Category Archives: Mindfulness

Sometimes the camera allows me pay more attention. Not an act of capturing the moment, but being closer to it. Sometimes it’s the reverse, but that’s another story…

Horses and horses and ducks (oh, my) on Revelation Road: notes from pilgrimage in uneasy times

(This blog series focuses on pilgrimage through the counting of the Omer, marking the seven-week passage from the Jewish holidays of Passover to Shavuot, in which one works each week with different traits both human and Divine. You’ll find more context in the first post in this series. Also, please excuse the Omer-to-blog lag; this exploration of tiferet, or balance, covers the period April 23-30. I think it would be fair to say, though, that there’s no expiration date for the matters at hand.)

I’ve been perched a while on my secluded rock in the ravine, spending time amidst water, wind, trees, light.

Suddenly, a frantic flapping of wings – a couple of ducks putting on reverse thrusters as they land with a splash in the stream beside me.

I think about going for my camera, but don’t want to make any sudden moves, as I’ve decided I’m the Jane Goodall of omer-counters, a quiet presence around whom the wildlife feel unthreatened.  (Or maybe the urban experience of these waterfowl is such that they’re accustomed and unfrightened by humans, but since this is not my preferred thought, I go back to being Goodall.) 

After a short while, one of them, the more colourful, coasts over closer to me, concentric circles emanating outwards.

“Beautiful,” I think.  “Now, the camera.”

Tiferet, though, has me pause a moment.

In this third week of the counting of the omer, the overarching trait with which one works is tiferet, variously translated as splendour, truth, and balance.  One way in which balance comes into the picture is to find the right proportion of the first two week’s practices – how much open-hearted, chesed (loving-kindness) to extend, and how much gevurah (boundary-making) to employ. 

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Winter 2007 – I’m aboard the Southwest Chief, the train that runs from Los Angeles to Chicago.  I’ve been travelling in stages, and got on about a half hour ago in Raton, New Mexico. 

As always, I’d headed to the viewing car and its floor-to-ceiling windows. 

As we pass through grazing and ranch land, I hear a gasp and a “wow!” from the other side.  I stand up to see a horse galloping alongside the train, its combination of grace and speed providing a thrill of a kind I’ve never known.  I reach back to my seat, grab my camera, take off the lens cover, and turn back. 

The horse is gone. 

I will think often of this moment, regretting that I tried to capture rather than live it.

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Spring 2017 – I am following the arrows, walking the Camino Portuges, the pilgrimage route that runs from Portugal to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. 

I’ve chosen the coastal route, carrying my backpack from village-to-village, the Atlantic Ocean on my left, waves crashing against rocks, locals calling out, “Buen Camino!” 

Somewhere between Matosinhos and Vila Cha I spot a group of young equestrians.  Still on their mounts, most are watching a trio of classmates at the far end of the beach.  Suddenly, their horses are in motion, kicking up sand, hooves a blur of speed.  As they get closer, I think of my camera.  And then, I think of the Southwest Chief, and leave the camera alone so I can simply enjoy the gift of watching them race past, the horses beating out thunder on the ground, the blue-green ocean for a backdrop. 

The trio come to a stop and turn around.  For another charge along the shore?  “Okay,” I tell myself.  “The camera can come out.  But set it up so that if the moment comes, you’re not experiencing it through a viewfinder.”  The moment does come. 

The picture I take is slightly out of focus. The delight of the moment is not.

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In the ravine, I think of chesed as the voice that says, “Yes, take the picture.  Capture the moment.  Keep it for yourself, share and show it off to others.”  While gevurah says, “Not so fast.  These moments come once.  Try to capture them and they’re gone; don’t participate from the sidelines.” 

When the duck drifts my way, tiferet lets chesed and gevurah have their say, then finds a middle path, just as it did on the Camino.  First, be here, in case here goes away.  Breathe in this gift, and breathe it in again.  And then, if it lasts, get out your camera and click.  Unlike the Camino, though, this time my subject is slow-moving, and I could take dozens of pictures till I get the perfect shot.

Gevurah says, “Remember.  You’re Goodall.  Not Ansel Adams.”

Even chesed has me let go of the camera, saying, “Listen to your body.  Your body doesn’t want to work that hard.  It just wants to be here.”

Sometimes, I guess, tiferet has to negotiate between chesed and gevurah, and other times it lets them find their own path to the same destination.

So a couple more pics, and the technology is put aside.  I hang out with the ducks for some time, until a rambunctious golden retriever charges into the water and sends them flapping away.

And with tiferet’s assistance, I am full, still enjoying this opportunity to breath easy.

