Category Archives: mindfulness

What a Swing Set Measures

For almost twenty years the wooden swing set had been standing in our back yard.  The wood beams and metal jousts gracefully and patiently bore the passage of time, the vagaries of the weather, the hot sun of summer, the cold and snow of the winter months. For many years the swing set was busy.  It would creak with delight when children were swinging on its bright blue swings, laughing and trying to reach the sky above them.  Its crow’s nest was host to various clubs and secret societies. Meetings took place there where important topics were discussed, like the best way to eat a grilled cheese sandwich, or what might be the perfect container for a pine cone collection.

In those days the swing set was a hub of activity.  When the locusts swarmed one summer, its crow’s nest provided shelter from their flying, buzzing bodies.  One winter the snow piled so high the swings disappeared, and the children built a snow man to guard the old wooden structure until spring came and the snow melted away.  In the fall, when we built our sukkah, the swing set was just a few yards away, a welcome escape from the confining walls of our temporary harvest tent.  One year, in a high storm, the swing set watched stoically as our entire sukkah was blown over by a strong wind, almost laughing at the sukkah, as if to say ‘Look at me, I’ve been standing here for years, and this wind can’t even move me one inch.’

As the years went by trees grew up around the swing set.  A cherry tree’s branches intruded on the crow’s nest.  A strong maple grew up just behind the swings, so that children might feel they were swinging high up in the branches of a magical tree.  Finally a great willow grew swiftly, its massive branches blanketing the old structure in perpetual shade.

There were fewer and fewer visits to the swing set as the years passed.  Its crow’s nest was mostly silent and empty.  Squirrels scuttled across its top beams, but children rarely visited.  They were grown, too big for the swings, to old for such things as ‘crow’s nests’ and ‘secret clubs.’  The swing set became a kind of artifact.  It told stories.  Of a broken arm from swinging too high and landing too hard.  Of aimless summer days.  Of intricate projects and plans that were made and made again, but never implemented.  Of back yard barbecues and tie dye birthday parties.  Of watching young children grow.

We took the old swing set down this week.  Its time had come and gone, but it was a bitter sweet moment.  All of those memories wrapped up in its grooved and worn boards, its tattered canopy.  As it rested in the front yard, waiting for someone to come haul it away, a young woman drove by with her three young children in tow.  She noticed the aged crow’s nest, still proudly standing strong, bravely awaiting its fate.  ‘Were we getting rid of it?’ she wondered.  ‘And would we mind, if she could find someone to bring it down the street, if she gave that crow’s nest a new home?’

Just yesterday we walked around the neighborhood in the late afternoon.  It was an end of summer day, the sun warm and high in a bright blue sky, but the trees already starting to shed their leaves.  There at the bottom of the hill we saw the crow’s nest, tucked neatly away in a new back yard.  It was again surrounded by trees, not the old willow and maple, but evergreens that will guard it from the wind in the cold winter months.  Our neighbor scrubbed at the wood, working to sand it smooth so it would be ready for bare hands and feet.  It won’t be long.  Soon children will be playing there as they once did, and we will hear their laughter, as we walk by wondering where the past has gone, or if it has gone at all.  FullSizeRender 3

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Filed under community, continuity, liminal moments, memory, mindfulness, neighborhoods, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, seasons, Uncategorized

The Car

It was a 1979 Peugeot 504 diesel.  A nondescript brown/grey color, stick shift, manual sunroof, four door.  It was slow as molasses, the diesel engine struggling to propel the car up any incline of even moderate degree.  The back of the car – bumper, rear window, heck even the side windows – entirely covered in Grateful Dead stickers.  I remember at one point counting them, and there were more than twenty.  I actually had a debate with my dad about whether there was still enough room to see safely with the rear view mirror because the stickers blocked your view.

I drove that car my senior year of high school and freshman year of college.  It was no frills.  No AC.  Hand crank windows.  No power steering or power brakes.  It got great mileage – I could make it from Boston to Binghamton NY on a half a tank of diesel fuel.  The trunk was not huge, but I could get everything I owned in that car – everything – including my Polk Audio speakers, always stacked in the back seat.  One time I even had a keg of beer in the trunk that made loud clunking noises every time I turned or accelerated.  I had installed an Alpine cassette deck/radio in the dash.  It played through the tinny speakers, and I kept a small wooden box filled with Maxell cassette tapes on the carpeted mound between the driver’s  and ‘shotgun’ seats.

