Monday, May 22, 2017

On Stillness

I'm sitting on a white Adirondack chair very early in the morning, peering into the distance across a quiet lake. I can just about see two geese or swans gliding along the far shore. A small girl in a pale yellow sundress is dancing dreamily on the lawn behind the family summer cottage. Further south, a man is sitting on the dock with his feet trailing in the weedy water drinking a cup of coffee. It's too early for speed boats, jet skis. All you can hear are the birds storytelling. The surface of the lake is free of ripples, undisturbed, an essential calm.

The girl in the yellow dress, the man drinking coffee, the birds, even the lake itself are all inventions. I go to that place when the sheer volume of the political static demands an exit strategy. When the pace of events becomes untenable. Sometimes, this fantasyland appears in my mind unbidden. If, for example, the person posing as our president decides to play Monopoly with the Saudis, I might suddenly find myself staring at the distant horizon, taking in a wider geometry. I know this place like I know my grandchildren, their smiling, their crying. It's a comforting, elemental rest stop I will always recognize, but for some reason I do not choose to visit it as often as I could. I remain as yet mostly in the noise, both the external noise and the internal noise. Comey, Comey, hear me, see me.

We are always excavating the waxy build-up of our own concerns and regrets. But now, there is so much more to worry about. Not only are we responsible for our own sanity, we're on the hook for the safeguarding of the rule of law, the survival of the planet. It's a one-two punch every day, the political right jab, the personal left cross. Stillness is a matter of self-preservation. Stillness and mercy.

Stillness is precious and fragile. It needs loving protection, old blankets to wrap around the ancestral crystal. It is easily damaged. The stories that barge into my mind uninvited when I give them an inch are boorish and self-important like Trump. They aren't mindful of the pain they cause, bouncing off the walls, knocking over anything that gets in their way. They are willful, infantile and grandiose, demanding their say. You know the type. They shout over everyone else, convinced of their own rectitude. I'm right! He's wrong! At the same time, the flavor of my old persistent stories is sweet and nostalgic like chocolate pudding. It's not the bad taste that lingers after a day of consuming retrograde Republican fast food. It's the pleasure of scratching an insect bite till it bleeds. I wouldn't open the door for these stories, these thuggish guests, if I didn't somehow enjoy having them around. Even in my dreams, some surly narrative is always elbowing ahead of me to get to the bar. To resist the hostile takeover of the American enterprise, I will need to fortify myself with stillness, a merciful stillness that furnishes a safe house for righteous anger. Without it, the rage will tear right through me.

The other day, I sunk down into a lower level of silence. I sat in a funeral home for several hours watching over the casket of a man who would be buried later in the day. This was in fulfillment of the Jewish observance of shmira, or guarding. People who sit shmira take turns attending the deceased person through the night and into the next day from the time of shrouding to the time of burial. I didn't know the man. He was not a friend or a family member. My role was simply to keep him company and witness the deep silence that enfolds us when the noise of life has run its course, the peace that can be so elusive while we're here on hold, listening to the canned playlist. Every now and then, I could hear a phone ringing, a murmured conversation far off in the building, but mostly nothing. The shouting match, the name calling, the physical and verbal violence and the lovemaking end in a carpeted hush.

And I thought....What was all the fuss about? Do our minds maintain a constant carping chatter just to distract us from the galactic silence that waits for us? And is that what he's thinking about, somewhere on the back porch of his non-awareness, when he's up tweeting before sunrise?

Something special from my friend Deb Koffman

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Monday, May 8, 2017

On Impermanence

We all wanted to be Joan Baez. It wasn't about the vocal range or the political passion. It was the hair...that long, straight, black hair. We all had jewfros, nests of uncontrolled frizz burgeoning out of our overworked brains, as if the electrical impulses of precocious literacy and self-consciousness had gone haywire. We suffered the cartoonish antics of hair springing off the head of someone with her finger in a wall outlet. Some girls put their heads on ironing boards and pressed their curls into a flat, singed stink. Some took it a step further. I got off the Broadway local at Times Square and climbed a steep, garbage-strewn staircase to an enormous salon that specialized in straightening, the only white person in the room. The treatment was like something that should have been outlawed by the Geneva convention, a thick paste applied at the roots that scorched the skin right off your scalp. You had to submit to this torture for a length of time, flipping through old copies of Ebony. The goop gave off the same odor as the stuff they would paint on to send your hair in the opposite direction. If, let's say, you were getting a permanent, replicating the style of a famous model or actress. Apparently, whether you were going from frizzy to straight or from lank to curly, the punishment was intended to be equally painful and sulfurous. A season in hell for the sin of failing to be satisfied with who you were.

