Being the Signs: Winning Within (or what practice makes possible)

“Win within,” my teacher says.

“Been there, done that, didn’t buy the wristband,” I could respond.  It wouldn’t be overly audacious, given that my teacher is an advertising slogan on a bus shelter.  But I hold my tongue, and think back instead to my recent encounter with the  sentry at the Irish festival.

Jenni, a friend of a friend, was in town for the Toronto International Film Festival.  As her tour guide for an evening, I suggested going to the islands across the harbour, a favourite respite from downtown concrete. 

Light off Building

As the ferry neared the island, we spotted signs for an Irish festival at one of its restaurants.  Not the peaceful setting I had in mind, but Jenni’s the guest in town and she gets to make the call.  And her call is the festival.  We order a couple of helpings of nachos in the restaurant, and are given a number to put on our table for the server to track us down.  Stepping onto the patio, we join a picnic table of celebrants.  While Jenni talks with them about Brexit and its potential impact for Ireland, I become distracted, wondering how our server will find us in such a loud and crowded space.  I head back in and discover I know what I’m worrying about.  Food is only served inside, and our number is up next.

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Toronto Island green (from a previous visit)

I start my way back to Jenni, but am stopped by a guy in a plastic green top hat, his arm lowering with the gravity of a railroad crossing gate.

“I need to see your wristband, friend,” he says.

“Sorry?” I say.

“You need to buy one of these,” the sentry says, holding out a fistful of green wristbands, “if you want to join the festivities.”

“Wristband?  No, that’s okay.  A friend and I just came out here.  No one said anything about a wristband.  So I’ll just get her and-”

“That’s not going to happen.  If you want out there, you get a wristband here.”

“Listen,” I say, resenting having been cut off.  “My friend and I bought food inside.  We were given a number to take to our table.  We went outside.  No one stopped us.  No one said anything about wristbands.  I just want to get her and we’ll go back in.”

“I’ll get your friend,” he says.  “Where is she?”

I roll my eyes.  Not with my inside voice.

“She’s at the far end of the patio.  She’s wearing a navy blue dress and the number on the table-”

“Go ahead,” he says, opening his palm and waving me through. 

Still steaming, I find Jenni, and explain what’s going on with our food.  She exchanges goodbyes with her newfound friends, and as we head back in, it occurs to me that I’m bound to cross paths with the sentry again, and I start to anticipate ways to even the score – maybe wave the table number in front of him.  But almost as quickly as I have the thought, I realize it won’t get me anywhere.  Getting even might feel good in the moment, but it’ll also perpetuate an unhappy temper I won’t enjoy carrying around afterwards.  I decide to let it pass.

Before I know it, he’s in front of me.  Again, lowering his hand. 

“I owe you an apology,” he says, shaking my hand.  “That was a dick thing to do.” 

He’s not a professional doorman, just a volunteer trying to make things happen right.  Which he’s now doing by wrapping wristbands around our arms.  “These are on the house,” he says. “Enjoy the festival.”  Not only are the wristbands free, but so am I, that much more able to enjoy the mediocre nachos in the restaurant, and then afterwards, the blues harmonica we catch once back downtown. 

Everything is Possible

translation: Everything is Possible

I like to think my mindfulness practice has something to do with my having found the pause button, allowing antagonism to morph into affinity.  After all, if I’m going to spend twenty minutes on a meditation cushion most mornings, it would be nice to see tangible benefits.  I’ll never know, of course; cause-and-effect with practice is seldom that clear.  But I do know that because of my practice, I don’t go off the rails as often as I would otherwise, and when I do, I get back on more quickly, and the world enjoys the kinder part of me.

So when the advertising poster tells me to “win within,” yes I could respond with been-there-done-that.  But yes, I hold my tongue.  Or, if I’m to be honest, my tongue is held for me – I’m seldom that quick-witted, and the clever response only arrives days later.  But even if it had come to mind right away, I think I would have held back. 

Maybe one day when I’ve achieved enlightenment – let’s say , I don’t know, next month – and remember to win within a little more reliably, I’ll start getting lippy with my teachers.

