Can A Spiritual Problem Be Solved on the Material Level?

The Torah study midrash group I’m in is on Bereishit (Genesis) Chapter 30. We’ve been going slowly. In verse 27 or so there is a conversation between Jacob and his sometime exploitive father-in-law Laban. Both of them are tricky characters—this looks like their last struggle over wealth and preeminence.
I’m just making a stab at understanding the portion—but midrash means commentary, and can apply to one’s own life. And so I’ve been asking—Can a spiritual problem be solved on the material level? Part of me wants to say—of course—aren’t they one and the same if you look deeply enough? Time to forget dualism. But part of me hasn’t found it to work.
I’m involved in some practical dealings that were set in motion by a domineering patriarch. (You guessed it—my dad). If the practicalities are resolved, will the underlying issues be? I’m stating to doubt that.
I put this question out on my network, and although I got fine advice about problem solving, not the answers I was seeking. Of course taking a walk helps a person think—but what I’m describing can’t be totally understood that way. I want to know: can generosity on the material level translate to the spiritual? Can it solve a miserly approach? Sure, everything is connected—but my question is…HOW?
Actually, I don’t need an answer, because this kind of problem can’t be solved, it can only be investigated. I’m not one to veer away from negative feelings. I’ve heard people say—don’t invite your anger (grief, etc.) to tea but frankly I’ll feed whatever shows up. Sit it down and listen to it.
Anyway, I’ve read ahead in the Torah. Pretty soon Jacob (having resolved his dispute with Laban over sheep and goats through the use of some shamanic sympathetic magic) is going to take his wives and children and herds and leave. Out in the desert, he is going to wrestle with the divine.
I’m happier, personally, wrestling with God in a barren place than counting sheep and goats. However, no one can walk away unscathed from such an encounter. In fact, it may leave us crippled and limping. But that is another verse.

I Don’t Want To See Through Another Person’s Eyes Unless I Am Writing Fiction by Miriam Sagan

I Don’t Want To See Through Another Person’s Eyes Unless I Am Writing Fiction

Some of the national dialogue, or at least the tiny liberal bit I’m engaged in, is full of exhortations to try and see things from “others’” perspectives. But I don’t want to see the world through racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic eyes—thank you very much.
I already have enough trouble with myself.
It’s fine—necessary even—to see the beast within. Luckily I saw it young and early. I was in the SDS in college and I was on a picket line when a scab truck crashed through. I started beating on that windshield in a blind rage whose existence I was unaware of. I was only nineteen or so, but I thought to myself “Hey Mir, better pay attention. This isn’t good.” I thought of it later as “freeing the inner Nazi.” It isn’t good, and I’m betting most of us have been more plagued by it in our intimate relationships than anywhere else. I’ve thrown dishes. I’ve wanted to smack a child I said I would never smack.
A huge issue in writing fiction is the ability to develop characters “different” than the author. It’s more of an issue at the beginning, though. The deeper the practice of writing, the more likely it is that characters will have a life of their own. And that they will appear and act spontaneously.
However, I’m tormented by one of the characters in the novel I’m currently writing. She’s an individualist in a go-along-to-get-along group. And I like her. I’ve taken care of her! When she was an orphaned child, I found her foster mothers. I got her a dog. A passion in life. She even had a baby.
I felt betrayed when at the end of the story (I’m still on the first draft) she abandoned her pregnant daughter to walk alone into an unknown future, based on an obscure possibly incorrect apocalyptic vision. I tried to talk her down, but it didn’t worked.
So—is this character me, part of me, or…an actual character with her own destiny and karma. I’m hoping the latter. If she’s me, she’ll end up staying, and the novel will make less sense.
It’s pretty easy to write psycho killers. From Shakespeare’s Richard the Third to “Criminal Minds” the audience enjoys second hand sadism. Our level of identification may vary—but we count on our sense of justice and harmony being restored in short order.
The same cannot be said of our current world. I don’t want to see through the evil doer’s eyes today. I just want that evil stopped.

Letter To My Younger Self by Basia Miller

Dear Basia,

I thought just now I heard you crying at your Chicago kitchen sink, back in January 1977. Well, I was up early here in Santa Fe in January 2017 and was crying too, over the new regime in Washington. Maybe this is just the right time for me to write down some things I’ve learned in the last 40 years and share them with you.

Because of the baby and the 5-year-old, the absent husband and the distracted babysitter—whose pay equals your own—you’ve decide to quit your job. Your world is collapsing around you, and you think you’re supposed to hold it together. Worse yet, there’s a great desert in your heart.

