They Call It Savoring

I love changing the desktop background on my laptop. Every few weeks I right click on the screen and look for a new photo that matches my mood. They almost always come from the arsenal of digital photos that live in my cloud. This is a Baobab tree in South Africa that can’t get enough of the world it inhabits. I didn’t know the concept when I took this picture, but it would definitely live in my gratitude album today.

It’s really a simple idea that I read about in a Times ten-day challenge to learn new habits for mindful living. It is day eight. Some of the other techniques are equally fascinating like the five-finger breathing meditation and the exercise snack. (Instead of reaching for a cookie, reach for the wall and do a set of wall push-ups.) Then have the cookie, just kidding (about the cookie not the push-up).

Here’s my take on gratitude photography and why it works for me. I carry my phone with me almost everywhere I go – my note-taker, calendar, teacher, shopping cart, and a window to the world. But for this: my easy access camera.

Gratitude photography suggests that we notice the things and people around us we often take for granted. Gratitude photography invites you to be surprised by the world you live in. I’ve begun doing it on my morning walk. The very act of observing the mushroom growing out of the gravel; the fire hydrant on the edge of the lake; the minivan on its final journey that gave 16 years of service; the smile on someone you love; the green that is like no other green of the moss after it rains.

They call it savoring; making an effort to notice our surroundings and appreciate the people, things and relationships that make us happy. I don’t know if it is a game changer but according to the article scientists say that savoring exercises “can lead to meaningful gains in happiness and well-being.” I’ll go with that. So, I am trying it. One a day if possible. I don’t think it has to be the most well crafted photograph. It invites you to notice, appreciate and be grateful. It is one of the pathways to joy. Here’s two.

Gratitude Photos

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What You Can Learn When You Don’t Know Your Learning

Here’s one of my secret passions. I love America’s Got Talent. I’m not as faithful a fan as I could be. I usually watch it on Facebook. Someone posts a contestant’s presentation and I click the enlarge button and turn on my sound. After email and the newspaper (along with the mini crossword) FB is my third activity of the day. Not counting coffee.

This morning a woman who goes by the name “Nightbirde” inspired me. She sang a song she wrote called “Its OK”. It is touching and soft and gentle and affirming. Especially when you know the back story of her ongoing struggle with Cancer. While talking with Simon (you gotta know who Simon is) she just throws out this simple, profound and challenging line. “You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore to decide to be happy.”

“Wow”, Simon says on AGT. Wow I echo from behind my screen. I don’t know how she (Jane) knows this or heard this but there is so much to unpack in these amazing words that it doesn’t matter what their origin. I am tempted to parse it phrase by phrase, like Rashi does Torah. But you get it. There is less in our control than we like; there is more in our control than we can imagine.

Maybe it isn’t true in all stages of life, but it is now. Don’t wait until life isn’t hard. Just living is hard; just staying healthy is hard. Just accepting that this is what’s real and this is what I have right now is hard. And I can lift it up or let it pull me down but sometimes, too many times, I can’t change it.

Don’t wait to decide to be happy. To decide to be happy. Whether it’s a struggle or comes easily and naturally happiness is a decision. Not always a simple one and sometimes we need help to make that decision. Help like love. Help like people we care about and who care about us. Help that comes in the form of chemicals. Help that comes in dreams or prayers or words like God, family, friends, tomorrow, sunshine. Even golf and garden.

It’s been a long time since I posted anything on this blog.I often think about why. And sometimes I start to write but a voice inside says it isn’t quite good enough. I guess Nightbirde spoke to me in ways that transcended the RAM and CPU that make up the guts of this machine on my lap. Don’t wait. So It’s not perfect.

It Is Fragile

My tears started falling around 11:00 this morning. I was surprised at how touched I was by the pomp and ceremony surrounding the transition of political power in our country. The visuals were stunning. As soon as the clouds parted the Capitol Dome could not have been whiter against the blue sky. The flags unfurling and fluttering were pervasive. It was a proud moment for an American patriot.

Actually, the tears began last night when at sundown 400 lights illuminated the Reflecting Pool between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Each light represented 1000 American deaths to Covid-19 as of that moment. President Biden and Vice-President Harris both spoke simply and directly. More Americans have died from the Pandemic than American soldiers died in WW II. No one was being blamed; no truth was being withheld. It was simply and profoundly a moment to allow us to do what we should be doing – recognize the great sadness our nation has been suppressing – pay tribute to the lives that are no more.

