Go, Went, Gone

The week between Christmas and New Year’s always has me feeling a little in limbo. The twelve days of Christmas that underscore the holiday lore baffle me (though I’ll sing along for fun). As a Jewish woman, I have my eight days of Chanukah to lift and light my spirit.  But it’s this seven-day countdown, from a day that blurs boundaries between the religious and secular world in which we live to a day that simply announces the passing of one year into another, that has me on edge.

My ability to work during this week is on shaky ground.  I can’t focus in the consistent way I’m used to.  Clearing out papers, going through files, updating computers—that’s how my time in this week of limbo feels best spent.  Is this an idea worthy of a blog post? I ask myself. Can I find the time—between divesting, going to a movie or two, thinking about what I need for weekend guests—to just get it written?

I’ve written before about the unsettling feeling during the week when one year ends and another begins. Something that hits this profoundly every year can’t be denied. It’s as if this week—this very week—is riddled with expectation of something to come. So much distress in the past year, there’s the thinking that any new year has to be better.

Go, Went, Gone

Three words, the title of Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel, speak volumes about culture, politics, and language itself. As perfect a novel as it gets, the story line finds a retired professor in Berlin caught up in the plight of a group of refugees. Midway through the novel comes Christmas. As New Year’s Eve arrives, Richard, the professor, reflects on what it means:

He’s never quite understood what’s supposed to be departing in that final decisive second, while at the same time something new—something you can’t know yet—suddenly presents itself. Sometimes in past years he’s tried to concentrate on this future that was apparently arriving at just this moment. But how do you concentrate on something you don’t know yet? Who’s going to die? Who’ll be born? The older he gets, the more grateful he is to have just as little idea as anyone else what is in store.

What’s in store for Richard is, ultimately, a change in the way he views the world as his relationship with the refugees grows. What’s in store for the refugees becomes a disheartening waiting game.  Time is not always on their side.  One person can only do so much.

Despite all that I’ve read about how the calendar has changed over the centuries (something I touch on in my forthcoming novel) the transition from one year to the next still can unsettle me.  For all I’ve come to trust about the changing nature of reality, the anticipation of something that’s to come can easily trigger anxiety. Good or bad, once the moment or event arrives, the anxiety dissipates.

And somehow, in the crunch of days between 2017 and 2018, I’ve managed to settle into the unsettled. It’s anyone’s guess what comes next.




Coming Home

How perfect!—my daughter writes a post about being on the road and my thoughts turn to coming home.

It happens every year. Thanksgiving rolls around, she lives in L.A., I picture her here, the sleepy hamlet of Katonah, NY.


No secret that air travel—even without the added stresses of uncooperative weather—is a nightmare during prime-time holidays.  We talk about how nice it would be to spend Thanksgiving together again. Immediately the memories kick in: our first Thanksgiving in the new house years ago, the dog settled on the kitchen floor staring up at the turkey being carved.  Body language says it all. Any scrap will do. feed me - Thanksgiving 1996

With so many people booking flights home, planes completely full, you’d think air fares could be cheaper, not sky high.  But commerce is never about heart. And coming home is never just about money.  We pull out the rationalization card—there are 365 days to the year, you can visit anytime, why put so much emphasis on one day?  We remind ourselves that life choices sometimes bring complications. What we think of as ‘home,’ for all the memories and comforts it encompasses, is never the same once we leave it.  Sure, there’s always evidence of our presence, even in reconfigured rooms. But sometimes the very quality of what felt good and safe—in my case, a solid middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood where doors could be left open during the day—gives way to a gradual deterioration.  Home is tinged with sadness. What was, no longer is. You can’t go home again.

For my daughter, three thousand miles away, coming home brings some pampering, yes, and favorite meals cooked by mama, and cozying up to the television as a family. But each visit is a reminder of what’s missing (the dog barking at animals on the TV screen or in a game of catch-me-if-you-can or curled in her bed, a ghost now) and every Thanksgiving recalls that first one in a house that is every bit a home, my husband’s gift for designing space all the feng shui needed.  A wall removed here, an architectural column added there, and voilà—the living room/dining room/kitchen takes on a loft-like feel, a place meant for friends and family to gather.

This year there were nine of us around the table.  At its center was a menorah, which my husband lit as I served latkes.  Gold-foiled chocolate Chanukah gelt dotted the tablecloth like confetti.  One friend brought vodka (my request) to go with the latkes.  I like the sound of it, I told him, vodka and latkes. Just as I like the sound of Thanksgivvukah—the rare convergence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah that last occurred in 1888 and won’t occur again until 2070.  When the sun and moon cross paths we have an eclipse. When the 2013 solar (Gregorian) calendar marks a feast of thanks on the very same day the 5774 lunar (Jewish) calendar marks a festival of light, everything shines a little more brightly. Gratitude goes hand-in-hand with remembrance.

We held up our glasses to someone with us in spirit, seven years gone now, her husband reminded us.  She was the one who started our Thanksgiving-with-friends tradition, all of us living in the city at the time.  We began alternating when I moved to the big exurban house.  I assumed the mantle when breast cancer made her too weak to cook.  When a link is broken, we do our best to hold together the chain. Some Thanksgivings we spend together, some we don’t. This one was as perfect as it gets. Despite (or because of) telling myself I was letting go of perfection this year, the turkey was brown and crisp and juicy.

So instead of picturing my daughter scrambling to the airport to come home, I content myself with texts from her (when she’s in the passenger seat) en route to Davis, CA, with her boyfriend, where she would spend turkey day with her grandmother/aunt/uncle/cousin.  It warms my heart, really. If only I could get past that little ache, the passing years, the letting go, the nostalgia for that thing called family gatherings in a time when generational distance from the fold is more the norm than the exception.

If there is light in your heart, you will find your way Home

Even if Rumi had in mind something beyond walls and hearths, feasts and comforts, his words have a way of speaking to the moment, and the times in which we live: maybe you don’t have to be fully engaged in a spiritual life to long for the spirit of home. We do the best we can. Realities of modern living make us seek something as close to home (metaphorically) as possible when holidays roll around. We have home pages, homing devices, movies that tell us there’s no place like it. All Dorothy had to do was click her heels three times. All E.T. wanted to do was make a very long-distance phone call.

How can I help but smile? The same Sufi mystic who has me ruminating about home reminds me, in another poem: Personality is a small dog trying to get the soul to play.

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.