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 Ten– What’s Tina Turner Got to do With It?

(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.)

Before I get to my recent experience with

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Sh’asah li kol tzarki

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who acts for all my needs

please allow me to start in on some bragging.

I say this knowing that bragging is poor manners, but sometimes a man can’t help himself.

While I have some modest proficiency at gratitude, I am world-class at dissatisfaction.  Ask me to itemize the ways in which my life should be other than it is – happier, better – and I can go an hour straight, barely needing to take a breath.  At which point, I’ll be warmed up.  And being a model of consistency, I can produce day in and day out.  When I’m really on my game, which is not infrequently, my dissatisfaction soars past mere noting of what’s wrong in my world to peaks of glumness and dejection.

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New Orleans

Unfortunately, though, since adopting a dedicated mediation practice a few years ago, my talent for getting to and sustaining such states of mind has been impaired.  Worst of all, it’s become increasingly difficult to take out my displeasure on the world.

Cases in point…

A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of a funk, I’m in the lineup at a drugstore.  I’ve got my items in hand, and a game plan.  All I have to do is avoid eye contact with the cashier, grunt the briefest of thank-yous, and be on my way.  But as she scans my nasal strips and shaving cream and I open my wallet, I am suddenly blindsided by a moment of inner lightness and find myself saying, “Well, I had a lot of money at the start of the day.”

It takes her a moment, then she looks at me, suddenly realizing that someone is talking to her.  Now I’ve done it.  I’ve gone and started some kind of connection.  Still, if I just keep my head down, I can do some damage control, limit myself to gutturals, and slink out of the place. 

But instead, I add, “You know, if I just stopped sleeping and shaving, I’d save a lot of money.” 

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From Montreal’s Palais des congrès

Now she’s smiling at me, and commiserating, telling me she’s concluded that the only way she can retire is to move back to the jungle.  “The jungle?” I ask.  Yes, she says.  She was raised in the jungle in the Philippines, where homes are passed down from one generation to the next.  “So will you really be moving back?” I probe a little further.  Absolutely, she answers.  She wants to say more, and I want to listen, but there are people in line behind me, and I take my leave.

Despite my best laid plans, I exit the drugstore feeling light-hearted.  Fortunately, by the next day, my Olympic-class resilience has kicked in, and I am again able to spend it in an unhappy mood. 

But at the supermarket in the evening, I make the mistake of pointing out to the young woman at checkout that someone has left a basket of groceries in the aisle.

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My favourite Montreal alleyway

She thanks me and says she’ll call someone to reshelve them.  Being unable to leave well enough alone, I find myself asking, “So do I get a discount on my groceries now?”  She laughs, and laments that she doesn’t even get a discount herself.  Again, light-heartedness sets in.

Wil this never end?

But that’s the way it is with meditation, at least for me.  It is anything but a magic bullet, but what I’ve experienced since adopting a dedicated practice a few years ago, is that I go off the rails much less often, and when I do, I get back on much more quickly.  And when I do Metta (or loving-friendliness) practice, I’m also more likely to access compassion.

So on an ice cold afternoon, walking past a homeless guy I’ve gotten to know a little, despite feeling unhappy, I stop to find out how he’s doing.  Rattled is how he’s doing.  As far as I can follow, last night he’d taken some medications that worked against each other, and had passed out in the street.  Rushed to the hospital, life seeping out of him, a nurse was trying to inject him with something critical but his body was so frozen, she couldn’t get the syringe in.  “Oh, God!  Oh, God!” she screamed, frightening the bejesus out of him.  Finally she got the needle in, and after spending the night at the hospital, he was released this morning.  I doubt I’m following the details properly, but I know it’s important for me to try, and to let him know I’m glad he’s around to fight the fight.  People have been generous today, he says, bringing him lots of food.  As is his way, he asks if I’d like some. 

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From the Rosemont overpass, Montreal

But if Tina Turner happens to have been surreptitiously following this blog series, upon reading this post she might well be asking, “What’s God got to do with it, got to do with it?”  Where do the Birkot HaShachar, the Jewish morning blessings, fit into this?

