As the waters of the COVID-19 pandemic’s tsunami of impact recede, our world of experiences and expectations has changed dramatically since March of 2020. The familiar now has an uncanny cast to it; favourite places for entertainment, work and recreation, places of worship, and healthcare institutions look and operate unlike they ever used to, even as restrictions to access are lifted.
So many of us sat through this pandemic, chafing at the bit to go back to having things the old way, the familiar way, the way we moderns and our ancestors before us, made them.
Imagine instead, that we have been abiding together in an Ark, such as that of the Biblical Noach and the living beings he gathered into it, to weather a Great Flood. Were these passengers all imagining, in their human and non-human minds, that things would be just the same once the rain stopped?
Can you imagine yourself after this great shipwreck or tsunami, that now the waves have relaxed. You have been deposited by a gentle surf, face down upon a wet sand of some strange beach: exhausted, grateful for the solid land, confused. Yet, the landscape is not unfamiliar.
Humanity has been tossed about. Regardless of our medical and scientific experts attempting to control Nature’s child, the Novel Coronavirus, it has been an exhausting two-plus years for those of us who have thus far survived. We mourn the losses of loved ones, means of livelihood, neighbourhoods, sources of supplies and food, and importantly, patterns and rituals that we had always relied upon for comfort and support.
Our traditions were based upon these reliable things of Nature: the sunrise, the sunset, the seasons. Weather patterns of the ancient lands where our beliefs and lore were birthed, are now, too, washed over with sand and debris. We dig to find and restore them. But they, too, are covered with sand and debris, weighted down, broken in places, and entangled with seaweed.
When I lived in the remote desert of the American southwest a few years ago, my family put up a stake of money for a lovely oneg Shabbat at the synagogue I attended, in honour of a significant birthday milestone. I was to chant my bat mitzvah haftarah, the weekly reading from the book of Judges, as well as look forward to a day away at the urban synagogue. The distance there from my remote locale was an hour and a half drive, and when I awoke at sunrise to get ready for the long drive on the morning of the special day, I saw that a torrential downpour had come down overnight.
There was no word on the news or internet about a closure of the one road through town to get to a main highway. I got dressed and drove. After the first 10 miles I suspected the worst outcome caused by the storm, because so many trucks and cars were heading into town, most likely turned back due to the road being closed. But I kept on going because I had to get there to chant the haftarah and celebrate with my friends and indulge in all the goodies my family had arranged for me.
I had my little truck and had experience driving in slush and snow and unmarked roads in Alaska and as a Forest Ranger; and there was no report of a road closure, no signs on the road to go back: Just those darned vehicles heading towards me and back into town. Of course, there it was: after driving 22 of the 25 miles towards the highway the road was completely gone.
The desert had completely swallowed up the road. Wet sand, brittle bushes and cacti sat quietly, as if they had been there all along. There were two police cars, real tough Hummers, which were slipping sideways and giving up in the quicksand, almost like a pair of mud wrestlers trying to slog through to the finish. It made me feel a bit better, that I’d made it as far as they did with their fancy, high powered hemi rigs, but it was also clear that after driving 45 minutes already, then having to drive 45 minutes back to town, plus 2 hours to drive over the mountainous back route, if it was even open, I was going to miss my lovely special sabbath event.
As I drove back and passed our little desert airport, I wistfully thought about running into the terminal and commandeering some pilot who might be sipping a quiet cup of coffee into flying me out to the synagogue, which was adjacent to an airfield anyway. The energy pulsed through me to do that; but I knew the truth was, that Nature had been busy overnight; and that although I would miss out, at least my friends would be enjoying the spread of delectable food and decorations on my behalf. I was able to get a call out to one of them and let him know about the road washout. As urbanites, it may have been harder for them to visualize that it was even possible for a road could completely disappear, but when you live in the wilderness, deferring to Nature is always best.
So, what is the subject of my post, ‘Work on What Has Been Spoiled’?
As we pick ourselves up from our two-plus years of being tossed about in waves of Coronavirus and slog up the beach, now castaways looking for something familiar, we are each likely carrying old expectations of what should be happening, or how things will look and should be. I will tell you – they won’t be the same. We can try to force them to be as expected, as I had hoped to do by running my little truck through the washed away desert road to get to my duties at synagogue and my party.
The most likely outcome of such persistence in working at things that have been spoiled, is to get stuck, get mad, and very tired or fail. Or, as is becoming more the norm: we can find a “hack” (cheat); or blame someone else. As a friend put it, for the past many years we have been living in the “I Got Away With It” culture.
If these options are not appealing, that is good. Our ancient wisdom texts have lovingly preserved for us how to respond to change. We can find a new way in our new world.
An ear worm, a loop of rhythmic words, has been circulating in my brain the past few weeks: it says, “work on what has been spoiled”. In fact this is the name of one of the Hexagrams of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes. The I Ching is a two thousand year old book of wisdom from the far east which helps us understand how to determine our actions in the midst of life’s inevitable changes. From learning how to understand imagery and metaphor, rather than rely upon analytical thinking and problem solving, we can find out where we are in a situation, and thus make decisions on how to proceed.
