Tuesday, December 24, 2019

For This Dark, Bright, Mysterious Season

So already, I love Bruce Crane's "Snow Scene."* It could easily have been painted looking south from Fenno Street in the Wollaston section of Quincy, MA, where I often walk.

I especially love the salt marsh at Black's Creek--Black's Creek runs through Quincy's Merrymount Park--at dawn and dusk. Especially in winter, the sweep of its wide, clean barrenness agrees with me. It's one of the first places that the increase in light--be it in the early morning or the late afternoon--can be readily discerned once the first dark weeks of January are over.

January--soon to be upon us--offers a blank, slow endlessness to our imaginations; December, in contrast, glitters, dazzles, expects, distracts, and demands. There's often little to no time in December for walking, for writing, for reading. So much doing and driving. So much stirring and stacking and baking and bringing. Even so much singing. And in the December 2019 season of impeachment, so much shouting and squaring off. 

If ever there has been a December that has needed art and poetry, this one is it. Darkness sends us home both wired and exhausted from the ride home's traffic and the latest news, but with many busy hours to go before we sleep.

When I finally stop doing--because I'm finally "ready," finally "done" with singing concerts, with writing cards, with cooking and baking, with wrapping gifts, with catching up on the latest grandstanding--I can often feel myself still churning, thinking and moving at the frantic, productive pace that has gotten me to "done" and "informed." At those moments, the silence and stillness for which I've claimed to be hankering sit on me like a scratchy, ill-fitting coat.

There's a transition that needs to happen, and sitting still with music, visual art, and poetry helps. Poetry reminds us--or at least me--that my heart beats with something more than the day's push, rush, and rage. So this morning I pushed back against "doing," sat down, and began reading. Okay, I admit I got to "doing" again when I began writing this post, but transitions happen in increments.

Luckily, blogs are great places for sharing other people's art. So as December 2019 winds down and the lights of Hanukkah and Christmas brighten the darkness, I share two favorite seasonal poems from Art & Nature: An Illustrated Anthology of Nature Poetry, a publication from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that pairs visual art and poetry--and to which I often turn when poetry and I have become temporarily estranged.

If you're reading this in late December's sunlight, I offer you first Ludwig Michaelek's "The Way Home."** The sight of home after we've been trudging at day's end through cold and snow: we who live in wintry climes all crave that.

It's a great picture to accompany "Good Night Near Christmas" by Robert Francis:
And now good night. Good night to this old house
Whose breathing fires are banked for their night's rest.
Good night to lighted windows in the west.
Good night to neighbors and to neighbors' cows

Whose morning milk will be beside my door.
Good night to one star shining in. Good night
To earth, poor earth with its uncertain light,
Our little wandering planet still at war.

Good night to one unstarved and gnawing mouse
Between the inner and the outer wall.
He has a paper nest in which to crawl.
Good night to men who have no bed, no house. 
And finally, another poem that recognizes the importance of stars: "The Evening Star" by Rainer Maria Rilke:
One star in the dark pass of the houses,
Shines as if it were a sign
Set there to point the way to –
But more beautiful, somehow, than what it points to,
So that no one has ever gone on beyond
Except those who could not see it, and went on
To what it pointed to, and could not see that either.
The star far off separates yet how could I see it
If there were not inside me the same star?
We wish on the star because the star itself is a wish,
An unwilling halting place, so far and no farther.
Everything is its own sigh at being what it is
And no more, an unanswered yearning
Toward what will be, or was once perhaps,
Or might be, might have been, or – – –

And so soon after the sun goes, and night comes,
The star has set.

I'm still thinking about those last two lines, still wondering what to make of them. But it's a good season for wonder and wondering.

Wishing you a holiday season in which you feel the star within you. And may you soar in 2020, powered by the love, beauty, and the stillness within and around you. There really is no reason all can't be calm and bright, at least for a little while.

* Crane, Bruce. "Snow Scene" (watercolor and gouache on blue-gray wove paper). Art & Nature: An Illustrated Anthology of Nature Poetry, edited by Kate Farrell, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992, p. 142. 
** Michaelek, Ludwig. "The Way Home" (Color etching and aquatint). Art & Nature: An Illustrated Anthology of Nature Poetry, edited by Kate Farrell, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992, p. 130. 
*** Francis, Robert. “‘Good Night Near Christmas.’” Art & Nature: An Illustrated Anthology of Nature Poetry, edited by Kate Farrell, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992, p. 125. 
**** Rilke, Rainer Maria. “‘The Evening Star.’” Art & Nature: An Illustrated Anthology of Nature Poetry, edited by Kate Farrell, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992, p. 130. 
***** Thank you, Kathleen FitzGerald, for the beautiful greeting card you sent me that I photographed and included here!

