Category Archives: Birkot HaShachar

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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Filed under Birkot HaShachar, Mindfulness, Montreal

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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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Twelve – Let The Rainshine In

(The twelfth 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 have met the enemy, and he’s approaching me on the sidewalk, his face buried in his phone.  For some reason, he’s walking diagonally, so the only way to avoid a collision is to give him a wide berth. 

Instead, I go straight at him. 

Just before the moment of impact, he realizes what’s happening and veers away, smiling and saying, “Sorry.”  Oddly, he neglects to thank me for building an association in his sub-conscious between walk-texting-browsing and unpleasant experience, but that’s okay, it’s enough to know I’ve changed his life for the better.

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St. Cuthbert’s Way (a 100km footpath in Scotland & England)

The problem is that there’s an epidemic of him – people walking about, so immersed in their phone lives that they leave it to others to navigate around them.  The bristly part of me can’t help but interpret this as an implied statement that they’re more important than the rest of us, who should be expected to accommodate them.  I could, I suppose, make it my life’s work to patrol the streets and bump each and every one of them into awareness, but that would require a serious investment in Kevlar, and self-sacrificing though I may be, there’s only so much of me to go around.

Instead, I start with the perpetrators over whom I have the most control – me, myself, and I.  Because, yes, the enemy is also me.  It’s true I’m usually good at remembering not to make my phone life an inconvenience to others, and can count on one hand (assuming I’m not using it to text) the number of times I’ve clogged a stairway or sidewalk while on my phone.

However… 

It’s not unusual for me to scour my phone obsessively when in lineups or riding transit and sometimes (must I admit this?) even when in the company of others.  Of course, the benefits of connectivity are many.  But oftentimes, my phone leaves me feeling fragmented, with a shallow experience online, and a diminished experience of the world around me. 

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Going clean in Edinburgh

Baruch atah adonay, eloheiynu melech ha’olam, ozer Yisrael bigvurah.

Blessed are You, the Eternal, who girds the people Israel with strength

Just as the Talmud associates other of the Birkot Hashachar with different stages of morning ritual, it recommends reciting this blessing while putting on one’s belt.  This has been interpreted by some to mean that one should separate the sensual impulses from below one’s waste from our capacity for discernment above it.  Maybe this can be a path towards greater self-discipline. 

(* Quick note about geopolitics: This and the other Jewish morning blessings were fashioned centuries before the modern state of Israel existed.  In referring to Israel, this blessing is talking of the Jewish people.  I’ve yet to see an interpretation of it as connoting military strength.  And, of course, I invite non-Jewish followers to rework the blessing as it suits you.  Now back to my stumblings…)

I give myself simple and achievable parameters.  Every third hour is to be an hour without checking e-mail.  Browsing will still be allowed, though I’ll try to exercise self-restraint.

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Smoke break in Edinburgh

In no time, I exhibit an impressive capacity for rationalizing why the rule needs to be broken.  I know I’m not supposed to be checking e-mail, but this could be important, or I’m so bored and it’s just an e-mail, or…  Most of the time, it’s not a conscious decision.  The internet has become part of my central nervous system, and wanting to be entertained or distracted or soothed, I’m in it before I realize what I’m up to.  But of all possible addictions, isn’t this a benign one?

I suppose, but…

I’m in Montreal, riding the 103 Monkland bus, a route I’ve been on hundreds of times, much of it covering ground I don’t find interesting.  Fortunately, I’ve got a phone in my hand.  Unfortunately, it’s 6:01, a “no e-mail” zone.  Fortunately, I’ve got a loophole that allows me to browse.  On the other hand…

Baruch atah adonay, eloheiynu melech ha’olam, ozer Yisrael bigvurah.

Blessed are You, the Eternal, who girds the people Israel with strength

…just because I can browse doesn’t mean I have to.  I put the phone down.  And find myself in the midst of spring – thick warm air against my cheek, promising rain which soon follows, gently bathing my forearm and thwipping the suddenly slickened asphalt.  I would still have enjoyed this had I shared it with my phone life, but not as fully.  And I would not have noticed the tall, billowy cloud that succeeds the rain. 

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A cloud grows in Toronto

Nor the middle-aged Asian woman getting up and giving her seat to the golden-aged woman toting a plastic bag.  When she takes another seat closer to me, I’m struck by the precise way she shuts the window, strategically positioning her fingers for maximum torque, an entertaining contrast to my “technique” of shoving my palm against the handle and heaving the window closed.  I look towards the woman with the plastic bag, and practice Metta, wishing her safety, happiness, health, and ease.  And because I’ve been made aware of her, when she gets up, manoeuvering her bag with some difficulty, I go to the front of the bus and put myself on standby in case I’m needed.

Time in the world.  Sign me up.

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 Let’s Get Mindful

  • Do you, like some blogger you may have come across, spend more time in your phone than you would like?  Then let’s synchronize our watches and have no online experience from 6:00 to 7:00 in the evening.  Of course we’ll lapse, sometimes even for good reason.  But let’s do our best.  Let’s be in the world and whatever it has to offer, pleasant or unpleasant, that we may know better what it holds.  If it suits you to ritualize the commitment, when the clock strikes six, recite a blessing of your own devising, or the traditional one

Baruch atah adonay, eloheiynu melech ha’olam, ozer Yisrael bigvurah.

Blessed are You, the Eternal, who girds the people Israel with strength

  • Are there other impulses upon which you feel compelled to act?  The pastry you know you’re going to regret, the harsh words you’re yearning to level.  Sometimes the impulse is so strong, there’s no getting out of its way.  Sometimes it even needs to be acted upon (after all, how bad can pastries be if they taste that good?)  But sometimes we see the impulse with just enough discernment to know which actions will lead to regret.  Maybe at those moments, the blessing can help you put on the breaks, that you may have a better experience of yourself in the world.

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Eleven– Ice Here, Not There

(The latest in this series 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.)

“No, I’m telling you,” one of the university students walking in front of me says.  “It’s like the greatest movie ever.”

“I’m not sure I trust your high judgement,” his friend responds.  “I want to hear what you say about it when you’re not stoned.”

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It’s an icy, snow-scattered day, yet despite the frigidity of the morning, they’re strolling more than walking, hoodies unzipped, hands hanging loosely in their pockets.  Occupied as they are with philosophical concerns, it’s no wonder they’re not saying the brucha.  They are, however, living it.

Baruch ataha adonay, eloheinu melech ha’olam, hamechin mitzadey gaver

Blessed are You, source of all that is, who makes firm a person’s steps

Making a point of paying attention today, I became aware of much that I might have otherwise missed…

Ice here, not there.  My right foot gains solid purchase on the ground, my left foot slips from centre.  My hamstrings hold, and I am free to keep going…

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Driveways force a slope in the sidewalk.  Before I realize it, my body has compensated for the uneven terrain, as if the world were actually level…

A woman is pulling her dog on a sled in my direction.  After we pass, I realize I’d needed no conscious thought in stepping aside and making room, freeing me instead to invest my energy in judging her character because she neglected to make eye contact with me…

A patch of sidewalk is speckled with salt.  Under my feet, the pellets pop and explode, and the eight-year old in me delights in his might…

Birdsong in the air.  With its promise of warm, fragrant spring days, I’m especially inclined to attune.  And my feet, to which I’m paying no attention, walk me through the music…

At the subway station, hearing a train arrive, I sprint down the stairs and hop on with seconds to spare.  There’s a clinking behind me.  A fellow passenger has dropped some change.  I do a pirouette, lean down, scoop up the runaway money, and hand it over.  And then I consider that in the last minute, I’ve transitioned from strolling to sprinting to freeform dance on a moving subway, again without a moment’s conscious thought.  I silently say the brucha:

Baruch ataha adonay, eloheinu melech ha’olam, hamechin mitzadey gaver

Blessed are You, source of all that is, who makes firm a person’s steps

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Let’s Get Mindful

  • As you make your way through your day, stop now and then. Stand there a moment, and ask yourself, in a pleasant way, “What have I just done?”  Then stay stopped, and note where your feet have taken you and how they get you there.  If you’re so moved, or inclined to fake it till you make it (as they say), create a blessing of your own or recite the traditional brucha:

Baruch ataha adonay, eloheinu melech ha’olam, hamechin mitzadey gaver

Blessed are You, source of all that is, who makes firm a person’s steps

  • Do a walking meditation in the middle of your day. Whether striding or sauntering from A to B, be they fifty feet apart or a thousand, pay attention as best you can to your movements.  If you become distracted, that is human and natural, but all the same, whenever you realize your mind’s gone elsewhere, try to bring your attention back to your feet, your legs, and all that works in tandem with them.  This could be an act of concentration, of wonder, of both.  And if you’re so moved, there’s always the brucha.
  • Make a pact with yourself to keep an eye open for those whose steps you can help make firm. Perhaps someone on the subway for whom you can find a seat.  Or someone behind you in line at the supermarket who might be strengthened by your inviting them to go in front of you.  If you’re like me, putting the phone away might get rid of the filter between them and you, so that the One of us all becomes more evident.