I am so filled with hope. I am not naïve. I am sure there will be more political wrangling and machinations. It will not be easy (in the word of Joe Biden’s speech) “to end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural vs. urban, conservative vs. liberal.” But I believe “we can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts If we show a little tolerance and humility …”.

Those words are key for me. Tolerance implies that I am willing to consider other points of view. Humility is more complicated. For me it is about accepting both intellectually and emotionally that I am not the center of the universe. That there is a place for all of us in this wide wide land we call home.

But as the day ends and the smoke of the fireworks settles this I know. It is fragile. It is beautiful and it is hopeful, but it is tenuous. Quoting the Psalmist, President Biden reminded us: “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”  Today was a time for joy. We have set our tears aside for the moment. Tomorrow for sure will not have the magic of today. But this I hold on to. It is a faith statement. We can be decent again. We can solve problems again. We can be the dream we call America and wipe the tears of a country climbing out of mourning.

And Then There Was Darkness

(I wrote this yesterday as a meditation before lighting the lights of Shabbat and I read it at Temple Israel last night. Eileen said I should post it on my blog. It is always good to listen to Eileen.)

And then there was darkness. Banners waving; Flags burnished; T-shirts announcing they came to destroy our democracy.

They came on foot and they came with the urging of a man we are ashamed to call President. They came marching and chanting and they mounted the steps and they climbed the walls and they breached the fence. The barricades of decency destroyed.

And then there was darkness. The domed sanctuary to our freedom defiled by their anger, their hate, their venom poisoning the electoral process. Their truth the lies of a political expediency.

They came marching and chanting. And they broke the police lines and they shattered the sacred halls of liberty and they leered into their cameras calling themselves Patriots.

And then there was darkness.. And slowly reinforcements arrived. And belatedly the National Guard was called up. And step by step and bit by bit they were gently

Too gently

Pushed back and the mob dissipated into the night where they find a comfortable refuge. And the darkness became light. And the House of the People went back to do its work. The darkness became light when in the earliest of hours a glimmer of hope as a new President and Vice President were certified, announced, anointed.

Liberty was proclaimed throughout this broken land and we began to breathe again. Slowly and filled with worry but breathing. Astonished and full of questions and concerns, but breathing, heartbroken and might I say: angry.

But the darkness became light.

With this as our prayer, with this as our hope this glimmer, this spark, this turn toward the moon and the sun let us say these familiar words finding in them comfort and strength.

Let us kindle these holy flames and with them let us welcome Shabbat.

May its radiance illumine our hearts.

Make A Right At The Soldier

They said to make a right at the soldier. We were in line to get Covid tests at the Ballpark in West Palm Beach. We weren’t symptomatic or anything. We were there because our family is all testing so we can hang out together at our home in NC. It was a good thing.

The process was very impressive. We got to the testing site before they opened and joined a line of cars parked on the side of the road waiting for the gates to let us in. It was still dark and all I could see were the red of the  tail lights in front of me. After an hour or less the cars began to inch forward. The sky was brightening and it was then that I saw military personnel in camouflage fatigues making order out of what could have been chaos.

There were hundreds of cars and a multitude of lanes that snaked you around till you got to the tent of swabbing. You showed them your barcode you received when you registered on line and waited for the shielded and gowned technician to collect a sample.

Eileen was the first one to say it. “Can you imagine if this were a food line and we were dependent on the box at the other end? Can you imagine if you weren’t feeling well and fearful of the results?” I felt profoundly that we are both lucky and we are blessed. You can read about the pandemic; you can watch on TV; you can listen to news radio and hear all day about the extent of this national tragedy and shame. But the experience of the line moved me immensely.

How sad that we have come to this and it isn’t even over. I know whom I think history will judge as responsible and I only hope that our President elect can move the needle and respond to the people and listen to the silent falling of their tears.

Meanwhile- thank you to those who put their lives at risk to keep us safe. As for me: FYI –  our rapid test was negative.

The Grass Needs Cutting

This is a story I am not sure I should tell. I have such mixed emotions about it. But it happened and is true and is probably a sense of our country right now and it happened to me this week.

We have a vacation home in Western North Carolina. Along with its beauty and respite comes responsibility and burden. (Burden is probably too heavy a word, but I liked the symmetry of the words.) Background information: Our place is basically in the woods: lots of trees and underbrush and mountain laurel and wild rhododendrons. Not a lot of grass or flower beds or garden but enough that we need someone to care for it especially when we aren’t here. The gardener stopped coming – no formal “quitting” – just doesn’t show up anymore and phone calls do not change the outcome.

We need a new landscape company. This is the story of the search. The Landscaper who came was on time and on the right day and I was immediately impressed. More came after I opened the door to go out and talk with him when he greeted me with “Baruch HaShem” (Blessed be God’s Name) in Hebrew. I figured it was the mezuzah on the doorpost. I said: “You’re kidding me.” To which he responded, “Shalom and ‘Elohim’”. I let that sit and started to talk about bushes and weeds. He asked me if I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I then figured it out and said: “Absolutely not! And we should probably agree to continue with how often does the grass need cutting.” (He belongs to a Messianic Congregation.)

A week later he was back to present me with the details of his proposal. I asked him if he would please put on his mask since we were outside, but kind of getting too close together. He echoed my words from the week before: “Absolutely not. I don’t believe in them. I believe the virus is real, but the media is exaggerating how contagious it is.” I was stunned into silence. Finally, I said – “You need to give me a moment.” My mind went racing. Do I impose my beliefs on him? Is the fact that he has a different (false and dangerous) view of reality my issue? Can’t I just let him cut the ***** grass and call it a day?  I don’t know how long it took me to say the words: “I’m sorry this is a deal breaker and we can’t work together.”

As he left, I noticed the two big Trump bumper stickers on his car. To this moment, I don’t know if I was right. I know the incident plays like a serial in my mind. I know that it is symptomatic of how polarized we are. I know that we need to make this better. I know as a country and community of Americans we need to begin the process of healing. Vote!

And God Wept

The first Presidential Debate is now over, and I hope it is the last. If I were Joe Biden, I would have seriously considered walking off the stage. But that of course has its own dangers and people would spin it as cowardice or lack of gumption. The whole thing was a disgrace and an embarrassment to this country. I wanted someone in the audio booth to shut off their mikes every time they went over their two minutes or every time, they interrupted each other. I especially wanted one mike shut off more than the other.

This morning on one of my list serves, I was recommended to a sermon by Rabbi Ammi Hirsch of the Stephen S Wise Free Synagogue in New York. It was called, “And God Weeps.” He taught a lesson of the dangers inherent in our democracy right now from a Talmudic source which describes God weeping, every day, because people who can do not learn from each other, because people who can’t try and succeed in making Torah (Wisdom) a part of their lives and because of a domineering leader. It is worth watching Rabbi Hirsch though spoiler alert it is 40 plus minutes long. (Even a little bit long for me.)

Because people do not learn: I am saddened that we as a nation has succumbed to this level of baseness. Our current President has no regard for the truth or for the Torah of science.  A domineering leader: Our current President cares only for himself and will do/say anything to push his own agenda of self-aggrandizement. And that includes catering to the racists and anti-Semites on the far right and don’t be so smug to think that there are no racists on the left. They just use different language: The language of BDS and anti-Zionism.

On Yom Kippur morning, Rabbi Salkin reminded me and and all of us that In Jewish tradition, the Talmud records that after a heated debate between two different Rabbis, God came down and declared: Elu V’Elu – both these opinions are the words of the Living God. I am not sure God would have said that after last night. But this is what Elu V’Elu means to me: Maybe God lives in our willingness to listen to each other. Maybe God lives in our willingness to consider the truths we consider inviolate from a different point of view. Maybe God lives in our ability to see the Divine presence even in those with whom we disagree. God did not live in last night’s debate.

Last night God wept.

Memories & A Little Light

The Yahrzeit candle is burning on the kitchen counter. It is the only light in the room on this pre-dawn morning. I remember when these candles of memory were taller and wider, and my Aunt Molly used to save them for drinking glasses. Aunt Molly was the queen of candles. She experienced many losses in her life and on Yom Kippur there was a tray full of these flickering lights, each one lit with a tear and a sigh. Her greatest loss was her daughter Barbara, who according to family legend, died on the operating table having an appendectomy when the hospital lost power during the 1938 Hurricane. (Hurricanes weren’t named until 1950).

We don’t grieve like Aunt Molly anymore. (Although in the Australian series, “A Place To Call Home”, that Eileen and I are addicted to Sarah lies down on her husband’s grave to talk and connect with him.) As a kid, visiting my grandparents’ graves with Aunt Molly I remember how they used to have to hold her up as she went to throw herself down wailing, “my Barbara”.

