We all walk ancientrails. Welcome to the journey.

Book of Life, Black Holes

Summer                                                                    Woolly Mammoth Moon

20180622_193239Yesterday was a big day. Up early to write, workout. Lunch with Alan Rubin to start planning for the 6th and 7th grade religious school at Beth Evergreen. Home for a fitful nap. Left at 5:30 pm with Ruth for Boulder. We had a reservation at Japango on the Pearl Street Mall before seeing the Fiske Planetarium show on black holes. Driving home under the waxing gibbous moon with Jupiter below it, Mercury and Venus visible, too, as well as Mars and Saturn. A planetary moment. No twinkling please.

A highlight from the Alan Rubin meeting was deepening my relationship with him, learning more of his history, sharing some of my own. I agreed to take on the task of researching Jewish Liturgical history.

Rosh-HashanahWe want to reframe the high holidays, Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, in a reconstructionist way, then help the kids come to their own way of reframing. In the traditional understanding, taken here from the Chabad website, each year on Rosh Hashanah “all inhabitants of the world pass before G‑d like a flock of sheep,” and it is decreed in the heavenly court “who shall live, and who shall die … who shall be impoverished and who shall be enriched; who shall fall and who shall rise.” After ten days to seek repentance from those we have harmed in the previous year, God closes the Book of Life, sealing the fate of each worshiper.

book of lifeThe tradition implies a white bearded, Santa Claus like God who checks on the naughty and the nice. He takes out his celestial quill pen and starts scratching. He pauses, waiting to see what you have to say for yourself, then after a reasonable interval (the ten days), he writes fini.

How did these holidays come to be celebrated in the first place? Why? Who observed them and how? Have the observances and meanings of those observances changed over time? How? This is the exegetical move, gathering as much data as possible about the historical holidays. The hermeneutical move comes after it, asking what in our current circumstance, our present moment, if anything, corresponds to the original intentions. There is, too, a theological move here, asking if the metaphysics of the holiday can still be plausible. If not, that informs the reframing, too.

japangoIn my peculiar little world this is great fun. Looking forward to engaging similar research throughout the upcoming liturgical year.

Contrast this with my evening with Ruth. (Ironically, she is exactly the target audience for the above work, being a Jewish girl about to enter 7th grade.) We went to a sushi restaurant in Boulder where she had a sushi Tokyo plate. I had a sashimi plate, chef’s new choices. Green tea, too, for both of us. Ruth said, “You know me so well.”

black-holeAfter the dinner we drove back up Broadway to the Boulder campus of the University of Colorado, about 5 minutes. At the planetarium, where we’ve gone many times, we saw a presentation on black holes. It covered the usual topics of star death, neutron stars, supernovas and the formation of black holes with their extraordinarily deep gravity wells. It also covered recent observation of the long pursued gravity waves at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).

From the book of life to the heat death of the universe in one Friday. Quite the journey.

 

 

 

Traveling Mercies

Beltane                                                                                Woolly Mammoth Moon

about+friendship+best+fMario is already in town, taking wildfire pictures with his usual acumen, traveling over mountain passes. Tom and Paul fly in today and we’ll have a slow cooker Irish stew up here on Shadow Mountain, all of us. These are friends of well over thirty years, men with whom I shared twice monthly meetings over that time, plus annual retreats. That bond was the toughest thing to leave behind when Kate and I moved out here.

This was a men’s group in the old style, one supported by, though not directly part of, the Men’s Movement. Robert Bly, the well known poet who lives in Minneapolis, was a key figure in that movement and a friend of several Woollies. He and the early Men’s Movement folks rooted the movement in Jungian psychology, considering archetypes in particular. Our group, the Woolly Mammoths-“We’re not extinct yet.”-, went in that direction, too, discussing fathers and mothers, dreams, career, love, pilgrimage and many other topics with vulnerability prized rather than shamed.

left to right, back row first: Jim, Bill, Paul, Tom, Me, Mark, Warren

left to right, back row first: Jim, Bill, Paul, Tom, Me, Mark, Warren

I’ve been gone three years now and I felt the loss keenly in the first couple of years. These were my confidants, my friends, an external ballast that helped steady the little barque that is my life. Due to illness and divorce (Jon’s) our first years  here have focused on recovery and left little money or time or stamina for travel. There were visits here, which I appreciated very much.