This, then, became the paradigm. Whatever you looked like, you wanted to look like someone else. Whatever gifts had been bestowed on you, they were the wrong gifts. Whatever club included you, it meant automatically that you wouldn't be caught dead belonging to that club. What does that even mean....."caught dead?" Maybe it means finding yourself in the irreparable situation of arriving wet and cold on the far shore of your life and discovering, too late, that you have expended your time here masquerading as another person altogether, hoping to be admired in what was at one time called a bathing costume. Once, in my early twenties, I ventured too far out in the surf at Montauk. A predatory wave knocked me down and snatched my bikini top. I took in a gallon of salt water. I could have drowned going back under trying to find it, but instead I ran up on the beach topless. In spite of the exposure, in spite of the shame, I chose the naked alternative. This is the story I'm telling myself now, my midrash on the biblical dictum, Choose Life. Be naked, be frizzy. Occupy yourself while the house is still standing.

This is especially true when I am writing. People who write, draw, dance or any of the other divine mimicries are especially vulnerable to self-doubt. There's not much point in doing it if you're dressing up as someone else. The role of playing Zadie Smith has already been cast. Richard Ford has cornered the market on Richard Ford. I have to rescue my stories from the undertow and bring them up for air. Once my words are out there, they are no longer mine. I can't swaddle them. I can't keep them safe. There is always potential for misunderstandings, for damages. I was struck recently by the comments of a friend who is now showing three-dimensional drawings, fragile paper sculptures. What if they get torn, I asked her? What if they get dirty? Maybe they're supposed to be impermanent, she explained. Maybe I'm making them just for the pleasure of making them. It would be, I thought, like cooking a meal to be enjoyed and consumed, like writing a blog. You make it, you offer it up, you let it go. Doing this is practicing a radical theology.

The spirit that sustains all of life never rests, I remind myself. Creation is ongoing, giving birth to new apple blossoms, new words, new poems. It is constantly recycling old songs, old thoughts, old versions of the self. Not only am I not Zadie Smith or Joan Baez, I'm not even the person I was last week. I am a swarm of words, a frizz of awareness, getting acquainted with impermanence, the truest friend.

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Monday, April 24, 2017

Invoking the Ancestors

My great-grandparents, the Lobelsons
We invited our grandparents to the seder and they came, in steerage, carrying bundles. My great-grandmother in the photograph on the right hides her silver candlesticks in her skirts during the long journey from Romania. Now, they sit on the seder table. Our grandparents came from Budapest and Moldavia. From Santa Margherita Belice in western Sicily and from Minsk, it goes without saying. From Limerick and Calabria and from Lodz, though the last could not be remembered as they were in life. Only their names could be offered, a spectral after-image of the people they were before they perished in the Shoah. Still, they were with us. They were all with us. Our minyan of ten, a few still in their sixties but the rest seventysomethings, crowded together at the table, sharing the haggadot, reaching over one another to get to the charoset. Remarkably, there was still more than enough room for our ancestral guests.

Both of my grandfathers died before I was born. One, the patriarch of a large family, flourished into the Depression as the proprietor of a dry goods store on First Avenue. The other, Grandpa Louis, died all the way back in 1923. I inherited from my mother an ice cold antipathy for him, a man I never met. In the only photograph of him that remains, my mother works at being playful for the camera, sticking her head out between her parents. He is dapper in white shoes. You would never know that she always used the words stern and austere when describing him. But who can say? He might have been affectionate if he'd known me. He might have been the kind of grandfather who came to visit with candy bars and jump ropes in his jacket pocket, the kind of grandfather who would stroke your hair and kiss your forehead. Instead, he's a cipher who left behind nothing but a sour dread. Seders on my mother's side were led by my uncle who mumble davvened for hours on end, not seeming to care whether anyone else understood the escape from Egypt, the matzoh and maror.

