cats

For Esmerelda Weatherwax – Mind How You Go

 
She's beauty, she's grace...

She's beauty, she's grace...

 

I've fallen horribly behind on writing here; my last post was six months ago, so when the new year rolled around I (again) set my intentions to write a new piece for this blog at least once a month. This wasn't the piece I intended to write, but it's the one that now needs to be written.

I first laid eyes on my dear, sweet Esme in July of 2009. I'd been living in an apartment that didn't allow cats but had signed a lease on a new place with my then-boyfriend for the following month (a terrible mistake, but one that many great things came out of), and after a year of living cat-free I was determined to rent somewhere that would allow me to get a furry companion of my own. Weeks before we'd moved and were able to actually bring a cat home, I was already scouring Petfinder and Adopt-a-Pet for our new charge, clicking through listing after listing in search of the right critter. As any pet owner will tell you, you'll see plenty of adorable animals that you would be more than happy to own, but there's a difference between "cat I'd probably grow to love" and "cat I know is mine."

After a week or two of obsessively checking the kittens and young cats categories (although I fully see the merit of adopting an older cat, for my first cat I wanted to raise them from kittenhood), I stumbled upon a photo that my eyes couldn't make sense of. In the small frame of the thumbnail, the unusual markings and features of this animal swam together, making it unidentifiable. As soon as I clicked into the posting to investigate further, I knew I had found my cat. She was the most unique and beautiful creature I'd ever seen, and I desperately emailed the shelter, offering to pay her room and board for the next few weeks if they would only hold onto her until I had moved into my new place. They kindly assured me that wasn't necessary, and I put in my application immediately.

 
Kitten model

Kitten model

 

We moved all of our belongings and were in the new apartment for a mere day or two before I showed up to bring my kitten home. She'd been given the name Mischa, but after debating several names from my favorite books with friends I'd settled on the name Esme, after the imposing witch Esmerelda "Granny" Weatherwax from Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. When I showed up at the shelter and they brought her into the room with me, I was afraid I'd made a terrible mistake. This kitten wasn't particularly shy, but she had no interest in playing or saying hello. Had I inadvertently picked an antisocial cat by choosing one based on appearance alone? I didn't think I'd be happy if my cat was an unaffectionate one. 

I needn't have worried; as soon as we brought her home, it took all of 10 minutes for Esme to warm up to us and begin an intrepid exploration of the apartment. Within days, she was playing, snuggling, and letting my then-boyfriend toss her into the air and catch her like an excited toddler. Antisocial she certainly was not – if the cable guy showed up, Esme was at the door begging to be petted. I'd never known a cat to be so fearless and so desperate for attention. 

 
Strange sleeper

Strange sleeper

 

Truthfully, I could not have asked for a more loving cat. When my ex and I split up and a new roommate moved into our apartment, Esme adjusted to the newcomer with ease. When my roommate and I stood in the living room or kitchen and chatted, she would flop down on the floor between us and roll back and forth to entice us both to pet her (because how dare we be in the same room as her and not be touching her?). When my best friend spent the night, Esme would follow her around and beg to be lifted up to chase bugs on the ceiling. 

One week, my new long-distance boyfriend came to stay for several days. We were sitting on the couch together, when Esme hopped up into his lap and climbed onto his chest. "She wants you to kiss her," I told him.

"Really, Anna?" He said. "I think you want me to kiss her and are just projecting onto her." At that moment, he was cut off by Esme shoving her nose into his mouth, tired of him ignoring her wishes. I smirked an I told you so. My cat knew what she wanted and wasn't shy about making it known.

Despite her affectionate nature, though, Esme could still be a diva and even a bit of a monster. She shredded the boxspring on my mattress when she felt ignored (and sleeping counted as ignoring her). If I was reading or watching TV and she got into a foul mood, she would latch onto my hand with her teeth and claws and rabbit-kick it like an unfortunate prey whose neck she wanted to break until I managed to shake her off. She pushed my roommate's water glasses off the table just to watch them break and even climbed up on top of the cabinets to smash a glass vase I'd stored up there. When she got exceptionally hyper, she would cling to the bottom of the armchair in my bedroom with her claws and scuttle around upside-down like a deranged Spider-Man. One day, I left my journal open on my bed when I went to work and came home to find several pages shredded and chewed into pieces. When I went to Ireland for 10 days and left her in the care of my sister, I came home to find my bed covered in food that she'd carried from her bowl in the kitchen, chewed up, and then spit out on my sheets. 

