Saturday, July 28, 2018

American July and the Three Weeks

So already, the July page of my Combined Jewish Philanthropies calendar juxtaposes two overlapping Jewish "seasons" that contradict each other emotionally. The picture at the top shows a bunch of seemingly carefree girls enjoying pizza and friendship at a Jewish overnight camp where they're experiencing "the fun of Jewish life"; the first three weeks of the calendar section* at the bottom--referred to by many as the Three Weeks--comprise a period of mourning and grief that culminates on Tisha B'Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Second Temple and a number of other "Jewish disasters." So is summer for Jews about pleasure, grief, somehow both? And is this question more puzzling for very assimilated, secular American Jews than for more observant, less assimilated ones?

Not that anyone would expect a group of prepubescent kids of any Jewish subgroup--the Facebook pages of my Brooklyn cousins show me that overnight camps are a popular summer choice for Orthodox Jewish kids, too--to be grieving over the destruction of the Temple and grappling with its meaning in their own lives. But if summer is the season that assimilated American Jews, like many other Americans, generally associate with more than a weekend's worth of freedom, fun, and leisure, it's an interesting challenge to reconcile this American pleasure imperative with this Jewish mourning period that's book-ended by two fast days.

Lots of different viewpoints in The Week
Or are they really that contradictory? While many American kids have been off at summer camp, a number of other kids--kids detained on American soil--have also been spending time away from their parents. And they've been much on the minds of American adults--at least when we haven't been thinking about the Helsinki "summit," Michael Cohen's audiotapes, the vulnerability of America's power grid and elections, and the recent killings in the Gaza region. Summer camp it isn't. Sadness and anger are palpable. If there's any good news, it's that more Americans--at least in my circles--are getting busy getting active. There are definitely some who are still holding fast to their grief, innocence, and entitlement to inaction, but many others have become more open to new understandings of the present and themselves, and to getting moving.**

But oh what a difficult moment when one large group of Americans believes the "real America" is being destroyed, another large group believes the "real America" has yet to exist because freedom, justice, and opportunity for all has yet to be achieved, and another large group believes the "real America" is finally being reinstated and reborn under the leadership of President Trump. In response to this complexity, different ones of us at different times feel newly disenfranchised, still disenfranchised, or potentially disenfranchised. And from at least one point of view, each of us is understood as complicit, intentionally or unintentionally, in the disenfranchisement of certain others.

Tisha B'Av is a holiday about national loss, group loss, not personal loss, and all of the groups specified above have been feeling loss for various reasons. Loss isn't the "summer stuff" of our childhood fantasies and expectations, but we're feeling it. Unless we turn off our televisions, computers, and phones, we just might mourn in connection to our particular "group loss" all summer.

Truthfully, I don't feel the emotion of grief about the destruction of the Second Temple, although I can understand that the event must have been terrifying, and also hugely challenging and dispiriting for those left to figure out what to do next as people yearning to live as Jews in a monumentally changed world. 

What I do feel grief about in this present moment is the enthusiastic stripping away of rights that I view as importantly American. I also know that while I'm feeling grief and anger over these changes, there are other Americans who are feeling joy.

If I have any appreciation of the function of the Three Weeks, it's because of Abigail Pogrebin's My Jewish Year; 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew.** While fasting on Tisha B'Av, Pogrebin asks Rabbi Burt Visotsky "why, when the Romans brought down the Second Temple, does Eichah [the first Hebrew word of the Book of Lamentations, which is read on this holiday] suggest the Jews bear significant responsibility" (272). 

Pogrebin summarizes Visotsky's answer: "The Talmud says we ripped each other apart instead of our enemy. When we should have united to beat back the Roman army, we instead argued among ourselves, even killed each other. Sinat chinam--translated as 'baseless hate'--was our downfall" (272-3). Then she paraphrases her own understanding--"I get it: God destroys us when we destroy each other. We will pay for Jew against Jew"--and then talks about how uncomfortable she is (as am I) with God's meting out such a punishment of Jews (273).

Screen Shot of Frum Satire Web Page***
The two of them then discuss the problem of "Israeli divisiveness," which deeply troubles Visotsky: "We're commanded to love one another," . . . Ve'ahavta Lerei'acha kamocha. Love your neighbor as yourself. We're commanded to love God. So why are we teaching hate?" (274) But the Israelis aren't the only problem: "'And we're all equally guilty,' he continues. 'I've certainly been intemperate in my rage about politics that I don't care for'" (275).

