Transitions

IMG_2015I haven’t written for quite a while. I’ve indulged my obsessive orientation towards whatever project to which I’ve committed myself. The latest project was to create an in-law apartment for my husband and myself. The project involved hiring a contractor, discontinuing our relationship with that contractor due to cost concerns, hiring another contractor, being involved with every detail of the design and building of the place – picking out woodwork, cabinets, sinks, faucets, tile, flooring, paint; everything. I spent countless hours shopping on the internet, shopping for the basic items such as pulls for cabinets and all the other basic items that are needed to create a kitchen and bathroom. Most of the furniture we bought was used, but to find nice used furniture also involved more obsessing; hours combing through listings on the internet; hours going from thrift shop to thrift shop. The process took well over 2 years. We have finally moved in and I’m reeling with exhaustion, excitement, joy, sense of accomplishment, and a strong sense that the difficulties involved were surely a First World problem. I go back and forth between thinking that it surely was worth the time and cost to create a nice place for my husband and me to live and to provide space upstairs for our daughter, son-in-law, and grandson. The conflict that creeps up on me, though, is the sense that with the world as it is, how can I spend this much time trying to make us comfortable when everything around me is falling apart, when refugees are dying as they try to reach a safe haven; where health care access is being decimated in the U.S.; where populist movements in the west are destroying what I used to think of as a progressive globalism. You get the picture. Is it okay to meditate, garden, create a warm space for yourself, your extended family, and your friends? Is it okay to live a comfortable, privileged life when the whole world is falling apart around you?

Let’s flash back to the 1960’s. In those days I was obsessed about one thing – to end U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam. I remember the militant anti-war demonstrations. Since that time I’ve read more about Vietnam. I know people whose lives in Vietnam were destroyed not only because of U.S. involvement but from abuses done by the side who we thought were so pure and good. I learned that political activism requires a balanced, integrated approach that considers all sides of every issue. One-sided obsession is immature and nonproductive; rather, a balanced, rational, empathic, open-hearted approach is needed. Militancy against war makes no sense to me now. Looking at issues in absolutes doesn’t make sense either. I look for a middle way.* For me to achieve that balance requires paying attention to my own balance as an individual. To have compassion for all concerned needs to start with my own balance, rather than the old way of obsessing in a one-dimensional way that ignores my own needs and that ignores my own dark side. We project that darkness onto what we perceive to be our enemy and the self-righteousness that ensues leads nowhere, in my opinion.

There it is – some hearty stream-of-consciousness words that will give you an idea of what I’m thinking about. Does any of this make sense to you? Let me know your thoughts.

*I’m an active member of The Middle Way Society. If you’d like to learn more about this approach I suggest that you check out their website: middlewaysociety.org

 

Five Questions

questionWhat if five questions you ask others and yourself could enhance the quality of your life and the lives of others? Would you want to know what they are? I love lists, especially lists that make total sense and can be brought to mind at any moment of the day to help me make sense of the world. A fellow member of the Middle Way Society, and podcast interviewer extraordinaire, Barry Daniel, shared a video recently. Dean James Ryan who gave the Harvard Graduate School of Education commencement speech posed the five questions. Here they are:

  1. Wait, what?
  2. I wonder why? If?
  3. Couldn’t we at least?
  4. How can I help?
  5. What truly matters [to me]?

Later in the day, I saw a post requesting prayers for Jerusalem. Many people quoted the Bible and Jesus in response to this request. My first thought was that I would ignore the post, since the responses seemed insular. But – wait, I just learned the five questions.

  1. Wait, what?

Do I have to look at this request as demanding an insular response?

  1. I wonder if?

I wonder if I could answer the request from a perspective that makes sense to me.

  1. Couldn’t we at least try to find a way to express our point of view that is inclusive and loving?
  1. How can I help?

I could begin to help by expressing an inclusive point of view. Maybe further down the road I could become active in a dialogue group that would help to change the situation in this contested part of the world.

  1. What truly matters to me is love – for myself, my family, my community, the world community; I believe that we have to have compassion for everyone; looking out only for ones own will not serve humanity and the planet – and I think that the conflict this attitude produces prevents your own and everyone else’s happiness.

I posted my thoughts about my wish for peace among all people in Jerusalem; Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Atheist, Agnostic, Buddhist – ALL people. Maybe my post wasn’t in sync with the others, but maybe someone was open hearted enough to realize that there are more points of view than what was reflected in the hundreds of absolute fundamentalist statements rolling down the page. These five questions inspire me to consider engaging in more dialogue than I am wont to do ordinarily. These times may require that we all engage more in dialogue.

For me, posing these five questions even on something as possibly insignificant as a Facebook post is a helpful exercise to try them out.