That old Peugeot rarely started in the winter.  There was a heating element for the engine that you turned on before you tried to start it in the cold, but it didn’t work well.  In cold weather I always parked at the top of a hill, and would gather 3 or 4 hearty friends to push me out into the road.  If you kept your foot on the clutch, and the car managed to get to 10 or 15 miles an hour drifting down the slope, you could ‘pop’ the clutch (suddenly release it)  and the engine would cough its way into running.  Sometimes you had to do it a couple of times before it would start.  If you got to the bottom of the hill and it didn’t go, you were out of luck.  Wait until spring, I guess.

We had all kinds of adventures in that car.  There was the time in the snowstorm, when my friend reached from the back seat and released the sunroof, allowing 6 inches of snow to tumble into the front seats.  Yes this was while we were driving.  There was the drive back from Baltimore in 1982, having seen the Dead at the Civic downtown, when the windshield wiper fluid ran out.  It was early spring, the Pennsylvania roads were covered in brown slush and dirty, melting snow.  As I drove, my friend reached out the window with tissues and tried to wipe it clean every few minutes.  One New Year’s eve in a heavy snow storm the car slid 5o yards down a steep road, gently and softly settling into a mound of snow before sighing to a stop.  There were late nights and early mornings, full moons surrounded by bright stars, hazy sun rises, trips to the beach, long rides alone singing along to a favorite song or gazing out at the beautiful rocks and trees of western Massachusetts.  Dozens of Grateful Dead shows.  Stops in Buffalo and Saratoga, in Harrisburg and Hartford, in Portland and Syracuse.  Endless miles.  The road does indeed go ever on and on.

That car transported us.  Physically of course, taking us from place to place, that unimaginable sense of freedom, of knowing you can pretty much go anywhere at anytime.  But also metaphysically, transporting our minds and hearts, our souls and spirits, those shared moments of joy and laughter and struggle and adventure that would never happen again.  Eventually that old Peugeot gave up the ghost.  Some irreparable, fatal flaw developed – the engine block cracked, I think.  It was put to pasture in a junk yard somewhere, rusting in the summer rains and cold winter snows of upstate New York, Dead stickers slowly fading over time.  It wasn’t a great car – slow, difficult to drive, mechanically flawed.  But it was a classic.  And they just don’t make ’em like that anymore.  car

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Filed under liminal moments, memory, mindfulness, music, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

The Window

The window was right there, just a couple of feet to my left.  I was in fourth grade, Mrs. Cronk’s class (yes that was actually her name!), Thomas Jefferson School.  My classmates and I sat and squirmed, stared at the chalk board, poked at one another when the teacher’s back was turned, sometimes sighed with boredom, sometimes learned something new and surprising, still remembered to this day.  We watched the clock at the front of the room, the minutes ticking by at a painfully slow pace, three o’clock our magic hour of release.

But my view from the window called to me.  In the late summer the leaves of the trees were still green.  Just beyond that blue house on the corner with the worn front step was a field where I often played football.  And at the end of the street, at the edge of my vision, was a yard where a friendly dog lived.  He would be sleeping just a about now, in the shade of that tree in their front yard.

In fall the leaves turned, and I watched this miraculous process unfold through my classroom window, day after day.  I knew as I sat at my desk that acorns were collecting at the base of an old oak tree, that the wind was blowing fallen leaves along the sidewalk, that a leaf pile I had jumped in just yesterday was waiting for another chance.  The air was crisper, and out in the school yard a gym class played kickball.

In the winter mounds of snow piled up in the school parking lot.  When I stole a glance out my window I could see the largest of those piles to my left.  We had played king of the hill on it that morning, reluctantly entering our classrooms wet and cold, with flushed cheeks, numb hands and feet.  There was unfinished business on that greying mound of snow, if only the clock would somehow find its way to ‘3.’

