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Friday, July 31, 2009, 5:24 PM
Not us, but you get the idea
In the new release Slippery Year, the world’s most literate soccer mom has penned the anti-memoir, a Seinfeldian account of the mundane and quotidian that is a “book about nothing.” This seemingly perfect tome for the times finds beauty and fascination in the ordinary. At first, my cynicism cast this as just another nod to the zeitgeist of staycations, penny-pinching and financial angst, little more than a clever publicist’s ploy. But last night’s lazy suburban exploits revealed the need to find the amazing, the miraculous, and yes, even the holy that surges around us if we but took the time and raised awareness to notice.
It is a remarkable moment, cutting through the camouflage to consciousness that a long, hot day and a full dinner evoke. My wife and I stood aside our flat court watching our son perfect his newly acquired riding chops on a bike. He rode the circuit continuously, the determination and focus of a bomb squad veteran in his gaze, deliberately peddling and steering to keep himself upright and moving forward. A smile creased across his face as confidence built, pride flowered and recognition of this critical milestone sank in.
But this moment resonated with us as well. It marked a transition for our family, as we matured as parents to parallel this person-in-process’ conquest of yet another challenge on the path to adulthood. There was a convergence that touched the transcendent, as his life and my life, my memories and his dreams, who I am and who he is becoming blended with the commonality of this moment for all peoples in all times. It was a rite of passage that spanned the generations, a seemingly unremarkable blink in time that with consideration and context became defining and indelible.
Prayer and blessings at their best shake us out of the complacency and psychic filtering of the day to day, necessary for our sanity and our stability, reminding us to stop and smell the existential roses and to incorporate that fragrant experience into our being in transformative ways. Sacred literature is filled with saints, shamans and seekers who risk passing up the powerful and significant, only to be yanked into awareness by divine guidance. This lesson of deepened attention and heightened appreciation, the preparedness for receiving revelation, is perhaps even more important than the substance of an epiphany itself, for it comprehensively impacts and changes us. The recitation of blessings and the practice of prayer is a kind of spiritual calisthenics, an exercise in perspective and gratitude that readies us for the miracles that surround us daily.
Praying and practicing Jews recite the daily litany of Nissim B’chol Yom, blessings for common miracles that often defy consideration. The functioning of our bodies, the capacity of the mind and the very fact that we awaken at all in the morning careens through our normal level of pre-consciousness to, in Blakean parlance, cleanse the doors of perception so that things appear as they are…infinite.
The seminal blessing is the Shecheyanu prayer, intoned at joyous occasions or any that warrant the recognition of a breakthrough, a passage or a glimpse of something that binds us to everything: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this day. Simultaneity of awareness, appreciation and divinity is the essence of the miraculous.
The new wave Bard of Britain, Elvis Costello, inserts a bit of this insight between ventings on feminine dissatisfaction in his song Miracle Man:
But don’t you think that I know that walking on water won’t make me a miracle man?
Despite the irrelevant context, this notion that the enduringly miraculous exists less in drama and fx than in our witness to daily wonder is one of the greatest wisdoms to glean from religion. While still a bit young and a bit unsteady, on that languid twilight on the court, my son became my Miracle Man.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009, 5:07 PM
The Rashomon Effect was a fixture of 70’s sitcoms, recently revived as life imitating art in the current distraction de jour, the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. v. Cambridge Police Dept. debacle. Inspired by the Kurosawa film of varying, often opposing memories of the same seminal event, it admonishes of the innate fallibility of human memory and perspective. This key insight into the human condition underlies the reality, and should mitigate the hype surrounding this latest iteration of the tired-but-true cultural trope: We really haven’t come that far in race relations since the Civil Rights era.
No one knows what really happened on that New England July afternoon, including the parties to the conflict. Intentions count and misperceptions matter in assessing the event after the fact, important in a final analysis beyond words and acts. The Boston area police, with a rich history of racial philistinism, probably could have defused the moment without running Gates through a TMZ-ready perpwalk photo. And the esteemed academic could have better indulged the caution of law enforcement through another sitcom-worthy misunderstanding, refraining from levels of umbrage that brought the arresting officer’s mother into the mix.
