Sunday, December 9, 2012

Solitude, Community, and Ritual

There have been other mornings such as this. Waking up before dawn. The house still, save for the clicking and whirring of various devices. Others asleep as I step purposefully through dark spaces to a place where I can light. Sometimes, as now, the cat joins me briefly. I hear her behind me crunching on kibble. Shortly she will go back to her warm spot nestled up against Debbie's body. Most significant about the kind of morning I have in mind—a morning after the night before—is an added layer of sensory stimuli—not quite a noise, or aroma, or image—none of the senses or all of them—it's a lingering sensation, maybe the inspiration for the Chanukah phrase Nes gadol haya sham—a great miracle happened there. Miracles do happen. They are seldom unnatural acts of Divine intervention. They are most commonly simple acts of human kindness. That is what my "birthday week" has been made of, that is the patina to the quiet hour before the house wakes up. That is what I would love to preserve here.

There are three components to the celebration of my sixty-fifth birthday that stand out for me. First, on the birthday itself, I had plenty of time for personal reflection, for peaceful solitude. Lately, I have been surprising myself by my growing need to be in quiet solitary space. Sure, I have meditated for decades and written journals, so that kind of space has been there to some degree for a while. What seems to be shifting is the ratio of such alone time with more interactive time. Formerly the noisy time far outweighed the quiet time. Not so much now. One might think it odd that I would so relish spending half my birthday going through old boxes and bins in the garage, sifting through ageing papers, preserving few, discarding many. Yet there I was. The first standout component of my birthday celebration was peaceful, quiet, alone timemuch of it dusty!
The second component—and perhaps better stated, the second blessing—was the polar opposite. It was the company of others. It ranged from a hug from Debbie as I sat crunching down my morning bowl of cereal, to the sweet arrival of our children from their Eastern outposts and our extraordinary weekend together, to standing before the congregation at Sabbath services receiving their energy and wishes through song, to the amazing din of chatter and laughter that filled this house last night as mostly extended family and a few friends gathered not so much for my birthday, but to light the first Chanukah candle. That din accounts for the lion’s share of the morning-after-the-night-before echoes in my mind. At one time we thought this gathering might incorporate some element of birthday celebration, but rightly we separated and simplified the events and let explicit references to my sixty-five (and Jacob's recent thirty-five, 65+35=100!) end at shul in the morning.
The third—I'll say it, blessing—was ritual. We have many. We waited for the seven of us to gather before singing "Happy Birthday."  That came after an "extra supremely joyous" (as Jacob would say in his youth) Shabbat dinner. At shul the next morning, a morning on which the Torah reading was identical to the one I read at my Bar Mitzvah in 1960 and Jacob read at his Bar Mitzvah in 1990, he and I ascended the bimah, took part in leading the blessings over the Torah, and then each received a personal, "custom" blessing from the rabbi. This is a ritual he performs so well. I have experienced it before and each time I revel in the depth of the blessing he bestows, how profoundly apt his choice of words are, his sincere appreciation of the recipient of the blessing and what specific aspects of their lives would most be in need of blessing. As in times past I stood transfixed by his energy, by the spiritual exchange, trying to hold onto his words even as they continued to flow over me, and ultimately knowing that this was a singular moment in time, never to be captured and fully preserved or relived—just savored. I know he made an important reference to my age-ing and sage-ing that I drunk in with thirst and appreciation.

Solitude, community, and ritual—these would be the big three, my formula for a blessed, joyous, landing into this new era. There were other manifestations of each of these components woven throughout the days of celebration. There was a quiet dinner for two with Debbie on my birthday itself. There was a more raucous lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant, Friday, after the arrival of the "kids." Suddenly, as I write this, I realize I should surrender to the fact that a fourth component—both curse and blessing—is food. Oh, how I have struggled to integrate the common practice of celebrating with food with my stumbling attempt to develop more healthful eating habits! I am definitely not there yet as the scale attested to this morning. More about that another time. Suffice it to say there is much work to be done, not only in losing some rebound pounds I’ve gained, but in the bigger picture, truly finding a safe path through the eternal land mines of personal and community celebrations.

Back to my reflections of these past days.... One activity that contributed both to the joy as well as my delinquency was making challah with Shira on Friday. Side by side we braided two loaves that each turned out uniquely beautiful and were blessed and consumed with gusto by all. As planned we also invited the kids to participate in our beauty and order campaign in the garage. We gave them the opportunity (requirement) to do as I had done on my birthday—to sift through their stored belongings in the garage, to dispose of those things that no longer were important to them, to take with them or ship to their respective homes what they wanted to have there, and finally to leave us with far fewer things stored on our premises for the time being.

Before dinner we conducted what may become one of our most memorable and important "family meetings." It had been many years since we had convened one of these. It used to be a somewhat regular event back in the day, replete with agenda, minutes, story reading, and refreshments. This was our first as a family of seven. The topic was the estate planning that Debbie and I developed last summer with an emphasis less on the legal aspects of it and more about some of our softer, unbinding requests concerning how we would like to be cared for at a time when we may not be able to explicitly voice these concerns. Jacob, who would have certain defined responsibilities after Debbie and I die was wise to voice what he saw as an important reason for this conversation—the need to create transparency, allowing all to know the terms and conditions well ahead of the need to engage them.

This was followed by a Shabbat dinner that looked much like the Thanksgiving we didn't have together in November, including turkey and most, if not all, of the traditional accompaniments. Pumpkin and pecan pie were replaced with a birthday cake inscribed “Happy 65+35=100!”

Saturday was huge. After Jake and I received the blessings from the rabbi I delivered some remarks at the rabbi’s invitation (viz., There was far more I could have said than I chose to say. I kept it well under five hundred words, and focused on appreciating the present moment, concluding with the Shehechiyanu prayer. A particularly sweet moment came later. With the recent renovation of the synagogue lobby one wall is now adorned with an array of different colored metal triangles each awaiting an inscription to mark a special event in the lives of congregants. The very first triangle to receive such words is pictured below

This was a sweet surprise that the family revealed to me during the Kiddush lunch after the morning service.
Later we spent most of the remainder of the afternoon preparing for our Chanukah party. The party itself was loud and fun. Jacob and Alana led us in havdalah, we lit candles, ate like horses, laughed over a gift exchange and talked into the night. Which brings me to this moment. The sun has risen. I hear the voices of others as the house awakens, and I much rather be with them than sit here tapping these keys. TTYL.

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