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Connectivity Issues on the road from Sinai: notes from pilgrimage in uneasy times

I – Yesod before the Omer

It’s March of this year and I’m not thinking about the Omer yet.

In fact, I’m thinking about very little.

I’m at a week-long silent meditation retreat, where I spent the first few days overcome with fatigue, struggling to stay awake, and navigating the accompanying internal noise.

“Why did I do things so last minute and get here so tired?” says my accusing mind.  “What’s the point in having spent the money on this retreat if I can’t even stay awake through the sits and the dharma talks?”

“Go easy,” my gentler mind replies.  “And try to remember that all of this is practice, the fatigue included.”

Then, as the fatigue fades, I find myself with as quiet a mind as I can recall.

And now, on the last night of the retreat, as we start to leave the meditation hall for our last formal walking period before bed, I push myself off the cushion, wait for my legs to uncramp, and make my way to a small room where I’ve done a lot of the walking the past couple of days.  The room is dark and, besides me, unoccupied.  I’m a little saddened.  There are never many people in this room, and that’s one of the reasons I like it.  But there are usually at least a couple of others, and that’s another reason I like it.

I find a spot on the side, leaving room for fellow retreatants who I hope will appear, and take small steps, giving full attention to each one as best I can – the feel of my toes pushing off the floor, and the feeling of landing.  I notice the way my arms move for balance, and the pulsing in my arms and fingertips.  Occasionally, the wooden floor creeks below my step.

As I reach the wall and turn around, the aloneness strikes me again, and I console myself.

Sure, it would be nice to have others here, I think.  This retreat has underlined for me that when I get home, I need to find a sangha where I can be supported in my practice, and support others.  But even so, most of the time, my practice will be alone, meditating on a cushion at home.  Maybe this is a good transition back to that solitude.

The thoughts having been worked through, I try to leave them aside, and resume walking, returning my attention to footfall, foot rise, breath, torso, limbs.

The door opens, and I am immediately soothed.  As my fellow retreatant finds a spot and begins walking, even though we go at different paces, and sometimes in different directions, and even though I may never learn his name or say a word to him, I feel fortified by this companionship.

It’s not words through which I know this.  I know it in my bones.

And as quiet as my mind has gotten, in the presence of my fellow sojourner, it becomes quieter still.

II – Yesod during the Omer

It’s May of this year, and we are in the sixth week of the counting of the Omer, the passage from constriction to liberation to revelation. To be more precise, it’s the week of Yesod, often associated with connection, a precious commodity now that Covid has circled the globe.  Sanghas have gone online, but online isn’t working for me, so instead, here I sit at my perch in the ravine, among streams and rocks and trees.

I look at my watch.  I’d like to linger, but I need to get back home. 

I step into my place a couple of minutes before 7:30 in the evening, just enough time to wash my hands, and get on the balcony.  I wait for the clanging somebody I can’t see always makes at this moment.  Then I join in, artlessly drumming on the doumbek, a gift given to me twenty years ago, which I have never used until now.  Others start banging pots and pans, someone plays a foghorn, someone else a bass drum, another sets off fireworks.  A little girl in leotards dances to the cacophonous symphony, my part in which draws my out here every night, including – or especially – on the days I least feel like it.

This daily noisemaking ritual is intended, of course, to offer encouragement to those working on the frontlines, and I’ve heard from some that they are in fact heartened by it.  But in these times of isolation, amidst this community of mostly strangers, I for one am getting twice as much as I’m giving.

III – Yesod after the Omer

Maybe it’s the lengthening and warming days as summer approaches, or maybe it’s the realization that there’s no end in sight to the battle with Covid, but for some reason, the 7:30 noisemaking tapers off.  I help keep it going a little longer, as far as I can tell, by flat-palming the drum for as much reverberation as possible, a cue taken by others who appear on their balconies and get to banging.  But inevitably, the numbers dwindle to a straggler or two, and I wonder if my unskilled drumming, without pots and pans to accompany it, is more a source of annoyance than pleasure.

I guess I’m not as much of a soloist as I’ve thought.

I leave the doumbek inside, happy to pick it up again should the community ever come back together.

IV – Yesod after the after

And that is the last occasion of physical community I’ve had until this moment.  There has been some hanging out with friends in parks and backyards, and a lot of online – with friends, family, community – that has taught me about both the merits and limits of online.  Online prayer has taught me, for instance, that it’s usually harder for me to connect with the Divine when I have to do without physical company.  That didn’t used to be true, but after going through the process that concluded almost a year ago of saying Kaddish in shul for my father for the customary eleven months, it’s true now.

So sure, in this solitude, I’m doing okay.  “I feel like I’m losing my mind,” I’ve taken to saying, “but fortunately, I keep finding it again.”

Still, to put things as eloquently as possible…

We were not fucking made for this!!!

Tell you what, though. I’ll stand tall if you will.

Your Turn…

Tell us, if you would, something about your relationship to connection in these disconnecting times. What is is like to have it so diminished? How have you managed to keep it going?

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Foraging for Gratitude on the road from Sinai: notes from pilgrimage in uneasy times

Hey!  Where’d I go?

Four months ago, I set out on a pilgrimage through the counting of the Omer, from slavery in Egypt to revelation at Sinai, and invited you to join me.  About hallway through, I kept going, and even experienced what might be a little revelation. I abandoned you, though.  I didn’t call.  I didn’t write.

But I do apologize. 

Blame it on the emotional and spiritual dishevelment a global pandemic can bring.  And blame it, too, on hod, the theme of the fifth week of the counting of the Omer, which is associated, among other traits, with gratitude.

A slam-dunk, I thought. 

For years now, I’ve done Jewish gratitude practices throughout the course of the day, beginning with the Modeh Ani (Thankful am I) prayer upon arising, and saying brachot, or blessings, for everything from the clothes on my back to the steadiness of my footsteps.  With hod in mind, the plan was to pay even closer attention to opportunities for gratitude.