He makes the final connection of past to present with his next assessment of the problem, not an assessment with which Pogrebin fully agrees: "'Instead of working to find ways to talk to one another, we find ways to shut one another out. That's really the tragedy of this holiday. If you want something to mourn for, that's it. . . . We're just wallowing in sinat chinam'" (275).

A really good friend visited me the other day, fresh from the cabin where she 'd been camping out for the week. She'd just had an important insight related to a polarizing situation she'd recently been in the midst of. Recognizing that she'd put most of her energy into trying to make others understand her, she'd decided that in the future, she'd try to understand others before trying to get them to understand her.

In my opinion, America is in the midst of a big sinat chinam moment. I'm not sure if our differences are bigger than they've ever been, but I am sure that there are more deliberate, savvy efforts to manipulate us into conflict with one another than there have been in the past. Furthermore, our leaders all too often use language to disrespect and dismiss, and their example damages efforts at candid, civil conversation and any kind of bridge-building across difference.

As a result, we're all imperiled. Loving our neighbor is a great aspiration, but it's a long shot right now, despite how many of us claim to live lives guided by religious teachings. A good way to begin working toward it might be to commit to not hating our neighbor. The next step--and this one will take some work and practice, some stretching and skill-building--could be trying to understand our neighbor--which means listening more than speaking, and  treating him/her with enough respect that s/he might be inclined to speak sincerely and somewhat openly to us.

It's still July. Tisha B'Av was last weekend, so officially the three weeks of mourning are over. But as this blog attests, baseless hate is still much on my mind, and acts of aggression are still much in the news. Meanwhile, summer goes on--sometimes intense, sometimes in tents. Just had to lighten things up with a joke. Enjoy yourselves, even though there's much to lament and do. There's time for it all.

* Because the Jewish calendar is lunar rather than solar, this would not be true in every Roman calendar year. 
** Pogrebin, A. (2017). My Jewish year: 18 holidays, one wondering Jew. Bedford, NY: Fig Tree Books.
*** Fried, H. (2013, July 15). Why we still fast on Tisha B'Av. Retrieved July 28, 2018, from

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Finally Middlemarch #5: The Final Blog

So already, I finished Middlemarch--and the ending was GREAT! I am determined not to spoil that ending for any of you who haven't yet finished the novel, or even begun reading it--hence this screen shot of a tweet that is also missing something really important. But I am also determined to communicate my thoughts and feelings because before I got to the end of this novel, I truly had no idea of how it would conclude.

So what did I love about the book's final hundred pages?
  • There is an important exchange between two characters whom I didn't expect to have the occasion to speak to each other seriously or socially. And even if I had imagined their having an exchange, I would never have predicted the content and emotion of that exchange.
  • The exchange is the real deal: the characters are products of a society that hardly encourages the "well-bred" to speak directly, personally, and seriously. But the two of them manage to do so, each for the benefit of the other. The character who's been generally self-centered throughout the novel, the one for whom the experience of sharing honestly and openly is like "walking in an unknown world which had just broken in upon her" (796), corrects an important misconception that has deeply burdened the selfless other character because "'. . . you have been very good to me'" (799).
  • The emotion accompanying the exchange is tumultuous, genuine, and shared. The imagery is just right! When one of the two participants nearly drowns in "the waves of her own sorrow, from out of which she was struggling to save another" (797), the generally reserved other participant "involuntarily" kisses her forehead, precipitating a mutual embrace of several minutes during which they "clasped each other as if they had been in a shipwreck" (797).  

  • The exchange contains a poignant speech about the challenges of marriage that has fallen short of its imagined promise; it begins with the observation that "Marriage is so unlike everything else" (797). I was so moved by both its discussion of behaviors that potentially doom such marriages and the description of its speaker's delivery that I must have read it ten times before I read on.
  • The exchange has a positive--but not magical--effect on the situations of both participants. Yes, it provides a sense of relief and a sense of hope. But it does not flip a great imaginary light switch that banishes dark immediately and completely and just as quickly adjusts the characters' vision to the "new" bright light: the dark emotion that has surrounded both participants is too authentic and weighty to be thrown off easily. George Eliot explains one character's emotion as "too strong to be called joy. It was a tumult in which the terrible strains of the night and the morning made a resistant pain:--she could only perceive that this would be joy when she had fully recovered her power of feeling it" (798).  For the other, the positive outcome is simply a reduction in the level of her unhappiness: "'I was very unhappy. I am not unhappy now. Everything is so sad.'"