 
A tale of voluntary bath time, tarot cards, and shoulder rides.

A tale of voluntary bath time, tarot cards, and shoulder rides.

 

Though she had her quirks, I couldn't imagine myself with any other feline companion. By this point, I had been through two breakups since adopting her, and each time she was my rock and my comfort. When I decided it was time to leave my hometown for good, I agonized over how I would be able to manage it as a responsible cat owner. Giving her up was out of the question, but so was moving with a cat and no job or apartment lined up in the city. Couch-surfing is significantly more difficult with an animal in tow (and far too stressful for the animal). Thankfully, my grandma came to the rescue, offering me a place to stay in the months between the end of my lease and my official move date as well as a home for Esme until I could settle into NYC and bring her out to join me. Leaving her behind was one of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make, and she tried to stow away in my suitcase on more than one occasion while I packed.

Living a cat-less life was something of a relief at first, but it was also gut-wrenching. I missed my girl terribly and didn't have the money to visit while I settled in and looked for a permanent apartment, so it was almost a year before I saw her again. I was certain she would forget who I was, and when I walked into my grandma's condo for the first time after returning home, Esme hid under the bed. But as soon as she heard my voice, she came running and flung herself into my lap. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

 
Reunited at last...

Reunited at last...

 

The flight to New York was less pleasant - she yowled the entire drive to the airport and throughout lunch with my family, tried to scramble out of my arms while going through security, and glared at me in a tranquilizer-induced haze, drooling slightly while we waited to board the plane. Still, we made it, and I couldn't have been happier to have her back with me. Finally, Brooklyn truly felt like home. 

We had ten precious months together before Faithful showed up in our lives. I had never planned to get a second cat, but after moving in with my new boyfriend, this scrawny black cat had shown up on my way to the subway one night and demanded that I take him home. Esme was not pleased with the arrangement and was even less thrilled to discover that her new brother was semi-feral and considered pinning her down and biting her to be a sign of affection. I felt horribly guilty for bringing him into the apartment, despite my love for him, and was constantly worried about Esme's health and safety until I began to notice her provoking him to attack. Faithful would be sleeping peacefully on the couch when Esme would make a beeline for him, stomping across his prone form until he woke up and bit her leg in annoyance. Or I'd witness her smack in him in the face or sneak up on him and pounce before running away, crying to me over how mean he was being to her. A total drama queen. 

 
Esme with Faithful and my sister's cat, Ripley

Esme with Faithful and my sister's cat, Ripley

 

Over the years together, it became clear that they had a grudging affection for one another. Faithful would still chase her and pin her down more frequently than I liked, but for the most part they co-existed peacefully, or at the very least tolerated one another. Esme focused most of her attention on her humans, forcing herself between us when we lay in bed, sneezing in our faces, drooling whenever we scratched her head, and always managing to step in the most awkward and painful places possible whenever she walked across our bodies. She rarely got from point A to point B without managing to stomp on your groin, stomach, nipple and throat. Eating dinner usually involved fending off her determined advances while she sharpened her claws on your shoulders to get your attention, hooked her paw around your fork and tried to steer it towards her mouth instead of yours, and even attempted to steal food directly out of your mouth. And when she went through a period of peeing on any clothes left on the floor and had to be locked out of the bedroom overnight, she would greet us every morning by dashing into the room, yowling at the top of her lungs, as soon as the door was opened and launching herself into bed to flop on top of whichever one of us was still asleep. 