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Besodded by Scott Ketcham's Recent Paintings

"Winged Sod" by Scott Ketcham*
So already, whenever I encounter Scott Ketcham's most recent works, I almost always respond in strong, often contradictory ways. I love, I admire, I long to look longer, I long to look away, I wonder what it means that I'm married to the man who painted them. This year, among Scott's varied new works is one painting I immediately fell in love with, even though it has so much in common with some other paintings that creep me out.

To my eye and imagination, "Winged Sod" presents a voluptuous figure who's in strenuous flight, her head bowed, her wings--or is it wing?--extended back, her meaty, muscular legs--the thighs of a committed athlete--contracted in energized suspension above a field of crinkled white nothingness. Bowed and triumphant both. First impressions.

Of whom or what did she remind me--besides a number of professional basketball players whom sports photographers often capture in mid-air beneath the hoop, their arched and twisted bodies conveying their committed intensity and staggering athleticism? 

"Winged Victory"**
I took my first cue from the first word of her title--and did an online search for "Winged Victory."* Blogger saltgirlspeaks, like myself, was curious about the goddess Nike's missing arms and head; her reflection that "there’s a certain melancholy beauty to destroyed victory…"** got me thinking about the themes and overall mood of Scott's work: even in Scott's strongest, most nearly triumphant athletic figures, male and female, there's a feeling of tireless, unbowed resignation to perpetual struggle. I'm guessing that when Nike still had her head and arms, she exuded the joy of safe landing following a mission accomplished. Scott's "Winged Sod," in contrast, is still in motion, still striving, still flying--more in a state of ongoing intention than fulfilled achievement.

Missing body parts, athletic figures stretched more horizontal than vertical captured in action. Suddenly it was Rodin's "Iris, Messenger of the Gods" that "Winged Sod" had me thinking about. I had to laugh remembering the field trip one of my classes took to Harvard's Fogg Art Museum  on which our enthusiastic elderly-woman docent had asked my students, much to their teenage chagrin****, to look long and carefully at Rodin's anatomically graphic statue in preparation for comparing and contrasting it with a Degas ballerina that stood nearby.

More importantly, my association to Rodin's sculptures reminded me of two things that sometimes disturb me about Scott's paintings: that the figures often lack parts of their bodies; and that, when their faces can be seen, their eyes are often blank or closed, suggesting torpor, death, profound disconnection from the viewer or anyone else, for that matter. Iris is a mythological figure; how individual and grounded in the "real world" are Scott's figures, or do they represent universal aspects of human experience--at least as Scott understands them?

Clearly, it was time to talk to Scott about all of this. As far as "Winged Victory" was concerned, Scott told me that antiquities not even that long ago were often vandalized by collectors who were happy to lop off and carry home a part of them if having and transporting the whole was not possible: why not break off the head of the goddess Nike and smuggle it home in a steamer trunk? 

In explaining Rodin's many "incomplete" statues, Scott, who admits to Rodin's influence on his work and consciousness, explained that Rodin's work was metonymic, and then said that though the statue did not depict the whole body, it stood for and evoked the whole body. The more he explained, the more I understood that he was talking about that subcategory of metonymy known as synecdoche: the whole is suggested or implied by the parts or the partial, in this case, by the partial body.

Kensington Lawns Sod
It's always good to be reassured that your husband has no interest in beheading, abbreviating, or dismembering people, especially women. And that wasn't a problem with "Winged Sod" anyway: she has a head. Her thick hair obscures the face--so we can't tell if her eyes are closed. But wait: is that hair, and can one be sure she has a head? "Or is what I'm interpreting as being hair actually sod, "a section cut or torn from the surface of grassland, containing the matted roots of grass," that's taking the place of a human head? Of course, it is possible that's Scott's title is simply conveying an association that Scott is making. Whatever is the case, I'm willing to replace the goddess Nike in my imagination with the Greek goddess Gaia, who's often understood as Earth itself, the source of all.

