By Maz Jobrani
Growing up, my family didn’t have any coming of age traditions. No bar mitzvahs, no crownings, nothing. There was, however, one incident in college when I became a man.
My dad was very generous to us. A self-made millionaire back in Iran, he was able to bring a lot of money with him to the U.S. and spoil us. Like Vito Corleone from The Godfather, he was a larger than life character, always helping people out.
I became used to this until I went to college and felt it was time to stop accepting money and become a man – except for one last time. In my first week, my father gave me a couple hundred dollars. A few weeks later, I paid him back with a check. He was shocked and asked in a thick Persian accent, “Vhat iz dis?”
“I’m paying you back.”
“Ha! You pay me back? I keep in my vallet, but I no cash it. I keep as souvenir!”
Fast forward a few weeks, I went to the ATM and was told that I had “insufficient funds.”
“How is that possible?” I asked myself. And then it hit me. My dad had cashed the check! He lied to me! How dare he! I was broke.
From that day forward I took responsibility for myself and my finances. I also learned that the next time I borrowed money from my dad, I would pay him back in cash.
How can you thank those who’ve helped you? How can you pay it forward?
Maz Jobrani is an Iranian-American comedian and actor.
By Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie
On the very first Friday of all Fridays, Adam and Eve were created. But the world’s most famous couple was too overwhelmed by the sensory overload of Eden to notice that the sun had set on their first night. Saturday rolled around, first morning, then afternoon. As the sun sank in the sky, their stomachs sank, too—with a feeling that would one day be called fear. They thought the world has ended, that the looming darkness would mean their deaths.
The couple cowered and groaned with fear. The first “Oy!” in history was uttered. But then an angel came down and gave them fire—God's afterthought—and they were no longer afraid of the dark. Life continued! They waited it out, and when the sun rose again, they realized, this is just how it is.
What gets you through your darkest nights?
Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie is the founding director of Storahtelling and the spiritual leader of Lab/Shul.
By Josh Lake
It was a canoe trip in Algonquin Park, Ontario. We found an isolated island, set our camp and watched as the sun sank into a lake that made it seem as if there were two sunsets. When the stars appeared, we swam in their reflection. It was a magical evening.
We ate dinner, built a campfire and were confident that we had inhabited the island. Only then did the wild night ring out: “AAAAAAWWOOOOOO.”
The hair on my neck stood up. “AAAAAWWWWWWOOOOOOOOOOO.” I reached for my Swiss Army knife in defense.
It was the first time I had heard a wild wolf howl. I was scared; I knew that those wolves were going to attack; they were telling us to be afraid. Their noise meant to warn us. “AAAAWWWWOOOOOOOOO.”
There was nothing to do but listen.
As I listened I realized my Swiss Army knife was little defense against the 20+ wolves howling. I put it away and was able to hear more clearly for it. They were not saying, “We are going to eat you, you relatives of little Red Riding Hood.” Instead it was clear that they were welcoming us. “This is wilderness, come and learn,” the wolves seemed to say. “Interesting seeing you here. Leave your preconceptions in the city, you are in our home and we welcome you.”
I returned home, changed by this experience and what it had taught me. I knew I had to help others hear what the wolves, and their wilderness, had to say.
What can you do to hear the call of the wild?
Nicki Pombier Berger
A friend of mine on Facebook has some extreme political views and an extreme interest in expressing them. We were once friends in real life, more than a decade ago, but now he is just a voice online, a welter of words and opinions. In the wake of every outburst I always wonder: what happened?
He was my first college friend. We met in the dorm elevator, Day One. He lived one floor below me, and we evolved a system of communication. He’d blast a song he knew I liked; I’d feel its bass in the cinderblock walls; I’d send a bucket on a string out the window down to him, with a note requesting another. I don’t know whom I hear in our exchanges these days. Sometimes I think I hear the undoing of our past communication, or its unmasking. I thought it was conversation, but maybe he was only ever down there, in the blare of what he wanted to hear, alone.
How do you build a community without consensus?
Nicki Pombier Berger is a writer in Brooklyn and the co-founder of the Underwater New York literary salon.
By Wayne Koestenbaum
I’m trying to figure out why — or how — or if — I became intellectual.
One place to begin: the time my mother “pulled a knife” on my father.
The expression “pulled a knife” — is it correct?
I think a kitchen knife.
Certainly a knife from the kitchen drawer.
Probably not a steak knife.
Perhaps a bread knife.
Just a soft-edged, relatively harmless butter knife.
Let’s say she was making a statement.
Her performance had two direct witnesses.
One, my father. He saw her “pull the knife.”
Two, my father’s aunt, Alice.
