L’Shana Tova

I read a piece recently in the Jewish Forward in which a rabbi in smoke-filled San Francisco says that this year Rosh Hashana is a time of mourning.

A thoughtful piece, but still, the Jewish calendar requires us to mourn and to celebrate at set times–mystical, not conditioned, times. A Rosh Hashanah may be devastating either personally or societally but it is still a new start.

I’ve been reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” along with my friend Ana who is in smoke-filled Portland. I’d always avoided it, although practically everyone else I know has read it. First off, it is set in the death camps. By the time I was eighteen I’d been over exposed to that history, to the point where it poisoned my every day reality. So, too depressing. Also, I knew Frankl took a positive attitude towards life. In a death camp? So, too upbeat.

Turns out, I should have read it years ago. I’m not going to recap here, but the gist is that we still own our reactions, no matter the circumstances. This brought me right back to Buddhism. When, as a young adult, I first heard the Four Noble Truths I felt as though I’d spent my whole life trying to cut a carrot with a butter knife. And then been handed a vegetable cleaver.

Since the Days of Awe are upon us, I thought I’d pick back up my study of mussar, or self-examination. I do one trait a week. It starts with gratitude, a familiar but ever useful practice. Today I’m realizing that gratitude isn’t despite suffering, but in addition to it.

Years ago I was in residence with Center for Land Use Interpretation, in a trailer “living pod” in an abandoned air force base in Wendover, Utah/Nevada. Dogs howled, squatters built fires, huge trucks carrying ore from the Ruth mine far to the west rattled by. It was terrifying—isolated, raw, scary, on the edge of a million empty acres of bombing range. The first night there was a voice in my head that loudly said: I can’t stay here in this mental state.

Something had to change. I didn’t want to leave. By sunrise my mind had…changed. I stayed, and wrote poetry, and had many powerful moments of real happiness.

L’shana tova.

Sukkah: Gimme Shelter by Miriam Sagan

I’m not one to retreat from the world. Yes, I can spend long stretches of time alone in remote settings. After all, I twice spent a week in a trailer in an abandoned air force base in Great Basin. Nothing but howling dogs in the distance and three million acres of bombing range.
However, I experience this as being CLOSE to things–myself, the environment, poetry, even what I’ll call G-d. It’s the difference between loneliness and solitude–solitude being a relationship to the unseen, not a lack.
So I’ve hated the idea of being in lockdown during the pandemic. Locked down with what? Fear, an exaggerated emphasis on my own safety, a compliance with rules? Sorry, this does not sound like me.
I’ve done my best to not be locked away from my world–physically, emotionally, spiritually. I’m always practical, so I’ve given in to the demands of the time. But I’m connecting to nature–from the mountains to my veggie garden. To people–from my family to childhood friends. To literature and art and music. To my spiritual support group. And yes, to the sometimes sad often diminished neighborhood that I live in–and love as much as if it were a person. The details are my own, and might not be universally useful. However, I’m trying.
A friend very kindly said to me–“You’ve created your own life within the pandemic.” I was truly encouraged that she’d noticed my effort.
So I think of myself as living within a tent. It’s not my usual life, but it is serviceable. It is a kind of sukkah. “Sukkah” is defined as a temporary shelter covered in natural materials, built near a synagogue or house and used especially for meals during the Jewish festival of Succoth. It can also be used to describe the sheltering effect of the Shekinah, the feminine aspect of the divine.
So, what is going on in my sukkah? One very important thing to me in life are those seemingly random or casual exchanges that often contain meaning or wisdom. I’ve recently seen a very large man happily catch a very small fish. Been complimented on my tie-dye hippie dress by a stranger. And been given some important personal advice by the laundromat lady.
Gimme shelter.