17 May 2012

Story Slam at the Greene Space for PiP

For those interested in what I was doing last night in New York:


16 May 2012

On Psalm 51: A Call to Go Home

There's suffering that circumstances present to us--the twisted dystopic gifts of illness that we have done nothing to deserve:  the random acts of cellular aberration; traffic accidents; innocents who die or are maimed at the hands of evil ones.  

And then there's suffering brought upon ourselves, through our own actions, misdeeds, manipulations and lies.  This is a particular form of tragic suffering, especially when it's so public.  Infidelities.  Congressional inquiries.  Indictment.  Prosecution.  Sentencing.

David betrays himself, his values, his loyal soldier, and his God in taking Bathsheba.  It's a wrenching scene.  Both seductive and mendacious.  And when he receives his rebuke from the prophet Nathan, the man he thought he was is destroyed, crushed under the weight of his own weakness.  He is left to do nothing but beg for his life.

"Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity; cleanse me from my sin.  For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me."  

What torture.  A feeling of disease, an inescapable noose around the neck.  An irremovable stain on the soul.

He is aware that his suffering must be manifested physically in order to render himself clean.  Words here are not the tools which effectuate the change--no confession is strong enough.  Rather, David is descriptive of an inner destruction whose origins are found at conception that he must make himself responsible for re-making, re-creating, for starting over.

"Behold I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me."  Not the mark of "original sin" we might know from the Christian literature but rather a recognition of fate unfolding until one reaches a moment of recognition and makes himself again.  Not re-born but re-conceived.  Through internal self-examination, introspection, stopping up old wells of brackish water and breaking one's back in the labor for new water.  Lonely, alone, sun beating down, imagining there may be no end, until, in a moment of grace, there is a new source.

"Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean.  Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.  Make me to hear joy and gladness that the bones which You have crushed may rejoice."

Joy and gladness in such suffering?  A God who crushes bones?  And we still talk to him?  That's the necessary laughter, so hard to conjure up and yet essential in the alleviation of pain.

Gallows humor, even, the cornerstone of a new temple to a new life.  However long it lasts; wherever it will continue.

"The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O' God you will not despise."

To break, to rebuild.  It requires radical humility, a desperately rare commodity these days.

"Do good in your favor to Zion, build the walls of Jerusalem."

A cry from exile; a call to go home.

15 May 2012

On Psalm 13

How long?

Suffering can be a trap for some; while for others a liberation.  For some, words crash down upon the ground, shattering into pieces the broken hopes of despair; while for others, language pads the landing.

"How long, Eternal One, will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?"

Forever.  But not really.  It only feels that way.

Loneliness is often the refuge for fear.  Fear of pain.  Fear of growth.  And in a society rooted in convenience, immediacy, horizontal proximity and chronic impatience, we run the risk of losing the way en route to the goal--an often allusive mirage.

"How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart by day?  How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?"

How come they seem happier than I do?  What's their secret?  What do they know that I don't?  I seem to be pushing all the wrong buttons.  Helplessness a prison.

"Look here.  Answer me, Eternal my God.  Lighten my eyes lest I sleep the sleep of death."

In other words, there's living and then there's living.  There's dying and then there's dying.

King David's concision in this psalm is a minimalist sculpture of uncommon beauty.

עד אנה ה
עד אנה תסתיר
עד אנה אשית

A Calder mobile of brevity and movement, rocking back and forth, riding the pain, tensile strength.

alexander calder, untitled, 1935 
alexander calder, cone d'ebene, 1933
Pain twists and torques our essence into the beings we are.  It's the nature of the beast.  It is simply unavoidable.  "I love the way the light..." says one walking through a gallery, observing objects, those silently suffering marvels of form.

Ah, but as they became what they are, they spoke, they moved, they came into being.  It just takes time.

How long?  How long?  How long?

14 May 2012

Poem of the Day

I'm Like
(by Edward McCrorie)

I'm like God:  how did I do that?
She's like Wow, that's neat.
I want it all spelled out.  But she's like
Dont be a language 

freak.  I'm like Words are me
somehow, my own head.
Until there's doubt like, silence.  She's like
Why let it bug you?

I let it bug me.  What am I like,
like really?  If silence
and sound split what's left?  I'm like
What is my own thing?

She's like Be like me, stay loose,
don't fight it.  I fight it.
She's like Think about space, far out.
Be like nothing.

