Of course, it helps that Montreal has a knack for wearing “inclement” with panache:
[Prelude: Life is good, real good. Figured out how to embed the video that I hadn’t been able to add to the previous version of this blog post.]
Well if you’re going to get seduced by something, it might as well be the restoration of your soul. Didn’t know I needed it, but a light breeze is coming in through the front door of the double-shotgun where I stay when in New Orleans (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/71624), giving me a view of a weathered fence beside a more weathered house, and behind it a more freshly painted purple and burgundy job, and I am enjoying just the right kind of hangover. The kind where I got drunk on one beer and a six-pack of New Orleans vibe.
Started with Amanda Shaw and the “Cute Guys” electrifying the crowd at the Louisiana Seafood Festival at City Park (not such great quality video, but Ms. Shaw and company’s sound makes up for it)
Continued at the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen
where a fusion trad jazz-funk band got a bunch of us on our feet and kept us there. Before I knew it, a young hottie was flirting with me while the band played “I’ll Fly Away.” She ditched me, though, for someone twenty years my senior. Can’t blame her; he was a better dancer.
And then, it was John Boutte across the street at dba doing:
City of New Orleans
Somewhere, it dawns on me that I’m having a religious experience. In the way that happens here at its best, it’s not just about performing, it’s about connecting. So Boutte gets a “young cat” onstage for a duet on “At the Foot of Canal Street,” and tells us whatever stories are on his mind about his day and his life. Next thing I know, a young couple have pushed their way in front. I’m annoyed at first, but admit to myself that it’s sweet the way he really wants her to be close to the stage. Then I notice their wardrobe. He’s in a tux, she’s in a wedding gown. And Boutte tries to get the back of the house to hush (“that’ll never happen,” someone shouts out….dba is long and narrow and if you’re far away from the stage, you can’t see the performers) so he can sing a love song for them. And then he ends the show with his Treme theme song, the newly married couple leading in the joy of it all:
When all’s said and done, he signs a couple of CDs for me, tells me about the time he saved Massey Hall in Toronto from going down in flames when a fellow performer tossed a cigarette in a trash can, and I talk about the connection I saw on stage and with the audience, and how it had the quality of a religious experience. This weirds him out, I think, but I also think he can take it.
Oh, plus I discovered a delightful lyric in another song by someone I now know was named Little Milton:
If I don’t love you baby
Grits ain’t groceries
Eggs ain’t poultry
And Mona Lisa was a man
Coming soon to a blog post near this one…my tale of stepping out at the Prince of Wales second line…
Next to actually getting to see this, the best part was that when I asked if I could take this picture, no one demanded I sign a waiver first. Thank you, young woman who served me at the Hot Oven Bakery this morning:
And next to actually getting to see this, the best part is that the moment lasted a while:
Well, sure, the beauty of the leaves is ephemeral. But at least the sky is eternal.
Oh…except that it’s not always that blue.
Or filled with interestingly shaped clouds.
So what was my point again? Oh, yeah! No matter what, there’s surely going to be something interesting going on. Even when the leaves call it a season…
So you know that thing about how the only constant is change?
Here’s what I’m wondering. Assuming the theory of evolution is correct, I’m wondering if natural selection allowed our particular brand of hominoid to survive because we have a capacity for seeing some changes with joy as well as dread:
And here’s what I’m also wondering. If natural selection has any say in the matter, what will happen to those of us who can manage the changing leaves, but are made to shudder by the pace of broader societal and technological transformation?
For now, though, I’ll try to satisfy myself with, “Hey! Look how pretty the leaves are.”
That, and the pleasure of walking under a building I normally regard from a distance, to take time for a closer look:
We seem to have reached that time of year when the light is always bouncing off of things.*
Since taking this shot a few days ago
and seeing metal pipes meld with bike melding with an imagined cyclist with the key to the lock, I’ve found myself thinking of these lyrics from Paul Simon’s “Love is Eternal Sacred Light”
How’d it all begin? Started with a bang
Couple of light years later, stars and planets sang
Fire warmed the cold, waves of colours flew
Moonlight into gold, earth to green and blue…
Earth becomes a farm
Farmer takes a wife
Wife becomes a river and giver of life
Man becomes machine
Oil runs down his face
Machine becomes a man
With a bomb in the marketplace
As Mr. Simon seems to do so often, he finds room for the ominous, spiritual and playful almost in the same breath. Later in the song, there’s a lyric: “I’m driving along in my automobile. It’s a brand new pre-owned ’96 Ford.”
It’s Simcha Torah today, when Jewish tradition has celebrants reading the end of the Torah, with Moses’ death, then starting over with the creation of the universe. Death gives way to rebirth, as hopefully (and effortfully) bombs in marketplaces will one day give way to rivers of life.