  • Once the exchange is over, the world of Middlemarch is not transformed--though some transformation could be beneficial to all. We're plunged right back into a society that talks about marriage in terms of property and "propriety." And we're reminded of how easily those who think differently about marriage and other subjects become the topic of others' gossip. Dorothea Brooke is one of those determined non-conformists who's not widely understood and approved--and therefore widely discussed. As Eliot explains, Dorothea generally takes action "amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion" (838). More fodder for those whose practice is to talk about people rather than to them.
  • Despite this situation, neither Middlemarch nor the broader world is hopeless--not when there exist people like Dorothea who are determined to increase the good in the world. As Eliot explains in "Finale," while Dorothea's active, helpful impulses are little known to others as her adult life unfolds, "the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill . . . is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs" (838). Goodness triumphs, if somewhat invisibly, in the novel and in our own lives.

I think that the Penguin Classics people got it right when they put these words from Dorothea on the book's back cover: "'I believe that people are almost always better than their neighbours think they are'" (733). From one perspective, this statement makes perfect, easy sense: if our neighbours have really low opinions of us, we might easily exceed them. But Dorothea's no cynic; it's something about people themselves--and neighbors are people, too--that makes her optimistic. From her perspective, people generally possess not only goodness, but also the capacity to affirm and support the (developing) goodness in others as well as themselves. Oh what a world it would be if people cared about goodness and neighbors regularly paid truly benevolent, active attention to neighbors! A better world, but not a less complex one.

* Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Edited by Rosemary Ashton, Penguin Books, 2003. 
** Screen shot of page on The Victorian Web:

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Finally Middlemarch #4

So already, I have only about two hundred pages of Middlemarch left to read, so I've just gone from believing I would always be reading Middlemarch* to fearing that someday I won't be.* Finishing a great long book is always a mixed blessing for me. Yes, it's a chance to go on to another great long book, if I'm lucky enough to find one relatively quickly. But it also feels like a farewelll to a dear friend who's moving to a time zone that will make regular connecting a challenge. Given the way great long books memorably create whole worlds filled with redeeming and infuriating features, characters, and situations, it always takes me a while to want to extricate myself from them. I need time and space to look back on and relish them before I'm ready to switch allegiances and embrace devotion to the next great long book.  

Recently, Middlemarch has been making me angry. While Fred Vincy avoids "disagreeableness," his sister Rosamund actively despises it as a downright affront: heaven help even her husband, Lydgate, if he exudes anything less than lighthearted complacency, let alone suggests that she understand their financial difficulties and make efforts to live more frugally. Mr. Bulstrode's bluster, self-righteousness, and flaws seem modeled on those of Michael Henchard, the main character in Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge--which makes him a great deal like a number of current-day politicians. There's just too much in the whole novel that brings to mind Gwendolyn Fairfax's comment in Wilde's satirical The Importance of Being Earnest: "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing."** I wish I understood the history of the dominion of form and style in British and American books*** about the upper classes and those aspiring to membership in them.

But it's Dorothea who's been on my mind because she and the novel's world are so mismatched. She has an abundance of the two things that other women--and also men like Fred--want: time and money. But to her mind, "'I have too much already'" (392), and what she really wants is purpose rather than the idleness generally associated with time and money by others in her world. No Rosamund could ever understand either of Dorothea's attitudes. It's her atypical desire for purpose that leads Dorothea to marry Casaubon, also a mismatch for her: her plan to have her marriage to Casaubon "bring guidance [--and therefore purpose and direction--] into worthy and imperative occupation" does not pan out, leaving her "not yet freed her from the gentlewoman's oppressive liberty: . . .." (274)**** 

So what else is the "failure" of this marriage about, besides the cold smallness and insecurity of Casaubon and Dorothea's quick decision to marry him on the basis of her unsupported fantasy of who he is and what he and she shall become through their shared devotion to his work? In general, what chances for a marriage of equals marked by moral purpose does any woman like Dorothea have in Middlemarch? Especially if it's the inclination of such a woman to seek after "unbecoming knowledge" (268)?

