Saturday, January 29, 2011

Shabbat in My Own Way

One of the privileges of being a non-member is the freedom to adopt the religious traditions that have meaning for you and reject the ones that don’t. For example, I love shabbat. I love the ritual of bread and wine and candles and the idea of gathering at home at the end of the week for a meal, for leisure and rest. The idea of separating an evening and the following day from the other activities of life. Shabbat’s meaning for me is more personal, domestic, and—when others are around—social or familial, but I truly enjoy the feelings generated by shabbat. I do not say payers; I do not keep kosher; and I almost never avoid working on any day—Saturday included. As a non-believer, I am not bound by the mitzvot, but I love the peacefulness—the shalom—that this ritual brings.

So my observance of shabbat is somewhat haphazard. Yesterday was Friday, and after work I went to the grocery store and bought a challah. I have discovered that, when none are displayed, you can often get a frozen one from the person working in the bakery section. They must keep them on hand for the end of the week.

I had decided I would go to an early movie, so I grabbed a bite to eat at a Chinese restaurant before the show, eating dinner with The New York Times. I had pork, but at least I had pork in the location where Jews most often encounter treyf. And, of course, I don’t keep kosher.

After the movie I went home and lit two shabbos candles. No prayers, of course, and because I had already eaten and it was now 9:30, long after the prescribed candle lighting time, no bread or fruit of the vine. When it was time to go to bed, I broke another rule by blowing out one candle that looked far from burning out. According to tradition, once lit, the candles should not be moved or extinguished. They should be left to burn out on their own.

In the end, I performed only small pieces of the ritual. I lit candles, and I have my weekend challah for French toast. But it was enough to have a feeling of shabbat.

Shabbat is not really a sabbath for me. For me, it is a secular ritual. But I have found it to be a wonderful way to mark the time of the week and add a bit of peace to my life. So I am thankful for shabbat and for the freedom to observe it in my own way.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Anna Quindlen on Getting a Life

From A Short Guide to a Happy Life

So I suppose the best piece of advice I could give anyone is pretty simple: get a life...

Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over a pond and a stand of pines. Get a life in which you pay attention to the baby as she scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger...

Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work. Each time I look at my diploma, I remember that I am still a student, still learning every day how to be human. Send an e-mail. Write a letter. Kiss your mom. Hug your dad.

Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at the azaleas making fuchsia star bursts in spring; look at the full moon hanging silver in a black sky on a cold night. And realize that life is glorious, and that you have no business taking it for granted. Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around. Take the money you would have spent on beers in a bar and give it to charity. Work in a soup kitchen. Tutor a seventh-grader.

All of us want to do well. But if we do not do good, too, then doing well will never be enough...

Life is short. Remember that, too.

I have always know this. Or almost always. I’ve been living with mortality for decades, since my mother died of ovarian cancer when she was forty and I was nineteen. And this is what I learned from that experience: that knowledge of our own mortality is the greatest gift God ever gives us.

It is easy to waste our lives: our days, our hours, our minutes. It is so easy to take for granted the pale new growth on an evergreen, the sheen of the limestone on Fifth Avenue, the color of our kids’ eyes, the way the melody in a symphony rises and falls and disappears and rises again. It is so easy to exist instead of live. Unless you know there is a clock ticking. So many of us changed our lives when we heard a biological clock and decided to have kids. But that sound is a murmur compared to the tolling of mortality...

I learned to live many years ago. Something really bad happened to me. something that changed my life in ways that, if I had a choice, it would never have been changed at all. And what I learned from it is what, today, sometimes seems to be the hardest lesson of all.

I learned to love the journey, not the destination. I learned that this is not a dress rehearsal, and that today is the only guarantee you get...

Anyone can learn all these things, out there in the world. You just need to get a life, a real life, a full life, a professional life, yes, but another life, too. School never ends. The classroom is everywhere. The exam comes at the end. No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time at the office.

I found one of my best teachers on the boardwalk at Coney Island many years ago. It was December, and I was doing a story about how the homeless suffer in the winter months. He and I sat on the edge of the wooden supports, dangling our feet over the side, and he told me about his schedule, panhandling the boulevard when the summer crowds were gone, sleeping in a church when the temperature went below freezing, hiding from the police amid the Tilt-A-Whril and the Cyclone and some of the other seasonal rides.

But he told me that most of the time he stayed on the boardwalk, facing the water, just the way we were sitting now, even when it got cold and he had to wear his newspapers after he read them. And I asked him why. Why didn’t he go to one of the shelters? Why didn’t he check himself into the hospital for detox?

And he stared out at the ocean and said, “Look at the view, young lady. Look at the view.”

And every day, in some little way, I try to do what he said. I try to look at the view. That’s all. Words of wisdom from a man with not a dime in his pocket, no place to go, nowhere to be. Look at the view. When I do what he said, I am never disappointed.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Say Hello To All Whom You Love

An old friend, a man with a heart as big as the sky, ended a recent email to me with this sentence: "Say hello to all whom you love." The words do not trip off the tongue, but I cannot think of a more beautiful message.

Say hello to all whom you love.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Thomas Hardy on Women, Men, Love, and Marriage

Stonington, Connecticut resident Bill Emberton gave a wonderful talk on the British novelist and poet Thomas Hardy and his first wife, Emma, at the Stonington Free Library on January 6, 2011. Evidently, Hardy had a somewhat cynical view of women, men, love, and the institution of marriage. The passages below are from three of Hardy’s early novels and were presented in a slide from Bill's talk.

Desperate Remedies (1871)

How exquisite a sweetheart is at first! Perhaps . . . the only bliss in the course of love which can truly be called Eden-like is that which prevails immediately after doubt has ended and before reflection has set in—at the dawn of the emotion, when it is not recognized by name, and before the consideration of what this love is, has given birth to the consideration of what difficulties it tends to create. . . .

A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873)

Every woman who makes a permanent impression on a man is usually recalled to his mind’s eye as she appeared in one particular scene, which seems ordained to be her special form of manifestation throughout the pages of his memory.

Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)

It appears that ordinary men take wives because possession is not possible without marriage, and that ordinary women accept husbands because marriage is not possible without possession; with totally differing aims the method is the same on both sides.