Your turn…

How about you? What’s your experience of late or of life in finding that sweet spot where tiferet finds harmony between chesed or loving-kindness and gevurah or boundary-making? Or how have you witnessed it in others? Got advice or insights you would care to offer?

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Filed under counting the omer, Mindfulness

Looking for Love on Revelation Road: notes from pilgrimage in uneasy times

(As with my previous series on the Jewish Morning Blessings, or Birkot HaShachar, it’s my hope that the spiritual reportage and practices I describe in this new set of posts will be of value to you whether you’re Jewish or not, a believer, atheist or agnostic, as we navigate these unsettling times.  As you’ll see, there’s an invitation at the end to offer your own insights and experience. I’d be delighted if you did.)

As I descend into the ravine, I discover that my side of the path is covered with mud and a runner is approaching.  A matter so benign, I’d have given it no attention a month ago.  But now, of course, everything is different.

The calculations begin.

Maybe I should keep going straight, and resign myself to mud-slopped feet.  Or maybe I can angle slightly towards the runner, and in the way others seem to have, tell myself that where six feet of distance isn’t feasible, four is good enough.

Or maybe there’s another option.  Maybe I can act from a place of chesed [to hear the word pronounce, listen to Warlax’s version here], or loving-kindness, not yet knowing of the reward that awaits, the tears that will come, and how much I yearn for them.

And maybe what I’m exploring will also hold value for you, regardless of your religion or spiritual practice or absence of either, in this upside-down, sideways-spinning time.

But first, a little – and not too much, I promise – theology.  And then it’s back to the runner and my tears.

By the Jewish calendar, we are now in the early stages of the counting of the Omer, a seven-week process in which one numbers off each day between the Jewish pilgrimage festivals of Passover and Shavuot, a passage taking one from the constriction of slavery in Egypt through the expansiveness of freedom, and ultimately to the revelation of Torah (or “teaching”) at Mount Sinai.

Somewhere in the 16th or 17th centuries, Jewish mystics, or Kabbalists, mapped the counting of the Omer to their schema for God, who they understood to possess ten key attributes, the “lower” seven of which mirror more human qualities. They assigned each of these characteristics to one of the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot,* so that people could give attention to them, and cultivate those qualities within themselves.

It’s a practice that continues today, and one I’ve done in the past.  But we’re in a new world now, and I wonder what it will be like this year to move from Passover to Shavuot, giving attention to each of these attributes, and discover what will be revealed at the end of Revelation Road.

To be sure, I approach this pilgrimage from a place of privilege.  Neither I nor those I love have to this point been felled by the pandemic.  I’m still earning a paycheque, and able to work from the comfort of home rather than by tending to the visibly ill or by bagging groceries for asymptomatic carriers. But even the privileged are suffering.  Suffering from fear for the world’s future and the safety of the most vulnerable.  Suffering from deprivation of the physical company we crave, and missing the activities that enliven us most, not knowing how or when they will be part of our lives again.  And maybe most of all, we are suffering from having the curtain pulled from behind the illusion that we know what tomorrow holds.

The quality assigned to the first week of the Omer, laying the groundwork for all the weeks to follow, is chesed, variously translated as loving-kindness, loving connection, and generosity.

So when I step outside for a walk, I decide to give chesed attention as best I’m able – whether I’m its source, its recipient, or simply its witness.

I do so, reluctantly accepting it will be without the long stretches of green space for which I yearn.  But the beautifully landscaped cemetery near my home has been closed because of insufficient physical distancing.  And though it helps that there’s a small park nearby where I now go for perambulations through its cluster of trees and the fallow outfield grass of a baseball diamond, I’m yearning for a good, long amble.  So I settle for more of an urban walk, stepping into the zig-zag flow of people getting away from one another.  Except for those who don’t.  “What part of six feet don’t you understand?” I want to chide them, chesed eluding me. 

The sun.

Sunlight is slanting onto the street between buildings, its rays offering warmth to my bones that I hadn’t realized they craved. Chesed to the weary.  And a compass by which to direct myself.  Any road I can walk down that directs me to the sun without my having to be on top of other people is the road I want.

Soon, surprisingly soon, the sun delivers me – could it be? – to a pathway into a ravine.

“Don’t mess with me now,” I think.

When the cemetery closed, I thought of taking recourse to the nearby ravines, but the only way in that came to mind were long stairwells only four feet wide or so.  I tried making the case as to why that would be okay – I could turn my back to others if we got close, other people were surely using them, too – but every reason I came up with felt like a justification for my pleasure being more important than others’ well-being, and so I accepted that the ravines would have to wait.