Now Paul, Tom, and Mark will be here for a trip to Durango, current site of the 416 fire, and jumping off spot for seeing such sights as Mesa Verde and the Four Corners in addition to the Durango/Silverton RR, closed due to the fire.

I feel so happy that these guys are coming out here, that we’ll have time together, to talk, to go deeper in the way only long time friends can do. Seeing more of Colorado, all of which will be new to me after Fairplay or so, is also exciting. Looking forward to a memorable few days.

 

Reconstruct. Remember.

Beltane                                                                    Sumi-e Moon

UNESCO and European Union undertake to reconstruct the cultural heritage of Timbuktu

UNESCO and European Union undertake to reconstruct the cultural heritage of Timbuktu

Had an insight the other day about Beth Evergreen. The reason I like it there, feel comfortable there, is that I’m a reconstructionist at heart. Not a Jew, but a reconstructionist.

If I’d known about the concept when I started my reimagining project, I’d have called it reconstructing faith. Now, I do and I think of it that way. Reimagining and reenchanting are still part of this journey for me, but reconstructionist thought captures me in a particular way.

reconstruct scrollHere’s the key idea, from Mordecai Kaplan: the past gets a vote, but not a veto. That is, when considering tradition, in Kaplan’s case of course Jewish tradition, the tradition itself informs the present, but we are not required to obey it. Instead we can change it, or negate it, or choose to accept, for now, its lesson.

This is a powerful idea, especially when considering religious thought, which too often wants us to turn our backs on the present, get out a prayer rug, put our butt in the air toward the future and stretch out our hands in submission to the past.

LiveWhich brings me to another realization I had this week. Just like environmental action is not about saving the planet, the planet will be fine, it’s about saving humanity’s spot on the planet; the idea of living in the moment is not about living in the moment, it’s about remembering we can do no other thing than live in the moment.

In other words, this moment is all we have and all we will ever have. There is no way to be in the past or in the future, not even for a bit. We only live in the present. Living in the moment is not a choice, it’s a necessity by the laws of physics. What is important is realizing that, remembering it. Which goes back, come to think of it, to sharpening doubt.

ichigo-ichie_6The past is gone, the future is not yet. Always. We can be sure, confident, only of this instance, for the next may not come. To be aware of the moment is to be aware of both the tenuousness of life, and its vitality, which also occurs only in the moment. To know this, really know it in our bones, means we must have faith that the next moment will arrive, because it is not given. Not only is it not given, it will, someday, not arrive for us. That’s where faith comes in, living in spite of that knowledge, living as if the next moment is on its way.

 

Waiting for the darkness

Beltane                                                                             Sumi-e Moon

Got an e-mail from Mario Odegard. “…over Loveland pass to Dillon, WOWww mind blowing.” The mountains have that way about them. He was on his way to visit a friend in Frisco.

Summer2Probably not many folks count down to the Summer Solstice, but I do. It marks my favorite turning point in the year, the point when the dark begins to overtake the light. Yes, it’s the day of maximum daylight, but that’s just the point, maximum. After the summer solstice, nighttime begins a slow, gradual increase until my favorite holiday of the year, the Winter Solstice.

This may sound sinister, but it doesn’t feel like that to me. I’ve long been struck by the fecundity of darkness: the top six inches of the soil, the womb, dreams, the silence. In my world darkness is a place of growth and inspiration, a place where insistent vision can rest while other senses, some of them unknown, can take over the load.

winter solstice4Summer and the light has its charms and its importance, too, of course. A warm summer evening. The growing season. The ability to see with clarity. The sun is a true god without whose beneficence we would all die. Worthy of our devotion. And, btw, our faith. So I get it, you sun worshipers. My inner compass swings in a different, an obverse direction.

