Friday, September 30, 2016

On "Hold" Before the High Holidays

So already, two weeks ago, in the company of my friend Lynn, who's often my companion when pilgrimage is required, I headed to coastal Maine--specifically to Castine, the home of the twentieth-century poet Phillip Booth and many generations of his family. Jeanne Braham's Available Light: Phillip Booth and the Gift of Place,* a gift from another friend and fellow seeker, Meg, inspired the trip. 

Braham's book combines biography, poetry, literary criticism, and photography because, as its title suggests, it's as much a consideration of the role that significant places play in our lives as it is an exploration of Booth's work and life. I suspect Booth would have felt pleased to share the stage not just with the place that continually anchored and gave him his bearings, but with the phenomenon of place itself. Given the habit I've developed since I retired of walking through the world with my camera in hand, I felt particularly drawn to this book because it not only conveyed Booth's world in words, but showed it in pictures.

Margo, Ann, and Lynn Look Out Toward the Harbor in Castine
I actually didn't finish reading the book until about 10:30 on Saturday morning, just forty-five minutes before Lynn and I, who were staying in Orono, picked up another friend, Margo (who was performing in a play we planned to see that night in Bangor), and began the hour-plus drive to Castine, where we rendez-voused with another friend, Ann, whose eldest son had attended Maine Maritime Academy, also located in Castine.

Determined to finish the book before we headed off, I reread the same poem I'd been re-reading for days just because, frankly, it filled me with peace and place envy. I wanted yet again to see what Booth saw, to feel what Booth felt. As a matter of fact, I think I wanted to go to Castine to see if I could feel the power of that place, even if it wasn't my place.  

In ten unrhymed couplets, "Before Sleep" recounts the poet's walk down the Main Street hill from his own house to the edge of the harbor late one clear winter night, and then his meditations upon turning back toward the darkened, slumbering town and the familiar human world presented to him by it. No photos accompany the poem, but in the photo on the cover of Available Light, Booth is standing at the harbor's edge on a winter day. I can make the leap easily to imagining him, hands in pockets, standing at water's edge late at night.

Three times in this relatively short poem Booth uses the word "hold"--and that's what got me thinking about that verb in the first place, especially in conjunction with feelings of peacefulness, belonging, and safety. The first two times Booth uses the word, it's in the same line of poetry:
By the time I walk out over the knoll,
down the steep Main Street

that dead-ends in the sea,
the village has put out its lights.

The winter stars are turned up over 
the tide, a tide so quiet the harbor

holds stars. The planet holds. (102)*
The first time Booth uses the word, it's a transitive verb: the harbor is quiet and still enough not just to mirror light generally, but to reflect the discrete light of individual stars. The second time, Booth uses it intransitively: the planet remains intact, stays its course, persists as it is trusted to do--and in so doing, reassures us and Booth that we can trust the order of things. All's well with the world.

The third time Booth uses the word, when he's more focused on land than sea and sky, he also uses it intransitively:
Whatever I know before sleep

surrounds me. I cannot help know.
By blood or illness, gossip or hope,

I'm relative to every last house.
Before I climb home up the hill, I hold:

I wait for my breath to quiet, breathing
the breath of sleepers I cannot help love.     
Booth's Beloved Main Street in the Light of Day
I can think of two possible interpretations of the poet's use of "hold" in the second half of the poem. First, Booth needs, literally, to stop and to gather himself together. His profound experience of connection with and belonging to this place has both stimulated and soothed him: he's momentarily, though quietly, overwhelmed by the love that radiates from every inch of his Castine. But though Booth cherishes being held by this place-related love, he also wants to hold as the planet does in the first half of the poem.The implication is that unless he holds in the sense of stopping and gathering himself, he won't be able to hold in the sense of being able to contain and then convey his sacred, humbling experience. The poem exists, so he does hold. As I envision him in that starlight, I can't help but think of James Agee's "Sure on this Shining Night."

