Saturday, September 25, 2010

Week in Seven Words #34

The honey is a deep gold brown. It caresses the light and draws it in; particles of light shine faintly from inside of it.

At one point I wind up sharing a dinner table with two men who have, at different points this past year, solicited relationship advice from me. They don't know that they have this experience in common; but I know, and it makes me smile a little for some reason - maybe because it's just another example of life's little quirks of circumstance.

At the several communal meals I attend, I meet some new people. But even with the people I know already, it feels like I'm meeting them for the first time each time we sit down together at the table. I might have met them before (or even know them quite well), but I can't know for sure what they'll say exactly, or what their mood will be, or what will happen - so it's like meeting them all over again each time, and I look forward to seeing new sides of them or learning new things about them.

There are a few days when I plod around, slow and persistent and a little tired. The work of the coming months, the magnitude of it, makes itself known to me and settles down hard on my shoulders. I keep my head down and try to adjust; sometimes I think the numb accepting patience is better than the alternative - the spikes of anxiety, poking apart my concentration and scattering my thoughts.

When the tables are abandoned several flies come, rising and falling in delicate, random-seeming patterns over the remains of the food, until the plates are cleared away.

sukkah (סוכה)
Being hugged tight on all side by other bodies, by tables and chairs, by the flexible tent walls of the sukkah. The weather is lovely for the most part; when it gets too hot, some cool air swirls in between the flaps and openings, and at noon there's some shade at least. One night after a strong humid spell a storm breaks out, and rain sluices through the makeshift weave of the ceiling and onto us; the walls sway with the wind, but we just glance at each other and keep talking and laughing.

A clear white moon above the shabby silhouette of an apartment building.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Week in Seven Words #33

It washes up my throat, pricks at my eyes, swamps my chest and stomach. My remedy is to go for a walk, to hunch over a book, to gaze out the window at a hard-blue cheerful sky, at gold trees and people, families, children. The anger drains away (some of it was so silly anyway); and I think that it's best to deal with each person in the present moment, particularly if they have changed in important ways from how they used to be. I forgive, and though I can't forget certain things I think that maybe I should live as if I have.

The thick wooden window slats admit glowing fragments of tree and sky.

Sometimes our conversations are hurried and seem perfunctory. But there are other times when, in several short precious minutes, I learn something wonderful and wise that changes a part of me for afterwards.

The resolve, the strength firming, the sense of hard-won peace and powerful yearning - I hope they flow out from this day to the rest of the year.

When the plane leaves the ground, I hold my breath. There are what seem to be a few still moments on which everything depends; the plane and the passengers are suspended above earth. Will we keep rising? The odds are tremendously in our favor. Still, I hold my breath and look out the window to make sure.

I hear them coming down the hall, I hear their whispers, their hushed speculations ("What if she's not in her office?") and I wait patiently with a smile growing on my face, before they burst through the door.

I love the energetic melodies best, the ones that resound with strength and joy. There's a particular melody that comes at the conclusion of every service, and just hearing us would you know that we're fasting? We sing long and loud, affirming that we're here, that we're repenting, atoning, rejoicing, living. That we are full of love.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Extracts: "Worship and living are not two separate realms."

Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) starts this evening, and I'm reading these words now from Abraham Joshua Heschel's book God in Search of Man:
The problem of living does not begin with the question of how to take care of the rascals, of how to prevent delinquency or hideous crimes. The problem of living begins with the realization that all of us blunder in our dealings with our fellow men. The silent atrocities, the secret scandals... are the true seat of moral infection. The problem of living begins, in fact, in relation to our own selves, in the handling of our emotional functions, in the way we deal with envy, greed, and pride.

Worship and living are not two separate realms. Unless living is a form of worship, our worship has no life. Religion is not a reservation, a tract of time reserved for solemn celebrations on festive days. The spirit withers when confined in splendid isolation. What is decisive is not the climax we reach in rare moments, but how the achievements of rare moments affect the climate of the entire life. The goal of Jewish law is to be the grammar of living, dealing with all relations and functions of living.

Religion is trying to teach us that no act is trite, every moment is an extraordinary occasion.

The highest peak of spiritual living is not necessarily reached in rare moments of ecstasy; the highest peak lies wherever we are and may be ascended in a common deed. There can be as sublime a holiness in performing friendship, in observing dietary laws day by day, as in uttering a prayer on the Day of Atonement.

