Friday, May 25, 2012

Friday Night In

Did I tell you how we've started doing these little Shabbat dinners lately? Very informal. Wally loves it, though, and keeps getting disappointed that no one else (that we know) does them. 

"She's not lucky" he'll say, about one friend or another.

"Why not?"

"Cause she doesn't do Shabbat dinner."

Whoops. I guess maybe my explanation about feeling grateful was a little oversimplified. We are lucky, but others are, too. 

It sometimes cracks me up that I have suddenly become this uber-Jew (no offense meant to actual practicing Jews who might find the application of such a term to describe drinking grape juice on Fridays outrageous). I was not raised with anything but a vague sense of disdain for religion. I'm trying to remember how it even happened. I guess as I grew more interested in simple living, I started gravitating to a formalized day of rest, an idea which only stretches back...oh 3,000 years or so. But for most of us it's really grown out of style. This site, Sabbath Manifesto, sums up the goal of a Shabbat dinner pretty nicely, with 10 principles including "avoid technology", "light candles", "connect with loved ones" and "give back". When it comes to unplugging, a day of rest follows naturally. It's obvious, I suppose, but also not. Unplugging sounds modern, forward looking. First you have to plug in (technology revolution) to choose to plug out. Religion sounds backward. Unenlightened. Something we as a species have grown out of.

But, there may be a lot of good advice maybe mixed up with things with which we no longer agree, codified in a form we can no longer abide by. A day of rest--essential for Jews--is essential for Christians and Muslims as well. Why throw the baby out with the bathwater? Wise men and women in the past may have known that we can't function well without a break. That somewhere along the line it turned into a commandment was just a way for it to be systematized. Still, there are the other parts of the Sabbath Manifesto that were ringing around in my head. Finding more time for nature, less time for commerce, more time for quiet, family and giving back.

And then I read Wendy Mogel's Book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to raise Raising Self-Reliant Children which I've mentioned really was the best parenting advice I've read anywhere. Accepting your child's nature (recognizing that his/her greatest strength will manifest as a wacky, difficult energy). Teaching gratitude and self-control. Giving your child time to grow. Not overprotecting him or her. Encouraging debate and discussion. Committing to serving others. Letting kids learn to tolerate disappointment and frustration. And all that got me to thinking about the Jewish teachings themselves. (To be honest I did largely ignore the last chapter, the one with a more serious approach to faith. But the underlying injunction from God "Justice, justice shall you pursue" does seem to dominate and drive all other areas of the tradition, so that part, I held onto.)

The more I read about modern Judaism, the more it occurred to me that you don't have to be religious, necessarily, to follow what's essential in religion, or at least in Judaism. As Benjamin Efron and Leonard A. Schoolman write in Transition and Change: the Prayer Book and Synagogue in Modern Times (this wonderful, dusty, musty book my grandmother left behind):

"Questioning is an important part of the Jew's life, especially in our time. He can no longer accept ideas simply because they are ancient or part of tradition. On the other hand, it is not necessary for modern man to desert concepts simply because they stem from antiquity."

Next I read The Modern Jewish Mom's Guide to Shabbat: Connect and Celebrate -- Bring Your Family Together with this Friday Night Meal by Meredith L. Jacobs. I don't think I'll ever get to the point where I make my own challah. But celebrating the good things about the week, connecting with family, taking time to rest, to say thanks, to unplug (that doesn't take time, actually, it saves it), making it a ritual, it all just started to appeal to me. If we don't ritualize things, they tend not to happen. If we don't insist on a time when we will be purely in the moment, the moments will keep getting swept out from under us. 

So a few Fridays ago I bought a challah bread, grape juice and red wine. (I always buy red wine.) I dug out some old candles. (There are special Shabbos candles available, but for my purposes, any kind will do.) I just made for dinner whatever it was I was going to make--I can't remember now. I set up a jar (a pushke in Hebrew or tzedakah [charity] box) for money for the poor. At first it struck me as semi-weird to make a show of dropping money in the jar before dinner, but then I thought about how most of our donations are done by credit card online, in a rather cold, anonymous way. Why not make it a part of family life, and let Wally grow up knowing that giving to the poor is something you do weekly, not just at holidays or when someone hits you up for a donation to a fundraising 5K?

When Alex got home we turned out the lights, lit the candles, put money in the jar, said things we were grateful for--hokey, I know (but reference in high places like The Times last week), drank wine and grape juice, broke bread (how come most of the time you eat bread but when it's a festive occasion you "break" it?) and ate dinner. Time felt drawn out. I was present, but awash in memory, too. Afterwards we played music. Meredith Jacobs in The Modern Jewish Mom's Guide recommends that. Playing and singing or just putting music on in the background as you play games. 