"Head in the Sand (2)"
The problem is that, despite my comforting mythological associations, Scott has several other paintings that place women in relationship to sod and other earth surfaces that really trouble me. Chief among them is "Head in the Sand (2)": frankly, it terrifies and therefore repels me: the body seems butchered or at least completely vulnerable; from my perspective, the form can't breathe, let alone see. That said, I wonder what I would see if I didn't know this painting's title: a darker object at the bottom of the painting with a strong, dark upper edge, and a very geometric something above it that's cinched in the middle? This painting could easily be looked at abstractly. That thought made me understand Scott's general preference not to give names to his paintings.

"Edged Sod"
Not horrifying but still troubling to me is "Edged Sod." Its crouched figure may be the most Gaia-esque of Scott's sod-connected females: she hosts the living world, carries it on her back. But is she a willing and eager hostess? Observing her taut, compact, energy-demanding position, I surmise that she might be oppressed by the sod she carries, especially given the painting's title's suggestion that she's merely the edge of the dominant sod, thus more its servant than its source.

"Persephone Prepared"
In fact, there seem to be three distinct relationships between the figures and "the sod" in Scott's paintings:
  • In one group, figures actually merge with the sod/earth, as is the case in "Edged Sod"; 
  • In another group, the figures move in, out, and through the sod--but remain separate, intact, and fully human, as is the case in "Persephone Prepared" (I blogged about Persephone connections in Scott's paintings a few years back); and 
  • In yet another group, as in the case of "Uprooted," the figures are attenuated or otherwise "restructured" so that they have roots--or are roots, suggesting they've been plucked from the sod.

Whether that separation from the sod represents liberation or forced exile from the life source, I can't tell. Whenever I'm baffled by motifs and patterns that I observe in Scott's work, I invariably pay attention to the literary associations I make to them. In this case, it's T.S. Eliot's lines from "The Wasteland" that keep coming to me: "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of the stony rubbish?" But I suspect I'm quoting Eliot to myself only because he's articulating my own question. I'm hard-pressed to equate sod with stony rubbish. Dark as Scott's work is, there's a fertility to it: the darkness he portrays births things.

Recently, Scott messaged me a drawing that moved me--it was simultaneously sweet and strange. In this drawing, the two figures of indeterminate gender are joined, connected, intimate, encircling, and they seem to share common roots--unless perhaps they are sharing kind of charged connection emanating from something not on the paper.

Yes, there's so much that's mystifying in Scott's paintings for sure, but I would feel remiss if I did not mention that's Scott's artistic output this year also includes portraits and life studies very much concerned with conveying the appearance and essence of the individual person posing for him. My purpose here, however, has been to talk about some of his work that's most challenged me as a viewer.

So I end this post with two invitations for you to come see Scott's work large and up close:
  • If you wish to see Scott's most recent work, please come to his studio during the 4th Floor Artists Association's annual open studios on Saturday, November 23 and/or Sunday, November 24. Scott's studio is on the Fourth Floor of the Sandpaper Factory. 
  • If you wish to see more of a retrospective of Scott's work, please come to his show in the ET Wright Building that will run from Friday, January 10 through Friday, January 17; the opening is on Friday, January 10.  
Hoping to see you in Rockland!

* On Scott Ketcham's website: https://www.scottketcham.com
** Saltgirlspeaks. “Invisible Ink.” The Salt Girl Speaks, WordPress, 16 July 2007, saltgirlspeaks. wordpress.com/2007/07/16/invisible-ink/.
*** Rodin. (1880-1881). Iris, Messenger of the Gods. [Scuplture, bronze]. Fogg Museum, Cambridge, MA. Harvard Art Museums (web site).
**** When, after the observation period, our docent used the word "labia" and then pointed at the statue's female private parts, most of my students stared at the floor.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Holding On to Sweetness

So already, this morning was one of those get-moving Monday mornings. On the agenda was a visit from the plumber: my new washing machine was working well if and when the water flowed into it--which happened if and when the old valves, turn-offs, and associated pipes worked as and when they should--a circumstance that had ceased to be certain. I was going to be the plumber's first appointment, so I was up and at 'em. Not the day for an early morning walk along the beach!

Relieved as I was that my pipe dreams were about to fulfilled, I was also a little resentful of the timing of all this (and yes, I was the one who had jumped at this plumber appointment time for a number of dull reasons). Today is a Jewish holiday that I didn't understand at all until last year, even though as a child, I stayed home from school on this day in order to observe it. Back then, though, it never occurred to me to question anything that meant not going to school.

