06 February 2013

A Humbling Place


Too much rain
loosens trees.
In the hills giant oaks
fall upon their knees.
You can touch parts
you have no right to--
places only birds
should fly to.

--Kay Ryan, Say Uncle, 1991

I had lunch today with Aaron Shiffman, who runs Brooklyn Workforce Innovations.  We ate with Isabel Burton, our Revson Fellow for Community Organizing.  We started talking about the tens of thousands of people we have fed since Hurricane Sandy but touched upon the homeless shelter we'll run for two months this summer; the ongoing tutorial work our members are doing at John Jay High School; the gathering storm of activism around Gun Control that has awakened since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary; the need for meaningful work among those not only on hurricane assistance but for the tens of thousands of New Yorkers in and around our neighborhoods who have been in need of job training and work for years.  The storm revealed this, tore wide-open the too often easily ignored rift between rich and poor in our city.

Aaron is a very smart and thoughtful man.  Thorough in his thinking.  A natural teacher.  At one point I cracked that while the storm gave us a chance to connect with parts of the city we ordinarily don't meet on a daily basis, the atmospheric reality is that many more hurricanes are coming.  Governor Cuomo's offer this week to have New York State buy out families living on the water is just the beginning of a deepening realization that we have designed our world for one set of expectations while laboring quickly under the shifting sands of a reality we have created due to our own poor planning, our profligate spending of energy, our erroneous assumption that things will generally remain the same.  They won't.

Our world is upside down.  Our trees are on their knees, as it were.

After feeding tens of thousands, we at CBE are beginning to wrap our heads around the idea of what it would mean to feed those in need with regularity.  We have an under-utilized asset--a big kitchen--that since Sandy has been proudly brought to life like a rusty old bulldozer, sentimentally serving with civic pride those who are distant from the promise of security.  And we have a newly discovered asset as well--human capital--a motivated base of volunteers who care; the attention of city agencies who will send more sets of hands our way; and the irreducible concept of mitzvah--obligation--to care for those in need.

What we do with this cache of resources is our test.

When Mom booted Dad from the premises in 1975, and then Dad lost his job a year later, obviating reasonably expected child support and alimony payments,  I went to work in the summers.  Mostly, cutting lawns.  While adolescence descended as clouded essence, I pushed mowers through grass, past trees, and edged hedges--if only to keep up to date in the style of just the right Levis and Oxford shirts.  I sang songs in silence to the trees, blues and such, mostly; and wondered what would be.

My world was upside down.  My trees were on their knees, as it were.

I've never really left this world, this place, this perspective.  I'm a naturalized citizen of the fiercely uncertain.

After lunch I returned to my study, determined more than ever to make sure that the synagogue community I lead continues to feed, to offer aid in the promise of employment, equal access to education, a fair shake at making it upon the dry land of the uncertain shore line of our nation's dreadful edges.  A young African American man was waiting for me upon my return.  I recognized him from six months ago, his story consistently vague about his origins and his destination.  The one constant:  like a half year ago, he needed another $17.25.

"Why $17.25, " I asked.  "It seems a very specific amount."

"My father told me, 'Aim low, that way someone may choose to be more generous,'" he offered.

"Your father wasn't Jewish," I said.  "It's an odd way to bargain."

I gave him $35 and sent him on his way.  And he'll be back.  Because after all, both he and the world are upside down.

Some of us are vulnerable once or twice; a hand is extended, it lifts us out; and forever we remember.  Others never escape the pit; a hand reaches toward us; and forever we forget what to do or how to do what comes next.

It's a terribly beautiful and fascinating and dangerous and humbling place--that place where trees are brought to their knees, up there and down there, in the sky and on the ground.  "Places only birds should fly to."

1 comment:

Old First said...

You are a sage, and no doubt. May you not fall through a sidewalk door.