Many people discuss a passage from some great Jewish book...the Talmud, the Torah, the Midrash -- are any of them the same thing?How do they relate to The Old Testament? -- apply it to current events and debate the morality of the choices made. "Torah portion" maybe it's called. Okay, so it's obviously from The Torah. I haven't gotten to that yet.

And pronunciation is still a mystery. Shabbat, emphasis second syllable, my dad says makes me sound super serious. But to my ears Shabbos sounds really authentic, feeling like a pretense when I saw it. 

Since we started this new tradition, Wally brings up "the people who don't have enough food" fairly often. He's equally worried about the people who "don't have enough trains". So there's lots of room for growth there, to broaden his perspective on what it means to have enough. I'll keep watching him for signs of how best to do that. And listening I am not writing here enough these days, but I am listening more. 

Three weeks ago I went with a friend (who comes from a Buddhist background but is not religious) to a Friday night service at a local synagogue, the first service I'd ever attended, outside of a Bat Mitzvah or wedding. True to the idea that Judaism is open to questioning, instead of a formal speech, the Rabbi talking about the Bible's most famous phrase "Love thy neighbor as thyself," opening the floor to discussion about what it means (changes a bit when you see it the context from which it's so often removed) and encouraging suggestions for how best to practice it. 

That synagogue's prayer book was full of wonderful poetry. One poem/prayer in struck me in particular. I wrote it down on the back of the handout. It felt so hopeful until the last line, which feels a little bit doomed. I am still wondering about it. Not sure I fully get it. Maybe you will.

Dayeinu: If We Speak Truthfully

By Tamara Cohen

If we speak truthfully about the pain, joys and contradictions in our lives,
If we listen to others with sensitivity and compassion
If we challenge the absence of women in traditional texts, chronicles of Jewish history, and in the leadership of our institutions, dayeinu.
If we continue to organize, march, and vote to affirm our values,
If we fight economic injustice, sexism, racism, and homophobia,
If we volunteer our time and money, dayeinu.
If we break the silence about violence against women and children in the Jewish community and everywhere,
If we teach our students and children to pursue justice with all their strength,
If we care for the earth and its future as responsibly as we care for those we love,
If we create art, music, dance, and literature, dayeinu.
If we realize our power to effect change,
If we bring holiness into our lives, homes, and communities,
If we honor our visions more than our fears, dayeinu v'lo dayeinu.
It will and it will not be enough.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

How we spent our days

I feel far from my Last American Childhood persona. More able to embody the traits I’d hoped to eventually embody by keeping this account, but separate from it, too, less dependent on a lifeline of 1s and 0s strung between me and the outside world.

It is the middle of May. Before we reach the end of yet another, I want to post this video Peter Norton made for the song "The End of May" from our unreleased EP by the same name. The song says most of the things I’ve tried to say on my blog, in the past 200 entries over the past 730 days of the past two years. 

And here is a song "476"—and video by Sean Eno—from even much longer ago. The video was probably done in the early 2000s. The song recorded then, too, though written in my sophomore year in college, for our band "You With the Face". 

What do these songs and videos have to do with what I’m trying to say now? 

It’s the feeling of something unfinished, something that hounds me, behind and before me.

I could also post here, but I won’t, video footage from last Friday of us being pulled back against a strong and unpredictable current in the San Francisco bay.

In these videos we have a little bit of a record, a watery one, compromised by a slanted view out of a doorway open only a crack, made blurry by a too-bright sun. In them we are blinking, not quite awake, or maybe covering our faces, dreaming of somewhere else. But, because of them, the reality of years passing can't be denied. The pictures time-stamped, even if I forget the dates. Here is a little glimpse as to how we spent our days. 

In Rebecca Stead’s Young Adult Newberry Award winning book When You Reach Me, in the chapter called Things You Push Away you’ll find this:

“Mom says each of us has a veil between ourselves and the rest of the world, like a bride wears on her wedding day, except this kind of veil is invisible. We walk around happily with these veils hanging down over our faces. The world is kind of blurry, and we like it that way.
But sometimes our veils are pushed away for a few moments, like there’s this wind blowing it from our faces. And when the veil lifts, we can see the world as it really is, just for those few seconds before it settles down again. We can see all the beauty, and cruelty, and sadness, and love. But mostly we are happy not to. 

I’ve thought a lot about those veils. I wonder if, every once in a while, someone is born without one. Someone who sees the big stuff all the time.”

For myself, I think I was born without one. The lack of one is what drives my music and writing. Probably it's the same for most people devoted to art. But it’s what distracts me from it at the same time, what makes it nearly impossible for me to finish anything, to carry anything through, those demons always visible on halcyon days. 

I am coming to accept that the process of writing might be this continual setback, the sense of regression, the dumfounded looks from others: "Can't you get past that?" And my obvious answer, explicit if not put into words "No I can't", just barely resisting the tide but somehow lasting until it has receded -- the act of trying to, but not ever really getting past whatever it is that will allow me to get on with the mythological “real story.” And in the meantime, writing a different one altogether. It will get written whether I decide to write it myself or not.

