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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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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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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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 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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Share & Subscribe & Comment

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

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

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

4 Comments

Filed under Birkot HaShachar, Isamui Noguchi, Mindfulness, New York City, Noguchi Museum, Travel Writing, Uncategorized