22 December 2009

Light in the Darkness

I had this exceptionally strong feeling the other day that I might die--not really, but for sure an enduring sense of mortality that hung with me all day long. And why not?

Three times a day I open my siddur to read the words, ברוך אתה ה מחיה המתים--Blessed Are You Eternal One, Who Gives Life to the Dead. Each day we are living and dying, or, more accurately, each day we die and each day we are brought back to life, re-animated, as it were, by our relationship with the Divine, our cognizance of the Source of Life.

So why was that day different from any other day? I'm not sure. It may have had to do with the fiction of Hanukah's "increasing" light: the more we lit the menorah, the more it was apparent that we were "whistling" in the dark. Naming the painful truth sometimes alleviates its suffering reality.

It's often when in such mournful states that my mind cleaves to the memory of mentors. I re-imagine lessons learned; I remember guidance given, dispensed advice, and I embrace the inevitable decline with a reviving hope for what will endure: ברוך אתה ה מחיה המתים--Blessed Are You Eternal One, Who Gives Life to the Dead.

Over the next few days, I'd like to reflect on the figures who were critical to my own growth and development. In part as a testimony to the kindness they showed me in their teaching and also because as I've found in my life, when death rears its head and wants to speak, one should be prepared with the best acquired wisdom one has.

Reader, be not alarmed. Thank God I'm healthy. But there are times in our lives when death speaks. In Job for instance, the Satan is less the cartoonish, evil figure of popular imagination and more, as he's sometimes translated, the Adversary, posing another perspective on things, as it were. Throughout the rabbinic literature, there are angels that seek to subvert the hopeful process of living, wreak havoc, even attempt to take lives--and the challenge of the imagination is to meet those forces head on, prepared, brave and strong. This takes discipline. And the spiritual hero is the one who prevails in such encounters.

Two nights ago I couldn't sleep and so around 4.15 am got out of bed, read for a while, then flipped open the laptop to see what was what. I got a message from a friend who said her grandfather was dying and so in the course of the next hour, we chatted and then began to put together a eulogy for her to deliver. Not the most *normal* conversation for 5 in the morning--but in the moment I felt no hesitation and only the need to share a perspective on facing the inevitable, God willing, can be helpful at the right time.

Later in the morning, I got a copy of the eulogy in an email and it was beautiful--the joint product of our pre-sunrise efforts. I saw my words, her words and truthfully, words that belonged to neither of us but useful words, eternal words, words that say there is much more to life beyond us--before us and after us--and therefore words of enormous power and comfort.

That happened because of readiness. And the first person who taught me readiness was my Little League baseball coach. For three seasons I learned the game of baseball from him but equally important I learned the skill of readiness, which I am going to separate, for sake of argument from preparation. Whereas readiness requires a kind of hyper-awareness--taking the proper stance, eyes forward, ready for any kind of ball at any speed to come your way--preparation is the slow food corollary, laying the groundwork behind the scenes that no one really sees. (I remain challenged in that department.)

But I'm quick on my feet. Ready.

John Dower, a professor of Japanese history in Madison
(who's now at MIT) once told a story about a Zen master who passed his test to be a Zen master when he walked into a room and as he opened the door, reached up and grabbed a rock from the lintel that had been balanced there to fall on his head when the door opened. He *saw* the rock from the other side of the door, anticipated its presence, and before it even teetered, gently moved it out of the way.

I used to review that story in my mind, over and over, thinking, that's a great way to live life. And then one day while watching a baseball game, saw a third baseman seamlessly pick up a ball and throw out a runner by a step with virtually no effort at all. Except there was great effort. And it was evident through the principal of readiness.

Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto in his Paths of the Upright (1740) refers to readiness as *watchfulness." הזהירות. In contemporary Hebrew one might say, "Be careful." But the word suggests light in the darkness, or, to bring us back to baseball, thoughts of spring training in darkest December.

An email at 4.30 am about a dying grandparent is that rock above the door; it's the ground ball that hits a rock in the grass, takes a funny bounce, but still lands in the glove. You don't just know how to do that--someone teaches you readiness. How to stand, watch, and pay attention.

It's a way of seeing, even in the dark.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

Thanks this provides much food for thought....very timely.

I think one calls upon readiness and hopes it is there to help whenever being parent or a friend throws you a curve ball (which happens often).

I hope I am ready and there for those in my life who need me now.