Moving to the Light

Let’s get mindful

Pick a sign.  Any sign.  Or let it pick you.  Is there a teaching in it?  Or a suggested practice?  Unless you’re sure there isn’t, give it some consideration. See if it brings a shift in how you relate to the world or offers a reminder of something you sometimes lose sight of.  And then, as you go through your day/week/month, keep it in mind, and see where that takes you.

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Being the Signs: No Winter Maintenance

For a while, it appears Shabbat has intruded on my spiritual development.  But just when it looks like all is won, an encounter with organic pasta comes to my rescue, delivering me to this embarrassing, and perhaps necessary moment.

NO WINTER MAINTENANCE

That’s what the sign had said at the entrance to a walking path a couple of weeks ago.  “Now there’s a practice,” I’d thought.  Deep freezes, floods, sabretooths, pogroms.  When we’ve survived them, it’s been largely thanks to our skills at steeling ourselves for troublesome seasons, whether the skies portend danger or all is sunshiny lightness.  But do I overdo winter maintenance?  Have I given my talent for anticipation of the worst more rein than my life really needs?

Rhetorical questions, both.

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In the interest of presence, I didn’t take the camera with me on the walk..  This and the other images here come from other moments  in the world.

So this Shabbat, I tell myself, I will try to notice when I shift into winter maintenance mode.  And when it happens, I will ask whether it can be held off until after Shabbat, or if it’s necessary at all.

To be closer to my experience, I turn off my phone’s data and wifi.  Friends and family can still reach me, but hopefully this will free me from the pattern of “just” checking e-mail, which begets a visit to social media, which begets deep diving into online trivia and tragedy, which begets “where did I go?”

I awaken Shabbat morning, and lie on my bed a while, just enjoying the way the sun pushes through the blinds, shaping the embryo of a fiery dragon on the closet door.  Rising, I am more attentive to brachot, or blessings – malbish arumim / Who clothes the naked as I put on a t-shirt, thankful for the feeling of cotton against my body; ha’mechin mitza’dei gaver / Who makes firm a person’s steps as I walk to the bathroom, grateful for the ease with which I set one foot in front of the other. 

I give myself longer than normal on the meditation cushion, and then set out for a long walk in an unfamiliar ravine – intending, as best I can, to steer clear of winter maintenance and simply be where I am.  Unsurprisingly, attunement comes and goes.  One moment, I’m marvelling over the way the sun ignites the leaves of a tree, prompting me to recite oseh ma’aseh v’reisheet / Who forms the work of creation; the next moment, I’m making judgements about the runners and cyclists who outnumber me on this part of the path, seeming not to appreciate their surroundings.  And in my judgement, I am removing myself as far from the here and now as I imagine them to be.

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So it goes.  They should.  I want.  Then the cloudscape above being all I need, it’s again oseh ma’aseh v’reisheet.

Entering more deeply into the walk, I’m in a landscape where others are clearly enjoying the environment for its own sake.  We make eye contact, strangers and I, exchanging a word or a smile.  

Perching myself on a rock by reeds sticking out of a pond where a quarry had once been, I read a little of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s writings on Shabbat, when a young family passes, the wilder of the two mop-topped daughters screeching with excitement.

“We don’t exactly make for quiet reading,” the father apologizes.

“It’s life,” I say.  “It’s beautiful.”

Slowly but surely, Shabbat is threatening to undermine my spiritual development.

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Mount Royal in Montreal one fine summer’s day

Not that I have fully succumbed to serenity.  When a twentysomething guy emerges from a field, proudly displaying a newfound walking stick to his companions, one of them calls him Gandalf, and I love them.  When they start punctuating every half-sentence “like,” I get over it.

But, as far as I can tell, Shabbat ease is holding winter maintenance away.  Although blotches of rust on leaves have made me aware that summer is waning, I can’t seem to get worried about it.  And sure, a few minutes ago, I found myself wondering how I might earn the best possible death bed experience, but that lasted a few seconds, and then it was back to here and now.