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Ten– What’s Tina Turner Got to do With It?

(The latest in this series 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.)

Before I get to my recent experience with

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Sh’asah li kol tzarki

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who acts for all my needs

please allow me to start in on some bragging.

I say this knowing that bragging is poor manners, but sometimes a man can’t help himself.

While I have some modest proficiency at gratitude, I am world-class at dissatisfaction.  Ask me to itemize the ways in which my life should be other than it is – happier, better – and I can go an hour straight, barely needing to take a breath.  At which point, I’ll be warmed up.  And being a model of consistency, I can produce day in and day out.  When I’m really on my game, which is not infrequently, my dissatisfaction soars past mere noting of what’s wrong in my world to peaks of glumness and dejection.

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New Orleans

Unfortunately, though, since adopting a dedicated mediation practice a few years ago, my talent for getting to and sustaining such states of mind has been impaired.  Worst of all, it’s become increasingly difficult to take out my displeasure on the world.

Cases in point…

A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of a funk, I’m in the lineup at a drugstore.  I’ve got my items in hand, and a game plan.  All I have to do is avoid eye contact with the cashier, grunt the briefest of thank-yous, and be on my way.  But as she scans my nasal strips and shaving cream and I open my wallet, I am suddenly blindsided by a moment of inner lightness and find myself saying, “Well, I had a lot of money at the start of the day.”

It takes her a moment, then she looks at me, suddenly realizing that someone is talking to her.  Now I’ve done it.  I’ve gone and started some kind of connection.  Still, if I just keep my head down, I can do some damage control, limit myself to gutturals, and slink out of the place. 

But instead, I add, “You know, if I just stopped sleeping and shaving, I’d save a lot of money.” 

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From Montreal’s Palais des congrès

Now she’s smiling at me, and commiserating, telling me she’s concluded that the only way she can retire is to move back to the jungle.  “The jungle?” I ask.  Yes, she says.  She was raised in the jungle in the Philippines, where homes are passed down from one generation to the next.  “So will you really be moving back?” I probe a little further.  Absolutely, she answers.  She wants to say more, and I want to listen, but there are people in line behind me, and I take my leave.

Despite my best laid plans, I exit the drugstore feeling light-hearted.  Fortunately, by the next day, my Olympic-class resilience has kicked in, and I am again able to spend it in an unhappy mood. 

But at the supermarket in the evening, I make the mistake of pointing out to the young woman at checkout that someone has left a basket of groceries in the aisle.

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My favourite Montreal alleyway

She thanks me and says she’ll call someone to reshelve them.  Being unable to leave well enough alone, I find myself asking, “So do I get a discount on my groceries now?”  She laughs, and laments that she doesn’t even get a discount herself.  Again, light-heartedness sets in.

Wil this never end?

But that’s the way it is with meditation, at least for me.  It is anything but a magic bullet, but what I’ve experienced since adopting a dedicated practice a few years ago, is that I go off the rails much less often, and when I do, I get back on much more quickly.  And when I do Metta (or loving-friendliness) practice, I’m also more likely to access compassion.

So on an ice cold afternoon, walking past a homeless guy I’ve gotten to know a little, despite feeling unhappy, I stop to find out how he’s doing.  Rattled is how he’s doing.  As far as I can follow, last night he’d taken some medications that worked against each other, and had passed out in the street.  Rushed to the hospital, life seeping out of him, a nurse was trying to inject him with something critical but his body was so frozen, she couldn’t get the syringe in.  “Oh, God!  Oh, God!” she screamed, frightening the bejesus out of him.  Finally she got the needle in, and after spending the night at the hospital, he was released this morning.  I doubt I’m following the details properly, but I know it’s important for me to try, and to let him know I’m glad he’s around to fight the fight.  People have been generous today, he says, bringing him lots of food.  As is his way, he asks if I’d like some. 

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From the Rosemont overpass, Montreal

But if Tina Turner happens to have been surreptitiously following this blog series, upon reading this post she might well be asking, “What’s God got to do with it, got to do with it?”  Where do the Birkot HaShachar, the Jewish morning blessings, fit into this?

Throughout this period, the brucha of which I’ve been trying to be mindful, and which I’ve recited more frequently than any other is

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Sh’asah li kol tzarki

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who acts for all my needs

Feeling dissatisfied as I was, it’s not the brucha I would have chosen.  But when beginning this series, I’d decided to adhere to the traditional sequence of the brachot and this one was next on the playlist, so I work with what I’ve got instead of what I want.  Which, right now, feels like the very point of the brucha.  I may not have all I want, but this blessing is about what I need.  And the essentials I need – food and water, clothing, shelter – have been lacking for many, across time, across the planet, and around the corner.  I have friends with illnesses that make it difficult to maintain a healthy diet, never mind a pleasurable one, and others who struggle to put a comfortable roof over their heads.  I, on the other hand, without having done anything to earn it, have been granted the circumstances and skills that provide me with food and shelter and, while I’m at it, winter gloves that are warm and snug, but not too snug, and which I could effortlessly replace should I ever mislay them. 

Time and meditation practice do their thing and the doldrums abate.  I find myself back at baseline, perhaps a slightly elevated new baseline, more content much of the time and feeling equipped to address discontent from a more discerning, settled place.  

Perhaps in some subtle way, the brucha has contributed to this ascendance.  I’m not sure, to be honest.  What I am sure of is that I’m glad to have its company, and if it will allow me, I’d like to keep it.

Let’s allow the ancient liturgists the last word…

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Sh’asah li kol tzarki

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who acts for all my needs

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From the top of the steps of St. Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal

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Let’s Get Mindful

Sometime during the course of your day, or maybe several times, put your mind to the blessing, perhaps reciting it…

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Sh’asah li kol tzarki

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who acts for all my needs

…and take a moment to reflect very specifically of the ways in which you have been granted essentials like food, clothing and shelter.  Perhaps it will give you immediate access to gratitude or perhaps it’s planting a seed that will sprout gratitude in days to come.  Or perhaps it’s just enough to note what is.

…and/or…

Are there ways in which you can help others – across the globe and around the corner – to access these essentials?  Is this a good time to make a specific plan to help in ways large or small?

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…also, comments are welcome…perhaps to describe ways in which you’ve employed the suggested practices, or your own riff on them.

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Nine– Support Your Local Fire Sheriff

(The latest in this series 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.)

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Roka Ha’aretz al Ha’mayim

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who stretches forth the earth on the waters

I’ve always had a hard time knowing what to do with this blessing.  But when the heavens opened in New York City, and with the assistance of modern sculpture and a random number generator, I got an answer.

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

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December 2, 2015 – Although I know museums are good for me, I seldom find myself in one.  IMG_3005

This is true at home, and equally true when I go travelling, drawn as I am to ambling through streets, riding public transit, and diligently conducting surveys of food carts and bakeries.

IMG_3012Yesterday, the first of this two-day visit, things began according to plan. Though the sky was spitting and the air was chilly, this didn’t prevent me from acting on the whim to ride the N train from Manhattan to Coney Island, and fortify myself for a walk out to the pier with a stop at Nathan’s.  But no sooner had I dug in to my fish sandwich, than the rain started to drench the ground outside.  I looked up a weather forecast which insisted this would continue non-stop for the remainder of my stay.  

Museum-going it would be.  But which museums?  Large and renowned?  Small and quirky?  Art museums?  Historical?  A problem unique to first worlders, I grant you, but my head began to hurt with the overabundance of options.  Then, I came up with an idea that made me giddier by the second.  I went online and found a list of all museums in the city, counting 217.  Then I pulled up a random number generator, to tell me which of the 217 to visit.  Most likely, my biases would be countered, and I would be dispatched to unfamiliar parts of the city.

That was yesterday, and I’ll tell you a little more about it later. 