Here’s how the song goes. Be sure to tell Paul I sent you:
* (or is it that we’ve reached that time of year when we’re more likely to be outdoors when the sun is low to the horizon….I think it IS this time of year, but anyone who knows otherwise is welcome to leave a comment)
Time to risk stretching a metaphor….
I think of this flotilla of clouds (last seen a year ago on Lac St. Louis in Quebec) as a reminder of the moments of our lives. Each unique, each likely to command our attention as though they represent something eternal, but nonetheless moving along to be replaced by other apparent eternities.
Brought to you by Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and my ongoing mission to walk the walk, talk the talk, and sit the sit…
Yes, I know.
I seem to be a one-trick pony of late. To which I can only say…when the sky gets less interesting, I’ll start taking pictures of something else. In fact, I have – take a look at the other side of these sky pics
In Toronto a few days ago:
In Toronto during the magic (freaking hour) two days ago:
In Montreal, a week ago:
And finally, in non-sky-related news….also in Montreal, at what is fast on its way to becoming my favourite greasy spoon:
Here’s a Hasidic tale that has more to say on the topic:
One day a rabbi gazed through the window of his study which looked out upon the marketplace. People were hurrying to and fro, each attending to his or her own particular business.
Suddenly the rabbi saw a familiar face.
“Hikel!” he called. “Come in, I want to speak with you.”
“Shalom, Rabbi, how are you?”
“Thank God, I am fine. Tell me, Hikel, what were you doing in the marketplace?”
“Oh, I’ve very busy today. I have a lot of business to take care of.”
“Hikel,” asked the rabbi. “Have you looked up at the sky today?”
“At the sky, Rabbi? No, of course not. I’m too busy to look at the sky.”
“Hikel, look out the window and tell me what you see.”
“I see people and horses and carriages, all rushing around doing business.”
“Hikel,” the rabbi said, “in fifty years there will be other people in other carriages, drawn by other horses, and we will not be here. And, Hikel, in a hundred years, neither the marketplace nor this town will even exist. Look at the sky, Hikel, look at the sky!”
I suppose I might have given in to irritation when my buddy Jamey texted me a couple of days ago to alert me he might be late for the start of the baseball game. Especially since he had the tickets. On the other hand, given that he was attending a memorial service, irritation would have been bad form. Not that I’m always above bad form where such things are concerned, but on this occasion I instead managed to remember to pay attention to my surroundings on the way to the ballpark, and take note of…
…the collage of shapes to be found in the cityscape…
…and the bounce of light off Roy Thompson Hall onto a building I’ll have to learn the name of one day…
…as it was, we ended up in the ballpark in sufficient time to pay ridiculous sums at the concession stand and still catch the first of R.A. Dickey’s knuckleballs. The good guys won, and the not-so-bad guys got to celebrate…
...clearly it was a tense game, though. Our beards were jet black when it started.
I’ve been working on this living thing for close to fifty years (okay…a little more than fifty…what’s your point?) , yet I find myself being surprised by green.
Despite one of my previous posts, I haven’t minded this winter so much; something I’m inclined to attribute in large part to mindfulness practice. One moment I’m grumping about the weather, and the next I decide to take an interest in it, paying attention to how it feels on my skin, the way it intersects with my breath, what effect it has on the sounds of the world around me.
Despite the fact that winter and I have been getting along pretty well, when the images below recently surfaced on my screensaver, I was shocked to see how explosive the greenness of spring and summer can be when contrasted to the grays and whites of February.
I’m still trying not to rush out of winter, but man, that green stuff is a rush.
So before I get to something I’ve been taught by some of my spiritual teachers, I thought I’d first tell you what I don’t know about the young woman who works at the burger place I was at tonight. I’ll also slip in some of my latest New Orleans pics to give your eyes a break, in part because one of them provides a funky variation on the teaching (and in part because I continue to find the place so damned photogenic).
I was tempted to know that the young woman at the burger place was bored and perhaps irritated with the customer talking to her from the other side of the counter. Two and a half times her age, he dominated the conversation to the point of owning it, focusing mostly on anecdotes about his life, many of which had to do with the ethnic mix of women he’s known, and in some cases, might have liked to know better. I assumed that the young woman was bored and perhaps resentful of being made captive to his story-telling by her service job; an assumption born largely of the fact that my default is to be put off by people who strike me as disproportionately interested in their own lives and insufficiently interested in others’ (which doesn’t mean I’m not one of them, but that’s for another time).
But then, the young woman began to challenge my assumptions by periodically laughing or punctuating his speeches with reflections of her own, which in turn propelled the conversation further and even got him to ask her to elaborate time or two on something she’d previously told him.
And so they both did me a favour, reminding me that there’s a difference between what we know and what we’ve decided to know before the evidence comes in. Was she bored? Maybe. Or maybe he’s the most interesting part of her burger-flipping evenings. I don’t know.
