Thursday, September 25, 2014

Inch Thirty-One: New Year

Erev Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish New Year and the High Holy Days, started at sunset last night. I sat through a Reform service livestreamed from a Cincinnati temple, Temple Sholom. It was the first New Year's service I have attended in over three decades. To my surprise, some of the prayers (I did not have a prayerbook, so I was lost at times) and many of the melodies came rushing back to me.

I once read a rabbi contrasting the American New Year and the Jewish New Year. We ring in the New Year in America (and, indeed, in many parts of the world) with partying, alcohol, and fireworks on New Year's Eve. On January 1, we come together to watch football games.

In contrast, the Jewish New Year begins with an evening of prayer and worship, and the first morning of the New Year is spent in more of the same.

Rosh Hashanah starts ten days of contemplation, atonement, and personal reflection that will not end until sunset on October 4 at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Sometimes that period is called the Days of Awe. It is a time of looking backward over the last year and of looking forward to the year to come. One of the rabbis last night reminded us that there is a continue pull between two extremes: "I am but dust and ashes" and "the world was created entirely for me."

The rabbi spoke at length about the latter statement. It is s statement not about ego ("look how special I am!") but about celebrating the uniqueness of every individual. For those of us who give constantly to others, she reminded us that we need to value ourselves and to make sure we also nurture our own lives.

The rabbi then quoted from a poem by Marianne Williamson: "it is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us." It is our obligation, she said, to see the Divine in every moment. Let your living be sacred in a way that reminds you of the beauty of the world.

This morning I rejoined the congregation for the Rosh Hashanah service. Rabbi Terlinchamp reminded us that Rosh Hashanah is a chance for renewal, to be a better person. Presenting a passionate, powerful sermon about marriage equality, truth, and justice, she alluded to Yom Kippur and the part of the service where we rap our chests over our hearts. That should not be seen as our beating ourselves in penance, the rabbi said, but rather as knocking our hearts to open them up to the wrongs of the world that it is our duty to try to correct.

Rosh Hashanah and the days that follow are a period that requires the Jew to look inward, to atone not only for everything that has been done in anger, hurt, or malice, but also for everything that was not done and should have been done.

These are Days of Awe indeed.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Inch Thirty: My Facepalm Moment

I was recently invited to join a very small, very exclusive book club, an invitation I accepted with alacrity and gratitude. I don't know what the other two members call it, but I am calling it the Not Quite the End of Your Life Book Club, with a nod of the head to Will Schwalbe and his beautiful memoir of a similar name.

I'll write about the book club soon. This post is about my facepalm moment (yes, facepalm is usually written as one word) when I finished the most recent selection.

The book was Hyperion, the first of a four or five book series by Dan Simmons. Hyperion is science fiction work, a genre I almost never read. This one is cleverly crafted, with a framework based on The Canterbury Tales and with the poetry and persona of John Keats woven throughout.

It was the last two pages, however, that caused me to realize just how clueless I have been for the last half century.

Pilgrimages fascinate me. There is the Santiago pilgrimage. There is my pie pilgrimage. The Canterbury Tales are the stories of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, a shrine to the martyred Archbishop Thomas Becket. The characters in Hyperion are taking part in a pilgrimage, one that may end in the death of them all.

In the final scene, the Hyperion pilgrims are descending into the dark valley of their destination. One of them starts singing a tune to his infant daughter, an old, old tune from an Earth long gone. The other five pilgrims pick up the tune and the lyrics, and are soon stepping along with lighter hearts. As the path broadens, they shift from single file to six abreast, linking hands. "Still singing loudly, not looking back, matching stride for stride, they descended into the dark valley."

The song?

"We're Off to See the Wizard."

The allusion?

Dorothy (Judy), the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, arms linked, on the Yellow Brick Road headed to the Emerald City.

And my facepalm moment?


I have read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz dozens of time. I have seen the MGM movie countless times and consider it my all time favorite movie. I mean, come on!

And after all those viewings and all those readings and all these years, I didn't get the pilgrimage theme? I didn't get that Dorothy and her traveling companions were on a pilgrimage to gain knowledge or understanding or self awareness to a shrine to a wizard who some doubted even existed? I didn't get even a hint of that?


Friday, September 12, 2014

Inch Twenty-Nine: Spilt Milk

Wednesday morning started with the brilliant idea of making the instant pudding first thing in the morning.