But for now…

As of this morning, the rain has not stopped.  Out come the list and random number generator.  I spin the dial and discover I will be going to the Noguchi Museum in Queens.

The entirety of my knowledge about modern sculpture would fall well short of the halfway point of a thimble, but as I look at the museum’s website, I see that the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi brought a sparing, Zen-like approach to its design.  Though I have doubts about whether I’ll “get” his work, he has at least afforded me the opportunity to experience quietude while with it.  I decide to wear white and let the colour be his.

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A subway ride and a walk later, I enter the museum ready for stillness.  I’m not ready, however, for the school bus that arrives just behind me, and the two dozen grade fours suddenly filling the lobby.

I may be a big fan of kids, but this isn’t what I had in mind.  I slink away, hoping to put distance between us.

I can hope all I want, but it’s not going to happen.  In no time, they and I are sharing the same sculptures.

As a dozen of them sit on the floor by their teacher, she asks them to describe one of Noguchi’s works.  What colour is it?  What is it made of?  That’s right!  It’s marble.  Do you have anything made of marble at home?

Eager hands shoot up.  The sink!  My kitchen! 

“Last one.  Just one more,” the teachers says, as the offerings keep coming.  But she takes two.

A while later, in another room, the teacher explains they are now standing beside a sculpture Noguchi called The Roar.  “Can you roar?” she asks.  “RAWRRRRR!” they answer.

At times, I do get my own space, and the opportunity to consider Noguchi’s work and what he might have meant by it.

But when I’m again in the presence of the kids, I experience a different kind of Zen.  There’s no pushing or shoving.  Just excitement and the desire to say “I am here” and connect with the teacher, while the parents chaperoning the group look on and smile, their eyes sparkling.

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At one of the temporary exhibits, the teacher instructs the children to cover their eyes as she prepares to surprise them with the sound one of the installation makes.  More than a few of them cheat, peeking between fingers splayed comically apart, fooling no one.

And I remind myself of the brucha of which I’m trying to be mindful.

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Roka Ha’aretz al Ha’mayim

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who stretches forth the earth on the waters

I think I know the brucha’s origins.  Surely, it harkens back to the Torah’s creation story, in which God gives order to the chaos of the primordial, shapeless void by separating the waters below from the waters above, and fashioning the dry land on which the human adventure will take place.

But for the first time, I think I know what to do with the brucha, because it also harkens forward to this very day, where I’ve been granted witness to young people being sheltered from a world teeming with danger and uncertainty by loving family and a teacher stimulating their minds and respecting their energy, giving them solid ground on which to stand.

Then there was yesterday…

While at Nathan’s, the first museum to which the random number generator dispatched me was the New York City Fire Museum in Lower Manhattan.  Lacking the aesthetic sensibility of the Noguchi Museum, it told its stories more with volume than with style.  I learned of a time when enmity prevailed between rival fire stations, and leadership was determined by political patronage rather than ability.  I learned about rough treatment of African-American, and later, female recruits.  And I learned about an occupation filled with camaraderie and fraught with danger.  On Jude Amsel’s memorial to the 343 firefighters who perished on September 11, 2001, I catch the names Joseph Angelini and Joseph Angelini Jr., father and son.

I think back a few years ago to a fire a couple of houses over from me.  At the time, there was a rash of arson attacks in Toronto alleyways, and that night, a neighbour’s shed went ablaze.  Unwisely looking out the window a moment, I felt the baking heat of the inferno from thirty yards away, and on the most primordial of levels, experienced the world as unsettled, unstable, dangerous.  Within minutes a firefighting team arrived, and the flames were extinguished.  By the next day, I was safe to again become blasé about the reliability of the universe.

But now, I have a brucha to cut through my casualness, and remind me that there are forces, not of my own making, to thank for this reliability.  I decide that after I return home, the members of my local fire station will receive a letter conveying my gratitude.

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Let’s Get Mindful

Take a moment to consider the sources of stability in your life.  Who fashions constancy for you in this see-sawing world? 

…and/or…

Take a moment to consider the ways in which you might be a source of stability.  Is there something you can do, today or very soon, to offer grounding to someone else?

With this in mind, you might wish to offer your own blessing or recite the traditional brucha…

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Roka Ha’aretz al Ha’mayim

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who stretches forth the earth on the waters

…and consider what action you can take.

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

…also, comments are welcome…perhaps to describe ways in which you’ve employed the suggested practices, or your own riff on them.

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Eight – White Noise Serenade

(The latest in this series 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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It’s eighteen minutes past two in the afternoon.

I told myself I’d do this at eighteen past ten in the morning.  And eighteen past eleven.  And one.

In any case, I’m doing it now.

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Zokef Kfufim

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who straightens the bent

I am going through a busy period at work, and though I try to be congenial when coworkers come by, mostly I want them to go away so I can get back to hunching over my computer.  There’s nothing wrong with my diligence, I suppose, but I’m starting to pay the price with tension in my neck and shoulders.  I can afford a minute, can’t I? 

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So when the clock on my laptop tells me it’s eighteen minutes past two, I lift my back straight, set the timer on my phone, close my eyes, and listen.  The baseline is the white noise flowing from the ceiling, softening the sounds of our tight working quarters, and making that which I do hear much more resonant: the firm closing of a drawer, the rustling of papers, the clicking of a keyboard.  Someone’s just snapped a binder shut.  Someone else is making a role of scotch tape screech.  My chest rises and falls with each breath.  The blood pulses through my fingers.  One of my coworkers does something to make another laugh.  I know that laugh, and I like who it belongs to.  I like all the people around me, though I sometimes lose sight of this.  My eyes tear a little with some mixture of tenderness and awareness and gratitude.  The chime on my phone sounds, and I return to work.

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Let’s Get Mindful

  • Does your day allow you to take a minute now and again, and just take in your surroundings?  Perhaps saying the brucha – spontaneously or by schedule – will be what puts it in motion:

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Zokef Kfufim

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who straightens the bent

  • Is there someone you know, well or only casually, who seems bent over by the weight of life?  Someone suffering trauma or merely enduring nuisance?  Is there something you might do to help them stand up straighter? 

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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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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Seven – My Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Giving of the Tithe…or…Tradition Meets Tradition

(The latest in this series 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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My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,

He is tramping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.

He has loosed the frightful cannon of his terrible swift sword,

His truth is marching on…

Thanks to Mr. John Boutte, I now have my answer. 

It’s a few weeks back, in the midst of the Days of Awe between the Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, and the brucha of which I’m trying to be mindful is:

Baruch atah Adonai, eloyheynu melech ha’olam, matir asurim

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who frees the captive

IMG_2042a-2Jewish tradition this time of year is to be especially generous with tzedakah (commonly translated as charity, with a connotation of it being more an obligation than a choice).  With that in mind, I commit to tithing, another Jewish tradition.  One tenth of my salary, at least for this next paycheque, will go towards relieving the burdened.

But who?  Where?

When John Boutte’s jazz- and gospel-inflected version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic (a song known to many simply as Glory, Glory, Hallelujah) comes up on my phone’s playlist, my mind leaps ahead to words I know are coming…

He died to make men holy

We’ve got to live to make men free

My God, my God, my God is marching on

IMG_2045To listen to Boutte is to listen to New Orleans (a lyric from another of his songs….I’m New Orleans born, New Orleans bred, when I die I’ll be New Orleans dead).  So when the clarion call comes from “the city that care forgot,” it’s my responsibility to show some love to a city that has granted me so much joy.

I can use my people’s tradition to support another people’s tradition, that of the social aid and pleasure clubs – mutual aid societies begun more than a century ago by African-Americans to support one another through trials such as illness and burial costs.  They continue their efforts today, even as they continue their annual celebrations – “second line” parades in which the members deck out in flashy suits, sporting matching parasols and, accompanied by a brass band, strut from one neighbourhood watering hole to another, trailed by anyone who wants to stomp behind. 

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The parades are exuberant and delirious, civil and anarchic, and sometimes dangerous.  Itineraries often have injunctions like “respect yourself and your tradition, and leave your guns and troubles at home.”  But more than anything else, they are live-for-today joyful.

I research how I can support the clubs, and am quickly reminded of the well-regarded New Orleans Musicians Clinic, which provides medical assistance to musicians and other tradition-bearers, including social aid and pleasure club members. 

Glory, glory, hallelujah, John Boutte’s voice rings in my ear…and I stick a crowbar in my wallet.