That’s the beauty of it. I really don’t know.
This is how I recall Rabbi Alan Lew discussing the “I don’t know” practice in his book, Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life. Lew, who had been a long time practitioner of Zen Buddhism before discovering a connection to Judaism, talks about the practice of periodically responding to all questions asked by saying “I don’t know.” For instance, we might be asked our opinion on capital punishment, and most of the time, simply answer with a rote response formed years ago which we have habitually repeated without reflecting on if it still holds true. And by giving rote responses to life, by forgetting how much we don’t know, we close ourselves off to what is in front of us here and now.
Which is one of the reasons I love that “think that you might be wrong” sign from New Orleans. Most signs I see there are replaced between my visits, but that one’s lasted a year. Must be because there’s some resonance to it. Or maybe it’s because taking it down would require climbing a very tall pole.
Either way…you go, ignorance!
And if you want to see the box set of images, click below:
Many people I know were understandably eager to express their dissatisfaction with today’s weather, greeting us in Toronto this morning to the tune of –20 Celsius (–4 Fahrenheit).
But at a chanting circle I was in tonight, we got to discussing the breath, and I was pleased to hear more than a few of us who were equally eager to express their delight in the freshness of the morning air.
Talk to me in six weeks, and you might get a different story, but for now, I’m really enjoying the wintry weather.
Interesting what the snow reveals. Normally the message on this picnic bench is hard to see.
And in the midst of urban shadow…
(Oh, yeah. In my last post I said something about exploring what we don’t know. I’ll still get to it. It’s not like our ignorance is going anywhere.)
There are some people who like Mondays. If you are among them, we’ll talk later. Alright, alright. You’re allowed to like Mondays. Sometimes, I’m even one of you.
But that’s not who I was when this day set in, grey and overcast and chilly. If it weren’t too early in winter to start using adjectives like bitter, I would have. But more than bitter, I greeted the day as colourless and bland, and that was the frame of mind I carried throughout the morning.
I went out for lunch, still offended by the blandness of it all. But when I started my walk back to work I tried to pay attention to the world instead of my sour mood. At which moment, I noticed how the cold air I was drawing into my lungs with each breath contrasted so strongly with the soup I’d just had, but this in combination with the criss-crossing pedestrians keeping me from getting my green light just seemed to validate my irritability.
I tried to keep paying attention, and – forgive me if I’m sounding pollyannaish – then the world showed me how all this blandness was in my head.
A young man glided on his bicycle between the streetcar tracks, his long hair pushed back by the breeze. Behind him came another cyclist, swathed in heavy, black winter clothes, working hard at the pedals. A woman passes me on the sidewalk; her limbs are pointed in all directions due to what must be a muscular disease, yet she’s determinedly carrying shopping bags from the crooks of her arms. A girl with her hood up almost walks into an oncoming car, but stops at the last moment; she’d seen it coming, but I didn’t know that, and my heart has leapt to panic speed. A Latino couple step out of Silverstein’s, a wholesale bakery that does walk-in business. They’ve got fresh onion buns, and impatient, they’re eating them on the sidewalk. I try to smell them, but without success. Still, all my senses are active now, and I realize how fiercely the pipes outside the bakery are hissing. My breath and the pipes are a perfect pair – the pipes make steam sounds, my breath makes steam visuals. I too am playing a part in this pageant of the senses, which has unfolded in just a few minutes. I feel like Bart in the opening credits to The Simpsons, minus the skateboard.
This of course does not fully terminate my audience with the Monday blahs. But it does help me find me way back out.
PS – The next post I have in mind will be much less about me, and more about what you and I don’t know. With a bit of New Orleans flavouring.
I’ve only made one New Year’s resolution for 2013, but it ought to be enough.
I’ve resolved to use this blog to demonstrate my efforts to keep up with Moses.
Which I suppose bears some elaboration, starting with a brief discussion of the Torah. But first, let me assure the non- and anti-religious among you that it will barely hurt at all. You might feel a pinch, but that should be about it.
The Torah (AKA the Hebrew Bible AKA the Old Testament) is divided into sections known as parshiot, one of which is read each week until, at the end of a the year, it’s been read cover to cover, scroll to scroll.
This week’s parsha is Shemot, the beginning of the Book of Exodus. And though it consists of only five of the nearly two hundred chapters in the Torah, it covers a dizzying amount of narrative; starting with an Egyptian Pharaoh who did not know Joseph and didn’t care much for his descendents, then bringing us swiftly to the birth of Moses, his youth in the royal court, his killing of an Egyptian taskmaster, followed by his flight into the wilderness, his audience with God at the burning bush, and his initial efforts to get the Pharaoh to release the Israelite slaves.
It doesn’t say much about me, though.