All that’s going on could make you feel despair. Here’s a straight-up instruction : Don’t let it. True, your desert is growing cactuses, while the real world, invisible now, is going to offer you its kindnesses, rains and gardens. You’ll do your part by letting them in. But the world, with its chancy, multiple and sometimes inscrutable energy, can only do so much. To actively accept it is crucial, and how that comes about is what I can only call the great mystery.

One thing I’d suggest for coping is doing a great deal of nothing. Stare out the window. Watch the birds. Cultivate down-time. Everyone deserves a childhood and you were scanted in that. You can create one at age 40. In one of his songs, Bob Dylan sings, « I’m younger than that now, » another way of saying you can work toward innocence. That’s not to say things won’t get worse before they get better.

Another big move will be to work on « give. » Right now you’re oriented not so much toward taking, but toward raising walls (there you are, trying to hold up the whole world !). It’s beautiful to create long sight-lines, get a sense of balance, practice balanced relationships instead of thinking you’re 100% responsible. Giving makes you feel safe and joyful as if grace had descended on you and nurtured your inner life.

There’s also love-making, therapy, meditation—so many ways of allowing the great world in—but I’ll leave them for another time. I hope this doesn’t all seem hopelessly abstract. Believe this is a loving message about growth and aging where you take a part in shaping it. I know you’ll work hard at it and I wish you the very best.

love always,


Nation of Immigrants: In Which My Grandmother Threatens To Drown Herself

Nation of Immigrants

My paternal grandmother Esther was 13 when she emigrated from the Ukraine. She told her family she would drown herself in the mill pond if she was not sent to the U.S. instead of her sister.
Is this story true? Am I remembering it correctly? Who knows. She went.
She was smuggled across a border checkpoint of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire hidden in a sausage cart. Unkosher meat piled on top of a small Jew.
As far as I can ascertain, she was traveling without any family members, although presumably someone was meeting her.
She got her period on the boat. She thought she was bleeding to death. A kindly mother explained about menstruation. Presumably as a stranger, she did not hit my grandmother across the face. This is the custom among eastern European Jews, as well as some Middle Eastern people. To slap a girl’s face on the occasion of her first menses.
Why? You tell me. Shame? A reprimand? Taboo? No doubt. It isn’t exactly mazal tov, whatever you may say. A woman’s life is full of pain.
America is an upgrade. My mother does not slap my face on the occasion of my menarche, although she feels compelled to remind me—I am not slapping you.
Not getting slapped simply for being a woman. Good.
Why did my grandmother threatted to kill herself? Did she long for freedom? Or was something bad happening to her—a girl child? We’ll never know.
So I am sitting in the Saigon, eating yellow noodles. I’ve seen the owner’s daughter grow from a baby cooing in a back booth to being a middle schooler capable of bussing a table. I’m drinking hot dark tea out of a small white cup that has no handle.

Isabel Winson-Sagan Educates Herself To Fight The Power

Essay by Isabel Winson-Sagan

I will admit, I love school. So when Trump was elected as POTUS and I suddenly had a much more vested interest in protecting myself and my community, I started taking classes. So far I’ve done a wonderful self-defense course with IMPACT New Mexico, a non-violent direct action training run by local activists, and coming up I’ll be doing a gun safety lesson as well as a Red Cross CPR/first aid course. I am aware that this sort of thing isn’t for everyone (I mean, who loves school like I do? It’s a sick thing) but this has made me feel marginally better about being a person in our current world. The downside is that feeling like a more powerful agent and learning life skills is not exactly the same thing as activism, and I’m often plagued by wondering what else I should be doing. I’ve donated the max that I can afford to Standing Rock and Planned Parenthood. I’ve been to marches and protests. I will go to more marches and protests. I’m going to town meetings. I’m speaking up on injustice and prejudice whenever I see it, even having already landed myself in special “mediation” meetings with my boss to talk about their policy re: disabled employees. I already volunteer in my community, but I signed up for some extra work- like being a clinic escort for planned parenthood, even though it seems doubtful that my particular town will ever have a need for that.
It definitely does not feel like enough. It may never be enough. But I’m pretty maxed out. Even though I spend a lot of time thinking about how to be better ally, I am in several demographics that need allies themselves. I am not a poc or trans (this may be an oversimplification, but politically it feels accurate). I am a woman. I am emphatically not a Christian. I am queer. I am very disabled (not oh! My back hurts sometimes disabled. I’m not trying to put down that experience, but I am wheelchair disabled. I am last maybe 24 hours without medication disabled. I am it’s a bloody miracle that every day I can get out of bed disabled). There is only so much I can do, so much energy that I have. And deep down, I am tired. Beyond exhausted, really. Will taking these classes really do anything? Is making myself feel better even that interesting of a goal? I understand that self-care is important. I even understand that living your life, living it freely and proudly, can be a kind of political statement. But it doesn’t feel like enough.
I was speaking to a friend of mine on the phone after the election and he said, “Plant a garden. Buy a gun.” While I do not like guns and do not own a gun (I am in fact afraid of guns, hence the gun safety class), I do enjoy this perspective. I interpret it as “Defend your body, and the bodies of those you love. Live outside the systems of power. Live sustainably.” Maybe planting a vegetable garden is one of the most revolutionary things we can do in a time when big business and agri-business run our lives. As someone who basically lives within the health care system, I wouldn’t mind getting out of there too. Perhaps living within sustainable systems is what separates us the most from the grid of industry, the military, and Trump. I am not saying everyone should have these values, or immediately start doing what I’ve been doing. But I am looking for answers.
These classes, useful in the long run or not, have given me some skills on which I can base action. They remind me of who my community is and who I want to be when I grow up. But they can’t be an end in themselves. This is going to be a long fight (it always was a long fight). I’m trying to get ready. 

