Arrogance, humility, and the work to be done

We live in disturbingly puffed-up times.

I like to imagine myself among a citizenry seeking the justice that must come with the demise of arrogance: armed only with sewing needles, we advance on a gaggle of huge balloon characters (think Macy’s Thanksgiving parade). Punctured, they let out the sounds four-year-old boys like to make, then collapse into a wild heap on the pavement.

 

Alas, we are all subject to arrogance: Passover to the rescue!

As I prepare for Passover, chametz – food mixed with a leavening agent such as yeast – is a major focus. Any such food is to be separated out and removed. This calls for a close reading of labels on bottles, boxes, and cans.  Then there are the remnants, i.e. crumbs. This calls for cleaning.

This week I have dusted, washed, wiped, sponged, scrubbed, scoured, and swabbed. Sunday, the fridge. Monday, the bathroom. Tuesday, the guest room and my office. Wednesday the livingroom, diningroom, and bedroom. Thursday, the kitchen. It has been a sedentary winter, including several bouts of flu and extended weeks of recovery, so I welcome the activity, although my muscles protest.

I also trust that as I get into crevices and corners with dust-cloth and lambs-wool duster, there is an alchemical shift in my own fermented emotional and thought patterns.

And when all the work is done, there is the gift of this prayer:

All leaven and anything leavened that is in my possession, whether I have seen it or not, whether I have observed it or not, whether I have removed it or not, shall be considered nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.

In other words, I make the effort I can make. And being human, the effort to rid my house and my person of all remnants of puffery must fail. And still, my effort is good enough.

Then beginning with the Seder meal, and for the next eight days, we eat matzah, which tradition calls variously “the poor man’s bread”  and “the bread of affliction.” We literally “take in” the nourishment of humility. This is not about self-abasement or groveling. Passover, after all, is about liberation, freedom from slavery. Including all the ways that we both over-inflate and under-inflate our value.

 

This hyperbolic world has such a deep need for us to be the size we are.

May we each occupy our rightful place.

May we gather around our tables, tell our stories, ponder deep questions, and praise.

Then may we together free the still-enslaved and open our gates to the uprooted.

 

More on Passover:

We are all strangers in a strange land

Passover paradox: freedom is given yet must be earned

 

Run to do good with a snow shovel

“Run to do good with a snow shovel.” As of this noon, I am moved to add this action to the list of obligatory ways to do good under Jewish law (halachah).

Early this morning in Baltimore we were having a white-out moment. No matter we were less than twenty-four hours into spring by the Gregorian calendar. Wet snow was falling heavily, already bending the bamboo grove in our backyard down to the ground.

After a short night’s sleep, an early-morning on-line meeting, and a late breakfast, I napped. When I woke, a blinding whiteness shone through the window. The snow had stopped. I went to the front door prepared to bundle up and spend an hour clearing the front steps and walk, to see that an Angel-with-a-Shovel had already been by. Two angels, it turned out – Lisa, my next-door neighbor, and Ashley, her neighbor on the other side. Ashley and I have waved hello to one another but never really “met.”

As recipients of an unending flow of goodness from the One Source, Judaism teaches us, so we are bound to carry out acts of lovingkindness (gemilut chassadim), regardless of whether the recipient appears to be “needy” or not, “deserving” or not. Especially acts of lovingkindness extended towards the dead, who cannot reward us.

Thus we are taught to offer unstintingly

to the wealthy and the poor,

to the wise and the foolish,

to the dead and the living.

 

We are taught to offer “all our everything.”

To offer of ourselves, our effort, our resources.

To offer hospitality.

To welcome in and provide for the stranger, and guide her on her way.

To visit the sick.

To celebrate with the couple at their wedding.

To guard and prepare the body of the dead.

To accompany and bury the dead.

To comfort the mourner.

To seek and pursue peace.

To bring people into the presence of the Shechinah, the Indwelling presence of God.

To learn Torah, teach Torah.

No legal (halachic) limit is set on what we can offer: no moment when we can cease from giving and say that we have fulfilled our duty.

Then there is the “running” aspect. It’s not just that we are not to stop and weigh the pros and cons.

The “running” is an actual eagerness to be of service, in the same spirit that G-d “runs” to bestow everything on us. Our “running” is in the image of G-d. All the more-so when we treat the “stranger” as friend and neighbor, in spite of the fact that – like Ashley and me – we may never have met.

As we offer in this way, we give up “reward” in the mundane sense, and as we give without expectation, so we do also receive. nourishment.