Let me explain. We have my parents over for supper one night a week, giving Dad a break from the almost constant care he provides for Mom. A staple at every meal is instant sugar-free pudding, a dessert that my dad, who is diabetic, can eat and one that my mom absolutely loves. I will not eat the stuff, but I am more than willing to provide an easy finish to the meal, one that Mom treats as a delightful discovery each week.

I mix the pudding in the blender, then pour it into individual serving cups. Not counting cleanup, we are talking about a couple of minutes of work. Thinking I'd get a jump on the late afternoon supper, I thought I'd prepare the pudding in the morning while the oatmeal cooked.

Two cups of milk, get ready to add the mix, WHY IS THERE MILK RUNNING ACROSS THE COUNTER?!

A swipe of my left hand saved the milk from cascading onto the kitchen floor. My right hand grabbed the blender and dumped it into the sink.

Two cups of milk down the drain, literally and figuratively.

It turns out that whoever reassembled the blender last put the rubber ring on the wrong side of the blade. No seal, lots of mess.

After wiping up the milk, then rinsing and reassembling the blender, we went ahead and ate breakfast, the oatmeal being long done. I stewed over the mishap while we ate. Lost time, lost milk, a mess to clean up, so much for planning ahead, and on and on. I even brooded over the fact that I don't even like this blender, it being an inexpensive (read "lightweight plastic") replacement for the heavier glass blender I used to have. (A blender that I shattered into a million pieces when I dropped it on the concrete basement floor several years ago, which caused me to reflect on why I even thought it was a great idea to move the blender to the basement to begin with.)

Then Joyce Yates, my son Ben's fifth grade teacher, popped into my head.

"Don't cry over spilt milk."

Joyce taught her students that maxim to give her students a quick way to move on from their mistakes. It was a handy lesson and a useful tool for a group of 10 and 11 year olds. Ben took it to heart enough that he quoted it back to me when I was stressed out over a mess I had made.

"Don't cry over spilt milk, Mom."

Joyce was right. That long-ago Ben was right. I stopped brooding, finished my breakfast, reassembled the blender, made the pudding, and moved on. Still not my favorite blender, still not how I planned on starting the day. But the pudding was done and I wasn't wasting more of my day crying over spilt milk.

And Mom's joy at supper when I brought the pudding out was unmistakable. "Oh, this is so good!" she exclaimed, digging her spoon in with glee.

And it was.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Inch Twenty-Eight: El Camino de los Pasteles (The Way of the Pies)

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the Santiago pilgrimage after being moved by a documentary about walking the Way. Someone commented on my post: Every day is a pilgrimage and each journey starts when you put your feet on the ground getting out of bed. It is easy to romanticize the Santiago trip, but I would recommend your own faith journey in your own home. That would be a real adventure, thought maybe not as scenic. 

The comment may have some validity, but it misses the point of my post. My post is about the act of pilgrimage, an act which is capable of transcending the walls of our houses or the boundaries of our neighborhoods. And while one can take a faith journey every day without ever leaving the block, that is not necessarily a pilgrimage. 

A pilgrimage is defined in various sources as a journey of moral or spiritual significance. Pilgrimages to sacred sites are elements of many religions. Consider Santiago, Mecca, Shikoku O-Henro, Bodh Gaya, Jerusalem. Individuals travel far and wide seeking enlightenment, peace, God, answers. Making a pilgrimage is such a deep-seated human response that I wonder whether it is bred into our bones. It is not about being scenic or being romantic; it is about the search and the discovery. 

H. Richard Niebuhr, a twentieth century Christian ethicist, observed that "pilgrims are poets who create by taking a journey." And Martin Buber, the great twentieth century Jewish philosopher, noted that "[a]ll journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware." 

Leaving the house on a pilgrimage, be it to Santiago or to your elementary grade school, is an act personal and of possibly deep meaning to the traveler. 

When we went to Chicago in August, I was on a pilgrimage: el camino de los pasteles. The way of the pies. And like any pilgrim, I took my journey seriously, even though it had a lightheartedness to it. There were four sites I had scoped out before ever leaving home, wanting to sample the pie and the place.
The coconut cream at ¡Bang Bang!

The best pie in Chicago? ¡Bang Bang Pie!, hands down. Even without its delightful pie garden, Michael the owner and his crew turn out excellent pies. Everyone who worked there celebrated pies, from the young man at the counter who took our order to the young woman who delivered it while we waited in (where else?) the pie garden to Michael, who walked us out and talked to us about good pies. 