But to my disappointment, even dismay, this put me in the face of the flatness I’ve often felt in recent times, from which brachot could not be counted on to save me. Sometimes they would lift my spirits, as I noted the waxing of the moon, the refreshing scent in the air after rainfall, the extraordinary confluence of the efforts of humans and the elements in bringing food to my plate.  But discomfortingly often, I would feel like I was going through the motions, doing not much more in reciting brachot than exercising my gratitude muscles to make sure they didn’t atrophy.  A worthy habit, but hardly everything I was hoping for.

And who wants to report on that in a blog intended to offer encouragement?

Fortunately, it doesn’t end there.

If tried and true practices needed to be granted some slack – after all, how would you like the pressure of being a practice that more people desperately need than ever? – maybe it was time to try some alternatives.

So with that, I present for your consideration, other approaches to gratitude that have helped in recent weeks. 

The Eyes Don’t Have It

I had begun a walk through Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery and the ravines into which it leads, a beautiful urban landscape.  And yet, well into the walk, amidst the Norway spruce, silver maple, and mugo pine trees, though I could recognize their beauty, they weren’t lifting my spirits much.

Putting things on pause, I headed to the street for some takeout.  And when I was done and about to resume my walk – to push through, as it were – I took a minute to close my eyes and tune in to my other senses.

As my breath offered some settling, the din of traffic was suddenly no din at all, but rather the hum of a human hive on wheels, rushing towards a better moment.  The breeze against my bare skin was a cooling balm.  My arms and pulsing fingertips were the vessels through which surging rivers of sensation were coursing, proclaiming aliveness.  A thunderous clunk jarred my eyes open, and I saw a car pulling an empty, clattering trailer. Something about it made me happy, and it didn’t matter that I had no idea why.

I stood, closed my eyes again, followed my breath for a little while, and resumed the walk, everything seeming both deeper and lighter, every footstep feeling sacred, every vista a gift.  I wanted to feel this way forever, but I more or less knew better, and as the good feelings eventually started to leave, rather than grasp for more, I felt grateful to have experienced them at all.

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You

A different day, a different walk.

I’m taking a new route out of the ravine, something I’d imagined might be a shortcut, along what turns out to be a noisy road on a searingly hot day.  I want the unpleasantness to be over as quickly as possible.

But I’ve learned that sometimes the best way to speed things up is by slowing them down.  Inhabiting the moment instead of pushing it away.

So with each footstep, I say, “Thank You.”  And again.  “Thank You.”  I keep repeating it.  And with each “Thank You,” I am enlivened by things I’d been unaware of only moments earlier – a soft breeze rustling some leaves, birdsong on my left and birdsong on my right, the feel of a pebble under my foot, the glint of sunlight off a door handle. 

“Thank You. Thank You.”

Heart Break

I’m in the ravine on a morning where sadness is a stronger force than I would like, and the walk isn’t making me happier.  I could turn back, but I trust that forward is best, perhaps by way of the catharsis of a good cry.

Perching myself where the brook runs over some rocks, I let tears flow. Hitbodedut  or self-seclusion, comes to mind. 

The version of hitbodedut taught by Rebbe Nachman of Bratzslav is to find a spot in nature and pour one’s heart out to God in an uncurated, stream-of-conscious way.  The rationalist in me wants to roll its eyes, but the rationalist in me has proven it doesn’t have all the answers.  So if it’s on my mind or in my heart, I say it.  I talk and plead and thank – by the rocks, on a footbridge, on a path.

I feel some loosening, some healing. Something sustaining.

Baruch Atah Adonay, I say, eloheinu melech ha’olam, ha’notein la’yaef ko’ach

Blessed are You, source of all being, who grants strength to the weary

Baruch Atah Adonay, I add, eloheinu melech ha’olam, sh’asani Yisrael

Blessed are You, source of all being, who has made me of the people yis-ra-el.  A god-wrestler.

Yes, thankful for all of this. Even as it becomes clear that, at the moment, gratitude practice is only carrying me so far. Fortunately, I’ve been given capacity – which I take less for granted now than ever – for finding other sources of strength, other ways of serving that I must now explore.

Baruch Atah Adonay, chonein ha’da’at

Blessed are You, source of all being, who bestows knowledge.

Your turn…

Well, I like to think I’ve done a solid job here of illustrating how difficult accessing gratitude can be at times like these, and what might help. But I’m most definitely a work-in-progress on this. Care to offer a guy and his followers suggestions or counsel on tapping into gratitude or what to do when it’s elusive, based on your own experience?

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Filed under counting the omer, Mindfulness, Uncategorized

Higher than Normal Call Volumes 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 netzach, or endurance and eternity, covers the period April 30-May 8. I think it would be fair to say, though, that there’s no expiration date for the matters at hand.)

It’s going to be different this time.  I’m sure of it.

And it’s about time, too.

If you’re bored one day, and think seeing the lesser angel of my nature might be entertaining, check me out on an off day when I need to put in a call to customer service at my cable and internet provider. Even before the call is made, I’m bracing for endless prompts and “then press pounds,” until at last I’m finally told to hit zero if my call “is about something else.”

My calls always seem to be about something else.

While waiting for the customer service representative who will draw the short straw and be forced to attend to me, I not infrequently get into a spat with the recorded messages.

“We are currently experiencing higher than normal call volumes.”

“That’s what you said the last time, and the time before that.  How about staffing up for your new normal?”

“Your call is very important to us – ”

“Oh, I know.  You’d be bereft without me.”

“- and we appreciate your patience.”

“Don’t give me too much credit.”

If, on one of my lesser days, the unfortunate rep who gets me sounds too scripted for me tastes when asking how I’m doing today, they’re likely to be met with “I’m fine” in an icily cool tone. And they’re certainly not asked how they’re doing.  Once I’ve explained my issue, when they repeat it back, whoa are they if I have to correct them. My words may be civil, but they come slowly and reluctantly, as if I don’t know how much longer I can endure.