More than that, we become partners with G-d in completing creation. With eagerness and as small and mighty a tool as a snow shovel.

Lisa and Ashley: thank you!

As we name our feelings, so we move with life

Learning to recognize, re-cognize, embody, express, and name our feelings is a life-giving practice. Because our feelings are among the most fluid expressions of Life itself as it continually moves and changes. And they often pair with subtle sensations, movements in the body-mind.

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A chartreuse-winged butterfly – yes, chartreuse – crosses my line of sight. Flits across the yard and back again. I have never seen such a creature before, nor such a color in a winged being.

And I find no online source that yields a species name.

But I can capture the feeling that lingered: a mix of a rising up to meet, a joy, a curiosity, a quick inhale, a caught breath.

I am devoted to naming what I see, hear, think, sense as accurately and precisely as I can. Sometimes it is still to save myself from terror or trouble, often it is to locate myself, find some stability. More and more it is to come into relationship with what is right here, without time-traveling to regrets or anxieties.

Yet even now it is easier for me to select the Prismacolor shade

of blue that is true to my emotion of the moment

than it is to precisely name a feeling. 

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Sometime in my late twenties, when I was a young mother, I came across the“list of feelings that persons have but often fail to identify” pictured in the banner photo. I don’t recall whether someone gave me a copy or I myself typed the many mis-spellings on my green Olivetti portable. In any case, the list was a revelation, no less than Helen Keller’s discovery that the sensation of water could be named by movements in the palm of her hand

How do I describe my family of origin? repressed? secretive? private? of its cultural time – first-generation Americans who came of age post WW I and in the Depression?

Emotions of all kinds loomed large among the unnamed  and unexpressed, crackled and smoked around me.  I was buffeted by strange winds and weather systems, haunted by maternal and paternal hungry ghosts. I didn’t know who or what they were, just felt the life force bound up in them, and that they  sought some kind of appeasement. I learned to snuff out my own feelings. I stored great indistinct tangles of emotion in large, heavily guarded vaults. So large that to unravel even my own state of mind or heart became overwhelming.

But I could sit with the list and begin to name a multitude of orphaned feelings. Eventually I was able to tolerate more sensations in my body (that is another story) as they shifted with my feeling-state.  Then I began to discover the pleasures of nuance.

Nuance is truthful to the uniqueness of the moment, thus a great ally to living a life of practice.

Of course, we can name every little thing exhaustively – and to the point of exhaustion, when we name to capture and fix something in place – a bit like pinning a specimen chartreuse butterfly to a mounting board.

We don’t need to name everything, just enough to warm us. Just enough to move with the precious and unique dance between the changing forms that surrounds us and and the fluid life that arises within us.

“Good questions” can clear a path through incivility

We are desperately in need of good questions to draw us out of our silos, to connect us as human beings during these divisive and acrimonious times.

Good questions can clear a path through half-truths, lies, justifications, insults, declarations, vilifications, clarifications, obfuscations, rationalizations, denials.

Good questions invite us to drop our personas, masks, even the half-truths we tell ourselves.

Good questions open up possibilities.

They have many answers.

They are even likely to have different answers at different times.

 

Here are the most relevant “good questions” I have heard in months.

English teacher Laurel Taylor recently challenged her 12th grade students to sit down and talk with someone with whom they disagreed on a foundational issue, such abortion, or who they supported in the presidential election. The students were to ask the following:

What is it like to be you?

What is your life like?

What is it like to be known and by who are you known?

The students learned something of what shaped the “other,” discovered common ground as well as differences that were not resolved. Built relationships.

They went on to each answer the same questions for themselves, and share with their class-mates. More surprises: discovering they were not as alone and exceptional as they believed as they encountered the many challenges of adolescence.

 

These questions inspire me in their simplicity, plainness, and directness. They say, “I really want to know who you are, what it’s like for you to make your way through daily life.”

When we ask “good” questions we make space for surprise, the unexpected, revelation, AHAs. Space for other questions to arise. For more information to come in. More insight. Also mystery, doubt, vulnerability, confusion.  Also awe, joy, pleasure.

As these students learned, when we are able to let in what shows up, what is actually present and real for us, our capacity for compassion grows, even compassion for ourselves.

 

Invitation to practice:

You may share the same reluctance and discomfort these students did, but risk asking someone these questions, then answer them for yourself.

And please share your own “good questions” with us here.

 


For the full story: In a time of divisiveness, lessons on listening at a Virginia school, by Debbie Truong,  Washington Post, February 26, 2018.