Blue Grass

bluegrass

We were at a blue grass concert the other night in an outdoor venue. It was one of those Western North Carolina evenings with thunderstorms popping up and dissipating as the night air began to cool everything down. The Steep Canyon Rangers were playing with a full orchestra behind them, great evening, great music.

The fireflies were out, hovering two rows in front of me. I first thought it was a floater. (An age related change in your eyes that causes shadows that glide in front of your vision.) I only have one. (So far, my Ophthalmologists tells me.) At first I saw it maneuvering in and out of my vision constantly. But like almost everything, you get used to it. (Except of course now as I think and write about it.)

They flashed independent of the music. They created sparks of light, softly and chaotically announcing there was more there than there was there. It was the evening after the Supreme Court announced that the administration’s travel ban on Muslims was constitutional. The banjo is quarreling with the violin. Their dueling creates a vibrant sense of contentious harmony. It is wondrous; it is beautiful. More fireflies find their way into my field of vision. I feel they are speaking a truth to me about my country and its future and I am concerned.

It isn’t that I disagree with every policy. It is that I hate the triumphalism and the language and the promises that all of this is going to solve all our problems. Keep them out; Build a Wall; Ship them back immediately – no recourse to judges or courts. We don’t have enough judges anyway: Where will we get them, from the barbershops?

Which brings me back to harmony. The mandolin and the bass each sing their own variations of the melody. But there is one song; there is one vision; there is one united presentation. And the differences between them are celebratory. You can feel the strength that is building as they each tell their own story and interpret the anthem in their own unique way. I don’t get that with this government. I don’t sense that from the way our leaders situate their personal beliefs and/or their political positions. It is as if everyone is playing his or her own song and no one is looking out for the band.

The fireflies are still doing their thing. I’m a symbolic thinker. Are they going on or are they flickering off? And what about the lamp beside the golden door? Perilous times.

 

 

 

 

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Shame

fence immigration

I wish I had a solution. I wish I could speak with authority about the subject. I wish I felt more confident about writing this blog on immigration and the current policies of the Administration. But I don’t (have a solution) and I’m not (confident).

This is what I know. Something is wrong – radically wrong, from the inside and the outside. Tearing children away from their parents as families cross our southern border asking for asylum is cruel and unusual punishment to me. I wonder what is happening on our northern borders? I don’t read of similar policies in airports on either coast. How much of this is an extension of selective immigration from what are perceived as national population pools that will benefit a narrow America First agenda fueled by politicians who quote the Bible?

I am at a loss to understand how this Administration lives with itself. Yes we need to have a coherent and comprehensive immigration policy. Yes we need to have border security. Yes we need to stop the flow of drug, human, and whatever else traffic into our country. AND Y ES we need to live up to basic human values of caring, of love, or compassion, of acceptance. There are lots of verses in the Bible. I’m not averse to quoting them myself. But lets be honest. You can probably find one that fits whatever political mood or flavor you are trying to promote. You can definitely find stories and verses that need a lot of contextualization and interpretation and taking them on face value raises more questions than answers. But in my mind the overarching sense the Bible imparts (both Hebrew and Christian) is caring for the downtrodden, compassion for the stranger, justice for the widow, love and kindness for the orphan, looking forward to a world redeemed, participating in the work of salvation, finding a place in your heart for those on the margins.

And I could go on. What is mind blowing to me is that instead of trying to solve this problem, the leadership we elected is playing a blame game. (At least today.) It’s the previous presidents’ fault. It’s the legislation enacted by the Democrats. It’s sad and it’s shameful. That’s what it is. Even his wife is embarrassed. Fix it. Separating families, children to the right, adults to the left isn’t making America great again. It’s making America complicit. It’s making America callous. It’s making America cruel. If you are like me you feel powerless. It is all too complicated. Sometimes you don’t have to consider all the intricacies of every situation. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut feelings: Shame.

But don’t stop there – call congress; connect with your representatives and senators; vote, vote vote.

 

 

Garage Talk

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I don’t know if I can do justice to this conversation. It happened yesterday in my garage. Our remote control openers and the secondary opener affixed to the wall near the laundry room door were not working. I called Lift Master and pushed the purple button to reset the codes but nothing happened. I was told I needed a new logic board and I heard “time to call for service.”

Andy came. He asked me the embarrassing question first: Had I changed the batteries? But it soon became clear that we did indeed need a new board in one of the units and I hung out with him as he was working, always thinking, maybe I can learn how to do this myself. It can’t be a Jewish gene that I am so inept when it comes to fixing things.

So we talked – about how long have we lived here, who built the house, bluegrass music which he played, and the people who control the world. That’s where my antennas went up. We got there through a musician friend of his who is addicted to the news. He listens and gets agitated, listens some more and gets aggravated until he is almost apoplectic and beside himself. “It is no good” Andy said, “and a waste of time. Does he think that we are in control of the world; does he think that the politicians or even the President has real power? It is those above; it is that small cabal (my word not his) of people who run everything. We are just puppets in a Punch and Judy show.”