(from Gone Games, Brick House Books 2010)

13 May 2012

Home Run

You know how you calm down a room of 100 screaming, singing, Shabbos celebrating Tots, turing every which way in grape-juice and challah ecstasy?  Offer to read them Where the Wild Things Are, the late Maurice Sendak's masterpiece of mischief, imagination, and redemption.

Like a magic trick on Friday evening, a kind of surreptitious Kaddish, pulled off with traumatizing the little bugs with an understandable fear of death, I read to them from the book at the end of our Tot Shabbat service, which we host for the community on the first Friday of each month.  Just two days removed from Sendak's death, we know his loss hung heavy over the parents present--for so many, losing Maurice Sendak felt like loving a distant but beloved uncle.  Something needed to be done.

So as soon as the book was unsheathed, a secret weapon of quiescence in my quiver of tricks, the children were pacified and sat, enraptured while the first words were said.  Still, of course, until Max's rumpus began and then they joined in as well, the most tumultuous and blessed of Kaddishes I've ever witnessed.


In my Saturday morning study group, currently digging deeply into the narrative structures of the Biblical book of Samuel, the class is turning over in their minds the transitional dimensions of Jewish history, ever-evolving, from patriarchal to prophetic to priestly to prophetic to monarchical to rabbinic, the latter stage the most long-lasting in our civilization's existence.   Grasping the scope of Hebrew language, territorial claim, historical reality, archaeological evidence and layered, literary redacting is much, much more fun than most people give it credit for and besides, I brew Alterra coffee from my favorite roasters in Milwaukee so do you really have something better do on Saturday morning at 8:15 am?


Saturday morning's Bar Mitzvah student was a clear and bright manifestation of the Sages mandate that one should hasten to fulfill a positive commandment.  This was evident when he rose with his father to put on his tallis just as the service began.  Ordinarily a moderately awkward but exceedingly warm moment in our service, the young man grabbed hold of the tallis like a clean-up hitter grabs his bat, took three confident cuts of the timber, and knocked the first pitch heavenward, beyond the fences of containment.  Never have a heard a blessing uttered with such confidence by a voice so young.  Throughout the day I found myself laughing just thinking of it.  I mean:  pure joy.


Blessings for a new child in the community; blessings for a beloved teacher who will move beyond our synagogue community and try her hand at teaching broadly in Brooklyn next year;  guests of the Bar Mitzvah ascending the Bimah to see Torah for the first time, always honored to come close, to see the brilliant, black letters, the crowns atop them, to look back to a mysterious past made present; and finally, words of comfort and strength at the end of the service for synagogue members who came to say Kaddish themselves for parents who died in the past week.  The words on the Jacob's Ladder window:  "God is in this place."


By six o'clock last night, our entire Temple House, built in 1929, was filled with a new generation of Park Slope parents, those whose children attend PS 321.  Each year we host the annual fundraiser for the school, which raises the critically important funds necessary to educate children from all backgrounds, all walks of life, all races, all beliefs--under the care of its extraordinary principal Liz Phillips and her truly remarkable teaching staff.  CBE has nearly 70% of its educable children in the New York City public education system, a fact of life for Jews across the country, who live lives of particular Jewish uniqueness alongside their proud and abiding attachment to the open pluralism and vibrant democracy of American civic life.  Our After School program works with three public schools, in fact, a hub of the community that is invaluable piece of the fabric making this city great.

While sitting at the dinner last night, it occurred to me how incredibly deep and rich this story is.  A child can be born into the community, named at CBE, brought to our Drop-In Center, while his sibling is down the street at 321; enroll in the Early Childhood Center; attend Tot Shabbat with countless others; hang out with friends at Shir l'Shabbat in the morning on Saturdays, and continue to grow throughout his life, always using the synagogue as his touchstone.  For After-School, for Summer Camp, for Yachad and Bar Mitzvah training, for community events like birthday parties and pool parties, adoption support groups, AA meetings, volunteer efforts with schools, homeless shelters, the New York State prison, political advocacy, Sendak Rumpuses, and as our week ended, sublime readings by the Poet Laureate of the United States.  At the end of the day, a raucous, sold-out celebration by 400 people for the sake of public education in New York City.  For the record, I didn't try the smoking blue drink.

