From Iceland to Anatevka

Mid-October, late afternoon, a day positively brimming over with autumn light. Rain has taken down too many leaves too soon. All the more reason to relish the translucent mix of yellow and orange and green holding fast to branches on a tree in the distance. Autumn, even a less-than-vibrant one, asks me to reconcile beauty with dying.

A new book by the always wise Pico Iyer affirms my own sense of this riddled season. Sparked by a recent visit to the Japan he knows well, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells is filled with Iyer-esque eloquence and insights: 

“Cherry blossoms, pretty and frothy as schoolgirls’ giggles, are the face the country likes to present to the world, all pink and white eroticism; but it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze or ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.”


I’m in a line of cars behind a stopped school bus. I marvel at the unspoken language we think of as rules of the road.  To speed up, instead of slowing down, when the stop sign swivels from the window of a school bus, is to step out of time and place.

To watch children step down from a bus and cross the road is to marvel at the trust that makes it possible, even in times when technological distractions and impatience can wreak havoc on being present to the moment.  

* * *

A month earlier would find me in Iceland, a family vacation to mark my upcoming birthday, a big one. In December I turn 70.  Over the years I’ve been inclined to celebrate off-years—49, 59, 64—and treat the decade markers as an afterthought. But something about 70 asks to be acknowledged for what it is. This is not about birthday cakes/candles/presents, which seem to matter less and less with each passing year. It’s about doing something  out of the ordinary,  go someplace we’ve never been. Mother, father, daughter, and son-in-law. Together.

It’s about autumn, in all its metaphoric glory.  Not to mention the melancholy the season encompasses.

School buses, in all their Crayola yellow, speak to nostalgia. My daughter came home a few days before the trip, a deliberate Marie Kondo strategy to make the bedroom she left behind a little less of a shrine to her childhood and teen years. 

As if the classic nostalgia of the season weren’t enough, old photos sorted and weeded out would take me right back to another time, one that seemed simpler and more innocent. I was asked to be an observer, not a participant in the divesting process.  Her initiative had me feeling I did a decent job as a mother. If I can’t help myself in wishing she would let me help her, I do my best at standing back.

* * *

Iceland has come and gone, on its heels the Jewish New Year, another seasonal reckoning. One Sunday afternoon during those Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would find in the fictional town of Anatevka. 

The critically acclaimed revival of Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Joel Grey, is as timeless as it is timely. That this one is in Yiddish only enhances its poignancy and power. To be swept up in the cadence of the music and the choreography is to be reminded of how stories can be told without needing to understand every single word (even if monitors make that possible). To hear songs from the show that echoed through my Jewish childhood is to be reminded of the star power (Zero Mostel) that overshadowed a story that is more than a sentimental tale of an unraveling tradition.

Is it a wonder that schmaltzy songs hold sway over a story that shapeshifts from culture to culture, down through the centuries—Pogroms. Displacement. Family members bidding each other farewell, not knowing if they’ll ever see each again?  Or are my autumn years having me see things in a different light? 


Once again Pico Iyer: 

“We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last. . . .Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within the truth.”

Is it possible, I ask myself, to find that light without reflection, taking stock of joys and disappointments, hopes that have not panned out?  Coming to grips with all that’s out of our control? Then I ask myself: What are you doing for the rest of your life?


The first days of September invariably have me feeling a little blue. What is in fact a gradual diminishing of summer green hits sharply with the reminder that this is what leaves do before they disappear from trees. Within weeks they’ll start dropping with a fury as the glorious riot of red/orange/yellow takes hold and with it the reminder that the gift of autumn is in fact a dying.   These are the moments in-between, always the most unsettling until I give in to them, love the day for what it is without rueful thoughts of what is no more or anticipation of what’s still to come.

Easier said than done.

Everything in its time, even if it feels as if the things we want most seem to take forever.

This summer brought a break from routine, always a good thing even if it puts me a little out of sorts.

I read, and listened to, Pema Chodron, more and more a guiding light to a way of being I long for. When she sounds the note on what she calls ‘positive groundlessness,’ I consider the possibility that that there is no ease without fully surrendering to discomfort.

I learned to ease my grip on a kickboard so that I might experience some semblance of buoyancy as my body flounders with a little more fluency in a swimming pool.

I was lifted (possibly into the stratosphere) by Bruce Springsteen when he performed for nearly four hours at the Meadowlands. Not the first time I’ve seen him, but synchronicity was in the air for one more time. My daughter would be in for a visit, my best friend/concert buddy thought we needed to see him again. In his home state, to boot. And two days before my daughter’s birthday.

