke-stroke breath, I thought of the water’s primal pull. We get to enter another world so easily, without having to launch into space, with no real equipment necessary. Our sages, who made immersion into the mikvah, the ritual bath, a central mitzvah, taught that from water comes salvation, and that when a person immerses completely in the water, it replicates death. Afterwards, it is as if a pure, reborn creature emerges.

Recovery from trauma, be it physical or mental, is a form of rebirth, as is repentance itself. My Shalom Hartman Institute friend and colleague Yehuda Kurtzer, in his fascinating, thought-provoking new book “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past,” calls his chapter on repentance: “returning as reimagining.” Kurtzer writes that “moments of rupture enable us to strategically identify what to take with us and what to leave behind, to become whole with the past as we move into a transformed future.” As the most powerful beings on the planet, humans have the capacity to write and rewrite their lifestories.

This dance between death and rebirth, injury and recovery, sin and repentance, rupture and reimagining, is central to the new field of “Resilience studies” introduced in “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back” by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy. The book teaches that resilience of all kinds – personal and collective, economic and political, social and systemic — reflects what the child psychologist Ann Master calls “ordinary magic.”  This is not about heroics but about using commonplace skills of adapting to new circumstances. Resilience, ultimately entails “preserving adaptive capacity,” being able to change circumstances, to heal from wounds, to strengthen muscles, to change course, to repair relationships, to adapt to new economic conditions, to innovate new technologies, and, perhaps most challenging for us humans, to apologize or forgive.

This “ordinary magic” is essential in this new month of Elul. Building toward the Days of Awe, Jews impose on themselves a period of rupture, repentance, recovery and rebirth, which requires resilience and strengthens it.

Heart pounding, arms churning, legs kicking, I actually picked up the pace and made it to shore – just as my son arrived. We all sat on what we have dubbed “Mud Island,” playing with the natural sludge, absorbing the sun, enjoying our triumph.

Returning back, I flew, er, swam briskly. I wish I had emerged from the water, fully cured, with no sign of that darned Trendelenburg, but real life is not Hollywood. Still, I return from vacation strengthened,  refreshed, recovering, and ready to plunge into our powerful season of ritualized yet, if you do it right, very real rupture, repentance, reimagining, and rebirth. And I look forward to spawning a year of more meaning and humility, of more goodness and greatness, of revitalized relationships and more fully realized ideals. Happy Elul.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book is “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism is Racism.” 

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My temporary visa to the land of the disabled

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Montreal Gazette, 4-30-12

It was the kind of big, fancy cocktail party I attend rarely enough that I enjoy the occasion. I was looking forward to this one because, in addition to liking the honoree and his family, there were half a dozen friends whom I rarely see amid the 1,500 guests, just enough to make for an interesting evening.

Yet as soon as I arrived, I wanted to leave. I felt nervous, vulnerable, endangered. For the first time in my life, I entered a crowded room full of partying people enjoying themselves and not really thinking about who they might bump into – literally – while I was hobbling on crutches.

Less than a week before, I had been soaring, running in the Jerusalem halfmarathon while on academic leave in Israel this year. Running with thousands of people with this ancient city as the backdrop was magical. Unfortunately, an undiagnosed and improperly healed fracture from a bicycle accident two years before turned into a stress fracture, and I collapsed at the 20.5-kilometre mark of the 21-kilometre race. I ended up with emergency surgery, a plate, and five screws in my femur two days later.

Ironically, both the bike accident and this stress fracture resulted from a health kick. For decades I had a sedentary professorial lifestyle that resulted in no hospital runs. I started jogging and occasionally biking with dramatically mixed results – weight and blood pressure down, heart rate excellent – but two sports injuries.

Fundamentally, I am fine. This setback is temporary. But my two crutches – the low-forearm kind, not the painful under-the-armpit type – offer a visa to the world of the handicapped. In this alternate universe, innocuous settings like cocktail parties can feel dangerous, and so many actions that most of us take for granted must be thought through and planned out, or sometimes skipped because the extra effort is not worth it.