No wonder we drive our neighbors nuts.  Oh well.

At the earlier end of this spectrum, I imagined I'd be alot of things when I grew up.  But I never quite imagined this.  As I count the years, looking back and imagining how many more may be reckoned to me looking forward, the idea of revitalizing and restoring becomes even more urgent.  Honoring with gratitude what has been given to us; and, like the kid with the tallis in yesterday's service, grabbing ahold of it and with a few swings, fearlessly knocking out of the park whatever comes our way.

"Make haste in fulfilling a positive commandment."

In other words, run home.

On Psalm 6

King David had the blues on occasion, that's clear.  How many of his songs of lament were introduced with a nod to the instrument in hand.

Take Psalm Six for example:  "For the leader with string music on the 8-stringed harp."  Spring warming into Summer.  Moon closer to Earth.  A stillness captures the night.  An the conscience awakens.

"Let not your anger rebuke me, Eternal; let not your rage chasten me."  Sometimes an uncommon beauty in the air, like a work of art, reflects a perfection which is the obverse of our own inherent faults.

Jerusalem can do that to a man.  He's alone in the night and his consciousness is rattled awake by the clear, dark surrounding of a low black sky.  He begs for grace in his suffering, for his rattling bones to be healed of their anxiousness, their fitful state.

He imagines his own death and like all early-stage mourners, bargains.  If you do this, I'll do that.  "For in death, there is no remembrance of you, Eternal!  Who will offer words of thanks to you, Source of Life, down there, below?"

The silence, a prison.

And then sighs, deep sighs, and tears.  His bed at sea; his couch washed away.

Taken down.  Reduced to his element substance.  Primordial creation.  Water separated from water.  The black sky upon him, the heavy rule of truth:  "Anger has blinded my eyes; troubles have aged me."

An abandoned ancient.  An ill wind blows.

What happens next is nothing less than miraculous.  The stuff of legend.  What he does with his guitar; how his voice rings out; the artist holds you in his spell.  Your words, your soul, are his.

"Depart from me all ye workers of iniquity, for the Eternal hath heard the voice of my weeping."

The music fulfills the promise.  Lights the night.  Lays to rest, again, the tremors of anger and anguish.

10 May 2012

But An Opening

That this seemingly simple mechanism--cell growth without barriers--can lie at the heart of this grotesque and multi-faceted illness is a testament to the unfathomable power of cell growth.  Cell division allows us as organisms to grow, to adapt, to recover, to repair--to live.  And distorted and unleashed, it allows cancer cells to grow, to flourish, to adapt, to recover and to repair--to live at the cost of our living.  Cancer cells grow faster, adapt better. They are more perfect versions of ourselves.   (Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies)
To grow, to adapt, to recover, to repair--to live.

Those words weigh heavily when we prepare to face death.

I was once talking to a friend who had lost his wife to a sudden death.  Talking to one another one afternoon, reading the paper, game on tv, when suddenly, like a burst of thunder, she was gone.  My dad died that way, I told him.  And we talked about which is better:  to lose a loved one in an instant or to prepare the way, to visit, console, make plans, and then say good-bye.

"I'd take the 'sudden' route again," he said quietly.  I leaned the other way.

As I re-read Siddhartha Mukherjee's extraordinary work--a volume I have learned from enormously along with Jerome Groopman's The Anatomy of Hope--I am reminded of exactly this critical point:  That to live is to master the difficult work of growth, adaptation, recovery and repair.  Those individuals who tragically don't have an opportunity to do so (because of sudden death) or who live inside of the remarkably powerful human capacity for denial that anything is actually terminal--miss the chance to live on the dimension of life that leads to death:  a journey that is the most difficult but that ironically is the journey that brings the greatest blessing to our existence.

Who would we be without the lives and deaths of all those who came before us?  In what ways are our lives already impacting those who will long outlive us?  And what does it require of us to be cognizant of these interconnected realities, their lessons, their many-dimensioned meanings?

Mukherjee reminds us of Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, in which Pavel Rusanov speaks of his illness as a prison, a metaphor often described by those we've met facing terminal illness.  An inexorable, inescapable closing off of possibility, of life.