The walk takes me to a farmer’s market, and a booth offering organic pasta.  Whole wheat, easy to digest, the sign says.  Maybe I should give it a try.

And then I find myself thinking maybe I shouldn’t.  Because what if I love it – really love it – and want more?  Summer’s ending, and maybe the market’s about to close for the year.  What will I do without this organic pasta with which I’m in danger of being smitten?

I actually think these things.  Despite never once having loved, or even romanced, anything made from whole wheat.

Catching myself, I’m amused, a little embarrassed, and mostly proud.  I’ve managed to catch myself in winter maintenance mode and talk myself down.  I buy a few servings from the vendor.

To the extent I think about this for the next while, it’s mostly about writing this blog post.

But on the first morning of Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days and a period for self-reflection, I find myself thinking about other occasions, some significant, when I have denied myself joy for fear that its disappearance would be too painful to endure.  Not that my life has been without joy, but if I could, I’d like to have some of those moments back.

So as I enter 5778 – at a time when serious trouble seems to portend in every corner of the globe – when I’m fortunate enough to have portals to joy open before me, shall I retreat into winter maintenance or shall I step through?

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Viana do Castelo, Portugal

Let’s get mindful

Pick a sign.  Any sign.  Or let it pick you.  Is there a teaching in it?  Or a suggested practice?  Unless you’re sure there isn’t, give it some consideration. See if it brings a shift in how you relate to the world or offers a reminder of something you sometimes lose sight of.  And then, as you go through your day/week/month, keep it in mind, and see where that takes you.

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Being the Signs: Rain of Gladness

March 2017 – Has the plastic food container I’ve just pulled from the fridge lost its mind?  Doesn’t it watch the news?  Doesn’t it know how discomforting and dispiriting the world has been?  All I wanted to do was store some mandarin rinds, and now this.

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I blame the rabbi.  Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell, my friend and teacher, to be specific.  One of the things I’ve most enjoyed at the meditation retreats I’ve attended with him have been the conversations that have followed the silence.  And so it was, in the dark hallway of a former monastery, that Jordan told me of a practice he’d taken on, in which he treated commercial signs as mindfulness instruction.  Drawn to the idea, I’ve meant to try it ever since.  And today, I’ve decided, is the day to start. 

The plastic food container has one word on it.  Little more than a trademarked adjective.

Glad. 

There’s a case to be made for my exercising veto power, but it’s the first sign that’s registered in my sight today, and what’s the point of practicing only teachings you want to receive?  Like it or not, this day has called for gladness practice. 

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So I note how comforted I am by the warm air blowing on my feet from the vent below the kitchen sink.  A little later, I take a moment to appreciate my ability to effortlessly pull my bedroom door shut, while making a backwards half-circle to avoid knocking over the large suitcase with the broken handle that I am about to lug through the rush hour commute on a rain-chilled morning.

Gladness like gratitude

When the bus pulls up, riders are crammed right to the windshield.  But time is tight, and a crowd in front doesn’t always equal a crowd in back.  When the door opens, I call out, “Any chance of people backing up!?”  I am surprised by the absence of an accusatory tone in my voice.

“I doubt it,” the driver says.  “They’re back as far as they can go.”

But just then, a passenger – a young guy, olive-skinned, saucer-sized studs in both ears; the opposite of me, on the surface – holds up his palm.  Wait, he’s signalling.  He holds up a finger.  A passenger is getting off. I start to board, but he holds his palm up again, then two fingers – a peace sign, and an indication that two more are getting off.  They do, and he waves me on.  I grab my suitcase by the nub where the handle used to be, and loft it aboard with surprising ease.  Glad for this kind of strength.  Glad for my navigator, for the friendly driver, for the friendliness I’ve found within myself.  For the slashes of rain against the windshield.

The subway is crowded, and I forget to be glad for the most part, but when I change lines, I hear a muffled voice say “welcome.”  I don’t know where it came from, but my mind flashes to a favourite lunch spot, where stepping through the door sets off an invisible contraption screeching a tinny greeting of “Hello, welcome!”  It’s kitschy and annoying, I’ve always thought, but now I’m thinking it’s an excellent reflection of the quiet hospitality with which the proprietress receives her customers.  And I am  glad for tinny and kitschy.