Seated in a black chair, she was waiting for my father to drive her home.
My father and his Aunt Alice often spoke together in German.
My mother didn’t understand German.
I imagine that she “pulled the knife” as a performance directly aimed at the aunt.
The act — “pulling a knife” — had two other indirect witnesses.
My sister saw it. I saw it. We were standing in the hallway. Later, we talked about the incident.
It has become, for us, a touchstone.
“The time Mom pulled a knife on Dad”: that scene is a card we sometimes play; a trick we pull out of our hat; a piece of evidence.
[From “Heidegger’s Mistress,” Guilt and Pleasure, Issue 2, Spring 2006]
What is a childhood experience that became a touchstone for you?
Wayne Koestenbaum is an American poet and critic whose works include The Queen's Threat and Jackie Under My Skin.
By Carl Jung
Anybody whose calling it is to guide souls should have his own soul guided first, so that he knows what it means to deal with the human soul. Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people. It would not help you very much to study books only, though it is indispensable, too. But it would help you most to have a personal insight into the secrets of the human soul. Otherwise everything remains a clever intellectual trick, consisting of empty words and leading to empty talk. If you have a close friend, try to look behind his or her screen in order to discover yourself. That would be a good beginning.
Can you help others understand themselves before you understand yourself?
Carl Jung was a Swiss psychoanalyst and author.
By Ben Greenman
I dreamed there was a painting called James Brown’s Prison Shoes, and it showed just a bunk and then six pairs beneath it, each pair squared off so perfectly that they were like one thing, and the six things parked like cars in a rich man’s garage, green leather, red leather, brown leather, black leather, black leather, black leather. It was a strange thing to dream about: a painting. In the dream I was just standing in front of it, wondering whether I would be shown other paintings as well. I was not.
A few weeks later I read a poem by Terrance Hayes that also mentioned those same shoes. Were I more rational or less interested in invisible wires making invisible networks, I would have assumed that he had run across a mention of the shoes in a news article, or biography, or television special at roughly the same time that I had, and that the seed had produced two sprouts in two different minds. But I was not particularly rational that day, and so I wondered if he had dreamed the same dream.
Do you think two people can have the same thought at the same time?
Ben Greenman is a New York Times-bestselling author who has written both fiction and nonfiction.
By B.J. Miller
We all need a reason to wake up. For me, it was 11,000 volts of electricity. One night, sophomore year of college, a few friends and I were out on the town; one thing led to another, and we decided to climb a parked commuter train. Fun, no? I scurried up the ladder on the back, and when I stood up, whammo! The current arced to my metal wristwatch, entered my arm, and blew down and out my feet. I lost half of an arm and both legs below the knee. I spent a few months recovering in the St Barnabas burn unit in Livingston, NJ. One day, several weeks in to the affair, it began to snow. I was told it was coming down hard and pretty. Around that time, a friend of mine smuggled a snowball into the burn unit for me. I cannot tell you the rapture I felt. The sensation of coldness on my skin, the miracle of it as I watched it melt to water. In that moment, I was amazed enough to be any part of this planet in this universe that whether I lived or died became irrelevant.
Are you awake—really awake—right now?
B.J. Miller is a pain doctor and the Senior Director and Advocate of Zen Hospice Project.
By Nicole Spector
As a child I never cared for poetry because I felt I couldn’t write it right. It employed structures that felt menacingly mathematical. Stanzas and couplets—how could I remember all that? I preferred the straightforward sloppiness of prose. But when I was 13, I discovered Sylvia Plath and became obsessed. I wrote poems that mirrored her style exactly and gave them to my mother, who read mostly Anne Rice. “Read this Sylvia Plath poem,” I would say.
She would. “I think you wrote this,” she would say. Bad answer.
Eventually I went to the Ouija board to share my newfound talent with dead relatives. One had helped me find lost jewelry in the past.
“Stick to stories,” a spirit told me.
When is the last time you tried or dedicated yourself to something that doesn’t come easily to you?
Nicole Spector is a writer and journalist living in New York. She is the author of Fifty Shades of Dorian Gray.
By Theodore Dreiser
How true it is that words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes. Here were these two, bandying little phrases, drawing purses, looking at cards, and both unconscious of how inarticulate all their real feelings were. Neither was wise enough o be sure of the workings of the mind of the other. He could not tell how his luring succeeded. She could not realize that she was drifting, until he secured her address. Now she felt that she had yielded something—he, that he had gained a victory. Already they felt that they were somehow associated. Already he took control in directing the conversation. His words were easy. Her manner was relaxed.
In the century-plus since this passage was written, how has technology changed the way we communicate?
Theodore Dreiser was a novelist who wrote such works as Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy.