Executive Director’s Blog – Notes from Lisa’s Desk
As I walk through New York City these days, particularly in the evening, I am conscious of a desire to hold on to this magical time of year and not to let it pass. The city is filled with lights and decorations and people in beautiful clothes; the sidewalks are crowded with Christmas trees and holiday shoppers. It seems like everyone is heading out to a party and the darkness is warm and cozy, not cold and lonely. Wouldn’t it be great if it were like this all winter long until spring comes? And come to think of it, why stop just because the days are longer?
One could argue that the story of Chanukah is also about holding on. The second blessing reminds us of the miracles that were performed on our behalf at this time of year – this very same time of year. Now it’s just like it was back then! We want to remember the miracles and the deliverances, to keep the power of memory, to bring back traditions of our real or mythical ancestors – the specific latke technique, the Yiddish or Ladino melodies.
How profound, however, that the candles we use to make known the miracles are small, thin candles that go out in less than an hour! They are not like Shabbat candles that last through dinner or like yahrzeit candles that burn 24 hours. In fact, one of my family’s traditions is betting on which candle will go out last and watching intently as the flames flare and gutter and go out, releasing its twisting ribbon of smoke.
We know that everything passes – the candles, the holidays, the winter, life itself. Even the miracles come and go; the siddur reminds us that new miracles are constantly with us, morning, noon and night. The ephemeral candles remind us that light is beautiful, even when it’s fleeting – perhaps even because it is fleeting. They remind us that joy and gratitude in and of themselves are miracles of the spirit.
Wishing you and your loved ones a Chanukah filled with light and all kinds of miracles.
I find it so difficult to get up in the dark morning as we head into winter. And of course, although going back to standard time gives me a temporary reprieve, soon it will just be a fact of winter: dark mornings and dark evenings.
Some people experience a depression of spirit in the face of so much darkness. For me, the most difficult part is the accompanying sleepiness. I must have a very strong circadian clock in my system! My instinct is to hibernate; I want to curl up in the blankets and dive back into dreaming.
I have learned a lot about sleepiness from my practice. I can’t tell you how many times I have felt sleepiness overwhelm me in the midst of meditating or learning or praying. At first, I would berate myself, but over time, I have learned that sleepiness requires subtle discernment. Sometimes sleepiness is just a fact. I am tired right now. That is part of the human condition. I can bring a sense of curiosity to it: What IS this sleepiness? I notice the heaviness in my body, the fuzziness in my thinking, the dream states as they arise. My awareness ebbs and flows and I notice that too.
But sometimes the sleepiness is something I can address as a hindrance that can be overcome. The truth is I don’t want to allow sleepiness to take over my practice. I have my bag of tricks to help me. I begin counting, paying careful attention to the beginning and end of each breath. Or in a word-based practice I seek one word in each line that might hold special meaning or intention. These things can wake me up.
Ultimately, waking up is the purpose of all this practice. Sleepiness is not confined to the winter months. As the shofar blasts from last month’s holidays remind us, it is so easy to lead sleepy lives. Cultivating curiosity and the ability to remember to wake up can help us shake off the heavy slumber and prepare us to face the darkness – and the light – more wide awake and more alive.
As Psalm 94 so succinctly puts it: God knows that human plans are futile. Instead of spending this week learning with Art Green and other teachers on retreat, we came back home to witness the overwhelming destruction swept in by the hurricane. I and the other Institute staff were very, very lucky; we experienced very little of the direct fury of the storm and a great deal of concern and love from so many people from all over the world.
In the midst of the tremendous losses all around, I am noticing the role of waiting. Beginning on Shabbat afternoon before the storm, there was a eerie stillness all around. The air felt heavy, foreboding. I came back to the city on Sunday and had to stock up on food and emergency supplies since I had not expected to be home. The line at the grocery store snaked all around the entire building. The anxiety was palpable, even though it was more than 24 hours before the storm arrived. The stores closed and we all went home to wait.
And now that the winds and rain have stopped, we are still waiting: waiting for the trains to start again, waiting for the roads to be cleared and for airports, schools and businesses to reopen. Some are waiting for electricity and water to be restored and to get back into their damaged homes. There will be waiting for insurance companies and rebuilding.
And there will be waiting for the terrible pain of grief to subside. This must be the most difficult waiting of all.
In his book, “Sailing Home,” Norman Fischer writes, “We all know a crisis when we see it. … But after the dust of frenzied activity settles, and we are finally able to feel our way into what we have been through, we realize just how unhinged we have become. We can’t go back to business as usual, for we sense that we no longer fit into our former life. We need a new life. But we don’t know how to find it. There is nothing else to do right now but stay where we are and wait.”
Sometimes waiting is not simply passivity or wasting time. Sometimes, even though it is frustrating, painful or anxiety-producing, it just takes time to let the things we have experienced work their way through our souls. Waiting too can be holy work.
Of course, there are things to do while we are waiting: reaching out to loved ones and neighbors, contributing money and effort towards taking care of those in need and rebuilding, not to mention voting next week and thinking again about climate change. But those are all human plans. We have an opportunity to remember that sometimes the deep transformation can begin to emerge not from impulsive action, but rather precisely from the slow, difficult work of waiting.
Elul is coming to an end with the grandeur and mystery of the High Holy Days about to begin. In New York the weather shifted this week too; the sun is still warm, but the wind is fresh and even chilly, signs of colder days approaching.
Last week I mentioned the new building that is being constructed outside our windows. I have been watching the workers, climbing, moving and hammering, seemingly without a care, on the drop-off edge of a concrete slab 20 stories above the street. As I write, one man in a neon green vest is clinging to the outside of a plywood ladder, nothing underneath him but a net two floors below, whacking at something with a tool. He is clipped on with a harness, but from here, it looks pretty terrifying.
Fear. I remember studying once with Gabe Goldman, a naturalist and Jewish educator. He told of having led a hands-on workshop about how to handle very, very sharp knives, so sharp that you wouldn’t even feel it if you cut off your finger. He taught his students how to hold them, work with them, and respect them. He then followed the workshop with a lesson about yirah, “fearing” or being “in awe” of God.
After the sweet, mellow days of Elul, these High Holy Days, Days of Awe, give us a glimpse of something stronger and a little more fearful. They encourage us to consider the mystery of the unknown days ahead, days that may hold great blessings and great suffering, and probably a little of both. They give us the forum to come face to face with our limits and the reality of our mortality. They challenge us to confront our own vulnerability in the face of the colder days that are coming.
But, like the men outside who are building a new building, a structure that will provide shelter for hundreds of people and stand witness to their labors for many years, the High Holy Days also give us the opportunity to take satisfaction in the work of our hands and to find joy in living this life, in company with fellow travelers, step by dangerous step, even when we feel we are dangling over the abyss.
May 5773 bring all of us more blessings than suffering, more expansiveness than constriction, more peace than conflict, and more joy than sorrow. May our practices give us tools for wisdom, gratitude and compassion. And may we find good companions (or a good Companion) for the journey who can support us with courage, love and guidance.