So where do I fit in?
Not the royal court, that’s for sure. I don’t know much about royalty, and have no plans to change that. As for leading a nation of underdogs against a powerful and cruel autocrat, I’m not sure where I would begin, even if I had the stones.
But now and again I have a burning bush moment.
This is how Richard Friedman translates Exodus 3:3-4 in his Commentary on the Torah:
And [Moses] looked, and here: the bush was burning in the fire, and the bush was not consumed! And Moses said, “Let me turn and see this great sight. Why doesn’t the bush burn? And YHWH [the name of God] saw that he turned to see. And God called to him from inside the bush, and He said, “Moses, Moses.”
Then before Moses knows what’s hit him, God gets busy deputizing him with the task of freeing the Israelites, while disregarding his impressive persistence at suggesting someone else be appointed with the honour.
Which only goes to show you, Moses; that’s what you get for paying attention.
My favourite interpretation of the burning bush story is that what sets Moses apart from others is that he was attentive enough to his surroundings to see that the bush was aflame yet not surrendering to the fire. Only after he has demonstrated this capacity for awareness does God know that he is equipped for the task.
Being a veteran scoffer, I know what some of you must be thinking. “The man notices a burning bush that isn’t really burning, and that makes him special? That just means he’s not a dolt. Who wouldn’t notice a burning bush that’s not burning?”
The answer, much of the time, is me.
I am constantly surrounded by moments of exquisite beauty or exquisite dullness – let’s call it exquisite now-ness – without being aware of it. Burning bushes and towering infernos and still, small voices fill the world around me, harmonious and discordant, all rich in their own way, and I’m somewhere else altogether. That just goes with being human; perhaps all the more so with being human in the age of supertech, responding to the beeps and bling of our age. But on those occasions when I extract myself from the act of pursuing and return myself to where I’m actually standing, I am often rewarded with gifts that come from merely paying attention.
New Year’s resolutions are not born accompanied by encouraging prognoses. This Wikipedia entry I’ve come across (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Year’s_resolution) tells of a study in which it was found that 88% of its subjects failed at keeping their resolutions.
On the other hand, in late March, more than nine months ago, I made a commitment to meditate on a daily basis, and since then, have only missed four days. So maybe I’m not a lost cause. Maybe this is my Year of the Blog. A year in which I will report back often to those who might be interested in my efforts to pay attention, both with new essays and reflections, or simply with photographs which say, “Hey! Look what I noticed!”
Guess we’ll find out.
A link to this story of mine published by Travelmag, an online UK publicaton:
Celebrated my 50th with another visit to New Orleans. As always, indulged in the vibe, the food, the music, and even added a couple of sazeracs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sazerac). Although I got up closer to some of the more traumatized parts of the city; I must still be smitten with it because I’m already calculating my next trip back.
Though surrounded by water, there aren’t a ton of places to go and see it, for water is the enemy. But here’s a look at the Mississippi:
And here is the latest batch of images, 33 all told:
Also shot some video:
A band called Yes Ma’am busking on Royal Street (parts one and two)
The blog of Raychel Severance, one of the band members
And a 360 at a quiet intersection in Bywater, perhaps the part of town I love most of all. Some parts are closer to pristine than this, but I have great affection for its crumbly sections. Close to the Mississippi levee and train tracks, you hear train and boat sounds all the time
Oh, and while I’m here, wishing you peace and strength in 2012, and only the best brand of maelstrom.
It’s taken me a good, long while (hey…beats a bad, long while) to link to images from my May 2011 trip to China and Vietnam. Hopefully, a few have been worth the wait.
Here’s a sampler…
In the hutongs of Beijing
The rice terraces of Yuanyang
The walled city of Pingyao
And about 150 other images
Story-telling to come…
If you have an aversion to all things even remotely religious, then you might want to skip this post. On the other hand, this sermon I gave on Yom Kippur at Shir Libeynu, the wonderful congregation I’m a part of (www.shirlibeynu.ca) has thrills, chills, travel adventure and a couple of really good Hasidic stories.
For those of you unfamiliar with Jewish liturgy, context will allow you to get much of this, but one quick note. “Shana Tova” translates literally as “a good year” and is how Jews commonly greet one another from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.
My fists are clenched. My knuckles are white. I’ve forgotten how to swallow.
It is May of this year, and I’m travelling through China.
At the moment, more specifically, I’m on a bus from the city of Kunming to the Yuanyang rice terraces. Visiting the rice terraces had seemed like a great idea when I’d been back home. The many photographs I’d pored over told of a landscape too surreal to believe and too beautiful to miss; small plateaus of rice fields filled with water, carved into the sides of mountains, and ascending one above the other to form a green and glimmering contour map.
But if you’re going to take a bus to mountainside rice terraces, that means riding a bus through mountainside highways.
