Friday, July 10, 2009

832. Rhythm

I'm back inside after a morning of looking at what I posted earlier. I wonder how it would feel to live a life always surrounded by that kind of quiet. There were birds and motorboats in the distance, and an occasional car on the road behind the boathouse, but mostly I heard water—crests of silver-blue bumping into each other as they swayed like little mounds of windswept jelly, and the occasional splash of a gull. One lit on the railing that stretched the length of the short pier and struck a few poses (beak preening back; one leg planted and the other who knows where; and finally, head under wing) until she fell asleep in perfect balance on the thin wooden bar. I walked to the near edge of the pier, a respectful distance from the gull, and practiced my Torah portion for next Shabbat. It's a long one I first chanted three years ago; although I don't consciously remember it, the words and tune are still embedded somewhere in the recesses of a few brain cells, and came quickly once I began to review. I stood on the pier and sang quietly for about an hour, filling my lungs with air drenched in sunlight as the sounds of water kept rhythm.

831. What I'm looking at right now

I spent the morning on the deck of this boathouse right across the road from the bed and breakfast where we're staying.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

830. Greyhound bus

Here's a post I began exactly one year ago, written on the way back home from a weekend visiting the same friend with whom I'm hanging out this week on Cape Cod:


Written on the Greyhound bus coming back home from Boston:

There are many strange people in the world, and I think a disproportionate number of them travel by bus. (Maybe I'm one of that number, and the person in the row behind me is writing a post for her own blog.) In any case, I need to chronicle the woman in the front row, window seat, whose reflection I can see starting at the highway. Every few minutes she lifts up a big, heavy, professional-looking camera and takes a picture of the passing blur of a grassy median. Or maybe she's shooting the yellow-grey clouds above a landscape of trees as messy and sparse as the balding head of the man in the seat to my right. Or perhaps she's doing a study of the bus driver's elbow. I wonder what her seatmate is thinking, a dark-haired woman who stares resolutely forward. I would ask, if I were that seatmate. Some mysteries must be solved.

On the trip to Boston a few days ago, my neighbor was a very large woman who would occasionally cough as if trying to subdue a hurricane or uproot a primeval forest of phlegm. She spent much of the ride on the phone complaining to an unknown listener about her son or boyfriend, I couldn't figure out which, who never washed his clothes. I paid little attention to the volume of her voice, since all my concentration was focused on trying to huddle into a small ball and get as far away as possible from the germs, but the bus driver eventually turned around to announce that neither he nor those in any other row found the conversation interesting. She apologized, and for the rest of the trip I heard only whispered details of the state of the dirty underwear. But we did exchange a few pleasant words. She was visiting Boston for the first time in 20 years, to see her nephew (I hope he wasn't the one with poor hygiene). And right as we pulled out of Port Authority to leave New York, and the driver announced that our first stop was Newton, she turned to me and asked:

"Is that a state?"

Did she actually say, "Is it in a different state?" and maybe I mis-heard? Or perhaps she was from a foreign country and, despite perfecting an American accent, never had time to learn all fifty names?

"No, it's a town," I answered. We both then stared into space for the next hour, and I realized that I had only a vague idea of where we were going, as well. All stretches of highway look much the same between New York and Boston. Things change so fast in this world, I wouldn't put it past someone to slip in a new state when I wasn't looking and hadn't yet picked up the day's New York Times.

829. Engaging

It's so nice to do nothing. Although I'm not exactly thinking of nothing (the curse of wireless, unlike the days when I went to summer singing workshops and was completely without phone, TV, or newspapers for a week), sitting with my laptop on a chaise lounge in a Victorian-style living room is about a stress-free as one can get indoors, without meditating. (It's a little too chilly for the beach, unfortunately.) If I had lots of money, I'd come up to Marsh Cottage for a few weeks and write a book. I don't know what about, but it almost doesn't matter; this lovely space is made for that purpose.