Me at anything but my best.

Hopefully, somewhere along the way – early in the call, ideally – I catch myself, and make adjustments, remembering the rep is under the watchful ear of a supervisor while dealing with many a crappy customer, and I summon my more pleasant, cooperative self.  Too often, though, the call ends with my having made the rep’s life less pleasant than it needs to be.  Though I may regret it soon after, by then there’s nothing to be done.

But something is going on these days.

~~~~~~~~~~

We are now in the fourth week of the counting of the omer, the week of netzach, commonly translated as endurance and eternity.  The week of pushing through on the journey from the constriction of slavery to revelation.

Netzach seems an invitation to ask, “How am I enduring these difficult times?  And what from these troublesome days might I like to see survive into the better days that will come?”

Among other things, my newly acquired habit of taking the stairs instead of the elevator comes to mind.  As does the opportunity I’ve taken advantage of to give daily attention to the same group of trees from my balcony, and watch their day-to-day transition.

But what would I like to see endure that benefits more than me?

~~~~~~~~~~

I am seated on the meditation cushion, doing Buddhist metta or loving-kindness practice.  Typically, the practice begins with extending good wishes to oneself – for instance, silently saying, “May I be safe.  May I be happy.  May I be healthy.  May I live with ease.”  And from there, those wishes are extended concentrically outward, such as to a being from whom we’ve experienced unconditional love, other loved ones, those about whom our feelings our neutral, people we find difficult, and finally, all beings.

When I was first introduced to the practice, I confided resistance to one of my teachers.  How would others, I asked, benefit from my silently and stealthily wishing them well?  “You may not change them,” he said, “but you’re going to change yourself.”

And he was right.  I wasn’t long into the practice before I saw that it helped me more easily and consistently access patience and compassion for myself and others. Even if cable company reps are too frequently given cause for skepticism.

Lately, something has changed when I do metta.

When I get to the juncture where I’m to wish safety, happiness, good health and ease to a person about whom my feelings are neutral, I can’t come up with anyone.  Visualizing others I’ve only glancingly encountered, my feelings are anything but neutral.  It’s clearer than ever that they’re carrying the same burdens as me, and why it is they should be wished safety and good health. Though I don’t know them, I know enough that I’m feeling too much compassion to have only neutral feelings about them.