Which brings me to that thing called bliss, something I imagine as only possible when the noise—inside my head and outside—frees me of all distraction. Say the word to yourself, it slips through your teeth, unlike ‘blues,’ with its stickiness. That’s not to say it’s a momentary state, gone in flash. But without being fully present to the moment, there is no bliss.

I can readily go down the list of great concert moments in my life, alternately with my daughter and my friend, but the ties that bound bruce-blissus in an outdoor concert on a beautiful summer night made this one especially joyful. And even if I can’t pinpoint the moment it hit me, that higher level of joy I think of as bliss was made manifest in the expression on Springsteen’s face, thanks to those larger-than-life monitors.

“I’m always in search of something, in search of losing myself in the music,” he says in an interview in the upcoming issue of Vanity Fair. There is no one who plays to his fans, for his fans, like Bruce. Who else would sing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” with a fan, in August?

And just when he had you thinking he was done, taking on the body posture of James Brown as he staggers from the stage, cape and all (this one of course embossed with “The Boss”), he was back.

If I had trouble containing myself when he sang “Sherry Darling” early in the set, I could have died and gone to heaven when he gave “Jersey Girl” pride of place as a second encore, ending the show with fireworks. More to the point, from start to finish—including my dear, dear friend figuring out the sanest parking scenario and my daughter the designated driver getting us there and back like a pro—it was as seamless a night as possible.

I have lots of reason to feel blessed, even if true bliss still feels like something a little out of reach. Maybe it comes in degrees. Or maybe, like every other concept that evolves with time, we need to take a second look at it. The other day my daughter sent a link to an article she said I had to read immediately. I was in the car, and I had to wait, and the wait was oh-so-worth it. If the headline—I’m an Adult Woman, and I Call My Mother Three Times a Day—had me smiling, the writer got me with, “The timeless truth is that I constantly call my mom because she’s my best friend.” I don’t know if that’s such a good thing but she’s right on when she says, “Unlike friends, moms are more open to venting, bragging, and utterly boring calls, too.”

Bliss? I get echoes of it when I listen to Todd Norian during a meditation.

And I envision its cousin, buoyancy, when I practice my kicks and strokes in the swimming pool.

Then I remind myself of that feeling we all share and Albert King sings about so well.


12/12/12: You say it’s your birthday . . .

What tools do we use? One only.  It’s called attention.  – Charlotte Joko Beck                                                                    

Monday, December 10th. A dreary morning, the sky gray and spongy, an invitation to head out for  a walk, into the mist. A good pace (coupled with temperatures above normal) keeps the dampness from settling in my bones. It does not keep me from paying attention, my eyes lighting on drops of water not quite ready to let go of the branches where they have settled.  You could almost mistake them for buds. Except for the fact that it’s winter.

I can’t say I love cold weather, but I can say I love what the season brings:  daylight eclipsed by early darkness is nothing if not a metaphor for introspection and reflection;  at the same time, those beautifully bare trees speak to a feeling of being exposed.  Is it all of a piece, that sense of internal exploration and external vulnerability?  The mist takes on the full thickness of fog when I reach the lake.  I stop, entranced by its mystery, paying attention to what might surprise me. I can almost see the fog move.

Last week found me at a Chanukah Retreat, a day marked as a ‘rededication to your soul.’  I infused myself with the wisdom of rabbis, one who led a mindfulness meditation workshop, another who explored Jewish dreamwork. A yoga teacher brought the themes of Chanukah – light, fire, strength – into a workshop.  There were other workshops – sacred chant and movement, Mussar (i.e., spiritual self-development) – but my choices spoke loudly and clearly to me. What I experienced was both new and an affirmation of where life seems to be taking me. I learned that the Hasidic Master, the Sefer Emet, taught that the real miracle of Chanukah was the discovery of the light hidden in the darkness.

It’s not uncommon for my birthday to coincide with Chanukah.  This year is no big one in terms of decade markers, but 12/12/12 cannot easily be dismissed.  My husband has now dubbed this the celebration of my birth week:  Monday night, Gustavo Dudamel at Carnegie Hall (tickets I bought months ago); Saturday brings me to Boston, Leonard Cohen in concert (the gift of a friend);  then there’s the day itself, a once-in-a-century numerological alignment that may (or may not) bear some relationship to the Mayan calendar, with its own calculated wisdom.  The way I see it, if  everyone born on December 12th celebrates in a way deserving of the date, there will be no bang, not even a whimper, to what the world holds on 12/21/12.

Here’s what I plan to do:

Light a candle and meditate

Put aside disappointments and sorrows

Go to a yoga class

Head into the city, first to the Rubin Museum, a sanctuary for me. Then a funky blues club I’ve been curious about, followed by dinner with a few of those dearest to my heart at a favorite SoHo restaurant.  It might have been synchronicity of the highest order to land a ticket or two to the121212 Hurricane Sandy Relief Benefit Concert, but the price of the ticket, even for a charity event, gave me pause.  Not that I didn’t try, what with a line-up like that, my long-time favorites among the stars performing. The truth be known, a show I had the good fortune to attend in 2009, the 25th Anniversary Rock  and Roll Hall of Fame Concert, would be a hard act to follow.