After two weeks in China, I thought I’d gotten used to its reckless roads, but the ante has just been raised – sheer cliffs, one blind turn after another, guardrails few and far between.
Unlike me, the driver is fearless, operating by three rules:
Rule number one. Never take your hand off the horn.
Rule number two. Never ease up on the gas.
Rule number three. Always, always, always pass any vehicle in sight, even if that means…
…Rule number three-A. Swerving across the solid yellow line towards oncoming traffic.
I look over at the locals, hoping to find calm in their faces.
Instead, the guy across the aisle from me is losing his lunch.
The driver yanks hard on the wheel. He’s passing a car, which is passing an eighteen-wheeler truck. We are one of three vehicles squeezed into a two-lane road with almost no shoulder, oncoming traffic closing in, and an abyss on our left. There’s a guardrail ahead, and about as much clearance between us and that guardrail as the smaller of my two clenched fists. If we hit the wrong pebble at the wrong time, all that’s going to be left of us tomorrow is a sad story on the internet.
We pass the car. We pass the eighteen-wheeler. Everyone’s honking at everyone.
I try to remember what it’s like to breathe, while the driver, emboldened by his victory, seeks out new challenges, roaring through more blind turns and lurching us back-and-forth across the solid yellow line.
My mouth opens, and I whisper. “Shema Yisrael, Adonay Elohaynu, Adonai Echad.”
A voice in my head says, “Come on. Really? The Shema? Sure it’s tradition to recite it when you’re about to die, but do you really think the Shema has any bearing on how you leave this world?”
The only response I can muster is, “Shema Yisrael. Adonay Elohaynu, Adonai Echad.”
“Or are you using the Shema as an amulet?” the voice goes on. “Like taking an umbrella with you on a cloudy day to keep it from raining?”
“Shema Yisrael. Adonay Elohaynu. Adonai Echad.”
This dialogue between head and something else – call it faith, call it fear, call it the thing I don’t really have words for – is one I often experience when it comes to prayer. Including the prayers we recite on the High Holy Days. It’s a dialogue I think many of us experience. It’s a dialogue, in fact, that I began to explore a few years ago from the bima at Cecil Street. With your permission, to quote John Lennon, “let me take you down” as I come at it from a somewhat different angle and hopefully, a little more deeply.
Outside the context of a prayer setting, from a more distant, dispassionate place, I can look at Avinu Malkeynu, and see many a reason for resisting it, starting with its very refrain.
Avinu, Malkeynu. Our Father, Our King. So much for a non-gendered vision of God.
Chawneynu va’a-neinu ki- Be gracious and respond to us because-
-ein banu ma’asim. Our machzor translates this as “we have too few good deeds.” But a more literal translation is, “we have no good deeds.”
And we have every right to say, “Come on. Really? No good deeds? None? So who is it that passes that homeless guy by my office every day, and drops a dollar in his cup, and not only that, don’t I usually make eye contact with him and wish him well? And what about all those days I don’t want to go to work in the first place, in fact I don’t even want to get out of bed, but I do because I have a family depending on me? And who calls her parents every day, and never misses a Shabbes dinner, even though the odds of being asked questions about her dating life are much greater than she’d care for? And hold on. I’m not done. Let me pull out my credit card statements and show you my donations to charity even though I’ve been hit hard by the economy like everyone else, and I’m more concerned about my retirement than I’d ever imagined possible.
“So don’t tell me about no good deeds.”
The Unetaneh Tokef. Different prayer. Equal grounds for resistance.
B’rosh Hashanah yikateyvun uvyom tzom kippur yechateymun. “On Rosh Hashanah, it is written and on Yom Kippur it is decided.” Who by fire. Who by water. Who by drought, by famine, by barbiturate. All this written on Rosh Hashanah and decided on Yom Kippur?
Again, we might say, “Come on? Really? Evidence, please.”
We could keep going, page by page, prayer by prayer, and find reasons to resist them all. A lot of us do, and for good reason. But many of us don’t. We can’t.
There’s a Hasidic tale that helps me understand why I can’t. Rabbi Alan Lew tells it this way, in his exceptional book on preparing for the High Holy Days, with the bracing title of This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared:
Every year before the Days of Awe, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, held a competition to see who would blow the shofar for him on Rosh Hashanah. Now if you wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba’al Shem Tov, not only did you have to blow the shofar like a virtuoso, but you also had to learn an elaborate system of kavanot – secret prayers that were said just before you blew the shofar to direct the shofar blasts and to see that they had the proper effect in the supernal realms. All the prospective shofar blowers practiced these kavanot for months. They were difficult and complex. There was one fellow who wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba’al Shem Tov so badly that he had been practicing these kavanot for years. But when his time came to audition before the Ba’al Shem, he realized that nothing he had done had prepared him adequately for the experience of standing before this great and holy man, and he appled. He choked. His mind froze completely. He couldn’t remember one of the kavanot he had practiced for all those years. He couldn’t even remember what he was supposed to be doing at all. He just stood before the Ba’al Shem in utter silence, and then, when he realized how egregiously – how utterly – he had failed this great test, his heart just broke in two and he began to weep, sobbing loudly, his shoulders heaving and his whole body wracking as he wept.