It turns out I'm not the only Jew whose understanding of Shemini Atzeret has been partial or non-existent. As Abigail Pogrebin says in My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, though she admits to "a bit of exaggeration*," 
  What's the easiest way to stump a Reform Jew? Ask him to explain Shemini Atzeret. 
   What's the easiest way to stump an Orthodox Jew? Ask him to explain Shemini Atzeret. (90)*
During her research/journey through the Jewish calendar, Pogrebin learned that "after the unceasing intensity of Elul, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, God is asking us to stay just a bit longer"* (91). God as yearning for us--all of us, each of us? It's still such a new idea for me. But given the centrality of covenant in Judaism, what more would I expect, even if I can't respond to it with a completely faithful, resounding "Yes"?

Among those to whom Pogrebin spoke was Modern Orthodox Rabbi Asher Lopatin. Her book reports on their conversation and her reactions to it.
He . . . sees Shemini Atzeret as a tender, bonus moment with the Almighty, in contrast to God's severe evaluation during the Days of Awe.
'This is the intimate holiday,' he tells me. 'Atzeret means detaining. We're ending this period of holidays and pulling everything together. . . . The term atzeret means stop and come in,' . . .. I [Pogrebin is speaking here] could use a breath to pull everything together; I'm feeling buffeted by the marathon that started in August. 'As busy as God is with the whole world, God is also interested in what I'm doing. There are no special customs. No special foods. No crying. No shofar. The message is, "Just sit there and be there."' (92)*
I so relate to Pogrebin's sense of having been part of so many experiences of communal and individual intensity since Tisha B'Av. But now as I sit here knowing the Jewish calendar is about to pitch me out into ordinary time after these weeks of heightened spiritual purpose, of study, of going here and there, and then going here and there again, I'm feeling resistant to letting them go.

Not that it's been a smooth ride. While these weeks have held me, they've challenged me. Sometimes I've longed for ordinary time. But interestingly, my sense of belonging and engagement didn't waver even in those many moments I wasn't feeling what I'd hoped I'd be feeling--and that was really something for me. I admit it: I still struggle to think of God as being "interested in what I'm doing." But I no longer have trouble thinking of Him as being interested in what we're doing. 

So as I sat in my dining room waiting for my plumber to arrive and fix my "ordinary time" problems, I was thinking about not wanting to let go of the serious sweetness of these last two months. But ordinary time was encroaching, and I needed to decide what to serve for dessert to several old friends who are coming to lunch next week. What would go with a bowl of clementines--or maybe with maple-walnut ice cream? I opened up Maida Heatter's Book of Great Cookies--given to me about thirty years ago by one of my anticipated lunch guests--and out fell a photocopy of Heatter's recipe for hermit bars: whenever I've brought these cookies somewhere, I've invariably been asked for the recipe***--so now I always bring photocopies along with the cookies themselves.

I didn't bake this hermit bar!**
Oh! Perfect, I thought. Ordinary time was looking to have great sweetness potential. Two kinds of sugar, and molasses. Currants, plumped by a brief soaking in boiling water. Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace, and allspice. Ordinary time would have some spice, too--first, wafting on the kitchen air warmed by the 350-degree oven required to transform cookie dough to cookie bars.

Julia Cameron would probably call this synchronicity--this immediate stumbling on the right cookie. No, I didn't make it to synagogue today. But as I sit at my dining room typing this, I am feeling distinctly present and deliberately seated--and much aware of the possibility of the sweet continuities between the sacred and the ordinary.

P.S. My plumber came and went!--and all's well with my washing machine and all those places that water needs to flow and not flow.

* Pogrebin, A. (2017). My Jewish Year: 18 holidays, one wondering Jew. Bedford, NY: Fig Tree Books.
** C. (2006, January 2). Mondays with Maida - Hermit Bars [Web log post]. Retrieved October 21, 2019, from https://mylittlekitchen.blogspot.com/2006/01/mondays-with-maida-hermit-bars.html
*** This link suggests raisins as the fruit to include. The book version of the recipe says one can use currants or raisins, and suggests golden raisins in particular.

Friday, September 27, 2019

If You See a Ram in a Thicket, . . .

"Le sacrifice d'Isaac'* by Marc Chagall
So already, in just a few days in synagogues all over the world, Jews will be reading the story of the Binding of Isaac as part of their observance of Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish new year. The blowing of the shofar, which happens many times during the High Holy Day season, reminds us of this story (among other things) because the shofar is a ram's horn, and Isaac is not killed by his father Abraham because, in the nick of time, Abraham spies a ram caught in the thicket and sacrifices it instead of his son.