I saw this cartoon in the New Yorker:
Yes, it’s a cartoon, and supposed to be funny. Yet, isn’t it so true. Competitive sports and higher education that were designed to challenge young minds to excel, to think outside the box and be curious and inventive and creative and courageous are now just ornaments to put on a job resumé. Physical and mental challenges are an essential part of maturation and becoming responsible and ethical; and sadly, today, challenges are often met by how one can avoid experiencing them.
Work on what has been spoiled. There is an old saying, “Spare the rod and spoil the child”. No, don’t physically abuse kids with a stick or rod! this is referring to discipline, to teaching your child to learn how to do the math homework rather than doing it for them, to be a responsible member of the educational system rather than buying admission into Ivy League schools.
Because when we do these undisciplined, unsanctioned acts, things decay, become decadent, and rot.
I once met with a patient who had acquired a life threatening infectious disease. He was hospitalized, with no friends or family. He told me that he had been raised in one of the wealthiest families in the region, spent his time partying on the family’s yachts and skiing in the Alps and Aspen; all those things that were just the norm for him. They had servants and he never had any responsibilities. Then he decided to get this cabin in the mountains and live like Jeremiah Johnson, the backwoodsman, with his girlfriend.
His health began to fail: his earlier, carefree partying days of sharing drug needles and bodily fluids with others had given him some diseases that weakened him so much that his leg broke while out hiking. His dog helped him get back to the cabin, but his girlfriend decided to leave. So, there he was, alone and very sick. Eventually some neighbours brought him into town and he was now in the infectious disease ward, with me. He said he had no skills for living: everything had been given to him with no challenges his whole life. He saw the folly of shirking the learning of basic skills for taking care of oneself all too clearly.
Recognizing where one is at, is the first step toward finding your way forward. This patient was ready and eager to begin work on what had been spoiled.
This topic is relevant to the New Year of Autumn. We get a chance, before finding ourselves lost and sick in a snow bank like this man, to reflect on what we have learned this past year, and how we can move forward better in the new one. He made mistakes, and had been raised and encouraged to shirk responsibilities: for most of his life; others were to blame for any problems or shortfalls. Now, in his solitude, he could see that he was in charge after all, not others. Saying “I can do better and want to be responsible” was the most powerful thing he could do for himself.
The Hexagram, ‘Work on What Has Been Spoiled’ is not about what has been Spoiled: it is about Work. Just as moving forward into the world after the pandemic is not about the coronavirus; it is about the honest work, without blame of oneself or others, of adapting to a changed world.
Work is hard! with guidance from our ancestors through their books of wisdom, we, too, can move forward, with awe and wonder and pride.
May your New Year be filled with growth, with wisdom from your elders, and promise for the future.
Recently, I’ve had some conversations with friends and professional peers, where the word ‘wisdom’ has come up….
…our discussions often include the big topic of how to navigate what lies ahead as the pandemic shifts and moves forward; indeed, none of us has lived through any extended world disruption as has been caused by this current global pandemic.
We speak of our personal lives and compare how we are doing. I am doing fine, all things considered. With my own paradigm shift, brought about by a relocation to a new city in 2020, just as the pandemic hit Canada and extended sheltering at home ensued, there were no precedents of a life with former habits to compare with. Being newly settled, I had no former routines, such as favourite restaurants, school or work, or ways of making ends meet that might be disrupted; and my housing was safe and secure.
From the picture windows in my home, these days I watch life go on outside. Cars drive past, people walk dogs, meet and dine at picnic tables across the street in the park (even when it’s -10ºC), squirrels chase each other and fight over buried acorns or partners; the sun rises behind me, beautiful sunsets fill my afternoon picture window, rivers of clouds pass over, and winds blow and the moon passes through its phases – all in good order.
But, the news headlines give quite a different story. One recurrent theme is that there is a Mental Health Crisis. Attributed to the pandemic and reiterated as if a breaking story, the almost inescapable exposés and interviews focus on people struggling to live and attend school and work from home, often in close quarters, without their former ways of physically distancing themselves. Stories of lost income due to jobs that have evaporated, of small businesses having to shut down, of people not being able to pay rent, and of evictions.
We get media ‘feel good’ stories, too. There is the young man who makes air filter systems for homebound senior citizens, the young woman who goes for brisk walks in the -20ºC weather and gleefully tells everyone to get out and enjoy the weather, and volunteers manning vaccination clinics.
Reports of systemic stress include the curtailing of health care services. Elective surgeries, necessary cancer care, and even care for COVID patients are being portioned out and triaged or postponed. The high costs and impairment of health care systems are the result of health care systems not designed for the huge influx of acutely ill patients. This is also driven along by the high rate of front line health care workers who are unable to work, losses due to their becoming ill, burnout, and being attracted to less risky, more predictable jobs.
