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.

There Is!

The rabbi invited me to receive a blessing at the Shabbat service near my sixty-fifth birthday, and to make a few remarks about what it meant to me. It was also the same Shabbat, Vayeshev, upon which I celebrated my bar mitzvah in 1960 and upon which Jacob celebrated his bar mitzvah in 1990. Between the two of us we are now 100 years old! Consequently Jacob joined me on the bimah to recite the blessings over the Torah and to receive blessings from the rabbi. My remarks are below.

Congregation Beth Jacob
Redwood City, California
December 8, 2012
Shabbat Vayeshev

Some of you were here five years ago on the occasion of my sixtieth birthday when I first asked you to call me by my Hebrew name, Yeshaya. A short time after that, at the suggestion of the young lady who is now my daughter-in-law, I adopted the nickname Yesh, for short. The decision to be called Yeshaya or Yesh in many ways came out of having an adult bar mitzvah earlier that year that launched me on a new leg of my spiritual journey.

Right now I am taking courses in chanting, Talmud, spiritual aging, and Biblical Hebrew. This week in Hebrew class, as we reviewed our new vocabulary words, on the list was the word yesh! Yeshaya, my full name, is Hebrew for Isaiah—which means God is my Salvation. Yesh is a very different word in Hebrew. It is the simple declaration—there is!

What I found fascinating in class was when our teacher told us that unlike most other verbs, “Yesh is always in the present tense.” I thought about that and felt what a challenge it is to live up to my name—for me to always be in the present tense.

At milestone birthdays, such as sixty-five, it would be easy to look back with regret or condemnation at some of the things I have done or not done, or at the terrible things that I may feel have happened to me. It is also tempting to become fearful or anxious about what lies ahead that might be painful or disappointing. The challenge is to always be present. In this specific moment I have only to appreciate that I am healthy, living in peace, standing among an extraordinary community in a magnificent synagogue, and most of all blessed with a loving family—this is true abundance for which I am very grateful.

This is what we call a Shehecheyanu moment. Approaching this birthday I looked at the Shehecheyanu prayer and wondered about the fact that it’s only recited with first person plural words—thanking God for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this moment. I couldn’t find an explanation of this. While a person may speak the Shehecheyanu alone, the fact that it’s written as a plural brings awareness that when it comes to our birth and our sustenance, none of us can do it alone, nor I suspect would want to. So it’s with full appreciation of all of you that I ask you to join me in this prayer.

Baruch atta Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha'olam she-hecheyanu ve'qi'eh'manu va'higiy'anu laz'man hazeh.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Finding Genius

DISCLAIMER: My apologies to the reader. I really don't have the motivation to refine this piece into any semblance of good writing— even at the level of my own low standards. So read this at your own risk! I am posting this with the sole intention of keeping these thoughts alive for my own future reference.*

We attended Michael Moore’s seminar Finding Genius in Your Life. It actually clarified a few things for me. Michael quoted Robert Bly at the end and encouraged us to write down our insights right away because we all have an inner Nixon that will erase the key parts of the tape. Ha!

Here is what I can access for now. More may come if and when I listen to the recording of the session.

One flash came when a woman I know a bit walked over at the break and essentially declared in so many words that my genius was to be a rabbi. Part of me would like to have denied it just as it has denied me the actual title of rabbi. A far deeper part of me was deeply moved just to hear her words. A part of me acknowledges and embraces the truth that I love Judaism, that I live it to some degree, that I continually study pieces of it that I find meaningful, and that as a rabbi in the broader sense—as a teacher—I lead others to live and love some of what I live and love in Judaism. Her words resonated within my gut. They began to bring tears to my eyes. In the context of the seminar she confirmed my genius—that piece of my spirit and my soul that is my gift to myself and others.

Later, in a one-on-one conversation with a fellow participant named Jim I reflected on that part of me that sang my song early in life—my art. Art is a fundamental piece of who I am. It has been speaking to me with a more insistent voice lately wondering when I will reclaim it or vice versa, when it will reclaim me.

Once I was asked by a “New Ager” at the Esalen Institute to describe myself in three words. I responded, “Artist, Teacher, Lover.”  I think I would amend that to describe my genius—Artist, Teacher, Jew. I must add quickly that that is very different than “Jewish Art Teacher!” Combining them that way makes each much smaller. I see the possibility of expanding each into its fullness—to experience the fullness of myself as an artist, the fullness of myself as a teacher, the fullness of myself as a Jew—and to bring these all together in different settings in varying proportions to reveal my fullness to myself and the world.