Our Commander-in-Change, the most notable regent of racial concerns by virtue of birth, life experience and political persona, waded into the unforgiving rapids with an uncharacteristically clumsy offhand comment to the press. With a spin to put a major league curveball to shame, Obama invited Officer Crowley and Gates for beer-and-bro therapy in the Oval. And while a nice gesture, focus-group assured to resonate with the mythical everyman living in a little-known hamlet at the precise, GPS-determined center of the Continental U.S., this catharsis-op offers little to assuage the nuanced, trying and deep-rooted issues of race that remain unresolved in this country.
Candidate Obama had it right in March of 2008. While fending off the legions of Limbaugh on the one hand and the grandstanding ego of his former pastor on the other, Obama’s speech on race captured the complexity of its current state, the inequities that persist and the profound disconnect that perpetuates a de facto segregation in America. President Obama should reclaim an appreciation for the subtlety of the challenge and commit to an honest confrontation with the problem that Candidate Obama bravely described. A beer and a stilted bear hug, while both refreshing and affirming, does little but further obscure and subsume a more productive path beneath a concession to stagecraft for the media-cycle.
There are still ugly, awful attitudes and actors out there, and recidivistic racism that is both institutional and personal. Solutions will not be found on the bar stool, in the interracial dialogue seminar or even amidst a blue-ribbon Presidential commission on the future of race relations (especially on such a commission). Change on this third rail of culture and politics will be messy, feelings will be hurt, outrage expressed and coarse words uttered before real reconciliation and resolution is reached. Just ask the folks in South Africa, nakedly rolling through the thorns and thistles of their painful past in the hopes of finding a new normal.
In the compendium of wisdom entitled Pirke Avot/Ethics of The Fathers, axioms of wisdom seemingly fortune-cookie ready in concision and poignancy (especially with the Jewish penchant for Chinese cuisine), the rabbis taught: Every argument for the sake of heaven will endure. And while Jews clearly possess an ethnic imperative to argue, often whether the discussion warrants it or not (witness the philosophical disputations at an outdoor market in Jerusalem while buying a grapefruit), the tradition teaches the inevitability of conflict when seeking to confront life’s tough, intractable but hopefully remediable trials. The intention of the parties, the importance of the issue and a commitment to a constructive approach distinguishes true change from trite lip service.
Monday, July 20, 2009, 6:39 PM
More people say they remember events in early childhood than actually do. The fog of time, multiplicity of distractions and numbing of neurons leave very few genuine replays of formative moments amidst the decaying gray convolutions. But there are occasional glimmers of clarity and significance.
I actually (certainly embellished but nonetheless real) remember where I was and what I was doing 40 years ago today. I sat cross-legged on the cold cafeteria floor of Wellwood Elementary School in Baltimore during a kindergarten summer camp program, straining in the primordial age of television to make out grainy images on a tiny screen. Though fascinated by astronauts and space travel, as any red-blooded American boy of the Cold War period had to be, the excited admonitions of teachers compelled my appreciation more than a real understanding of the event. But still, there was something magical, something otherworldly on multiple levels that impressed even the still-emerging sensibilities of a 5 year old.
The Apollo 11 moon landing remains one of the few, seminal moments of recent history that indelibly marks civilization as changed forever. A technological feat of unprecedented scope, the conquest of the moon was a potent symbol of the triumph of human ingenuity over passive concession to circumstance. No longer were we merely tempest-tossed on an ocean of fate, helpless in the face of nature’s power and inscrutable purpose. When Neil Armstrong leapt (or really floated) down the final rungs of the lunar lander’s ladder, he vanquished many of the fears stalking the millennia. Few challenges seemed beyond our now-considerable reach, and a new mythology of humankind ascendant supplanted the archaic beliefs and deities of the terrestrially bound.
Armstrong’s words, destined and even seemingly constructed for immortality, captured the ultimate meaning of the moment as not merely a culmination of what had been, but a prescient and inspiring glimpse into what was to come: That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind. This was more than adrenalin-infused fighter pilot bravado. Armstrong seemed to understand that he was an extension of dreams and desires, a spacesuit-clad surrogate for the totality of our abilities and ambitions focused laser like on a remote point on a bleak, dusty rock circling an unremarkable greenish orb in a vast expanse made smaller and less fearful by his very act.
Even as a relatively clueless kid, I sensed the bond, the connection between who I was and what I was seeing. The power of that moment transcended intellect and experience, resonating with all of us, representing the best of what we could be. It is a sense not lost on the young. Perhaps it is best apprehended by the young.