People express their angst in various ways. One person, who went to the local emergency department in their community with an infection, found a 3-hour wait just to see a triage nurse, let alone get into a queue to see a doctor. They told me they went home and treated it with a poultice recipe recalled from childhood, declaring: “We’ve gone back to Medieval times! We’re replacing medical care with folkways and home remedies!”
Other people reactivate and share their own fears: hording is particularly popular. When the announcements began about the Omicron variant, one person’s reaction was, “We’re going to run out of toilet paper, people are going to horde again, better stock up.”
Young people are particularly hit hard. I know many are doing very well, but even in my small world, I experience other who are not – acting out, with hair triggers on their rage. I consider myself a mild-mannered senior citizen, but when I take a walk and a woman half my age and twice my size shoulder checks me as she passes by on the sidewalk and then chases me, shouting, “You punched me! You just punched me!”, I have to attribute it to an unmet need to blame someone for something, no matter who or what it is. The young man living upstairs from me has taken to stomping around and slamming drawers and doors so hard that my dishes and windows rattle, as if having temper tantrums throughout the day. And then there was the woman lurking about in an underground parking garage who ran up to my car screaming, “You are a white racist, get out of here! Just because you’re white and I’m brown doesn’t mean you can park wherever you want to!”
We look to our leaders, whether politicians or high ranking medical advisors, for their expertise and guidance and regulations that should protect us from the virus and all the chaos that it causes. Sadly, many of them are becoming stymied by the ongoing modulations of virus behaviour, and hence it seems we are hearing inconsistent or vague predictions or mandates. Beyond these public appearances beginning to lose their appeal and caché, they seem to provide no clear path to follow, as if we are now in the midst of the jungle, armed only with a machete to chop out a path; if we only knew which way to chop.
And, how will we know? How will we know locally, regionally, nationally, globally, or personally, what the correct path is? And, will it be the same path for all?
Perhaps the Torah can show us how to navigate and move forward.
This Shabbat, from parashat Yitro (Jethro) in the Book of Exodus, we read of an important conversation between Moses and his father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro).
In this section, Yitro pulls aside Moses, who is still the single and primary leader and guide for all of the Israelites, and gives him some sage advice. Yitro himself is a minister or priest of the Midian people, so his acumen as a spiritual leader is well-established. He has observed how being a singular figure for such a multitude is becoming an untenable role for Moses. Yitro is also aware of his own foresight, seeing what trouble will be lying ahead if this keeps up. Yitro comes from his place of background and silence, and now steps up, saying to Moses,
“You will surely become worn out – you as well as this people that is with you – for this matter is too hard for you, you will not be able to do it alone.”
Yitro takes further action, going beyond simply telling or retelling this headline news: his wisdom tells him it is time to give advice to Moses, based upon learned knowledge and insight. Yitro keeps it simple and direct: delegate out responsibilities. He also gives Moses a road map, and lays out the qualities for the people who Moses should choose: accomplished, God-fearing, truthful, and despising of money. These chosen representatives will be assigned locally, regionally, nationally, to settle minor disputes; major disputes will be brought to Moses to resolve.
The particulars of creating a tiered judicial system may not the exact situation relevant to how to navigate our modern pandemic. What is relevant, though, is the harkening to wisdom we are shown in this story.
First, Yitro must make up his mind, that although he is a foreigner, and a father-in-law and not Moses’ father, it is time for him to speak up. But, he does not speak meekly or in euphemisms, or offer vague suggestions, or fall flat as one of many opinions that Moses hears every day from his stiff-necked crowd of lost Israelites. Instead, Torah sets the tone by telling us that Yitro is a minister, a person of insight, of wisdom, one who knows how to apply insight for the good of others as well as themself and for those close to him.
Not everyone wears a mantle of priesthood, as Yitro did. However, we all do have our gifts or talents or abilities, and hopefully we know what they are, and which ones we do not have. This is part of personal growth. It is also the beginning of assuming wisdom. As we grow older, we leave behind the youthful and folly days of testing ourselves and others; elders have come a long way, have overcome and survived challenges, and discerned patterns of how the world works. It is our duty, as we grow and become elders, to impart this learned and processed knowledge to our offspring and future generations.
Sometimes we accept the belief that only those wearing a mantle of authority – ministers, artists, chiefs, pols and elders – have all the answers. But the truth is, Wisdom is not reserved for specially set apart or elevated experts.
It can affect mental health and self-confidence to believe that only others have the answers. When others’ views are so vague or indecisive or downright contradictory, we can filter and glean from them what works best for ourselves. Rather than feeling as if a bug stuck on a pin, swirling and twirling, gnawing and thrashing around and at others, we can trust in ourselves to grow and find novel solutions that we can live with.
Perhaps this is the time to be Yitro, or to be Moses. You know who you are in this story.
If you are Yitro and have deep insight and have navigated life’s challenges successfully, speak up, share your wisdom with others: your children, the merchant whose shelves are almost empty, in simple ways when you are out, in conversation with people you care about.