In early spring my window framed a view of melting ice and snow, of grey trees silently and inscrutably watching the length of the days, feeling the temperature, their tops bare and exposed to the still cold wind.  A fifty degree day was a revelation!  Looking out my window I knew what the walk home would be.  We would shed our jackets, kick stones down the street, poke at the melting snow with sticks fallen from the trees during the winter, stomp in a puddle or two just for good measure.

For school might hold us for a while, but outside the window was an adventure waiting to happen, each walk home a journey of exploration, with a sense of freedom and independence, of possibility, of becoming.  The window looked out on my small home town, the narrow streets, the neatly trimmed lawns, the cracked sidewalks and running rows of hedges.  But it also looked out on a big world, grand and open, mountains, rivers, hills, vast plains.  A day would come when I would go there, too.

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One Good Day

For me, the ingredients are simple and straight forward.  First of all a chance to read, to spend time with my mind drifting to the furthest shore, to go back in time or forward, and then back again, to visit faraway lands, to feel the sting of loss or the triumph of truth or the swell of a heart, all through the pages of a book.  Perhaps also to study a new subject, or to relearn an old one.  To reflect on the issues of the day.  I still read the ‘old fashioned’ way – real books, with covers and pages, even actual newspapers, dirty-finger producing, paper crinkling, awkwardly sized as they might be.

The second thing?  Just some family time.  Unhurried, unscheduled, no clear agenda, no places to be, no times to keep.  There is a simple and calm joy in those moments, rare as they are, almost a quiet wonderment, a lightness of being and a poignant feeling of gratitude.  Just to be together.  To celebrate, without word or ritual, or even thought, the powerful connection that binds us to those we love.

And also to spend some time outside.  Preferably during the liminal moments of the day, dawn or dusk, the sun rising or falling, the colors changing, the unmistakable sense that the world is moving beneath your very feet.  To mark the wind and see  – yes, see – the air.  To hear the sharp bark of a dog, the rustle of a breeze, the subtle song of a bird.  To notice how an acorn falls from a tree, or how the nose of a rabbit wrinkles again and again, wondering if the scent of danger has arrived.  To walk in quiet thought, pondering, musing, considering, and also wondering – how is it that this great world in all its beauty is somehow connected to me?

Last but not least, to play my guitar.  Not particularly well, of course.  But just to strum the strings and form the chords, to juxtapose the majors and minors, to pick a simple melody which has been picked so many times before, for so many years.  Perhaps to play a song I’ve loved, and to hum along, occasionally forming the words in my mind.  There is something calming about it to me, almost meditative.  The world outside recedes, the troubles and tribulations and sorrows and sadnesses begin to fade.  For the song is eternal. It was always in the world, just waiting for some unknowing person to pick up an instrument at just the right time, so the song can, ever briefly, find a home.  It may stay for a time, a generation or even two, and then it will go back to the place from whence it came.  But while it dwells with me, in my hands, in my mind, in the sweet spruce and dark mahogany woods of my guitar, it brings a sense of soul-calm.

But soon the guitar must be laid aside, the song let go.  Darkness has fallen, somehow the day is coming to an end.  And the dog must be walked!  A last dish or two attended to.  And if I hurry some time, at the very end of this day, to go back to my book.

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Sunrise

You missed it if you slept late, seduced by the warmth of the covers, waiting for the heat to slowly warm up the house.  There was a ribbon of red in the  eastern sky, the bare tree tops forming an uneven silhouette in the distance, their leafless branches reaching and twisting, waiting for first light, and soon, spring.  There is a pattern there, ancient secrets, chill morning air, fresh wind, light growing softly.

And you would not believe how brightly Jupiter burned in the western darkness!  Cold and beautiful.  It too looked back towards the east, acknowledging the coming of a new day, yet reluctant to leave its post, king of the predawn quietness.

Across the field I saw a light go on in the window of a home.  All over the neighborhood covers were being pushed back, feet were touching cold floors, yawns and stretches and first thoughts were emerging from a deep world of dreams.  Soon coffee would be brewing, sleepy eyes might glance at the headlines of a news paper.  Tousled hair would be combed, clothes chosen, bread toasted, or perhaps a special treat for breakfast on a cold morning – cream of wheat?  Oatmeal?  As the light of day grew stronger, the trees began to look ordinary, with just the faintest hint of their former magic.  Even Jupiter dimmed, turning in for the day.

