Category Archives: St. Cuthbert’s Way

Between Stumblings – Picturing Joy

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

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

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

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

Also, how about a brucah (blessing)?

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

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

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Fourteen – Roundabout Resilience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Round about the Regent Road roundabout, roundabout.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let’s Get Mindful

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

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

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

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

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

Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Thirteen – The Royal We

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

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

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

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

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

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

I whisper the brucha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let’s Get Mindful

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

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

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

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

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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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