If you are Moses, accept wise counsel when you are overwhelmed, or about to become overwhelmed. Delegate your burdens to people you trust and who have navigated challenges well in the past. Take time to reflect and recall who those good people are and were in your life. This recollection of good influences, in and of itself, can open up a pathway through the jungle.
The Israelites of old didn’t have a road map, either. Thankfully, we have their legacy, through stories such as the conversation between Yitro and Moses, in the Torah.
The other night I was returning home from orchestra rehearsal. We’d had a good time together, and my energy was high and light; it was our final rehearsal before an upcoming recording session for next week.
It’s an interesting group, a traditional Chinese orchestra, with strings Pipa, Zheng and Erhu; winds Sheng and Suona, and of course the Dizi wooden flutes.
I fit in somewhere with my Western oboe, and there are cellos and double basses, too. The percussion section is a busy kitchen with all sorts of drums, chimes, gongs and cymbals.
Our music is both traditional Chinese compositions, such as ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’, and also some world music. For example, we’ll be recording two Uighur pieces, ‘Alamuhan’ and ‘Dance of the Youth’. The music is all upbeat, yet has movements that express such deep pathos via the soothing warm tones of the strings and Sheng, echoed by the crying call of the wooden flutes and now also with the deeper, evocative oboe voice. You can see some of our corps in rehearsal at the Toronto Chinese Orchestra’s FaceBook page .
So, with the floating melodies of Erhu drifting me back to my truck, and the light snow falling, I headed home. Or, so I thought.
My first stop was for a snack. It was almost 10:30pm and stopping at the local Chinese supermarket after rehearsal to peruse the arrays of colourful packages along the aisles in the brightly lit market adds to my already gay feelings from the music we’d just played together.
I picked out two packages after carefully reading the ingredients, and after the checkout process, brought them neatly into my truck and opened them for noshing on the 25 minute drive home. The snow still swirled a bit, but I was glad to be on my way home to see my two cats and watch a bit of TV (usually a ‘Matlock’ rerun) before going to bed.
My GPS app got me as far as the on ramp to the highway heading west. It was closed! Darn. My app wouldn’t register the closure, and instructed me to drive in what ended up being a 360º circle back to the same on ramp. The funny thing was, I was part of a pride of other drivers who were taking the same circular route, likely given by their various GPS apps.
The joy of the rehearsal kept me feeling upbeat and positive. I tried to report the closure to my app again with no success, but this time it told me to get onto the highway and drive east. I obeyed. Oops, when it instructed me to get off, it took me to another westbound on ramp–which was also closed. Oh Snap!
I began to eat the snack more voraciously, and decided to take a timeout to fill my gas tank up. It’s a good idea to keep the tank more than half-full in sub-freezing temperatures. After negotiating all the various reward and payment cards and agreeing to a pre-payment amount, my truck tank was filled and I felt more focused on how to get home. You see, Toronto has never-ending construction–and also keeps its decisions about road closures a well-kept secret. Highway 401 Westbound was closed for the night where I needed to get on.
Now some detour signs appeared. I guess those went up while I was getting fuel.
I dutifully followed the signs. There were so many detour routes to choose from! D-6, D-9, D-11, D-14, D-16. Which would you choose? The signs were tiny and didn’t say what the difference was. After 3 times around the same loop and finding myself back at the same closed on ramp, I tried D-14 and finally ended up at the Don Valley Parkway, and on my way home. My 25 minute happy drive took 2 hours! and I was still happy.
Our rehearsal music and good cheer carried along through all the twists and turns; the route was so much like our music: happy to find the onramp; dark feelings when it was closed; then tentativeness as I followed the detour signs into unknown and not well lit parts of the city’s outskirts. Then joy at seeing other cars merging towards an onramp; and sadness that it, too, was closed. The final dash home to the finale–I’d picked the correct detour route, and joyfully cruised familiar highway home.
Music is created to tell us what life is like. I would have felt strange and alone, dissociated from the reality and familiarity of how the roads normally work, but the music and companionship of the rehearsal informed me that this is how life is, and the more we play in it together, the better it gets.
Recently, I was in a discussion about how to greet new people when they enter a faith community. I was told that here in Toronto, no one invites strangers to their homes and that the onus of invitations is on the newcomer. It begged the question: how does one feel welcomed and stop being a stranger?
As Jews, we are commanded, urged, and reminded frequently in our sacred texts and liturgies to welcome the stranger, because we once were strangers in a strange land (Egypt). And, we know what happened to our Hebrew ancestors when they were treated like strangers–400 years of enslavement. It doesn’t say anywhere that certain geographic locations are exempt from this duty.
My experience of impersonal treatment of drivers on my journey home, by closing a major highway with no signs, and then confusing ones, is one way a city can cultivate feelings of alienation and being unwelcomed. Some unidentified, hidden, civic body made the decision to close the highway without consideration to avoid leaving drivers in the lurch to fend for themselves. Or, maybe it did advertise the closure to media outlets known only to already entrenched Toronto denizens (found it now on Twitter!)