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Postscript: About a week after I make my donation, I get an e-mail from New Orleans telling me a chicken joint had seen one of my second line images, and wants to know if they can blow it up and put it on their wall.  Maybe my act of modest generosity had found its way into the ether. In any case, it seems only right to redirect the modest fee they’ll be paying me back to the musicians’ clinic.  As for me, I’m hoping to negotiate some complementary legs and thighs for my next visit. 

And now, some video evidence…from the Prince of Wales Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade a couple of years ago…

…and Mr. Boutte and friends performing The City of New Orleans…

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Let’s Get Mindful

  • Do you have financial resources that will enable you to help out the burdened in the world?  Might this be a good time to share some of them?  If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the options, just keep your intention in mind.  And because making a verbal commitment often better equips us to carry out our intentions, you might wish to say the brucha aloud

Baruch atah Adonai, eloyheynu melech ha’olam, matir asurim

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who frees the captive

Then, stay open to the cues the world gives you, so you can know your next step.

  • Might there be merit in making a commitment to share a defined proportion of your earnings with those who are shackled in the world?  If you’re Jewish – and hey, even if you’re not – you might wish to make the commitment in a multiple of eighteen (Jewish numerology for “chai,” or life).
  • Whether or not you have the resources to provide financial assistance, can you keep an eye out today for those in your midst who are burdened with some weight or another?  And find a way to help lighten the load, or perhaps even lift it from their shoulders altogether?

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Filed under Birkot HaShachar, John Boutte, Mindfulness, New Orleans

Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Six – T-Shirt & Token Consciousness

(The latest in this series 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.)

Sometimes all it takes to act like a better person is to get in the habit of expressing gratitude to God.  That, and having someone with a cane chase you down in the street.

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Baruch atah adonay, eloheinu melech ha’olam, malbish arumim

Blessed are You, The Compassionate, who clothes the naked

Most days on my way home from work, I pass a man holding out a cup for change.  He’s the kind of person you want to help – older yet innocent, often quick to recount the generosity of others with wonder and wide blue-grey eyes, and usually appreciative of whatever you give him, even if it’s just a “hello, how are you?”

If you’ve got time, he’s usually got a story or a quip.

Once, as I passed by with a slice of pizza and a root beer, he took a look at the can.

“You didn’t get diet?” he asked.

“I don’t really like diet drinks,” I said, then patted my stomach and added, “but maybe I should get in the habit.”

“Nah,” he said, his eyes sparkling as he broke into a mischievous smile.  “That’s just baby fat.” 

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On a different day, not long ago, I dropped some coins in his cup and continued on.  Half a minute later, I suddenly heard shouting from behind.  I turned to see him hobbling on his cane towards me, as fast as he could manage.

“I don’t think you meant to do this,” he said, reaching into his cup and pulling out some subway tokens I’d given him by accident.  Worth about three dollars each, they could have been a windfall, but evidently, at too great a cost to his integrity.

So as I recite the blessing which I’m trying to keep in mind…

Baruch atah adonay, eloheinu melech ha’olam, malbish arumim

Blessed are You, The Compassionate, who clothes the naked

IMG_0792…I remember the delight he’d once taken in the t-shirt of a passerby, with its image of a grizzly bear.  And I recall his references to his years living in the north.  As far as I can tell, he’s a nature lover.  My role is clear.  The next time I do laundry, I take a t-shirt I’ve seldom worn from my dresser, and give it an extra washing.  I got it in Banff a few years ago, and it has an image of the Rockies.  Though I’ve worn it a little more of late, it remains on my clothing B-list.  I’m sure it would fit him, and he’s bound to enjoy it more than I have.

When I offer it to him a few days later, he says, “I love it already.”  The truth, though, is that he seems to be in a glum place, not taking pleasure in much.  Nonetheless, as he stores the shirt in his knapsack for safe keeping and I start to leave, he makes me wait until he pulls out a chocolate drink someone had bought for him, and hands it to me.

As if being able to give him the t-shirt hadn’t been reward enough.

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Let’s Get Mindful

  • So about those clothes in the closet that are guaranteed to fit you again after you take off those extra pounds….Can someone else use them?  Would there be merit in reciting the blessing

Baruch atah adonay, eloheinu melech ha’olam, malbish arumim

Blessed are You, The Compassionate, who clothes the naked

          and parting with them sooner rather than later?

  • The next time you find yourself grumbling about the weather, consider your wardrobe.  If you’re wearing clothes that make the heat or the cold or the rain more bearable, would this be a good time for the blessing?
  • How about that article of clothing you’re wearing that you really, really like?  What are the factors in your life that have given you the resources to acquire it?  Might a blessing – malbish arumim or one of your own creation – be a good way of expressing gratitude for your good fortune?
  • We are now well into the Jewish month of Elul, a period for self-reflection leading to Rosh Hashana and the beginning of the High Holy Days.  One tradition is that we be especially generous with tzedakah (roughly translated as “charity”) at this time.  Can the blessing help the Jews among us get there?  And if you’re not Jewish but are looking for an imperative to be generous, feel free to join in.

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Five – Quiet Seeds, Big Apple

(The latest in this series 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.)

At the outset of a hot and humid summer’s day in New York, there’s no imagining that the blessing of which I’m trying to be mindful will lead me to memories of a snowy day in Montreal with my mother, and the gift of vision she brought.*

*The paintings in this blog post are hers.

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Poke’ach Ivrim

Blessed Are You, Source of all that is, who gives sight to the blind

What I do know is that the smile I’m wearing as I descend into the subway on 14th Street is starting to feel forced.  Even if a minute ago, it was the real thing.

It started when a red-bearded hipster with a Montreal Expos cap passed me on the sidewalk.

“Go, Expos” I said, with New York spontaneity.

“You know it,” he answered.

Though from Lubbock, Texas, he’s always had an affinity for northern sports teams.  He’s “psyched” he’ll be making his first visit to Montreal this fall, though disappointed the season will be over by the time he gets there.  He doesn’t seem to know the Expos quit town ten years ago, and I haven’t the heart to tell him.

A moment later, a woman eases her bicycle from the street into Union Square.  She’s got huge heart-shaped purple glasses, and a Terrier riding shotgun in a custom-made sidecar.  The glasses and sidecar could have cost her fifty dollars or a thousand.  It doesn’t matter.  Either way, I love her.

But as I enter the steamy, dark subway station, I feel the giddiness leaving.  I don’t want it to, so I force the smile for a while, but clinging to it makes things worse, and I reluctantly let go.

Freshly returned to the world from a meditation retreat, and wanting to ease my way back to urban living, I’m taking the A Train to the far northern tip of Manhattan for Inwood, one of New York’s quieter neighbourhoods. IMG_2519

It promises to be a long and dull ride, except as unpleasantly punctuated by the fighting between the young children across the aisle.  But remembering that long and dull are largely states of mind, I try to take an interest in my surroundings.   

A woman stretches her arms around the flower-patterned knapsack on her knees to hold a book, pursing her lips as she reads.  A man in a green-striped t-shirt is trying to nap, not sure where to rest his thick arms.  The Spanish of the adults accompanying the fighting children has a rhythm to it.  The more boisterous of the kids is wearing a red tank top emblazoned with the word CRASH.  Cool air blows through the train.  A couple of women – strangers – sit side-by-side, one with bright pink nail polish on her brown feet, the other with shoelaces the same shade on her white shoes.  At 116th Street, the doors start to close, when we all turn towards a high-pitched wailing sound.  A bony old woman with fiery eyes is comically screeching eee-eee-eee as she sprints out at the last second, her cane pointed straight ahead to block the door.  When she makes it, she grins triumphantly, which seems to give the rest of us permission to smile. 

207th Street.  The end of the line. 

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Heading for Inwood Hill Park, I’m befriended by a civic-minded woman stabbing at stray litter with a poker.  A refugee from mid-town, she says most New Yorkers don’t know Inwood exists.  None of its buildings are more than six stories high, which means greatly diminished anonymity.  She says this like it’s a burden, but I’m not convinced.

At the park, I pass a man on a bench, training binoculars on a patch of marshland beside the Harlem River. “Big, isn’t he?” he says of the great blue heron he’s watching, one of a handful he’s been monitoring all summer long. 

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Walking along the streets, and standing in a courtyard, I’m treated to a piano recital coming from an apartment above.  Further along, I stop to photograph the art deco entryway of an older building.  A beefy, sallow-faced man, cigarette drooping from his mouth, strikes up conversation.  He’s an émigré from Yugoslavia, and the superintendent of the building, which went up in 1939.

