Time collapses, the fruits of practice persist

This week I’m drawn to reflect on how clock time collapses in the face of death, life and practice. And yet something vital persists through time.

 

A funeral

Sunday was marked by the torrential rains that once again washed away historic Ellicott City’s Main Street. The locals call it “a 1,000 year storm.” What meteorologists mean by this is there is a .1% chance in any year that such a storm will hit. But the last one hit just two years ago. I’m not sure if actuarial tables follow the same mathematical principles: a seventy-nine year old woman could be expected to live for another ten years. Judy did not.

Judy and her husband Jon were among the first “locals” I met when I moved to Baltimore to go to college. Over the years that we spent time in one another’s homes and on an occasional outing, she was kind and helpful in the way an older sister can be. I lost this couple in a divorce almost forty years ago and had rarely seen them since. Even so, I wanted to be present among the mourners honoring her life. Waiting for the ceremony to begin, the room was full of people greeting one another – so many people in her life who were not strangers to one another.

The officiating rabbi had listened deeply and wisely to what family members recalled about Judy’s life, and wove them into a beautiful and tender picture: significant losses that had shaped her as an adolescent, choices she made to tend to family, to her social work and counseling patients, to community institutions and well-being.

I experienced once again a mix of wonder, regret, and resignation that it is through a eulogy I learn so much about one who has died. The person I remember fondly, “knew” and took to be a whole person – I “knew” such a small part and yet somehow that also contained the whole of her.

I experienced once again how time collapses at such a moment: a lifetime into a 20-minute  eulogy. The definitive ending. Or a person’s departure from the time-bound into some timeless realm. A self-comforting thought.

 

An ordination

Tuesday was marked by a more rare event, and one that I was attending for the first time: the ordination of my old friend Jerry as a rabbi.  Jerry and his wife Becky and I had shared some years together as members of the same weekly Chaverah, a Jewish fellowship. As I pulled up and parked across the street from the 145-year old synagogue, Jerry beckoned me to join in the pre-ceremonial photo-shoot outside. We were delighted to see one another: it had been perhaps several decades.

From a distance I had followed his lengthy journey through both secular and rabbinic studies. This was such a singular culmination of years of effort. According to Becky’s lovingly written bio of her husband he began teaching himself Hebrew out of a book when he was 15, visited Israel five times before he was 20. He earned a degree with honors in Political Science and Spanish. Most recently Jerry completed a Rabbinical degree at the Union of Traditional Judaism along with an MS in Pastoral Counseling.

Several of his rabbinic teachers traveled some distance for the occasion, and  praised Jerry for his devotion, persistence, patience, and provocative questions as a student. But the overall theme of this eulogy-during-life was his menschlichkeit (roughly translated from the Yiddish as humanity, human goodness, honor, integrity). They spoke to his skill in tending to peoples’ needs, to sensing just which words, which tone to strike to help the person in front of him. And they spoke of the partnership between Jerry and Becky, and their numerous acts of kindness, showing up at the door of whoever needed help in the community with practical, emotional, and spiritual support.

 

The similarities to the eulogy spoken at Judy’s funeral were striking: one life story ended, another beginning a new chapter. And yet in Jerry’s life, time collapses regularly. 

Because among the many dynamics of Torah study is the collapse of time.  We are cautioned not to assume the events we read in chronological order in Torah actually transpired that way. And the 63 sections of the Talmud contain conversations among countless rabbis over hundreds of years, as if all were sitting around a table in the same study hall with today’s students.

 

Times collapses, but the fruits of our practice persist.

Whatever we devote ourselves to is our practice.

This is how we build our character, our menschlichkeit.

This is how we write our life story, whose ending is beyond our choosing.

And the fruits of our devotion endure, made, as they are, of love.