Especially during these days of pandemic, doing acts that allow others to feel seen and valued keeps our human societies afloat. The ‘each person for themself’ mentality, or the more insidious ‘I got away with it’ culture we find ourselves in, is being tested by none other than a microscopic coronavirus. Keeping each other in the dark, hoarding, and leaving new settlers to wander aimlessly contributes to the at-times chaotic manner with which we as a society make our decisions about how to navigate forward into the unknown resolution of living with the ongoing pandemic.
We don’t have to break our commitments to safety to be together. There are amazing new and revamped media platforms for staying connected with those we already know and love, and for bringing in those who we don’t yet know well, and who could be enriching our lives.
A new Pharaoh arose in Egypt after Joseph was gone, and what did he say? “Who is this Joseph? I don’t know any Joseph”. Will that be you? how will you navigate the famine-like path that takes away those things that used to feed you and I: the restaurant meals, travel, or going out to concerts films and plays? or the new supply chain shortages and the eroding of peoples’ patience in general as we face waning vaccine immunity and new virus variants of concern? Will you end up with a closed heart that leads to disaster, as Pharaoh had; or be guided by the wisdom inside haunting melodies, transcend popular myth, and take the trip home–together.
At this time of Chanukah, as the shortening of days swings back into lengthening hours of daylight, we can choose also to leave behind darkening trends that don’t serve us well, and rededicate to the light and wisdom of new personal and social paradigms.
The Jewish year is bookmarked with holidays, Holy Days, feasts, fasts, and celebrations.
Thank Goodness! Every year we know there will be Passover, Chanukkah, Tisha b’Av, and Rosh HaShanah. We can plan ahead, mark our calendars, prepare our travel plans and guest lists, and make time for personal preparation and reflection.
We also know that it is normal each year to have changes in our lives: Relationships are lost, new ones found; illnesses come and go or remain; work and finances are gained and lost; transitions to new homes, new states of health, new relationships, and new work all can happen. The unpredictability of these events does not allow them to be marked on an annual calendar in the same way as the dates for the holy days. Yet, our predictable timetable of sacred dates is related and intertwined with the natural and unpredictable unfolding of our lives.
A helpful way of explaining this intertwining comes as metaphor. Some of us best perceive concepts and ideas this way, through imagery and story. Try this:
Picture the Jewish year not moving forward as an arrow in a straight line through time, or as merely a closed circle that keeps looping around itself, but as a spiral, which both moves forward and cycles around. So, we still have our bookmarked observances that we return to, but not perpetually returning us to the same spot as we began, such as, say, in the film, “Groundhog Day”.
There are still some givens: for example, we don’t wake up on Rosh HaShanah the same person we were last year on Rosh haShanah. Looking in the mirror, you may see a few more wrinkles or grey hairs or freckles, and this may even jog your brain a bit more toward the idea that time has moved forward and you have changed.
Rosh haShanah reminds us that, before running to the phone to book Botox or hair salon appointments, try to thank the mirror for what it is showing you; that you are growing and changing. And not just on the outside, but inside, too.
This past year, the world event of the Pandemic has touched and changed the lives of everyone on the planet as a whole. So, collectively, we have all shared a life-altering experience, a sharing that is uncanny and rare. This is in addition to our normal year of personal change, and so discovering how to move forward into the New Year will have elements that are not quite the same as past years, either.
On a personal level, this past year has brought enormous change. Out of the depths of the Pandemic, came the great levelling of the social playing field for those of us who are partially or fully home-bound: Everyone became home-bound! Thanks to video conferencing platforms formerly relegated to last minute work meetings or the small pond of home-bound people who are tech-savvy, the entire world now became accessible to all through our computers and electronic devices.
Interestingly, being mostly home-bound became unnoticed and irrelevant; I could interact with people, barrier-free just like everyone else. I did things that had become too onerous over the past six years: attended synagogue and Torah study, went to concerts, played music and took music lessons, had medical appointments, and attended business meetings of all sorts–just like everyone else. No one saw my chronic illness and they would be surprised if I brought it up. Even more importantly, my self-identity as a ‘disabled senior’ changed, too; my overall health has improved with this new ability to engage with the world on par.
So, for me, life changed drastically. Thanks to the ease and abundance of telemedicine, I could have consults with doctors and other healthcare professionals that would have been impossible for me to attend prior to this past year. The same with music: I could participate in classes, made a video recording and have another lined up, took fabulous workshops and classes from such diverse places as the Metropolitan Opera, KlezKalifornia, and the International Double Reed Society. And the staying at home gave me time and energy to write and win writing awards for the past two summers. I showed up, my voice was heard, and I was a contributor alongside everyone else. And, I now am able to engage with activities outside of home once agai.
My story of successes enabled by the opening of the world during the Pandemic is not unique. I will continue to reflect upon how I and how my identity have changed. What is troubling me, though, is how we are being guided by recent news and headlines,
“Back to Normal!” “Revenge Travel” “Fully Open” “Vaccine Passports” “Welcome Back, Good to See You Again!”
