Monday, November 17, 2014

Personal Creativity in Business

In my last quarter of business school, I took “Personal Creativity in Business” with Michael Ray.  I loved this course.  We meditated, journaled about our voice of judgment, practiced live-withs like "everything is new", and learned to play the harmonica.  For my final project- constructed around the questions "Who is my Self?" and "What is my Work?" - I cut up the first chapter of my Management in the Nonmarket Environment textbook and made it into a poetry kit, then mounted poems on some scrap foam core I had left over from making toilet seats for the school show.   It was a far cry from doing regression analysis or pulling all-night shifts in the machine shop trying to build a portable tripod we could market test.  I did a lot of mountain biking that spring.  Creativity in business was not a stretch for me.

Many years later, the Stanford GSB magazine ran an article on Michael Ray’s course, featuring graduates who had taken left turns off the traditional MBA career path - becoming sommeliers or artists or answering other callings that stirred in their hearts.  You see, the article seemed to say, getting an MBA doesn’t preclude you from pursuing passionate, creative work.

Damn right, I thought to myself, reflecting on my own career.  Manufacturing management, support team management, product management – all roles that fit nicely along the expected trajectory of your typical MBA.  I had poured creativity and passion into every job I’d had.  How could I not?  It took creativity to get 75 Spanish-speaking machine operators to accept me-- a 28-year-old single white girl-- as the jefa.  It took creativity to make the potential monotony of front-line customer support into a job with variety and opportunity for personal growth.  It takes continuous creativity to find ways to advance the things I care about personally through my professional life.  

So why did this article - in the magazine of a school dedicated to nurturing business leaders- focus on people who had turned away from management jobs?  Perhaps it just made for more entertaining reading.  But I felt cheated.  Stanford was doing what the world at large tends to do for us: stereotype management as passionless and prescribed.  As if creativity were the sole domain of poets, painters and Iron Chefs.  (For the record - Fast Company ran an article in June 2000 on Michael Ray that paints a much broader picture of creativity.) 

I was reminded of this course when I recently attended a workshop on personal artist with executive coach and poet Libby Wagner.  Part of my reaction to the Stanford article came from my fragile self-image as a hybrid.  I want my personal creativity recognized because there are all sorts of nice adjectives that go along with "creative" that the world doesn't associate with "MBA".  Free-thinking, empathic, sensual, inventive, passionate... I'd like to tag myself with those descriptors, even if I am also structured, results-oriented, analytical.  It hurt a little that my own alma mater would, by omission, ostensibly deny me these appealing labels.

But beyond my personal dose of righteous indignation, I wondered whether those who have pursued their passion in leadership subconsciously hold back on tackling big problems because the looking-glass self they see reflected in the world tells them that they don't have the creativity to do it.

Most of the creativity in the world happens outside art studios and writers' garrets.  In Michael Ray's words, "Creativity is a way of life.  It's a productive attitude that thrives at all levels and at all phases of business."  Creativity is the ability to sense the expansive possibility of every moment-- to stop long enough between forays into planning, reminiscing, and judging to see the unique opportunity in this never-to-happen-again instant.

Managers interact and rely on the most complex of textiles every day: humans.  Paying attention to the shades, patterns, textures and temperatures of a team and its customers unveils tremendous potential energy.  Converting that to the kinetic energy of a high-functioning organization, driving not just investor wealth but also joy, and beauty, and justice into the world - now that is creative.

I can't imagine a life without the celebration of human spirit that is art.  But there are problems in the world that we can't dance or paint our way out of.  We need people with a natural aptitude for leadership to see the creativity in their work, because we need a future that transcends what the past would predict for it.  To all the business leaders out there, I hope you never stop asking, "Who is my Self?"  What is my Work?"  Even if your first instinct when you look at a trunk full of Legos is to sort them by color and build square towers, you have more uncelebrated creativity than you get credit for.  And the world needs it.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Nobody is writing a screenplay about my life

Last week, I stared down the reality that my life is probably not going to be the subject of a major motion picture.