By this time I just wanted the garage door fixed. But I probed. “Who are these people?” I don’t know what I would have done if I heard the words Elders of Zion or some such synonym. I did get – “well maybe the Free Masons” with a quick disclaimer of “well we really don’t know. They want it that way. And anyway, how long do you think we have on this earth? “ As a species or individual?”, I asked. “Ninety years, if you are lucky, a drop in time. Live it well and live it now. It doesn’t do any good to worry about what you can’t fix.”

I could’ve, should’ve countered his premise. But the garage doors were going up and down and every button was doings its appointed task. I think we all have an appointed task. I think we all have roles to play and a world to change for the better. I think it is “ok” to be aggravated by the news as long as you do something about it. I think we can’t just sit back and let the unknown powers that are or are not run the world. I think we have an obligation to move the needle even ever so slightly but move it nonetheless. I think living it well and living it now is caring about tomorrow.

Maybe Andy is happier; maybe I should have tried to change his perspective and maybe it is just ok that my garage doors open.

 

White Gloves

Memorial Day 2018It is a good day to try to write. Morning has broken but the skies show no sign that there is sun lurking behind the cloud cover. The clay tiles of the roofs across the street are outlined against a grey that is of no particular color or interest. Everything is still on this Memorial Day 2018, except my memories.

Maybe the article in my “inbox” from The Forward propels them this morning. Reposted from Veterans Day two years ago, “Profiles Of Our Fallen” obits 37 Jewish men and women who died defending you and me over these past ten years. The image accompanying it is of hands gloved in white folding an American flag horizontally cuffed with the blue sleeves of a US Army dress uniform. I know those sleeves with the gold braid. They take me back to my responsibility as the Jewish Chaplain of Arlington National Cemetery when I served full time duty at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. That was the year before I was posted to Vietnam.

It was a strange and disturbing time. The beauty of a military funeral with its elaborate rites and rules played out against the rolling green and white of Arlington. So many stone markers standing at attention quietly witnessing the tragic sacrifice of what could have been and of what we will never know. I played my part, proudly. It was the least I could do for those who will never know another tomorrow. I played my part, religiously, not one hundred percent sure, event then, what the ancient words consummated. This I knew. If almost nothing could heal, at least these Hebrew formulas bound memory to eternity and offered a glimpse of a blue sky that seemingly goes on forever.

They weren’t all killed in action; they weren’t all too young to die. Some were career officers who died what we call a natural death. But too many were. Standing at an open grave you know many things. You know this could be you. You know this will be you. You know that for all we think we are, we are but dust and ashes, grass that grows and withers, a faded flower in the wind.

We owe so much to all of them. There is almost nothing we can give them to repay the debt, except perhaps: A life well lived, a life of caring; a life infused with giving; a life of service to the causes they died for. I ask one minute of your time today or tomorrow or whenever you read this. No matter what your challenges, you are blessed to be living in a country that still cherishes your right to choose how you will live your days. Think of them and remember.

In my head, the bugler is playing taps. They died for our freedom. It is that simple and that complicated. We owe them this country.

 

 

There Will Be Light

IMG_0344I wake early in the morning. It is such a struggle to stay asleep. I feel like I am wrestling with the mattress and the sheets, as the pillow becomes my nemesis. And I say, enough. I know the light is coming through the shutters soon; the sun will find its way back; dawn will softly, slowly seep into the space where darkness reigned and the world was so seriously silent.

It’s the radiation and the side affects. I’m not complaining, although I’m not sure why not. I am in the home stretch, over the hump, almost free and clear, all those platitudes you think and say which have both elements of truth and falsehood embedded within. Writing this, I only have 3 more. Before I finish this, 2. I’m happy and thrilled the skies have not fallen on me (poo, poo, poo). I cant help but adding “yet” a product of my Jewish sense of foreboding.

People want to know the details of the side effects. I always hesitate cause it feels so personal and embarrassing to talk about urinary urgency, frequency, control. It’s not so problematic to share energy levels and tiredness. I think about one of my favorite science fiction series: Dune. I don’t remember it being in the movie version but there is definitely a thread in the novels about how over the centuries and millennia the habitants of Dune collected their urine and deposited them in vast caverns of this desert planet eventually transforming the wasteland where they had to live under ground to a paradise of green meadows and blue lakes. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

Gently flowing streams, gardens of blossoms and purpose, out of the darkness and into the light. That’s my image for today. And it’s not just the metaphor I hang onto for myself. It is a faith statement about human progress and the slow and uneven climb towards a utopian future. I believe in that. I believe that the tomorrows and the tomorrows after that will be brighter, safer, healthier, fairer than either yesterday or today.