But now, having discovered this pathway, I place one foot after the other and take its measure.  Eleven and a half shoe lengths wide.  Almost ten feet.  If I keep to my side and they keep to theirs, we’re in business.

Suddenly, I’m amidst tall trees and bare branches just starting to bud, carpets of discarded leaves, occasional evergreens a shining contrast to the brown of early spring. 

But as I descend, I discover that that my side of the path is mudded over, and a runner is approaching.

And so, quick calculation.  Do I walk into the mud?  Do I angle slightly in the runner’s direction?  I opt instead for something radical. 

I stop. 

No striving or striding.  I just slide over as far as I can to the side, and stop. 

The intention is to ensure, as best I can, her well-being and mine, and that of everyone we meet.  I can’t say that it’s chesed that’s governed this decision; stepping aside and stopping is something I’ve been doing since before the counting of the Omer.  But it’s helpful to note all the same that the distance I and others have been giving one another these past several weeks is absolutely an act of love.  And even more helpful is the act of stopping, because here, at the side of this path, in this stillness, I really am where I am, tuning in to the trills and tropes of birdsong from either side, the cool of the breeze, the low-grade heat from the sun, its light glistening and giving texture to the ruts in the mud.  We are only now migrating out of the “ugly” parts of the spring, and every bit of this is a blessing.

The runner has passed and I could continue along.  But having stopped, I’ve spotted a slab of rock down by the stream, and it’s clear that that’s exactly where I want to be.  It’s a sharp descent, but falling towards a couple of trees and grabbing their trunks keeps me from tumbling into the muck. I work my way to the rock surrounded by mud and water, perching where no one can approach.  It’s almost too beautiful to bear; the shimmering waters at my feet turning the reflection of the trees into impressionist art, the rippling waters ahead and the swirling waters behind curving downstream, the patch of green on the other bank hinting at the ripening of spring, the soothing and continuous sounds of water pouring into the stream, the tableau of bare, brown trees. 

I could cry.  So I do.

This, too, is chesed.  A reassurance that it will be alright.  An absurd thought almost, and one I would never impose on those enduring physical suffering or loss.  But I am sitting in eternity right now, and know that whatever becomes of it all, it will be alright.  The words ahava rabah ahavtanu come to mind.  From one of Judaism’s central prayers.  With a great love, You love us.

Because my need for chesed is irrefutably insatiable at this time, I have returned to the rock four days running.  A couple of days ago, I spotted an improvised footbridge running across the stream, the sight of which would normally have lifted my spirits, but in these fearful days, generates a war plan instead we have to knock that thing down before somebody comes from the other side!  More spiritual work to do, more chesed to access.  But that’s nothing new; I already knew I was a work in progress.

Each day I perch on the rock, take in the waters, tear up, get bored, make myself stay, fall in love with nature again, get bored, stay some more.  At the fifteen-minute mark, I wonder how much longer I need to stay.  At eighteen minutes, I wonder where the time went.

And each and every day, my walk to and from the rock has allowed me to extend, receive or simply witness chesed

I witnessed it when I noticed that the photo lab I pass on the way has three large and bright signs out, saying “We’re all in this together!”

I received it when physical distancing took me into the road, only realizing once I was back on the sidewalk that I had been trailed by a driver, the sound of whose car had been muffled by fierce winds.  Rather than honk me aside, she had simply slowed down until I was out of harm’s way.

And I offered it when I noticed the homeless guy on the street corner.  He’s surprisingly cheerful, singing with what might be a well-trained voice, and holding a weathered cardboard cup.  I don’t want to get close to him. What I do want is an exemption from loving-kindness.  After all, didn’t I make a donation just last week to Ve’ahavta, the not-for-profit that serves the city’s street people?  I know.  I’ll tell him to walk all the way downtown so they can look after him.  But there’s an alternative that he can actually put to use. “I’m keeping my distance from people,” I call to him, as I pull the only kind of cash I’ve got, an American twenty, out my wallet, “but I’m putting this down here for you.”  As I anchor the bill below a construction pylon, he tells me, now that everything’s sinking in, he’s becoming fearful that even the very coffee cup he’s holding could be a danger to him.  “Be safe, pal,” I say.  “Yeah, you too!” he says.

And I’ve shared chesed, too, enjoying the benefit of the connection it engenders, as I do the dance with a neighbour I’ve never met before. As we get closer, I win the race to the road by a millisecond, so he gets the high ground of the sidewalk.  “It’s better that way,” he says.  “You’ll see the car that’s about to hit you.  I’d only hear it.”