At the moment, I'd say those chances are really slim. Plenty of the men in the story like Dorothea, but that guarantees no full acceptance for a woman who's genteel and well-mannered but not truly "subordinate" (563). I was feeling hopeful about Will Ladislaw until Eliot described his reaction to Dorothea's passionate twin declarations that "'we don't mind how hard the truth is for the neighbours outside our walls'" and that '"we have no right to come forward and urge wider changes for good, until we have tried to alter the evils which lie under our own hands'" (389):
"For a moment, Will's admiration was accompanied with a chilling sense of remoteness. A man is seldom ashamed of feeling that he cannot love a woman so well when he sees a certain greatness in her nature: nature having intended greatness for men." (389).
There's no real response to Dorothea's statements; just some words from her uncle about how "Young ladies are a little ardent" (390). As for Will, just as soon as he acknowledges Dorothea's "greatness" to himself, he categorizes it as unnatural for one of her gender. It's her unnaturalness that causes him to experience her as less lovable, allowing him to think of his withdrawal of feeling as natural--and, frankly, as her fault. No shame needed.

Moments later, when a family dog approaches her, Dorothea pets him, "for she was always attentive to the feelings of dogs, and very polite if she to decline their advances" (390). Dorothea is more respectful of and responsive to the dog's feelings than her uncle and Will are to hers*****!

Shades of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: Dorothea has a great deal of "freedom from" but very "little freedom to," as Aunt Lydia would put it.***** If she marries again, I hope she weds someone I can respect. No wonder Mary Anne Evans decided to call herself George Eliot!

* Screen shot of photo on
** Quotation #10 in The Importance of Being Earnest/Study Guide: 
*** Screen shot of photo on Pinterest:
**** Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Edited by Rosemary Ashton, Penguin Books, 2003.
***** Screen shot of photo on "What you should know about petting a dog."
****** Sorry I can't give you a page number: I simply remember this from all those years I taught Atwood's novel at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Post-Heat Wave Notes on Boundless Summer

So already, during this June, summer seemed endless, and boundless. This was probably in part due to my tendency to think of the first three weeks of June as early summer, even though they are technically astronomically still spring. During the week of the summer solstice, in the area of New York just west of Williamstown, Massachusetts where our cabin is, the corn and the goldenrod were only as high a calf's eye--and their adolescent green leaves and stems lacked even a hint of yellow or gold. Meanwhile, along every brook, in every clearing in the woods, and along most roadways, flowering white bushes reigned. Not a hint of decay in the smell of this June world: just clean, light sweetness.

Back at home in Quincy around that same time, dawn was materializing early or earlier every day, first as a pale beige-gray filling my bedroom, then as rosy fingers settling on the old boombox in the room's far corner, and finally as a horizontal gold line moving across the wall opposite my bed. Down the hall, a crystal candle holder on the window sill produced a rainbow that daily inched its way from under my dining room table towards the kitchen threshold. Every sunny morning was a Chelsea Morning: "Oh, won't you stay/ We'll put on the day/ There's a sun show every second."* I became my grade school self at the beginning of summer vacation: free, or at least so much freer--with plenty of choice about when to do what I needed to do--and plenty of time to do what I wanted to do. 

I was surprised by my lightness of being: spring had been heavy going. And then came June, and for whatever reason, the world seemed to be growing, expanding, carrying me along with it. Each day felt like a first day of many such days. I was definitely riding the summer wave.

So I was equally surprised when I turned my calendar page to July, and I wiped out. Summer--and I--suddenly felt bounded. I think one reason for the change was the seven-day heat wave that had just begun. I tend to wish away heat waves while I wait them out. And if you wish away heat waves, or any other kinds of events, you also wish away time, which, in this case meant wishing away summertime.

Air conditioning probably was another contributor to my eroding sense of boundlessness. I hate air conditioning, and resist using it until I fear the sweat drops falling from my chin will cause my laptop to malfunction. Who wouldn't feel bounded on days when the window shades are partially lowered against the sun's heat, the windows are closed, and any ventures into the outdoors are accompanied by radio warnings about the threat of dehydration and heat exhaustion? When cold seals me indoors, I feel cozy and start planning what comfort foods to cook. When summer seals me indoors, I feel trapped, separated from light and life. My house becomes a box I can't think outside of.