Throughout this period, the brucha of which I’ve been trying to be mindful, and which I’ve recited more frequently than any other is

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Sh’asah li kol tzarki

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who acts for all my needs

Feeling dissatisfied as I was, it’s not the brucha I would have chosen.  But when beginning this series, I’d decided to adhere to the traditional sequence of the brachot and this one was next on the playlist, so I work with what I’ve got instead of what I want.  Which, right now, feels like the very point of the brucha.  I may not have all I want, but this blessing is about what I need.  And the essentials I need – food and water, clothing, shelter – have been lacking for many, across time, across the planet, and around the corner.  I have friends with illnesses that make it difficult to maintain a healthy diet, never mind a pleasurable one, and others who struggle to put a comfortable roof over their heads.  I, on the other hand, without having done anything to earn it, have been granted the circumstances and skills that provide me with food and shelter and, while I’m at it, winter gloves that are warm and snug, but not too snug, and which I could effortlessly replace should I ever mislay them. 

Time and meditation practice do their thing and the doldrums abate.  I find myself back at baseline, perhaps a slightly elevated new baseline, more content much of the time and feeling equipped to address discontent from a more discerning, settled place.  

Perhaps in some subtle way, the brucha has contributed to this ascendance.  I’m not sure, to be honest.  What I am sure of is that I’m glad to have its company, and if it will allow me, I’d like to keep it.

Let’s allow the ancient liturgists the last word…

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Sh’asah li kol tzarki

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who acts for all my needs

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From the top of the steps of St. Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal

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Let’s Get Mindful

Sometime during the course of your day, or maybe several times, put your mind to the blessing, perhaps reciting it…

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, Sh’asah li kol tzarki

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who acts for all my needs

…and take a moment to reflect very specifically of the ways in which you have been granted essentials like food, clothing and shelter.  Perhaps it will give you immediate access to gratitude or perhaps it’s planting a seed that will sprout gratitude in days to come.  Or perhaps it’s just enough to note what is.

…and/or…

Are there ways in which you can help others – across the globe and around the corner – to access these essentials?  Is this a good time to make a specific plan to help in ways large or small?

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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 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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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…

…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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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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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Seven – My Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Giving of the Tithe…or…Tradition Meets Tradition

(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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My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,

He is tramping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.

He has loosed the frightful cannon of his terrible swift sword,

His truth is marching on…

Thanks to Mr. John Boutte, I now have my answer. 

It’s a few weeks back, in the midst of the Days of Awe between the Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, and the brucha of which I’m trying to be mindful is:

Baruch atah Adonai, eloyheynu melech ha’olam, matir asurim

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who frees the captive

IMG_2042a-2Jewish tradition this time of year is to be especially generous with tzedakah (commonly translated as charity, with a connotation of it being more an obligation than a choice).  With that in mind, I commit to tithing, another Jewish tradition.  One tenth of my salary, at least for this next paycheque, will go towards relieving the burdened.

But who?  Where?

When John Boutte’s jazz- and gospel-inflected version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic (a song known to many simply as Glory, Glory, Hallelujah) comes up on my phone’s playlist, my mind leaps ahead to words I know are coming…

He died to make men holy

We’ve got to live to make men free

My God, my God, my God is marching on

IMG_2045To listen to Boutte is to listen to New Orleans (a lyric from another of his songs….I’m New Orleans born, New Orleans bred, when I die I’ll be New Orleans dead).  So when the clarion call comes from “the city that care forgot,” it’s my responsibility to show some love to a city that has granted me so much joy.

I can use my people’s tradition to support another people’s tradition, that of the social aid and pleasure clubs – mutual aid societies begun more than a century ago by African-Americans to support one another through trials such as illness and burial costs.  They continue their efforts today, even as they continue their annual celebrations – “second line” parades in which the members deck out in flashy suits, sporting matching parasols and, accompanied by a brass band, strut from one neighbourhood watering hole to another, trailed by anyone who wants to stomp behind. 