In the winter of 2015, I began noticing that she was losing weight. She had stopped eating her dry food and only picked at the various cans of wet food we offered her. We took her to numerous vet appointments and paid for test after test, but they all came up negative. This wasn't surprising; it seemed like every time I'd ever rushed her to the vet, afraid she'd contracted some kind of infection or illness, there was no medical reason for it. But it was horribly stressful to watch her weight drop to dangerously low levels without any way of fixing it. Finally we were left with two options - perform a biopsy to test for cancer, which we would then have to decide whether or not to treat, or try one more dietary change. We opted for the latter, switching her to a prescription food made out of rabbit meat. Miraculously, that worked, and she devoured three cans of food a day, much to our delight (but to the dismay of our wallets - the food cost $75 a case, and she was going through a case a week). She quickly packed on the pounds, and it seemed as though whatever it was that was making her sick was no longer an issue.

Looking back, it's likely that if we had done a biopsy, we would have found cancer. A year and a half later, her appetite and weight began to decline once again, and this time a dietary change didn't help. In the meantime, though, I was gifted with almost two more years of affection and attitude from her. When I went through yet another breakup, Esme was by my side, showering me with love and demanding to be cuddled. When I moved to a new apartment, she began sleeping under the covers with me every night. I'd fall asleep with her tucked against my chest and wake up every morning to find her at the end of the bed or curled up against my legs. She was still losing weight, but her appetite seemed to be increasing and she would frequently wake me up at 5 am by shredding my guitar case until I caved and dragged my exhausted body out of bed to fill her bowl for the sixth time in the last 24 hours. When she followed me around the apartment loudly demanding food and scarfed down a extra large can and a half of food every day, I was hopeful that things were on the upswing.

 
Partners in crime

Partners in crime

 

Her health took a sudden turn for the worse in the middle of the night on January 4th when she began having seizures due to dangerously low blood sugar. Her body had stopped processing nutrients, and what little weight she appeared to have gained disappeared seemingly overnight. True to form, this was the night of the bomb cyclone, so I was forced to rush her to the vet through the remains of a blizzard in wind so strong and cold it felt as though it would rip right through me. It took two tries to even find a clinic that was open, because the first supposedly-24 hour vet that Google directed us to actually closed at 7 pm, and my sister and I were forced to shiver on the corner at 1 am, stripping down to wrap our scarves around the cat carrier in a vain attempt to shield Esme from the wind while we waited for our cab driver to double back and pick us up. Esme was nothing if not dramatic, all the way to the end. 

The vets placed her on a catheter and gave her medication to bring her blood sugar back up to normal levels. We agreed that I would pick her up the next day and that we would discuss diagnostic options once I had figured out what money I could scrape together to cover treatment. When I left, she seemed more like her old self, perking up and rubbing on me and attempting to break out of her cage. The vet and vet techs couldn't get enough of her. Unfortunately, her blood sugar dropped again before I took her home. She was discharged anyway, and I was given instructions for how to keep her blood sugar up to prevent more seizures, but once we were home she had little appetite and only wanted to sleep. I force-fed her with a syringe and rubbed maple syrup on her gums to keep her blood sugar levels from dipping too low, but it didn't look good. We got to spend a lovely day together, curled up under my covers with a hot water bottle nestled against her, before she crashed again and began having seizures at 5 am. It was clear recovery didn't seem like a viable option for her. 

I rushed her back to the emergency vet, devastated but certain that I had to make the tough call. My mom calls it the covenant we make when we take an animal into our home - that we will love them and care for them while they're healthy but also agree to ease their passing when the time comes. After discussing Esme's condition with the vet, we both agreed that with no guarantee that the diagnostic procedures would find anything or that what we would find would be treatable, the most loving and humane decision I could make would be to euthanize her. I was given the bittersweet gift of a chance to hold her in my arms while she purred and tell her how much I loved her in her final moments. It was heartwrenchingly painful, but an experience I wouldn't trade for the world. 

 
Our last loving moments

Our last loving moments

 

The past few days have been touch and go for me. I am fairly skilled at maneuvering my way through the grieving process, but for whatever reason it's harder with her than it has been with anyone else, even members of my own family. I can handle the knowledge that she's not around right now, but the realization that I will never see or hold her ever again is like a knife to the heart each time it hits. I found her collar on my nightstand, removed a month or two ago when it got too loose and began rubbing the fur off her neck, and have been wearing it as a bracelet. I feel like a freak, but I can't bear to let her go. Not yet. 