It’s nice, he says, but you should see the building from ‘38 where he used to work.  Now that is a building.  He holds his thumb and forefinger in a circle, and draws them to his mouth for a kiss.

And so it continues.  Walking.  Exchanges with strangers who stop being strange.  Quiet delights, a call to my father in Montreal, distracted thought giving way to more quiet delights.

And I say the blessing…

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Poke’ach Ivrim

Blessed Are You, Source of all that is, who gives sight to the blind

…and then think about it.

About how it reminds me to truly see what’s in my midst.

And how, by bringing God into the conversation, I am declaring that I can’t do it all on my own, and never could.

What is the source of whatever capacity I have for encountering the world, rather than simply walking through it?  Much comes from friends and teachers, my father and brothers and other family.  Maybe there is a divine source at work.  I’d like to think so.

And definitely, a great deal comes from my mother, Rhoda Diamond Blumer (zichrona livracha, may her memory be for a blessing), who passed eight months ago, and has remained on the minds of all who loved her (and we are a multitude).

I flash to a memory of a winter’s day when I was in my forties; it’s the day after a storm and my mother points out how beautiful the trees are with the snow still resting on their branches, cheering up the world.  I must have seen this unconsciously, but she explained to me what I’d been seeing. 

Skiers

Always one to make the best of things, my mother didn’t care for winter, but could still create this…

And I think of standing at the airport with her when I was a teenager, telling me how much delight she took in watching people arrive from overseas, and their joyful reunions with loved ones.  And of the pride and pleasure she took in Montreal’s Victoria Avenue, with its multiethnic tapestry, suggesting a diverse and tolerant world which she knew in her heart was how things could be.  She just had a gift for seeing beauty and possibility in the day-to-day.  For me, it often comes with effort – an effort made easier by having my mother for a role model.

And so I am grateful for the blessing that helps me remember the gift she gave me.  And still does.

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Poke’ach Ivrim

Blessed Are You, Source of all that is, who gives sight to the blind

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Let’s Get Mindful

  • Get out there.  And do something routine, perhaps something you do every day.  And stop to see, really see, who and what is before you.  And because giving voice to things can sanctify them, consider reciting the blessing:

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Poke’ach Ivrim

Blessed Are You, Source of all that is, who gives sight to the blind

  • If you like the idea of doing this, but aren’t quite taking it on, assign yourself a time or two in the day, and go for it.
  • Stop.  And reflect on the forces – human, divine – that have enabled you to see what you might otherwise have missed.  Sanctify your good fortune by saying a blessing, either poke’ach ivrim/gives sight to the blind or one of your own.
  • Are you looking for a way to volunteer your time or money?  Is a cause related to providing others with proper eyewear the answer?  Call it God, or God working through you, or you just being a human, and be grateful you’re in a position to help.

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Four – What if God Were All of Us?

(The latest in this series 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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“Who’s next?” the woman working the pizza counter asks.

The guy beside me starts ordering.  Until I interrupt.

“I think I’m next,” I say.  I’m going for a neutral, matter-of-fact, tone.  Still, I wonder if the subtext I’m feeling in my heart is coming through.  The subtext that says, “How bloody rude are you?  If they gave you the guillotine, it would be too good.”  (My heart can be disproportionate where pizza is involved.)

“Sorry,” he says.  “You go ahead.”

I order a couple of slices, and consider the brucha of which I’m trying to be mindful these days

Baruch atah adonay, eloheynu melech ha’olam, she’asani betzalmo

Blessed are You, The One, who has made me in Your image

On those occasions when I recite all the morning blessings in succession, I generally enjoy this one, with its suggestion of divinity in me.

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But as my sole focus, without surrounding brachot reminding me of the gifts with which I have been bequeathed, to recite it feels chutzpadik (the best translation I can offer for chutzpadik is “full of chutzpah”).  Who am I to suggest that I am in the image of God?

Especially given my conduct on the subway this morning.

I boarded the train just behind a woman with a backpack in her hand.  Then, as we stood back-to-back – despite the frequent announcements made on the subway to remove one’s backpack – she put hers on.  As her pack burrowed into my tailbone, I began to stew, not wanting to – yet again – ask someone to remove their pack (and, by extension, suggest they lack basic human consideration).

“F*^% this,” I said, startling some of the other passengers as I strode to another spot, nudging aside yet another backpack-wearer – not very aggressively, but not subtly either.IMG_0974

So much for being in God’s image. 

But then again…

Which God are we talking about? 

While many of us ascribe transcendent and noble qualities to God – wise beyond our understanding, boundlessly compassionate – the God I am most familiar with is the one of the Hebrew Bible (known to many as the “Old Testament”).  A God who is sometimes transcendent, and at others, (to borrow the phrase from literary critic Harold Bloom in his The Book of J), “human, all too human.” A God of jealousy and anger, who decides to drown all living beings, sparing only Noah’s family and a select few animals.  A God who, following the golden calf episode, declares his intention to wipe out the very Israelites he has liberated from Egyptian slavery, only relenting after Moses appeals to his ego:

“Why, O Lord, [says Moses], should your wrath flare against Your people that You brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand?  Why should the Egyptians say, ‘For evil He brought them out, to kill them in the mountains, to put an end to them on the face of the earth?'”…And the Lord relented from the evil that He had spoken to do His people. (Exodus 32:11-14)

Yet, only a few chapters later, Moses exclaims this same God’s capacity for kindness, with what have come to be called God’s attributes of mercy:

“The Lord, the Lord!  A compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in kindness and good faith, keeping kindness for the thousandth generation, bearing crime, trespass, and offense. (Exodus 34:6-7)

This God is powerful and multidimensional, a source of suffering and love, destruction and compassion.

Like you and me.

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Did I cause that much suffering by how I behaved on the subway this morning?  Let’s put it this way.  I didn’t get anyone’s day get off to a good start. 

So as I stand at the pizza counter beside the guy my heart has condemned to the guillotine, the least I can do in light of his overture, is commute his sentence, look at him again and say, “Thank you.”  

At the close of the day, I step onto the subway again, and encounter what is often a source of ire – a cluster of passengers standing near the door, making it difficult for anyone else to board.  As I move past the crowd to make room for those getting on behind me, I calmly say, “Excuse me, I’m just going to squeeze through.”  Much to my shock, instead of being resentful, I feel happy to have been so civil and polite.  This is an image of God –  kindness trumping judgement – it would do some good to inhabit more often.

After all, I’m not the only one made in the image of God.  So are my fellow subway riders, and people I will pass on the street the next day: the young woman in fishnets, toting a hockey stick as she cruises about on roller blades,; the middle-aged guy listing to one side, dragged down by the weight of his laptop; and the fellow with the beige suit and white fedora, making mincing steps as he goes.  All with God’s capacity to create both ease and unrest.  The least I can do is make their lives easier so that they might do the same for others.

Baruch atah adonay, eloheynu melech ha’olam, she’asani betzalmo

Blessed are You, The One, who has made me in Your image

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Let’s get mindful

  • Sit for a few minutes, breathing, being. Then consider ways in which you have brought ease into the world of late.  Without judgement, also consider ways in which you might have brought unease.  Just be with this knowing.  Then recite the brucha

Baruch atah adonay, eloheynu melech ha’olam, she’asani betzalmo

 Blessed are You, The One, who has made me in Your image

and breathe some more, and return to the world with the divine powers with which you have been endowed.

  • If you’re out in public, do some people-watching (taking care not to make others feel uncomfortable). Look at the unique way each of us moves our arms when we walk, the different paces at which we go, the range of skin colour.  If you are in the image of the Divine, so are they.  Step into the crowd, knowing you are part of the divine flow, one of billions of God-images making our way through the world.
  • Are you dealing with someone you find difficult, tempting you to act with hostility or anger? Remember how powerful you are.  How your conduct will affect their conduct, not only with you but everyone.  Consider the possibility that listening to them, being attentive and compassionate, might be the path to resolution for you both, leaving you free to bring the best of your divinity back into the world.

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part 3 – Riding Freedom

(The latest in this series 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.)

IMG_2303As the minibus runs north from Saint-Jérôme, Quebec along Route 117, the window furnishes views of not much more than asphalt and highway-side businesses.  So I begin planning my next vacation, even though the one I’m on has just started…as if the past twenty-four hours hadn’t happened.