Morning has broken (I know: “like the first morning…”). The candle on the counter still flickers and the memory of my mother-in-law hovers to be inscribed and internalized in our goings and comings. Bea wasn’t a great sleeper, and neither was I. After we met at the refrigerator door in the middle of the night, she learned to wear a bathrobe as she came from her bedroom. We got to know each other there: she with her cornflakes, me with whatever I could scrounge. She was her Hebrew name: B’rachah – meaning blessing.

I am not sure what I think these compact candles do. The author of Proverbs said that “the human soul is the light (Hebrew: candle) of God.” I don’t know what that meant back then. I am not sure I know what it means now. I do know that last night when we lit the candle, Eileen brought her mother up to date with the goings and comings of the family.  She told her “I wish you could have lived longer to see the beauty and the joy of the last 30 years.” There is nothing terribly rational about that but there is everything that is true on so many levels. Life is about memories and we strive to make them sweet and meaningful. It’s been a tough few months to do that. And so my candle whispers:

To making new and better memories in the New Year: Shana Tovah

“Morning has broken

Like the first morning;

Blackbird has spoken

Like the first bird.

Praise for the singing

Praise for the morning

Praise for them springing fresh from the word.”

(Cat Stevens)

To making new memories in the New Year: Shana Tovah

On Hold

What do you do when you are on hold? You listen to horrible music interrupted by an announcement that informs you: “All specialists are assisting other customers. Please hold for the next available specialist.” At the beginning of this process I was informed that the average wait time is 50 minutes or more. Thanks Chase. At least Apple lets you choose the music you would like to listen to. (or none – even better.) Too bad Chase’s website doesn’t address my issue.

This is what I am doing on hold. I decided I needed some fortitude so I picked out a nice California Red.(Now this is going to sound like I know what I am talking about.) Nothing too fancy medium of body, not too acidic, but one that will hold up to this drivel I am listening to. You know what I like about the wine I am savoring? It has this beautiful almost pink color that compliments the dark red at the edge of the glass. I would take a picture of it, but I am afraid I will lose my place in line.

This is what I am doing on hold. I am resolving to go back to the poetry course with Billy Collins  I bought from Masterclass. I left off during our shut down and I am going to see if I can motivate myself to continue and maybe even complete it. In chapter three he teaches, “There is no chronology involved in poetry. You can go anywhere. You can fly.” I like that. It reminds me of what happens when I try to meditate. My mind is like a poem. It goes anywhere and everywhere and if I am successful slips away to a place deep inside.

This is what I am doing on hold. I am thinking about you and this unplugged blog. Of course, it really isn’t unplugged. It is connected in a hopefully important sense to the wires in my brain and being and to the question of purpose and meaning. I often ask myself: Who am I writing this blog for and why?  I always find it interesting that the more “political” I get the more comments I receive. So, I find myself torn between moments like this where we share a slice of life together and causes to which I am committed. But ultimately I’ve decided: this is all about the connections we forge with ourselves and each other. Isn’t everything?

Lessons from a Waning Moon

I woke early this morning, technically it was morning but my body and the world outside my windows said it was still the middle of the night. I did everything I knew how to fall back asleep, but nothing worked and here I am in the office reading the newest Dan Silva book, “The Order”. It is too good to help me fall back asleep as Gabriel Allon eats in wonderful cafes and hunts down those who would destroy the world we know.

And then it was dawn. I didn’t even know it till I looked up and saw what you see. There is the tiniest sliver of an ancient moon peeking through the night sky. I said, OMG, it must be Elul – the month of preparation before the New Year. But I was wrong. It wasn’t the beginning of a new month, but the end of an old. The Hebrew month of Av was waning, and the moon was kissing it goodbye.

I know that reads like poor poetry and I apologize. But I need to somehow make sense of what is happening to us all. When Elul comes in just a few days, I know that nothing will change. We will still be social distancing; we will still be counting our afflicted and our dead. The pandemic of 2020 will still be with us. We will still be struggling with how we stay safe; how we keep our family safe. And too many of us: how can I pay the rent; buy food; get a paycheck.

And our elected representatives play Nero’s violin. And Rome burns. And we are victims of an almost criminal neglect for our county’s safety and well-being. And I despair. Then I remember Elul is coming. There will be a new moon. There will be a glimmer of hope. It’s not just the turning of the earth and night becoming day. I am genuinely psyched by the addition of Harris to the Biden ticket. Naïve? Perhaps. But my Judaism teaches change can happen. We are obligated to make it happen and we need to know it begins with us.

The silver of the moon is gone, caught by the rising sun. But it will return along with sanity at least I hope it so; I pray it so.