Go ahead and laugh, but as I pushed my cart through the towering aisles of crackers and chips at Costco, it hit me that I was wholly unremarkable - and that a small voice in my head had never thought it would come to this.  My accomplishments are too trivial, my errors too mundane, the ripples emanating from the waves I've made too small to make my name go down in history.  All those years my mother worked like a dog to make sure that I had every privilege in life, and here I am, as anonymous as a squirrel in all but a tiny universe.  I can't even walk through the San Jose airport without being completely ignored.

So what?  you say.  Last I checked, Kate Beckinsale wasn't jockeying for the lead role in my life story, either.  Yes, well, that isn't making me feel any better.  The voice in my head doesn't have any opinions about whether you would go down in history; it is all about me.

It hasn't been without effort.  I work hard, I challenge myself, I parent like a tiger (well, maybe a zoo tiger).  But compared to Virginia Woolf or Marie Curie or Hillary Clinton, my fingerprints are looking pretty faint.  I haven't taken the kinds of risks that powerful people take.  The best I can strive for at this point, I thought to myself miserably, is not to be a malignancy.

So this is what a mid-life crisis feels like: that sinking feeling that my life is more than half over, and I've yet to figure out what I'm doing here.  It feels too late for me to achieve greatness - and perhaps more disturbing, it sounds like a lot of work I'd rather not do.  It's not just a matter of time running out; it's that I'm not even wired for greatness.  I never was.

And if you're not going to be great, what is The Point in being?

I was doing quite a number on myself with this exercise.  But then I heard a voice that was not so small, and actually not inside my head:

MOM!  I need a TOWEL!!!!!

And suddenly, I was important.  Without me, my daughter would apparently never be dry again.

The older I get, the more frequently my mind wanders toward a vision of my legacy.  But history only has so many open seats for immortals.  Life is a much more finely-woven cloth than the actions of a few great people.  Martin Luther King's famous speech would not have been famous if there hadn't been more than 250,000 civil rights supporters marching on Washington that day. Pop icons are only stars because of their fans.  Spanning out from those remarkable people whose stories have made Hollywood blockbusters and New York Times bestsellers are millions and millions of supporting actors.  We create joy.  We create beauty.  We make life better for a small circle of people we love and care for.  And we work for our dreams.  This is where I live: in one of those circles.  In concert with millions of other circles, we create the symphony of life - the thing that will eventually be called history.

In her memoir Paula, Isabel Allende writes to her unconscious daughter while sitting at her bedside in a Madrid hospital:

In terms of the cosmos and the long course of history, we are insignificant; after we die nothing will change, as if we had never existed.  Nonetheless, by the measures of our own precarious humanity, you, Paula, are more important to me than my own life, or the sum of almost all other lives.  Every day several million persons die and even more are born but, for me, you alone were born, only you can die.

This is the heart of it: how I feel about my own children, and my own Paula, and about my mother, my sister, the friends who have become my California family.  They are more important to me than the sum of almost all other lives.  My inspiration is to live out the second half of my life with full consciousness that I am the same to them.  If that isn't a high standard, I don't know what is.

I am writing the screenplay of my life as I live it.  It is a movie that the people who loved me will continue to watch after I leave this world.  So I better make it a good one.

We are almost at the California Avenue station... it is time for the next scene.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Facebook is not real life

Recently, I ran into some friends who had sent us a Christmas card featuring their stunning family photo.  "Your girls are gorgeous," I remarked.  "How are they doing?"  All doing well, they said, although they confided that their oldest daughter was "difficult, especially with her mother."

"Really?" I said.  "She doesn't look difficult in the picture."

They laughed.  It was true: the photograph showed a smiling couple with their beautiful daughters in matching dresses, all of them bathed in the warm glow of unconditional love.  These were not difficult children. They were the children we think everyone else has, the ones we measure our own kids against: not just beautiful, but also unfailingly kind-hearted, loving, obedient, appreciative, respectful.  In our imaginations, their parents kiss them goodnight, admiring the stacks of neatly-folded clothes in their drawers, and then retreat to the living room (which is free of toys, socks, unopened mail, and crumbs) for a little relaxing conversation before bed.  These parents never fall asleep in their younger child's bed, wake up disoriented two hours later, trip over a plastic horse, and stumble into the living room to find the older child awake way past her bedtime, surfing YouTube and working her way through a sleeve of Thin Mints.  Those things only happen at our house.  (A lot.)