My Hungarian paternal grandmother died when I was five and left me with only two memories, both pungent. In the first, she answers the door of the railroad flat on 107th street, a dense thicket of antimacassars and porcelain figurines. We ring the bell, the door swings open. There she is with her arms spread wide, ready to engulf us, shrieking "who's who in America?" No austerity on that side of the family. Everything about them was deafening and supersized. In the second memory, she's sitting on the terrible, scratchy needlepoint sofa in our living room. I'm on her lap. It's a good thing because it protects my little girl legs from the aggressively abrasive upholstery. But after a while, I start to suffocate in the surround of her enormous breasts. Sitting on the sofa unprotected would be better than having my face pressed into her perfumed cleavage. Seders on my father's side dispensed with the praying altogether in short order and went on to loud and insistent demands for soup.

All but one of the grandparents we invited along with Elijah to drink too much and eat copious amounts of food were born in Europe. They crossed the Atlantic, reading Yiddish newspapers, speaking in Sicilian dialect. They were small businessmen, glorified peddlers. They were tailors and plasterers. They lived in tenements and brownstones, inhaled garlicky air and drank homemade wine and bathtub gin. My Romanian grandmother, Anna, the only one of that generation I really knew, used to like to tell me about pogroms in Jassy when she was a girl. How they tossed rocks through the windows of the Jewish households. How in 1892, hundreds of Jewish shops were closed down, tradesmen driven out of the city. The following year, Anna and her family made pesach in New York.

The essential story.....the fleeing, the pursuit, the crossing, the wilderness, the illusion of arrival, goes on and on up to this moment. Everything is and has always been provisional. Roots are for trees. Our origins are fluid, our stories oceanic and subject to changing tides of interpretation, the interventions of history. They say my grandfather Louis became unhinged in something called the Panic of 1907 when he lost what little money he had. The financial upset in the year of my mother's birth and its attendant sense of failure and foreboding impacted the entire family saga. It's an elusive, but mesmerizing narrative...One of the many fragments floating over the seder table when we gathered our ancestors around us, not for the sake of nostalgia, but in the service of deep memory.

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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Empowerment Epidemic

Courage has always been contagious. In Biblical times, there was a man named Nachshon, unremarkable in every respect, who took the first step into the water before the Red Sea split. After he got his feet wet, the entire Israelite nation followed him into the sea, a miraculous event we now celebrate at Passover. Courage is still contagious. You can see it spread like an unruly virus through a room full of otherwise ordinary people determined to craft a response equal to the dimensions of the outrage we all feel. The anger and disbelief launch an older woman out of her seat at an anti-Trump mixer organized to introduce all the scattered progressives in the neighborhood to each another. "I'm from Swing Left," she says. "We're gonna take down John Faso in the New York 19." "I'm from Bridge," an African-American woman tells the crowd. "We're working on Safe Communities, keeping ICE out of our towns." I'm feeling it too and even though I'm not an imposing presence, indeed shrinking with age from my full height of five feet, I jump up and turn to face the standing room only gathering. "I'm Susie Kaufman from Stockbridge. We need to get our Democratic congressman, Richard Neal, to do a town hall in the Berkshires. We have something to say and we expect him to listen."

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of anything. But this is different. The miasma of mid-century Europe hangs over us, spectral and threatening. A storm is coming, our nightmares tell us. Complete with storm troopers. The sense of foreboding and the pressure to resist impacts everyone and filters down to the most seemingly inconsequential local situations. At the community center, where remarkably I have been taking a senior women's exercise class for well over a year, there is discontent. The young woman who leads our class in the winter is about to be replaced by an older guy who returns from Florida in May and expects to resume his teaching gig. We don't like his tasteless jokes and the way he singles people out for praise and criticism. Vulnerable seventysomethings have developed sore shoulders and lower back pain because he doesn't seem to know what he's doing. We petition the director to keep our female teacher in place and it works.  Speaking up has caught on. It's all the rage. The more you do it, the more you do it, and the more you do it, the more other people are influenced by the example of your bravery.

