“Kar’nie, are you Hanukkah or Christmas?”

This question from my 4-year-old nephew, using my family nickname, made me smile. I still warm to his childlike innocence just as I did many years ago.

I doubt he cared about the fine points of Judaism and Christianity. But, aware of various activities around the holidays, he probably wondered, would we light a Menorah or decorate a Christmas tree? What kinds of food would we share? What presents might he expect from me and when? How could he participate in the holiday activities? Would he feel at home at our house?

My family includes both Jews and Christians, and we have shared in each other’s traditions over the years. Growing up, I celebrated Passover (read in Hebrew!) and other Jewish holidays with my orthodox great aunt and uncle, and they celebrated Christian holidays with us. Whatever our affinities, we loved and felt loved by one another.

This verse in Scriptures touches my heart, especially as people gather with family and friends to celebrate this season: “God is no respecter of persons.” To me, the divine Presence is not a divider, but a unifier. Although each person is unique, I’m making a special effort to appreciate and treat everyone as members of the family of humanity bound together by universal love.

“Are you Hanukkah or Christmas?” We laughed, played, gave gifts and enjoyed that holiday season – both Hanukkah and Christmas.

What’s in a Tattoo?

8:00AM and I am in an unfamiliar part of downtown Oakland, in a shuttle bus and starving. I figured the bus driver would likely know the best cafes on his route so I asked him. I was not disappointed!

Although there were boarded up shops nearby, there was also a newly renovated theatre, and right next door the recommended café. It looked welcoming and showed renewed vitality in the city. As I walked in from the morning cold, a hip server swaying to rock music greeted me and pointed to a sunny window seat.

A half-hour later, after tasty eggs and orange juice, another friendly server checked in. As she turned to go, I caught a glimpse of an intricate swirling design of blue and green colors on her arm.

“Wow, that’s a cool tattoo,” I said.

“It’s a peacock,” she offered, adding with a nod of confidence, “a dead peacock.”

Looking carefully, I saw this was no strutting peacock. Its head lay limp. “Hmmmm,” I wondered aloud, “Why a dead peacock?” Moving closer, she leaned on the back of the chair next to me as she opened up.

“This peacock is like men who show off their material possessions – cars and clothes and things. I don’t like that. That’s why it’s dead!” She continued, “When I see guys acting this way I say to my friends, ‘Those dudes are totally ‘peacocking.’”

She was so genuine that I felt free to ask, “If that’s what you don’t like, what do you like?”

Simple,” she replied. “I like simple. My boyfriend – he’s good looking, but it’s more what’s inside that I like. He doesn’t have a lot of things, but he has a lot of inner depth.”

“What about you?” she asked. I agreed with her – character was more attractive to me than what someone owned. I was touched that this woman knew what was important to her, and that she wasn’t going to compromise. So sure of it, in fact, that she had engraved it on her arm! Was this a statement? Or was this a reminder to herself not to forget?

Today, a lot of people are writing and talking about not measuring our worth by outward things but looking within ourselves to find it. Could it be because our worth is truly inherent within us – the gift of our creator? We don’t earn worth, we can’t buy it, we don’t have to prove it.

How do we feel that inner worth? A friend once said to me, “If you want to feel it, live it! You’ve got it, now express it.” Little by little, I’m finding I can do it, but it takes focused intention and attention.

One way I start to live my inherent worth is by pausing, stepping back and figuring out who I truly am. Am I the labels I may have inherited or acquired…or something deeper? I’m learning from Scriptures – and am beginning to confirm by experience – that I’m created by the Divine to be wholly loving and good. If that’s the case, I can express and appreciate divine qualities in myself and others – goodness, love, warmth, caring, confidence, strength, integrity, humor, generosity.

Recently, a few examples of seeing the inherent spiritual nature of others were meaningful to me. A friend lit up with joy about her purpose in life. My sister described with enthusiasm a beautiful sunset she’d seen. A teacher showered acceptance and affection on her long-time students.

The challenge in doing this? Sometimes it feels like going against the suggesting voice of the skeptic, which often echoes those aspects of our culture that gloss over the idea of inner worth. Are there rewards? I feel better about myself and more in harmony with life. And perhaps more important, thinking less about myself and how to get what I think I need (isn’t that what a lack of self-worth does to us – makes us preoccupied with ourselves?), I’m more attuned to other people’s greatness as well as their concerns and how to contribute to their well-being. Getting my own worth straight enriches me and others.