So three things have been on my mind since my visit to Castine--which did not disappoint in the least: 

1) Particularly after reading Available Light, I've been paying attention to the word "hold" wherever I see it. Sometimes it's a noun--the goods in the ship's hold; sometimes it's a verb--"Hold the fort!" Sometimes it's a transitive verb--"hold that thought'; sometimes, it's an intransitive verb--"the center cannot hold." It's potentially followed by any number of modifiers and prepositions: hold back, hold on, hold still, hold in, hold out, hold up. My generalization after all this hold-noticing is that things that hold touch us, physically and/or emotionally--and things that touch us have power.

"The only thing stronger than fear is hope."**
2) Booth's experience feels idyllic and uncommon to me. Booth understood his good fortune, and I enjoyed reading about it. Frankly, I know only a handful of people who live in the same picturesque places where generations of their forebears have lived before them. Meanwhile, massive numbers of people in the world are on the move, and many of them will never again see the places that will always feel most like home to them. I wonder where peace comes from, if it comes at all, for those who are between homes and uncertain of what will happen next. I fantasize that for many, the sight of bright stars in a winter sky signifies only a night of frigid cold ahead. And I imagine that for others, despite their having felt compelled to undertake such a perilous journey and leave so much behind, the stars reinforce their persistent hope that's fueled by a combination of necessity and faith: someday, a warm bed in a place called home.

Margo in front of the Booth House
3) Finally, I live between the migrants' world and Booth's world, but practically in Booth's world, even though three of my grandparents were immigrants and I'd lived in three different homes by the time I was eleven years old. That I'm writing this blog post in the clean, warm dining room of my Quincy apartment proves my point--which is that I've always had a safe place to lay my head and call home, even if "home" didn't feel as much like home as I would have liked. That's why I read Booth's poetry with envy as well as admiration: I can't help but think Castine, which is home on every level for Booth, keeps him in touch with the Divine, which I call G-d.

Sounds crazy. I know. Obviously, I can't speak with any authority about Booth's relationship with G-d. While he speaks often and reverently of the infinite, Booth never mentions G-d by name. But for me, there's always been a link between place and G-d, just because I have always most--sometimes only--felt G-d's presence in certain places

My sense of the G-d-place connection has grown even stronger since I read Lawrence Kushner's God Was in This Place & I, i Did Not Know*** in early July. I've turned to that book often in the last month, September on the Roman calendar and Elul on the Jewish calendar, because the Jewish new year is fast approaching, and teshuvah, defined as returning to G-d, or "coming back to one's soul, one's Divine essence, to one's source in G-d" (Jacobson, 88****) is the order of the day, or month, for Jews. The good news is that G-d is particularly receptive to our efforts to return to HIm during this month. Which doesn't mean teshuvah is easy. It requires a combination of self-examination, mitzvot, and prayer, and I've struggled with one or more of these in different years.

As I've thought about what's been helping and hindering me during this particular Elul, the word "hold" has come to mind often. I've thought about what holds generally and what holds me, what could hold or take hold or take hold of me but doesn't yet (perhaps because I or others won't let it), and what holds me personally back from encountering and embracing my Divine essence and putting it to work for the world and for myself.

While I'm grateful to Kushner's book for legitimizing on some level the connection I feel between G-d and place,***** I'm even more grateful for its words about teshuvah in a chapter that's headed by the words "God is present, even in the midst of evil" (57):
We go down into ourselves with a flashlight, looking for the evil we have intended or done – not to excise it as some alien growth, but rather to discover some good within it. We begin not by rejecting the evil, but by acknowledging it as something we meant to do. This is the only way we can truly raise and redeem it. . . .

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye taught: The essence of the finest t’shuva [turning] is that “deliberate sins are transformed into merits,” for one turns evil into good, as I heard from my teacher [the Baal Shem Tov], who interpreted the Psalm verse “Turn aside from evil and do good” to mean: ‘Turn the evil into good.’ . . .

"Red Occasion" by Scott Ketcham*****
The conclusion of true t’shuva, of true turning, is not self-rejection or remorse, but the healing that comes from telling ourselves the truth about our real intentions and, finally, self-acceptance. This does not mean that we are now proud of who we were or what we did, but it does mean that we have taken what we did back into ourselves, and acknowledged it as part of ourselves. We have found its original motive, realized how it became disfigured, perhaps beyond recognition, made real apologies, done our best to repair the injury, but we no longer try to reject who we have been and therefore who we are, for even that is an expression of what is holy.