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The parades are exuberant and delirious, civil and anarchic, and sometimes dangerous.  Itineraries often have injunctions like “respect yourself and your tradition, and leave your guns and troubles at home.”  But more than anything else, they are live-for-today joyful.

I research how I can support the clubs, and am quickly reminded of the well-regarded New Orleans Musicians Clinic, which provides medical assistance to musicians and other tradition-bearers, including social aid and pleasure club members. 

Glory, glory, hallelujah, John Boutte’s voice rings in my ear…and I stick a crowbar in my wallet.

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Postscript: About a week after I make my donation, I get an e-mail from New Orleans telling me a chicken joint had seen one of my second line images, and wants to know if they can blow it up and put it on their wall.  Maybe my act of modest generosity had found its way into the ether. In any case, it seems only right to redirect the modest fee they’ll be paying me back to the musicians’ clinic.  As for me, I’m hoping to negotiate some complementary legs and thighs for my next visit. 

And now, some video evidence…from the Prince of Wales Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade a couple of years ago…

…and Mr. Boutte and friends performing The City of New Orleans…

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Let’s Get Mindful

  • Do you have financial resources that will enable you to help out the burdened in the world?  Might this be a good time to share some of them?  If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the options, just keep your intention in mind.  And because making a verbal commitment often better equips us to carry out our intentions, you might wish to say the brucha aloud

Baruch atah Adonai, eloyheynu melech ha’olam, matir asurim

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who frees the captive

Then, stay open to the cues the world gives you, so you can know your next step.

  • Might there be merit in making a commitment to share a defined proportion of your earnings with those who are shackled in the world?  If you’re Jewish – and hey, even if you’re not – you might wish to make the commitment in a multiple of eighteen (Jewish numerology for “chai,” or life).
  • Whether or not you have the resources to provide financial assistance, can you keep an eye out today for those in your midst who are burdened with some weight or another?  And find a way to help lighten the load, or perhaps even lift it from their shoulders altogether?

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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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Filed under Birkot HaShachar, John Boutte, Mindfulness, New Orleans

Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Six – T-Shirt & Token Consciousness

(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.)

Sometimes all it takes to act like a better person is to get in the habit of expressing gratitude to God.  That, and having someone with a cane chase you down in the street.

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Baruch atah adonay, eloheinu melech ha’olam, malbish arumim

Blessed are You, The Compassionate, who clothes the naked

Most days on my way home from work, I pass a man holding out a cup for change.  He’s the kind of person you want to help – older yet innocent, often quick to recount the generosity of others with wonder and wide blue-grey eyes, and usually appreciative of whatever you give him, even if it’s just a “hello, how are you?”

If you’ve got time, he’s usually got a story or a quip.

Once, as I passed by with a slice of pizza and a root beer, he took a look at the can.

“You didn’t get diet?” he asked.

“I don’t really like diet drinks,” I said, then patted my stomach and added, “but maybe I should get in the habit.”

“Nah,” he said, his eyes sparkling as he broke into a mischievous smile.  “That’s just baby fat.” 

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On a different day, not long ago, I dropped some coins in his cup and continued on.  Half a minute later, I suddenly heard shouting from behind.  I turned to see him hobbling on his cane towards me, as fast as he could manage.

“I don’t think you meant to do this,” he said, reaching into his cup and pulling out some subway tokens I’d given him by accident.  Worth about three dollars each, they could have been a windfall, but evidently, at too great a cost to his integrity.

So as I recite the blessing which I’m trying to keep in mind…

Baruch atah adonay, eloheinu melech ha’olam, malbish arumim

Blessed are You, The Compassionate, who clothes the naked

IMG_0792…I remember the delight he’d once taken in the t-shirt of a passerby, with its image of a grizzly bear.  And I recall his references to his years living in the north.  As far as I can tell, he’s a nature lover.  My role is clear.  The next time I do laundry, I take a t-shirt I’ve seldom worn from my dresser, and give it an extra washing.  I got it in Banff a few years ago, and it has an image of the Rockies.  Though I’ve worn it a little more of late, it remains on my clothing B-list.  I’m sure it would fit him, and he’s bound to enjoy it more than I have.

