For a while, it appears Shabbat has intruded on my spiritual development. But just when it looks like all is won, an encounter with organic pasta comes to my rescue, delivering me to this embarrassing, and perhaps necessary moment.
NO WINTER MAINTENANCE
That’s what the sign had said at the entrance to a walking path a couple of weeks ago. “Now there’s a practice,” I’d thought. Deep freezes, floods, sabretooths, pogroms. When we’ve survived them, it’s been largely thanks to our skills at steeling ourselves for troublesome seasons, whether the skies portend danger or all is sunshiny lightness. But do I overdo winter maintenance? Have I given my talent for anticipation of the worst more rein than my life really needs?
Rhetorical questions, both.
In the interest of presence, I didn’t take the camera with me on the walk.. This and the other images here come from other moments in the world.
So this Shabbat, I tell myself, I will try to notice when I shift into winter maintenance mode. And when it happens, I will ask whether it can be held off until after Shabbat, or if it’s necessary at all.
To be closer to my experience, I turn off my phone’s data and wifi. Friends and family can still reach me, but hopefully this will free me from the pattern of “just” checking e-mail, which begets a visit to social media, which begets deep diving into online trivia and tragedy, which begets “where did I go?”
I awaken Shabbat morning, and lie on my bed a while, just enjoying the way the sun pushes through the blinds, shaping the embryo of a fiery dragon on the closet door. Rising, I am more attentive to brachot, or blessings – malbish arumim / Who clothes the naked as I put on a t-shirt, thankful for the feeling of cotton against my body; ha’mechin mitza’dei gaver / Who makes firm a person’s steps as I walk to the bathroom, grateful for the ease with which I set one foot in front of the other.
I give myself longer than normal on the meditation cushion, and then set out for a long walk in an unfamiliar ravine – intending, as best I can, to steer clear of winter maintenance and simply be where I am. Unsurprisingly, attunement comes and goes. One moment, I’m marvelling over the way the sun ignites the leaves of a tree, prompting me to recite oseh ma’aseh v’reisheet / Who forms the work of creation; the next moment, I’m making judgements about the runners and cyclists who outnumber me on this part of the path, seeming not to appreciate their surroundings. And in my judgement, I am removing myself as far from the here and now as I imagine them to be.
So it goes. They should. I want. Then the cloudscape above being all I need, it’s again oseh ma’aseh v’reisheet.
Entering more deeply into the walk, I’m in a landscape where others are clearly enjoying the environment for its own sake. We make eye contact, strangers and I, exchanging a word or a smile.
Perching myself on a rock by reeds sticking out of a pond where a quarry had once been, I read a little of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s writings on Shabbat, when a young family passes, the wilder of the two mop-topped daughters screeching with excitement.
“We don’t exactly make for quiet reading,” the father apologizes.
“It’s life,” I say. “It’s beautiful.”
Slowly but surely, Shabbat is threatening to undermine my spiritual development.
Mount Royal in Montreal one fine summer’s day
Not that I have fully succumbed to serenity. When a twentysomething guy emerges from a field, proudly displaying a newfound walking stick to his companions, one of them calls him Gandalf, and I love them. When they start punctuating every half-sentence “like,” I get over it.
But, as far as I can tell, Shabbat ease is holding winter maintenance away. Although blotches of rust on leaves have made me aware that summer is waning, I can’t seem to get worried about it. And sure, a few minutes ago, I found myself wondering how I might earn the best possible death bed experience, but that lasted a few seconds, and then it was back to here and now.
The walk takes me to a farmer’s market, and a booth offering organic pasta. Whole wheat, easy to digest, the sign says. Maybe I should give it a try.
And then I find myself thinking maybe I shouldn’t. Because what if I love it – really love it – and want more? Summer’s ending, and maybe the market’s about to close for the year. What will I do without this organic pasta with which I’m in danger of being smitten?
I actually think these things. Despite never once having loved, or even romanced, anything made from whole wheat.
Catching myself, I’m amused, a little embarrassed, and mostly proud. I’ve managed to catch myself in winter maintenance mode and talk myself down. I buy a few servings from the vendor.
To the extent I think about this for the next while, it’s mostly about writing this blog post.
But on the first morning of Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days and a period for self-reflection, I find myself thinking about other occasions, some significant, when I have denied myself joy for fear that its disappearance would be too painful to endure. Not that my life has been without joy, but if I could, I’d like to have some of those moments back.
So as I enter 5778 – at a time when serious trouble seems to portend in every corner of the globe – when I’m fortunate enough to have portals to joy open before me, shall I retreat into winter maintenance or shall I step through?
Viana do Castelo, Portugal
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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