Four hymns to Thanksgiving practice

Hymn to a room of my own

The room where I sit to write is a room of my own, the first I have had since I was a child. It is filled with images of strong women on whose shoulders I stand: family, healers, spiritual masters, goddesses. Filled with books overflowing with both knowledge and questions. Decades of journals. Artwork of family, friends, my own. Lilah is stretched out on the healing table for her extended morning nap.

Here I exhale. Here I feel myself. Here I meet with other women who are in pain. Here I plug into Zoom and meet with colleagues across the country and across the ocean. Here I watch a strong wind speed clouds towards the southeast. Solitude and connection.

 

Hymn to writing 

I have been blogging weekly now for fifteen months. As with any practice, sometimes I am inspired, and other times it’s a slog. Always, the practice demands honesty, the most impeccable discernment I can muster. And it hews me to conventions of language and grammar and a willingness to break with them for good reason. Drop the subject from a sentence. Run on like a Proustian paragraph. Give up on narrative altogether and turn to poetry.

Poetry – here too I exhale. I trust sound and line length and white space. A period: ●  Or its absence. When a Hebrew word לְדַבֵּר speaks or detracts. This is my brief hymn of Thanksgiving to punctuation.

 

Hymn to gifts received

A life that is more stable than most. A body with some growing limitations that still allows me to move around the world in the ways I treasure. A mind that is wedded to one passionate inquiry after another. Currently: bringing the wisdom of nondual practice to working with social identities; and the Hebrew letter Gimel, which is said to personify Giving and also has a numerical value of 3. A husband who silently recites his wedding vows to me every Friday evening at the Shabbos table as he slips the wedding band on my finger. Daughters who continue to teach and inspire me through shring books, moveies, and their own  life lessons. Friends who loaned us their condo for a month while we had work done on our house. A colleague who takes so much responsibility for her opinions and actions that I am actually learning as we work together how to be in conflict, even disconnection, and stay in relationship. A richness of communities and colleagues – of healing, of inquiry, of writing, of practice, of vision and action, of readers.

 

Hymn to the Thanksgiving Table

This year I come to the table as a guest, in a tradition-breaking and welcome change, the table….

….. as a gathering of aromas and flavors and recipes to be exchanged

….. as a an invitation to listening and sharing and rewriting stories

….. as a privileged place of safety in a world where legions of humanity are without roof, walls, table and food

….. as an altar and a focal point of ceremony and ritual

….. as a place of healing, where each guest may take in nourishment she needs to come  home  to  herself

May we each be inspired to work in our own way

to bring about food, table, walls, roof, a place to exhale,

for every human being.

“I don’t knows” small, life-stopping, and life-giving

The small I don’t know

“I don’t know” surely ranks as among the most difficult phrases for many of us to utter. Our families and culture indoctrinate us, implicitly or explicitly, in one or another story of the associated dangers. Test anxiety, performance anxiety, terror of public speaking are some of the common ways this shows up in our lives: the unknown is an enemy.

I grew up shaped by an absolute certainty that personal calamity would result from not knowing. My very existence depended on knowing. Knowing what was in family members’ minds and hearts but was taboo to speak. Knowing when I was needed where and for what without being told. Knowing the right answer. Knowing with precision. Anticipating what I needed to know and maintaining a constant state of readiness. Exhausting. No wonder I had bags under my eyes even as a kid.

Eventually I found that when I could let go of the certainty of calamity, I was not an irredeemable failure. Instead I might learn something about myself, another human being, or the world. Being open to learning and possibility sometimes serves me as inspiration, other times as aspiration. It is a practice that I have at different times pursued cheerfully, doggedly, grumbling to myself.

And if I don’t garner new information, I have the chance to practice something else: patience, and humility.

 

The life-stopping I don’t know 

Being recalled for a mammogram. Knowing a loved one is in harm’s way. A sudden loss of security, health, relationship, function. I find this I don’t know mixed with bargaining prayers, grief, courage, urgency, helplessness, trust, terror. The very quality of time and space shifts. It seems odd if the sun is shining and the weather perfect.