Still seared in my own memory, however, is a text to which I return over and over; a real life text from the moment we buried my grandfather on a cold winter day in Wisconsin.  Snow on the ground, ice in the trees, and my grandmother, Russian-born, throwing herself on the ground and crying out, "A dead man, a dead man."  I was about to turn ten that winter but at that moment did not feel terror at the site but rather love.  Love for my grandfather, my grandmother, my father (broken that day) and then later, at Shiva, utter fascination and comfort with the celebration and warmth of the community back in my grandmother's apartment.  So much language, so much food, so much life.

One night at Shiva, while in the back bedroom at my grandparents' apartment, looking through my grandpa's doctor's bag, I laid out all the instruments of his work:  blood pressure pump; stethoscope; reflex hammer.   A cousin burst into tears at Grandpa's absence and then I had a flashback to the last time I saw him.  My dad had driven us to Mount Sinai Hospital, parked the car on the street, and then went upstairs to his room, where he brought him over to the window to wave good-bye.  Down on the sidewalk, on a cold winter day, I looked up toward heaven, at my hero, diminished within the walls of his illness but smiling, sending kindness and love in my direction.  This is the image of an uncontainable man:  no illness, no plain pine box, no hole in the ground.

The prison, to be sure, is in our minds.

הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה ובטוב העולם נדון והכל לפי רב המעשה -- Rabbi Akiva taught that "all is foreseen yet free choice is granted;  the world is judged with with goodness; yet all is according to the predominance of deeds.

What we make of our time comprise the blessings and the curses of our lives.

That's why when someone dies we say, "May his memory be a blessing."  Because our own unavoidable experience of death, our own coming to terms with our own mortality, necessitates our own 'growth, recovery and repair.'

Not a closing but an opening, into life.

רבי יעקב אומר העולם הזה דומה לפרוזדור בפני העולם הבא התקן עצמך בפרוזדור כדי שתכנס לטרקלין--Rabbi Yakov said, 'This world is like a vestibule before the world-to-come; prepare yourself in the vestibule, that you may enter into the banquet hall.'

The catering there is even better.

09 May 2012

Pay Attention! Don't Miss It! The Ears Have It!

God bless Ben Katchor.  Every month in Metropolis Magazine he brings new light to human understanding in word formations which he crafts uniquely like a mischievous prophet:  "Only a ceaseless and frenetic display of amorphous forms and colors can hold the eye."

The amount of time humankind spends in front of screens is destructive and insidious blah, blah, blah.  Even the cliche is mind-numbingly true.  Like a poet whose words and pictures work together perfectly, Ben Katchor reminds us, through laughter, of some of these weird truths about ourselves.

But to hell with the eye in front of a screen for a night!  Let's rededicate ourselves to an appreciation of the Ear.

Take a break in the action tomorrow night and come hear an actual Flesh and Blood Poet read from Real Books of Poetry!

United States Poet Laureate Philip Levine will be here at CBE @ 7:30 pm in one of his last public appearances in the role of U.S. Poet Laureate.  

I'll be hosting and asking questions so if there's one you're yearning to ask, do let me know.  Otherwise, get on over here!

The Community Bookstore of Park Slope will be selling Levine books, which the poet will graciously sign.

A real person!  Real books!  Pay attention!  You may miss it.


And please vote for CBE over at the Partners in Preservation site.  Help us restore our historic sanctuary in Brooklyn.

08 May 2012

Sendak Lives!

Ron Lieber's Wild Rumpus Cake

Join us tonight to celebrate the life of Maurice Sendak at 11 pm for a Wild Rumpus in the Main Sanctuary alongside BanG's brilliant "Jacob's Ladder."  We'll read and make noise 'til 12 midnight.

Gothamist picks it up here.

Bring your favorite Sendak story, something to eat or drink, and don't forget a can of Chicken Soup with Rice to donate to our friends at City Harvest.

Come pay tribute to a great man and his imagination or I WILL EAT YOU UP!

Fifteen Steps to the Temple

There were Fifteen Steps which led to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and on Sacred Occasions, the Priests would line the steps and sing songs of praise to pilgrims who ascended to God's House.  In planning BanG's installation, "Jacob's Ladder," we realized there are fifteen steps that lead from the corner of 8th and Garfield into the entrance to our Main Sanctuary.


A Day in Fifteen Steps

1=  Rise.  Drink Coffee.  Pray.

2=  Lament the Brewers' fate.

3=  Meet with wedding couple for last conversation before ceremony takes place in a few weeks time.