Music, Death, & Donald Trump

musical_cleff_-_maroon_copy-e1367955072178This morning I enjoyed reading an article that my husband sent me about how important music is to those who are dying. He sent it to me because I am in the Threshold Choir, a group that sends several people at a time to sing at a person’s bedside when they are near the end of their life. Reading the article triggered a memory that I had suppressed. In 2012, I accompanied my mother home in an ambulance as she was released from the ICU to go home to die. She sang with delight that she was going to be able to die at home. She was transferred to a hospital bed in her living room and had an attendant for that first night home. I stayed in her bedroom. In the middle of the night I heard the attendant and my mother arguing with each other. The attendant kept turning off the music that my mother was playing and telling my mother to go to sleep. I got up – turned the music back on, and told the attendant that it was my mother’s choice to listen to the music and it was going to stay on! Music comforted my mother more than anything else. I was angry at the attendant for turning it off.

You may wonder what any of this has to do with Donald Trump. As I thought about this memory, I began to wonder about the attendant. She was working two back-to-back 12-hour shifts. That is why she wanted to sleep through the night. She chose night shifts with the thought that she could sleep at night and be fresh for her next day’s work. That was the last thing on my mind because my interest was for my mother to have whatever she wanted during her last days on earth. More than four years later I’m thinking about that attendant in the way that I think about Trump supporters. There is always a reason that someone believes what they believe – or behaves the way they behave. Everyone has a story. The attendant was tired. The Trump supporter may have a major issue with a woman’s right to choose, or with unemployment. The rhetoric that they hear from Donald Trump may give them hope, however unjustified.

In these coming weeks, months, years, we are going to have to learn to hear each other across the great divide. It will not be easy. There will be no quick fixes, but whatever the election outcome we can no longer live in our little cocoons of certainty and righteousness. No. It’s going to be messy and difficult. I plan to give some effort to understanding people who have different beliefs than mine. I hope you will, too.

L’Chaim! To Life!

Periodically during the year, associated with certain holidays, we light candles to remember people from our families who have died. My husband and I choose to light all of these candles on the evening before Yom Kippur and on the anniversary of the death of each of our loved ones who are no longer with us. We light these candles to honor our family members and to remind us that life is finite.

An important part of my spiritual practice is allowing myself to be aware of the preciousness of life. As a humanist I don’t believe that life continues after death. Death is likely real. It is likely that we only live in people’s memories and even that ends when those who remembered us are gone. This makes life exquisitely precious. We cannot shrug and say that life will be better in the world to come. This is probably it.

candleLighting these candles is both bitter and sweet. I appreciate having this ritual. I remember my brother, my mother, and my father. My husband remembers his parents and his brother. Memories of them burn brightly.

The day after all the candles are lit, we soak the little glasses that housed the wax and metal in hot water to remove the labels and the remnants of wax. Like most Jews who have this practice, we don’t waste those vessels of remembrance. They become little juice glasses. Life goes on and those whom we honor drank from glasses just like these the morning after the candles remembering their dead had finished burning.

A new year begins. We celebrate life. We love our friends and family. We raise our little juice glasses to life! L’chaim! May your New Year be sweet and may you savor each moment.

To Love Through Song

Shabbat morning. I have found a new way to celebrate this most important day of the week. First, some background:

Let me start by saying that the joy of my life right now, aside from my husband, children, and fabulous grandchildren, is singing with the Threshold Choir. We sing at people’s bedsides, mainly to those who are dying. There are Threshold Choirs all across the United States, Canada, and Australia.
The experience of singing at a person’s bedside is profound and beautiful. Recently, KQED, a local public television station, showed a short segment about our work, if you’d like to see what I’m talking about.musical_cleff_-_maroon_copy-e1367955072178

Kate Munger founded the Threshold Choir. Years ago, she found herself at a loss when she was visiting a friend who was dying of AIDS. She felt helpless, but then she began to sing to him, and her singing comforted him. This is how the Threshold Choir was born.

I joined the choir in San Francisco almost a year ago, learned about 30 core songs, and began singing at bedside recently. The songs are spiritual but not “religious.” Whether a person is deeply religious or secular in orientation, the songs are comforting, calming, and loving. Those are the facts – but how do I describe the experience?

I’ll tell you about that Shabbat morning. We visited one person who was in great distress, crying out with anguish. No one had been able to calm her, though she was in a facility with the highest standard of care. Three of us from the Threshold Choir sat by her bed and we sang. We watched as she became more and more calm, and ultimately drifted off to sleep. We were barely able to keep singing; we were so moved to see her relax. When can you do something you love to do and have that profound an effect on someone else? What a gift it is to be able to sing for people. It is as simple as that; to do what you love and to help others. The boundaries of who is singing and who is soothed melt away. We are singing and hearing and calming and connecting. What a joy! Shabbat is an imaginary moment of perfection. On that day, for me, Shabbat was truly realized.

