Category Archives: mindfulness

Strong Winds

With a promise of winter a stiff and chilly wind blew in from the east this morning, doing its best to wrest the last leaves off the trees and drying the ground from last night’s rain.  I stood for a time at an upstairs window looking out over our back yard.  My eyes were level with the tops of the trees.  The evergreens and the giant willow at the edge of our yard bent and flowed with the gusts, an elegant and ancient dance.

There was something majestic about it all.  The wind itself has a certain power – physically, yes, but also over the imagination.  That sense of shifting, of being lost in the midst of great movement, the ebb and flow of it, the whooshing as the air and the remaining leaves enact their annual fall battle.  Sometimes it seems as if the trees are passing the wind from one to the next, down the street, from bare branches to red and gold leaves and back again, as one tree top after another will begin to sway.  A great and intricate pattern, known only to nature.

The animals sense it too.  Winter is coming!  The squirrels have been furiously busy, canvassing the yards for undiscovered acorns and then stashing them away in some secret place.  The deer have been nervously pacing the neighborhood, wondering where their winter food will come from, especially now that the woods has been virtually taken away by the new housing development.  And in the late afternoon, as the sun began to sink and the cold intensified, a great hawk sat for a time on a low branch.  Surveying the ground stoically, the wind ruffled its feathers.  Suddenly it took to the air, cruising low over the ground, and then disappearing from view in a copse of trees.

You may remember the song Four Strong Winds.  Written in 1961 by Ian Tyson, the best known version of the song is on Neil Young’s classic 1978 record Comes A Time.  With haunting harmonies sung by Nicolette Larson, it is a song about loss and longing, about moving on when the chill of winter begins to creep in.  And also about how hope endures in the human heart, even in darkness.  From the song’s chorus:

Four strong winds that blow lonely, seven seas that run high
All those things that don’t change, come what may…

Here is a link to the Neil Young version of Four Strong Winds – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTMMS88gi6c

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The Old Knuckle Curve

If you are a baseball fan you know that the game has lost some of its subtlety in recent years.  Today’s baseball is largely about power – namely, power pitching, and power hitting.  Pitchers routinely throw fastballs in the high 90s, and to see 97 miles an hour on the old radar gun has become routine.  And hitters?  Juiced/changed ball or not, home runs are on a record pace this season.  In a game in June between Arizona and Philadelphia 13 home runs were hit.  13!! In one game!  Baseball today has in large part become a question of whether power hitters can make contact with near 100 mph fastballs.  When they do, the baseball leaves the ball park.

And yet.  A few weeks ago my brother and I were at Citi Field watching our beloved Mets play the San Diego Padres.  The Padres had a young power pitcher on the mound, and the stadium pitch tracker regularly reported pitches in the high 90s, many of them 96 mph plus.  The Mets pitcher was Jason Vargas, a 36 year old journeyman left hander (since traded to the Phillies) who has played for 6 different teams in the course of his career.  At 36 Vargas’ arm doesn’t have the ‘juice’ it once did.  His fastballs were reaching the plate at a tepid 88 mph.  His curve ball registered in the low to mid 70s.  And yet somehow, inning after inning, Vargas retired the Padres lineup.  When he left the mound in the 6th he had given up exactly zero runs, while the Padres flamethrower had given up 5.

There was one particular pitch by Vargas that caught my eye.  After he released the ball and it settled firmly into the catcher’s mitt, I checked the pitch tracker.  ‘Knuckle curve’ was the pitch type reported by the tracker graphic.  Oh, and miles per hour? 67.

The knuckle curve is a rarely thrown pitch, a weird hybrid of a curve ball and a knuckle ball, that somehow manages to both curve and float.  Few pitchers have it in their arsenal, and only a crafty and grizzled veteran like a Jason Vargas will throw one in a game.  In most circumstances a 67 mph pitch looks to a major league hitter like the moon floating towards him, large, bright, easy to see and to strike.  But a knuckle curve is a pitch of subtlety, not power.  In its almost leisurely journey to home plate it floats a bit, curves a bit, looks so tempting, so slow, but then at the very moment when you swing it somehow isn’t where you thought it would be.   To paraphrase the venerable Wee Will Keeler, the knuckle curve is thrown where they ain’t.