I may have to mobilize my inner resources and outer supports. I may spend a lot of my energies figuring out what is the next right thing to do. I may need to weep or howl or break plates.

Yet somehow the quality of persistence pervades such times. The persistence of sunrise and sunset, sleeping and waking, breath.

 

…somehow becomes the life-giving I don’t know

The small I don’t knows have been swallowed by the mother of “I Don’t Knows” – which I can only call Mystery. I can make no sense of my life, of the world, of Life. My sense-making mechanisms don’t function normally. It’s not exactly that I lose my senses, my mind, and the defenses that I built upon them.

They are just not the right tool for this I Don’t Know.

 

What does seem to work is this: I rest my head up against the unknown

This unknown is so solid that as I do this, I can actually rest. I am comforted. I relax, physically. There is nothing for me to figure out. I do not need to listen in the way I’ve thought of listening. I do not need to open my heart or even be concerned about whether it is open or closed. There is neither pattern nor meaning to seek out. An open mouth. No words. Neither are words precluded nor actions hindered. Just my head resting up against the unknown, on the shoulder of a rock-solid friendship.

Bless the world with your practice

Bless the world with your practice

Whatever it is that you practice, do you pause to consider your intention? to direct your heart?

Whenever  you practice, recognize that it benefits the world, not just you personally.

Recognize that your practice simultaneously uplifts you and other humans and living beings.

Recognize that your practice simultaneously nourishes your soul and the Soul of the World.

Strengthen the healing and awakening power of your practice for the greater good by bringing greater consciousness, choice, and precision to your intention.

Then open your being and let it fly.

Bless yourself and the world with your practice.

 

Pardes

by Sara Eisenberg

 

Standing plain, cupped,

bending barely audible lunar winds towards You,

wedded and bedded,

drawing out each fine, twisted silken thread.

Say us together, a single illumined word.


 

For more on Blessing: https://alifeofpractice.com/daily-practices/a-blessing-habit/

For more poetry: https://alifeofpractice.com/musings/transition-and-mischief-makers/

https://alifeofpractice.com/poetry/women-friends-come-bearing-gifts/

https://alifeofpractice.com/poetry/still-life-with-cat-2/

Wait, what? An old insight beckons me to practice

Wait, what? I actually had that experience? That insight?

Paging through  my old journals turns out to be an archeological dig that yields an occasional gem of insight, but one that has remained uncut, untumbled, unpolished: unintegrated.

Recently I unearthed this entry, penned more than seven years ago.

There are times I want to just weep and it’s not “about” anything. My mind goes looking for a “reason” for grief or sorrow, and sometimes finds one, but that is a kind of after-the-fact approach, and not particularly fruitful.

What turns out to be fruitful is letting my impulse to weep become vivid. Then I notice that my my feeling has a gravity to it, a sinking quality that takes me deep into a well. There I encounter what I am starting to call – and not with a lot of confidence, but starting to call: joy. An awareness comes of something light, a taking flight, and the weeping-feeling and “joy” are intimate, they are married. Their joining has something to do with the beauty, preciousness of life, and that beauty and preciousness has something to do with its fleeting nature, with mortality.

This is quite a revelation to me. Joy has been a mystery, an unattainable goal, a hunh?, a head scratcher.

During the cycle of the Jewish High Holy Days, that runs for a 62 day cycle in the late summer to early fall I can intelligently if not comfortably make my way through introspection, remorse, taking actions that repair relationships, awe, holiness, the language of error and judgment: but the holidays that close the season, that are presumably shot through with “joy”? I’ve approached this part of the cycle with a sense of isolation, disappointment, mystification.

So it is no small thing for me to arrive at a growing edge where grief and joy of this subtlety are companions and teachers. The effects are like having felt oxygen-deprived for years…and then breathing in ocean and mountain air together, over and over again.

That’s what I call a rock of a moment: untumbled, unpolished, unintegrated –  an opportunity not yet lost, because it beckons me back to practice.