Entering my building, the door won’t open.  I tug at it twice, then thrice.  The fob isn’t working, but the key does.  The maintenance woman inside has words for me.  “Don’t be banging on the door like that!” she shouts.  “If it’s not working, you’re only making it worse!”  “Fair enough,” I say, though I resent being shouted at.  Scowling, she makes room for me, and I pass.  Chugging up the stairs, my resentment in tow, I think about how stressful her job and the rest of her life might be, and I do Buddhist metta or loving-kindness practice, wishing her safety, happiness, good health, and ease. When I do this for people who I find difficult, the thought they might have to endure ill-health changes everything.  By the time I reach my apartment and catch my breath, my resentment is gone.

It could come back, of course.  As could any of a number of other grievances with the world.

Which is why regularly topping up on chesed seems like a good idea right about now.

* they also assigned one of the attributes to each of the seven days within the week, but that’s not a part of the practice on which I’ll be focusing in this series

Sneak preview: beginning Thursday night, April 16, the attribute we’ll be working with is gevurah, variously translated as strength, judgment, discernment, and discipline. But keep your attention on chesed as long as you wish. The world can always use more loving-kindness.

Your turn…

Now how about you? Have you experienced chesed (loving-kindness, loving connection, generosity) in these trying times? In what ways have you received, offered or witnessed it? Is there advice you would care to offer to others about how to access it? Any thoughts on your mind are welcome below.

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Known Regrets, Unknown Paths: field notes from Tashlich

It had been some years since I’d participated in tashlich (“casting away”), the ritual commonly performed on Rosh Hashanah, in which one scatters breadcrumbs into flowing water, symbolically letting go of transgressions from the year past.

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Still in the remedial group, I came late to the endeavour, only taking to the task today – but in my defense, with a degree of forethought and intentionality, filling up three small vials with breadcrumbs, each for a specific set of regrets about the year gone by and a commitment to try to do better in the year ahead.  And setting out with a friend.

Then, standing over a riverlet coursing its way through a ravine, I opened the vials, considering my wrongs and my rights, and surrendering the breadcrumbs one at a time to their journeys.  When the first few moved rapidly through the water, then got stuck at a rock, I started to game the system, eliminating the middleman and sending three-point shots to the more cooperative patches of waters.  I thought about crossing the stream and setting the stuck morsels free, but instead trusted that sooner or later, they would be released from where they were trapped, and so would I. 

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(Lest I take credit where it’s not deserved, this one was not taken by me.)

While closer to me, other pieces of bread also had their passage blocked by a wide stone, but no sooner were they seemingly tethered  for life to stuckness, then they suddenly broke free,  surging over the stone and onward, quickly disappearing from view.

And I recalled one of my teachers at a Buddhist retreat saying, “You have no idea where you are on the path.”

L’shana Tova.  A good year to us all.

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Postcards from Here: visiting radical amazement

(a series on paying attention to what’s right in front of me)

It’s been on my mind to “upgrade” from my current camera, which has served me exceedingly well the past six or seven years to a new one (performs better in low light, indoors, etc. etc.).  I may well give in.  But this past week, whenever I thought about going into a store and checking it out, I found myself preferring instead to be in the street with my tried-and-true.

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Sunday: Montreal metro

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Skylight, Gare Centrale (Central train station), Montreal…might not have seen it had it not been for a two-hour delay in departure…sometimes we need to be forced to notice….I do, anyway

“Just as we are commanded to love man, we are also called upon to be sensitive to the grandeur of God’s creation.

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Tuesday in Toronto

“We are infatuated with our great technological achievements; we have forgotten the mystery of being, of being alive.

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Wednesday,: momentary siesta for Bay Street

“We have lost our sense of wonder, our sense of radical amazement at sheer being.”

“Choose Life,” Abraham Joshua Heschel*

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Thursday

(spoiler alert: I think I’ll keep an eye out for colour for the next post)

* Thank you, Rabbi Aviva Goldberg for putting Heschel’s reflections on technology and wonder in front of Congregation Shir Libeynu often enough that they’ve taken up residence in my RAM, not to mention my mind.

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Postcards from Here: plus some sapling talk

These days, my writing effort is going into work on a book (assuming I can get out of my own way, and stay there).  But I also want to stay on the blog.  So with your permission, let me introduce a new series I’m calling Postcards from Here.

With it, I’ll endeavour to take time to see what’s before me in the day-to-day, and then, put it before you.  And  if a worthwhile teaching comes to mind – my own or one that merits plagiarizing – I may try to slip it in when you’re not looking.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll actually heed my own lessons.

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Monday in Toronto

 

 

And with that, here are some postcards from last week..

