ראש חודש אלול תש"ע
For more than twenty years I've lived in New York and kvetched about its messiness and stressful imposition of pace and competition and why in God's name I never loaded myself into the car and headed north is beyond me. I really think it was sheer laziness, or to be more precise, moronic laziness--for what accounts for the deprivations I subjected myself to all these years?
The goal for the family in this last week of our summer vacation was to go to Europe, but that proved too complicated, so we opted for Montreal; and since we were committed to driving, it necessitated a drive through the Adirondacks. Not unlike 19th century Utopian religious seekers who headed north to seek their own Garden of Eden or, as Ben Katchor so ably captured in the Jew of New York, their own Ararat, I sought redemption in the waters and the forests and muscular mountains of Northern New York and am pleased to report that "everything they say" is true.
What brought it all home for me this week was when we pulled the car over to the side of the road to read about one of the four small tributaries to the Hudson River--the Mighty Hudson--and marveled at its smallness, its pristine waters, its unrealized potential for the booming greatness it must necessarily become more than three hundred and fifty miles to the south. One could walk across the river where we stopped, hopping from water-worn stone to stone, and as we did so, my mind turned to this night, this date on the calendar, looming as the beginning of Elul always does. The one month mark to the start of the new year when yet again I confront my faults, my shortcomings, in all their massive, raging, overflowing murkiness. In one month's time we Jews will mark Rosh Hashanah as a time of new beginnings but the Sages long ago instructed us to begin looking inward a month before--considering it praiseworthy to show up for the new year actually prepared to do the work of introspection and repentance.
So like I said, I'm a moron. For more than twenty years I've sought the necessary correction to my twisted, urban perspective beside a small brook in Prospect Park; or a beach on Coney Island; or a landing by the Brooklyn Bridge; or, more recently, on a run or bike ride along the well-landscaped Hudson River Park, one of Albany's last great achievements before its recent and arguably total, final implosion.
I'm not a Hamptons guy; Florida holds no appeal; and outside the annual trek to the Delaware shore which is great swimming and family time, it's no real escape in the true sense of the word since the outlet malls and American consumerism beckon with a force equaled only by the August threat of mid-Atlantic hurricane season or the inevitable--the start of school, a new season of responsibility at work and Shul.
But the Adirondacks and its tributaries tumbling out of the mountains; its powerful yet humble geological archive of New York's historical record; and the working class ethic living a hard but simple life reminded me so much of that feeling of home that I have felt more rooted here in New York for the first time that I can ever remember. And remember: I write this from Montreal, connected to New York in its own way. Hoteliers proudly flew the Maple Leaf flag in Lake George and when we spent the day at Fort Ticonderoga, we were all moved by the tenuous nature of America's beginnings. Alliances among the French and the Indians and the British shifted in ground fertilized by blood, usually men killing other men with their bare hands or by musket but certainly seeing the whites of one another's eyes. Where Lake Champlain and Lake George converge is where New York and Vermont meet and Canada is not far off. And Indian nations recede in memory; British and French empires can begin to imagine their eventual dissolution; and one nation, now so seemingly wounded as it takes on responsibilities that cause it to teeter under the weight of its own values-laden obligations, is not yet born.
Montreal grabs hold of this polyglot nature in a way that is more humble than New York, I believe. In its bilingual sensibility (not without its struggles to be sure) it represents a kind of North American narrative of this continent's origins that New York misses in its rush to be the biggest, the best, the most powerful. Its aspirations can crush metropolitan reflection, any city's great gift to human civilization.
The wind blew mightily at Fort Ticonderoga. N.Y. State Parks Department employees dressed as Revolutionary War era characters wove sacred narratives for the visitors to consider. But off in the distance, the spruce whistled the irreducible facts of life and death and the Adirondacks were pure beauty. Somewhere in there I heard, "You don't often do what you should do" and the pain of that truth wounded me and bled me white. It reduced me.
An annual humbling that asks, "Are you ready?"