It's a hard story that's long been pondered, interpreted, and discussed: the idea of religious obedience's requiring the sacrifice one's child is just so repellent to most of us. But it's also a story about seeing what's there. One interpretation of the story says the ram was always present in the thicket and therefore available for sacrifice, but that Abraham couldn't or didn't see it until he was just about to kill Isaac. Does such significant perception depend on the threat of terrible, imminent loss or choice?

Last night, I heard a poem by Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfield about listening to the shofar in this season of Jewish repentance. In it, she talks about the importance of learning to see, which may mean learning how to see differently:
The ram’s horn is silent at first
as is the ram.
Caught in the thicket,
Waiting for Abraham to lift his head and see,
It appears at the last minute,
Out of nowhere,
When it’s almost too late.

Of course, it was there all along.
Since twilight
On the eve of the first Shabbat, we are told.
It was there before darkness fell.
(We barely knew what darkness was then.)

It was there all along.
Waiting for us to open our eyes.
Waiting for us to see another way.**
As I listened to the poem, I found myself thinking about another poem informed by the story of the binding of Isaac: Wilfred Owen's "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young," one of many Owen poems about the life-wasting, tragic futility of World War I****:
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.***
Despite being called to "Behold" the ram in the thicket, Abram, the old man--Owen uses Abraham's pre-covenant name, the one he had before God promised him that he would be the father of multitudes--chooses not to behold, not to see or observe. And the result is mass senseless death and despair.

As I contemplated the several types of persons both of these poems suggest--the person who won't look, the person who can't see, the person who hasn't seen yet and will, and the person who does see and chooses to ignore what she's seeing--I began thinking of Greta Thunberg's comments at the recent United Nations Climate Summit:

For Thunberg, science is the ram in the thicket that the representatives of the world's nations are willfully refusing to see because of their greater commitments to their "fairy tales of eternal economic growth.***** Rightfully indignant, Thunberg chided the diplomats: "How dare you!" Her implication: Your fairy tales are going to cost my generation our lives.

Rabbi Cohen's poem includes the following lines about the importance of serious threat, and not just as an intellectual concept but as a lived feeling that makes clear what's urgent:
The sacrifice has to be offered.
The child will have to die.
This is the power of the ram’s horn.
It beckons us back to this moment in the story.
For many Jewish worshipers, it's just as Rabbi Cohen says: the sound of the shofar prompts a visceral response, a shared sense of the importance and immediacy of both the present moment and that early biblical moment. The real tragedy of our present-day moment may be that the children of the world and the national leaders of the world disagree that this is the moment of serious threat in which a change in collective behavior must occur or else the child, or the children, will die. Today's climate-activist children are right, according to the scientists. But the Ram of Pride is winning against the Ram of Life nonetheless. A teenage girl's voice isn't like the blast of a shofar, unfortunately.

So shofar or not, we move on/ And as we do, Rabbi Anisfeld urges us to
. . . think about the path we are all on together
The altars at the end of the road
The children we love but seem prepared to sacrifice.
Look up.
This holiday season, may we all wake up and smell the altars. May we raise our heads and look around, and see what rams there are that we can sacrifice instead of the world's children. Meanwhile, it's never a bad thing to see and seize life-affirming opportunity in the thickets of our own lives. May we all be inscribed for long, long life, especially the children!
* Chagall, M. (1966, January 01). The sacrifice of Isaac, 1966 - Marc Chagall. Retrieved September 27, 2019, from https://www.wikiart.org/en/marc-chagall/the-sacrifice-of-isaac-1966
** Anisfeld, S. C. (2016, October 06). Listening to the Call of the Shofar. Retrieved September 27, 2019, from https://www.jewishboston.com/listening-to-the-call-of-the-shofar/
*** Owen, W. (n.d.). The Parable of the Old Man and the Young--Poems | Academy of American Poets. Retrieved September 27, 2019, from https://poets.org/poem/parable-old-man-and-young
**** Yestervid. (2015, October 19). WWI - 20 Iconic Photos in HD (Trenches and Front Lines). Retrieved September 27, 2019, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xiHvu2T4Vls
***** Npr. (2019, September 23). Transcript: Greta Thunberg's Speech At The U.N. Climate Action Summit. Retrieved September 27, 2019, from https://www.wunc.org/post/transcript-greta-thunbergs-speech-un-climate-action-summit