Is the plastic food container onto something?  It’s said that natural selection allowed humans to survive because of our skills for anticipating the worst.  And also, that this characteristic doesn’t serve us as well as it once did.  Perhaps the food container is helping me remember to see the best.

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Gladness like gladness

A different day, and a morning walk to the subway.  I step on a snow-powdered sidewalk, suddenly skidding on hidden ice, then regaining my balance.  Glad for the skid and glad for the steadiness.

The voice of a little girl behind me shouts, “Mommy, look!” and her unbridled excitement enthuses me.

Before I know it, moments inspiring gladness are giddily toppling upon one another.

The sun trying to break through the overcast, giving a subtle sheen to the grey.  A black poodle sitting on the neighbourhood hockey rink, its thick front hooves mirrored in the ice, as he waits for his master to give him something to do. 

Bare trees, each branch with its own character.  A puddle on the curb, reflecting sky from amidst the asphalt.

This and that, that and this.

The scrunch of salt beneath my footfall, the occasional pop of a crystal exploding under my heel.

A twinge in my shoulder from carrying my gym bag.  Soreness in my thigh from having resumed my squash game.  Aches, pains.  Alive, alive.

A bird calls out from one side of the street.  A bird on the other echoes a response.

I start planning my day.

I tune back to the birds.

At this moment, it feels like it could always be this way.  Like I could always be this way.

Soon, too soon, the feeling of grace starts to feel tempered.  This won’t last.  Grace doesn’t work that way.  Maybe it’s not supposed to.  There are too many sabretooths out there from which we need to defend ourselves and the less fortunate amongst us.   

A plea forms within me: as I wade through the storm, may I be buoyed by the knowledge that there are reasons we choose to endure, and they are constantly around us.  Gladness and grace, take your leave if you must, but return to me, and while I await your return, I will do my best with what I’ve got.

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Let’s get mindful

Pick a sign.  Any sign.  Or let it pick you.  Is there a teaching in it?  Or a suggested practice?  Unless you’re sure there isn’t, give it some consideration. See if it brings a shift in how you relate to the world or offers a reminder of something you sometimes lose sight of.  And then, as you go through your day/week/month, keep it in mind, and see where that takes you.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Share & Subscribe

 If you liked this, and want to see more, I wouldn’t say no to additional subscribers.  If you’re on a mobile device, scroll down about as far as you can, and enter your e-mail address in the Subscribe box.  If you’re on a computer, you’ll find the Subscribe box towards the top on the right-hand-side.

 And if you want to spread the word, there are buttons around here somewhere for sharing on Facebook and Twitter…

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Fifteen – The Eyes Have It (even when they’re off the clock)

(The last in this series of fifteen posts about the Birkot HaShachar, the Jewish morning blessings, and the role they might play in helping us – Jews and non-Jews; believers, agnostics, and atheists – live with more gratitude, presence, and even compassion.  Part spiritual reportage, part suggested practice.)

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From an alleyway in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood

This is the one about the two adolescent boys trailing two teenage girls.  And the toddler on one of the girl’s shoulders.

They came out of nowhere, boisterously merging into my sidewalk stroll.  Preferring quiet at the moment, I’m not looking forward to the mindless frivolity which awaits, but that’s life. 

Then I catch one of the boys talking to the other about the toddler.  “There was one time she bit me, and it hurt so much,” he says with wonder.  “Their teeth are so spiky at that age.” 

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Amused in Montreal

That’s one for an adolescent boy’s paternal affection for his little sister, and none for my assumptions about the company I’m keeping.

And so, I recite the brucha to celebrate my defeat…

Baruch atah adonay, eloheynu melech ha’olam, hama’avir shenah me’eynay utnumah me’afapay

Blessed are You, source of all, who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids

Then there’s the one about my leaving work and striding to the subway.  Until I think of the brucha, and remember I’m allowed to slow down and pay attention.