4=  Meet with mourner, plan funeral.

5=  Conduct funeral for the father of a congregant, the deceased a triumphant refugee from the Nazi onslaught, a giant in American Zionism, for whom the Hebrew language, not God, was primary to Jewish existence.  Moved beyond words to hear the son read from his father's autographed copy of Abba Kovner's poetry, valorized literary resistance.

6=  Go outside after funeral, get breath of fresh air, greet our newest Rabbi--Marc Katz--who is over the moon with excitement having just been ordained in Manhattan and returned to Brooklyn to party, sleep it off, and serve our community.

7=  Greet my favorite Brooklyn band, Spirit Family Reunion, who assemble on the steps of CBE to kick-off Sunday's Open House for our Partners in Preservation contest.  (Don't forget to vote!)

8=  Conduct baby naming for the second child of two women who I married in Prospect Park six years ago and are now members of our synagogue community.  It was the first "gay marriage" I officiated, years before it was "legal."  Now it's legal in New York.  Thank God.
8=  Return to the CBE Open House.  Cantor Josh Breitzer's energy is boundless.  The masses are beating on Deer Park Water Jugs.

9=  An African American man is now playing the saw on the steps of CBE.  Greet Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who's come to say hello, along with New York City Councilman Brad Lander.

10=  Children are banging on BanG's incredible "Jacob's Ladder" installation; the architects Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan are radiant (and so are their parents who've come to enjoy the achievement) and people from all walks of life move in and out of a building, joyously, where the words above the door evoke what's happening inside:  Mine House Shall Be An House of Prayer for All People.


11=  Head over to another mourner's home for Shiva Minyan.  A family matriarch, a gentle, beautiful soul is remembered in the midst of a community who appears lovingly to provide support.  Begin to plan wedding for granddaughter of the deceased.  Reminding and being reminded that the command to affirm life in the face of adversity is Jewish civilization's greatest achievement.

12=  Think of why it's such an honor for CBE to be consistently in the top tier of voting for the Partners in Preservation contest.  Commit to remembering this day as a perfect testimony to the message of optimism and hope we must continue to provide to a world in need of this dual obligation to affirm life.

13=  The inspiring efforts of our CBE volunteers; our uncommonly committed professional staff; the tireless work of our maintenance and security team; and the broader community, streaming in by the hundreds all day long, all ages, faiths and backgrounds, for a glimpse into what can be when people come together to celebrate and renew old narratives, writing a new chapter of our sacred community's 150 year history.

14=  Go home, eat dinner, watch "Best in Show" with the family.  Have a beer.  Laugh.

15=  Sleep.


04 May 2012

Then See What Happens

lisbon earthquake, 1755.  (wikipedia)
Something about the currently degraded form of American politics, its rampant partisanship, massive accumulations of money sources given the green light to exercise "free-speech" that we may have erroneously assumed the Founders reserved for human beings, not corporations, and a general atmosphere that recent studies claim makes for the most divided American republic since Reconstruction, brings to mind the radically innovative doubling of this week's Torah portion, Acharei Mot/Kedoshim, named for both the late, rebellious sons of Aaron who offered "strange fire" as well as the aspirational moral strivings of what the priesthood *ought* to represent as repositories of holiness for the Community of Israel.

Scorched earth policies were on full display last week in the Torah narrative and this week Aaron's mournful state at the loss of his sons to their own troubling fanaticism humbles us to be reminded that the Torah calls upon to serve with humility, not arrogance; and that anger and an unchecked accumulation of power can be among the most destructive internal forces with which democracies must contend.

As an historical and religious document, redacted purposefully in order to reign in rebellion, Torah has the advantage of hindsight as a necessary corrective for wayward behavior.  Our nation is in a potentially more precarious position.  Long gone are the days when virtually any nation will tolerate the kind of leadership Moses and Aaron were able to exercise, and so, several centuries later, we are left with no choice but to work it out, despite our differences.

Possible?  It's unclear.  There seems so little genuine interest in listening to one another that one can literally begin to lose hope, a state of mind which runs counter to rabbinical Judaism's greatest insight in the wake of the Roman Empire's massive destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD:  Hope made manifest in a community's ability to maintain its values through Learning, Worship and Deeds of Lovingkindness remain the foundation idea of redemption.