Then again, maybe the stars this day (or this week) have something else in mind for me. The exhilaration of music new to me (Silvestre Revueltas’ La noche de los Mayas) conducted by the oh-so-dynamic Dudamel/Jr. Mack playing blues guitar/the unmatched voice of Leonard Cohen in one week? What more could a birthday girl want? Maybe a little poetry before falling asleep, although my anything-but-Zen husband has his own brand of wisdom.  “Sometimes a giggle in your throat is better than poetry in your head,” he quips. So delightfully consistent with the same man who  takes me to the Carnegie Deli after Carnegie Hall. And who buys me flowers.

I have an app on my iPhone, Zen Garden.  ‘App’ and ‘Zen’ would seem to be an oxymoron, and, yet, it speaks to a certain kind of yearning; the world of spirit is in flux, ways of observance evolving to encompass those of us with a sense that something bigger than a rock concert, more powerful (if less visible) than an app that places a rock garden in my palm  connects us, even as more orthodox orders dig their heels in the sand.  A Zen saying appears on my screen when I open the app; if I exit too quickly before absorbing the message, it disappears. Maybe that’s the point. There are no shortcuts to enlightenment.

Today’s message is one that makes me linger: The quieter you become, the more you hear – Baba Ram Das

So maybe it boils down to this:  Reminding myself, again and again, to cast aside all the ‘what if’s’  for the one ‘what is’ I face each and every moment of the day.



Secret Circles

I learned recently that the moon wobbles. Observing a simulation of that rocking motion – libration, it’s called – via a NASA app on my iPad is a cheap thrill indeed. Connecting this mottled image in my hand with the glorious, full orb in the sky tonight is a stretch . . . .and yet.

I can’t say whether the moon in my hand is in collusion with the moon in the sky, but I can say I feel wired, jittery. Wobbly. The sense of time passing grounds me.  The possibility that so  much still lies ahead lifts me.  I loved coming of age in the Sixties, for all the personal and political strife it presented. I am now in my sixties, the full moon coinciding (give or take a day) with my birthday this year. Next year, astrologically speaking, may be a big one: 12/12/12.

You Reading This, Be Ready . . .  A poem by William Stafford  would be welcome any day of the year,  but I take the timing of this one’s appearance personally, a gift as mysterious as the moon itself, with its reminder of waxing and waning and, yes, wobbling.

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

My understanding of the phenomenon dubbed moon wobble is that the face I see in the sky tonight is ever-so-slightly different from what I saw yesterday or what I’ll see tomorrow.  Of course, this is not visible to the naked eye. What ever is?

A few weeks ago I sat across a table in a light-filled NYC restaurant, looking into the face of my longest, dearest friend. BFF, yes, even before (and without) the short-hand.  Sure, we both look (a little) older, but the smile I always recall when I think of her, the one that taps at a heart as golden as it gets (and gives), has not changed.  We talked as if we had seen each yesterday, not  years ago, when she relinquished to me that cherished volume,  ‘The Sherondas.’  Inside the pages, a little fragile now, is a weekly record of our club meetings. We collected dues. We argued. We planned parties.  We watched “American Bandstand.” We cried about boys. We were preteens caught up in the music of those great girl groups. It’s hardly a stretch to hear echoes of the Shirelles in the circle we became, the letters of each of our names strung together to form the Sherondas circa 1961.  My stint as recording secretary would never lead me to believe I had the stuff real writers are made of : “We were eating and eating till we decided we needed some good, rude arguments.” Then again, it wasn’t my job to comment, just record, though each of us, in turn, did manage to bring a little of her own flavor to the minutes, my BFF the most spirited of all.  We let the memories roll as we sipped our drinks and nibbled on food.  I handed her the treasured record of a very innocent time. She wants to share it with her daughter, recently married. She plans to make two laminated copies, one for each of us. The information it would retain, for someone’s future curiosity, is less important than the fact of its existence.

My daughter, it so happens, works on a TV show about a group of teen witches, “The Secret Circle.” Innocence may not be what it once was, and, yes, birthdays have a way of making me feel “captive on that carousel of time.” And, whether or not Marlo Morgan’s account of her walkabout in Australia, Mutant Message Down Under, was a hoax, one lasting impression it made on me was the suggestion that the nomadic Aboriginals she wrote about do not celebrate getting older each year. “We celebrate if we are a better, wiser person this year than last.”