Then, when I try to bring someone to mind who I find difficult, I’m similarly challenged.  Maybe out on the street and in the ravine, my judgement and ire are triggered by those who are less heedful of physical distancing than they should be, but here on the cushion, it’s a struggle to remember what they look like, and to think of them as difficult.  They, like me, are just trying to manage their way through a time none of us are equipped to handle.  So most times, I settle for people I’ve found difficult in the past, but towards whom I feel kindness now.

~~~~~~~~~~

Even before I pick up the phone to call the cable company, I can feel the difference in my body.  I start to brace myself for the menu options and pound keys, and discover I lack umbrage.  And the small degree of resentment I’ve managed to marshal dissipates entirely when I get a new recording informing me that the long wait times I can expect have to do with prioritizing customers in need of emergency services.  While I wait, I think about the economic fallout from these days, and what it means for the job security of the rep with whom I’ll be speaking.

So when I finally get through, and am required to speak to multiple people, and given multiple answers to my one question, I recognize this for the small stuff it is.  I still don’t ask the reps how they’re doing, but it’s not because I don’t care.  It’s because my instincts tell me they’re too busy to get into it, and also, I fear that their script will require them to answer “fine, thank you,” even though that’s likely not true.  But I’m hoping that the cooperative and friendly tone which is coming from me is just as good.

“I see friends shaking hands,” Louis Armstrong once sang for us, “saying ‘how do you do?’  They’re really saying, I love you.”

When the call ends, maybe my better angel has shown up and I’ve made the lives of people who are required to serve me a little better than they would have been otherwise.

It’s not that this has never happened before, but it seems to be coming more easily right now.

And so, let conduct of this kind be my way of enduring these times.

And also, let it be something more.

I don’t think my teacher was entirely correct in saying that metta would only change me.  Because the greater my capacity to connect with patience and compassion, the better I make the lives of everyone I encounter, and by extension, the lives of all they encounter, and so on, l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation.

Let this be the netzach, the eternity, that comes of these times.

It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say, you and me both, we’ve got this.

=====================================================

Bonus Feature: someone else’s reflections

In anticipation of writing this post, I invited others to convey how netzach – endurance and eternity – has played out for them.  And with that, it’s my pleasure to share the following reflections from David Orenstein

My Omer Netzach

David Orenstein

Like many of us, daily walks are an expression of Netzach during this shutdown pandemic Omer.

Early in the shutdown, I decided that I would take an early morning walk, in my Riverdale neighbourhood, first thing every day. That is first thing after I feed the cats, bring in the Globe and the Star, maybe check for the Moon, planets and stars, perform my morning ablutions and get dressed. Getting home from the walk I make breakfast for our household.

Back in mid-March, the weather was not always pleasant but I was determined.  But in addition to the push of improving my health and maintaining a regular schedule, was soon added the pull of the pleasure of moving my body and the scenic local parks, gardens and architecture.

By now these walks are the best part of my day. As I write, in early May, there are daily changes in the flowers and trees. I’ve worked out quite a variety of interesting return trips. Also I can meet friends and neighbours for short, safely distanced schmooze sessions.

This evokes an earlier period in my life when endurance in walking paid off. Many years before I retired from teaching and was still working, I was feeling perpetually exhausted and emotionally drained.  Not only was I teaching my classes with a total of up to 180 students, but I had the heavy commitment of being a member of the local union executive for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation in Toronto, along with political commitments and involvement with scholarship, culture and a social life.

So I decided to start my day with a twenty minute walk, on a slight uphill grade, to the Christie subway station. This project also started in challenging March weather. Luckily as my willpower and determination wore off the more clement weather and the burgeoning neighbourhood gardens made this early trek a positive pleasure.

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Your turn…

What about you? What enables you to endure this juncture of our path? What would you like to see endure beyond these times? Any thoughts about how to bring it about?

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Chopped Liver Boundaries 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, 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 gevurah, or strength and boundaries, covers the period April 16-23. I think it would be fair to say, though, that there’s no expiration date for the matters at hand.)

Damn.  I really wanted the walk to the ravine.

But the wind is fierce, whipping wind chimes out of tune, and banging on the lids of garbage bins.  And those are big garbage bins. 

Maybe the ravine’s not such a good idea right now.  Or the long walk to get there.  There’s a reason the street’s so empty.  This is the kind of weather that rips branches from trees and gets people hurt. And should I really take the chance of being injured when the last thing the medical system needs right now is an unnecessary wound to fix? 

Okay, I’ll make it a short walk.  A block or two.  At least, with the street so empty, it feels safe to stop and take some pictures without messing up everyone else’s physical-distancing rhythm.

Damn.  And crap.

The memory card is full.  And I hate to delete images from a memory card, even if I have back-ups.

The pharmacy’s only a few blocks away.  I’ll get a new one there.

No, no I won’t.  I can’t.  Maybe the person working the cash where the memory cards are is an essential service worker, but my wanting one is not an essential need. It wouldn’t be right to enter their space just for this.

I find some shelter, turn the camera on again, take a calming breath, and start removing images.

And I think about stairwells, and have a conversation with myself about chopped liver, and my gevurah grade.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

It’s the second week of the counting of the Omer.  The focus with which this pilgrimage began last week was the Divine and human trait of chesed, or loving-kindness, the perfect foundation from which to build any practice.  But unchecked, loving-kindness isn’t without its problems.  It can mean going along just to get along instead of having necessary but difficult conversations, or bypassing the broccoli to get to the ice cream.

And man, have I been going for the mental ice cream lately.

That’s where the second week of the Omer comes in, with its overarching theme of gevurah, variously translated as strength, courage and discernment.  Often, when one works with gevurah, it’s in the form of boundaries to temper indiscriminate chesed, so that our valuing someone else’s wants or our own doesn’t lead us to forget what we and they actually need.

It’s true that, in the main, people have risen to this difficult occasion, staying at home and, when they go out, practising physical distancing.  And the trajectory of illness is looking promising.  But, as mentioned in a comment to my previous post, there’s also a fair amount of heedlessness going on.  People just going on their way or coming up from behind as if others didn’t exist.  And others not stepping aside to give a wide berth to elders lugging heavy groceries. 

In some ways, I don’t mind swerving out of the way to make room for others, even if it means going up embankments in a ravine or down alleys on a street.  I enjoy the zigging and the zagging, and finding new angles on the world.

Sometimes standing aside and stopping begets looking up

But in other ways, especially in that moment between the heedlessness and my finding a passage towards physical distance, I burn with a fiery alchemy of anxiety and self-righteous judgment.  Among the greatest hits of my mutterings are, “What part of six feet don’t you understand?”, “If you’d take your head out of your cellphone, maybe you’d be a little less clueless”, and “If you don’t know how to run in place, then maybe you shouldn’t be running at all.”  And the unmuttered transcending theme is, “I’m scared.  For myself, the old people, the frail people, the young people we never imagine getting ill.  I’m scared because I don’t know how to deal with all this uncertainty about health, jobs, livelihood, and because the book I’d begun writing has come to feel like it’s about a world that has gone away and will never come back. And the heedlessness isn’t helping!”

Is it any wonder, then, that indoors I’ve been soothing myself by diving into the social media vortex, scrolling for connection, information, reassurance?  And I get it in the forms of messaging and memes and stories of inspiration.  But they often seem mere punctuation for tales of despair and discord, underlining how fragile things seem.  When I click on an article, I’m as likely as not to get antsy after a couple of paragraphs before clicking onto the next one, until I feel like I’m taking in everything yet nothing at all.

This is brain dessert.  Occupying me for a while, but too much of it is unnourishing, taking up time I could be spending checking-in on people about whom I’m concerned.

I need less flitting, and more focus.  A more substantial mind meal.

And there are all these lectures I’ve been meaning to check out on nature and climate change and far-flung Jewish communities.  What if I were to tap into those, and see if their substantiveness offers more settling, and makes me more available for others?

~~~~~~~~~~

I wake in the middle of the night, as usual resolving not to reach for my phone and then give in to the temptation all the same, but this time, I remember gevurah. Instead of the social media scroll, I queue up a lecture on climate change and bird migration.  Despite the first few minutes of the lecture just showing the agitation of co-leaders trying to figure out the technology, when the lecture begins and the first slide appears – a photograph of birds in flight – I start to feel at ease, quieted. And I go back to bed.

I’ve made the right choice. 

Which I end up mostly disregarding. 

I can only speculate why.  Maybe, given the length of my evening to-do lists, it feels too difficult to commit a whole hour to learning.  And so, the brain dessert diet continues, and I feel like the last person in the world who should be blogging on gevurah practice.

I could really use some ravine calm.

What awaited at a future ravine visit

And I set out, only to discover the wind having its way with the wind chimes and garbage bins, that my memory card is full, and find myself here, taking shelter, and talking myself into removing images from my memory card instead of going to the pharmacy for a new one.

When I tap to delete an image, my camera asks if I’m sure I mean it.  I choose yes, even though I’m thinking “nooooo!

And I start having conversations with myself about other things to which I’ve been saying no.

“Think about your decision,” I tell myself, “to pass on the elevator and take the stairs.  Nine flights of them.  Yes, it’s the only form of exercise you’re getting right now, and yes, you’d been meaning to do it for months.  But it’s only since the pandemic that you’re finally delivering.  And yes, it’s for your well-being, but it’s for everyone else’s, too. 