It is not by the rare act of greatness that character is determined, but by everyday actions, by a constant effort to rend our callousness.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Week in Seven Words #32

For close to an hour I sit with my eyes closed; they feel heavy, but sleep won't come. The airplane cabin is dark, most passengers sleeping, and on a restless impulse I pry up the shade on the nearest window and look outside. We're flying into a sunrise. Alongside the plane the skies are dark, but up ahead there's a thick melting band of beautiful orange. Piled above it are successive stripes of yellow-white, then blues darkening to black; at the foot of the sunrise the cloudscape is gray-blue, like the surface of an alien planet. This is the world I live in, and it's a blessing to see it this way.

Each scientist seems like a neuron. The neuron has its own activities, its own rate and intensity of firing, but at the same time its actions are inseparable from what other neurons are doing; connections have formed and will form between neighboring neurons or neurons that are at a remove from each other, and while the activity of a single neuron might be relatively simple, when they fire together, or in response to one another, the patterns of activity give rise to complex knowledge and understanding, a broader and more detailed picture of a given phenomenon or entity in the world.

There's time to explore, both at the beginning of the day and in the evening; there's time to squint at cathedral gargoyles, sip tea in a crowded room with flowers and wide windows, stroll through a garden in dusk when the midges are out and the skies are overcast, climb the narrow steps to a fun museum where a king is cross-examined, walk alongside a shadowed river, and stand at the site of a massacre, yet another eruption of hate and blood lust.

We're with gracious hosts. They give us a place at their table, delicious food, conversation on all sorts of topics, singing and simcha; they offer us reflections on life, the holidays, human nature and purpose and ask us to share our own thoughts. It's a warm room we're in, with light wood floors, shelves with lots of books, and the table (or tables) where everyone gathers. It's the sort of room that can somehow fit forty people almost as easily as it fits seven.

Sunset as seen from a bench in Hyde Park. It seems like we're sitting within a glass marble streaked with peach, gold, blue, and feathery gray.

In the early morning we walk on the walls of a city. On each side there are houses with chimney pots, slopes of green gold grass, brick and stone smattered with ivy, cobbled roads feeding into asphalt streets, dark furrowed trees heavy with leaves, and at our feet snails have emerged after the night's rain.

There are many different kinds of shofar notes on Rosh Hashanah. Sometimes the notes are precise, efficient and somewhat mechanical; the shofar-blower rises, performs his duties skillfully, and then returns to his seat. Other times the shofar seems to strain against the fabric of the air, against the boundaries of sound itself; there's so much feeling and effort, so much longing and appeal. The shofar blasts and rasps and lets out a wild fierce pleading blare of sound. Other times only a gasp emerges; the shofar-blower pauses, takes a deep breath, shuts his eyes in concentration and makes another attempt. During one round of shofar-blowing a two year old child is laughing wildly; the two sounds together are beautiful - the long yearning note of the shofar, straining with every wordless hope and resolution and plea, and the child pealing happily alongside it.

Week in Seven Words #31

It's been a while since I've seen a blackboard in use for an entire lesson or talk. I've gotten used to Powerpoint slides, to projectors and overheads, to occasional equations on whiteboard with marker - but chalk and blackboard, in a funny way I've missed it: the clack of the chalk on the board, dust rising from the erasers, all kinds of hand-writing from large and legible to white loopy scrawls that make you squint and tilt your head to the side.

The week is full of relatively major obligations, and pushing up among them are minor ones as well, like weeds thrusting up between paving stones.

The children enjoy the plastic and metal instruments. The parents, not so much.

A pink cupcake is an occasion for tears.

Weather reporters post themselves along the coast, against backdrops of agitated surf and twisting branches.

Mineola is tangy and bursts in the mouth. Sabra fruit has a sweet flesh and tiny hard seeds that try to burrow between the teeth.

An item arrives in the mail earlier than expected. With some last-minute assistance, a project prints on schedule. I catch someone I need to speak to in a two-minute window after a meeting. Small slices of time fit neatly into the week, making the week's work more manageable.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Heading off for a short while...

I'll be taking a work-related trip early next week, and that's followed by the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, so it's likely I won't be on the web much, if at all; I might have to post a back-to-back 'week in seven words' later (two weeks in fourteen words).

In the meantime here's a beautiful relaxing video of an enormous aquarium in Japan (and that isn't a hint at my travel destination). Enjoy!

Kuroshio Sea - 2nd largest aquarium tank in the world - (song is Please don't go by Barcelona) from Jon Rawlinson on Vimeo.

And both to the people celebrating the Jewish New Year next week and to the people who aren't - I wish you all a happy, blessed, sweet and successful year.

(added note: I didn't even notice until playing the video right now for background music that the accompanying song is called 'Please Don't Go'...)