The same is true for writers and performers. Suddenly, there's an explosion of local talent, people reading, delivering monologues, storytelling, making music. At first, they're so frightened I can hardly hear what they're saying. They stand in front of the audience hunched over and whispering, hoping it will all be over soon. But now I see countless people just marching out to the edge of the precipice, raining their art down on us, an act of sublime generosity. Some of it is tender, reflective, but some of it is propelled by the energy of the fury. They are reluctant rockets of prophesy, these people. Their pronouncements are cutting straight through the swamp gas we are all breathing. Women, in particular, are refusing to play dead. Women flooded the streets of Washington and many other cities on January 21st. They prayed with their feet, as Abraham Joshua Heschel said in Selma. Now it's our turn to shout NO WAY. This is not armchair politics. People are asking each other, what are you doing in the resistance?

The gravity of our situation is bringing people out of hiding, reminding each of us that when the Passover haggadah speaks of slavery, it is both a metaphor and a newsreel. It is a metaphor for our entrapment in self, for our fear and an everyday reality on the ground. Syrians are enslaved, assaulted by chemical weapons, made into pawns in a satanic political game, Trump and Putin executing the daylight play. African-Americans are enslaved, vulnerable to violence on their way back from a 7-11 with a bag of Skittles. Palestinians are enslaved, on this the 50th anniversary of the Occupation. Women are enslaved by panels of men deciding their reproductive future. Pharaoh is ruthless and powerful, but every day a new Nachshon arrives at the Red Sea, casts off her cloak of invisibility and puts her foot in the water. It's an epidemic.

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Monday, March 27, 2017

Roll Over Beethoven

When John Lennon was shot in 1980, I had a dream that he was sitting in a circle in heaven with my father and my Uncle Jerry, two fabulous small Jews who had only just died in the late '70s. He seemed to be giving them some valuable pointers about how to get along in the new neighborhood. Mind you, I don't believe in heaven in the angels-with-harps sense of the word, but there he was with one mustachioed New Yorker on either side of him, holding each by the hand and OM-ing away. It was a great comfort to know that my father, a non-believer, and my uncle, a conventional shul-on-Yom Kippur Jew, would be supervised in the world-to-come by someone with spiritual chops. I'm thinking about John because just recently Chuck Berry and Jimmy Breslin left us and it reminds me that the older you get, seventysomething in my case, the more you experience celebrity loss as well as personal loss. The people who have most impressed themselves on my awareness are at least as old as I am and are, in the nature of things, shriveling and dying off like garden lettuce in mid-summer.

It's always noteworthy when two famous figures die within a few days of one another. It causes a shift in the planetary angle of inclination. Certainly, Carrie and Debbie had that effect. Or Robert Mitchum, the compelling noir actor, whose obituary was vacuumed off the page by Jimmy Stewart who died the next day. The public can only digest one forkful of nostalgia at any given time. At the moment, I imagine Chuck and Jimmy in some smoke-filled celestial backroom chomping on cigars and telling outrageous self-aggrandizing stories. I don't know if Chuck Berry was aware of Jimmy Breslin, but you have to think that Jimmy appreciated Berry's high-wire act on the guitar. Celebrity deaths have the same day-glo vibrancy as unexpected celebrity encounters in life. I once saw Mohammed Ali walking down Seventh Avenue. Not only was he the most enormous person I had ever seen, but the wavelengths he radiated didn't seem to belong to the normal visible spectrum. He was literally larger than life.

Ordinary, finite beings like us are fascinated by death because it's where we go to play catch with the infinite. Otherwise, we have to settle for contemplative practices and certain chemicals that give us a taste of the vast, boundlessness from which we came and to which we will all return. But most people sober up the next morning and go to work or the dentist. Life on this plane imposes a great many demands. Because we don't have the luxury of time to consider death as a philosophical construct, our ideas remain under-cooked and tough from the urgency of fear.