 “And there’s the time you could spend zoning out with television, but you’re using it instead to prepare the contemplative services you’re leading online.  And you are picking up the phone to look after others, even if it’s not as often as you wish.  And yes, you’re doing all this to feel good, but you’re not only doing it for yourself.”

And then, the subject that trumps them all.

“Think about the chopped liver,” I tell myself.

“No,” I answer back.  “Don’t make me think about the chopped liver.  Why does chopped liver get such a terrible reputation, anyway?”

“You mean the chopped liver available in the deli over at St. Clair and Yonge serving takeout?”

“Oh, man.  I can’t take it.”

“But you can take it.  You have taken it.  How many times have you wanted that chopped liver sandwich, but – ”

“With sweet potato fries and a coke, don’t forget.”

“- but decided not to get it, because you didn’t think it would be fair to the staff or you, or anyone you or they come into close contact with.  So forget your perfect offering.”

“Hey, that’s one of my favourite Leonard Cohen quotes.  Keep going.”

“Forget the gevurah you meant to exercise but didn’t.  Think about the gevurah you did choose, for yourself and others.  Okay, maybe you don’t get an A for week two of the Omer.  But you definitely get a B.  No.  Screw that.  Normal times, you get a B.  But how normal are these times, when your most common way of answering people who ask how you’re doing is to say that you’re okay, but that you always feel like you’re on the edge?

B+, baby.  You get a B+.  Now let’s see what you can do from here.”

Your turn…

Now how about you? What’s your experience of late or of life in general in balancing chesed or loving-kindness with gevurah in the forms of boundaries, strength, courage? Or how have you witnessed it in others? Got advice or insights you would care to offer to others? Any thoughts on your mind are welcome below.

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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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Postcards from Here: silhouettes and shadows

(more field notes from the world)

I love the layers that Paul Simon has brought to his music over the years

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But equally, I love the perfect simplicity of his early song, Bleecker Street…

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“I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand…”

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And so….silhouettes touching silhouettes

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And a little shadow magic, too

And a link to the simple, sad and beautiful Bleecker Street

 

 

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Postcards from Here: sense-temple time

(more field notes from the world)

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It is our minds that make our lives so homeless. 

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We need to come home to the temple of our senses.

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Our bodies know that they belong to life, to spirit.

– John O’Donahue, 1956-2008 *

* For what I hope qualify as artistic purposes, I’ve sequenced  Mr. O’Donahue’s phrases out of the order in which he offered them

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Postcards from Here: Earthwalking

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

“The great miracle is not to walk on the air or to walk on water or fire, but to be able to walk on the Earth.”

– Rinzai, ninth-century Zen master

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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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Being the Signs: Winning Within (or what practice makes possible)

“Win within,” my teacher says.

“Been there, done that, didn’t buy the wristband,” I could respond.  It wouldn’t be overly audacious, given that my teacher is an advertising slogan on a bus shelter.  But I hold my tongue, and think back instead to my recent encounter with the  sentry at the Irish festival.

Jenni, a friend of a friend, was in town for the Toronto International Film Festival.  As her tour guide for an evening, I suggested going to the islands across the harbour, a favourite respite from downtown concrete. 

Light off Building

As the ferry neared the island, we spotted signs for an Irish festival at one of its restaurants.  Not the peaceful setting I had in mind, but Jenni’s the guest in town and she gets to make the call.  And her call is the festival.  We order a couple of helpings of nachos in the restaurant, and are given a number to put on our table for the server to track us down.  Stepping onto the patio, we join a picnic table of celebrants.  While Jenni talks with them about Brexit and its potential impact for Ireland, I become distracted, wondering how our server will find us in such a loud and crowded space.  I head back in and discover I know what I’m worrying about.  Food is only served inside, and our number is up next.

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Toronto Island green (from a previous visit)

I start my way back to Jenni, but am stopped by a guy in a plastic green top hat, his arm lowering with the gravity of a railroad crossing gate.

“I need to see your wristband, friend,” he says.

“Sorry?” I say.

“You need to buy one of these,” the sentry says, holding out a fistful of green wristbands, “if you want to join the festivities.”

“Wristband?  No, that’s okay.  A friend and I just came out here.  No one said anything about a wristband.  So I’ll just get her and-”

“That’s not going to happen.  If you want out there, you get a wristband here.”

“Listen,” I say, resenting having been cut off.  “My friend and I bought food inside.  We were given a number to take to our table.  We went outside.  No one stopped us.  No one said anything about wristbands.  I just want to get her and we’ll go back in.”

“I’ll get your friend,” he says.  “Where is she?”

I roll my eyes.  Not with my inside voice.

“She’s at the far end of the patio.  She’s wearing a navy blue dress and the number on the table-”

“Go ahead,” he says, opening his palm and waving me through. 

Still steaming, I find Jenni, and explain what’s going on with our food.  She exchanges goodbyes with her newfound friends, and as we head back in, it occurs to me that I’m bound to cross paths with the sentry again, and I start to anticipate ways to even the score – maybe wave the table number in front of him.  But almost as quickly as I have the thought, I realize it won’t get me anywhere.  Getting even might feel good in the moment, but it’ll also perpetuate an unhappy temper I won’t enjoy carrying around afterwards.  I decide to let it pass.

Before I know it, he’s in front of me.  Again, lowering his hand. 

“I owe you an apology,” he says, shaking my hand.  “That was a dick thing to do.” 

He’s not a professional doorman, just a volunteer trying to make things happen right.  Which he’s now doing by wrapping wristbands around our arms.  “These are on the house,” he says. “Enjoy the festival.”  Not only are the wristbands free, but so am I, that much more able to enjoy the mediocre nachos in the restaurant, and then afterwards, the blues harmonica we catch once back downtown. 