 

 

 

 

 

 

“If you are have a sapling in your hand and someone tells you the Messiah has arrived… 

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Tuesday

…first plant the sapling and then go out to welcome the Messiah.”

(Avot d’ Rabbi Natan)

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more Tuesday

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hey there, Wednesday

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Thursday in Montreal

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and Friday

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

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

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From an alleyway in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood

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

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

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

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Amused in Montreal

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

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

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

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

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

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Moon over Colorado

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

So…

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

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

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

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

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

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                                                                                                                                                                                Decarie Expressway, Montreal

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

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

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Edward Hopper meets Decarie?

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

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

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Let’s Get Mindful

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

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

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

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

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Between Stumblings – Picturing Joy

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

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

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

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

Also, how about a brucah (blessing)?

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

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

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Share & Subscribe

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

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

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part 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 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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…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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Filed under Birkot HaShachar, Isamui Noguchi, Mindfulness, New York City, Noguchi Museum, Travel Writing, Uncategorized

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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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. 

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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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Low Contrast and Rumours of High-Mindedness

If I were higher-minded, this would be about gratitude to the Source of all for, as Jewish liturgy puts it, mashiv ha’ruach umorid hagashem – causing the wind to blow and rain to fall. 

And while I suppose the sustenance of this planet deserves some attention, this is really about how an overcast sky can get rid of the high contrast which complicates picture-taking in alleyways and narrow streets, and also bring out some colour.

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 And now that show-and-tell is over, let’s try some high-mindedness:

Baruch atah adonay, mechayey kol chai

Blessed are you, Source of all, who gives and renews life

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Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust: Part Seven – The Power of Here

August 26, 2014

The posts in this “Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust” series are self-contained, but by way of background…these are “field notes” of my efforts to walk in a mindful way westward from my Mile End, Montreal apartment until I reach Rivière-des-Prairies.

The final leg of my trek from Mile End to Rivière-des-Prairies took me through the Bois-de-Liesse Nature Park.  When I arrived at the riverbank, there was a damp and earthy pungency in the air that made me want to burrow into the muck and settle there for years. 

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There were also mosquitoes that made me want to slap myself silly and take them down.  Instead, though, I blew them off my arms and flicked them from my neck as gently as I could, reminding myself that pissing me off is not their only sacred role in the universe.  I recited the blessing with which I celebrate the intricacy of nature:

Baruch atah adonay, eloheynu melech ha’olam, hanoten lasechvi vinah lehavchin beyn yom uveyn laylah

Blessed are You, The Provident, who gives the bird of dawn discernment to tell day from night

It didn’t reorient my relationship to the mosquitoes as much as I would have liked, but at least I tried.  Just as I tried to and sometimes found aesthetic appeal in the concrete crossings through which the park took me.

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Looking back, these seven walks were a source of constant astonishment to me.  While most Montrealers would regard rambling from Mile End to the Rivière-des-Prairies to be a major expedition, the truth is it was only about sixteen kilometres (ten miles).  I needed several stages because I’m a slow walker, spent a lot of time sitting and reflecting, and went two or three hours at a time, but most of us could do it in a single day with modest effort.

Still, these Montrealers are onto something, because in that single day, one would travel through many worlds – a neighbourhood of walk-ups, two upper-middle-class communities, nondescript commercial streets, a soothing cemetery, a magnificently artistic subway station, concrete and asphalt deserts, over and below highways, unexpected woods beside an unexpected library, and an equally surprising and genteel community of trailer homes in the shadow of an airport.  One would encounter Hasidic Jews and hipsters, suffering homeless and kind police officers.  Just as I went from ebullience to tedium, despair to relief, amusement to envy, music to silence. 

Which brings me to the power of here.  Intellectually, there was nothing astonishing in these walks (except perhaps the subway steps – see Part Four in this series).  Everybody knows there are noisy highways beside quiet neighbourhoods, and that mind states go back and forth between pleasant and unpleasant.  But while my mind may have known there was a river out there, until I came within whiffing distance of the muck, my body was convinced when amidst the concrete that it lived in a world of concrete, and was astonished to discover anything else.  Just as I am prone, when in unhappy states of mind, to disbelieve I will feel any other way.  Which is one of the reasons I meditate.  More on that later, perhaps.

In the meantime, I highly recommend pointing your compass in one direction or another, and seeing where it takes you.

Next up: a post about one of the best chance encounters (or was it?) I’ve had in a long time.

 

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Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust: Part Six – Journey into a Desert Sentinel

The posts in this “Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust” series are self-contained, but by way of background…these are “field notes” of my efforts to walk in a mindful way westward from my Mile End, Montreal apartment until I reach Rivière-des-Prairies.