Learning itself, as anyone who has made the dive into the deep as an adult, is an inherently dialogic process:  without another voice across the table, it's pure narcissism, a dangerous idolatry of one.  It requires openness, flexibility, the willingness to have one's mind changed, soul altered, life made different.

The anger and vituperations which rule our political realm today are little different from the volatile and unchecked ambitions of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's sons, whose strange fire brought about their own demise.  Their pursuits were indeed "divine" but the divinity they worshipped was an erroneous sense of themselves as gods.  Precedent, history, a sequential understanding of how things evolve and change, was absent from their own ambition.  Their cravings and anger were a fuel unchecked; all it took as a single match--perhaps even innocently offered on the altar of service--to ignite a most dangerous conflagration.

TV news, the blogosphere, instantaneous delivery of analysis (oxymoronic as that may seem) do little to help.  Each in its own way tends to reinforce division, singular perspective and monologue.

Catharsis is nice; but still, you eventually have to wipe yourself up off the floor from the pool of your own satisfaction and evolve beyond the primordial swamp of selfhood.

The voice of Acharei Mot is about the shame and humility of an arrogant and destructive death.  The voice of Kedoshim is about the pride and humility of service to a commanding voice that demands we transcend the self in service to something greater than ourselves.

I have to wonder sometimes.

As a student at Hebrew University one day, I sat in the library on Mount Scopus one afternoon, reading Voltaire's Candide.  My own "come to Moses" moment occurred when Candide concludes that "we must cultivate our garden."  I decided that my own efforts would best be spent in a local community, teaching and providing structures for people to meet across the divide of difference and, well, plant the seeds of a future with forms of new hope.

Voltaire's own time was a time of tremendous destruction and dislocation, eventually giving way in the American colonies to a new form of democracy that at times seems in danger of being replaced by the voice of money, anger and division rather than reasoned voice of its citizens.

This morning I woke up with an idea for the Obama-Romney debates:  Base them on the Federalist Papers and an agreed upon debate about the most three most important constitutional decisions in American history.   Broadcast them only on the radio.  Publish the transcripts after the fact and gather citizens in synagogues, churches, mosques, public schools and libraries to parse out their meaning.  It goes without saying that each candidate only accepts public financing for campaign advertising.

Then see what happens.

Impossible, you say?

So was parting the Red Sea.  But the Jews are still here to testify that some ideas are so good, they can stick around for a long time and change those who humble themselves to their own inherent power and reality.

03 May 2012

And When It Will Be

There's a piece of fabric I found in a closet in Mom's apartment; a piece of fabric with a message, pointed in string, made by a needle, with a message of peace; this piece of fabric.

It's been under glass for decades, in a frame, and while once on a wall was then in a closet (that is until today) I brought it forth from the darkness of obscurity into the light of day to remove its protective glass, peel away its butcher paper backing from the framed enclosure housing it, and set into motion its eventual new resting place:  the inside lining of my tallis bag, this place of quiet repose for another fabric, my prayer shawl, that stand-in, ritualized symbol for that other fabric, the Fabric of Fabrics--the very heavens under which we live.

As I readied and steadied Mom's wheelchair today, peeling away a layer of fabricated plastic, the wheelchair's protective wheel seals, I thought of the ways in which fabrics connote newness but for a moment; and that newness is clean, nostalgic in its pristine and perfect untouchability.  Like new life.

But as I knelt on the sidewalk, my denimed leg against the cast concrete section of sidewalk, conscious of the wearing away of fabric, flesh, bone, and even, slowly, cement, this crumpled ball of cellophane lost its intended function and became nothing more than the fleeting detritus of show-room protection.  Once the wheel was rolling, the protection had no function, except giving way to a new form.

The perfunctory nature of the protective plastic.  Once you even notice it, it's usefulness is, well, used up.

Up and off we rolled.  Down Capitol Drive:  past robust tulips in a warm May wind; faded forsythia's gasping their last breaths of spring; lilacs lumbering, enormously, as evening fell.  Lake Michigan called like a confident woman:  sure of rhythm, steady on the surface, deep as soul.

My mother:  her cancer an inconvenience, a nuisance, a pain in the ass.  But the red-winged black bird; the flighty sparrows; the tall lake grasses; those shifting shades of lake water and light:  this was the symphony we had come to enjoy.