Everything is Possible

translation: Everything is Possible

I like to think my mindfulness practice has something to do with my having found the pause button, allowing antagonism to morph into affinity.  After all, if I’m going to spend twenty minutes on a meditation cushion most mornings, it would be nice to see tangible benefits.  I’ll never know, of course; cause-and-effect with practice is seldom that clear.  But I do know that because of my practice, I don’t go off the rails as often as I would otherwise, and when I do, I get back on more quickly, and the world enjoys the kinder part of me.

So when the advertising poster tells me to “win within,” yes I could respond with been-there-done-that.  But yes, I hold my tongue.  Or, if I’m to be honest, my tongue is held for me – I’m seldom that quick-witted, and the clever response only arrives days later.  But even if it had come to mind right away, I think I would have held back. 

Maybe one day when I’ve achieved enlightenment – let’s say , I don’t know, next month – and remember to win within a little more reliably, I’ll start getting lippy with my teachers.

Moving to the Light

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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Being the Signs: No Winter Maintenance

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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

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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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Autumn gets its extension

A photogenic thing happened on the way to St. Louis Square.

Take it away, extended autumn…

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When Mickey goes bad… * PS – have since learned this is not Mickey, but a forerunner named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Resemblance is uncanny, though, isn’t it?

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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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And now for something completely (okay, almost) immediate…

We interrupt the ongoing (but nearly completed) journey to Rivière-des-Prairies from August to bring you this moment from today…

I’ve asked around, and no one I know seems to think I’m fully enlightened. Perhaps this has something to do with why, for the most part, I continue to take greater pleasure in bursts of blue than in fully cloudy skies.

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These were the words that came…

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, She’kacha lo b’olamo

(Rough and decidedly unscholarly translation: “Thank you, source of all that is, for bringing beauty such as this into being (and, also, helping me remember to put down my camera, close my eyes, and pay attention to the chilling wind as it sifts through autumn leaves)).”

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Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust: Part Four– Radical Amazement Break

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

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

― Abraham Joshua Heschel

Atheists and anti-religionists, please take heart.  In spite of some of the religious stuff below, if you keep scrolling, something beautiful and nonsectarian is going to happen.  I promise.

Oh, what the hell.  Here’s a sneak preview.

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As I write this, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is only a couple of days away.  The Days of Awe which it initiates are a time for self-reflection and teshuvah, often translated as “repentance,” but more precisely translated as “turning” – turning back to the source of our goodness.  As I think about the year past, the year ahead, and the years to follow, God willing (whatever that expression means, it definitely means something), I would like to honour that source by doing well by intimates and strangers, of course, but also by living, as best I can, with the radical amazement that A.J. Heschel describes.

I got a hit of it on August 19, when my walk westward took me past the ostensibly nondescript du College metro station.

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The stained glass inside got me curious.

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A glance down the stairway got me kind of excited.

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So I decided to camp out for a while.

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Then I descended further into the light.

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And watched all these people stepping through the light or around it.  Sometimes it seemed the light was seeking them out or they were dodging it.  An understandable response to light – literal and metaphorical.  It’s hard to resist rushing.  Our lives are full of fires to put out and others to stoke.  But sometimes rushing is nothing more than an unnoticed habit, or simply the conviction that here is boring, and there is better.

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The metro station is near Vanier CEGEP, a college.  And I found myself wondering if it has a place for its students – in a non-sectarian way, at least – to connect and perhaps deepen their capacity for radical amazement.  Show up, notice something you hadn’t before, get a passing grade.

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To Jewish readers, a shana tova, a good and sweet new year.  And to all readers, wishing you some radical amazement today and in the days ahead.  If you come across some, feel free to offer a comment, telling us about it.

“We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn, or scoff at the totality of being.”

― Abraham Joshua Heschel

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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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Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust: Part Two – Blue Sky, Grey Clouds and All My Needs

August 17

All 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.

Today’s walk took me from the edges of Outremont, a picturesque upper-class neighbourhood, to the Town of Mount Royal, the well-off community where I spent most of my youth.  Both abound with lovely parks and benches in which to enjoy them.  

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But I’m on a mission to prove to myself that anyplace is interesting if you stop to take notice, so I wasn’t going to force lovely on myself.  The only thing I was going to force was the commitment I made today to sit for thirty minutes wherever I reached the hour-and-a-half mark.  Which saw me planting myself on the steps of “LED Lighting” on Bates Road, one of a continuum of squat concrete office buildings.  Could I really sit here for a full half hour – especially on a Sunday, with all the businesses closed – and observe anything other than my own boredom?

At times like this, I generally find it best to stop questioning the matter, and invite the world to come alive.

Suddenly, I am aware of a playground in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school, thanks to the yelping of children, and in the background, the springy sound of a large, bouncing ball.  And I am reminded that ultra-religious people like to bounce balls, too.  The blue sky is stealthily engulfed by a mass of grey clouds.  A car rolls by and I can’t quite believe how much noise a single car makes.  Another car starts, and I can’t get over how much noise another single car makes. 

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I close my eyes.  The sound of a Hasidic boy yelling “Nein” roars through my ears.  I notice that my jaw is relaxing, which means that a moment ago, it was clenched.  I feel the sun on my arms.  Has the grey sky given way to blue again?  I feel pulsing on the soles of my feet from all the walking, in my arms from all the life.  The sound of the breeze conjures images of tall grass blowing.  Barely conscious that I’m doing so, I turn my palms towards the sun, and recite one of the Birkot HaShachar, a Jewish morning blessing, that doesn’t always stand up well to scrutiny:

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.

 

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I open my eyes, just as a Hasidic man wearing a tallis passes.  We take turns not knowing whether to greet one another. Yes, the sky has gone mostly blue again.  From nowhere, a colony of seagulls has arrived, circling in the sky, the ring expanding as they fan out.  Then, after a while, they are gone except for two of them – grey winged specks against what remains of the grey sky, until they too, are gone.