In my one-on-one with Jim I realized first of all that Michael’s premise for the exercise was a simple and powerful pedagogical tool. He saw that in a room of one hundred people not everyone was going to be able to voice his or her truth to him. (My hand was up all day and I was never called upon.) He also stated that there is a powerful difference between thinking about the issues that were coming up and speaking them. He was right. By voicing my observations to this complete stranger the words were given power (as they are, for me, by writing them now).

As I continued with Jim I observed that I had much more clarity about my genius than I might have been able to recognize before the seminar. Not only do I truly know that it resides in the arena bounded by art and Judaism and teaching, I can also take comfort in knowing that I have integrated all three of these into my life already and that I have engaged in important activities with them to continue along a path of growth in these areas (perhaps less so the art, but that is coming back with increasing awareness of late). 

Michael talked about the need to balance fundamental considerations of making a living with the spiritual/soul sphere. I think of the model of the shtetl craftsmen who plied their trades all day in order to go home and study Torah. I was also reminded in a dream last night of how my first job was a summer of commuting to NYC to pack crates with truck parts to send around the world. I used the proceeds of the entire summer to buy my $350 wardrobe to attend college in the Fall. That image alone could provide a personal model, a coping mechanism for continuing a few more years of work, as I save money not for a new wardrobe but for retirement. Moreover, there is a real possibility of feeding my soul at work as it had been fed up until the last year. I am hoping my new boss follows through with the idea of providing a better match between my skills, talents, and experience and the job responsibilities I have in 2013 (namely to develop and deliver training, rather than be limited to a few bureaucratic oversight functions as I was in 2012).

So I know what I need to do. I am on a path that integrates much of it into my life as it is now, and is positioning me to have an even fuller involvement in my “genius” as I head to my next career (Call it retirement if you want, I’m not sure that that is the correct terminology). One could easily argue that it is folly to defer full involvement in one’s genius until one has developed financial independence. On the other hand it seems very appropriate, now that I am on the precipice of such independence to complete creating that platform to have the freedom that “retirement” will allow, to do what I want when I want for the rest of my life. If I were doing nothing to advance my “Artist, Teacher, Jew”  capabilities, then I would be more concerned. But the fact is I am doing stuff now—leading services, chanting and meditations, writing, etc. I am preparing for greater leadership—DLTI, Kol Zimra, Hebrew 101, Spiritual Eldershipso that I will be poised to pull all of this together in an amalgam of art, music, prayer, journaling, spiritual eldership, teaching, facilitating. However many days I have left there will be much to be and do and have. I have all the tools and I am adding to them.

As we drove home I mentioned to Debbie that I was feeling—somewhat antithetical to what I perceive my basic nature to be—that more order in my day-to-day existence may be of great value. I would do well to heed the lessons I learned and taught as a Covey instructor—weekly planning, integrating aspects of my key life goals into every week, including daily “saw sharpening” of meditation, exercise. I would add to that weekly food planning—developing a clear set of repetitive meals that provide a foundation for nutrition and satiety and still allow enough variety to be stimulating and emotionally satisfying. Moreover, my dream this morning instructed me to avoid the backslide that would come from abandoning the elements of success that helped me lose 60 pounds this year. Lately there have been far too many “exceptions” and far too few normal days of maintaining a healthy focus on food planning, selection, portion control, and journaling. 

My birthday is Tuesday. Rather than using that as another excuse to binge, followed by the kids visit as another excuse to binge, followed by Chanukah, and Christmas and New Years and Tu b’shevat, and every other excuse in the world. Let me make Tuesday a model of the year to come. Let it build on my four months of strict control and the two so-so months that followed by being twelve months of consciousness, of weekly planning and attending meetings that reinforce daily weighing in and journaling that document hour by hour exercise of conscious eating. Is that over the top or is that the only way?

As I post this two days after my birthday — I am aware that I was partially successful in my intentions for that momentous day. I did eat rather moderately. I did not achieve all my goals, and I am willing to forgive myself for those small indiscretions. Baby steps. As Michael Moore said about finding one's genius if it were easy he could just throw a PowerPoint up on a screen and we'd have it. 


* I can hear the boo birds chirping, "What makes you think any of the rest of your swill is any better?"