Come to think of it, around the holidays, our fridge was covered with the kinds of photos that made me feel just slightly insecure.

I was reflecting on this as a friend was telling me about the phenomenon of "Facebook depression" among young adults.  In full disclosure, I'm a fan of Facebook.  It adds depth and color to my relationships with a broad network of loose connections.  I use Facebook to get people to read this blog.  More than anything, Facebook fills a void left by my failure to ever pursue a career as a stand-up comic in the Borscht Belt.

But, like all those Christmas cards, my Facebook timeline is riddled with lies of omission.   It’s precisely those loose, but important, connections-- the ones that comprise the vast majority of Facebook relationships—that make us cautious about what goes on our timelines.  When our Facebook friends are our kids' teachers, or their friends' parents, or our employers, or potential future employers, or the people who can introduce us to those future employers – well, it invites a more carefully-curated presence than, say, my ever-suffering partner gets to experience.

My Facebook persona is not clandestine about anything fundamentally defining in my character.  Anyone who would reject me because I'm Jewish or gay or maybe a little extreme about water conservation has my blessing to get lost.  But my persona is remarkably cheery.  She’s opinionated, but respectful.  Her smart children are always funny and cute.  She never loses her temper with them.  She’s a go-getter who’s also patient and meditative.  Her cats never hurl on the bedspread.  Envious?  I bet.  She sounds amazing.  Wish I knew her.

I don't look difficult in the picture.  But, believe me, I am.  Just ask my mother.  

Of course, you already knew that.  We all strike a pose when it comes to social media.  We know it, and we know everyone else does it too.  And yet, especially on a bad day, I still find the Voice of Judgment whispering in the back of my mind when I scroll through and see how happy everyone is, how capable and well-adjusted their children are, how much fun they have, how bravely they handle adversity.  Look at what good parents they are.  Look how successful they are.  You're not that good.  If I can feel those tremors as an adult - one who is really fine with who I am, warts and all - what is it like for a teenager?  How does Facebook affect someone who doesn't have the life experience to extrapolate from a series of fun-filled Instagram dots to a realistic curve of life?  Especially if their friends are contending with their own insecurities, and need to feel "liked" even more than we do as adults, you could see how Facebook leads to envy, jealousy, even depression.

Facebook is not without value.  But it is not real life.  To all the teens and young adults out there:  When you are browsing your "news feed", remember that your friends have chosen to expose a very thin layer of their existence.  In between those smiley photos and enthusiastic check-ins, everyone has times when she feels down, discouraged, embarrassed, insecure, confused, hurt or scared.  Every one of your friends sometimes feels as if no one cares about him, or that he doesn't deserve to be loved.  This isn't depression.  It's just life.  Those friends who constantly assault you with a public display of happiness are probably compensating for something.  And some of your friends haven't yet learned that you can't really lift yourself up by pushing other people down.  They're still trying to make that work.

If you can remember all this, you'll be able to take Facebook for what it is... and never compare yourself to the people in the picture.

On that note, I think I'll post this blog... and see who likes me.  Er, I mean, likes it.

Monday, February 24, 2014

18 Wishes

When Paula's daughter Taylor turned 18, I wanted to give her a special gift - one that commemorated her milestone birthday with something that would last longer than a purse or a pair of shoes.  So I wrote her a letter.  Sure, I threw some cash in there too.  But a year and a half later, living independently in Tahoe and shining in her first "real" job, Taylor recently told me that the letter was one of the best gifts she's ever received.  She still revisits it.  (I'm pretty sure she isn't talking about the cash.)

With her permission, I'm reprinting the letter here.  Reading through it again, I find that I'd still do well to listen more attentively to my own advice.

July 2012
Dear Taylor,

It’s not real leather, but here is my gift to you.  For your 18th birthday, I give you 18 wishes- things that have served me well in life as I’ve traversed almost 30 years since my own 18th. 

I hope you like it.  If I had to sum it all up, my wish for you is joy.



