hiddur mitzvah and getting out of your own way

Before I was an artist, I was a musician. I got my first guitar when I was 12, and started playing professionally when I was 14. I was very good.

Music was the first thing I lost to the brain tumor. In hindsight, I can tell you exactly when the tumor began encroaching on my brain; it was the year I stopped being able to learn new songs. The horrible thing about a brain tumor located in the part of your brain that affects short-term memory, though, is that you don't remember what you've forgotten. It was a long slow slide downhill from there, and by the time I found out about the tumor nearly a decade later, it had been years since I'd last picked up a guitar. 

About a year after the surgery, I started to get music back. My cantor asked me to join the synagogue choir, and I did, although the first few rehearsals felt like I was struggling to understand a language I knew I was supposed to be able to speak fluently. I kept singing anyway, determined to get that part of myself back.

I sang the first Rosh Hashanah service this year with a near-blinding migraine. Hardly anyone realized that, because I am also very good at hiding pain, and very good at performing. The thing about the High Holy Days, though, is that you're supposed to make yourself vulnerable, and be present. I was so far into the show must go on that I might as well have been chanting the telephone book, not the most emotional liturgy in Judaism.

The next morning I asked my cantor for advice on getting out of the show must go on and into a place of being emotionally present. She reminded me of the concept of hiddur mitzvot, the beautification of the mitzvot; that the choir was not there to perform but rather to bring beauty to the act of self-reflection and prayer. And then she told me, in more or less as many words, to get out of my own way and just sing.

And I went into the sanctuary, and took my place in the choir, and wrapped myself in my tallit, and I sang. 

When you are make art for a living, you spend a lot of time not actually making art, and when you live with chronic pain, you spend a lot of time trying to ignore your body. The challenge, for me, is to balance the mundane and the sacred; the show must go on, yes, and packages must be shipped and emails must be answered and supplies must be ordered, but when it comes time to sit down and pick up pliers and wire, I have to be willing to get out of my own way.

I am the most mindful of this when I'm working on something meant to be more than just ornamentation - intent pendants, kippot and mezuzot cases, memorial jewelry. But more and more, I'm noticing that my best work happens when I stop worrying about the details of design and technique and just let my hands be an instrument for the work that needs to be done. 

Hiddur mitzvot and tikkun olam feel like very similar obligations to me. The work of being an artist is in many ways inherently part of the work of healing the world; it is our job to get out of the way and bring beauty into the world with the work of our hands.

By now, I've made well over 10,000 pieces of jewelry. At my busiest, in 2007 and 2008, I was easily making 50 to 100 pieces every week. I'm never quite sure what to think of that; on one hand, it's an incredibly impressive body of work, but on the other hand, how many of those pieces were made as mindfully as I would like? Many, certainly, but not all.

The past few years have been a time of intense upheaval and transition and change in my life,  with my work being one of the few constants. I've been thinking a lot lately about what I want to focus on as I move forward with rebuilding both my life and my business, and the answer I kept finding is get out of your own way and do what you love. I've been reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and I really like the concept of mindfully picking up each of your possessions and asking yourself if it is something that brings you joy, and choosing to let go of anything that doesn't bring you joy anymore. 

One of the things I do every year after the holiday orders are all shipped is spend a week or so putting my studio to rights; by the end of December I'm usually working in a sea of chaos, and starting the year by organizing everything and rearranging the studio is a good mental reset. I plan to tackle that project a little differently this year: in addition to putting everything back where it goes, I'm going to sort through all of my supply cases and pick up the beads and stones and ask myself if they are still bringing me joy. I know I have a lot of beads that I've hung onto long after I stopped being excited about them, or because I used them in a design that was very popular five years ago and I might need them again if someone asks me to make something similar, or because they're perfectly good beads that I really should use even though I never seem to be able to make them into anything I like.

All of those beads are going to get dumped straight into a destash container that I'll parcel out into $5 and $10 grab bags (which I've done before, and they always sell out in a matter of hours) and I'm going to take the money from that and go bead shopping in New York for the first time in... two years, I think? with the intention of only buying things I truly love. I want to start the year not just with an organized studio, but with materials that bring me joy every time I pick them up. 

I still have my first guitar. It's unplayable now, with cracks in the wood and joins no longer glued together and a bowed neck. But it has a place of honor in my living room, because it will always bring me joy. I can't imagine getting rid of it.

But it's long past time to send the things that no longer bring me joy off to find new homes, so that I can get out of my own way and just sing. 

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