Category Archives: New York City

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

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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Filed under Birkot HaShachar, Inwood Hill Park, Mindfulness, New York City