#1: Use your body.  Maybe going running between a 5:30 AM meeting and the kids’ breakfast isn’t everyone’s idea of a great morning.  But look at the number of 6AM spin classes, 7AM yoga classes, cyclists hitting the road before the crack of dawn… you might say I’m crazy, but I’m not the only one.  It is gratifying and energizing to use your body – especially while you’re young and largely injury-free.  Exercise is not only life-giving, it’s also a natural upper.  Psychologists recommend regular exercise as treatment for depression, anxiety, stress… you name it.  It is the one activity I never regret, no matter how much I drag myself kicking and screaming into a workout.  My wish for you is that you use that beautiful, strong, capable body of yours to its full potential.  Sometimes, when I’m running or cycling, I do a ‘body scan’ – a meditative exercise that focuses attention sequentially on each area of the body.  Not only does it pull me back out of my head and into my body, but when I am in pain, the body scan helps me treat it with equanimity – and it helps me realize that there are so many parts of my body that magically, wonderfully, joyously work, all the time.  Give yourself this gift.

#2: Own your future.  Everyone has hardships in their life.  For some, it’s stark: war, homelessness, sexual abuse or physical disability.  For most of us, it’s more subtle.  Whatever ghosts we carry with us, they can be demanding.  Trying to ignore them usually spirals into anger, substance abuse, social isolation or depression.  It’s not healthy.

Recognize if and when these ghosts are tugging at your wrist.  Don’t let them keep you from your dreams.  You have a palpable energy and a personal radiance.  You can power your future with those assets.  At some point, the world expects you to look forward, no matter how bad a situation you were in, no matter how much your ex hurt you, no matter how hard your life has been.  There are people who overcome their circumstances, and there are people who blame them for their misery until the day they die.  My grandfather was a Holocaust survivor who lost his 4-year-old son to the war.  He witnessed countless atrocities and went on to save lives as a cardiologist in New York.  My former colleague is on the other end of the spectrum.  Whatever comfort he gets from the refrain “it’s not my fault”, it doesn’t make his life any happier.

Approach your life with resolve.  Be kind to yourself when your past gets the better of you.  And then point yourself toward your dreams and work like hell to achieve them.  Whether you achieve them or not, knowing that you made the effort will be your reward.  As my friend Susie likes to say, “All the divine can ask of us is that we try.”

#3: Revel in the natural world.  You live in one of the most beautiful places on earth.  The weather is perfect almost year-round, there are beaches and mountains within an hour’s drive, and even within the concrete jungle of San Jose, you can find flowers, trees, birds and insects everywhere you look. 
Get out of the city and sink into silence whenever you can.  Do it while you’re young, you don’t have kids and your body cooperates.  When you can’t get away, look for opportunities to walk.  You see things when you’re walking that you miss when you’re in a car.  The other day, I was walking from the train station at Belmont to my office – it’s a 20-minute walk over an ugly stretch of Ralston Ave that crosses 101.  I was in a funk for no reason other than being wrapped around my own axles.  I looked up and saw this beautiful tree, right as I was stepping onto the highway overpass.  It was covered in these little yellow fuzzy balls – like tiny tennis balls, but stunningly pretty.  It made my day to stop and look at it.  

We miss so much because we’ve got our faces pointed at our phones and our heads stuck in our own small lives.  Don’t forget to look up.  Every time I do, I’m amazed by how much beauty a moment can hold, even in the most unlikely places. 

#4: Read.  A love of reading can be your best friend.   Diving into a book lets your mind travel when your body can’t, engross yourself in someone else’s life when your own life is bringing you down, focus your mind, spark your imagination, inspire you to feel, give you empathy for things you will never experience directly… at the loneliest times in my life, reading has given me some relief from the weight of my own emotions.  There are few things I love more than losing myself in a book so good that I genuinely miss all the characters when it ends.  

It’s a joy that you can carry your entire life.  No level of physical immobility, poverty, or isolation can ever take reading away from you.  The library is free.

I’ve never had much of a memory for history or geography, but through other people’s stories, I’ve time-traveled to ancient Mayan cultures, modern-day Afghanistan, post-Civil-War North Carolina, high-society Savannah, the Japanese internment camps in Washington state, Myanmar… the list goes on.  