Runners climbed the stairs up and down from the beach in exhaustion and exulted in the triumph and nausea of their ascent.  Small children, wet and weathered from the insistent sands and water of relentless flow, gathered rocks in the bottoms of their shirts and pronounced proudly to my mother, whom they had never met until just this moment:  "We will paint them blue and purple and indigo and green!"  

"A blue, purple, indigo and green garden," my mother said.  "How wonderful."  And as the children drifted past, my mother brought a small lilac branch to her nose, breathed deeply of its heavenly aroma, waved off a swarm of gnats, and prepared for the mile and a half ride home.

We checked the terra cotta detail of a Wright house en route; marveled at a local collection of spearmint, hyssop and basil; and complimented a neighbor on his garden.  "I really like your tulips," Mom said.  "Thank you," said he.  The exchange between these two stranger-neighbors as filled with integrity as it was of exemplary brevity.

The sky is now dark, blue-black.  The clouds play with a half-moon and cars roll by, ambling past the part of the night that stands still, while the other part continues to move on.

The apartment is quiet.  The mother is at rest. The cancer keeps moving on.  But tomorrow when she arises she moves on, too.  And there's no telling, right now, who will win.  Or what winning looks like.  And when it will be.

01 May 2012

"Say Little, Do Much"

photo from NYT
I really appreciated Council Speaker Quinn's embrace of the Living Wage Bill that passed the New York City Council yesterday; appreciated her willingness to defend a bill that represents real economic justice for low-wage workers in New York City; and appreciate her decision to defend the bill despite Mayor Bloomberg's opposition, which includes the threat of a veto and a lawsuit to prevent the law's enactment.  Politics being what it can be, here were two sometime allies on behalf of the city disagreeing with one another in a tone of civility that is, sadly, the exception rather than the rule in American politics today.

Just before noon yesterday, when I checked the news on-line and took a glance at my emails and calendar to see what was next, I read this statement from a fellow clergyman about the news conference at City Hall in favor of the Living Wage Bill that was about to be passed:  "The reign of the rich is over!  A new day has dawned in New York City!"

Not really.

While I understand the rhetorical usefulness of the pulpit's emotional perorations to action, they usually fizzle out in the face of the mundane slog of governance.  And that's precisely as it should be.  If anyone should know that, it ought to be a clergyman, who recognizes the zeal of the convert, only to be humbled by how difficult it is to live a consistent life of faith and action.

Ah, well.  In a big city with so many clamoring to be heard, fiery blasts of verbal ammunition do occasionally penetrate the prosaic armor of governance.

I had a day of correspondance, lesson preparation, and pastoral work to attend to (including my annual trip to Poly Prep High School's senior 'history of religion' class, which I calculated I've been going to for nineteen years!).  At noon, while my colleagues in the city who I've joined in supporting the Living Wage Bill were assembled downtown, I couldn't get away; and besides, the work was done, the bill was set to pass by an overwhelming margin, and I had a twenty-three year graduate student who needed to digest a recent trip to Israel and what it meant for her evolving Jewish identity.  To wit:  we are indeed works in progress.

So it came to pass that when someone at the carefully choreographed press conference called the mayor "Pharaoh Bloomberg," Council Speaker asked for an apology for the breach of decorum, didn't receive it, and left.

I think she made the right decision.  And journalistic opinion and political jockeying aside, it was a decision of integrity.  In the public eye, with the goal of winning passage of a long-fought for piece of legislation, zero-tolerance for exaggerated mud-slinging works for me.

For all the drum-beating, rally-rousing, march-making hay of the Occupy Wall Street movement, there is finally a legislative victory for economic justice for the working poor in New York City.  There are no Pharaohs here to overthrow; there is no "reign of the rich."  There is the slow moving political process, wringing occasional victories for one side or another in the ongoing, unsung efforts to bend ears, persuade, and move people from one place to another so that more deserving souls can put bread on the table.

We'd all do well to humble ourselves before such monumental tasks, focus on achieving what is possible, and do so with a measure of civility that can be a model for the rest of the nation.  Clergy role here was in organizing, not speechifying.  As the sage Shammai famously explained, "Say little, do much."  We'd do better to recognize that more often.

I am so proud of my city's legislative achievement and believe the Living Wage Bill is a real measure for economic justice; and I'm proud of my City Council Speaker for standing up for civility and being a good winner.