 

Beginner’s Mind

Beltane                                                                               Sumi-e Moon

20180315_080258Odd things. First, a small group of folks at Beth Evergreen, mostly qabbalah students like myself, report seeing me as an artist. A visual artist. This is based on my last two presentations, the first being Hebrew letters with quotes relating to their deeper meanings and the second, last Wednesday, that used the sumi-e zen practice of enso creation. Now I’m far from a visual artist, I have two very good ones in my immediate family, Jeremiah Miller and Jon Olson, but to be seen even modestly in their company is a real treat.

repair2Second. Damned mower wouldn’t start. As I said earlier. Put in fresh gas. No joy. Hmmm. You Tube. You Tube, that Chinese patron saint of the do it yourselfer. Looked up mower won’t start. Found a video of a guy. One with a small wrench who showed how to take apart the carburetor, poke wire into various holes and then, voila, vrrooom. Didn’t look too hard.

Took the mower out, put it on the deck so I could reach the carburetor easily, found a wrench, took off the cap, got out my wire, poked the holes in the thingy four or five times and put the cap back on. Oh, I forgot. I did the video one better. He said you had to drain the tank or gas would flow out. I’d just changed the gas and don’t like siphoning. Yuck. Gas not taste good. Thought of surgical clamps. Got a vise grip, tightened it down on the fuel line and Bob’s your uncle, no drip!

fix itBest of all, when I yanked the starter cord after closing the carburetor back up, the mower started. To those of you with a mechanical gene this no doubt sounds trivial, probably very trivial, but to me. Wow. I fixed it myself.

I mention both of these because they relate to each other. I like to challenge myself, see if I can do something I previously thought I couldn’t do. Exercise was one such challenge, now over 30 years ago. Still at it. So was Latin. No good at language. So? I’ll give it a try anyhow. Then in my recent melancholic phase I realized I needed more touch, more tactile experience in my day. That led to the sumi-e work and prompted me to see the non-starting lawn mower as an opportunity.

beginners mindI’m not an athlete, not a Latin scholar, not a very good visual artist and definitely not much of a mechanic, but I have an amateur’s capacity. Trying these things makes my heart sing, keeps life vital. I suppose, going back to yesterday’s post, you could say I have faith in myself. Not faith that I can do anything I try, that’s just silly, but faith that if I try I can learn something new, maybe introduce something important to my life.

Who knows, maybe someday I will be a visual artist. Nah. Probably not. But, you never know.

 

 

Sharpening Doubt

Beltane                                                                                   Sumi-e Moon

Note Durango arrow near the bottom of the map

Note Durango arrow near the bottom of the map

Good friend Mario (his traveling name) coming today. I’ll pick him up at DIA and take him to Boulder where he’s going to stay for a few days before Tom and Paul arrive on Thursday. Then we’re off to visit the 416 fire, see how it’s doing 13 miles north of Durango. Well, not really, but we do have reservations in Durango and the 416, still only 10% contained as of yesterday, is a monster, a megafire to use Boulder journalist Michael Kodas’s phrase. We’ve had to rearrange our itinerary already with the Durango/Silverton RR shut down due to the 416.

Sharpening doubt has become an excellent practice. The 416 is a good example.  When we plan, even as little as a month or so in advance, mother earth can shrug, say, well, it was a good idea. Or, pollen season. We take breathing as automatic until we can’t. My last couple of weeks of misery reminds me that breathing, that every few seconds miracle of exchanging used co2 for o2, the outside coming in and the inside going out, has its limits. And, of course, that is a reminder of its ultimate limit, cessation. We live as if. We live as if our plans are solid, our breathing will continue; but, in fact there are doubts about both, contingencies, real ones.

doubtHow does this make for an excellent practice? Doesn’t it really just increase anxiety? You might think so, but no, at least not for me. What it does for me is highlight the value, the necessity, of faith. How so? Faith is a choice to live in the face of doubt, faith is an act of courage that says, in spite of doubt, or because of doubt, I choose to get up in the morning. I choose life. Trivial? Hardly. Just ask Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, Robin Williams. Faith, not faith in a supernatural guarantor, but faith that for this moment the contingencies of life will not extinguish me, not overcome me, is a necessary virtue, in many ways, the sine qua non of virtues.