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A New Year’s Eve Psalm

The dog never noticed, so intensely interested in the ground as he was, the damp grass and the smells and secrets it held.  As he sniffed from spot to spot, decoding a brief history of our backyard, what animals (and possibly people) had passed through it this New Year’s Eve, he would occasionally pause and look out into the distant darkness.  Perhaps he sensed a late night reveler, some wandering fox or deer wending its way home in the first hours of the new year.

For my part I was impatient, my mind already rushing, wanting bed and a few hours of sleep before the day dawned and tomorrow arrived.  Responsibility lay in that tomorrow, crouching, waiting for me, as sure as the daylight that would inevitably seep over the bare trees and soggy fields.  Time was already pressing, calling and whispering and rustling, even in that quiet darkness.

The dog had no such qualms.  No doubt he would have stayed out for hours, wandering, welcoming the new year in his own way, checking the various spots that he regularly inventories, keeping track in his mind of the comings and goings of other dogs in our neighborhood, the location of old scraps of food and interesting sticks that might be chewed.  He did not know that some arbitrary number had been reached, some intercalated measure of human time.  His way of sensing time’s passage is subtler and deeper.  He knows what lies ahead.  The cold days and colder nights, the chilly winds, perhaps falling snow and the quiet it brings.

Just then it was that I looked up.  The entire sky was draped in cloud, but magically a gap appeared and I could see the blackness of space.  There was the Big Dipper, just above us. Implacable, unknowable, untouchable, the infinite distance, the cold whiteness of its seven stars.  Too high for the dog, nothing to smell there, nothing even remotely as interesting as dirt and leaves and the roots of trees.  But I did pause for a moment, considering in my tired mind the majesty and mystery of this vast universe we call our home.  As deep as the earth, as high as the heavens.

Here a paraphrase of the 148th Psalm –

In praise of God, the sun and moon, the shining stars, the highest heavens;  the great ocean depths, teeming with life, the fire and hail and snow and storms;  the hills and mountains, trees, singing leaves, growing fruit;  beasts, wild and tame;  winged birds and creatures of the ground, men and women, young and old.

And this, from the 19th –

Day after day the word goes forth, night after night the story is told.  Soundless the speech, voiceless the talk, yet the story is echoed throughout the world.

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Let’s Get Small…

I’ve always wondered why, when we tell the story of Hanukkah, we emphasize the narrative about the small cruise of oil.   You all know the story – the Maccabees were able to defeat the Assyrians in around 165 BCE.  They captured Jerusalem, and then retook control of the Temple mount and rededicated the Temple.  As part of this process of rededication they wanted to relight the Ner Tamid, the ancient Temple’s version of our eternal light.  But they had a problem – it required a special oil, a very particular formula that was certified only by the High Priest.  And when they went through the Temple stores, they found only a small container of it, just enough to enable the Ner Tamid to burn for a single day.  But of course, as the story goes, the small cruse of oil, that should have lasted only a single day, burned for 8 days – it was, as we say, a miracle – and we commemorate that miracle by lighting our menorot for 8 days.

And what I’ve always wondered is why that is the miracle we focus so much of our Hanukkah time and energy on.  After all, there is a much larger miracle, I would argue a much more significant miracle, of Hanukkah.  Which is?  That a small and almost powerless people, the Jews, were able to defeat the greatest power in the world at that time, the Assyrians.  That a ragtag band of rebels was able to muster the strength, determination, courage, and skill to  defeat the world’s deadliest and strongest army.  That a rebellion that should have had no chance of success not only succeeded, but arguably changed the entire course of human history.