August 25, 2014

If you did a search on the 4,652 most interesting walks in Montreal, today’s industrial meanderings probably wouldn’t make the cut.   I’ve resorted to consulting maps to assure myself that there really will be a river on the other side of all this.

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Then I recall a teacher’s suggestion that we regard street signs we encounter during the course of the day as wisdom offerings.  So when a delivery truck passes, bearing the slogan, “everywhere you want to be,” I insert an ellipsis (“everywhere….you want to be”) and find myself agreeing with the truck.  No matter where I go, I do want to be present.

With that intention in mind, when an eighteen-wheeler passes on Poirier Boulevard, I notice that my knees and ears have, if only subtly, prepared for the ground to shake and for the truck to rattle, and that they are disoriented when this doesn’t happen.  I feel a rush of excitement when airplanes – mammoth, with blazing velocity – screech into descent at nearby Trudeau Airport.  I’d rather not be excited, given my concerns about air travel and the environment, but it is probably good and useful to know when something that concerns me also thrills me.

I pass by ostensibly non-distinctive roadside scrub

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and looking closer, become aware of what it reveals about the direction of the prevailing winds.

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Even in this industrial desert – or maybe especially in this industrial desert – what nature has to offer is a blessing.  When I take refuge in the shade of a tree, I recite a blessing which literally speaks of roosters, but which might fairly be applied to all gifts of nature

Baruch atah adonay, eloheynu melech ha’olam, hanoten lasechvi vinah lehavchin beyn yom uveyn laylah

Blessed are You, The Provident, who gives the bird of dawn discernment to tell day from night

The more I walk among the power line towers

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the more they seem to have the deportment of monster movie sentinels.

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Though I have passed tens of thousands in my lifetime, it’s never occurred to me to crawl into one.  Until now.

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And somewhere along the way, I remember to recite the Asher Yatzar, the expression of gratitude for the intricate workings of the body.*

And, oh yes, now and again I also remember to look at the sky.

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*For those unfamiliar with the Asher Yatzar blessing, and who might like to see it in Hebrew or with transliteration, you should be able to search for it easily enough online.  Since translations might be harder to find, here’s an adaptation of one from Kol Haneshamah, the Jewish Reconstructionist movement’s siddur (prayer book),

Blessed are You, The Architect, who shaped the human being with wisdom, making for us all the openings and vessels of the body.  It is revealed and known before Your Glory that if one of these passage-ways be open when it should be closed, or blocked when it should be free, one could not stay alive or stand before You.  Blessed are You, The Miraculous, the wondrous healer of all flesh.

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Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust: Part Five – Midday at the Oasis

The posts in this “Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust” series are self-contained, but by way of background…these are “field notes” of my efforts to walk in a mindful way westward from my Mile End, Montreal apartment until I reach Rivière-des-Prairies.

August 20, 2014

The trouble started when I began to sniff an oasis.

Although I am enjoying the fact of this walk, still entertained by the idea of proceeding west to Rivière-des-Prairies and endeavouring to be present with whatever arises, today’s details aren’t doing much for me.  

There have been moments, of course.  For instance, the pleasure of witnessing a couple of teenage girls sitting on a high school bench, one of them – the one with the curly hair – laughing with such abandon that her feet leave the ground as she almost tumbles backwards.  And I get to play peek-a-boo with a suspicious resident spying on me through her living room window, her head peering around the curtain.  I wave and smile.  Caught in the act, she tepidly waves back.  Amidst a neighbourhood where the homes tend towards uniformity, and the prevailing noise is that of a lawn mower and the drone of traffic from Cote Vertu, I occasionally encounter declarations of individuality:

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But mostly, the dominant features of today’s walk have been concrete and asphalt, accelerating the intensity of the hot and humid weather (this happened in August, remember), and all I really want to do is fulfill my commitment of walking for three hours and be on my way.  Then I come across this:

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The Bibliothèque du Boisé is what a library should be; quiet and airy, its patrons brown and black, Caucasian and Asian.  A father is reading a newspaper, his daughters on either side of him, writing in copybooks.  A teenage girl leans over Electronics for Dummies.  There are teak ceilings and tall windows facing, surprisingly, woods!

I’ve earned this oasis, I tell myself. 