We do not simply repudiate the evil we have done and sincerely mean never to do again; that is easy (we do it all the time). We receive whatever evils we have intended and done back into ourselves as our own deliberate creations. We cherish them as long-banished children finally taken home again, and thereby transform them and ourselves. When we say the vidui, the confession, we don’t hit ourselves; we hold ourselves. (78-80)
How often does one read something that comforts at the very moment that it requires something authentic and difficult? Transformation is harder than repudiation--but there, in the last sentence of the last paragraph, is that word "hold" again. When we open the door to ourselves, we're reminded to greet ourselves with love and compassion rather than disgust and hate. What a relief, even though I suspect I will forever struggle to believe in this acceptance. That's my faith challenge.

Ann does some Maine-splainin'
There have been two teshuvah-related resolves that I've kept this month. The first has been to read Psalm 27 (I love Rabbi Brant Rosen's translation of it; my own Hebrew translation skills are nil) every day. The second has been to be keenly aware of all the people I love and all they do to make sure that I feel cared for, appreciated, and loved. The result: I've felt held on even the month's most difficult days. Though I planned our trip to Castine, it wasn't until my three friends and I were there that I realized how absolutely important and affirming it was to be there with them, all of whom I've known for more than twenty-five years and two of whom I've known for more than forty. And the the pilgrimage wouldn't have happened without Meg's gift of Available Light. People hold; places hold; G-d holds--sometimes all in the same place at the same time.

So before I wrap up this post, please permit one more English-teacher-style digression. My birthday on the Jewish Calendar is 15 Tishrei, the first day of the holiday of Sukkot, often known as the Festival of Tabernacles or Booths, one of Judaism's three pilgrimage holidays. (Booth/Booths--no doubt you see it coming.) As Jacobson explains, 
Sukkot ("Festival of Booths") is the name for the . . . [week-long holiday] which is best known for its joy.

During this time, we [many of us figuratively if not actually] dwell in little huts (or booths) with a roof of palm fronds, branches, reeds or bamboo, in which we eat all our meals and conduct all the activities of the day which we would regularly do at home.

These huts remind us of our total dependency on G-d--that our seemingly sturdy man-made shelters are nothing in the absence of His care. (118)
Not a Sukkah, But Plenty of Castine Sky
The Book of Jewish Practice****** explains that each sukkah's roof, to be made of natural materials, must be "sufficiently thin here and there so that the stars can be seen through it at night" (Jacobs, 102).

No wonder I feel such kinship with Phillip Booth as he stands beneath that winter canopy of stars that light and bless. It seems to me that I have been given just the right Jewish birthday--one that has everything to do with the positive but not easy challenge of reconciling uncertainty and trust in pursuit of deep, grounded joy and connection. Lucky me to have so many people in my life to go with me, to sit with me in that figurative sukkah, as I wrestle with this challenge and to note and celebrate any progress I make along the way.

Happy 5777 to all of you who are reading this post, whether or not you're celebrating the Jewish holidays. May you feel held and loved throughout the new year, and may you strive successfully to be your best and therefore most satisfied and world-bettering selves. And may we and people everywhere all be inscribed for a sweet new year.

* Braham, Jeanne. Available Light: Philip Booth and the Gift of Place. Peterborough: Bauhan, 2016. Print. 
** Photograph of poster enclosed in fundraising mailing sent by USA for the UN Refugee Agency.
*** Kushner, L. (1991). God was in this place & I, i did not know: Finding self, spirituality, and ultimate meaning. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Pub.  
**** Jacobson, Simon. 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays. 2nd Revised ed. New York: Kiyum, 2008. Print. 
***** In his book, Kushner interprets from the perspectives of eight different revered Jewish teachers the words that Jacob speaks--the title of the book [from Genesis 28:16]--after he's dreamed of messengers of G-d going up and down a ladder reaching to heaven. In one place, Kushner explains that "In rabbinic tradition, the Hebrew word for 'place,' makom, is also a name for God" (31). 
****** Jacobs, L. (1987). The book of Jewish practice. West Orange, NJ: Behrman House.