The spiritual heart of my pilgrimage, although I did not know it until I walked through the door and sat down, was Blue Sky Bakery. Ironically, it lacked pies (typically the crew bakes pies only by special order), but in taking a seat, I knew this was the purpose of my pilgrimage. 
Blue Sky Bakery

Martin Buber was right. I had not planned on the Blue Sky Cafe touching me so deeply that, even now, with these words, I can conjure up its close quarters. It turned out to be the secret destination, the poem I created by journeying there.

Why Blue Sky? Because of its mission to offer young adult offenders a chance at a different path, a pilgrimage to a new life, in a manner of speaking. And while I "knew" that about Blue Sky before I ever entered it, it wasn't until I sat down that I felt it.

This was a sacred space. This was the heart of my quest.

This was the secret destination unknown to me when I planned my pilgrimage. 

So why pies? Why mix the ordinary, the humble pie, with the sacred, the journey of spiritual significance?

Lots of reasons, starting with the fact that I bake a lot of pies. So many that I sometimes think I have internalized the meaning of baking and of offering pies, which I take seriously to be a mitzvah

Then there's community and my belief in my obligation to repair the breaks in the community (tikkun olam, again). More than any number of committee meetings, baking and sharing pies may offer some other route to wholeness, as evidenced by Blue Sky Bakery.
Blue Sky 

And to the extent that I have multiple roles in this community, there is no question that pie maker is one of them. While having a watch battery changed at the downtown jewelry shop recently, the owner and I started talking. When I mentioned that Warren at the Symphony was my husband, she looked at me and said, "Oh, you're the pie lady!"

The pie lady.

People see God in many forms and in many places. So if I see the Creator in a slice of pie, or in the sacred space of the Blue Sky Bakery, does that diminish the intensity of the journey or the sweetness of the pie? I think not.

Ramona just turned two, and one of the presents I sent out was a make believe baking set, including pretend cookie dough, a rolling pin, and a pie pan, complete with slices of pie. In this house, we have children's pie pans—patty pans, I'd call them—that probably predate Warren.

Perhaps I can set Ramona's feet on the way, the way of the pies. I would like to pass on that legacy. 

Practice your rolling, Ramona. You and Grandma April will make a real pie next time you are in Ohio. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Inch Twenty-Seven: O wonderful kittens! O Brush! O Hush!

Emails from either of my sons thrill me. A recent one from Ben sent me over the moon:

We thought you’d be happy to know that Ramona wants to read Color Kittens every night before bed.

The Color Kittens, with its vocative O, was written in the 1940s by Margaret Wise Brown, now better remembered for Goodnight Moon. It came out as one of the multitude of Little Golden Storybooks, those little cardboard books that grocers and five-and-dime stores stocked on spinning metal racks. Little Golden books made up a huge part of my library until I was old enough to get a library card and The Color Kittens, with its illustrations by Alice and Martin Provensen, was an early acquisition.

I read my childhood copy of Color Kittens to pieces. When I stumbled across a reissue in my adulthood, I bought it—the same one I read to Ben and Sam—and wore it to pieces as well. (Somewhere in this house is that copy with duct tape holding it together.) A few years back I bought three copies, hard bound this time, and set them aside. One for Ben, one for Sam, one for me. Ben's copy went out to Ramona.

The color kittens are two kittens on a quest to make green paint. "Of course the kittens couldn't read," but that didn't stop them from knowing their colors or from working in a paint factory, judging by their outfits and by the smokestacks on factories in the background, the building churning out buckets and buckets of paint.

We Skyped with Ben, Alise, and Ramona this Sunday and Alise remarked that The Color Kittens was the last book they read Ramona before bed each night. Sometimes, she added, Ramona insisted on holding The Color Kittens afterwards, and would fall asleep clutching the book.

That, I said, is a photo they need to take and email to me.

There is a deep sense of continuity in knowing that my granddaughter loves a book that I loved deeply as a child (and still do). There is a bedrock sense of satisfaction in knowing that the same words that lit up my mind light up hers.

In The End of Your Life Book Club, author Will Schwalbe makes a heartfelt observation about reading, life, and death, one which I emailed to Ben in response:

Reading isn't the opposite of doing, it's the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother's favorite books without thinking of her—and when I pass them on and recommend them, I'll know that some of what made her goes with them: that some of my mother will live on in those readers.

Someday, sooner than I want, I will not know which books Ramona reads or which ones surround her as she falls asleep. Ramona and I may never have an intense conversation about books like the ones her father and I had in his childhood. But I am grateful beyond words knowing that the books I love, the ones I shared with my son, the ones I send out for my granddaughter, will carry a piece of my heart into Ramona's future.