I'm looking at my notes about blog posts to write when I have time, which is now, and see that they're not very cheery. (Hoping this vacation will help change that.) One reads:

"My cousin wanting to pray all the time—is that really Jewish?"

I have a dear ba'al teshuva cousin who recently posted on Facebook that she doesn't follow the news or popular culture and chooses instead to spend her free time (what little that remains after raising three small children) praying or reading psalms. I would never think of asking if she believes this is what God wants—but will post the rhetorical question here, for myself to ponder while watching ocean birds fly and smooth stones shimmer under the mirror surface of a pond. I don't think God can "want" as we define the word, but do believe our role in the universe is to act, and not just wish, ponder or praise. I love prayer, but life needs balance—just like the symmetry of creation, day and night, good and evil, work and vacation. Our lives are mostly spent at the midpoint of those poles but sometimes, if we're lucky, they tip in the good direction and we get to experience the most beautiful parts of what God created. I believe the likelihood of those moments is in proportion to how much we engage with the world. I understand that my cousin does this in many different ways as part of her amazing role as a parent—but teaching her children, by example, about the world beyond their immediate community is just as important, and as Jewish.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

828. Sand

On the bay right outside my window, the breeze rolls small, silver-crested waves in and out as dark green oak tree leaves dance above. I'm fulfilling a tiny, lifelong dream this week: to see a body of water as soon as I open my eyes in the morning (There's a busy road in between me and the bay, but that only makes it more real.) The shapes of the grey waves make me think of the bumps and folds of my brain, now feeling smoother and much less turbulent than usual.

Yesterday we went on a tour of the Cape Cod sand dunes, which I never before knew existed. A dense forest covered this spot long ago, well before the European settlers arrived. The topsoil eroded over the years, leaving the fine sand that formed after the Ice Age; when tides threatened to wash away the sand, the Army Corps of Engineers came in and seeded the entire shoreline with grass to prevent further erosion. But the dunes continue to ebb and flow, and our guide wasn't convinced that the grass was a good idea—since it is, in a way, as forced as any other less organic, man-made intervention that prevents nature from taking its course.

In a big Chevy van, eight of us tumbled at alarmingly high speed over an unexpected, undulating landscape somewhere between a desert, the moon, and mountains of Shangri-La. I felt like I was on a different planet. It was more fun than a roller coaster, and we could have used Dramamine. We landed at the top of a big hill and saw a sliver of ocean surrounded by wide, rising swaths of tan and green. A grey wooden house that looked like an Edward Gorey drawing sat under distant pastel sky, one of the many artist shacks that pass on to new owners only after death or lottery.

I stuck my toes in the sand and said a Sheheheyanu as I looked out to the sea and tried to imagine what was on the other side.

Monday, July 06, 2009

827. Vacation

I'm on vacation. It's been way, way too long.

My plans through Friday: nothing. Well, not exactly; my dear old childhood friend and I will visit a few beaches, ride bikes, take a tour of a sand dune, watch a baseball game, go to an art gallery or two, eat pancakes (we're staying at a B&B), eat fish (we're on Cape Cod; I don't love most fish, but it seems appropriate), and try our best to recapture that long-ago art of hanging out without agenda or deadline. I used to be so good at this as a kid; I've lost the knack, but my body and brain are already starting to slow down. It's nice. I am a little unnerved at being so connected to reality, though; there's wireless at the B&B (a better connection than at home, in fact) and I've already posted photos to Facebook and Twitter, and gotten comments back. Most other vacations were spent having no idea what was going in in the world, let alone announcing my every move to a vast network of mildly curious acquaintances. (Today's photo uploads were just a novel experiment; the rest of my vacation will be shared the old-fashioned way, foisted on polite friends one evening after dinner.)

There's a bay across the road, and in daylight I can see the blue-grey water from my window as it shimmers and ripples in the breeze. At night, right now, just the big, fat moon dripping a reflection over low waves.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

826. How to be a better singer, oy

I've collected a bunch of interesting links over the past month, including this food for thought:

Birds Under Stress Become Better Singers

An excerpt:

"A hostile environment and inconsistent weather may explain why some birds become better singers than others, and also likely have superior learning and mating skills, a study said Thursday."