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Not everyone would feel comfortable singing at bedside. If you would like to contribute to this wonderful organization to support their work, please do! This could be an especially kind and comforting way to support a friend or family member who has recently lost a loved one.

Hammer or mindfulness?

There are so many internet memes about gratitude. “Wake up grateful.” “Count your blessings everyday.” “Gratitude changes everything.” I agree with these thoughts, but for me this is a skill that needs exercise just as much as strength training. Gratitude doesn’t come easily to me. I had the good fortune of being reminded about how great it is to have running water in my kitchen. Yes, you read that right – I’m grateful to have running water in my kitchen. There is construction going on in our house and one day we have water – the next day we don’t – then voilà; water again 2 days later. The first day we have water back, I am hyper-aware of how great it is to have running water in the kitchen. I feel the warm water on my hands and I rinse the dishes. I don’t have to walk the dishes to the bathroom to wash, rinse, and dry them. I freely cook and use as many pots and pans as I need to. I become watergrateful for ordinary plumbing.
The brain makes strange connections. When I thought about my gratitude for running water in my kitchen I again became grateful that I could walk. I spent 3 months in a wheelchair 14 years ago after being hit by a car. It took me 5 years to begin to feel somewhat “normal” again. Now, I make a point of taking at least 10,000 steps a day – walking – dancing – doing tai chi and Feldenkreis. I am aware of how lucky I am to be able to walk, to dance, to move on my own two feet, but somehow, the water issue – the loss and then restoration of plumbing inspires gratitude for gaining my ability to walk as well.

Do we need to have loss in order to appreciate what we have? Is it possible to walk through various scenarios and inspire our own gratitude without the ‘ole hammer trick?

Life’s Purpose

We all would like to think we have a purpose. Put more truthfully, we all would like to have a clear purpose that we do not have to question or worry over. I think that the reason I am thinking this thought is because I’m reading Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, a spiritual autobiography, written long ago in a different time, but compelling in its confessional seriousness. Thomas Merton’s vocation was to leave the world and become a monk in a monastery. “Leaving the world” is his terminology. To have a religious vocation as a monk is to leave the world. This idea is foreign to me, a Jew, who does not think the world is a place to leave in order to be religious, but a place in which to celebrate life, truly a different perspective.* At the same time, though, I envy him his certainty, which brings me to what I want to say about my experience today.

I began with a walk towards public transit in order to go to a daylong retreat at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City. I took the scenic route to BART (rapid transit) through City College. Midway through the campus, a man in a car pulled up to ask me a question;

gym at city college“Do you know where the gym is? I’m trying to get to the gym.” I told him where the gym was and kept walking, including walking through the building where the gym was. I could hear the crowd gathered for a basketball game and was reassured that I had given him good directions. I made it to Redwood City, though I almost missed my stop because I was so immersed in Merton’s book. I sat in the meditation hall for 40 minutes and began to swell up as I always seem to do when I sit to meditate. My fingers get painfully swollen and I think that I’m doing an activity that is not healthy for me. I went to lunch and began to go back for the rest of the day’s activities – sitting meditation alternating with walking meditation – and it occurred to me that I would rather read and spend time with my husband than sit and swell in a meditation hall. I called Al, my husband, and made plans, walked to the train, got off at the BART station closest to my house, and, again, walked through City College. I was listening to a beautiful rendition of Salve Regina, sung by Benedictine monks, thinking that it would be great to use the beautiful melody and write alternative words, since the meaning of the Latin words doesn’t resonate for me in the way they are intended. We humanistic Jews do this with Jewish prayers as well. Why not this song? As I listened someone was trying to get my attention. She was driving a truck and was asking me where the gym was. I told her; this time I was quite sure about where it was.

So, what am I meant to do? Apparently, today I was meant to tell people where the gym is in City College. Tomorrow, who knows?

*Note: Paradoxically, if you read about Merton’s experiences working in the fields at Abbey of Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky, it is hard to believe he has left the world: “How sweet it is, out in the fields, at the end of the long summer afternoons! The sun is no longer raging at you, and the woods are beginning to throw long blue shadows over the stubble fields where the golden shocks are standing. The sky is cool, and you can see the pale half-moon smiling over the monastery in the distance. Perhaps a clean smell of pine comes down to you, out of the woods, on the breeze, and mingles with the richness of the fields and of the harvest. And when the undermaster claps his hands for the end of work, and you drop your arms and take off your hat to wipe the sweat out of your eyes, in the stillness you realize how the whole valley is alive with the singing of crickets, a constant universal treble going up to God out of the fields, rising like the incense of an evening prayer to the pure sky: laus perennis!”

Merton, Thomas (1998-10-04). The Seven Storey Mountain: Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition (p. 432). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.