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Moon over Colorado

Rounding the corner at Yonge and Dundas, rumoured to be the busiest intersection in Canada, I notice that I keep making contact with fellow pedestrians, their shoulders and arms nudging mine.  I start counting.  In just two minutes, nine people bump against me.  Nine souls.  Nine annoyances.  Pleasant.  Unpleasant.  Maybe later I’ll draw out metaphors about connection.  For now, it’s enough to be aware of something I must have experienced countless times, but managed, with remarkable consistency, not to notice.

So…

Baruch atah adonay, eloheynu melech ha’olam, hama’avir shenah me’eynay utnumah me’afapay

Blessed are You, source of all, who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids

In the station, someone discovers she’s not allowed to board the subway with her bike at rush hour, and does a one-eighty, whacking me on the shin with her back wheel.  Make that ten souls.  Ten annoyances.  I look forward to more.

There’s also the one about the somnambulant Sunday on the subway, when I really (maybe) get the brucha.

I’m tired and close my eyes, my other senses tuning in to the thinly peopled train: the way it swings a little from side-to-side or gently lists at an angle, the persistent squeak suggesting ball bearings in need of oil, the gentle thud as we pass over bumps on the rails, making the floor that separates my feet from subterranean muck feel thinner, less stable.

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                                                                                                                                                                                Decarie Expressway, Montreal

I like all this noticing, but it takes focus and it’s the weekend.  I’m about to relax away from it, when I think of the brucha, which has often struck me as redundant – removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids?

But now it’s striking me as a teaching: pay attention, and when you’re done, pay more attention.  So I tune in again, becoming aware of the intermittent breeze wafting from a fan on the ceiling.  And of a high-pitched electronic sound – consistent, not especially appealing, and more discernable when the train slows down.  The doors open and the weighty drone of the mechanical apparatus affixed to the exterior of the new trains eviscerates all other sounds.  When the door closes again, it starts with a thud, and concludes with a click, just to make sure.  Pleasant, unpleasant, neutral.  Sleep from my eyes.  Slumber from my eyelids.  Alive.

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Edward Hopper meets Decarie?

There’s this, too: I lift my eyes from my computer as I write this blog post, and see a sun-shiny opening in the monochromatic overcast.  I enjoy it a moment, recite a brucha*, and start to return my attention to the computer.  Then I remember what I’m preaching, and take in more sky.

* To be specific, I recite a brucha I use to sanctify any variety of beautiful visions offered in nature – Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, she’kacha lo ba’olamo / Blessed Are You, Source of all that is, who has such beauty in the universe

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Let’s Get Mindful

  • If you’ve given yourself the gift of paying attention to your surroundings but, having reached your saturation point, find yourself getting back to reliving the past or planning the future, consider the possibility that you might be rewarded by staying with here and now.  If it helps, recite a blessing of your own devising for staying attuned, or use the traditional brucha:

Baruch atah adonay, eloheynu melech ha’olam, hama’avir shenah me’eynay utnumah me’afapay

Blessed are You, source of all, who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids

  • Is there someone who has helped you develop an aptitude for paying attention to your surroundings?  Perhaps recite the brucha with that person in mind.
  • Is there someone you know who might be rewarded by being pointed to surroundings they’ve lost sight of?  Without hitting them over the head on the matter, see if you can point them back to where they were.  And if you think it would be the wisest course of action, go ahead and hit them over the head.

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 And if you want to spread the word, there are buttons around here somewhere for sharing on Facebook and Twitter…

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Between Stumblings – Picturing Joy

In the most recent post in my Stumbling Through Blessing series, I described a gloomy moment where I called into question whether I’d truly experienced happiness while walking St. Cuthbert’s Way this past spring.

img_0640In most other moments, during and after the walk, doubt has not been on the menu.  

Here’s some of what joy looked like as I ambled the one hundred kilometre footpath from Melrose, Scotland to Holy Island in Northumberland, England, reached by crossing the North Sea in low tide.  

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If the prospect of a little more joy appeals to you, feel free to join me for additional photographs (about sixty altogether) here.

Also, how about a brucah (blessing)?