Living the unconscious, unexamined life, paying the bills, mowing the lawn, taking your meds, watching TV or movies, setting aside the reality, the truth that tomorrow is never certain, that even this moment could be fraught may seem easier, but in fact it’s a state of denial. What’s the problem with that? Two things at least. The first is that when one of those contingencies forces you against the wall, presses on you, it will come as a surprise, a betrayal, a monster. The second, and the one I’m working on with sharpening doubt, is it dulls vital living.

I want to know, to remember, to live in spite of the real dangers, not imaginary ones. Breathing can, will stop. That birthday party may not happen. This might be the day that a megafire rushes up the Brook Forest valley and consumes our home. Could be that as a result of the Korean summit meeting, instead of peace, nuclear missiles will fly. Could be that a guy like Trump will get elected as president.

downloadI want to know that my choice to come up here this morning to write is an act of small courage, an act of faith that my breathing will not stop, not right now, that I will not fall down the stairs and break my neck, that what I write has some importance in spite of little evidence. Think, for example, of Stephen Hawking. The contingencies of life, the abyss, opened its maw for him early. Instead of cowering before it, he did not allow those contingencies to define him, instead he chose to live as if what he could do in spite of those contingencies, in spite of the moment to moment dangers to his existence, was important. True faith. The courage to become who you are in the face of dangers, toils and troubles. That’s faith.

Not sure I’m expressing this well. Let’s try this. The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s denial. Denial truncates life, makes its secondary aspects appear primary. The job. The car. The apartment. School. This is where a religious metaphor is useful. We can make idols of our career, our marriage, our children, our home, even our fears. That is, we can make them, in H. Richard Niebhur’s term, our centers of value. We do that when they are the focii around which we make our decisions, guide our lives. They become, in every functional sense, our gods, determining our choices.

curriculumofthesoulv2But life will not be fooled. That job will end. A marriage can falter. The children can move away, disappear. Our home can burn down or be lost to the mortgage brokers. What happens to your life when it has its own personal Ragnarok? Can you survive the death of the gods? The answer is yes only if you have known all along that they are what is secondary, that they are not gods at all, demi-gods at best, maybe dryads or nymphs, maybe not divine at all.

What is divine, what is sacred is this strange mystery, this life. And it is fragile. Yet it is in its fragility, the precariousness of it, that the juice, the vibrancy lies. We can choose to become who we are as if that fragility does not matter, cannot force us into denial, cannot make us put our faith in temporary things, and, they’re all temporary. The true idolatry is to take the temporary as if it has permanence. The job defines me. This marriage will last. Our home is safe. No. The only permanence lies in choosing in this moment to live in spite of. To live as if the temporariness, the impermanence that defines life will not manifest right now, while knowing all along that impermanence is the truth, that it will have its way with our life, now or later.

 

 

 

 

Yellow Haze

Beltane                                                                     Sumi-e Moon

an offender

an offender

Winding down Brook Forest Drive toward Evergreen a yellow haze drifted over the road. My nose knows it. This is a two week + lodgepole pine orgy. My night stand had enough pollen on it to change the color of the wood top. We leave our windows open for the cool night air. As with many things unpleasant, this one requires riding out and I’d ride faster if I could. Somehow being in the present moment doesn’t sound quite as appealing right now. Wish I could make a short time jump over this oh so natural phenomenon.

Yesterday was a rest day, catching up on lost sleep, emptying kleenex boxes. At the cliched end of the day I felt better. Pollen counts lower by the end of the day.