When I offer it to him a few days later, he says, “I love it already.”  The truth, though, is that he seems to be in a glum place, not taking pleasure in much.  Nonetheless, as he stores the shirt in his knapsack for safe keeping and I start to leave, he makes me wait until he pulls out a chocolate drink someone had bought for him, and hands it to me.

As if being able to give him the t-shirt hadn’t been reward enough.

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Let’s Get Mindful

  • So about those clothes in the closet that are guaranteed to fit you again after you take off those extra pounds….Can someone else use them?  Would there be merit in reciting the blessing

Baruch atah adonay, eloheinu melech ha’olam, malbish arumim

Blessed are You, The Compassionate, who clothes the naked

          and parting with them sooner rather than later?

  • The next time you find yourself grumbling about the weather, consider your wardrobe.  If you’re wearing clothes that make the heat or the cold or the rain more bearable, would this be a good time for the blessing?
  • How about that article of clothing you’re wearing that you really, really like?  What are the factors in your life that have given you the resources to acquire it?  Might a blessing – malbish arumim or one of your own creation – be a good way of expressing gratitude for your good fortune?
  • We are now well into the Jewish month of Elul, a period for self-reflection leading to Rosh Hashana and the beginning of the High Holy Days.  One tradition is that we be especially generous with tzedakah (roughly translated as “charity”) at this time.  Can the blessing help the Jews among us get there?  And if you’re not Jewish but are looking for an imperative to be generous, feel free to join in.

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Stumbling Through Blessing: Part Five – Quiet Seeds, Big Apple

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

At the outset of a hot and humid summer’s day in New York, there’s no imagining that the blessing of which I’m trying to be mindful will lead me to memories of a snowy day in Montreal with my mother, and the gift of vision she brought.*

*The paintings in this blog post are hers.

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Poke’ach Ivrim

Blessed Are You, Source of all that is, who gives sight to the blind

What I do know is that the smile I’m wearing as I descend into the subway on 14th Street is starting to feel forced.  Even if a minute ago, it was the real thing.

It started when a red-bearded hipster with a Montreal Expos cap passed me on the sidewalk.

“Go, Expos” I said, with New York spontaneity.

“You know it,” he answered.

Though from Lubbock, Texas, he’s always had an affinity for northern sports teams.  He’s “psyched” he’ll be making his first visit to Montreal this fall, though disappointed the season will be over by the time he gets there.  He doesn’t seem to know the Expos quit town ten years ago, and I haven’t the heart to tell him.

A moment later, a woman eases her bicycle from the street into Union Square.  She’s got huge heart-shaped purple glasses, and a Terrier riding shotgun in a custom-made sidecar.  The glasses and sidecar could have cost her fifty dollars or a thousand.  It doesn’t matter.  Either way, I love her.

But as I enter the steamy, dark subway station, I feel the giddiness leaving.  I don’t want it to, so I force the smile for a while, but clinging to it makes things worse, and I reluctantly let go.

Freshly returned to the world from a meditation retreat, and wanting to ease my way back to urban living, I’m taking the A Train to the far northern tip of Manhattan for Inwood, one of New York’s quieter neighbourhoods. IMG_2519

It promises to be a long and dull ride, except as unpleasantly punctuated by the fighting between the young children across the aisle.  But remembering that long and dull are largely states of mind, I try to take an interest in my surroundings.   

A woman stretches her arms around the flower-patterned knapsack on her knees to hold a book, pursing her lips as she reads.  A man in a green-striped t-shirt is trying to nap, not sure where to rest his thick arms.  The Spanish of the adults accompanying the fighting children has a rhythm to it.  The more boisterous of the kids is wearing a red tank top emblazoned with the word CRASH.  Cool air blows through the train.  A couple of women – strangers – sit side-by-side, one with bright pink nail polish on her brown feet, the other with shoelaces the same shade on her white shoes.  At 116th Street, the doors start to close, when we all turn towards a high-pitched wailing sound.  A bony old woman with fiery eyes is comically screeching eee-eee-eee as she sprints out at the last second, her cane pointed straight ahead to block the door.  When she makes it, she grins triumphantly, which seems to give the rest of us permission to smile. 