Recently I’ve had a lot of must-weep moments, along with a heightened sense of my mortality, and have reached for my  wonderful herbal friend Pulsatilla (common name, Windflower.)

There is no better first-aid than a few drops when ready to dissolve into tears, looking into the dark side of life.

And I can testify that these recent must-weep moments have no companion,  nothing I would even consider venturing to call “joy.”

So now, along with taking the help of my herbal friend, I also have to make time to sit.  

To follow the wisdom of this old insight: let weepiness become vivid, cut, tumble, polish me.

Allow insight to teach me, heal me, awaken me anew.

And I must be willing to sit without hope of recreating that delicious marriage of weeping and nascent joy, to sit without hope even of integration. That’s the nature of practice.

The morning after: a 21st century creation story

As I write and post this week, election results are unknown. Regardless of outcome, many challenges and opportunities await us. We will feel them with differing senses of urgency.

We wonder: are we, individually and collectively, up to what is being asked of us? 

Here’s why my answer is, unequivocally, YES.

YES, even though we are tired and may wisely “unplug” to recuperate.

YES, even though the work to come is demanding, daunting, and unending, and I tremble in my bones.

BECAUSE from our deepest roots we are fashioned to create, and to create together.

We create as effortlessly as we breathe, as continuously as our hearts beat. We are forever engaged in materializing our feelings, thoughts, and ideas, our hopes, expectations, visions, and fears.

We shape the material world with our hands and with their extensions, tools and technologies of all kinds. We put foods and spices together and call it cooking. We put words together and call it story-telling, or news, or nonsense, or poetry. We put wood and stone and metal together and call it building. There is no end to this.

Sometimes just walking around my local super-market, I am overwhelmed at the number of products to choose from. In a kitchen store, I find a new gadget and wonder if someone woke up in the middle of the night seized with excitement about designing a cutting tool that turns a zucchini or a beet into lovely spirals with which to top a salad or frittata.

We filter what we see: we perceive selectively. We fill in blanks. Early in life we use the material that has been given to us – the gifts and limitations of our parents as caregivers, the security or the chaos of our circumstances – to create a story, a life, in which we have as much safety as we can construct. We include, we distort, we omit. We write in heroes and villains, friends, allies, and enemies.

As we grow up, we continue to elaborate on these stories. We live them. We project them more or less onto whatever landscapes, encounters, and personalities make up our days.

These are our personal creation stories: our family origins.

The smaller, the more fixed our stories, the more we live in a trance state, a default state defined by habit, the less freedom we have.

The same is true of our cultural stories, our group identities, our biases, our views of what is “normal” speech, body language, and behavior.

When we are lucky – we can join this kind of tribe: we begin to wake up and see how our stories have become unconscious and self-perpetuating mechanisms that drive our lives and our communities. We begin to question our habitual ways of responding to the world. We wake up to the ways our personal and cultural stories have become prisons. We break out (commonly with the help of others who live their lives outside of our story), and tell a new – and often bigger one, with previously unimagined possibilities. And then we can change the institutions and systems built on those old stories, and create together for the common good.

We listen attentively to one another’s stories. We take them in. Together we cry, together we laugh.

Can you catch the scent of freedom here? get hold of the thread of what it might mean to be a conscious creator of your own life, an artist of your soul? a collaborative architect of your community? an awakening builder of our world?

We are a growing tribe, on the move and gaining strength.

So take heart. Offer comfort and kind words. Receive solace. Share the Kleenex around if need be, in grief or in relief. Let us strengthen our personal resolve and our shared humanity.

Then: take one step. Start anywhere:

There is no better morning to wake up. Today: question just one perspective, break just one habit, open to just one new possibility.

No better morning to make something whole in yourself.  Today: pick just one limitation that bugs you. Take your first few steps down a path that embraces both self-acceptance and self-improvement, so that this limitation is no longer an obstacle, just something that shapes you in a particular way, like a tree shaped by wind.