Since I do believe in evolution as well as God, I have to wonder: does it work that way for people, too? Do I sound better now than a few years ago because of all the worrying? I think I fit the profile (although my mating skills could use some help). We already know that that suffering, kvetching, and losing sleep makes us great doctors and lawyers--but how cool if someone could prove that it gives us better voices, too.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

825. A reason

I've had many great excuses for infrequent blogging over the past few months, but have thus far avoided--have been afraid--to voice the one that's most significant. I learned awhile back that because of the general state of economic near-catastrophe here in NYC, my synagogue will be having fewer High Holy Day services this year. Since I was asked to help out in 2004, we've held simultaneous sets of Shaharit, Musaf, and all those others, on each day of the holiday. As all two or three of you longtime readers might recall, the only reason I was asked to lead in the first place was because we lost our biggest venue, a church that sat 2,500, and had to divide everyone over three locations instead. (The Upper W. Side is light on venues that seat 4,000. Our actual synagogue fits about 800.)

With the addition of services for kids and families, the three locations turned into four. Two of those were Big, Fancy, Expensive theaters. It was a monumental production. In the years when my fellow congregants had jobs, we were doing very well with donations, thank you, and could easily cover the rental costs.

Everything changed this September. Half my friends are now unemployed. The few rich people I know are much less so. My synagogue--and most others in NYC--are in emergency mode, trying to figure out how to cut costs drastically while still proving the same the services and support. We also collectively realized, along with the rest of the American people, that we let money fly a little too freely. We are now, to frame it in a positive way, back to basics.

In a less positive way, it means that we can't afford all those theaters. We approached the original big old church and said pretty please, and they decided to be neighborly. So once again I will have the unique pleasure of praying the Amidah while staring at an artfully masked, 50-foot-tall stained-glass portrait of Jesus and Mary.

It's a beautiful church, and in the company of my community I can pray anywhere. That's not the depressing part. What makes me sad is that we'll need fewer service leaders for the fewer services. No one has spoken to me yet, but I have the least seniority of our small crew of hazzanim and hazzanit. I know that everything at my synagogue is done fairly--no favors. So I'm bracing myself for any outcome from not being needed at all, to leading one service, to leading a few. I strongly doubt I'll get to sing at every Shaharit and Minha on Yom Kippur, as in past years.

But I've become accustomed to, maybe even addicted to, the intense energy of giving and receiving from the bima on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I can hardly remember any other way to spend those days; even before leading I sang in the choir for four years, where I had to do the same sort of thing. Now I'll need re-learn another way of praying, of sharing myself without acting as lens and focus. I've done so on a million Shabbatot, of course--but it won't be Shabbat. My only other experience of the holidays is before I came to my synagogue, when they were just a reason to sit and stare at the back of someone's head before going back home for lunch.

I always knew my role as a hazzanit would end--I'm just a volunteer, and that's how it goes. But I thought there would be a better, or at least more dramatic reason; this one is so unfair. As a citizen, I guess I'm as much to blame as anyone for helping perpetuate the economic and political mistakes that brought us to this strange season. Whatever. It is what it is, and sometime in the next month or two I'll find out my new role. I am trying to see this turn of events as a sorely needed learning experience, since I'm very bad at accepting change. And what's the point of angsting over something that's out of my control? I'm also great at over-dramatizing; I need to keep in mind that the holidays are just a small slice of my life, which remains so rich and filled with other marvels that I have no reason to blow these days out of proportion.

Finally--I need to remember who I am today, and where I was five years ago. From this experience of leading services I've learned more than I can begin to absorb about myself, life, Judaism, God--even writing. Cosi revaya, my cup runneth over.

But the not knowing has made me not want to write about singing, or even sing, at times. So I force myself to do both, and always feel better. It still makes me sad. I want everything to be the way it used to be.