Saturday, December 31, 2016

Hidden in Plain Light

So already, I live in an old factory building that was converted into condominiums, so my home has no deck, no yard, no garden. But my living room is home to many Christmas cactus plants, and I look at them daily, watching and waiting for them to do what they do when they're not just sitting there being green: sprout new leaves, shed old ones, bud, flower. They matter to me, so much so that when I first started blogging, I likened myself to my largest then pot-bound Christmas cactus that appeared to be thriving but really wasn't, and that I believed would flourish once its contents were divided among three separate, ample pots. The optimistic prediction connected to that metaphor hasn't been fulfilled. In fact, at any given time, a few of my plants shine and thrive, and at least one of them droops and struggles.

The largest of my current crop has grown from a tiny plant given to me by a colleague. She'd rooted a clipping from the green aureole that encircled a gigantic Christmas cactus that had been in her family for almost two hundred years. You see it here to the left, its many frilly but sturdy branches reaching out and up on all sides, a fit companion for my menorah whose arms are also lifted even more wide than high.

That menorah matters because a funny thing happened when I lit it on the second night of Chanukah: in the candlelight, I saw a Christmas cactus flower in full bloom beneath the dense but not opaque curtain of that massive plant's layered branches. It was so low that it was actually lying on the quilted runner that covers the bookcase on which the menorah and plant both sit

I thought I'd been looking closely at that plant: I'd definitely been examining it from a number of different angles not because I cared whether it bloomed around Christmastime, but because I'd observed an abundance of new buds at the ends of the branches closest to my dining room window

But clearly the number and placement of these buds had obliterated any expectations I had of seeing even a bud in the remote shade of its wide-spreading branches, let alone a full-out flower. Plenty of plants have flowers that bloom in the shade, but I was looking for blossoms at this plant's extremities as they reached toward the scant December sunlight coming through my windows. I'd blown it.

There were two lessons to be learned from this experience, two personal take-aways:
  • Looking too hard can cause you not to see.
  • Good light helps.  
Valentine's Day Blooming (card by Burk Ketcham)
Before I talk about each of these probably somewhat obvious lessons, a warning to you that I'm going to talk about them from my personal very secular Jewish standpoint. So you should know the following.

First, I've always been just a little resentful that the plants of genus Schlumbergera that I love so much are known as Christmas cacti. From my point of view, this is just another example of how the West's dominant Christian culture so easily appropriates things that aren't inherently or exclusively Christian. When I first learned that the genus was named after Frederic Schlumberger, I hoped that I might discover that he was Jewish; he wasn't. Still, I refer to each of my plants as a "Christmas cactus" because it's only a commercial name, it's easier to say, and people know what I'm talking about.

Second, among the books that have most influenced me this year is Larry Kushner's God Was in This Place and I, i Did Not Know.* It presents eight famous Jewish teachers' interpretations of the biblical story of Jacob and the Ladder of Angels that, according to Kushner, "collectively, . . ., represent most, and possibly all, the viable options for understanding the relationship between God's self-concealment and our own self-preoccupation" (12).

There are two big assertions in Kushner's words, and both resonate me. The first is that as omnipresent as He is for Jews, G-d is always concealed, never even temporarily incarnate--which does not mean He is never revealed or never reveals Himself.** The second is that human beings are by nature self-involved, and even those who strive most earnestly to get out of their own ways succeed less often and less fully than they wish.

Looking too hard can cause you not to see.
The first of my takeaways relates to Kushner's second big assertion. I love when my genus Schlumbergera plants flower, and I enjoy every stage of their "revealed" flowering activity. But I think that once I notice that one or more of my plants has sprouted tiny buds, I become so busy watching, keeping track, and speculating about when they'll bloom that I end up missing what's there to see. This time, I practically missed seeing the first flower. The more I can manage to not to watch myself watching, the better chance I'll have of seeing flowers.

Good light helps. 
In my case it was the actual candlelight of the menorah that set me straight. But I was lighting that menorah in celebration of the Chanukah eight-day miracle that followed the rededication of the Temple to G-d. My lighting the menorah, especially this year, has had much to do with Kushner's first assertion, which he extends with this next sentence: "They [the eight interpretations] also explain . . . 'God is in the self, but the self is not God'" (12).***

For much of this past year, I've alternated between embracing and resisting knowing that one of the places that G-d is concealed is inside of me. Sometimes, I've felt G-d is in me; other times I haven't. Those times when I think I've felt G-d within me, I've felt Him as a light within me. It's been an important beginning that's made me optimistic.  

Interestingly, the holiday greeting I received this season that most felt like a match to what I was feeling and that shored me up spiritually and politically came from the parents**** of a dear friend of mine who are active in their church and their community. I think it was their words about G-d within, which felt so Jewish to me, that most buoyed me:
"In spite of the wars and desolation, in spite of the depressing outcome of our national election, in spite of advancing climate change, Christmas is a season of hope. At this year's Lessons and Carols at Williams College, the message was penetrating. God does not come from "out there" to rescue us. God comes from inside, from inside Mary as she prepared to give birth; a birth in the middle of a frazzled, worn down humanity. We want to look beyond ourselves for rescue, for things to be put right, to be saved from the ravages we have brought upon ourselves. But our God is already here, inside of us, yearning for us to achieve hope and resilience. Change begins with us, with God in us."
Incarnation does not matter to me as a Jewish person. But envisioning and experiencing G-d within me and feeling compelled and empowered to respond effectively to present-day realities and make a better world: these are ideas I am already on board with, though staying on board with them throughout the new year and actually living them is going to challenge me continually.

It's New Year's Eve, the seventh day of Christmas, and the eighth and final night of Chanukah. Look hard, but not just where you might have thought to look or find. Trust the light within and beyond you. And may your new year flower in the ways you hope and the ways you didn't even think to imagine!

* Kushner, L. (1991). God was in this place & I, i did not know: Finding self, spirituality, and ultimate meaning. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Pub.   
** Kushner says in the same chapter, "For Jews the central religious act is not incarnation but interpretation" (16). I suspect that while some Jews might challenge his ideas about interpretation, they would support his point about incarnation's being inherently valuable and definingly important only to non-Jews, and Christians in particular.
*** Kushner is quoting Alexander Altmann: "Self is not God. Alexander Altmann, "God and the Self in Jewish Mysticism," Judaism, vol III. no. 2 (1954) 146" (12/margin).
**** The husband in this couple, Richard Ford, has just published his second book about Jesus' parables: The Parables of Jesus and the Problems of the World: How Ancient Narratives Comprehend Modern Malaise.