Almost as soon as I start out through the woods, the path I’m on leads to a construction site, beside which teenage boys are kicking around a ball and bouncing Frisbees off the side of a building.  I turn back to the woods, and construction noise follows.  This is too urban.  Or maybe it’s not urban enough.  That’s it.  That’s the problem with this place.  It’s too in-between.  And even worse, it’s too hot.  Then, almost in spite of myself, I recall a passage from Bhante Gunaratana’s Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness:

“We are continually confronted by people and conditions we wish did not exist…Even something we cannot control, like the weather, makes us dissatisfied.  At the Bhavana Society in West Virginia where I teach, people complain when it is hot and sticky.  But they also complain when it is rainy and cool.  When it is dry, they complain that their skin or their sinuses are affected.  When it is cold, they complain because they fear they will slip on the ice.  And when the weather is perfect, they complain that they do not have enough time to enjoy it!”

With Gunaratana’s admonition in mind, and aided and abetted by the camera in my hands, I remember to take time off from my displeasure to notice things:

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To conclude the day’s sojourn, I sit down with the intention of mindfully eating a couple of mandarin oranges.  I deposit a piece in my mouth, my tongue watering with anticipation.  I take a bite and my face goes sour.  The mandarins are mostly dry on the surface, and more watery than flavourful inside, and I want to toss them.  Instead, I force myself to say a blessing:

Baruch atah adonay, eloheynu mel’ech ha’olam, sh’asah li kol tzarki

Blessed are you, The Generous, our God, life of all the worlds, who acts for all my needs

And it becomes easier for me to remember that this food for which I have such disdain would be manna for most people on this planet.

I sit, and breathe, and try to live happily with hot and humid.

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Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust: Part Four & a half – Who Give Strength to the Weary

The posts in this “Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust” series are self-contained, but by way of background…these are “field notes” of my efforts to walk in a mindful way westward from my Mile End, Montreal apartment until I reach Rivière-des-Prairies.

 August 19, 2014

When I eventually leave the du College subway (see the previous post for what kept me so entranced there), I notice a man sitting on a bench, his purple shirt soiled and tattered, long beard in no better shape, knee wrapped in a thick plastic brace. I offer a smile, but he is staring worriedly into the middle distance.

A police cruiser stops in front of him.  The officer riding shotgun, a blonde policewoman with an uncreased forehead and a green plastic wristband, leans out the window.  “I like your sandals,” she says.  She and the man fall into familiar conversation, a relaxed smile spreading across his face, as he is transformed from a lonely hermit to a man who has friends.

Before I know it, I am whispering one of the Jewish morning blessings.

Baruch atah adonay, eloheynu melech ha’olam, hanoten laya’ef ko’ach

Blessed are you, Renewing One, who gives strength to the weary

Public piano (and grocery cart) at Parc Beaudet in St. Laurent, just outside the du College station

Public piano (and accompanying grocery cart) at Parc Beaudet in St. Laurent, just outside the du College station

At the end of today’s walk, at Côte-Vertu Boulevard, I get to watch a woman with thick arms trying to inch her pick-up out of a side street.  Realizing she won’t be able to get onto the busy road for a while, she backs up to make things easier for pedestrians.  The person who benefits most from being spared an unwanted detour onto the street doesn’t thank or even seem to notice her.  He’s an elderly man, unsteady, and leaning desperately on his cane; it’s all he can do to stay on his feet as he labours along, pain tightening his face.  The driver, being screened by taller, hardier pedestrians, doesn’t appear to know how much good she’s done him.  But you and I do.

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Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust: Part Three – The Life That Didn’t Get Away

August 18, 2014

The posts in this “Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust” series are self-contained, but by way of background…they are “field notes” of my efforts to walk in a mindful way westward from my Mile End, Montreal apartment until reaching Rivière-des-Prairies.

This is the one about how I end up crying on a park bench – with friends, family and drugstore cashiers benefitting as a result.

Yesterday’s walk concluded with my arriving in the Town of Mount Royal, the upper-middle-class neighbourhood in which I grew up.  I hadn’t set foot here in twenty-five years, and was quickly dizzy with disorientation – old streets, new condos, memories crashing into the unrecognizable, mediated by the semi-familiar.

“How could I have needed a street sign to tell me this is Graham Boulevard?  I must have walked this stretch hundreds of times.  That’s the train station?  When did it become a gourmet pizza place?  When did they put up safety fences to keep jumpers from going off the bridge?”

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I met an Iranian man, an immigrant living on the West Island, who had just given himself a tour.  “So beautiful,” he said, his face serene.  For billions around the world, this would be paradise.  Quiet, leafy streets, big houses, wide green lawns, even unobstructed views of the sky thanks to power lines having been sunk below ground.

But I didn’t want to come here yesterday, nor do I want to be here now. 