Baruch Atah Adonay, she’asani bat/ben* chorin

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who has made me free

(*Hebrew being a gendered language, “bat” would generally be said by women, and “ben” by men.  In this modern age of gender fluidity, though, it seems fair to use the one you feel suits you best.)

This is the Jewish morning blessing of which I’ve been trying to stay mindful recently. 

Having more freedom than most people can imagine, I had given long and labourious thought to what I would do with a week off work.  One moment, I was going to spend it in New York watching baseball, and another, I would poke around Portland – Oregon or Maine, take your pick.  Or Oaxaca, Mexico for baseball again.  But I kept coming back to Le P’tit Train du Nord, a 200 kilometre (125 mile) former railway route, now converted into a bicycle path, running through Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains.

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So just yesterday, back in Toronto, I went into my pack mule act, backpack hoisted over my shoulders, knapsack sitting on my chest, and began walking my bike to the subway, to catch a train to Montreal.

A couple of women pass by on the sidewalk, eyes pointed downward so they can focus on the words they’re sharing, one of them saying, “she’s not in pain or vomiting…”

Moments later, I’m passing a driveway where a man is crouching with a hose, washing down a stain, his wife standing above him, hands on her hips.  “I don’t want to hear about it,” she says.  “No, now listen…”  He looks away from her.

My back is aching a little from the weight I’m carrying, and I think of a softball teammate who had to miss a recent game because of serious back pain.

IMG_2312At the subway station, a tall blind man with a tall walking stick is trailed by his seeing-eye dog who looks over its shoulder at me, determining if the clicking sound of my bicycle wheel poses a threat.

As I carry my bike down the stairs to the platform, a toddler on her father’s shoulder asks, “Wa dat?”  “It’s a man with a bicycle,” he patiently answers. 

A man who’s got it good.  Who’s neither in pain nor vomiting, not being hectored or ignored by a discontented spouse, and privileged to be able to do things many my age, or any age, cannot.  I can even decide on Saturday evening whether the train I board the next day will take me to baseball stadiums in a foreign country or a cycling trail in my own.

Not that this necessarily makes me happier than the others.  For all I know, the squabbling couple spend most of their time being glad they have one another.   The woman who is neither in pain nor vomiting might be basking in improved health and the love of her friends.  And the man with the seeing-eye dog, who I have noticed often over the years – always in shorts and hiking boots – may well find the sounds and scents of the world to be fascinating and sufficient.

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Still, it would seem wise not to take my freedoms for granted – my physical and financial freedom, and the freedom to simply strike out somewhere on a whim.  All this freedom has been bequeathed to me, though I’ve done little to earn it, and that which I have “earned” has come through skills that have similarly just been granted.

The next morning, I am in Montreal, waiting for a commuter train that will take me to Saint-Jérôme, where I will catch the minibus to Mont-Laurier, the starting point for the bike trail.  There’s a young woman in a short black dress with an aristocratic nose and dirty blonde hair that reminds me of daybreak.  But her stiff-limbed, poorly coordinated movements, and wild eyes suggest too much time with substances that are destroying her. If I’m to be honest, once I see the shape she’s in, my first instinct it to tune her out.  IMG_2409But when she approaches, holding out a grimy hand, saying she just needs four dollars to get home, I take her at her word, and help out.  A few minutes later, she begins shouting at everyone that there’s been a change of platforms, and we have to switch tracks if we want to catch our train.  She keeps shouting until she’s shepherded us all over, even those who are trying to pretend she doesn’t exist.

Yet, for all this, a few hours later, when I am dissatisfied with the view from the bus, I start planning a different, better vacation.  Catching myself, I silently say the brucha

Baruch Atah Adonay, she’asani ben chorin

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who has made me free

and move to the other side of the bus, further away from the highway, so I can remember to be on this vacation.

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And yes, as I get pelted with rain, catch cold, am feasted upon by black flies and mosquitoes, and discover the cycling to be more strenuous than expected, I often revert to thinking about elsewhere, but as best I can, I do my best to appreciate where my freedom has taken me here and now.

Here’s some additional photographic evidence of that effort (if you wish, you can click on the images to get some slideshow action)…

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Let’s Get Mindful

  • If you find yourself getting lost in a future, better world at the expense of skilfully inhabiting the one you’re in, consider the kinds of freedom that go with your here and now.  Because speaking words aloud sometimes sanctifies things, consider giving voice to a blessing, either of your own formulation or the one I’ve been exploring:

Bauch Atah Adonay, she’asani bat/ben chorin

Blesssed are You, Source of all that is, who has made me free

  • If you like this intention, but find you’re not actually doing it, set a timer.  And on three occasions this day, stop and reflect on the freedoms with which you’ve been bequeathed.  And maybe say the blessing.
  • This can be a tougher one (as I well know).  But if you catch yourself about to act in a way that is unkind towards others or even yourself, pause, breathe, breathe some more, recite the blessing, and –  b  r  e  a  t  h  e –  yet once more, and see if that takes the edge off, allowing you to act more kindly.  Don’t demand magic of yourself, but do stay open to the possibility of freeing yourself to choose a different course of action.
  • As the day goes on, ask yourself if there’s something you can do for those who lack freedom, around the corner or on the other side of the globe.

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part 2 – Grace, God-Wrestling, the windshield and the bug

(The latest in this series 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.)

My tradition seems to be telling me to fake it till I make it.

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, She’asani Yisra’el

Blessed Are You, Source of All Peoples, who has made me a Jew

There might have been easier ways to step into today’s brucha, I could, for example, have explored my Jewishness with a good cookbook, a joke book, or a visit to a therapist. 

Instead, looking for something to provide guidance on how to live, moment to moment, I choose to deepen my understanding of the mitzvot, the 613 commandments traditionally understood to have been given to the Jewish people by God.  I know they don’t all feel suitable, but I also know there’s a case to be made for examining one’s tradition before dismissing it.

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I open The Concise Book of Mitzvoth, as compiled by the venerable scholar knows as the Chafetz Chayim (1838-1933), and see that the first mitzvah he identifies is to “believe there is a God in existence [who]…brought all existing entities into being, and all the worlds, by His power and blessed wish.  It is He who watches over everything.  This is the foundation of our faith, and whoever does not believe this denies the very main principal and he has no share or right among the Jewish people.”

My inner upstart wants to get disputatious.  How can belief be commanded?  Why assign the male pronoun to the Source of All?  Are you sure you want to declare the hundreds of thousands of Jews who discount the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient God to be apostates?

Then there’s me.  Someone who both speaks to God in intimate terms, expressing gratitude and fear, and who also, witness to the capriciousness of life, wonders exactly to whom I’ve been talking.

Who am I to claim certainty about the presence of God?  Yet, who am I to dismiss the Chafetz Chayim out of hand?

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As I walk to the subway, I try to stay open to a single source of life’s plenitude.  Unlike my recent efforts to attune to one point of focus in the form of birdsong, I’m now trying to take in everything: branches of trees bending and rebounding in the strong wind, a wind chime sounding a single note on someone’s porch, hummingbirds darting blurrily along the air currents.  A car door shutting snugly.  The high heels of a woman’s red shoes clicking along the opposite sidewalk.  At Bloor Street, a large truck hurtles through the intersection, trailed by a man on a motorbike.  Ahead of me, two people cross the street taking long angles.

All of us – these two, the woman with the red shoes, the man on the motorbike – are focused on our own concerns, weighty with significance.  Then, I imagine viewing us from the sky, space, the universe’s edge.

We are tiny.  We are important.

Soon, aboard one of Toronto’s articulating subways, a single long car which bends around curves, I am straddling solidness and fluidity – one foot on the stable floor, the other on the metal sheet which rotates when we make a turn.  The wallpaper on the cell of the woman in front of me shows her securely wrapped in a friend’s arms on a winter’s day, she too balancing solidity and fluidity.  Several riders press their hands into the low ceiling, trying to stay on their feet.

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As I step off the subway, in my mind’s ear, I recall a favourite pop music verse:

Sometimes you’re the windshield,

Sometimes you’re the bug.

Sometimes it all comes together, baby

Sometimes you’re a fool in love.*

The narrow stairway from the subway to the street is under repair, with only enough room to go single file.  Remembering I’m not the only one with rounds to keep, I step aside to let someone down.  Boarding the streetcar, I’m about to claim a seat when I remember someone older has gotten on behind me, and I keep walking to the back.

Did the commandment to believe in God and the effort to attune to the transcendent have anything to do with the compassion I’m feeling?  Yes, it did.  I can’t say why, but yes.