There is another reason to read: it makes you a better writer.  Do not underestimate how valuable this will be in your future.  By reading, you enrich your use of language and develop an appreciation for style.    The English language is so deeply textured; it can give voice to the subtleties of anything you’re feeling if you develop your own vocabulary and style.    Just look at how many greens there are in the woods.  Could one word possibly do them justice?  Most people can’t come up with two.

#5: Become financially literate.  Money can’t buy you love- but for better or for worse, it does buy just about everything else.  To travel, to continue your education, to do most of the things you want in life, you need money.  And that means you need to understand how to budget and to save.  There are basic concepts of financial literacy that will make your life so much easier.  You’re a smart girl.  You have the aptitude to be responsible and intentional with your finances.  It will make your life so much less stressful.  It will put your goals within reach.

I gave your mom the name and number of a gentlemen who does pro bono financial literacy sessions with teens, young adults, and even adults.  He was in retail banking for decades.  It won’t cost you a dime; he does this as a volunteer.  I hope you’ll contact him.

#6: Look for the spark.  Somewhere, at some point, you’re going to find a kind of work that is so engaging you hardly notice you’re working.  It may or may not be work that pays you.  It may be work for your mind or your body or both.  This is described as a state of flow.  Notice it when it happens.  You may not be able to take action on it right away, but tuck it away.  Look for the opportunities in life that ignite that spark.  What do you care about so passionately that you can muscle through the bad days?  When do you feel as if the hours are flying by?  Don’t worry if it doesn’t come to you immediately.  Don’t worry if the jobs you have to work as you’re getting started don’t ignite anything.  And don’t expect to feel that way all the time.  But don’t forget about it, either.  And when you find it… figure out what’s standing between you and it, and set out to defeat whatever is holding you back.

#7: Travel.  I should have put this at the top of my list of wishes for you.  There is no substitute for seeing the world in person.  You can’t experience the world through headline news; it’s intentionally heavy on shock value.  Traveling outside the country will open your eyes and change your perspective indelibly.  

Start a piggy bank today.  Put in a dollar a day for travel.    It doesn’t have to cost a fortune.  When I was living in an old walk-up apartment with two roommates after college, making $28,000 a year, I went to Egypt and Israel.  The next year, I went to Greece.  I bought all my furniture secondhand, rarely ate out when I didn’t have a coupon… but in total, I’ve been to 18 countries.  I would not trade that for anything else in the world.  

Travel on a shoestring when you’re in the third world; you will be closer to the pulse of life that way.  Stay in the youth hostels and meet people from all over.  Get on a plane with your Lonely Planet and just see what awaits you.  I promise, you won’t regret it.

#8: Keep learning.  I can’t urge you strongly enough to consider your education incomplete.  There is so much more for you to learn, so many ways for you to grow and extend yourself and look for that spark.  Yes, school can be expensive – but it’s still one of the best investments you can make in your future.  The reality is that college opens doors.  Some of those doors can be pried open, with considerable force, if you don’t have a degree.  Others are rather firmly shut. 

By accident of birth, I was on a college track from the time they cut the umbilical cord.  It was never a choice I had to make; it was an assumption.  You are faced with a choice – about whether, and when, going back to school is right for you, and if so, what kind of school.  My wish for you is that you keep all options open for yourself.  The choices you have when you’re young aren’t always available when you’re older.

You’re graduating into one of the toughest economies in recent memory.  It is increasingly hard to earn a living wage with a high school degree.  You’re bright, you’re energetic, and you have the E.Q. to be a great team member.  Don’t let a stunted education stand in your way.  Learn all your life.  The opportunities are still out there for those who have the drive to go get them. 

#9 Approach life with gratitude.  Gratitude has physiological benefits.  It is calming.  It makes you happy.  Medical research shows that grateful people actually take better care of themselves, have better immune system function, and cope better with stress.  

As you said yourself, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.  Your life is full of blessings.  Find a moment every day to calm your mind, put the phone down, close your eyes, and just breathe.  In that moment, you’ll realize that you are healthy, safe, and loved.  Don’t ever take those three things for granted.  