While these convey the desire to you for things going ‘back the way they used to be’, certain truths are missing. Nothing goes back the way it used to be. Once you have crossed a threshold, it is crossed. All of our myths and legends and scriptures tell us that.
Think about the first saga written, about Gilgamesh, who came home to the same ramparts as when he left, yet he was no longer the lad who had left; he had overcome impossible challenges on his walkabout. Or, Moses dwelling in the desert after a soft life in the Palaces of Egypt, and when enough change in him had elapsed, he encountered the burning bush of God’s Presence. He could no longer be the common husband and shepherd.
Do we really want to go back to our habits of long rush hour commutes, wandering shopping malls, making-and-breaking-date routines, and excluding anyone who can’t keep up? Or, do we want continuity with our discovery that being outdoors and in nature is good for us, that nature needs to be protected, that our elders and the dis-abled have overcome great challenges and so are venerable role models holding valuable wisdom, and that spending time alone and in isolation away from our former distractions is how we get to know our weaknesses and our strengths.
The question here is, then: what do we gain by trying to go back to the way things used to be, what will we lose by doing so, and how have we changed?
My prayers for the New Year will include not only reflections on personal growth areas, but also discernment of ways to preserve what society has gained during this pandemic. How did my identity grow and change over the year thanks to technology, how can I support the continuation of social inclusion now that the world-at-large has developed the means to provide it, and learning how to enjoy social inclusion after many years apart from it.
Some answers will arrive in the form of the still, small, voice. And certainly, at Rosh HaShanah we can always count upon the great blasts of the Shofar to awaken and open up our ears, minds, and hearts.
A few weeks ago I tuned in to a much anticipated Gala Concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, hosted by Dame Helen Mirren.
To set the timbre of the concert, she opened by reading the following poem by the 13th century Persian Poet, Jalaluddin Rumi:
Where Everything Is Music
Don’t worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments breaks,
it doesn’t matter.
We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.
The strumming and the flute notes
rise into the atmosphere,
and even if the whole world’s harp
should burn up, there will still be
hidden instruments playing.
So the candle flickers and goes out.
We have a piece of flint, and a spark.
This singing art is sea foam.
The graceful movements come from a pearl
somewhere on the ocean floor.
Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge
of driftwood along the beach, wanting!
from a slow and powerful root
that we can’t see.
Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.
The poetry perfectly matched not only the music chosen by the guest artists, but also reflected the intrepid and authentic intentions of the IPO for deploying music as balm and reminder of good things we all have inside.
Meanwhile, from dark forces on the outside: a cyber attack completely disabled the broadcast.
Yes, a cyber attack on a Global Music Gala. When the world needed music most, ugly politics, ignored the message of music, tried to destroy it.
And so, it is fitting that the Torah reading for that week was the story of Korach.
The context of this tale in the Book of Numbers is that the Hebrews, my ancestors, had recently sent spies into the land of Canaan. Their report that the land was unsuitable, was just one too many complaints about how the world works outside of the familiar life of enslavement in Egypt. God tells them that no one from this group of former slaves will enter the Promised Land; their beliefs and mindsets were not shifting over toward formation of a mature self-determining people.
Instead, the people that enters the Promised Land will be of a new perspective, a new generation that would have no memory of life in Egypt; enslavement will not be part of their narrative memory.
And then, almost before this serious information can resonate fully in the minds of the wanderers, an insurrection is mounted. It is led by Korach, who sees everyone as equals and believes no one person should be making all the decisions and challenges the right of Moses to lead the people, saying, “Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?”
He does not grasp, has no understanding of, what leadership means, or why they have been turned away from the Promised Land. He only sees that Moses and God are schlepping everyone endlessly around the desert, when they have finally made it to the Land: and like a child who does not understand the need to grow and ready oneself for new responsibilities, it is making him miserable.
It might feel just like this, these days. We all want to be in the land flowing with milk and honey, we want to see our friends and families, get back to our jobs and earn money and have a good life, now and for our children. But, here we are—pandemic and isolation.
It is hard to see what the future holds. The truth is, we cannot. Instead, we must look at each day as the whole of our experience. All our familiar chores and socializing have been suspended, and by now we know that we must persevere and not rush to re-open our lives. Already, some countries or zones are reeling from an intense second wave of pandemic cases because of opening too soon. We are in a wilderness, right along with the Biblical Israelites.
We can’t do what we did in our former lives. In fact, we had lived a sort of enslavement before the pandemic. Like the Israelites our enslavement was a dependence upon things outside of ourselves. In the Hebrews’ case, they had to obey their human captors.
Some of us were enslaved to the demands of advertising and peer pressure: have expensive cars, elite schools for our children, unnecessary medical procedures, fancy nails. Like taskmasters, they drove themselves and others hard to acquire the means to have these things and be worthy. Others had to make ends meet by taking multiple jobs and leaving children for others to look after.