For all the pain, though, I am eternally grateful for the past eight and a half years that I was privileged to spend with her. Esmerelda was the most bratty, spoiled, darling, wonderful, beautiful cat I could possibly have found, and I have so many fond memories that I will treasure forever. She was truly something special, and no creature can fill the hole she's left in my heart. In the words of Terry Pratchett, who first dreamt up the iconic character whose name I borrowed for this remarkable animal, I can see the balance, and you have left the world much better than you found it. And if you ask me, nobody could do better than that.

 
The inscription from "The Shepherd's Crown", Terry Pratchett's final book

The inscription from "The Shepherd's Crown", Terry Pratchett's final book

 

Jew(ish): Traveling Through Israel By Foot, Friendship, & Feline

Crossing the Ein Avdat Oasis in the Negev Desert, Israel. 

Crossing the Ein Avdat Oasis in the Negev Desert, Israel. 

"It has been almost a month and I'm still processing it all. This trip still kind of feels like it was all a dream. Anyone else feel that way too?"

This was posted by one of my traveling companions from my Birthright Trip in the Facebook group for our bus (#243, represent!) last week. Everyone agreed, of course. It's hard to believe that exactly one month ago we were recovering from a flight back to New York after spending ten intensive days in a completely different part of the world. I've spent the last few weeks trying and failing to write a post about the experience (after all, I don't want to let it go undocumented) but it's been difficult to figure out what to say. The cliché, of course, is that taking an international trip changes your life permanently. There's an entire industry based on the idea of people finding themselves through travel, and I suppose it wouldn't be surprising if I'd come back from a tour created with the express purpose of connecting people with their heritage, the Jewish religion, and the country of Israel with some newfound connection to the religion or the land. But I don't feel much different. I'm still uninterested in engaging with organized religion. I still have very complicated feelings about Israel and its political situation. I have a bit more understanding of my heritage, but I'm not sure I gained a better understanding of myself. Perhaps it's because I went on this trip when I was 26 and had already spent many, many years refining my knowledge of myself, but I returned from my journey feeling like much the same person as I was when I left. This is by no means a unique perspective, but it does make it difficult to condense my experiences into an interesting blog post that might resonate with someone other than myself and my mother, who reads everything I post.

This is not to say the trip wasn't incredible or eye-opening. The land was beautiful, the history informative, the people incredible, and I loved every minute of the time I was there (except maybe when I had to pee in the desert. My friend Dina, who held the flashlight while I "nature-peed", can vouch for my vocal complaints during that particular experience. What can I say? Roughing it is not my forte). The very fact that I was standing on land that had been occupied by so many civilizations for thousands of years took my breath away at times. But processing that, condensing it all down to some satisfactory answer to the inevitable question people ask me - "So, how was Israel?" - has eluded me.

The Banias Falls, spices in the Tel Aviv Shuk, the Dead Sea, the view from Ben Gurion's Tomb, and looking out over Israel and Lebanon from the Golan Heights.

The Banias Falls, spices in the Tel Aviv Shuk, the Dead Sea, the view from Ben Gurion's Tomb, and looking out over Israel and Lebanon from the Golan Heights.

What I can say about this experience is that it challenged me. From the very moment I started the application process, I was a bit out of my depth. Let me tell you, for me personally there is nothing that smacks me in the face with an inferiority complex quite like applying for a program for Jewish people when I don't feel particularly Jewish myself. Though I can easily trace my Jewish heritage through my mother's mother back to Russia (or the Ukraine, depending on who you ask and which decade's borders we're going by), the practices have been all but lost in our family. We don't go to synagogue or regularly observe the high holidays. I never went to Hebrew school or had a Bat Mitzvah. My grandma's sole tradition that she passed onto us was having a family gathering on one night of Hanukah, during which she served latkes with sour cream and pork sausage on the same plate, if that tells you anything about how seriously she took her family's faith. So despite the fact that I had been assured by many of my friends who were Birthright alums that a lot of participants were in the same cultural boat as me and the fact that I was genuinely interested in learning more about my family's heritage and cultural history, it was still rather nervewracking to go through a process that appeared to measure my level of Jewishness, a religion and culture I had never had more than a passing connection to. Even when I was eventually approved and assigned a trip date, I'm not sure I truly believed I'd be allowed to go until our plane touched down at Ben Gurion Airport. (This belief was further exacerbated by an hour and a half long extended security screening by El Al airlines during which they confiscated, of all things, my hairbrush, my journal, my water bottle, and my travel pillow and moved them to my checked luggage before finally escorting me onto the plane mere minutes before we were supposed to take off. A very surreal experience, especially since Friends was playing on the TV in the background the entire time.) 