People seem to think of themselves as separate units of consciousness and death as something wholly other, a complete departure from life that comes at the end, in the bottom of the ninth. This is the temporal equivalent of flat earth theory which is enjoying a comeback. You just keep going until you fall off the edge. The story I tell myself is different. I imagine one all-encompassing, integrated web of life and death with colors and forms transmuting in and out of kaleidoscopic designs. Strawberries and tigers come and go. Birds, friends, mothers, rock musicians and journalists. I saw this in another dream some years ago. I'm standing in the middle of a field and all the people I have ever known are flowing past me from the right and from the left like a complex traffic pattern. They keep gracefully arriving and departing. They keep sprinkling me with the fairy dust of their natures. I am the hub of this particular wheel, one of an infinite number of wheels. I am also ephemeral, like you, like all the people coming and going in the dream. Like Chuck Berry's last squealing guitar riff. But the reverberations of that insistent sound, the bridge that it builds out of Beethoven and over the troubled water will go on and on. Moonlight Sonata meet Maybelline.

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Monday, March 13, 2017


Almost every day we order pumpkin soup. The soup is such a revelation, we go back for it again and again. Setting down the bowl, aromatic with cinnamon and nutmeg ground fresh from local plants, the young waitress asks the same question another waitress had asked the day before. "Por favor me pregunto, do you think it's expensive here in Costa Rica?" We give a shrugging answer. "Sometimes, but never as expensive as it is at home." She tells us she grew up in Manuel Antonio, but is now one of the many dark-skinned Costa Ricans who can't afford the rent in her own village. Business is good...people speaking English, French, and German are arriving in droves at the hipster restaurant, Café Milagro, hungry for arepas and thirsty for Imperiale. The Servers in black shorts and red t-shirts, the Served in various states of undress. Great Barrington in the jungle.

The tropics are a different state of mind, a different context. Animals and plants in myriad arrangements proliferate as you approach the equator. You can see the density and diversity, the abundance of life forms, when you walk in the rainforest. Packs of monkeys, iguanas and striped frogs, blue morphos and many other butterflies, vines entwining trees interlocking to create the canopy. You can see it in the variety of shells that wash up on the beach. Mother-of-pearl and tangerine and iridescent green. A guide at the reptile preserve where we visit caymans and crocodiles at a safe distance explains. At this latitude, the seasonal variations are not extreme. The temperature only changes a few degrees from month to month. The diurnal rhythms also barely vary, resulting in twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of darkness in every twenty-four under a sun that breathtakingly disappears into the sea every evening at 5:45 like clockwork, as they say. People on vacation briefly detach from their mojitos to watch this spectacle and actually applaud the divine magic trick as if Someone were taking a curtain call. Life seems to flourish when there is enough light and heat to go around, when scarcity isn't the prevailing mindset, unless you're serving tacos or harvesting mangoes. Then, it can be a great effort, a contest, as it is the world over.

Here in Amerika, the struggle for survival - between classes of people, between people and the earth that nourishes them - has now been orchestrated to a crescendo. Everything has been brought to a boil, to mortal combat that comes from the mistaken notion that there isn't enough for everyone. This is a lie, of course. Just look at the fruit hanging from the trees, the fish teeming. It's the lie to end all lies. It keeps us locked inside our own virtual fall-out shelters, unwilling to open the doors of perception to other people, other cultures, other species. Our whole country sometimes feels like a giant kindergarten classroom where for some reason there aren't enough cookies to go around. Someone will be left in tears, empty-handed. No dialysis, no decent schooling, nowhere to go when you're old. The fear of scarcity and the anxiety about diversity travel together. The pressure they exert is stunning.

Why else would Spanish-speaking people be rounded up and herded into vans by ICE agents as if they were less than human? As if they were so profoundly other that their parenthood, their sisterhood had no value? Why else would small children sometimes come home from school to find that their mothers and fathers had been taken away? What's wrong with this picture? Everything. All ways of being that deny abundance promote the distorted notion that there isn't enough, that we are playing a zero-sum game where if you get something it means that I lose something. The rainforest tells a different story. Layers upon layers, generations upon generations of life interweave, giving birth and dying off, providing nourishment for each other, sustaining the whole. Embracing abundance is foundational. It's the first prayer of the day and the first lesson we need to learn if we are to live in gratitude and generosity.