Perhaps my instincts said to walk west, because I might otherwise have avoided this.  No other place subjects me to such a potent mix of nostalgia and wistfulness.  Even as a teen, I was wistful here, and the closer I’ve come the last couple of days, the harder I’ve had to work to subdue a voice saying “This is the life that got away.  The life you let get away.”

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So when the guy in the vintage convertible pulls up alongside, seeming to want me to look at him with envy, I am unable to accommodate him, because my mind is focused on a high school classmate who has gone on to enjoy a successful public life, and who I am now wishing private ennui.  Just as, a few minutes earlier, seeing a man not much older than me, his back hunched, his face worn and puffy, I told myself this was the price he was paying for choosing to acquire the means to live here.  I am not proud of myself, but this pettiness, this envy and judgement, are my most ready responses to the voice, however ineffectual.

I try detachment.  With my notebook in hand, I think of myself as an anthropologist studying suburban wonderlands. 

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I seek out points of ease.  A black kid glides by on a scooter, clearly at home.  When I was growing up here, he would have been a spectacle.  I smile, glad his father settled down here instead of me.  I feel warmth towards the old woman getting around with a walker, and wave a friendly thank you to the driver of a loud Porsche who’s been patiently waiting for me to realize he’s giving me right of way. 

All the while, my stomach is in knots.

I had committed to sitting for thirty minutes when I got to the hour-and-a-half mark of the walk.  When that time comes, it’s at a small park where I am stung with the memory of a beautiful girl who became a beautiful woman, and I wonder what might just have been had I not backed away from the opening she gave me in our post-high school years. Feeling the way this strengthens the voice, I try to remind myself of the independence in which I often delight, the ways in which I’ve lived on my own terms, while still giving ease to others.  But the voice won’t have it, and it starts pummelling.  “You let this get away.  You could have been married.  You could have had children.  You took too many wrong turns, ran yourself into too many dead ends.  You’ve squandered your talents and wasted precious time chasing something you can’t even name.”

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I sit on a bench, and do the only thing possible.  I go to pieces, crying with stomach heaving, streams of tears, full-bodied, decidedly unmanly.  It feels like it could go on for hours.

It lasts five minutes.  Maybe eight.  And then the tears are done.

I feel my brow soften, my teeth unclench.  I feel my breath.  The breath that’s always there, no matter what.  I do a blessing practice, silently wishing peace, joy, loving kindness and compassion to passersby – the pony-tailed teenage girls jogging around the park; the driver cruising by, lazily hanging his arm out the window; the cyclist with the lime green shorts, a hoodie over his helmet.  And myself.  I offer these blessings to myself because, right now, I can use them too.*  The world grows bigger as I tune into the sounds of trucks on the nearby highway and the engines of descending planes.  I sit at ease with the not knowing.  Who can say?  Maybe I would have been happier with a family, greater achievement, a house (though not in this neighbourhood, where I would surely feel like an imposter).  Maybe not.  I don’t know.  I can’t know.  The only thing about which I can be certain is that, at this moment, I’m not nearly as interested in the life that didn’t happen as I am in the one before me. 

And there’s something else I know.  I have subdued the voice – not by restraining it, but rather, by letting it spend its energy.  It hasn’t lost its power entirely, but it’s so depleted, I almost feel sorry for it.  I needn’t, I suppose.  It’s pretty resilient, and we’re bound to have another bout – or at least an animated conversation or two – in the future.  But in the meantime, its hold over me is that much more diminished, and I am that much more liberated from unnecessary resentments and judgements, of myself and others, and that much better able to bring attentiveness, patience and good-heartedness to the people in my life.  And to begin exchanges with drugstore cashiers by taking a moment to look at them, and ask “How are you?”

As for that thing I can’t quite name, it seems I’m getting closer all the time.

An office building at the periphery of Town of Mount Royal

An office building at the periphery of Town of Mount Royal

*For those unfamiliar with blessing or Buddhist metta (loving friendliness) practices, they are likely to seem absurd. What could be the point of extending good wishes to complete strangers?  This is the kind of scepticism I brought to the practice when I started it about two years ago.  It’s hard to remain sceptical, though, when it turns out to have been transformative.  I don’t say such things lightly, but the practice makes me that much more open-hearted, patient with myself, and patient with others.  As one of my teachers put it, “You may not be changing others, but you’re changing yourself.” Which, in turn, makes for happier others.

 

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Seeing More, Talking Less

Apparently I haven’t exhausted the world’s supply of red…

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…and then there’s this other colour, too…Image

I could say more, but at this point, I’ll just quote Psalm 65:2. 

“For You, silence is praise.”

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