Our conversation that morning in the café reinforced for me the importance of valuing true worth. As my new friend discovered, isn’t “inner depth,” the inner surety of worth, rather than “peacocking,” the only way that true attractiveness shines outward?

Tenderness

On our way home

It’s one of my favorite qualities, especially when least expected.

Our dog Jubi and I were finishing a mid-day walk. The white cotton ball on four legs, as someone once called Jubi, was trotting expectantly toward home and lunch, when I caught sight of an elderly gentleman coming toward us. He was making his way slowly and deliberately down the sidewalk supporting his frail frame on a cane. I had never seen him before and would probably have passed by with a “hello.” But as we approached and the man saw Jubi, he paused, eyes brightening. “Oooooh!” he exclaimed and tried haltingly to bend over and touch her. Seeing his difficulty in moving, I scooped up Jubi and held her close to him. He extended a thin hand and stroked her gently. Then leaning on his cane he stretched his neck forward to feel Jubi’s face against his. Responding with licks of affection toward this stranger, her ‘kisses’ evoked peals of laughter from him. Looking into her eyes, he breathed aloud, “God bless you!”

Blessed indeed! That’s how I felt too as we introduced ourselves, shook hands and bid each other farewell. The pure delight and joy in my new friend’s face as he felt Jubi’s tender kisses made my own heart soar. Yes, we’re all blessed by these expressions of tenderness that open our hearts and unify the human (and animal) family. I resolved then and there to look for more expressions of tenderness in my day…it feels so good!

Another visit to the stationery store

Yesterday, my dog, Jubi, and I returned to the stationery store that I wrote about in my last post, “Reflections on the meaning of ‘spiritual.’” During our earlier visit, Jubi had won over the heart of a young clerk who out of fear had never pet a dog in her life.

This time, when she saw the little fluff ball, she immediately bent down, cupped Jubi’s face lovingly in her hands and caressed her all over. “Oh,” she eagerly exclaimed, “over the weekend, and everyday since I met you, I’ve pet so many dogs…and cats! Because of Jubi, I’ve completely overcome my fear of animals!”

Leaving the store, I felt gratitude for what, to me, was the presence of spirituality transforming fear into joy and love.

Reflections on the meaning of “spiritual”

When I was starting this blog, a friend counseled me to avoid “fuzziness and vagueness” about spirituality. Good advice! Although spirituality has had a tangible, practical effect on my life for many years, I am still discovering more of what it means!

So, what is spirituality to me? I believe it’s the essence of our being, the fundamental nature of each one of us. In my experience, spirituality enables us to perceive and to act on our inherent goodness and to see the good in others. I can express spiritual qualities that uplift and inspire and see these qualities in others.

My dog, Jubi, for example, expresses these qualities in spades, and she brings them out in people who stop in their tracks to engage with her and find joy, loveliness, innocence, friendliness, openness. Yesterday, Jubi and I were in the local stationery store buying a birthday card for a friend. (The store also has dog treats.) A little girl spotted Jubi and immediately slid onto her knees and sidled up to pet the soft white fluff ball.

Jubi’s learned that her mission is to let everyone, especially children, approach and fondle her. She’ll see a 2 year old and become still, letting them brush their hands along her soft white back, run their fingers through her whispery tail, or lift up her ear pads to find an ear under her puffy hair.

On this particular day, the child’s dad stood by patiently for over 15 minutes while his daughter, in the middle of the stationery aisle showered Jubi with gentle caressing.

When the store clerk noticed this, she exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! That’s the cutest dog. I don’t like dogs. I’ve never pet a dog. But…can I pet her?” Around from behind the counter she scurried. First hesitating then squealing with delight, she reached out an affectionate hand. In the few moments of conversation that followed the young woman said she’d grown up in a Middle Eastern country where dogs weren’t part of family life. Now, almost in spite of herself, something switched on within her – delight, wonder, surprise, joy – evoked by encountering sweet love.

These qualities of patience and joy and gentle caring – these spiritual qualities – I have come to believe are natural to all of us. This is what I hope to explore in these blogs: how tangible is spirituality? What is its source? Is it a gift? Can we cultivate it? What practical difference can it make? How does it connect us with one another?

Meanwhile, the clerk ventures to feed her first-ever treat to Jubi. The little girl and her father walk out into the afternoon sunshine. And I buy a birthday card for a friend.