No better morning to practice. Today: be willing. Persist. Move with the movement of life.

No better moment to claim your place in the human tribe.


Photo credit: Up in Arms, by Linda Carmel, at Hillsborough Gallery of Arts, Hillsborough, NC

A Blessing for the New Year, 5777

On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the Day of Creation: this year, beginning at sunset on Sunday, October 2.

The Jewish Sages are always of varying opinions. Some say: we celebrate the 1st Day, the Creation of the Universe. Some say: we celebrate the 6th day, the creation of the First Human Beings.

Unable to separate human life from the natural world in which we are embedded,  I come down firmly on both sides.

So many of us are living through disruptive and transformative times, each of us a new creation in process. In chaos. In mystery. In the unknown. So whatever your faith, doubt, or practice, this blessing is for you.

 

A Blessing

from Sara Eisenberg

In this season when God has been in the field

and is about to ascend to His Throne,

the mind is sharper as it peers inward,

the heart is softening,

the inner workings of all the worlds are being reset –

May you be blessed with clarity,

compassion for yourself and the state of the world,

resolve to live a good-enough life, and

trust in one step at a time,

even when it is a step back.


Read more about God in the field here:

https://alifeofpractice.com/living-in-harmony-with-natures-rhythms/1007/

A Tale of Two City Neighbors and a Blizzard

Practice is the snow-cover that softens the landscape of our humanness.

A post-storm moment of practice in which I am reminded how important it is to know, as neighbors, both who I aspire to be and who I do not want to be.

 

Two feet of snow covered our car
Winter Storm Jonas

The morning after Winter Storm Jonas dropped 24” of snow on my neighborhood, I was on my third round of shoveling, my husband Gideon and I working in shifts to dig out his car. The sun was out, the snowfall pristine, everything sparkling. I was warmed up from an hour’s worth of effort, focusing on one shovelful at a time.

Exhibit, Neighbor A: a lean young guy in electric blue skin-tight running clothes trots past down the middle of the freshly plowed street, looks back and calls over his shoulder, “Having fun yet?”

Until he said that, I would have said, Yes, I am. Not fun in the way he meant, but I had been absorbed, in the zone. I found myself staring after him and said to myself, Well, F.U. And then I jabbed at the snowpile with more ferocity than needed.

Exhibit, Neighbor B, an hour later: A guy walks by with his son, shovels over their shoulders, and asks how I’m doing, could I use some help? Sure could, you guys for hire? “No,” Dad replies. “We’re on our way to Stephanie’s (a gardening buddy of mine who lives around the corner) to help her dig out her car. We’ll stop by on our way back, see how you’re doing, see what we can do.” Then we introduced ourselves.

By the time they returned, I was inside dosing myself with Arnica to avoid muscle soreness, and Gideon was out shoveling. The three of them, working together, dug his car out in a bit over an hour.

Without them, it would have been another day’s worth of shoveling for us.

This is the kind of neighbor, the kind of human being I want to be: Don’t even need to know your name to see you need some help and offer what I can.

But without Neighbor A, I wouldn’t have had the chance to wake up just a tad, to pull myself up short, to recognize (again) how a small thing, a few words, has an impact for good or ill.

Or to see myself as Neighbor A: I don’t have to reach so far for a few sarcastic words, or to treat someone to a flippant, smart-ass comment. A good reminder of what I can inflict without thinking.  And then – give us both a moment of grace for being human!

IMG_3526
I’ve learned really just in the past year how important it is to be able to say not only who I yearn to be, but to say just as clearly: this is who I do not want to be. This is who I no longer want to be. And then: I offer them both a cuppa tea, encourage them to talk to one another, bring those parts of myself into relationship.

Practice is the snow-cover that softens, rounds, and brings a glistening to the landscape of our humanness.


 

Which Neighborly and Unneighborly parts of yourself might you invite for coffee, tea, a good glass of wine or craft beer, for some good conversation and relationship-building?