A few days later..

The feeling of grace didn’t last very long, and any efforts I made to compel its return reminded me of the fruitlessness of grasping.  In Montreal now, I go for a walk on Mount Royal, trying to reconnect with the transcendent, pretending I’m not trying to grasp yet again.  It’s not working.

So I sit on a log, committing myself to staying there twenty minutes.  To pay attention and see what happens.

The breeze, cousin to the wind I’d experienced in Toronto a few days earlier, rises through the trees, their branches periodically spreading open, offering a glimpse of something beyond.

(Got 66 seconds? Sit on a log and look into the sky with me.  You may well enjoy what happens.)

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, She’asani Yisra’el

The Hebrew Yisrael can be translated as one who “struggles with God,” and so…

Blessed Are You, Source of all Peoples, who has made me a God-wrestler**

*with gratitude to Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits, and also Mary-Chapin Carpenter, whose version of The Bug I love best

**with gratitude to Rabbi Arthur Waskow, whose chose to entitle one of his books Godwrestling

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Let’s get mindful

Do you have a text with life lessons?  Perhaps a religious book, a declaration of human rights, or maybe a copy of Ted Williams’ “The Science of Hitting?”  Might there be merit in visiting it, and without feeling obliged to accept every word, explore what it has to offer as you go through your day?

Find a place to sit – outdoors, indoors, anywhere really – for twenty minutes if you’ve got it, less if you don’t.  Not to read or listen to music or text.  Just to see what happens.  Try to stay committed to the time you’ve allotted.  You might start feeling bored and want to get up.  But hang in there.  Without forcing things, without needing anything in particular to happen, you might become aware of something.  Worse comes to worst, you’ll get a break from doing. 

What the heck.  Go ahead and force something.  As you go through your day, see if by paying attention to everything around or inside you, you get in touch with the transcendent – perhaps in the form of God, perhaps in some other way.  If you see it, then lose it, try to forgive the universe, and be grateful for having seen it at all.  That’s the way it goes for most of us.

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part 1A – Sparrows and the City

(The latest in this series 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.)

May 7, 2015 – Toronto

Having mostly missed out on my Monday morning birdwatching plans (see the previous post), I decided to hang with the birds during lunch on Tuesday. 

Sitting in a courtyard bordered by a busy street, I tune into their presence.  A sparrow coasts to a landing in the grass, and moments later, the shadow of another flashes across the pavement. 

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A braver sparrow – a tough guy, city sparrow – begins foraging for crumbs near my feet, trotting on the tile and grass.  The chirping of the flock softens the din of the nearby traffic. 

In paying more attention to birds of late, I’ve noticed what a ubiquitous sub-culture they are, their song like the work of musical impressionists, punctuating the harsh urban environment with softness.

Looking more closely, I become aware of the down on the city sparrow’s neck, the nobility of its profile.  

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Later, when it’s time to leave, and because noticing begets noticing, I pay closer attention to the workings of my body.  It performs these actions dozens of times a day, but observing the intricate mechanics – the way my knees effortlessly unfold and straighten my body until my legs are carrying my weight – I am reminded not to take these most “basic” of motions for granted.

Brucha (blessing) time, if ever there were:

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloyheynu Melech Ha’Olam, ha’noten l’sechvi vinah l’havchin beyn yom u’veyn laylah

Blessed are You, Source of All That Is, who gives the rooster the ability to distinguish between day and night

(and the sparrow the ability to instinctively make its way in a world built for humans, and the human the ability to instincively rise into the world)

As I’m about to cross a side street, a pigeon swoops its length, its long arc bringing it close to the asphalt before it rises back into the sky.  Like a superhero.

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Let’s Get Mindful

If you can, give yourself the opportunity to be in the presence of birds, and just listen.  Perhaps for five minutes, perhaps longer.  Maybe while sitting outside for a while, maybe while walking on your way.  

You may be surprised with the variety of music you hear, but there’s no need to force it.  This doesn’t have to be a grand experience.  Just let it be what it is.  If you discover your attention has drifted elsewhere, gently bring it back.  If your mind is like mine and most everyone else’s, it will drift again.  In which case, when you notice this, gently draw it back once more.

You might want to recite the brucha, which for many has a way of sanctifying the experience:

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloyheynu Melech Ha’Olam, ha’noten l’sechvi vinah l’havchin beyn yom u’veyn layla

Blessed are You, Source of All That Is, who gives the rooster the ability to distinguish between day and night

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part 1 – Project Birdbrain

(The latest in this series 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.)

Though barely begun, the day has already stopped going according to plan.  Fortunately, there’s a beefy guy in a powder blue t-shirt dancing through the subway station, helping me believe in equanimity.

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Birdness in the form of duckness (Toronto’s High Park)

It had been my intention to ease myself into Monday morning with the blessing:

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloyheynu Melech Ha’Olam, ha’noten l’sechvi vinah l’havchin beyn yom u’veyn laylah

Blessed are You, Source of All That Is, who gives the rooster the ability to distinguish between day and night

I would give myself a leisurely stroll to the subway on a quiet street, attentive to morning birdsong, and then as best possible, other qualities of nature.

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Not exactly what I would have seen on the street, but you get the idea (High Park again)

But that’s before, as I prepare to leave home, I discover my glasses have gone into hiding.  In no time, blessing is replaced by curses.  My curses.  “Where the &**&^%!@ are my glasses!?” I keep repeating, as I check and double-check bookshelves, tables and, desperately, between pillows.  “Where the &**&^%!@ are my glasses!?”  Sometimes, to switch things up, I elaborate, “Where the &**&^%!@ are my &**&^%!@-ing glasses?!!?” 

By the time my glasses reveal themselves on the bathroom windowsill, I’m tight for time.  I’ll have to take the bus to the subway.  Charging along the sidewalk, I try to remember that hurrying, while making mindfulness more challenging, doesn’t have to preclude it.  I tune in to my breath, and listen for birdsong.  The most audible bird has a nattering, taunting sound. 

Nearing the stop, I focus on a different dimension of the brucha.  Though commonly rendered as “rooster,” the original meaning of the Hebrew sechvi is uncertain, sometimes translated as “mind.”

Blessed are You, Source of All That Is, who gives the mind the ability to distinguish between day and night

Just as the rooster responds to the morning light with a spontaneous, instinctive crow, so the human mind responds to the world, our birdbrains instinctively guiding actions we never notice.

The bus is full, but the driver opens the backdoor for some of us to squeeze in.  Perched on the edge of a step, my body simply knows how to keep upright, shifting weight to compensate for the lurching from side to side, or the sudden break at a crosswalk.  A guy below me has contorted himself, his arm raised and bent backwards to grip the pole behind him.  He might have needed to think it through when he first took the pose, but now his conscious mind has moved on to other things.

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Sometimes it’s the “blandness” that delivers the light and colour (High Park subway)

At the subway station, everything we are doing is routine.  And extraordinary. 

Dozens of us pouring in, dozens more flowing out, instinctively establishing laneways, not slowing down and never colliding.  It’s then that I see the beefy guy in the powder blue t-shirt sprinting up the stairs, spinning and sidling through the onrushing crowd with nimble grace, till he reaches the transfer dispenser, hits the button, collects the transfer he’d forgotten earlier, and merges back into the crowd charging down the stairs.  Someone ought to tell him how magnificent he is.

On the subway, using mindful attention as my alibi, I spy on the human tableau – the Asian woman with the Mao haircut, her lips pursed, eyes slightly crossed, listening animatedly to her travelling companion; the Latino guy with the Blue Jays cap, fury in his face, fingers pressed hard into the book he’s reading about a serial killer; the young woman I think of as Nubian, in turquoise dress and jean jacket, her headscarf purple and her music player hot pink; the dark woman in the khaki shirt, her eyes wistful and filmy, as if staring at something that will never come back.

The subway sounds its chimes, snapping me out of reverie, and I think about my birdbrain.  How, without my attention, it has been filtering information from other chimes at other stops, quietly monitoring where I am, looking out for my station.  Because noticing begets noticing, I follow my sustaining breath for a while, the rise and fall of my chest which most of the time I take for granted.

At St. George station, most passengers disembark.  Those who remain put on a synchronized subway performance, bodies swaying in unison, compensating for the subtle rocking of the train.

It all happens so effortlessly, one might wonder whether it’s worthy of a brucha at all.  But invisible to us and out of our minds are those who couldn’t have managed the subway stairs, or the elderly who avoid rush hour for fear of crowds, and later in the day will have to apply mindful effort to occupy a seat, and again to rise from it.