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, she’kacha lo ba’olamo

 Blessed Are You, Source of all that is, who has such beauty in the universe

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Fourteen – Roundabout Resilience

(The fourteenth of fifteen posts about the Birkot HaShachar, the Jewish morning blessings, and the role they might play in helping us – Jews and non-Jews; believers, agnostics, and atheists – live with more gratitude, presence, and even compassion.  Part spiritual reportage, part suggested practice.)

Edinburgh, Scotland – May 24, 2016 / 16 Iyyar 5776

You’d never know it, but the plan was to be happy today.

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Only a few days ago, I concluded a solo walk along St. Cuthbert’s Way, a one hundred kilometre footpath from Melrose, Scotland to Holy Island in Northumberland, England.  Six days of joyful ambling through farms and sheep pasture, up hills and into the moors, bedazzled by rapeseed in bloom and becalmed by the shimmering North Sea.

Edinburgh, however, has been a different matter.  Interesting, to be sure, but whereas my own company was all I’d needed in the countryside, I’ve felt lonely here in the city, as if I’m the only one without a companion.  The Water of Leith walkway, running twenty kilometres in from the harbour, and reputed to bring respite from urban anonymity, was supposed to cure that.img_1453

To its credit, it’s tried.  There have been pleasant exchanges with café owners, and verbal jousting with an innkeeper as we negotiated terms for access to his washroom.  Shifting from bucolic neighbourhoods to construction zones and back again, I’ve been afforded a view of Edinburgh’s quiet side; people behind sketchpads and baby strollers, hardhats eating sandwiches, a young man doing his taxes with a ruler.

But since I set out, I’ve been trying to outwalk discomforting thoughts.  Thoughts which visit me now and again, as they occasionally had whileI walked St. Cuthbert’s Way, but which I put aside to enjoy my surroundings.  But now, in Edinburgh, stirred perhaps by the fatigue and loneliness that followed the walk, the thoughts are zoning in.  Seeing a young couple step out of their harbourside condo has me feeling I missed out years ago.  Seeing a crisply-dressed middle-aged couple has me feeling I missed out again yesterday.

So at a vista where I’d planned to experience quiet and calm – river water teeming over a large stone, the cool air damp and heavy, the roofs of houses rising above urban forest – the thoughts descend. 

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You blew it.  You could have had this.  A wife, children, a house, greater accomplishment.  But you blew it and you’re going to be old before you know it, and it got away from you.  You’ve squandered your life, wasted your talents.

These thoughts and more like it cycle through my mind until my eyes moisten.  A gentle sob.  Then a less gentle one.

And you teach others about finding a way towards equanimity?  You fraud.

I don’t – I can’t – reason with myself, or remember the good I’ve done in the world, the relationships I’ve cultivated, the writing that’s mattered.  Just as I am unable to remember that choice played a part in what I don’t have.  All I can do is weep.img_1427

Could I really have been so happy on St. Cuthbert’s Way?  If I was, how could I be so miserable now?

The weeping gives over to a wail, which I barely choke off when I see someone approaching.

I’ve been here before, I try to remember.  Places so despairing, I was sure I could never escape, until liberation arrived with surprising speed.  I try to trust it could happen again, even as I make a pact not to hurry it.

I pull myself together just enough to keep going.  The sight of laundry hanging in someone’s front yard offers soothing.  Giving directions to an Italian couple offers connection.  When I get lost myself, a young woman pushing a stroller in a tony neighbourhood – the embodiment of the life that got away – gives serious thought in guiding me, determined that I enjoy her city.

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I think of the wash-and-fold where I’d left my laundry this morning, and look at my watch.  I need to get moving if I’m to be there before it closes.  I leave the path, and start striding along busy roads.  For some reason, maybe I’d seen a Waterloo Road or something, I begin whistling Abba’s Waterloo, whatever words I can remember rolling through my head.  Waterloo.  Waterloo.  Couldn’t something something if I wanted to.  A-whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, Waterloo…

It occurs to me that anyone who can hear my whistling might well be annoyed.  But that’s their problem, isn’t it?

