13 September 2010

The Bench

Exhaustion.  Written all over their faces.  A young couple, whom I've never met, was seated on our newly installed benches along Garfield Place, in today's noontime sun, saying nothing to one another and eating fresh falafel, I'm guessing from Pita Pan on Seventh Avenue.  (It's a good falafel, I might add, in the Egyptian mode, and particularly satisfying with hot sauce--lots of hot sauce.)  In front of the repasting duo was a small baby, two months old, happily asleep in a stroller.  The scene, if drawn, could have been a New Yorker cover, I swear.

It reminded me of a favorite story I like to tell my kids.  One day, about 25 years ago, I was home from school and was doing nothing-in-particular, feeling reflective and profound like a college student should, when I walked into the kitchen where my mom was eating a sandwich with her feet up on a chair, staring out the window, deep in thought herself.  The symmetry was mind-blowing.  I looked at her across the room and developed an entire narrative structure of her inner world--an independent, divorced woman, reflecting on a life raising her kids, now grown; the tides of time shifting in America from the Great Depression where she grew up, through the 50s and 60s (Adlai Stevenson, JFK) and now into the early 80s (the crushing meekness of Carter, the outrageous imperialism of Reagan) a time of great expansion but complex international crises to manage.  I'm fairly certain she was thinking about nuclear annihilation as well.  Alas, when she looked up at me and smiled I said, "Wow, Mom, you look so deep in thought...contemplating the whole picture, hunh?"  "No, actually," she offered, amused by my aimless speculations.  "In fact, I was perfectly happy thinking about absolutely nothing at all."

So Zen, before Zen.  Robert Pirsig notwithstanding.

I've learned, since then, to notice the look.  The happy stare.  The quietude of nothing.  The respite.

Back to Brooklyn, today.  In the midst of our weirdly imploding Nation.  God I pray that our Shul can be a bulwark against the nuttiness.  As I walked past the couple I said hello, met the baby in their stroller, shared an appreciation for Pita Pan's particular felafelly aesthetic, and let the couple know that the benches in front of Shul were there for folks like them, to find some rest from it all in the shade of a synagogue.  We were happy to welcome them.

After this brief encounter they returned to their sandwiches and as I walked back into my office I thought of Abraham and Sarah, preparing a meal for the three visitors who came upon their tent in the heat of the day.  Food was prepared and they were welcomed.  Eventually, the three guests announced that after years of barrenness, Abraham and Sarah would have a child--Isaac.  The encounter would prove monumental in the narrative of the Jewish people and immediately following that moment, the three men head off toward Sodom and Gomorrah, where after learning that his personal family would grow, Abraham then engages in his famous dialogue with God over the nature of Divine Justice and whether or not the innocent should be swept away with the guilty in matters of war.  Which is to say that those quiet, contemplative moments of a brief repast are often wedged between the epic sweeps of history.  Or not.  I can never really tell.

I'm just glad the bench was there for a couple people and their baby.

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