All my fears dissipated once the tour itself began, however. Truthfully, there just wasn't time to worry about anything other than where we were going next, if my water bottle was full and my camera was charged, and whether or not I was going to be able to focus on another half hour lecture on the history of Jerusalem when we'd been up til 3 am the night before. We were scheduled from 7 am to 10 pm most days, and I was lucky if I made it through the evening programming without dozing off at least once.  Everyone became masters at the art of bus-napping, catching a few extra minutes of sleep between stops as we criss-crossed the country. We had to get close with one another, fast. Nothing like snoring, open-mouthed and mere inches from one another, to remove all barriers. Luckily, we had an excellent group, one committed to bonding fully as a whole rather than fracturing off into separate cliques, so you knew you were bound to have a good time regardless of who you wound up seated beside. This was both a blessing and a curse for me. I have a tendency to feel a bit lost in the crowd, usually preferring to find one or two close friends so I always have someone to turn to, and the mass-friendship experience sometimes meant that I found myself walking alone and didn't know who to reach out to. The upside of this, however, was that within minutes somebody always caught up to me and struck up a new conversation, and it was never the same person. It pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to breathe and just BE in the moment and see what happened next rather than trying to regain control and seek out one particular person. The whole trip was an education in giving up control and seeing where events were going to take you, something I'd forgotten how to do in my seven years of living on my own and being the only one responsible for my life and well-being. So a challenge, yes, but not a bad one.

Hiking in the Negev Desert.

Hiking in the Negev Desert.

As for Israel itself, I don't even know where to begin. It's easy to see why the land has been fought over for millennia. It's a breathtaking place full of such variety of flora and fauna, not to mention the historical landmarks. We visited the ruins of a Roman Aqueduct in Caesaria and looked out over the B'hai Gardens in Haifa. We learned about the Mikvah and the history of Kabbalah in Tsfat and walked through twisting, ancient alleys filled with artists selling all sorts of beautiful work. We hiked up to the Banias Falls, saw the Temple of Pan, and stood on a ridge that gave us a view of both Lebanon and Israel. We visited a bird sanctuary in Jerusalem, walked through the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and the Mount Herzel Military Cemetery. We sang songs around a desert campfire and slept under the stars while a nearly full moon shone down on us, a curious fox scouted out our campsite, and shooting stars flew past overhead. We climbed to the ruins of the fortress of Masada at dawn in the midst of a dust storm. We swam in the hot springs in Tiberius and floated in the Dead Sea. We did a guided meditation in the Nagev and visited two desert oases, Ein Gedi and Ein Avdat. We visited the Shuk in Tel Aviv and a state of the arts school for special needs students in Ra'anana. To cover everything we were lucky enough to experience would take several more blog posts at least twice as long as this one.

The Caesaria Aqueduct, the B'Hai Gardens in Haifa, the views from the rooftops of Tsfat and a windchime and bell shop in Tsfat.

The Caesaria Aqueduct, the B'Hai Gardens in Haifa, the views from the rooftops of Tsfat and a windchime and bell shop in Tsfat.

