Tag Archives: winter

Winter Reading

For many years I’ve posted a summer reading list so members of the congregation, if interested, will know what books I’ll be delving into over the summer months.  But the truth is winter is also a reading time, at least for me.  It is dark outside, the wind is blowing, the temperature is dipping.  Inside a single light illuminates a cozy room.  I sit in an armchair, with a thick sweater on, wool socks, perhaps a warm mug of tea, or even better a wee dram of fine whisky.  An open book on my lap, the pages turn one by one, and I am transported to some far off land or distant time.  As the hours go by and the candle begins to burn down and sputter, I hardly notice, for the words beckon.

I’ve loved to read since I was a little boy.  Some of my earliest memories are of flipping the pages of books, or of having my mother or my aunt read to me.  I read constantly, at every spare moment.  I could spend hours perusing the books at my local book store, eyes carefully scanning the covers, hands weighing the heft of each tome, even smelling the freshly cut and printed paper.   That early love of reading has been one of the most important and consistent threads in my life, and the pleasure I felt when opening a book as a lad is even deeper in my adult life.

And in the winter, with the longer nights and shorter days, with less time to be out of doors, there is more time to read.  So here are a few of the titles on my bedside table that I’ll be tackling in the weeks ahead:

I am currently about 200 pages in to Walter Isaacson’s magical biography of Leonardo da Vinci.  The author uses da Vinci’s famous notebooks as a window to peer into the great genius’s mind, and the reader feels as if he is walking along a Milanese city street in the late 1400s watching one of the unique minds of all time unpack the world around us.  The effect is not disconcerting, but is instead a source of wonderment and delight.

Simon Schama has published the second volume in his ‘The Story of the Jews,’ entitle ‘Belonging.’  Schama is a wonderful, anecdotal reporter of history, who writes with lively prose and joy.  This middle volume of his work (I am guessing there will be a third book taking the Jewish story into modernity) covers the period from 1492-1900.  It was a time when Jews began to realize that the world around them might never fully welcome them into its fold.  To be Jewish, Schama suggests, is to always feel as one apart.

Last on this mini-list – Phillip Pullman’s ‘the Book of Dust.’  A prequel to Pullman’s  ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, the Book of Dust traces the earliest stages of his heroine Lyra’s journey, and he explores the societal structures and social norms that drive a fantasy and parallel world that sometimes seems eerily like our own.

Last but not least, check out David Brooks (the NY Times columnist) and his two columns about the best long form essays of the year.  The articles he picks are widely varied in topic, from a story about a man eaten by an alligator to a serious investigation into the current opioid epidemic.  Yet somehow, when viewed as a complete package, the essays form a picture of where we currently are, how we got here, and where we might want to go in the months ahead.

Happy reading!

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Filed under Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, books, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, seasons, summer reading, Uncategorized, winter reading

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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Indian Summer

10/12/84.  Grateful Dead fans know this as the date of one of the Dead’s best early 80s shows, held at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta ME.  The concert was recently included in a top 20 all time Grateful Dead concert list published in Rolling Stone.  It had all of the ingredients of a great show.  The venue was pitch perfect – smallest place I ever saw the Dead.  That northern New England feel.  Great vibe in Augusta, welcoming the Dead heads with open arms.  Two nights.  And the second night (10/12) the band was HOT, the setlist was unique for the year, and the crowd and the band truly worked the show together.

And then there was the weather, the way Mother Nature lent her hand to that mysterious and mystical Grateful Dead alchemy.  The day of the first concert it was cold and cloudy, typical mid-October weather for Maine.  Just around showtime the wind began to pick up, and Deadheads, never the best prepared of folk,  huddled together as they filed into the venue.  The Dead were OK that first night, nothing special, but a fun show.  We were all surprised when we emerged from the Civic Center at around 11 to find a coating of snow on the ground.  Just an inch or two, but enough to remind us that fall was moving ahead and winter was just around the corner.

I was up at dawn the next morning and watched the sun rise.  The red darkness of early morning gradually revealed a clear blue sky.  It was crisp, but the temperatures quickly warmed up and the snow melted away.  We were blessed to experience a classic New England fall day.  Gorgeous leaves on the trees.  The Deadheads gathered in a park near the center of town, a short walk from the arena.  By the middle of the afternoon it was in the low 70s.  “Indian summer” someone called out.  And so it was.  One of those golden days when time seems suspended, when the cares of the world are forgotten and everything is right.  Indian summer is as much a state of mind as anything else.  Sort of like what they try to do with those Corona commercials – where is your beach?  Our beach that day was in the green grass of Augusta Maine.

That night the Dead killed it.  We all walked out knowing what we had seen.  Real magic.  Not an illusion, not something created by some huckster or trickster, not sleight of hand or misdirection.  Real magic.  How that happened with the band, why it happened on those rare occasions, why that night and not the night before, nobody knew.  Even the band couldn’t control it, couldn’t call it up out of the ether. When it happened they just rode the wave and let the beast out of the cage.  I don’t think they had a choice.

Its been thirty years since that gorgeous day and great night in Augusta.  Summertime come and gone, my of my!  How true!  Of the years as well.  The seasons, the days and nights, the moon’s waxing and waning.  And the Indian summers.  Those late fall days when the cold weather and the rain and the darkness take a brief break, and suddenly, briefly, beautifully, summer returns.

 

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What a Difference a Day Makes

Here in Maryland we’ve had a harder than usual winter, and the old man seems to want to hang on for everything he’s got.  Generally at this time of year the trees are greening and some folks have even mowed their lawns already, but we just finished a weekend that was at best miserable weather-wise.  Temperatures struggled to get out of the 30s, and it poured rain virtually non-stop for 48 hours.  Just to make sure we all know who is in charge the rain unexpectedly changed to snow mid-afternoon yesterday, and a ‘wintry mix” (this is evidently a technical term favored by weather reporters) fell into the evening.  I walked the dog yesterday afternoon, wind howling, rain, sleet, and snow coming down, about 35 degrees.  Just lovely.  If this is spring who needs winter?!

What a difference a day makes!  Just an hour ago I walked the dog, and he happily sniffed his way around the neighborhood on a lovely early spring evening.  Clear skies, gentle breezes, low 60s.  People were out, washing cars, trimming trees, actually looking for excuses to spend some time out of doors with the promise of a real spring in the air.  Even the home team won on opening day.  Go Os!  What a difference a day makes indeed.

We might say the same thing about life.  If there is one thing I’ve learned in the rabbinate it is that things can change on a dime.  One phone call, and your whole life can be turned upside down.  You can go to bed at night with everything fine in your world, and wake up in the morning with overwhelming challenges confronting you.  But the opposite is also true.  A new day can bring a change in the weather for the better.  An unexpected helping hand, a sudden realization that there is blessing right in front of you, a phone call from an old friend.  

So often it is the small things that  help to reorient our dark days.  Dark clouds do clear away.  The snow (and even the rain) does stop eventually.  Spring comes, and with it the promise of redemption.  ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ we say at the end of the seder.  A place where each soul is on a higher plane.  And on Opening Day there is always a promise in the air.  Not next year in Jerusalem, but this year, the World Series!

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