You see, that is precisely how Vargas pitched those 6 shutout innings.  Rarely if ever hitting even 90 on the radar gun, he painted the corners.  He ‘located’ his pitches.  He threw up in the zone when the hitter thought it was going to be low.  He threw on the inside corner when they expected the outside of the plate, he threw his 88 mph fastball when they were looking for the curve ball.  And he threw the knuckle curve when they were looking for anything but that.

It happens to the best of us.  As we age our bodies just can’t work the way they used to.  Forget about 95 mile per hour fastballs.  We can’t play tennis the same way.  Or hit the golf ball as far.  Or do quite as much yard work.  Or even walk the same distance with ease.  Or drive at night with the same confidence.  We reach for the reading glasses to glance at the menu, we spend a few moments stretching before we get out of bed. And that only takes care of some of the aches and pains.  Even our minds aren’t quite as quick as they used to be.  What we never forgot we sometimes don’t remember, at least not in that instantaneous way we once did.

The question is, have we learned to ‘paint the corners’ over the years?  Have we added a knuckle curve or two to our arsenal?  Do we appreciate life’s subtitles, the quiet moments, the long standing friendships, the small accomplishments, the moments shared with those we love?  There are spaces in life that you only learn to fill as the years go by.  They can’t be charged through, or overcome with blunt force of will.  As the years pass there is an accumulated wisdom that settles in, a patient understanding of what something’s true value is, of what matters most, and of what, in the end, barely matters at all.  When those lessons are learned, it is easier to relinquish that 95 mph fastball.  And you begin to understand, as time goes by,  how sweet that knuckle curve truly can be when it is throw in just exactly the right way.

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Summer Stillness

A gentle breeze was blowing when I found Rabbi Loeb sitting on the wooden bench outside of our chapel.  It was late on a Shabbat afternoon, at the end of a gorgeous summer day, not too hot, not too cool, just exactly right.  In a short while the evening service would begin, the Torah would be read, havdallah chanted.  But in some magical way time seemed to stop.  Rabbi Loeb, always running, always with a next thing, always with a deadline, was relaxed and peaceful.  He looked at the flowers, the green grass, the leaves in the trees, at the edifice of the building that housed the congregation he had served for decades.  He looked up at the blue sky, just beginning to darken to a deeper shade in the east.

I sat down on the bench next to him.  We didn’t say a word.  Just took pleasure in the sharing of that moment, each with our own thoughts.  Spring was behind us, and the fall with its demands seemed a long ways off.  It was summer, the slower pace, the reverie, the subtle astonishment at the beauty of this world when it is in full bloom.  Somewhere a baseball game was being played, a lawn mowed, neighbors were sitting on a porch and discussing the events of the day, drinking iced tea or lemonade, listening to music playing on an old radio.  Somewhere.  But in our moment it was all stillness.

There is a beautiful midrash about the giving of the Ten Commandments, one of my favorites.  It imagines the precise moment before God spoke the words of Torah at Sinai as a moment of profound silence and stillness.  A moment when the world became soundless.  When even the endless waves of the sea stopped their incessant murmuring.  When the entire world paused to listen.

Sometimes there are no words.  That is a hard thing for a rabbi to admit.  In some ways we are paid talkers.  Our job is to speak, to teach and counsel and preach and bring meaning and context and comfort using words.  What is the old joke?  ‘Before I speak, I would just like to say a few words.’  That is a joke made for rabbis.

But sometimes silence is better.  Sometimes stillness gives us the opportunity to think and feel, to understand more deeply, to sense more profoundly, to experience more fully. In our increasingly busy and noisy world, those moments are few and far between.  But we should look for them, search them out.  Often they are right there, waiting to be discovered, waiting for us to be still, waiting for us to listen.  Like on a summer afternoon, on a wooden bench, under a clear blue sky.

