September 19, 2012

Of Swimming Pools & Tiger Tails

Shana Tova

May this be a sweet year filled with peace and understanding.

I have recently felt a bit challenged by my own lack of understanding and by the chaotic, brash and pressurized culture I find here in Israel. Like fingernails on a chalkboard, life here can grate my sensitive Canadian side and offend my polite British upbringing. And no, I am not stressed about high alerts on borders, missile threats or our imminent nuclear threat. Israel has been threatened with destruction since its independence; and the Jewish nation is so accustomed to annihilation, we have developed holidays with festive meals to celebrate our survival.

On a most mundane trivial level, I recently went to sign my son up for swimming lessons. In distant lands, one would give a child’s age and ability and be told which swimming class is available. Where I live, it is a half-day affair. I had to bring him in for a pool test. I was told to turn up at the pool at 4:30 pm on a Wednesday.

Come Wednesday, I go to the pool. It is 4:30. I am punctual. We are calm and organized and my son even has his swimming goggles and a towel. I go outside to the pool office and see a crowd of several hundred people swarming across the lawn. There are fathers in suit jackets, dads in army uniform, mothers with newborns and toddlers running through people’s legs. Hundreds of kids are standing around in their bathing suits. They are all waiting for the big test.

And then the speeches begin. The swim director introduces himself and talks about pool protocol, pool hours, swim school hours, and the big test. I look around and realize everyone is clutching a ticket. Oh no. Another scheme to trick one into assuming everything will be organized and will run smoothly. But from my recent banking experience, I know this is not true. This bodes badly.

I scour the pool area for the source of this special admittance ticket and see people mobbed around a table. A woman is handwriting names and phone numbers of all the children who want to be tested. In return, she hands out an embossed ticket with a number. I am number 73. 

I slap my forehead and realize I had better find a lawn chair. Each child will be tested singly and each test will take two minutes. Add a few minutes for mix ups and arguments and I have about 170 minutes ahead of me. My son suggests we go home and come back, but no, I am a glutton for punishment. I am here and I will see this through.

The sun glistens between the palm fronds. They are at number 23. I only know this because my son keeps running to the desk to find out the score.  Calling out numbers to keep the crowd informed would be too advanced.

The sky is amber, then orangey black like a scoop of tiger tail, that licorice-flavored ice cream I used to love as a kid when I could devour large scoops guilt free. I sigh and wonder who will magically make dinner appear at my house. They are at number 46.

People settle into their pool chairs. They chat, make phone calls, hush their babies in strollers. I feel as if I am on a ship’s deck, waiting to land at the next port.  The sky turns inky black. They are at number 68. I clutch my ticket in the darkness.

The pool director then comes out and announces that they will stop testing at number 72. Those with higher numbers will have to come back another day. He says the people with the higher number tickets did not hear his speech. Huh? I heard the speech. I was here on time. What? They are really stopping at 72? What kind of random number is that? I look at my ticket in disbelief.

Of course I have 73.  It is my bad ticket karma flaunting around like a showy peacock. Again.
I feel anger swelling. The sense of justice I wear, stiff as a shirt collar, is alerted. I feel dejected, maddened that my time is treated so cheaply.

But I quickly realize I do not have to grandstand. There are many others who are protesting, shouting, complaining, and some of them even have shiny insignias on their lapels. Besides, they are doing this way better than I could in their eloquent Hebrew. 

In the midst of this chaos, my son weaves past the crowd, slips into the pool and gets tested. Just like that. No one even asked for his ticket.

As I walked into the house later that evening, tired and hungry, my husband looked at me questioningly and was about to open his mouth. Yet when he saw my dazed face and that stunned, hypnotic look in my eyes, he decided he had better keep quiet.

I have now had time to think over this incident as well as my other recent frustrations. This may have been a test for my son, but it was also a test for me. On a logical, rational level, I could have thought of a hundred more efficient ways to organize kids’ swim classes. 

But this is deeper. 

I realize that I will never see the whole picture. We live in an imperfect, fragmented world filled with challenges. And if I expect justice and perfection, I will never be able to cope. I cannot have set notions about my reality because if something comes along to challenge my rationale, I will falter.

On Rosh Hashana, we read about a ram suddenly appearing in a thicket. This was the ram that Avraham then sacrificed. The ram’s horns, sitting on its head, are like our rationale. It is often entangled in uncertainties. But we take these horns and make them into a shofar. We then cry out. It is a primordial sound, deep and intense. It is a cry to Hashem from our fragmented lives. And it is a connection.

These times are uncertain; they always will be. But we must live on despite uncertainties. Next time I sign up my son for swim lessons, I will pack a dinner, cuddle up in a beach chair bring, and maybe I will bring along my own bathing suit. On second thought, I could convince my son to take up mahjong or baking.

G’mar Chatima Tova 

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