Glacier alley, the Chilean fjords

Glacier alley, the Chilean fjords

Kate’s struggling again, still, with her weight. We had her on a positive up tick, but her dogged, and admired, following of the dietitian’s recommendations led back to nausea. Now it seems that each time she eats she becomes nauseated and/or has colon related discomfort. This is aversive conditioning around a basic human need: eating and is a problem we have to solve if she’s to have any quality of life.

Milieu therapy. Last night was a chair-ity event at Beth Evergreen. The old blue chairs, heavy and now showing their age, need replacing before the High Holidays in September. So it was a dunk the rabbi and the congregation president night. Hot dogs (Hebrew Nationals, of course), hamburgers, chicken breasts, potato salad, baked beans, chips. Beer, vodka, mineral water. Salad and condiments. All outside on the back patio.

20180608_181803Over the course of the evening I discussed quantum physics in relation to time, the placing of a second hive box at the Herman’s, travel to Peru, working as a marketing consultant, “In business, as a consultant, you’re always justifying your existence,” and watched Rabbi Jamie’s yarmulke float to the bottom of the dunk tank.

20180608_181810The weather was perfect. 75 degrees, dry and blue sky sunny. It was a good event for both of us. Folks came up to Kate and said they were glad she was going to be on the board. Two other recent shoulder surgery folks attended, their effected arms still attached to their body with slings. Kate has been consistent with her rehab. The pain relief alone has been enough to make it a successful procedure, but now she’s regaining range of motion, too.

The benefits of being seen, remembered, cared for. Huge. Necessary. Welcome.

Ensos and Hot Dogs

Beltane                                                                         Sumi-e Moon

C.C.

Under the sumi-e moon I introduced this ancient art form to the qabbalah class. It was a sight. I forgot to take the aprons from home and asked Tara if Beth Evergreen had aprons. She found some. All but one were bright red aprons with Hebrew Nationals (a hot dog) in prominent blue letters.

That meant that in this class focused on our relationship to time, utilizing insights from the medieval world of Jewish mysticism, a pagan skeptic led an activity rooted in Zen Buddhism, which itself has roots in Chinese Chan Buddhism. This is the beauty of Beth Evergreen and Reconstructionist Judaism. And Rabbi Jamie’s approach to qabbalah. It allows for both a broad and deep mixing of tradition(s), yet focuses on bringing the insights gained from them into daily life.

20180607_203218

Rabbi Jamie, Debra, Alan

In this spirit I introduced the practice of drawing the enso, not only as a profound symbol from the world of Taoist inflected Buddhism, but as a potential daily practice, one that insists on the present, that insists on marrying the body and the mind and achieving that marriage not by intention so much as by letting go of intent, the brush work an extension of the lev, the heart-mind.

It was fun and soulful.

Remember the Shark

Beltane                                                                           Sumi-e Moon

  • I know how well you have succeeded in making your earthly life so rich and varied, that you no longer stand in need of an eternity. Having made a universe for yourselves, you are above the need of thinking of the universe that made you.
  • On every subject, however small and unimportant, you would most willingly be taught by those who have devoted to it their lives and their powers. … How then does it come about that, in matters of religion alone, you hold every thing the more dubious when it comes from those who are experts?
    • Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, 1799

AbrahamSacrificesIsaacIcon_smFaith. The middah of the month for Beth Evergreen. Emunah. Last night at MVP, the mussar vaad practice group, we talked about emunah. Rabbi Jamie and Marilyn said that in the early days of mussar classes at Beth Evergreen, some time ago, the middah that caused the most consternation was this one.

I can see why. Faith is a word often used, but little understood. Faith is also a word often abused both by religion’s adherents and by religion’s cultured despisers. (Friedrich Schleiermacher) Faith is a sine qua non inside any mega-church in America. Either you have faith or you don’t. Black and white. It was true for me as a clergyman in the Presbyterian church. When I could no longer claim with authenticity that I had faith in God (whatever conception of God I was using at the time), I could no longer serve in that role.