“Alright, you’re hired,” the Ba’al Shem said.
“But I don’t understand,” the man said. “I failed the test completely. I couldn’t even remember one kavanah.”
So the Ba’al Shem explained with the following parable: In the palace of the King, there are many chambers, and there are secret keys for each chamber, but one key unlocks them all, and that key is the ax. The King is the Lord of the Universe, the Ba’al Shem explained. The palace is the House of God. The secret chambers are the sefirot, the ascending spiritual realms that bring us closer and closer to God when we perform commandments such as blowing the shofar with the proper intention, and the secret keys are the kavanot. And the ax – the key that opens every chamber and brings us directly into the presence of the King, wherever he may be – the ax is the broken heart, for as it says in the Psalms, “God is close to the broken hearted.”
The assumption of these yamim noraim, these Days of Awe, I think, is that there is broken heartedness in us all. Broken heartedness of a kind that cries out for comfort and reassurance that we are worthy of love, despite all the failures that await us mi yom kippurim zeh ad yom kippurim ha ba, from this Yom Kippur to the next. Sometimes our lives keep us too busy to notice this ache. Sometimes we keep ourselves too busy. I know I do. And then I walk into Erev Rosh Hashanah services, and Aviva says, “please turn to page twenty-six in your machzors, and let’s read together the passage that begins ‘Listening comes hard to us,’ and I am undone and I want to weep, because some days, just about everything comes hard to me.
“God is a concept,” John Lennon once sang, “by which we measure our pain.”
“To live is to suffer,” say the Buddhists.
And maybe, to come to shul and sing Avinu Malkeinu and B’Rosh Hashanah yikateyvun and ashamnu, bagadnu with full voice, whether you believe in God as monarch, God as love, or God as fabrication, is to admit to broken heartedness and trepidation.
Whatever I may think of Avinu Malkeinu in more distant, dispassionate moments, when I am singing it in this sanctuary, with this community, I connect with that part of me that knows that calling your parents most days is good, but calling them every day is better; that it’s good to lighten others’ lives with humour, but not so good when quick-wittedness becomes a deadbolt that shuts out real connection; that listening is hard, loving is hard, and when I neglect to slow down, paying attention to the richness of my life is hard.
B’rosh Hashanah yikateyvun uvyom tzom kippur yechateymun. On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is decided. Sounds preposterous. But maybe it’s true. Maybe things are written on Rosh Hashanah and decided on Yom Kippur because things are written and decided every day. We see the cliff and the guardrail, and there’s no knowing which side we’re headed for. And we have this prayer to remind us that while we’re still on the road, there are a lot of things we can still make right.
And trading my distance and dispassion for proximity and something resembling passion, I think I’m finally beginning to understand why I’ve been able to bear this fragility.
Partly, it’s community.
As with many of you, I’m sure, the place I most often go for spiritual connection is solitude; meditating at home, or taking a walk along a quiet path in High Park, or riding the streetcar and attuning to the music of the city. But what we do here today, I wouldn’t care to take on by myself. A few nights ago, just to see how it felt, I tried to imagine being some place with no Jewish community and entering an empty hall to make the prayers and confessions of the High Holy Days on my own. It didn’t feel good. Here, together, our voices joining and vibrating and changing the air around us, we get to twin our failings with our neighbour’s, and we get to know that we’re not the only ones singing with heaviness in our hearts.
And there’s something else. Another reason I’ve been able to bear this fragility. In standing up for these prayers, and owning up to the many ways in which I’ve missed the mark, I think I’ve been declaring my trust, even a knowledge, that there really is a loving, forgiving force that wants us to heal. I’ve even had occasion of late to feel that force tangibly.
Come on? Really?
After the High Holy Days are over, perhaps I’ll come to recognize this as some kind of religious nuttiness, certain to be cured by reason and reality. Perhaps. But I am starting to have doubts about some of my doubts.
Now here’s something I don’t doubt.
As we prepare to leave this place where we’ve been wiping the slate clean, and return to the messy, minefield of a world in which we live, I don’t doubt the wisdom of the Hasidic Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol.
When Reb Zusya was about to die, his students gathered. They saw Reb Zusya’s eyes filled with tears. “Rebbe,” they asked, “Why are you crying? You have lived a good, righteous life, and left many students. Soon you are going on to the next world. Why cry?”