I come across familiar sites.  Princess Street Gardens.  Waverly Station.  I pass a sign warning me not to enter the governor’s private residence, and find myself thinking, “Well, where’s his public residence, then?” 

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When I see a sign for the Regent Road roundabout, I compose a musical composition on the fly; a marching tune whose only words are “round about the Regent Road.”  The genius of the song is the way I vary the words as I belt them in full voice.

“Round about, round about.  Round about the Regent Road.”

“Round about the Regent Road roundabout, roundabout.”

“Round about the Regent (extend it, now) Rooooad.”

I’m scary good.  And generous and open-hearted to the point that I forgive all those within earshot who might somehow fail to recognize my brilliance.

Where did this giddiness come from?  Where did the despair of a mere two hours earlier go?  Did it simply need a voice so that it could find ease?  Did I simply need a good, swift march through the streets of Edinburgh? 

I know resilience doesn’t always come this easily, just as I know life metes out trials far greater than that which I’d faced earlier.  But on the other hand…

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Ru’ach Ha’olam, Ha’noten l’yayef ko’ach

Blessed Are You, Source of all being, who brings strength to the weary

…when joy finds its way to you, especially when it’s unexpected, why take it for granted?

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Let’s Get Mindful

  • Think back to a period, recent or distant, where you’d experienced despair and from which you recovered.  Can you recall the people, the circumstances, or even the role of the Divine in getting you through it?  Would it be worth voicing your gratitude, either with a blessing of your own, or with the traditional one?

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Ru’ach Ha’olam, Ha’noten l’yayef ko’ach

Blessed Are You, Source of all being, who brings strength to the weary

  • Think of someone you know, or someone you may meet today or next week, who is tired and weary and in need of rejuvenation.  Is there a part you can play in making it happen?  If you think reciting the blessing might help you bring your intentions to life, go for it.
  • If you think it could help, remember the blessing (or maybe write it down) and hold it in reserve, so that the next time you’re down and in doubt about getting up, you can recite it and see if it helps.

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Filed under Birkot HaShachar, Mindfulness, St. Cuthbert's Way, Uncategorized, Water of Leith

Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Thirteen – The Royal We

(The thirteenth of fifteen posts about the Birkot HaShachar, the Jewish morning blessings, and the role they might play in helping us – Jews and non-Jews; believers, agnostics, and atheists – live with more gratitude, presence, and even compassion.  Part spiritual reportage, part suggested practice.)

I don’t know if all is vanity, as Kohelet would have it, but the last couple of hours have been replete with reminders that much is temporary.

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I am in Scotland, sitting on a bench beside a green expanse – just beyond it, the sunlit dot of a full moon ascending through the sky above Melrose Abbey.  Or to be more precise, the remains of Melrose Abbey – built in the twelfth century, battered in the fourteenth, restored and re-ruined again, until its neighbours carted away much of  its valuable building materials.  A house built to serve the Eternal that, like all such houses, has proven a blip in eternity.

IMG_0141In its shadow, a cemetery where a tombstone marks the burial place of Archibald Hall and Elizabeth Hardie, husband and wife, and two of their daughters.  The dates tell us that one of the girls proceeded her parents to the grave, but nothing on the stone explains how they endured the loss.  On many of the surrounding stones, the inscriptions have eroded, even bare bones information like names and dates lost to mystery.

IMG_0152In the green expanse beside me, a ditch marks the boundaries of the cloisters where the abbey’s monks once dwelt.  But the ditch doesn’t and can’t say anything about their fears and delights, deeds and misdeeds, dissipated into memory dust carried by the winds into the surrounding hillsides.  Beginning tomorrow, I’ll be walking those hills, and will perhaps touch something of who they were.  Or perhaps this is psycho-spiritual-babble-prattle.

One of the other visitors to the abbey walks across the expanse singing a marching song with what seems a mocking tone.  His adult son glances my way, embarrassed. 

I whisper the brucha

Baruch atah Adonay, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Oter Yisrael B’tifarah

Blessed are You, Source of all, who crowns Israel with splendour

and consider what it might have to say about the fragility to which I am trying to bear witness.