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Summer Reading 2019

How To Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan – With the recent popularity of meditation and yoga as spiritual pursuits, Pollan explores an alternate, once frowned upon method of opening the mind, staying present, and finding meaning – hallucinogenics.  A blend of travelogue, scientific research, medical history, and memoir, the author ponders one of the oldest and most significant human questions:  how can we find meaning in our lives? (460 pages)

The Uninhabitable Earth (Life After Warming) by David Wallace-Wells – Concern about the devastating effects of climate change has grown exponentially in recent years.  Relying on the most recent scientific evidence, David Wallace-Wells imagines what challenges will confront humanity if climate change continues unchecked.  He also offers hope that time is still left to make changes in our behavior and environmental policies before it is too late.  (300 pages)

Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton – In the information overload age there is precious little time to ponder, reflect, and just think.  Merton, Trappist monk and mystic, argues in this slim volume that moments of quiet reflection are necessary for personal health and growth, and also for the cultivation of a society of tolerance and respect for all.  (130 pages)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James – In a vividly imagined Africa filled with superhuman creatures and supernatural forces the Jamaican write Marlon James uses the mystery of a missing boy to weave layered stories of survival and quest.  Filled with references to popular culture, the book draws on the hero myth structure identified by Joseph Campbell to propel its protagonist, Tracker, through a violent, dangerous, and mysterious world.  (please note!  the book contains multiple violent passages – rating PG 15!)  (420 pages)

These Truths by Jill Lepore – The Harvard historian has written a brilliant one volume history of the United States.  As is so often the case, the more we know about the past the better we understand the present.  Beautifully written, Lepore shines a light on some of our greatest people and most important moments, but also reminds us of how often we fall short of the ideals that define our nation.  Every American should read this book. (800 pages)

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In Defense of Clutter

There is a tidying up fad that is seeping through our culture these days.  Sparked by Marie Kondo’s best selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the anti-clutter movement holds out hope that as we declutter our homes what we are really doing is changing our lives.  Kondo often talks about the tidying up process being connected to  personal transformation.  The premise is that as you sort through your old clothes, as you tidy up your closets and drawers, as you separate the wheat from the chaff, you somehow become a calmer, more capable, more mindful person.

One of Kondo’s fundamental principles is that the decluttering process should be based on whether an object ‘sparks joy’ or not.  That is to say, as you declutter you evaluate each item on a joy scale.  Something that gives you a feeling of joy should be kept, something that does not should be thrown away.  This idea seems to me flawed at best.  Like so many of the currently popular self help structures it creates a beautiful mirage, a kind of hologram, that dissolves upon closer inspection.  I wonder how much ‘there’ is actually there.  Life is not always about joy.  Often life is about pragmatism. What needs to be done is not always what is fun to do, or easy to do.

The truth is life is messy, unpredictable, often out of our control, and yes, dare I say it, cluttered.  Parents age and become infirm (as do we all!).  Divorce happens.  Responsibility encroaches.  Children and grandchildren are flawed and not always exactly what we hope they will be, let alone perfect.  Illness confronts us.  Life can change on a dime, and when it does having a clean closet won’t help you one bit.

Besides, clutter adds texture.  Clutter is interesting.  All those piles, those awkwardly stacked books, those drawers filled with old mementos, those photographs stashed away in boxes, the magazines tucked away on a shelf.  That is the stuff of life, not clean, but certainly colorful, and also real.  What would we be without our clutter?  Calmer?  Perhaps a bit.  But I would argue also much more boring, cookie cutter copies of one another with identical closets and drawers and shelves.  Isn’t that weird?  Impersonal?  A bit robotic, even?

The old saying is ‘a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind.’  The famous riposte to that phrase still stands:  ‘if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is the sign of an empty desk?’