As I am still in post-op recovery, I frequently fall into an unusually deep sleep. Whenever I awake, I assume I am fine and can stand – until I see those darned crutches. Hobbling about with them invites sympathetic stares, stopped cars when I cross the street, and far too much discussion when I socialize.

When I am using the crutches, my hands are helping me walk and can’t do much else. Even breakfast is an ordeal, although I can now grasp the big orangejuice container with my fingertips while gripping the crutches with my fist. What was once an easy, automatic morning routine now requires three laborious round trips: yogurt and OJ from fridge to table; glass, bowl and spoon from cabinet to table; and cereal from pantry to table. Of course I could ask my wife or children, who have been extraordinarily helpful. But when you ask for so much so frequently – because everything is always in the wrong room or on the wrong floor – you also want to do something yourself.

My breakfast trial is repeated morning, noon and night. Getting dressed, showering, fetching the newspaper – each action requires too much planning, too much strain, too much improvisation. After two weeks of this, I should feel cranky. Yet I am more often humbled and awestruck.

I am humbled because I know my visa will lapse soon and I will return to “normal.” I have friends with permanent passports to this challenging world of the disabled. Some have always lived there, while two friends in particular are learning to cope with dramatically more limited and more lasting limitations. All I need to do is remember their predicaments – or those of countless others – and my drops of self-pity transform into tidal waves of empathy for them and their families.

Moreover, while as a historian I am more the rationalist than the mystic, my visit to this demanding, draining world has made me awestruck by the miracles of the everyday. We take for granted our health, our functioning, the many things we do instinctively, automatically. Our brains process so much and orchestrate so many actions hour by hour, flawlessly, and our bodies co-operate magnificently. I would wish my experience on no one. But I want to share with everyone my new-found appreciation for what most of us do have, for what most of us can do.

In modern society, despite all we have materially, technologically and politically, we are enduring epidemic levels of unhappiness, discontent and psychological distress. The therapy business is booming; we consume psychotropic drugs by the warehouse-full. I have long believed in Vitamin P: perspective. We need to view our concerns, challenges, worries and fears in a broader context. North Americans should see their problems – as pressing as they may feel them to be – in comparison to the poverty and the sanitation and safety challenges that most humans in Africa and Asia endure.

And those of us lucky enough to be healthy – and I still define myself as belonging to that happy club – should appreciate the simple joys of getting breakfast, going to work, being able to play, and living the basic miracle of life.

Meanwhile, my sojourn in the land of the disabled has helped teach me that those with physical limitations also find joy and meaning in the important things of life – relationships, ideas, values, achievements – despite their challenges.

From marathon man to Hadassah hospital: The light and dark sides of the Jerusalem marathon

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-21-12

I feel cranky. There are so many triumphal Jerusalem Marathon stories in the papers. Even Ha’aretz, which could find the Good Samaritan’s dark underside if he called himself Zionist, gushed. My story, sadly, is darker, although it has many streaks of light too.Friday Marathon day was glorious. With traffic shut down and school cancelled, Jerusalem enjoyed a Yom Kippur quiet leavened with a Purim gaiety.

The weather was more Canadian than Israeli with a mix of rain, hail, wind, and sunshine; but the organization of the event was more Swiss than Israeli. Signage and instructions were crystal clear. Supplies were abundant, assistants, gracious. I never expected to run a marathon, half or whole. I was never a jock, never thought of myself as such, and always wanted to be defined by who I was and what I did in the real world, not how I looked and what I accomplished in the wide but artificial world of sports. For decades, my sedentary lifestyle could have won me the worldwide competition for “least likely to suffer a sports injury.”  But in Jerusalem, I went on a health kick, as part of my own Zionist revolution, running through the Old City daily, shedding some of those extra childrearing-related pounds many of us acquire. Ironically, this health kick has caused my only two medical disasters — a bicycle accident two years ago and my current nightmare.