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

In the Garden of Broken Hearts

Cut and Crinkled Heart**
So already, during a recent discussion about the approaching Jewish High Holy Days, I mentioned how much Rabbi Alan Lew's This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared* was guiding my spiritual preparations. Immediately, another participant in the discussion said that he'd hated the book: Alan Lew, the book's author, he explained, was a terrible narcissist.*** 

The man was offended by Lew's having shared his post-divorce pain as an example of broken-heartedness, or deep human suffering. The man explained that divorce, and by extension the suffering connected to divorce, reflected personal choice. "The death of a child, that's tragic," he explained. 

I know that the Jewish High Holy Day season is much concerned with judgment, but is the legitimacy of a person's claim to having a broken heart something to be judged? The Alan Lew critic seemed to be suggesting that only the suffering connected with tragic--terrible and unchosen--events merited our heartfelt compassion, that anything short of that was less worthy of our sincerest sympathies. 

I knew immediately that I disagreed with him. 

All of this especially matters during this Jewish penitential season because the Jewish sages speak explicitly about broken hearts. “'There is nothing as whole as a broken heart,' said the Kotsker Rebbe (rabbi, 1787-1859)."**** And when Rabbi Simon Jacobson reiteraties this teaching--he actually uses the word "complete" to describe a broken heart--and then enumerates some potential sources of broken-heartedness, he does not rank them in any way:
by Scott Ketcham******
"We all make mistakes and break things in our life, but life also breaks us. We've all been broken in one way or another. We have all experienced broken promises or broken relationships; we have all experienced the loss of a job or the loss of a loved one."***** (52)
Jacobson's hope is that the communal and individual meditations, prayers, and practices central to the Jewish High Holy Days will both console and effect the healing of people's broken hearts: "The reality is the world is a broken place--it's a broken place full of broken people whose job it is to mend what is broken."***** (52)

I hope so, too, because looking back over this past year, I recognize that I've been wandering through a garden of breaking and broken hearts. So many whom I know have lost loved ones this year. Others are continuing to walk beside those who are expected to die soon. Yet others are still grieving those who died in recent years. And then there are those whose hearts have been broken not by death, but by life: lost love, job challenges and disappointments, health challenges, the understanding that certain problems can't be solved and will only get worse. Others have been mourning a loss of identity, direction, and purpose.

In addition, for many, the experience of inhabiting a world in which so many--sometimes, even we ourselves--suffer routinely as a result of the willful exclusion, harassment, and neglect perpetrated by powerful others is another source of sadness. I hesitate to call it brokenness since so many who fight against injustice also fight against being characterized as broken. But when thwarted efforts to fight injustice and make positive change combine with other sources of anger and discouragement, the weight they collectively place on hearts can be straining if not breaking.

I've had my own sadnesses this year, and the sum of them on occasion has made my world far darker than usual. No, I haven't felt the broken-heartedness of someone who daily looks at an empty chair at the dinner table or into an empty bedroom at the end of the hallway. But there have been times when combinations of feelings--grief over the loss of a dear friend last winter (reignited the other day when I received a Facebook friendship request from him--OMG, Facebook hackers!!!!!); uncertainty about my ability to be both a responsible and a loving daughter to my nonagenarian parents; worries about other important people in my life who've been struggling not to become completely physically  and emotionally depleted by the health, career, relationship, and familial demands of their lives; fears that I'm really "not doing anything"--or at least not doing enough--with my "skills and talents"--without any accompanying insights into what I should be doing with them--have made my heart feel heavy to the point of breaking.

I think the man I spoke about at the beginning of this blog post would probably chide me for speaking of my sadness this way. But Simon Jacobson and Alan Lew would no doubt go easier on me. Neither man would advocate denying pain: Lew, whose Judaism often reflects his Buddhist spiritual roots, explains, "Getting into the habit of embracing our pain can be the first step toward getting past it by moving from the melodrama of suffering and affliction to a more pleasurable and primary world of impulse, energy, and sensation" (Be Still, 83).******* Jacobson says, "When your heart is broken, you are in a place that is real."*****

On three separate occasions this year, I've had the experience of the comfort of the real that Jacobson describes--and it took me three times to understand it as something more than a fluke. 