Now the story of the oil burning for 8 days is nice, and I suppose, if it is actually true, it is a sort of minor miracle.  But it didn’t really make a difference – not in any real way – in the lives of the Maccabees, or in what happened in the year 165 BCE.  The burning oil had no impact on the military struggle of the time and who won and who lost.  And it just doesn’t seem to me that when you compare that story and its small miracle with the known events of that time, with one of the great true miracles of human history, the military victory of the Maccabees – when you look at one next to the other – it doesn’t seem to me they are even in the same ball park.  So why spend so much time on one tiny, small, minor miracle?  Why is that the story most associated with Hanukkah?  Why, when someone asks us what Hanukkah is all about, is that the story we tell them?

To help us possibly answer that question, or at least to think about it in a different way, I’d like to spend a few moments with you thinking about one of the great comedy stars of the 70s, Steve Martin.  I am sure you all remember Steve Martin – the bunny ears or the fake arrow through the head.  The banjo playing.  One of the so called ‘wild and crazy guys’ from the hey day of Saturday Night Live.  If you grew up in the 70s, like I did, Steve Martin was the King of Comedy, one of the biggest stars in the country at the time.  His solo stand up shows would sell out in minutes.  Phrases from his routines became part of the vernacular.  His image was almost iconic – the white hair, the goofy smile.

And if you followed Steve Martin, you’ll remember he had a routine that he did in his stand up act, called ‘Lets get small.’  It was a little bit – just maybe two or three minutes long.  It was subversive, like all great comedy, playing off the idea of getting high.  The idea was you’d expect a comedian in the 70s to talk about getting high, about using drugs, but Martin switched the phrase, and talked about – getting small.  And the whole routine ran off of that  – if kids did it they got ‘really small.’  One time when he was ‘really, really small’ he crawled into a vacuum cleaner.  And he would riff on it for a few minutes, and then move on to the next bit.

The other great thing about that routine – another feature of great comedy – is that it made you switch perspectives, both literally and figuratively.  You expected him to talk about one thing, but instead he talked about something else.  You know what it is like to be big, but he asked you to imagine yourself inside a vacuum cleaner – he asked you to, in his own words, ‘get small.’

And when you get small, you think about things differently.  You see the world from literally a different perspective.  Maybe you’re a bit humbler.  Maybe you’re a bit more grateful.  Maybe a bit more gracious.  Its always been interesting to me, the words of Jacob from a couple of weeks ago, Parshat Vayishlach, when he is speaking with God before meeting his brother Esau – what does he say?  The translation in our Humash is “I am unworthy of all the kindness that you have shown me.”  But the Hebrew is – קטונתי מכל החסדים – literally, I am too small for what you have done for me.  Jacob’s perspective has changed – he once thought he was great, and now he sees himself as small.

And I would argue that there is something about the small moments – about ‘smallness’ – that enables you to experience God in a way that largeness and the large moments don’t.  I’ve learned that in the rabbinate over the years.  At a large shul like this I’ve been privileged to teach classes with a hundred students, or preach sermons in front of a thousand people.  But what I have discovered – and it has surprised me – is that the most sacred moments often are the small ones.  A one on one conversation where you say something that might help someone.  A funeral with just a few people, where you bring a Jew to his or her final resting place with dignity.  A class with just a handful of people where you can spend time and talk things out.  In those small moments, I’ve found, God’s presence is clearer and stronger than in many of the big moments.

And isn’t that the lighting of the menorah?  If you think of the rituals of our year, the complex music and liturgy of the HHDs, the intricate waving of the lulav and etrog on Sukkot, even the multifaceted rituals of the Passover seder, the lighting of the menorah is one of the simplest and easiest rituals we perform.  Put the candles in, say two short blessings, and go eat!  It is a small moment – usually just family, at home, a few minutes and back to the routine.

But it also is a sacred moment.  To stand with children and grandchildren.  To watch as the glow of the candles slowly but surely warms heart and home, bringing light and hope into our lives, pushing the darkness away.  And I would venture to guess that many of us, in that small moment of candle lighting, surrounded by the generations of our family, feel a sense of God’s presence.

So maybe that is why, over the years, the story of the oil on Haunkkah has become so beloved.  In the grand scheme of things it was a small moment, of no great import.  But in some strange and mysterious way it was also a miracle, a moment where God’s presence came into the world, and where God’s eternal connection with the Jewish people was rediscovered.  May it be so again and again, in this new year of 2017 and beyond.

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