My kids encouraged me to enter the 21 kilometer Half-Marathon. I figured we parents demand so much of them, and my running occasionally detracts from kid time, why not do this for them?  Besides, I could not resist the romance of running through Jerusalem’s streets. The historical and spiritual allure overrode the rational fear of the hills.  After a 16 kilometer practice run with a running guru friend,  I was ready — or so I thought.

The start was exhilarating — but terrifying.  It was a kick, counting down with thousands of Israelis and marathon tourists in front of the Knesset, the symbol of Israeli democracy, “fihve, forrr, srree, doo, von,” then surging ahead, feeling the people power. But navigating around all those pittering-pattering feet as we turned toward the Foreign Ministry and the Supreme Court was as stressful as navigating the parking lot at Jerusalem’s Azrieli Mall on Friday afternoon.

Once we spread out, it was easier, but I was suffering. What started as a minor pull on my left side was throbbing. I was slowing my partners down. The next two hours were tough but delicious. I never thought the encouraging crowds or the thrill of recognizing friends cheering us
along would matter, but it helped. And bonding with the streets of this special city by pounding the pavement, seeing the sights, absorbing the energy of my running partners and our insta-community of 15,000 was fabulous.

Approaching the finish line, sure I could finish, I sent my partners ahead for their final sprints, overriding their protestations. Walking a bit, each step was harder and harder. At kilometer 20.5 or so of 21 I started running. Immediately, my legs turned to putty. I collapsed and could not stand. It turns out I had started with an undiagnosed minor stress fracture on top of an unknown historic injury, possibly from my biking accident, that turned serious. The fracture triggered the muscle seizure which then obscured the fracture for two agonizing, dangerous days. The muscle problem required rest, vitamins, and fluids, and my non-fractured right leg recovered quickly. Sparing any more medical details, three things stand out as I recover from emergency surgery at Hadassah University Medical Center, Mount Scopus.  First, stranded in traffic-clogged Jerusalem, immobile, cut off from my running partners, unable to reach my house because the Marathon route ran passed it, I experienced that famous Israeli sweetness underneath the prickly Sabra skin. Strangers carried me, called home for me, begged to help, as I sat, shivering, in a random office lobby, waiting for the traffic to clear and help to arrive. Second, shifting from faux heroism to humiliating helplessness, unable to complete basic physical tasks, absorbing prognoses ranging from optimistic to catastrophic, is dizzying. The traumas bond me to friends and relatives who have suffered far worse ruptures with the normal. Beyond realizing that we should never take the blessings of normal functioning for granted, beyond my gratitude for the angels of mercy around us — be they kids caring for their temporarily disabled abba or total strangers — I am trying to view this horror as a rebirth.  As modern centers of life and death, hospitals give us an opportunity to reset, reorient, recalibrate, remembering what’s important.

Finally, Hadassah Medical Center remains one of Israel’s miracles. For starters, the first volunteer who approached me, asked, softly, “Do you publish,” and “are you from Queens,” showing he actually read my work – femur broken, pride wounded, but authorial ego intact, whew! More seriously, Hadassah hospital realizes the Zionist vision of serving humanity through particularist pride, as this intensely Jewish place with kosher food and a Jewish soul unites Muslims, Christians and Jews, as patients and staff, so naturally, so beautifully. I room with an Arab plumber from the Mount of Olives and a Sephardic retiree who speaks in prayers and poetry. We all receive the same dignified, cutting-edge, healing treatment from the multicultural parade of doctors and attendants. Hadassah hospital pulsates with love, skill, warmth and humor. Many staffers have walked in, bemused by the marathoning professor – although I feel like the scholarly klutz.  Late Sunday night, after my emergency surgery, through my haze, I heard one doctor say lovingly, not mockingly, “don’t worry professor, you’ll be ready for the Tel Aviv marathon two weeks from now.” I am working on it…..