Reb Zusya said, “I see what will happen when I enter the next world. Nobody will ask me, why was I not Moses? I am not expected to be Moses. Nobody will ask me, why was I not Rabbi Akiva? I am not expected to be Rabbi Akiva. They will ask me, why was I not Zusya? That is why I am crying. I am asking, why was I not Zusya?”
On this day, may the brokenness in us know healing. And in the days to come, may we be spared Reb Zusya’s tears, simply by remembering who we already are, and knowing we don’t need to be anyone else.
And in case you’re wondering, the bus driver did get us through the mountains, and the rice terraces of Yuanyang were worth every hairpin turn. Next time, though, I think I’m hiring a taxi.
(Though I hadn’t planned to post things so casually written as the e-mail below, I think it may make up in feeling for whatever it lacks in craftsmanship)
Greeting from New Orleans (the night before I head home).
So before I left my B&B this morning, one of my hosts told me to “have a good funeral.”
No, he wasn’t trading in ghoulish humour. He was just wishing me the best as I went off to join in at a jazz funeral in the Treme, now of television fame, and the home of one of the United States’ oldest African-American communities. Jazz funerals are a tradition here, in which the departed is sent off to the cemetery with a brass band procession. I’ve been told this celebratory note is to mark the fact that music is a part of death as well as life, and that in grief, there should be celebration that the person passing on has made it to a place where they have at long last been relieved of their burdens.
Though I’d already been assured by people from the community that it would not be an intrusion for a tourist like myself to join the procession, it was clear the moment I arrived – the only white person standing among dozens of black residents outside the church where the service was being held – that I was an outsider.
I asked one of the musicians, a big and hard-looking bass drum player if it would be okay. “Ain’t no intruding. This here’s the real New Orleans,” he said. “Everything is free. Once that music starts, you can do anything you want. You can roll in the streets. You can dance till you wear out the soles of your shoes.” I did neither, but as the funeral ended and the white hearse drove off and we followed, I did bop my head in time to the music (at least I think it was in time). You’ll see from the video I have linked below that it was a party, to be sure. A man dancing with his crutches, a trumpet player blowing his horn from his wheelchair, people dressed up and people dressed down, lots of people with gold teeth, and, once the procession started in earnest, a few Caucasian types like myself joining in. It occurred to me shortly after it began that I didn’t even know who it was who had died. When all was said and done, I asked one of the other participants. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m just from around here.” That’s the way it is with jazz funerals. It’s a community event for anyone who wants to step in.
So here are a few short videos from my last, especially musical, day on this visit.
The jazz funeral in the Treme…
A young swing band and young swing dancers in the French Quarter’s Royal Street…
And John Boutte at d.b.a on Frenchmen Street, singing the theme song from the Treme television series…
As they like to say here…
And for those interested in knowing a little more about jazz funerals – http://www.neworleansonline.com/neworleans/multicultural/multiculturaltraditions/jazzfuneral.html
(This excerpt should give you an idea of what my book is about, at least in terms of narrative structure. And if it doesn’t, it needs some serious rewriting. For more about the book, click on “ABOUT ME.”)
The ticket agent at Toronto’s Union Station is trying to save me from myself.
“You’re going to Needles for two days?” she asks, not so much wanting to confirm what I’ve told her, as to give me the opportunity to rethink it.
“I sure am,” I say. Needles, California is going to be my first stop out of Los Angeles on my winter’s train journey from Southern California to the sub-arctic. And I am, in fact, going to spend two days there.
“To visit family or something?” she asks.
“To visit Needles,” I say. “Do you know it?”
“We stayed a night there once, when we drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.”
I have to ask. “Did you find it interesting it all?”
She’s old enough to be a grandmother, and has the big-framed glasses and large, round cheeks to suit the part. When she smiles, as she does now, her cheeks elevate the glasses off the bridge of her nose. “Noooo,” she says, with an indulgent and amused tone I suspect she normally reserves for her grandchildren. “Needles isn’t interesting. The only thing to see there is a giant thermometer. Because it’s the hottest place in the country. Besides the giant thermometer, hon, there’s nothing to see.”
We’re silent a moment. She, because she’s hoping I’ll do for myself what she would do if only her job would allow it, and shorten my two-day visit to Needles by, let’s say, two days. Me, because, there’s an unkind place in my heart that’s enjoying her suffering.
“Great,” I say, finally breaking the silence. “So LA to Needles on February fifteenth, then two days later, it’s Needles to Williams Junction, Arizona.”
She looks at me again.
“The closest Amtrak stop to the Grand Canyon,” I explain.
Satisfied with my answer, she books the ticket.
“And then I guess we jump ahead to my Canadian fares.”