It is an insight at the moved heart of Pixar’s latest kidflick Up. Though accessible to and meaningful for adults, as all family-friendly films must be to prevent parents from blinding themselves with caustic popcorn topping to escape saccharine storylines, the subtle lessons of the film ring more authentically than the shallow moralizing of most animated fare. The nuanced and nimbly offered lesson: We cannot fully realize our dreams unless we work to bring about the dreams of others. It is the evolution of the universal religious proscription: Empathy and compassion are the highest human ideals. It takes “doing onto others…” to the next level. It requires sensitivity and imagination, effort and vision. It is ambition at its best in that individual success accrues to the benefit of all. It’s what Neil and the boys (sorry to subsume you, Buzz) accomplished that summer day of earth seasons, risking life and limb to broaden our horizons beyond our horizon, sharpening the mind’s eye to envision what lies beyond the heavens, to more keenly sense what lay deep within the soul.
Friday, July 17, 2009, 2:14 PM
The New York Times recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Walkman as a cultural watershed. The piece offered the requisite background and the not-unexpected sociological analysis of the device’s impact on modern life as atomizing, alienating and bane to a community that increasingly “bowls alone.” The ipod is but the latest and more insidiously effective iteration of this phenomenon.
I drive most places around my home in Seattle, and use a small ipod shuffle to run around my suburban neighborhood when the spirit of Jack Lalane moves me, and so I don’t often immerse in the cocoon of a pedestrian playlist when walking amidst a crowd. But this morning presented an unusual opportunity to saunter in musical solitude as I made my way towards a book interview in downtown San Francisco during my vacation. I was hardly alone, as an army of white-plugged pod people scrambled around the Financial District, avoiding others as assiduously as they skirted cabs and construction sites.
Sensitive to this predicament, I deliberately sought to let the music carry me through a more intentional awareness of my surroundings. And I also thought, as the wandering mind is wont to do in concert with the feet, that this private listening/public walking duality is an apt metaphor for the dynamic tension between spirituality and religion. Most of the unselfconsciously oxymoronic adherents to the growing denomination of the “spiritual but not religious” assert an individual pursuit of transcendence as “spiritual” and a concession to the constraints of community and tradition as “religious.” And never the twain shall meet in this Manichean oversimplification into mutual exclusivity.
While the isolating pitfalls of the podstruck are legion, there is a synthesis of the private and public that becomes enriching of both. The music serves as inspiring soundtrack for even the most mundane journey, eliciting awareness of and appreciation for people and things along the way that might have gone unnoticed. And travel through the contours of a daily commute can give deeper meaning and purpose to a favorite song, illuminating the quirky turn of phrase of a lyric at a certain street corner, emphasizing and powering a crescendo and chorus when reaching the crest of a steep hill.
Similarly, faith at its best integrates the individual and communal experience of the sacred. Yes, there is the solo moment of transcendence on the wooded hike and the uplift of singing with a throng in a chapel. But worship within a vital, liturgically entrepreneurial congregation can provide moments of singular contemplation and connection to community in qualitatively distinct and overlapping ways, sometimes serially, sometimes simultaneously. These seemingly separate experiences of the sacred can coexist and even complement one another in a successful, effective place of prayer.
As I left my interview and made my way back, I relished a glorious (and unusual) summer morning in The City, intrigued by the hustle and hassle all around, driven to keep pace by the arguably best Grateful Dead show ever, Barton Hall 1977. As I reached the peak of a daunting climb atop the corner of Sacramento and Jones streets, Jerry and the boys hit that memorable point in Scarlet Begonias, “the sky was yellow and the sun was blue.” I was grateful that the meteorology was solidly the inverse, but at that moment, in a small but significant way, it all came together. As the rabbis say, “Those who understand, understand.” I hope all will continue to pursue that blended, balanced quality of genuine spirituality
Friday, July 10, 2009, 4:51 PM
On his Summer Hope Tour 2009, President Obama is wending his way ‘round the world, with a notable stop in V-Town for a sit down with Benedict the Beneficent. Let’s hope the Commander in Change receives a warmer, less ideologically fraught welcome than he did from American bishops during the Notre Dame commencement.
Let’s also hope that this audience encompasses true participation, and that a key topic of dialogue is the economy. The timing couldn’t be better, and not by coincidence. Surely our much-hailed Chief is sick of talking finance, though this is his administration’s albatross and our communal cross to bear. But Obama’s next stop with the G8 is not lost on his apostolically descended host. With as much fanfare as a papal encyclical can generate, Benedict released (and you should have been at the release party in the Sistine Chapel…Bruno made an appearance dressed as a naughty nun!) Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth).