To what end, all this noticing?  I think of one of my Buddhist teachers saying, “You have no idea where you are on the path.” 

The only thing about which I am certain is that I am pleased I risked some boredom.

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Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust: Part One, the Fear-Anchor Ratio

August 14, 2014

What do you do if you’re restless to get into motion?  If you’re like many people, you take action.

And if you’re like me, you drive yourself insane considering which action to take.  At least, until you reach the point where you say, “Fuck it.  I’m grabbing my camera, firing up the compass on my phone, and going west.”

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I’ve been back in my hometown of Montreal for a few months, and though I’ve covered a fair bit of ground, I’m also conscious that there is an expiry date on my return and much of this city I haven’t seen.  So to liberate myself from my indecisiveness, I’m determined to do something I always daydreamed about when in school (take your pick, elementary school, high school, CEGEP, university, rabbinical college) – getting up and walking straight until I’d circled the world.  So I’m walking west.  I won’t make it around the globe, but at least west will get me to Rivière-des-Prairies.  Of course, I’ll have to make detours to allow for the fact that I haven’t mastered the art of walking through walls, and may feel the obligation to observe ethical imperatives such as being seduced by one bakery or another.  But basically, I’m going west from my Mile End apartment in three-hour installments until I reach the river.  Why west, when the compass has 359 other directions to choose from?  I’m not sure, but it’s what feels right.  What I do know is that west has some familiar territory and a lot of new ground.  Whatever I find there – in the mere ten kilometres, but thousands of footsteps, between home and the river – I will have the chance to test the assertion I like to make that any place is interesting if you’re paying attention.

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Speaking of attention, I’ll be toting my spirituality with me, mostly a blend of Buddhism and Judaism.  Don’t be scared, though.  Before I start telling other people how to live, I need to figure out how to live my life.  The only person I’ll be sermonizing is me.  Preaching to the mirror, as it were.  And even though I’m something of a killjoy, I think I’ll slip in some fun, too.

So let’s get started, across my deck, down forty-six spiralling steps into a rag-tag alleyway of tin and wood and concrete and flowers, serenaded by ambulance sirens, garbage trucks, and a young red-headed woman on her balcony scraping at something with sandpaper. 

Here’s some of what I see along the way (if you wish, you can enlarge the images or go to a slideshow by clicking on them):

As I expect I’ll be doing on most of these meanderings, I sit for a while, just to see what arises.  Plunking myself on a small knoll in a parkette at Van Horne and Hutchison,

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my eyes settle after a while on the abandoned building across the street.  Dominating the assortment of graffiti is the word “PEUR” – French for “fear” – scrawled in large, jagged yellow letters three times across.  PEUR PEUR PEAR.  FEAR FEAR FEAR.  On the other side of the street, someone has painted the world “ANCHOR” on a building. 

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Fear 3, Anchor 1. 

That sounds like just about the right ratio to describe our lives.  To the extent one can really know such things, I think I’ve detected some anchors.  The young Hasidic couple, husband pushing a stroller, wife wrapped in an olive jacket, chatting with attentiveness and ease, like lifelong best friends.  The young Hasidic boy in a blue-striped polo shirt, one hand held firmly by his father’s as they cross the street, the other animatedly gesticulating a story.  Soon, I am surrounded by a frolicking troop of developmentally disabled young people and their counsellors.  One of the kids rolls in the grass for a while with a counsellor, who finally says, “That’s it.  I’m all out of smiles.”  Another keeps chanting, “Scooby Doooo, where are youuuu?” occasionally winning the laugher he’s chasing.  And still another sits happily, lovingly held in a counsellor’s lap.  All anchored, all seemingly secure.

But what is it to be their parents, I wonder, knowing how unlikely it is their children will ever be capable of fending for themselves?  And I think back to the many Hasids I’d passed, walking with haste and speaking urgently into their phones, as if trying to forestall something from going awry.  Not far from me, a couple of guys on their lunch break are spending more time with their phones than each other, as if they’ll otherwise miss out on something crucial, some source of relief and happiness that could pass them by if they are not vigilant.

Yes, 3:1 seems like the right fear-to-anchor ratio to describe our lives.  We all carry fear, a grea deal of it, sometimes of our own invention, sometimes pressed upon us from stark reality.  The next time someone pisses me off (or is that the next time I get pissed off with someone?), I might do well to remember this ratio, and on my good days, summon a greater capacity for kindness.

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PS: I have an agreement in principal to buy a gas station. 

It happened when I went looking for some batteries, which were out of stock.  Then I spotted a package of nuts.

“Well now that I’m here,” I began, “it would be rude of me -”

“- not to buy something,” the clerk said.

“Exactly.”

“If you want, you can buy the whole store.”

“Can I get a discount?”

“Sure.  We’ll give you the whole thing for half a million.  In cash.”

“Deal.  I need to go to a bank machine.”

“No problem.  In the meantime, I’ll let the owner know so he can prepare the papers.”

Maybe there’s a lesson in fear and anchors in this too, but I’m too busy figuring out why it took me three hours to walk two kilometres.

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While I Live (I Better Second Line)

Although I’m starting to turn my attention to a blog series I’m planning on launching shortly about Montreal, it appears – unsurprisingly – there’s a little New Orleans still in my system. 

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Just a bit ago, while on Rue St. Laurent / St. Lawrence Street, I started thinking about some walks I’d like to take in Montreal.  The phrase “take that walk” playing in my mind swiftly morphed into Kermit Ruffins’ “When I Die (You Better Second Line),” which I’ve been listening to on a daily basis.  Though I didn’t conduct a systematic survey, I’m pretty sure I was the only person on St. Laurent slipping into a strut and waving an imaginary handkerchief.  It didn’t last long, but the moment had to be respected.