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This one’s clearly not about me.  Or, at least, not just me.  It’s about all the Jewish people, and were it conceived in a less particularistic era, it might be about all humanity.  You and I and everyone we encounter are royalty, the resplendent and the weary amongst us all deserving of care, and responsible for offering it.

Here in the British countryside, on a break from the day-to-day, it’s easy to be calm and reflective, imagining myself as a vessel of patience and compassion.  But who will I be when back in the world? 

This much I know.  I am almost always happier when ambling than scrambling.  And more irritable when stressed. 

That’s it!  I’ve figured it out!  I should be happy instead of stressed.  Why didn’t I think of that sooner?  Okay, okay.  No magic bullet here.  I get that. 

But what if I were to run interference on fifty-plus years of bad habits and try to get a decent night’s sleep?  What if I break a growing pattern of running late?  Yes, there’s always another e-mail to compose, another blogpost to write, another way of proving I matter.  But I matter when I’m in the world, too.

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So once back home, I do my best to fend off habits that make me weary and keep me up too late, and more often get myself out the door so that I am unrushed.  And this happens…

I spot a guy sitting on the sidewalk, his oily hair swept back from his forehead, a cup in front of him.  I refrain from speculating and judging as I lean down and drop money in his cup, slow enough to make eye contact, fast enough not to make a show of it. 

I delight in the sparks flying from between the legs of a construction worker soldering a metal beam, the adolescent in me thinking how cool it is that he’s farting sparks. 

Because of how good this makes me feel, it changes how I am when, crossing the street, I’m forced to stop midway when a cyclist runs a stop sign.  Looking at the anxiety in his eyes, I find myself feeling compassion instead of umbrage.

A driver is laying on the horn, angry at the slowness of the driver ahead.  Feeling calm and irritated rather than wrathful, I lean down to look at him, and motion towards my ears so he can appreciate how unpleasant a blare he’s creating.  The passenger beside him flips me a bouquet of birds.  But the driver backs off the horn.

An older woman with a hunched back and a walker is crossing an intersection.  Her hot pink blouse may give her all the visibility she needs, but the traffic light goes yellow when she’s only halfway across.  I slow down to keep pace with her, two of us now visible to the drivers.

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And when a pedestrian in walk-texting-browsing mode approaches, assuming I’ll get out of his way if he notices me at all, I note my impulse to let him collide into me but, in the interest of my own happiness as well as his, I  shift lanes and recite the brucha:

Baruch atah Adonay, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Oter Yisrael B’tifarah

Blessed are You, Source of all, who crowns Israel with splendour

And there’s another form of good I can do that does not require me to be in the friendly mood I’m endeavouring to cultivate,  or to be mindful of the mortality of anxious cyclists and spark-farting construction workers.   I go online to make a monthly charitable donation.  Not royal patronage so much as an effort at human kindness.

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Let’s Get Mindful

  • Are there those to whom you’ve been less attentive, less kind, because of an ongoing gripe, or even because they’re nominally of a lower station in life?  Is there a way you can release this, and offer something more?  Perhaps you could get an assist from a blessing of your own creation, or the traditional one

Baruch atah Adonay, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Oter Yisrael B’tifarah

Blessed are You, Source of all, who crowns Israel with splendour

  • Keep site of the royal you.  Are there ways in which you are mindful of the kindness to which others are entitled, but forget to ensure that you too are treated as part of the royal family?  What might you do about that?
  • Have you been meaning to donate something, somewhere?  Your own act of royal patronage or simple human kindness?  Might this be a good time to take action?

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If you liked this, and want to see more, I wouldn’t say no to additional subscribers.  If you’re on a mobile device, scroll down about as far as you can, and enter your e-mail address in the Subscribe box.  If you’re on a computer, you’ll find the Subscribe box towards the top on the right-hand-side.

And if you want to spread the word, there are buttons around here somewhere for sharing on Facebook and Twitter…

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Filed under Birkot HaShachar, Melrose Abbey, Montreal, St. Cuthbert's Way, Uncategorized