Out of the entire journey, though, three experiences stood out to me as being particularly meaningful. The first was at the Kotel, the Western Wall. I mentioned earlier that I am not particularly religious, but religious or no there is a powerful spiritual pull in that place. Maybe it's some mystical force, maybe it's just the concentrated energy of 2,000 years worth of prayer. But the minute I placed my hand on the cool stone wall, I felt instantly grounded and present in the moment in a way I've never experienced before. My mind is always going in a hundred different directions, so meditation has never been my jam, but in that moment I felt completely centered and at peace. Even the animals seem affected by the energy of the Wall. There are birds all over Jerusalem - pigeons, sparrows, crows, doves - but it's like they were drawn to that place, maybe due to the detritus from all the humans that pass through that spot, maybe by something more pure, more magical. It's hard to say. But one of the most beautiful shots I got from that day was of a pure white pigeon flying directly at the Wall, like the dove of peace. And when I finally left to rejoin the group, I found a silver heart-shaped confetti on the ground. It was most likely discarded by a passing Bar Mitzvah, but found hearts are something that have long been a symbol of my late sister's spiritual presence within my family, so finding one in that moment was incredibly powerful. 

Powerful moments at     the Western Wall.

Powerful moments at the Western Wall.

The second experience that moved me deeply was visiting Yad Vashem. I must admit, that was actually the part I looked forward to the least. I fully believe that the Holocaust is an important piece of history and one worth remembering, but I get a bit exhausted and desensitized by the image upon image of brutality that tends to fill these sorts of museums. Six million is such a large number that it's almost numbing to hear it repeated over and over again. What surprised me about Yad Vashem was the focus on individual stories and artifacts - the glasses of one person, the letter found in another's pocket, the suitcase packed by a family as they were forced to leave their home - as well as the underlying message of hope in dark times. I was indescribably moved by the sheer amount of artwork they had documented from that time, the hand-drawn birthday cards and homemade games created for children living in the ghettos, the artists who painted and sketched their daily reality no matter how bleak it became, the tales of theatrical productions staged in the ghettos and the camps. As an artist myself, it wrenched my heart and lifted my spirits to see the effort put into making sure beauty and creativity endured regardless of how  horrific reality became. The stories of how Jewish families lived in Europe before the Holocaust were powerful to me, too, as they made me feel a sense of connection to my own family, many of whom fled to North America during the pogroms were long gone by the time Hitler rose to power. The reports of brutality were there, too, of course, but like everything else in that museum, they were told through the eyes, notes, and narratives of individual people. It humanized this overwhelmingly terrible historical event, made it feel more raw, more accessible, and made it affect me far more deeply than I expected. I think most of us left the memorial feeling very contemplative, moreso than we had prepared for going in.

The view from outside Yad Vashem. Photos were prohibited inside the museum. 

The view from outside Yad Vashem. Photos were prohibited inside the museum. 

On a less emotional and spiritual note, but no less powerful for it, was the effect of the hike up Masada. We awoke at 4:30 in the morning (a late start if you want to reach the peak by sunrise), after tossing and turning all night on the freezing, rocky ground of what was effectively a gravel parking lot at the entrance to Masada National Park. We'd bundled up in layers and had been provided with sleeping bags, foam mats, and tents (though many of us chose to forgo the tents), but their thin protection had been little help against the chill and discomfort, and the most sleep any of us had gotten was about two hours, if we were lucky. We packed up our campsite, brushed our teeth, and ate breakfast in the dim, pre-dawn light and set off toward the foot of the mountain as fierce winds whipped dust around us and threatened to tip us over. Most groups climb up the Roman Ramp, which is the easier of the two trails, and only make their descent down the twisting Snake Path, but most groups don't camp the night before and our site was on the wrong side of the plateau for us to follow that route. So we took the Snake Path both going up and down. If you want to talk challenging, well, climbing up the Snake Path will make you realize just how out of shape you truly are. The cross-fit trainers in our group took off at a run and reached the top within a half an hour, but the rest of us made much slower progress, panting and wheezing and sweating as we forced our way up the twisting path and rows and rows of uneven stairs hewn into the rock, stopping often for water breaks and to catch our breath. Due to our late start, the sun rose while most of us were only halfway up the incline, but it was still a remarkable sight. I found three or four members of our group who had set the same pace as me, and together we rallied one another as we staggered toward the finish line. Our tour guide waited for us at the top, high fiving each of us in turn as we entered the ruins of the ancient fortress and looked out over one of the most incredible vistas I have ever seen in my life. The morning's dust storm had made everything a bit hazy, giving it an ethereal, otherworldly feel, and suddenly the climb felt more than worth it. The wind was more bitter on top of the plateau, and we quickly donned the layers we'd stripped off during our strenuous, sweaty climb and huddled together for warmth. We shared a snack of dates as we discussed the infamous history of Masada, and then our tour guide and staffers performed an informal Bar Mitzvah for several of the men on our trip who had opted to participate in a renewal of their faith. It was short, sweet, and to the point, and at the end one of our staffers broke out his guitar and we sang and danced to an acoustic rendition of Hava Nagila and introduced our Israeli peers to that classic American Bar Mitzvah experience, the Cha Cha Slide. By the time we finished and began our descent, I was thoroughly chilled to the bone and it was barely 8 am. It was probably the most productive morning I've ever had in my life, if I'm being honest. Despite the fact that halfway up I wasn't sure if my lungs and legs were going to hold out, I enjoyed the physical challenge. Let me tell you, if I lived near the Judean Desert I would cancel my gym membership and just hike the Snake Path once a week. I'd be in incredible shape in no time. 