The first time, I was up in the middle of the night worrying, worrying, worrying, convinced that what lay ahead of me was a great deal of busyness that would ultimately benefit neither my parents, nor my husband, nor my colleagues, nor me. Overwhelmed by this sense, I stopped fighting it, and said to myself, "You are so sad." Suddenly my whole body relaxed, and I began breathing deeply. I hadn't decided to breathe deeply; I just started breathing deeply. I realized I hadn't felt relaxed for the longest time because in that moment, I was actually feeling at peace. Nothing about my world had changed, but somehow I felt held, like I had a chance. 

Breathing Woman Atop "Bouffants and Broken Hearts" *(9)

The next two times were almost identical to the first: at a moment when I was feeling overwhelmingly sad and failed, I again simply stopped trying to figure things out, stopped trying to develop solutions, stopped chiding myself for feeling bad about myself, and told myself how completely sad I was. That same thing happened: that spontaneous deep breathing and relaxation. That same sense of being cared for by something bigger than myself.

Teshuvah, whether defined as repentance, an accounting of the spirit, a turning, or a return to God and/or one's divine essence, requires effort and compassion both. As Lew says, "Our suffering, the unresolved elements of our lives is also from God. It is the instrument by which we are carried back to God, not something to be defended against, but rather to embraced" (This is Real, 63).

Philosophically, I agree with this, but I imagine this offers little or no comfort to those who can hardly breathe at all because they've been crying so much and so hard. They don't need to be reminded to embrace their suffering because they viscerally as well as emotionally can't escape it even for a minute. 

So at this moment at this time of year, I have two wishes. 

The first is that all those suffering deeply, all those who can't seem to find even a single moment when they're not mired in darkness and pain, find some peace, whatever its source might be. And the second is that all of us who suffer less acutely--but who suffer nonetheless--most of the rest of us--respond to our own and others' suffering with compassion and acceptance, and even love. And yes, I say this, knowing, as you probably do, a few people who seem to like nothing better than to elicit our and others' sympathies, which requires them to present themselves regularly as suffering; and yes, it's annoying. But even so.

Broken Heart on a Brick Wall *(10)
This season, may we all remember that this season is at least as much about compassion--divine and human--as it is about judgment. Time, we're often told, heals wounds and broken hearts, but compassionate people can help ease and advance the healing process. Whether your heart is broken, shattered, shredded, bruised, chipped, or just a little scratched, I hope that the months ahead deliver you from your pain. And may the new year bring you and your heart a new sense of wholeness, peace, and hope.

* Lew, A. (2018). This is real and you are completely unprepared: The Days of Awe as a journey of transformation. New York: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company.
** Cut and Crinkled Heart: https://static.independent.co.uk/s3fs-public/thumbnails/image/2017/11/16/10/istock-533477557.jpg
*** While Lew doesn't characterize himself as a narcissist, he does say in one of his books that he has a certain kind of nervy authority, a kind of shadow self that he's not all that proud of, but that allows him to write books in the first place. 
**** Kukla, E. R. (n.d.). Wholeness of a Broken Heart [Web log post]. Retrieved September 17, 2019, from https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/wholeness-of-a-broken-heart/
***** Jacobson, S. (2008). 60 Days: A Spiritual guide to the high holidays. 2nd revised ed. New York: Kiyum. 
*(6) "The Man Who Swallowed a Bird" by Scott Ketcham: https://www.scottketcham.com/post/132767564002/379-the-man-who-swallowed-a-bird-2015-28-x-19 
*(7) Lew, A. (2005). Be still and get going: A Jewish meditation practice for real life. New York: Little, Brown and Co.
*(8) Image found at https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&id=7FAF9C408758F68993F23060CDC772FC903D6959&thid=OIP.bVJAVfZHuNlg7ujK2xXdhwHaEK&mediaurl=http%3A%2F%2Fi39.tinypic.com%2F25z1ojo.jpg&exph=450&expw=800&q=dark+bedroom+at+night&selectedindex=77&ajaxhist=0&vt=0&eim=0
*(9) Clipart (Relaxation Techniques Clipart Woman atop "Bouffants and Broken Hearts" from the blog by the same name at https://www.bouffantsandbrokenhearts.com/; Garden Bits can be found at this address:https://www.bouffantsandbrokenhearts.com/post/76604966511/garden-bits
*(10) Screen shot of http://home.bt.com/images/is-a-broken-heart-as-bad-for-you-as-a-heart-attack-136422807691602601-171113143931.jpg