Category Archives: Uncategorized

Being the Signs: Rain of Gladness

March 2017 – Has the plastic food container I’ve just pulled from the fridge lost its mind?  Doesn’t it watch the news?  Doesn’t it know how discomforting and dispiriting the world has been?  All I wanted to do was store some mandarin rinds, and now this.

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I blame the rabbi.  Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell, my friend and teacher, to be specific.  One of the things I’ve most enjoyed at the meditation retreats I’ve attended with him have been the conversations that have followed the silence.  And so it was, in the dark hallway of a former monastery, that Jordan told me of a practice he’d taken on, in which he treated commercial signs as mindfulness instruction.  Drawn to the idea, I’ve meant to try it ever since.  And today, I’ve decided, is the day to start. 

The plastic food container has one word on it.  Little more than a trademarked adjective.

Glad. 

There’s a case to be made for my exercising veto power, but it’s the first sign that’s registered in my sight today, and what’s the point of practicing only teachings you want to receive?  Like it or not, this day has called for gladness practice. 

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So I note how comforted I am by the warm air blowing on my feet from the vent below the kitchen sink.  A little later, I take a moment to appreciate my ability to effortlessly pull my bedroom door shut, while making a backwards half-circle to avoid knocking over the large suitcase with the broken handle that I am about to lug through the rush hour commute on a rain-chilled morning.

Gladness like gratitude

When the bus pulls up, riders are crammed right to the windshield.  But time is tight, and a crowd in front doesn’t always equal a crowd in back.  When the door opens, I call out, “Any chance of people backing up!?”  I am surprised by the absence of an accusatory tone in my voice.

“I doubt it,” the driver says.  “They’re back as far as they can go.”

But just then, a passenger – a young guy, olive-skinned, saucer-sized studs in both ears; the opposite of me, on the surface – holds up his palm.  Wait, he’s signalling.  He holds up a finger.  A passenger is getting off. I start to board, but he holds his palm up again, then two fingers – a peace sign, and an indication that two more are getting off.  They do, and he waves me on.  I grab my suitcase by the nub where the handle used to be, and loft it aboard with surprising ease.  Glad for this kind of strength.  Glad for my navigator, for the friendly driver, for the friendliness I’ve found within myself.  For the slashes of rain against the windshield.

The subway is crowded, and I forget to be glad for the most part, but when I change lines, I hear a muffled voice say “welcome.”  I don’t know where it came from, but my mind flashes to a favourite lunch spot, where stepping through the door sets off an invisible contraption screeching a tinny greeting of “Hello, welcome!”  It’s kitschy and annoying, I’ve always thought, but now I’m thinking it’s an excellent reflection of the quiet hospitality with which the proprietress receives her customers.  And I am  glad for tinny and kitschy.

Is the plastic food container onto something?  It’s said that natural selection allowed humans to survive because of our skills for anticipating the worst.  And also, that this characteristic doesn’t serve us as well as it once did.  Perhaps the food container is helping me remember to see the best.

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Gladness like gladness

A different day, and a morning walk to the subway.  I step on a snow-powdered sidewalk, suddenly skidding on hidden ice, then regaining my balance.  Glad for the skid and glad for the steadiness.

The voice of a little girl behind me shouts, “Mommy, look!” and her unbridled excitement enthuses me.

Before I know it, moments inspiring gladness are giddily toppling upon one another.

The sun trying to break through the overcast, giving a subtle sheen to the grey.  A black poodle sitting on the neighbourhood hockey rink, its thick front hooves mirrored in the ice, as he waits for his master to give him something to do. 

Bare trees, each branch with its own character.  A puddle on the curb, reflecting sky from amidst the asphalt.

This and that, that and this.

The scrunch of salt beneath my footfall, the occasional pop of a crystal exploding under my heel.

A twinge in my shoulder from carrying my gym bag.  Soreness in my thigh from having resumed my squash game.  Aches, pains.  Alive, alive.

A bird calls out from one side of the street.  A bird on the other echoes a response.

I start planning my day.

I tune back to the birds.

At this moment, it feels like it could always be this way.  Like I could always be this way.

Soon, too soon, the feeling of grace starts to feel tempered.  This won’t last.  Grace doesn’t work that way.  Maybe it’s not supposed to.  There are too many sabretooths out there from which we need to defend ourselves and the less fortunate amongst us.   

A plea forms within me: as I wade through the storm, may I be buoyed by the knowledge that there are reasons we choose to endure, and they are constantly around us.  Gladness and grace, take your leave if you must, but return to me, and while I await your return, I will do my best with what I’ve got.

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Let’s get mindful

Pick a sign.  Any sign.  Or let it pick you.  Is there a teaching in it?  Or a suggested practice?  Unless you’re sure there isn’t, give it some consideration. See if it brings a shift in how you relate to the world or offers a reminder of something you sometimes lose sight of.  And then, as you go through your day/week/month, keep it in mind, and see where that takes you.

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Fourteen – Roundabout Resilience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Round about the Regent Road roundabout, roundabout.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let’s Get Mindful

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

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

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

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

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Thirteen – The Royal We

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

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

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

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

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

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

I whisper the brucha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let’s Get Mindful

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

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

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

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

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Twelve – Let The Rainshine In

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

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

Instead, I go straight at him. 

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

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

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

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

However… 

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

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Going clean in Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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Smoke break in Edinburgh

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

I suppose, but…

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

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

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

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

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A cloud grows in Toronto

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

Time in the world.  Sign me up.

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 Let’s Get Mindful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let’s Get Mindful

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

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

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

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

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part 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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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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