Religion’s cultured despisers, a term coined by Friedrich Schleiermacher in 1799 in his book of the same name, often use faith as a straw concept with which to flog the irrational religious. Faith makes people blind. Faith makes people malleable to cult leaders. Faith makes people believe in a magical world. Faith blots out a person’s capacity to see the world as it is.

universe has your backOne of us in the group last night said, “The universe is for me.” I have other friends who believe the universe is a place of abundance, or, as author Gabrielle Bernstein titled her book, “The Universe has my back.” I don’t buy it. This abundant universe will kill you. It will kill you. This is not a matter of faith, but of oft repeated experience. The universe offers up all we need to live, then takes it all away.

I don’t believe the universe gives a damn. The problem for me is placing a value judgment on the actions of this vast context into which, thank you Heidegger, we were thrown. I don’t believe the universe is out to get me; nor do I believe it has my back. I’m a part of that universe and I can choose to live into my part, follow the tao as it manifests in my life, or I can resist it and struggle, but in either case the universe will keep on evolving and changing. Maybe what I’m saying here is that I’m not willing to shift the religious notion of God’s agency to the universe, no matter how construed.

If the universe is, as I believe it is, neutral to us and our lives, or, said another way, if we are no more privileged than any other part of the world, the cosmos, then what can faith mean? What is there in which to have faith?

nightdiving_titleTurns out quite a lot. Another of us last night told a story of night diving. A favorite activity of hers. She said she turns off her diving light and floats in the night dark ocean. While she’s in the dark, she imagines a shark behind her. The shark may kill her in the next moment, but until that moment she is keenly alive. This is, for me, a perfect metaphor for faith. Each day the shark is behind us. A car accident. A heart attack. A lightening bolt. A terminal diagnosis. Yet each day we float in the dark, suspended between this moment in which we live and the next one in which we are dead. And we rejoice in that moment. There is faith.

SharkThis is the existentialist abyss of which Nietzsche famously said, “If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.” Living on in spite of its direct glare, that’s faith. This sort of faith requires no confidence in the good or ill will of the universe, it requires what Paul Tillich called the courage to be. I would challenge that formulation a bit by altering it to the courage to become, but the point is the same.

Here’s the interesting twist. Doubt and faith are partners. As a quote Rabbi Jamie offered last night says, they live in the same apartment building. Here’s the big learning I got last night. Doubt is the true sine qua non for faith. And to the extent that we have doubt, I would identify doubt with awareness of the shark, we have faith. There is, and this is the aha for me, a frisson between doubt and faith that makes life vital.

sacred tensionSo. My practice for this month involves, in Rabbi Jamie’s phrase, sharpening my doubt. I will remember the shark as often as I can. I will recognize the contingent nature of every action I take, of every aspect of my life. And live into those contingencies, act as if the shark will let me be right now. As if the uncertainty of driving, of interacting with others, of our dog’s lives will not manifest right now. That’s faith. Action in the face of contingency. Action in the face of uncertainty. Action in the face of doubt.

I want to sharpen doubt because I want to taste what it feels like to live into doubt, to choose life over death, to have the courage to become. If I only use the automatic responses, make money, achieve fame, watch television, play with my phone, immerse myself in the needs of another, or several others, then I blunt the bravery, the courage it takes to live. I do not want a life that’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage. I do not want a life that is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5)

I want a life that flourishes not in spite of the uncertainties, the contingencies that are all to real, but because of them.

 

Art and Death

Beltane                                                                        Sumi-e Moon

for Mark

Bocklin Isle of the Dead

Bocklin Isle of the Dead

Durer: Knight, Death, and the Devil Department: Drawings & Prints Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1513-14 MMA Digital Photo #: DP102226.tif

Durer: Knight, Death, and the Devil

dias de los muertos

Vanitas by Jan Sanders van Hemessen

Vanitas by Jan Sanders van Hemessen

June 2018
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