207th Street.  The end of the line. 

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Heading for Inwood Hill Park, I’m befriended by a civic-minded woman stabbing at stray litter with a poker.  A refugee from mid-town, she says most New Yorkers don’t know Inwood exists.  None of its buildings are more than six stories high, which means greatly diminished anonymity.  She says this like it’s a burden, but I’m not convinced.

At the park, I pass a man on a bench, training binoculars on a patch of marshland beside the Harlem River. “Big, isn’t he?” he says of the great blue heron he’s watching, one of a handful he’s been monitoring all summer long. 

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Walking along the streets, and standing in a courtyard, I’m treated to a piano recital coming from an apartment above.  Further along, I stop to photograph the art deco entryway of an older building.  A beefy, sallow-faced man, cigarette drooping from his mouth, strikes up conversation.  He’s an émigré from Yugoslavia, and the superintendent of the building, which went up in 1939.

It’s nice, he says, but you should see the building from ‘38 where he used to work.  Now that is a building.  He holds his thumb and forefinger in a circle, and draws them to his mouth for a kiss.

And so it continues.  Walking.  Exchanges with strangers who stop being strange.  Quiet delights, a call to my father in Montreal, distracted thought giving way to more quiet delights.

And I say the blessing…

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Poke’ach Ivrim

Blessed Are You, Source of all that is, who gives sight to the blind

…and then think about it.

About how it reminds me to truly see what’s in my midst.

And how, by bringing God into the conversation, I am declaring that I can’t do it all on my own, and never could.

What is the source of whatever capacity I have for encountering the world, rather than simply walking through it?  Much comes from friends and teachers, my father and brothers and other family.  Maybe there is a divine source at work.  I’d like to think so.

And definitely, a great deal comes from my mother, Rhoda Diamond Blumer (zichrona livracha, may her memory be for a blessing), who passed eight months ago, and has remained on the minds of all who loved her (and we are a multitude).

I flash to a memory of a winter’s day when I was in my forties; it’s the day after a storm and my mother points out how beautiful the trees are with the snow still resting on their branches, cheering up the world.  I must have seen this unconsciously, but she explained to me what I’d been seeing. 

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Always one to make the best of things, my mother didn’t care for winter, but could still create this…

And I think of standing at the airport with her when I was a teenager, telling me how much delight she took in watching people arrive from overseas, and their joyful reunions with loved ones.  And of the pride and pleasure she took in Montreal’s Victoria Avenue, with its multiethnic tapestry, suggesting a diverse and tolerant world which she knew in her heart was how things could be.  She just had a gift for seeing beauty and possibility in the day-to-day.  For me, it often comes with effort – an effort made easier by having my mother for a role model.

And so I am grateful for the blessing that helps me remember the gift she gave me.  And still does.

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Poke’ach Ivrim

Blessed Are You, Source of all that is, who gives sight to the blind

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Let’s Get Mindful

  • Get out there.  And do something routine, perhaps something you do every day.  And stop to see, really see, who and what is before you.  And because giving voice to things can sanctify them, consider reciting the blessing:

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Poke’ach Ivrim

Blessed Are You, Source of all that is, who gives sight to the blind

  • If you like the idea of doing this, but aren’t quite taking it on, assign yourself a time or two in the day, and go for it.
  • Stop.  And reflect on the forces – human, divine – that have enabled you to see what you might otherwise have missed.  Sanctify your good fortune by saying a blessing, either poke’ach ivrim/gives sight to the blind or one of your own.
  • Are you looking for a way to volunteer your time or money?  Is a cause related to providing others with proper eyewear the answer?  Call it God, or God working through you, or you just being a human, and be grateful you’re in a position to help.

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