White Line–Musing on Love’s Education

Driving at night on a dark country road, I always think of someone I once loved who taught me to navigate by the white right hand line. It’s a handy bit of information. I never think of it though, without remembering the relationship, which came to a sad end.
When I bang a jar bottom to open it, when I put raisins or olives in a cooked dish, when I use the expression “God willing and the creek don’t rise,” I think of those who introduced me to these small yet pungent things.

How To Activate Your Inner Activist

Since Trump’s election, many folks have felt depressed or paralyzed. But we don’t have to suffer that way. You’ll have to forgive me—but I once made a big chunk of my living as a freelancer writing How To articles. So I’m just going to continue…

How To Be Politically Active

First off, settle on this as you goal. Your goal is not to save America—or even yourself. Your goal is to engage in an activity that might be new to you, or that you might be out of touch with. The following steps aren’t that different than those you’d take towards a healthier diet or a good exercise regime.

Then, decide on what you—and you alone—count as resistance to tyranny and fighting for justice. Make a list of everything and anything. Voter registration? Food equity? Land preservation? Fighting racism? This is your list.

The Jewish philosopher Maimonides said there were four levels of ethical action:

1. Ordinary kindness (holding the door for someone)
2. Following a formal commandment/good deed—known as mitvot (visiting the sick)
3. Social Justice
4. Charity

It’s fascinating that charity is the highest, but I’m guessing that is because it has the spiritual element of sacrifice, even a small one. We’re going to focus on levels 3 and 4, in large part because I’m guessing you’re already engage in 1 and 2.

Now, make a giant list of anything you might do from fundraising to letter writing to marching to joining a group to clicking on a donation link. You can prioritize the things you like best. And respect your own strengths and character—introverts will chose differently than extroverts, moms with little kids are different than childless folks, etc. I’m actually going to allow you self-education as part of your program. This is about reading a book on history or theory—not checking Facebook (or articles on line).

OK—now here is the important part. Decide exactly how often you are going to engage in these activities. I suggest starting off with twice a week. Write this down. Concretize it. Actually, quantify it. This technique is something I learned in twenty plus years of peer coaching with my friend Ana.

Frequency is more important than duration (you wouldn’t brush your teeth for 30 minutes once a week). Also, a minimum frequency can always be extended or added to.

If you do this, you will have activated yourself. You won’t have met a grandiose goal, but coaching is made up of attainable sized ones. In the book “Designing A Life” the authors say that something is not a problem if it doesn’t have a solution. Rather, these things are conditions of our existence—like suffering, death, and the human inclination to do evil as well as good.

But many things do have solutions, including our own passivity.

My last piece of advice: have some fun.

Let’s say you go to a rally or protest march. Will this make America the country you want to live in in fifteen minutes? No. Will it give you super powers to save the world? No.

It will, however, meet several goals:

1. You can check an activism item off your list for the week
2. You will get fresh air and exercise
3. You may enjoy some music or poetry or something edifying
4. You may see your friends—you might even do some networking
5. You will get out of the house and enjoy your city or town
6. You will most likely have your thoughts provoked and learn something
7. It will make the news
8. It will put pressure on your elected representatives
9. It will bring people together

Do remember. To take positive action, you do NOT have to
1. Provide a complex solution
2. Be perfect
3. Blame anyone

By analogy, if you were diagnosed with diabetes, you would not have to find the cure. You would not need to be a poster child of compliance. But you should do what you need to do to take care of yourself. You already have the skills to be an activist—because they are your usual problem solving skills.

Let me know how it goes!


Beautiful images still on the fence in the Railyard’s outdoor photography show.