One of my mantras is “assume good intent.”  If you get hung up on all the irritating (and in some cases harmful) things that people do out of ineptitude or carelessness, it feeds a ball of anger and resentment inside you, and it can really fuck with the pursuit of happiness.  Let it go and accept that most people, to the best of their ability, probably do mean well.  Even people who want to ban gay marriage truly believe that they are doing the right thing.  Without exonerating inaction, if you can shift your focus away from righteous indignation, you’ll have the latitude to feel gratitude.  And it is one of the best feelings in the world. 

You can choose to take gratitude further with practices of devotion, like yoga or religious ceremony.  There are so many paths to a spiritually rich life.  But all it takes is that moment – long enough to take a deep breath – to say “thank you”.  It doesn’t even matter who “you” is.

#10: Don’t bow to dependency.  I spent most of my late teens and early twenties with an alcohol problem.  As a shy and awkward teenager, I discovered that alcohol gave me license to behave outrageously.  I deliberately abused it to do the things that I knew I shouldn’t do, and to loosen the stranglehold of my shyness.  I did so many bad, irresponsible things when I was drunk.  It’s hard for me to think about, even now.  I saw myself as ugly and unlikeable, and when I drank, I separated from myself. I got high for the same reasons.  Trace it back to abandonment by my dad, trace it back to whatever you like… it doesn’t matter.  The result wasn’t pretty.

Getting high or getting drunk every day isn’t recreation; it’s dependency.  You have to ask yourself what you’re depending on it for.  I excused my alcohol abuse in college because I was a straight-A student.  So did most of the world around me.  But as much as I muted the pain when I was drunk, I exacerbated it when I wasn’t.  At some point, after being date-raped while unconscious, it finally clicked for me.  I didn’t blame anyone but myself.  I wish I could have those years of my life back to live over again.  I’m lucky that I was able to get over the addiction and find my own way to soak up the sun.  I love my life, even when it is hard, and I appreciate it.  I still deal with the anxiety I’ve had my whole life, but head-on, not sideways.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Look dependency in the eye.  If you ever find that you're using drugs or alcohol to suppress boredom, mask depression, or dull pain, or if getting high lets you put off dealing with the hard stuff, be honest with yourself about it.  You don’t owe that to anyone but yourself.  

Don’t shortchange how much beauty there is in life when you’re not seeing it through a filter.  It can be hard when you’re 18, but trust me that it’s out there.

If you should find at any point in your life that you need help- and that is a decision only you can make – there are many, many people who will welcome you with love, acceptance and empathy.  I am one of them.

OK, that’s enough prattling on.  Here are the eight runners-up:
#11 Repair the world.  Make it your personal responsibility to make the world a better place.
#12 Put effort into every part of your life.  The things that you’ll most value in the long run are the things that challenge you.  In the immortal words of four-time NBA MVP Dr J, “Being a professional is doing the thing you love to do — even on the days you don’t feel like doing it.”
#13 Treasure the moment.  It is all we have.  Give it everything you can.
#14 Don’t lose hope.  The world is a scary place right now.  I don’t know how it’s all going to turn out.  But I do know what will happen if we all give up and take the “life’s a bitch and then you die” mentality.  That much is predictable.
#15 Assume good intent. I mentioned this above.  But it’s important enough that it merits its own line.
#16 Dance whenever you can.  And do it as if no one were watching.  In fact, do it when no one is watching.  Dance like Leah.
#17 Don’t sweat the small stuff.  (And it’s all small stuff.)  A friend of mine had a book by this title in her bathroom.  Truer words…
#18 Feed the kitties.  A long time ago, I got a greeting card that contained this quote: I once asked a four-year-old what the secret to life was. “Feed the kitties,” she said. “Feed the Kitties”. It’s good advice.  Feed the kitties.  They will always make you feel appreciated.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Why you're having a Bat Mitzvah: An open letter to my daughter

Beloved daughter,

You and I have been having an interesting dialogue about your Bat Mitzvah- or, as you would say, the question of your Bat Mitzvah.  I remember the look in your eyes when I casually mentioned that you'd be stepping up to the Bima in less than two years.  "No!!" you shouted back, incredulous.  "I'm not having a Bat Mitzvah!  I hate Hebrew school!"  I felt that flush of righteous indignation that always hits me when you're defiant, just before I remember that I haven't exactly raised you to be passive and acquiescent.  Still, this one... I thought that somewhere in the transfer of DNA that occurred during conception, you would understand that becoming a Bat Mitzvah was as much a part of your future as losing your baby teeth.