Attempting to capture the breathtaking beauty of Masada and its view of the Judean Desert.

Attempting to capture the breathtaking beauty of Masada and its view of the Judean Desert.

Still as much as  the scenery and the experiences themselves affected me, the people who shared it with me were just as incredible. Between those who had traveled with me on the long flight from the US and the participants, guards, and guide who joined us once we reached Israel, they were the most amazing group of traveling companions I could ever have asked for. Together, we ate, napped, and hiked our way through each and every day. We engaged in thoughtful discussions about what it meant to be Jewish and heated discussions of how that affected our daily lives. We gathered at the hotel bar in the evenings, chatting and bonding, or out at designated bars on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, sharing tales of our lives and experiences over a beer or two. We posed for pictures and took ridiculous selfies. Those of us who were cat people quickly became known to one another, as we were the ones who stopped to pet and photograph every cat that crossed our paths (and there are A LOT of cats in Israel, let me tell you. I was even followed by cats as I moved between pools at the hot springs!), while the others looked on at our train of feline followers in amusement. One day, at a rest stop, we discovered a massive, magical playground that put every climbing structure I have seen in the States to shame, and we spent half an hour climbing up jungle gyms, jumping on trampolines, racing down thirty foot slides, chasing one another, and generally acting like excited children. When we asked our tour guide later if any group he'd been with had behaved as we did upon seeing such an incredible playground, he shook his head and said, "Not even close." We laughed, we hugged, we cried, we drank, we danced, we became close in a way that only exists in such an intensive, compact experience and rarely survives the outside world once the journey is over. 

Group photos, incredible playgrounds, and nights out in Tel Aviv. 

Group photos, incredible playgrounds, and nights out in Tel Aviv. 

And so, a month has now passed. Life has gone on and we have all settled back into our daily routines. Our Facebook group is still relatively active, and I talk to several friends from the trip on a regular basis, but apart from that not much feels different than it was before I left. I miss the people I met in Israel, both American and Israeli, and am planning a trip back to see everything I missed and the places I wished I could have spent more time in, but mostly it does feel like a distant dream. I am still fumbling through life, still trying to figure out how to get to the path I want to be on, as are most of my peers. For some of them, that path now includes an extended stay or possibly even a move to Israel, but for me it may include a visit or two, but nothing more. If I had to choose one thing I learned from the trip, however, it's to surrender myself to the challenges. I have chosen a difficult life for myself, just as I chose a trip that I knew would push me out of my comfort zone, but both have the potential to be incredibly rewarding when one simply embraces the experience and breathes through the discomfort when it arises. I said in my previous post that I am trying to be more like The Fool, and journeying through Israel embodied that commitment for me. Hopefully the rest of the year ahead of me will have just as many adventures as I found myself on in those ten days, albeit of a different sort. And as many cats. You can never have enough cats. 

So many cats....

So many cats....