At Yonge and Bloor, as I change trains, a transit workers calls out, “Today is Monday, May the fourth.  May the fourth be with you.” 

“That’s awful,” I say, hoping my tone is conveying that I think she’s terrific.

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Finding nature where it lives (in this case, Montreal).

Near my office building, I’m faced with a large sign outside a construction zone for a condo: This city moves fast.  And these will too.  An effort to panic that part of my birdbrain worried about safety and shelter. 

A sparrow flies past, inches from my eyes, and lands in a parking lot.  And because noticing begets noticing, my ears attune to the birdsong in the air.  Looking up, I am unable to find the source of the melody, but catch sight of a seagull soaring above the rooftops, its flapping wings wide and shiny below grey clouds.

I recite the brucha again – Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloyheynu Melech Ha’Olam, ha’noten l’sechvi vinah l’havchin beyn yom u’veyn laylah– and step into work.

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Let’s Get Mindful

  • In the nicest of ways, periodically stop and ask yourself, “What have I just done?” Not as a criticism, though.  Anything but.  Rather, as an opportunity to consider the ways in which you navigate your way through life with ease, even when you don’t notice.  And because speech can be powerful, taking us from fleeting appreciation to heartfelt gratitude, you might want to say the brucha aloud:

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloyheynu Melech Ha’Olam, ha’noten l’sechvi vinah l’havchin beyn yom u’veyn laylah

Blessed are You, Source of All That Is, who gives the rooster the ability to distinguish between day and night

  • If you like the intention, but aren’t doing the practice, make an appointment. Tell yourself that for the next ten or thirty minutes, that as best possible, you will tune in to the things you wouldn’t normally notice that come to you so naturally.  If your mind drifts away, that’s simply because you’re human, so when you realize you’ve drifted elsewhere, gently bring your attention back and keep going.
  • Our days are filled with plans – and circumstance that get in their way. If that happens for you today, in spite of any quashed hopes, consider ways in which blessing remains before you.  You might even want to recite a blessing of your own creation to sanctify the moment.  It’s okay.  Say it quietly enough, and no one will think you’re a religious nut.
  • Keep in mind those who might have greater difficulty than you navigating through the day, perhaps because they’re physically or even socially disabled. Offer them compassion, a smile, acts of kindness subtle or large.

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Stumbling Through Blessing: The Prequel – Instant Karma Meets the Jewish Morning Blessings

May 12, 2015 – This is a brief winter’s tale, and a prelude to the series I’ll be starting next week 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.  It will be part spiritual reportage, and part suggested practice.  

January 23, 2015

C’est tout correct?” the square-shouldered woman with the blue-rimmed glasses asks. Is everything alright?

She has just stepped outside her building to see a complete stranger (me) standing in front, staring up at her roof.  Somehow, I don’t think explaining that it’s merely part of my spiritual practice would put her at ease.  I’ll have to find a more conventional response.

The practice I’ve taken on this month – one of my own devising as far as I know – is to set time aside each day to be mindful of one of the Birkot Hashachar, the Jewish morning blessings.  The fifteen blessings I’ve chosen are brief – one-liners, if you will – intended by the rabbis who conceived them two thousand years ago to be recited in the home.  Over time, they’ve come to be recited in synagogue instead, but I’m taking them to the streets and wherever else I go.  That’s the plan, at least.

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Today’s brucha, or blessing, is:

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Zokef Kfufim

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who straightens the bent

The question for me this morning was, how could I carry the brucha throughout the day?

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The answer was in my hamstrings.  For no sooner had I anticipated stepping outside, than they begin to tense up.  Montreal this January has been an unrelenting deep freeze, walking its sidewalks a slip-sliding workout over uneven patches of ice, some salted, most not, requiring a vigilant eye on the ground, it seems, before every step.

Perhaps this brucha can serve as a reminder to stop once in a while, raise my head, and take in my surroundings.

Before stepping into my meanderings, I sit down to some steaming fish tacos at a Mexican restaurant on Fairmount.  When the meal is done, while awaiting the bill, I reach for a book I’ve been enjoying.  Then, I remember the brucha, put the book back down, and look up instead.  Watching passersby through the window, I start doing Buddhist Metta, or loving-friendliness, practice.* A spiritual sharpshooter, I take benevolent aim at unsuspecting victims of my good will.  “Be happy,” I think in the direction of the guy negotiating his way over a snowbank, the weight of his grocery bags serving as ballast.  “Be at ease” I command the young woman rushing along the sidewalk, her hands clasped for some reason below her neck.  Others get “be healthy” and “be safe.”  The old woman inching along with her cane gets another “be happy.”  Then I notice the street itself, and how it slopes upward towards Mount Royal.  I’ve been here countless times, but somehow never seen this before.  The street’s become new to me.

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I leave the restaurant, round a corner, and am stopped by something that belongs only in the sappiest of movies – a hand-written sign stretching the entire length of the window in the doorway of a house, saying:

“I see curiosity in your eyes.  How beautiful!  I see in your gaze, someone who takes time to stop and rest for a moment.  Magnificent!  I simply want to offer you my most beautiful smile.  You have truly done me good.”

Talk about instant karma.

Further down the street, I’m about to pass a building, when I become distracted by ferns in an alcove above the entrance.  Having looked up a little, with the brucha in mind, I decide to look up a lot.  Just below the roofline, spanning its entire width, bricks are sticking out of the building at an unusual angle, and I find myself thinking about the architect who designed it, and the workers who built it, and their efforts to offer something distinctive.  They must mostly be gone by now, but they have left us this.

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That’s when the woman with the blue-framed glasses finds me.

“C’est tout correct?”

“Oui,” I respond.  “C’est tout correct.”  Everything is fine.  Then I point out the angled bricks.

She stands beside me and looks up.  “I’d never noticed them,” she says.  “That’s the way it used to be.  They used to care about things like that.  Not like today, when it’s all fast money.  Beauty is not so important to them anymore.”  Then, after a brief pause, she adds, “But truly, it’s the beauty in your soul that matters.”

She gives me a little history, explaining the condo used to be the Stuart factory; the source of all those sugar and apple pies I used to devour at metro stations.

“Thank you for the chat,” I say, as she starts to leave.

She turns to face me.  “No, no.  Thank you!  Thank you for making us aware of our own building!”

IMG_2020As the walk continues, so do my skyward glances.  In a surprisingly residential alleyway, I look up to notice a succession of weathered wooden planks jutting from the upper floors of the houses, presumably a defunct hoisting system, and one I’d never seen before.  Two birds shoot across the sky in tandem.  I quickly spin around to follow their flight, as they merge together, twist in the air, and disappear beyond the rooftops.

As I continue onto Marie-Anne Street, I suppose one could say that all I’ve experienced is some people-watching, a house with a weird sign, a conversation about bricks, and a bunch of rotted wooden planks.  But if that’s all it were, how come the desire I have to say hello to the stranger now approaching me is entirely irresistible?  When I do, she doesn’t say anything back, but there is a sparkle in her eyes and the trace of a smile on her mouth.  I’m pretty sure her day just got better.

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Let’s Get Mindful

  • Start your day with the intention of noticing when you’ve got your head pointed towards the ground, literally or metaphorically. Every so often, when you notice this…stop.  And lift your head up, and take in your surroundings.  Feel free to overdo it, and look into the sky.  Speech can be powerful, taking us from intention to commitment, or from fleeting appreciation to heartfelt gratitude, so you might want to say the brucha aloud:

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Zokef Kfufim

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who straightens the bent

  • If you like the intention, but still aren’t doing the practice, make an appointment. Tell yourself that for the next ten or thirty minutes, or at another assigned time, that you will periodically stop in your tracks, lift your head, and pay attention.
  • Is there someone you notice similarly trapped in habitual ways? Might there be something you can do to help them see what’s before them?
  • What about the more literally bent? Is there something you can do to lighten someone’s load that they might stand up straighter?

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*Loving-friendliness, or Metta, is a Buddhist practice wherein you wish well for others. When I was introduced to it a few years ago, my initial reaction was resistance.  What good could I be I to others simply by wishing them well, especially since they would never know?  But a teacher I respected told me that if I adopted the practice, it might not change other people, but it would certainly change me.  He was right and it did.  The practice does in fact make it easier for me to access patience, and sometimes even kindness and open-heartedness, benefitting me, others, and surely, the lives of those they touch.

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