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(Quick and hopefully painless tutorial section.  What’s a second line?  Basically, it’s a New Orleans tradition where you’ve got the leaders (the “first line”) in a brass band parade in front, then the band itself, then the “second line” AKA everyone else who wants to step into the streets and join in the strutting and marching and joy.  The second lines with which I’m most familiar are at jazz funerals, where the departed is accompanied to the cemetery with dirges, and after they’re laid to rest, have their journey onward celebrated with exuberance.  Or they’re celebrations by Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, originally created when African-Americans were unable to obtain insurance and formed their own mutual aid societies, celebrating once a year with parades through the streets in matching suits designed for the main event.)

This past Sunday, following the jazz mass at St. Augustine’s Catholic Church – imagine “cooling off” by stepping out of a non-air conditioned church into a refreshingly humid 34°C – there was a special second line back to Satchmo Summerfest.  

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Seeing the pictures I’ve included in this post, a friend of mine responded by saying, “Joy is a serious business in New Orleans.  The only people smiling are the white tourists.”

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Well, sort of.  Joy IS a serious business in New Orleans, because joy isn’t always about being smiley.  Not while you’re strutting and dancing and baking in a suit in 34°C, and showing your pride (though these guys were smiles aplenty when it was all done and they found a shady spot with water or beer).  As for the white tourist thing, well kind of but not exactly.  There were plenty of non-white revellers, and a lot of us were either locals or people like me, enough of a regular to be somewhere between local and foreign.  Nor are all the Social Aid and Pleasure Club members black.  For instance, when I joined in for last October’s parade by the Prince of Wales club (video below), one of its heralded members was outgoing president, Joe “White Boy” Stern.

Anyway, that’s all sounding a little too dispassionate for such a non-heady affair.  The point is…

while I live, I better second line

You tell it, Kermit Ruffins (the song’s his, and the visuals are a montage of second line footage from the Treme television series, in which New Orleans itself is the star):

And one bonus video.  The Shotgun Jazz Band performed “Over in the Glory Land” at the festival, and the band at the jazz mass at St. Augustine’s performed it the next day.  A lot of young people get the idea of tradition in New Orleans.

Alright…

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Kermit Ruffins, the Spirit of Satchmo, you, me, and Giving Lightness to a Weighty World

Please don’t try this at home.  However, if you’re inclined to change the world, please DO try this in airports (as I did in Philadelphia yesterday) and other public spaces.  Be sure to let me know if it works.

Note: The first two steps are optional.

Step One – Hang out at Satchmofest in New Orleans.

Step Two – Make sure to catch the closing performance by Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers, and kick loose, especially when they finish up with Skokiaan.  (If you’re not familiar with Mr. Ruffins, he’s one hell of a performer, often paid the compliment of embodying the spirit of Louis Armstrong himself.)

Step Three – Take your seat in the airport or other public space.

Step Four – Click on this YouTube video *

Step Five – As Kermit gets going, “a smile on every note” (a quote I read yesterday about clarinetist Pete Fountain, but which applies equally here), look at the people around you. Somehow he seems to be accompanying everybody, whether they’re walking energetically or dazedly, texting, drinking from a water bottle, contending with their kids. Because what he’s doing is playing the beauty of life.

Step Six – Check and see. Good chance you’re smiling.

Step Seven – Good chance what you’ve seen and are feeling will make you better equipped to bring out the smile in others.

Anyway, that’s my theory till proven otherwise.  Let’s build a body of empirical evidence, shall we?

And what the hell, go ahead and try this at home if you like.  I won’t tell.

* Kermit – should you ever see this, and would rather no one had put the recording on YouTube, let me know, and I’ll find some way to change this blogpost while still securing the improvement of the world.

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Room for Improvement = Swaying Under the Influence = Joy

Not sure I’ve ever been so pleased to discover room for improvement in my photography skills.

My pictures of the Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra at the Montreal Jazz Festival show that I would have been well-served by a faster shutter speed.  Oh well, next time.  The important thing is that those guys were flying and a joyous time was had by all.  And besides, they were making me sway against my will. 

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Oh, and courtesy of Funkzie Groove, I now understand that The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” is a funk song:

 

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My Mother’s Son Strikes Again

Most of my writing time of late has gone into determining if the book I started writing some years ago still has a pulse.  Time for a blog post, I say…

When I was young, I was easily embarrassed by my mother’s habit, when hearing a few words in conversation from a song she knew, of joyfully breaking into the song herself.

“Is the Expos game against the Phillies a day game or night game?” someone might ask.

“Night and daaay, you are the one,” she would sing back. “Only you beneath the moon and under the sun.”  And then, perhaps after a short self-conscious laugh over her impromptu joy, she would dutifully answer the question.

Meanwhile I would look for a place to hide.  I guess I might as well get over it, given that I realized a few years ago, I have the same habit.

For instance…        

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While taking shots of this lamppost I’m in love with at the Outremont Metro station, giving the anonymous underground the quality of hominess, anyone within earshot would hear me singing – loudly and possibly on key – Herman’s Hermits’ rendition of “Leaning on the Lamppost at the Corner of the Street.”  How rewarded these commuters must have felt to be serenaded with such words of wisdom as:

She’s wonderful, she’s marvellous, she’s fabulous, she’s beautiful,
And anyone can understand why,
I’m leaning on a lamp-post at the corner of the street
In case a certain little lady comes by.

Then, after capturing a bit more of Outremont station…

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 …I walked around the city for the next two days, sharing the song with everyone else.  Couldn’t help it.  Generosity is something else that comes naturally to my mother.

I’ve also been taking pictures of other things than Metro stations.  For example…

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If you’d like to see some other images from my time here, this is a link to about 25 of my “greatest hits”:

https://plus.google.com/photos/117565792703398298858/albums/6029705927308071841?banner=pwa

And if you’d like to know what Herman and his hermits had to say:

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