Now we are forced to see life stripped of these things and can make decisions about whether to resume chasing them or not. So many have lost the little they ever had to get by on, and must find a new way to make ends meet.
Also, in truth, we have always had our own self to fall back upon. Whether living solitary, or with family, or house-mates, we are living a new type of life: facing ourselves, full on. We’re not used to that: being alone on Saturday night was the worst thing possible during our formative adolescent years. But maybe it’s time to change that, too.
Being alone was billed as ‘scary’. Those thoughts you used to avoid are now dancing around your consciousness all the time with no distractions from work or shopping or parties, as before. Like the wandering Israelites, we have left the enslavement behind, but also have not achieved freedom. Like Korach, we are leaving the familiar past, but not seeing what is ahead or have a destination–yet.
We have this idea that there is a ‘when things get back to normal’ or ‘things open up again’, just as did the spies in the Bible. But, in reality, we have left all that behind.
We have to transform that thinking, from the inside out and see the new land for what it truly is, or end up like Korach, swallowed up by the great gorge of our fears.
There are some previous pandemics to look back at for clues about where this will lead us as a global community. But what about our own personal trajectory in all this? How do we emerge ready for the new land we will find ourselves in?
Some of the answers will come from during this time of peeling away distractions and allowing deep listening for what lies beneath.
Look back at the poem by Rumi:
Don’t worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments breaks,
it doesn’t matter.
We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.
When a musician plays music, the instrument is a tool, and what they play, the music, comes from deep engagement with the heartbeat of everything. One of my oboe teachers and mentor, Joseph Robinson has said,
The best moments have been breathtaking, transcendent and unforgettable, and each reminds me of what [Marcel] Tabuteau once said when I asked him whether he could remember any best moments in his long career…Pausing for a moment and looking toward the Alps, he said, ‘There were a few good notes … and they are still ringing.’*
Everything is music, as Rumi says; musicians use their instruments to capture these ineffable notes, to share the music.
You can do this, too–Yes, you.
Here’s how: In your present you have unfinished business, financial troubles, loss of loved ones, illness, grief. Don’t forget to look at what resources you do have.
…and even if the whole world’s harp
should burn up, there will still be
hidden instruments playing.
You too, can capture the music. It’s okay to be hidden. The Israelites had to stay in a wilderness with nothing familiar to anchor to, in order to coalesce into a people with an identity; with roles, structure, and distance from the desire to go back to how things used to be.
Finding a new angle of repose takes time; finding the music comes from listening, and from clues and from integrating the information. Write them down, share with family, make art, engage a counsellor.
We are in a time of broken and burned up instruments; just let the former structures that played your tune go and yield to the sounds that you hear.
Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.
Oh, yes, and as for the cyber attack on the IPO Gala Concert? the IPO concert immediately became available for free until the end of July, on FaceBook.
*Robinson wrote in ‘The Wilson Quarterly’, in 1995.
Last night I began watching a film about Grey Owl, an Englishman who lived with, and as one of, the traditional Canadian indigenous peoples in the early 20th century.
My interest in the film was twofold: one, that Grey Owl was a conservationist whose writings had become popular amongst those of us in the ‘Ecology’ movement of the 1970’s in the USA.
The other draw was from my growing desire lately to touch the earth again.
During social isolation, which is still going on in my community, I have been reluctant to venture outside. With my compromised immune system, it has seemed wiser to stay indoors in my apartment where I have control, as much as one can have, of all the germs, where they are, who they are from, and the ability to avoid or remove them. Whereas going outside means I am subject to others’ rules about how they manage, or don’t manage, their germs.
But, the safety of staying inside, with all my various activities and hobbies and plugged-in entertainment devices, had begun to take its toll on my spiritual wellbeing. I looked at photos and videos of places I’d been over the past year pre-lockdown, and felt better and inspired by the memory that such places exist and that I was in them. There were pictures of the Southern California desert in bloom and of my home there, and of Italy where I spen a month of respite in a monastery last summer. The cool desert breezes and swaying plants, the rushing waters over the rocks and under the old Italian town’s bridge were healing. They touched memories of both my body and the experiences in those locales.
I watched the Grey Owl film with a bit of trepidation: was he a real Indian or a white man passing himself off as one, and did it matter anyway? Before finding an answer, though, my own memories stepped into that conversation space.
As a little girl, I was captivated by anything Indian. I wore my pink Annie Oakley cowgirl skirt, vest, boots, hat and holster so diligently that I would not even take off the boots or guns for bedtime, and regularly spent hours rocking on the spring rocking horse on our backyard patio in my pink cowgirl garb.
But when all the kids got together to play ‘cowboys and Indians’ as was the suburban norm in the 1950’s, I always had to be an ‘Indian’.
I would fight my bravest fight, which mostly consisted of belly-crawling along the grass to surprise the ‘cowboys’, and then obligingly get shot, and roll, tumbling all the way down the grassy lawn embankment. Then I would stay there looking up at the sky; even after all the other kids finished shooting their cap guns and calling ‘blam blam, you’re dead’ to each other and mosey off to get a cool glass of Kool-Aid from someone’s mom. But I stayed there on the grass, gone to another place.