Your resistance has led me down a path of introspection about what it means to celebrate a Bat Mitzvah, and why it's so important to me - because I don't just love you, I respect you and revere you, and I know that your challenges are not something to be dismissed.  As much as I just wanted to say "Because I said so," I felt an obligation to explain my conviction to you.

You've said from time to time that you don't want to be Jewish... because you don't believe in God, or at best, you're not sure what you believe.  I have news, honey… you're in good company.  It's perfectly normal to wrestle with the notion of "God".  Whether internally or out loud, people have been doing it for millennia.  Reform Judaism embraces this struggle as part of our identity. 

But here's the thing.  You don't have to want to be Jewish; you are Jewish.  There are Jews by choice - those who convert to Judaism - but you are not one of them.  No matter what you believe about God, no matter how much you like or dislike going to services, it doesn't change the fact that the Jews are your people.  You have a shared history. 

The day you were born, I handed you a torch that has been passed down from generation to generation for more than 5,000 years.  It is the light unto the nations referenced in Isaiah.  It is the spark of the divine in each of us.  It is the rune that proclaims our values, our ethical code, our rituals and traditions- born of faith, yet borne through history even when our faith was shaken.  In the much broader expanse of our family life that happens outside of the synagogue, you are bathed in the light of this torch -whether you identify it as a "Jewish" light or not.  In the scripture of Judaism, you will find commandments to treat the earth kindly, to welcome the stranger, to treat animals humanely, to give to the poor.  You will find admonitions against waste, greed, short-sightedness, and idle chatter.  Every day, your life is guided by these values.  I see it in the way you navigate the world.

Your Bat Mitzvah is a rite of passage.  It marks the transition from childhood to adolescence.  It is a time when you stand before God and everyone, holding up the torch you were handed at birth and affirming that it is still lit. 

As for the religion of Judaism: so many of us who identify as Reform Jews struggle with this.  I include myself in this camp.  I won't be able to answer during my lifetime the question of whether there is a God.  But this doesn't make the construct of our religion meaningless to me.  The liturgy, the stories of the Torah, the fabric of social action that is woven into our culture, the rituals of gratitude and rest and introspection and repentance, the tunes I hum when I am alone in the car: all of this provides a structure within which I make sense of life, death, and my purpose on this earth.  The cloudy notion of something larger than myself that floats around in my head gains traction in our religion.  This is a far cry from declaring the Bible to be the inerrant word of God.  I have never and will never believe that.  I hope you never do, either.

Our life is so full of blessings that we lose track of them.   Sometimes it feels like a perverse version of Dayenu: "If God had given us an unrationed supply of clean drinking water, but not provided a bubbling fountain with a filter for our cats to drink from, it would have been enough...."  Even if nothing else comes from your Jewish identity, I hope at least that it instills in you a sense of wonder and awe at creation, and the impulse to give thanks for it.  When the world seems so full of darkness that I can barely stand to look it in the eye, I retreat to the things that humans have not created: the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens, to quote Hannah Senesh.  I find solace in the things my arms and legs can do, the things my heart can do, our capacity for joy.

For all the beauty of creation, for the awe and mystery that does not defy but rather wraps itself around science- embraces it, if you will- I am grateful to have our Jewish traditions to honor it, remember it, and act as its steward.  If your Jewish education gives you the reverence to live an inspired life, to commit yourself to making your life a blessing - even if you never set foot in a synagogue again after your Bat Mitzvah - Dayenu.  It will be enough.

I know how you feel.  I felt the same way when I was in my early teens.  I could let you opt out now, skip the Bat Mitzvah, find your own way - and you'd probably be just fine.  But I don't want you to look back 30 years from now and say, "I wish I had."

So, that's why you're having a Bat Mitzvah.  I love you with every ounce of me.