Twice I've visited Kampala, Uganda and Singapore, where high temperatures and brief, intense rainstorms, are the daily norm, and thus are taken in stride by people for whom the word "season" is most often preceded by "wet" (Kampala) or "monsoon" (Singapore). Each day this past week when I've walked out of my building early in the morning, I've thought of these cities and their lush, fragrant vegetation. In Singapore, not at all a wild place, vines and shrubs flourish on buildings' outdoor hallways; on the outskirts of Kampala, flowers and greenery I've never seen elsewhere thrive along red-dirt roads and peer over the barbed-wire-topped walls of compounds. I loved the smell of early morning in both places.

Brief Dawn Over Lake Victoria
What I loved less was the brevity of twilight shared by both places, something I that I hadn't understood was par for the course in places close to the Equator. I knew I could expect day and night to be practically equal in length all year long, but I had no appreciation of the astronomical reasons for the comparatively brief night-to-day and day-to-night transitions.** Since dusk and dawn are my favorite times of day, I felt a bit deprived.

Early January Dusk
Unfortunately, I was in neither place long enough to learn to see the subtle variations of year-round summer divided into dryer and wetter seasons and days and nights of nearly equal length. As a North American living at 42.2529° N latitude, I find it hard to imagine passing time apart from seasons, lengths of day and night, and dawns and dusks of some duration. Knowing that about myself makes me wonder what effect the experience of less variation in light and climate might have on other people's senses of time and timelessness. Of course, I understand that other factors also shape perceptions and understandings of time. It may be that in the United States, our work calendars, school calendars, holiday seasons, and religious beliefs govern our relationships with time far more than do astronomical and meteorological phenomena.

Sunrise Last Tuesday, South End of Wollaston Beach
Currently, the sun is still rising over Wollaston Beach in its summer solstice position. In a few weeks, though, it will  rise in a slightly different place. That won't sadden me: I love the way each season in New England consists of sub-seasons. Without summer's, there would be no goldenrod and rose of Sharon in August. Or corn. I don't need summer to be endless. I do need it be annual. And my preference is definitely for it to be boundless.

Boundless? Though various online dictionaries define "boundless" as vast, without limits or boundaries, and abundant, I don't wish for summer to supplant other seasons.*** I feel that every season is abundant in distinguishing ways. So when it's summer's time, I simply want summer to spread everywhere and to infuse everything with its spirit. I like to imagine boundless summer urging us to rise early and go for a walk before the streets are humming with traffic. Or pulling us toward a place to sit in a park or garden, near some water, or next to a field or clearing, where we can just be.

Not that seizing and holding on to those moments and that spirit is easy. Air conditioned rooms with drawn shades certainly work against it. So do summer deadlines, online calendar message alerts, crowded subway trains, and people whose frantic doing makes everything and everyone around them vibrate.

Right now, I'm trying to get back on the summer wave. Poetry helps. Going outside, especially at dusk or dawn, even if it's only for ten minutes, helps. So does sitting next to an open window while summer simply comes in. 

It's easy to feel summer's boundlessness when I'm out at our cabin. Beyond our open windows on June and July evenings are that sure sign of both summer and the end of dusk, fireflies.***  But all day long, across our sills flow the hum and hiss of the front field and the dance of light and shadow. At night, we're visited by silence that isn't silent at all.

Quincy offers more of a challenge, even with the beach and Merrymount Park nearby. My open windows tell a human summer story: kids at the nearby daycare center taking their daily walk; the neighbor across the street using power tools to repair his porch; firecrackers going off late at night, probably in the empty grocery store parking; the slamming of a car door after a civil or uncivil good-bye. If the human story gets too raucous some nights, there's often a live broadcast from Tanglewood***** that I can listen to next to my open window.

First thing in the morning, though, it's birdsong--many of the same birds I hear out at the cabin. And then a few hours later, a sea breeze that crosses the sill, tempering the heat built up by morning's direct sunlight. Get ready, wave: boundless summer's coming back.

* From Joni Mitchell's "Chelsea Morning" on her Clouds  album.
** I did a little online research about this. In both places, the sun rises and sets at roughly 7:00 am and pm. In Singapore, not quite 2 degrees above the equator, earliest and latest sunrise and sunset times are approximately 20 minutes apart. In Kampala, less than 1 degree above the equator, earliest and latest sunrise and sunset times are approximately 6 minutes apart. 
*** Summer isn't even my favorite season.
**** T., H. (2018, July 5). Fired up about fireflies [Web log post]. Retrieved July 07, 2018, from 
Screen shot of copyrighted photo by photo@jsmcelvery that appears with this blog post.
***** The summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.