Friday, May 4, 2012

It’s easy being a little bit green

I am drawn to green/eco-friendly books. Right now I have a one from the children’s section of the local library open in front of me. It's National Geographic’s True Green Kids: 100 things you can do to save the planet. It's more reassuring and optimistic than the 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth series from the late 80s/early 90s, the mainstay of my high school environmental group. I still have those, too.

The problem, for me, with some of these environmental books, is that instead of getting inspired when I read them, I get overwhelmed. And anxious. I start to feel hopeless. The island of plastic in the Pacific (yes, it is out there, and it’s huge), and the fact that the “good” light bulbs, the energy efficient ones, have mercury and have to be disposed of properly, and the average 3.3 tons of waste the average American family hurls into a landfill on a yearly basis and the pelicans choking on plastic bags and dolphins coughing up oil and polar bears slipping right off the melting ice caps into the rising sea. It’s just like, oh God, this is fucking awful.

Doomsday environmentalism. It’s paralyzing. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, talks about how kids are not going to relate or respond to giant issues like climate change, holes in the ozone, or melting polar ice. That we need to give them time in nature—playing in the yard, walking through meadows, throwing stones into streams—so that they will grow wanting to be stewards of the places they love.

Then on the other end of doomsday – you just used 59 gallons of clean, drinkable water for that last load of laundry you did – environmentalism is the happy, go lucky kind—making caterpillars from egg cartons. I like that stuff. I think it’s great for school kids and craft-time, both to raise awareness and just make re-use a habit. But faced with the realities of extreme weather those real-life caterpillars are now or will be forced to endure, it can feel a little remote, a little bit like playing tennis in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

It’s easy to lose momentum, reading about everything that needs to be done. How are we really going to change people’s mindsets? How will we  get enough people to care? What if Obama doesn't get re-elected? What if we deregulate factories even further? Canadians are start to burn tar sand? What are we going to do??? 

This kind of panic vortex threatens to swallow me whole. The answer is action. Something small, something doable. “Every little bit counts” is the message of lots of these books with their simple things we can do. So why not do a little bit rather than imagining the nightmare of drastic change and doing nothing?

I’ve been reading a few books on Jewish spirituality lately, too. And I’ve  latched on to the idea that our job is to do what we can to repair our corner of the world. Our corner. That can be our family, our neighborhood, our community.  It’s not overwhelming. It’s graspable. Repairing our corner. That's our task.

For a long time I've resisted composting. I just can’t stand the idea of a bucket of worms in my apartment. My Physics friend M. has a non-worm compost bin, but I have to admit I haven’t looked into it and she has an outdoor patio, which makes that path seem more tenable. But the truth is, I just haven’t done it. I throw banana peels into plastic bags where they’ll never biodegrade.

Last Saturday I went for the first time down to the Farmer's Market at Abingdon Square to drop off a bag of apple cores, coffee grinds, a bunch of dirt, and orange peels. I dropped it off. The guy there was really friendly. He said you can store stuff in the freezer. I thanked him for the advice--seems obvious now. Then I walked back up 9th ave. And I felt so light. Physically light, because I wasn’t lugging the bag. But light in other ways, too.

Last night after dinner I asked Wally to put some tomato stems in the bag I took out the freezer with coffee grinds, banana peels, and onion skins. He peered into it. “What about apple peels and potato peels?” he said. So he obviously has the idea about composting already from school or TV or both. Probably Dirtgirlworld. That show is CRAZY weird but has a great environmental message.

“What will this turn into?” I asked Wally, as he flitted about looking for more stuff we could put in.

“Dirt,” he said. Obviously.

Remember, how badly Wally and his friends want to be allowed to dig in the forbidden dirt of our neighborhood? Kids love dirt. How cool to be able to involve them, even sort of tangentially, in this antiseptic, urban way) in the process of how it gets made. It's a free lesson, a useful activity Wally can take part in and enjoy. It’s a way to help, a tiny little bit, by diverting a tiny little bit of trash from ending up in a landfill. And a way to connect a city kid living in a high-rise building to the earth and its life-cycles. On the way to school this morning he reminded me about doing potato peels tonight.

Tomorrow we'll take the bag out of the freezer and walk down to the Farmer's Market together. Already he can be a steward of the earth, in this tiny way.

When we dump the peels and cores and grinds out into the bin, he might expect it to turn to dirt immediately, like a magic trick. 

It is a magic trick, matter changing form. Renewal. Regeneration. But that’s another lesson, too. Important things take time. All the more reason to start as soon as we can. Like the JFK quote:

"The great French Marshall Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow growing and would not reach maturity for 100 years. The Marshall replied, 'In that case, there is no time to lose; plant it this afternoon!'"