My memory of that place is a woods, an autumn and northern country woods, with thick trees, green leaves on the branches, brown and ochre and yellow ones on the ground. I would tiptoe quietly, my brown skin and deerskin breeches soundless as I padded along in my soft low cut moccasins. The breeze was cool as it blew through my black-brown braids and I followed some call or presence. I felt a deep pain, so deep and desperate. “I must save my people!” was pulsing me along the path through the thicket. “I must save my people” I would stand brave and tall, then kneel, and the words would envelope me.
Then I would be back once again, lying face up in the suburban lawn, now a bit itchy from the little gnats and grass blades on my skin, roll over heavily, and go try to find out where the other kids had gone.
I have been told that children of that age, about 3-4 years old, can’t have such ideas about saving others and that their frame of reference can only includes themselves. So much for Psychology! But the power of those dreamtime experiences from then on, defined my life.
In grade school, my grandfather would take me to the little museum in Santa Barbara, where we would push the button on the display box to make the rattlesnake shake its tail, ptssssss–t!, and he would laugh and poke me to make me jump to experience the snake’s attack. Then after that warm-up, we would go out to the grounds and walk the trails through the vegetation; he and I called them ‘the Indian trails’. Back at home, my grandparents bought me ankle bells to dance in and for the most part indulged my ‘Indian’ role playing.
As I grew a bit older, I started going to Girl Scout sleep away camp and ate up all the experiential activities of building cooking fires and cooking, sleeping outdoors in a sleeping bag under the big sky of the far away national forest where the camp was located.
Eventually, I was invited to join their elite ‘survival skills’ program, and moved on to learn how to build traps and snares, skin and cook our catch, identify plants that were edible or toxic and how to eat them, and night vision and stalking skills. Our final exam was to hike to a remote area with no facilities and no food, only a blanket and a knife and a cup and our own hand-carved spoon, and a hatchet for the group to use.
We stayed 3 days. We behaved much like The Lord of the Flies! except we got hungry, so those of us who were in tune with the concept that we really did have to forage and trap for food if we wanted to eat, got busy. In the end, we had some okay Lupine beans that we leached with boiling and cold water baths, and some meat. We had some meat because ‘Sioux’, as I was now called, responded to another camper’s shriek that there was a rattlesnake; I corralled it and chopped its head off when it tried to strike me. (I can tell this secret now, because my parents are no longer here to know about it!)
The next day we went back down the steep trail by the waterfall, to our counsellors. I was a bit of a hero, and the counsellors were very stoic when hearing that I’d killed the rattler. I’m sure there must have been some panicky feelings going on inside, knowing a camper had done that without adult supervision, but that was what they put us up to!
Upon return to camp, we cleaned up, which we all badly needed. That night was our last one together. We had a campfire and awards ceremony. In the spirit of maintaining Indian tradition we were each given a coloured pony bead for each skill we had mastered, strung on a multi-coloured cord. While mine wasn’t the longest string of beads, it came close with only 2 missing; but it had the only long jade green one, for killing a rattlesnake. The cords held a copper arrowhead pendant, and we also received a deerskin feather pendant necklace, for remembrance of our time together. I still have them, complete with long jade green bead.
That was in 1968.
Today, Fathers Day, I looked once again at the photo of my father, sitting perched over Half Dome, his legs dangling from the top, shirtless and certainly a part of the whole; and nothing like the dad I knew who commuted 4 hours every day into downtown Los Angeles when he wasn’t far away at some salesman’s convention. When I found this photo last year, some of the mystery was resolved.
The other clue came last year and was from my updated DNA test results. I am not 100% Ashkenazi Jewish, like most of my friends, but 92%: 7% is from an area that covers a remote Siberian area, the Yamal Peninsula and Novaya Zemlya archipelago. The native inhabitants of these areas are the Nenets or Sami peoples. My mother used to tell me that my grandfather’s mother looked Chinese, and so I am now guessing that there is some tethering of my ancestors with this earth bound sense of myself through true genetic inheritance.
Although my home is now an urban setting, the urge to touch the earth remains. My day today strolling the grounds, touching flowers and pine cones, walking along shrubbery, and taking photos of flowers and berries to look back at, has been grounding for me. Although we are unsure of our future abilities to mingle socially, we can rest assured that Nature will continue to anchor our innate humanity.
My father loved his job with the Forest Service in Yosemite. He referred to it often as we grew up but not so much as he got older. Instead, he designed numerous cruise vacations to enjoy with my mother, and at home, curated the thousands of photos and mementos from them. He died unexpectedly from pneumonia, caused by a chest cold he picked up on their last ocean cruise, ten years ago.
Perhaps his excitement with packing his daughter’s duffel bag for overnight camp so many years ago was more than just a parental task: perhaps it had been his chance to touch the earth once again.