Not without struggle; not without pain; not without effort; not without you and me doing our part to make it happen. So I will lay myself down on that sheet covered table and let the clicks and buzzing of the Linear Accelerator work. It is promising me sunshine and restful nights. It is a miracle of science and thank God for that.

The Challenge of Easter & Passover

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Passover and Easter kiss each other this weekend. Friday is Good Friday and as the sun sets Jews begin to ask the questions of the first Seder. Easter is Sunday and the second day of Passover. I like it. I like when the calendar underscores that our spiritual traditions have the potential to unite us and join us in common cause even if we walk the path with different shoes, clothes, rituals and images. It may be “chutzpah” for me to assume your image but go with me for a minute.

For Jews it is the broken piece of Matzah held high for all to see; for Christians it is the broken body of Jesus on the cross. For Jews it is the hidden piece of Matzah to be found and redeemed before we can continue on our freedom journey; for Christians the body of Jesus hidden in a cave and found risen promising new life. Both are promises; both are challenges; both are opportunities; both revolutionary. Last Friday night Rabbi Olshein quoted the powerful and poetic teaching of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel underscoring this concept: “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood.”

For me, this year especially both holidays share a challenge. Coming one week after the Student Marches our ritual celebrations ask us to remove the symbols from their ancient husks masquerading as holy and ask our own four questions or five or three, whatever number resonates with you. I will ask:

Why is this moment on the American political scene different from other moments? Because the children are leading us, because the future is calling us, because we now know it is time to stand up.

What is so bitter to us and so salty we cannot enjoy our meal as usual? 17 deaths are bitter to us; our tears are salty as they run down our cheeks. 17 deaths weigh heavy on us, not to minimize the deaths of Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook, do I have to go on? Do I have to keep on counting? Because it is not enough to dip our parsley in salt water and think we have fulfilled the commandment. The commandment calls on us to exercise our freedom, to act on our commitments, not to let the status quo of a government enslaved to the gun lobbies to continue to sacrifice our children on the altars of their apathy.

What is enough? Enough passivity, it is not enough to think the other “guy” can do it. Enough of lethargy, it is up to you and me to make the change; it is up to you and me to leave Egypt and walk across the sand and the sea to a safer and fairer tomorrow. When you break the middle Matzah – listen to the sound. You have to listen hard it is faint but telling. It echoes that it is time to put our society back together. It is time to make government align with the needs of its citizens. “Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need celebrate America with us.

In the Christian metaphor: Jesus has risen. Let us rise; let us break the shackles of indifference. Jesus has risen. Let us rise; let us hold the cup of Elijah high promising a new dawn and a new day for all of us. Let us rise; let us tear down the pyramids and build a just and uniquely American society for all to see.

Happy Holy Days everyone, may they bring us closer to a land that fulfills its promise to a time when the Messiah lives next door.

 

 

 

A Gift Numbered Five

MayaFriday I finished radiation treatment #19 in my journey towards 40. I am at the center the same time every morning five days a week. The valet guy doesn’t even give me a ticket any more. He always greets me warmly. The other day his smile was bigger than I ever saw. The person who had just left had told him: “You always have a good word for me and this is just because I can and just because I want to.” And he was handed three one hundred dollar bills. (That put my bagels and donuts in place!)

This is what my daily radiation ritual is teaching me. This is what the valet guy and I learned. Life is filled with surprises. Some are good, some are challenging, some manageable, some frightening. But everything has consequences. Even that which is designed to heal and cure has the potential to injure and disable. One of the hardest parts is feeling you have no control and you don’t choose what you have been given or what just comes your way. I’ve been good so far – minor stuff and annoyances – but all within the range of “this should be the worst”.  So I am grateful but also a little anxious about 20 -40. I keep telling myself not to let my imaginary concerns about tomorrow disturb the blessings of today. I have learned it’s about feeling the sun on your face, smiling back and sharing in the joy of living through every minute.

This weekend our youngest granddaughter became a Bat Mitzvah. She was called to the Torah and we celebrated her growth, her accomplishments, her determination, her spirit, her smile, her love of life and her family’s love of her. I don’t think any of us could have been prouder. I started this blog off saying 19 out of 40. But the most important number is 5 out of 5. Maya is the fifth of our five grandchildren who have blessed us by their commitment to Jewish life. And they were all here this weekend. So if you want to talk about what I am learning – savor every blessing, big and small, whether they come in batches or one by one, or five at a time, because the challenges just keep rolling in whether you want them or not.

This is what I really know. Life isn’t meant to be easy. Life is meant to be purposeful and sacred. And the hard, the scary, the challenging intensify what really is important. This weekend was a gift: family, food, friends, sunshine, laughter, love. It was one of those mountain moments on the journey.

Maya, Maya, Maya – we love you.