Fortunately for her, Amtrak in the United States and Via Rail in Canada don’t communicate very well. My North American Rail Pass, which will cover the final thirty days of my journey will kick in at Williams Junction, which means I’ll have to take care of my other US fares once I get to LA. The less she’s forced to hear about Truth or Consequences, New Mexico and Grand Forks, North Dakota, I suspect, the happier she’s going to be.
“So what’s the first Canadian trip?” she asks.
“I’ll be leaving Winnipeg on March thirteenth for Grandview, Manitoba.”
She looks at me a moment to see if I’m going to flinch. Maybe give away that she’s on some kind of hidden camera show.
“Grandview?” she says.
“Yes,” I say. “Do you know it?
“Know it? I’ve never even heard of it.” She’s trying to look it up on her computer now, but all this does is make her sigh.
“D-V-I-E-W,” I confirm.
“I can’t find it.” She pulls out a couple of timetables, and hands one across the counter to me, so we can track it down together.
“There it is,” I say. “Page ninety-two.”
“How’d you find it so fast?”
“I looked it up in the index.” An index, in all fairness to her, that I’ve probably consulted more often in the last month than she’s needed to in all her years with Via.
“I don’t see it,” she sighs again. “I see Gladstone.”
“About six further down. Past Glenella, Ochre River, Dauphin.”
“There it is,” she says, relieved. “Must be a whistle-stop or something.”
“It is. If I understand the timetable correctly, it only stops on advance notice to the conductor.” Her brow is furrowed, her computer giving her more trouble. She’s probably not listening to a word I’m saying, but I can’t stop myself. “In fact, it’s small enough that the woman who runs the motel where I’m staying says there’s no station, or even a depot. And since the train only comes through in the middle of the night, and she’s not sure where it stops, she can’t even give me directions to her place. So to keep me from freezing in the cold, she’s going to find out where I get off, and be waiting for me.”
“I need to get the expert,” the ticket agent says, getting up from her work station.
When she walks away, it’s as if I have all of Union Station’s Great Hall to myself…
[it’s here in the book that I stop to wax rhapsodic over Union Station and the experience of train travel]
…The Via ticket agent has returned, looking less burdened than before.
“The expert’s coming over as soon as he can,” she says, sitting at her computer, “and in the mean time, he’s given me a few codes to try. Nope. Not G-R-V-E. Now do you know anyone in Grandview?”
“About as many people as I know in Needles.”
“There it is!” she shouts. “G-V-I-E! Okay, what’s next?”
“Grandview to The Pas, Manitoba. March sixteenth.”
For all the difficulty she has finding The Pas, it might as well be Zanzibar. Or Grandview.
“I’m going to be dreaming a lot tonight,” she says, “and you’re going to be giving me nightmares.”
But she doesn’t fool me. I am now the funnest playmate she’s ever had.
The expert, a slim guy with grey skin, a pock-marked face, and a warm look in his eyes comes up to her. “How’s it going?” he asks.
“This guy’s giving me a hard time. Can you make him go away?”
“Really?” says the expert, giving me the once over. “He seems like a perfectly nice fellow to me.”
“He is nice. But my brain’s not going to be so nice tomorrow. The places he’s going. Hey! The Pas! I’ve got it! What’s next?”
“March eighteenth. The Pas to Churchill, Manitoba.”
“Now that’s a great run,” says the expert. “And the crew will treat you right on that train. Not so many people go when you’re going, though.”
As I’ve learned since first seeing Churchill on the railway map, in November, when tourists come to see the polar bears go out onto the ice, hotels there require thirty days notice for cancellations. In late winter, when I’ll be arriving, with polar bear sightings unlikely, and the only tourist attraction being the Northern Lights – and that, only if they decide to appear – cancellations require one day.
Wisdom would dictate that I wait for more temperate weather, not only for Churchill, but for all my destinations. But that would require patience, and at the moment, patience doesn’t interest me very much. What does interest me is giving life to my inner soft-core deviant, determined to ride the train into Needles, California and Grandview, Manitoba in the middle of winter, and mine the experience for meaning. In fact, I am so giddy over my plan to go to the wrong places at the wrong time that, were I less inhibited, I would jump straight into the air right now and coming down, stamp my feet in syncopated rhythm on the Tennessee marble just to see what kind of echo I could summon, and dance around the Great Hall, doing it over and over again. I even have the illusion at this moment that, were I to think about it, I’d actually believe that self-doubt will not join me on this voyage.
“With that flag stop of yours in Grandview,” says my Via Rail ticket agent grandmother and newfound ally, “I’m going to make a note on your ticket. ‘Throw him out on moose back.’” She sends my tickets through to the printer, my name stamped on each one.
My friend Joan, who joined me on my last visit there, says I have a crush on New Orleans.
My friend Joan is right.
Here are some photographs that provide a partial explanation…
And for those who would like to see more, here’s some of what I got up to on my previous visit…