(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.
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.
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.”
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.