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Monday, February 27, 2017

Rebbe Nachman in Costa Rica

As far as I know, Nachman of Bratzlav did not winter in Costa Rica. The late 18th century hasidic rebbe remained tucked away in Ukraine, warmed by the fires of fervent prayer while the snow piled high on his doorstep. Still, walking on the beach, I thought of his famous words....All the world's a very narrow bridge....The essential thing is not to fear at all. With this in mind, I abandoned all previous identities. I let go of bookworm, acrophobic, fried couch potato...and signed up for a rainforest excursion that featured crossing a series of canopy bridges leading to a waterfall. It was me, Juan the guide, and a young couple from California. I cast myself in the role of the determined older woman who deserved no end of credit for her courage. The hike began with a climb of more than an hour up rough-hewn stone steps interspersed with other steps made out of discarded motorcycle tires filled with dried mud. The journey had the quality of a pilgrimage, something along the lines of Our Lady of Fátima, only upright, without the part where the devotees walk on their knees. The ascent in the sultry jungle heat was definitely a test. It seemed to be designed to wear me down, so that by the time we arrived at the canopy bridges, my resistance was exhausted. There was no turning back.

It's not often that you encounter a spiritual exercise made literally manifest. All the world really is a narrow bridge! I had planned to say the Sh'ma each time I crossed over. This prayer, central to Jewish practice, proclaims the Divine Oneness of all things. It is said every day by observant Jews, but also at the moment of death, to indicate that the essence of the person is about to return to its source, to the All. I imagined that it would balance out the narrow bridge effect, fortifying me with a connection to the sky, the vegetation, the birds, reconfiguring the landscape so the fear couldn't get me. I thought about saying the Sh'ma when I stepped out onto the first span, but I made the mistake of not waiting until Juan got to the other side. The bridge rocked up and down and swung back and forth like a pendulum under his footfall. After that, I forgot about praying and just waited my turn. Everything was still. All I had to do was put one foot in front of the other.

After crossing ten or twelve rope bridges and descending the slope on more improvised steps, we arrived at the promised waterfall. I had already been swimming in the high-saline Pacific for many days, as well as a chlorinated pool in an area that featured a faint septic smell.  Nothing could prepare me for the clarity of the cascading rainforest water, clean like the unmediated joy of a baby's smile. It seemed to be absolutely transparent, with no solid precipitates. It was invitingly cold and regenerating, just the right ritual of purification after the sweaty trials of the day.

Safely back in Manuel Antonio, massaging my feet and considering the spiritual integration of climbing, crossing and immersion, I thought of another of Rebbe Nachman's aphorisms. If you believe breaking is possible, believe fixing is possible. It was noon and I hadn't thought about Betsy DeVos since early in the morning. When the shadow of her malignant presence reappeared in my awareness, I realized that in our current situation, it is no exercise of the imagination to believe that breaking is possible. Everywhere we see the intentional dismantling, the fracturing, of democratic norms and institutions we naively thought were inviolable. Public education, for God's sake! Once it was pretty good, then it became pretty bad. Now it's in danger of falling victim to the wrecking ball....Welcoming immigrants! As recently as 2012, I cried at a naturalization ceremony at the Rockwell Museum when 22 grateful new Americans took an oath of allegiance to our country. Now immigrants are reviled.

It's a stretch in this environment to believe that fixing is possible. In order to get to that place, we will have to exercise our capacity for vision. There will be a long climb over rocky and unfamiliar territory. We may be called upon to put one foot in front of the other and step out onto a narrow bridge that doesn't feel entirely safe and then another bridge and another. Like the mystery of childbirth, getting from breaking to fixing will require faith, endurance and hard labor. We will have to stick together, hold on to the redemptive image of the waterfall and wear good shoes. The essential thing is not to fear.

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