Tag Archives: summer

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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Filed under Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, clergy, liminal moments, mindfulness, neighborhoods, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, ritual, seasons, Uncategorized

Spring

Often in those first few heady days of growing warmth there was still snow and ice along the sidewalks and streets, left over from the long and cold winter.  As it finally melted away it glistened in the sunshine as its dripping rivulets became tiny streams that ran along the curbs, formed puddles and eddies, searching, searching for the river down below.  Sometimes the current was strong enough to float twigs or old leaves in the water, like little boats on their way to some destination unknown.  We stomped on the thin ice layers that formed above the running water and they broke away, shattering with a satisfying crunchy sound.  Meanwhile, above our heads, the first buds were cautiously appearing on the old oaks and maples.  But we were mostly concerned with what was down below.

Despite the lingering cold we shed our jackets, left them lying on the muddy grass or hanging from an old fence post.  Isn’t it an odd thing that 48 degrees in spring feels warm, while the same temperature in late November brings on a chill?  We explored all of the hidden paths we used to navigate from yard to yard and block to block.  We knew them all, could find them in the dark, low fences that divided backyards, worn paths through fields, where certain gates were, what was the best way to scoot along someone’s home so you wouldn’t be seen.  It was a kind of sacred and arcane knowledge that gave us access to a mysterious and secret world where only we could dwell.  Our galoshes were caked with mud as we tramped along, often holding sticks we had acquired along the way.

We talked bravely of things we had seen and done, we recalled memories of summers past and riding the waves at the beach, we worried about school and friends and girls.  We imagined what we might one day do and who we might be.  We took our time, we climbed trees with low hanging branches, testing our dexterity and derring-do.  We stopped for snacks under an old pine, the remnants of candy bars carefully wrapped in wax paper tucked away in our pockets.    Before long the streets would be lined with leaf filled trees.  Summer would stretch before us, its weeks to us like an endless ribbon of warm days and adventures yet to come.  But for now it was spring, and that was more than enough.

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Filed under liminal moments, neighborhoods, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, seasons, Uncategorized

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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The Good Old Days

In yet another summer reading list detour, I am about half way through a wonderful little book called The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks.  The book is part memoir, part ode to England’s Lake District, part tribute to the ancient farming culture that has existed there for hundreds and hundreds of years.  Rebanks is a wonderful writer with an eye for the little details that fully immerse the reader in the story he is telling.  The book has been well reviewed, and as I make my way through the pages I understand why – it is an evocative portrait of a family and a culture in which we can see ourselves and our own lives.

The Shepherd’s Life is also a book soaked in nostalgia.  For childhood.  For a simple life of steady work and uncomplicated days.  For a lost grandfather, the patriarch of the Rebanks family.  And of course, like all things nostalgic, for the past, in this case an ancient farming culture that slowly but surely gives way in the face of modernity.  There is a wistfulness to the carefully composed sentences, a longing for things gone by and memories long cherished.

We are all familiar with that feeling, in one way or another.  And it seems to me that summer is a particularly nostalgic time, perhaps the most of any season of the year.  Vacations and visits often bring us back to places we’ve known for many years, often reunite us with family and friends who have known us from the time we were children.  The old haunts, the old activities, games, rituals, stories, jokes, conversations, even feelings!  They can flood back into our minds on long summer days and warm summer nights.  There is often a sense of mystery in the remembering.  How did we get here from there?  Where have the years gone?  I came to this place when I was a child, or a young adult, or first married.   How is it that now my children or grandchildren come here?  This great line from the John Prine song Angel from Montgomery comes to mind:  But that was a long time, and no matter how I try, the years just flow by like a broken down dam.

The key, of course, is to remember the past but not to be trapped by it.  The old places and memories and thoughts and feelings remind us of who we once were, but also of how far we’ve come in the intervening years.  We can’t go back, not all the way.  But the past is with us, part of who we are, coloring the way we see the world, the thoughts and feelings we have, the sense of where we’ve come from.   Each day is truly a new day.  But soft summer breezes remind us that new days are built on old ones.

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A Paean to Summers Past

A recent article in the NY Times reviewed data that indicated summer has changed over the years.  What was, 30 or 40 years ago, a relatively unstructured time for children has become 10 weeks of tightly scheduled camps, trips, lessons, and summer school work (mostly math packets and summer reading lists).  Free time – just wandering out of the house after breakfast with no set agenda, and wandering back in at dusk – has largely gone by the wayside.  And that, my friends, seems to me a shame.

I remember with great fondness the summers of my childhood.  Growing up in a small town, with virtually no crime, has its advantages.  One of them is from the time you are 8 years old or so, you can ride your bike anywhere, and I did.  To the model shop downtown.  To the comic book store in the next town over.  To friends’ houses, near and far.  To whomever I wanted to go, whenever I wanted to go.  In that alone was a tremendous sense of freedom.

I was also blessed with a close friend to share my days with, a boy my age who lived right across the street.  We wandered the neighborhood together, searching out adventures, playing one on one tackle football, climbing the roof of his garage, collecting stones, building forts with old cardboard boxes, making up and singing silly songs, digging in the dirt.  We knew every short cut.  Between each house, where the fences were easy to hop, where rows of bushes would conceal you as you walked, precisely where to pop out from a yard and access the street so no one knew you had ever been there.  In our imaginations we had visited far-away lands, turned back invading armies, and discovered undiscovered secrets.  Those were full days!  We came home each night dirty, hungry, tired, and happy.  And looking forward to tomorrow.

As I got older, my summers did become more structured.  I was a camper, away for 4 weeks at the summer’s beginning, and then vacationed with my family for 2 weeks in August.  But the summer I turned 15 was different.  I was too old to be a camper, too young to be a counselor or CIT.  Soccer was my passion at the time, something I dreamed about all night and played all day.  We had moved to a new house and neighborhood, but again I was blessed with a close friend right across the street to share those long summer days with.  We woke up each morning and kicked the soccer ball around for an hour or so.  We had lunch at each other’s house, played more soccer in the afternoon, and had games in the early evening with our local team.  We talked about girls and tried to meet them.  We snuck a beer now and again.  There were epic neighborhood capture the flag games that would go well past dark.  We still rode our bikes, but a bit further.  Across the river to watch softball in the warm evenings.  Once or twice to parties where older kids showed us what we wanted to be and would be soon.  

It is a different time, and it is true that nostalgia can’t always be trusted.  But there is something to be said for walking out the door with no particular place to go and with no particular plan to follow.  What a wonderful way to live – maybe not forever, but at least for a summer.

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