You’ve got to ideologically hand it to the Vatican PR machine. Whether you agree or not with its many, seemingly archaic dicta, the reigning regents of Rome are consistent when it comes to the sanctity of life, from conception through capital punishment, and now everything in between. The Pope (and his ghost-writing crew…spirit-writing?) approaches the current economic crisis, and economics more broadly, as a human rights issue.
So often the masters of the financial universe consider their craft a game, compartmentalized from the real world and thus never evocative of conscience. The Pontiff reminds us that there are real consequences to cavalier decisions and real impact on diminished lives. The pursuit of profit—a lot of profit—does not mutually exclude sensitivity to the plight of others, even at the expense of a smaller percentage of profit earned (Hey Exxon Mobil, %1190 instead of %1200 gain a quarter does not augur failure!). And most importantly, the mark of a truly successful, democratic and capitalist nation is not a tunnel-vision focus on the bottom line, but concern for the welfare of the least amongst it.
In a comment on the environment and the exploitation of natural resources, the encyclical counsels “efficiency is not value-free.” The same can be said for such hallowed-made-hollow-through-overuse concepts as success, free-markets and liberty. Their unqualified value for one society is often at the impoverished expense of another.
I’m sure the official word on the meeting will be bureaucratic and bland, but let’s hope something of inspiring substance passed between these temporal titans.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009, 2:21 PM
Many thanks to author, rabbi and beliefnet blogger Brad Hirschfield for his kind recommendation of Good
Friday, July 3, 2009, 8:38 PM
If De Tocqueville was observing the contemporary political scene, he would re-title his famous travelogue accordingly. The recent public peccadilloes of the latest social-conservatives-gone-bad, John Ensign and Mark Sanford, are as unsurprising as they are reflective of the common chasm between professed and lived values. Though a painful compromise of commitment and damaging to family, few fault these men for their actions in and of themselves. The pulls of the heart and the laws of attraction are complex, defying easy description and measurement. And none of us ever truly knows what goes on behind closed doors, within the dark recesses of troubled souls.
The critique and complaint against this dubious duo and their near-exclusively Republican ilk is the ignominious fall after such puritanical flight. Ensign and Sanford lobbed artillery shells from houses of Mikasa Crystal. One need not sport a PhD in psychology to diagnose the latest flavor-of-the-month moral renegade from sexual repression-turned-shame-faced refugee from the sanctimocracy.
But perhaps most galling (or at least a near runner up) is the abuse and exploitation of sacred texts and traditions to cloak the most narcissistic of agendas in robes of redemption. Sanford followed the lead of Bill Clinton, who branded himself a modern-day King David, the latest leader-gone-loopy-for-love whose plight should evoke sympathy and whose path to absolution should serve as model.
They may want to avoid the David dynamic, with its intimations not merely of adultery, but of murder to facilitate a more dangerous liaison. And the consequences suffered by David were not simply the spinning of damage control, a marriage encounter retreat with the Tammy Wynette-fortified wife and obligatory acts of contrition on Dr. Phil. David’s sowing of lustful, impulsive seeds reaped the unique bitterness of biblical poetic justice: he loses children to untimely death and ungrateful betrayal, his power is threatened and his household ravaged. Be careful what you wish for, Mr. Sanford.
With the classic selectivity of the fundamentalist, Sanford and his cockeyed kin cherry-pick through the Book of Samuel while glossing over an entire third of the Hebrew Scriptures: the Prophets. The 3 major league prophets and 12 Triple A aspirants understood the Mark Sanfords of the world well, and spoke with scathing accuracy to their arrogance, rationalization and moral myopia.
Appealing to the uber-pietists amongst Israel, who assume that asceticism and an obsessive-compulsive commitment to ritual are sufficient to encompass true faith, thus granting them a get-out-of-jail-free card from concerns for ethical conduct, God through Isaiah sets them straight
Is this the fast I look for? A day of self-affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes?… Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them…
In other words, Messers Ensign, Sanford and a moralizing Republican up-and-comer-to-be-named-later, there’s health care legislation to be crafted, climate change regulations to be forged and loving relationships within the gay community to be sanctioned. Stay out of our bedrooms and worry less about our souls, and we’ll requite your inevitable falls from grace as only human.
Thursday, July 2, 2009, 12:51 PM
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