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Vows

He fed her tenderly, a soft smile on his lips and a gentle glow in his eyes.  They had a table for two, at the back of the restaurant, just at the edge of the candle light.  She was dressed elegantly, her eyes sparkled, she smiled, they talked and laughed together, their conversation a product of years and years of shared journey.

The waiters hovered, not too much, but they kept an eye on the couple.  Perhaps they knew the story, the background, what had happened, the history of what led them to this moment.  It was a fancy place, fine French food, the wait staff in black tie, the wine list extensive, the dishes classic and perfectly cooked.  Each table was occupied, the hum and buzz of conversation filled the small room.  You could hear the sizzling of meats and fish from the open kitchen.

It was such a small table that they shared.  Looking casually about the room you would never have noticed they were different than any of the other couples, that their table was different than any of the other tables.  But he was feeding her.  Patiently cutting her food, gently reaching a fork across the table to her mouth, then wiping her lips with a soft white napkin.  Each forkful was filled with such devotion and love and care.

It was her hands.  When not at rest they shook terribly, and she never would have been able to force those trembling hands to make the short trek from plate to mouth.  I thought about it for a long time afterward.  Did they talk about it?  Discuss what it would be like to be out in public?  The potential embarrassment of it, the staring, perhaps the questions or well intended yet uncomfortable comments?

There was such peace to it all.  This is who we are, let it be and we’ll live our lives.  We need not hide, there is no shame in this.  Sadness perhaps, challenge and difficulty, struggle even.  But it was life in all of its beauty and frailty and humanity.  And they were living it together, as they had for so many years.

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A Week in the Life

Some of what I’ve seen this week:

A four month old baby nestling in the lap of his 90 year old great-grandmother.  His head fit perfectly into the crook of her right arm.  It was a celebration of his naming and conversion (he had been to the mikveh earlier in the day), and also of her special birthday.  The entire family was gathered around.  The children, now in their late sixties, the grandchildren creeping close to their forties, the great-grandchildren, ranging from 10 or so all the way down to this newest addition.  His eyes were bright and wide as he took in his surroundings, his cousins, the generations of his family.  She radiated joy, even tough life was not easy, even though she was mostly wheelchair bound, even though …

But what is a day like that, a moment like that, a family like that, worth?  Maybe the answer is this:  everything.

 

A seventy year old man got up to eulogize his mother.  She died at 94, after a long, good, and full life.  She had seen the birth of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, had been blessed with good health well into her 90s, had lived with a sense of joy and gratitude.  Truly a good life, a life to celebrate.

He spoke simply and clearly, related a story or two, talked about characteristics and qualities, laughed a bit.  And then cried.  Even when you are 70 and your mother is 94, even when the life was good and long, even when there is so much to be grateful for, a loss is a loss, and your mother is your mother, and the one who brought you into the world is no longer there for you, as she always was.  The grief is real, and the pain is deep, and the heart is torn and needs time to mend and heal and feel grateful again.

 

A man in his 80s has been fighting an insidious disease for a long time.  I visit him every few months, to check in, to catch up, maybe to lighten his spirit just a bit.

His independence is slowly but surely eroding.  From living alone to living in a supported living environment, from being able to walk with a walker to riding in a motorized wheelchair, to now needing to be pushed everywhere.  His mind is sharp, he watches it happen, bit by bit, day by day.

He fights with great strength of spirit and even greater dignity.  He smiles and jokes, he goes about his day in the best way he can, he gets up each morning, gets dressed, mindless tasks for us, monumental tasks for him.

We chat about the stock market (oy!), the Ravens (he is a fan and anticipating this weekend’s game), and most of all about his family.  He plans for the future, thinks about how he can improve his life, and finds within himself the grit and determination to do so.

The morning blessings we recite each day remind us to be grateful for the ability to stand, to move, to stretch, to dress, to rise from bed, to welcome the morning’s first light.

Life, too, can remind us of how grateful we should be for each and every day.

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