Amen.

Who’s to say why I feel such a deep connection to Japanese places of worship, be they temples or shrines?  Is it the setting?  The architecture?  The gardens?  The rituals?  The air of mystery surrounding something I don’t understand very well?

I can’t say for sure, but what I can say is that I am consistently pulled in their direction.  I spend a fair amount of time when in Kyoto, revisiting places of the spirit and discovering new places of the spirit.  Kyoto has over 2000 shrines, temples and gardens, so there’s literally a lifetime left of exploration.

The description in the Kyoto Visitor’s Guide to the over one thousand-year-old Shinto Yasurai Festival on the 2nd Sunday in April got my attention. It was described as one of the three biggest and most unique festivals in Kyoto, performed to gain protection from illnesses.  After a few months of recent illnesses, I thought a little protection might be just what I needed.  It certainly couldn’t hurt!

My husband and I arrived at the Imamiya Shrine on a cool spring day.  We had no idea what we were doing but went along with the flow.  We soon spotted some young shrine maidens sitting behind a table. With a welcoming smile, they instructed us to write our health wishes on a small piece of paper hidden within a small red-orange paper kimono which they handed to us.  Writing completed, we then presented our wish to another shrine maiden who blessed us and put the paper wish in a large round basket with those of other participants.  We kept the paper kimono itself.  It now hangs in my office.

Within a short time, the crowds thickened and a parade of costumed worshippers of all ages made their way through the grounds of the shrine.  They played a repetitive tune on flutes, hit drums and chanted in front of those of us assembled.  A few wore bright red wigs, representing demons.  It was quite a sight.  The knowledge that this ritual or something like it has been repeated and performed for almost a thousand years, is impressive.

Following the performance in front of the main building of the shrine, we were all blessed by the head priest.  I felt a strong sense of community in receiving that blessing even though I could not understand the words. I was happy to be in the crowd and receive the blessings.

It’s a mystery, but since leaving the Yasurai Festival, I have felt more energy and fewer asthma symptoms than I have had for many months.  Amen.

How to Find Good Beyond the Evil

This is a complicated holiday season.  The glitter, the shopping and the decorating can feel imposed by the calendar, out of sync with our daily headlines of war, hate, bombings, shootings, election results and humanitarian concerns.

The tendency to feel overwhelmed by all the darkness in the world can easily let the air out of our sense of personal well-being.  It can suck the air out of conversations. It can lead to isolation and depression. Many I know seem compelled to relive the results of our November election, looking to place blame, as if that somehow could change the outcome. I don’t have all the answers, nor do the pundits, as far as I can tell.  Maybe history will inform us. It’s the same in trying to understand how the world has stood by watching the suffering in Syria.

I do sense that all the toxicity is becoming toxic in itself.  It can lead to an obsession with “news” and with social media. It’s not far downhill to pessimism and cynicism.  There is a steep personal cost in holding on to the disappointment and rage.

me-and-natana

This morning, when I opened Facebook, I was greeted by a photo of myself taken a few  years ago, dancing with my youngest granddaughter.  My heart melted. I thought THIS is the kind of thing that I need to keep in front of me. I was tuned into NPR. Randomly, the program I “needed ” to hear turned out to be a compelling discussion on KQED’s Forum  about The Book of Joy, Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.

 The message from the two giants of the spiritual world is that one must look at the arc of time during difficult times like these.  This period is an aberration.  If it were normal human behavior, we wouldn’t find it so disturbing.

Both men, coming from very different traditions, despite their incredibly difficult journeys, kept stressing the goodness of humanity.  After finding myself so moved by the photo I saw this morning, I immediately agreed.

At the risk of sounding like a Rogers and Hammerstein play,

Think mother and family love, the bonds of friendship, the arts, nurses, doctors, teachers, the White Hats in Syria, philanthropy.  If this isn’t enough, bring home the most beautiful flower you can find and place it in a vase where you’ll be able to appreciate it, watch a snowfall, find a friend who makes you laugh so hard you cry, watch the clouds change color at dusk, bake cookies and distribute them after eating several, surprise a long lost friend with a phone call, play with a puppy…well you get my gist.

white-hats

If none of that helps, you have my permission to indulge in your drink or drug of choice and have a long cry in your beer.

Tree Deprivation Syndrome

It’s all been debated so many times. It’s a holiday rife with conflicts as well as delights. Natural/vs. artificial tree?  Merry Christmas vs. Happy holidays? A crèche scene on public property? Kwanza? How does Christmas measure up against Chanukah?  (It doesn’t, nor can it.  Only thing it shares is a winter date of celebration.) (my opinion)

For a Jewish child surrounded by the signs its annual arrival, it’s fascinating, forbidden other.  Look, but don’t touch. The idealized 1950’s Christmas world was a constructed make-believe land, irresistible to most children,  blanketed in perfectly white snow, inhabited by a perfectly white smiling attractive families, accompanied by a cute puppies wearing an oversized red bow.  In this perfect world, a sleigh is outside your door, your mom is in the kitchen with a cute apron on, baking ridiculous amounts of perfectly formed, baked and cleverly decorated cookies. Every house has a wreath and candles. Good will abounds.  It was Norman Rockwell painting come to life. Escapism at its finest.  The Norman Rockwell image below, however is what Stockbridge Mass. looks like!  Ah, nostalgia. Continue reading “Tree Deprivation Syndrome”

the Big D

white rose

 

Final illnesses were whispered about in my childhood and death, the Big D, was rarely discussed.  And so it remained until, when in my fifties, I heard a Tibetan monk speak at a University lecture. My eyes were opened. He told our audience that monks greet  one another by saying, “Remember you’re dying.”  Wow!  That made an impact.  At first it sounded so grim, but then it sounded so daring and seize-the-dayish.  The exact opposite of the world I grew up in.

The monk’s words opened a window for me.  I started to read a bit more about death and  rather than repress it, I encouraged myself to think about Death as inevitable and natural.  As I got more deeply into The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which I’d purchased at the monk’s lecture,  I quickly saw that I couldn’t easily adopt the Buddhist beliefs of reincarnation.  However, the realization did dawn on me, that like it or not, without death, life would have no meaning. I slowly began to integrate a greater acceptance of it in my life.

Now that I’m 75, the thoughts about how many years remain for me, are more frequent.  A slight medical scare might trigger a thought that this event might just be the beginning of the end. But, truth be told, it always has.  I know that by the time one is in their 70’s, death is not considered premature.  When I talk about the big D with others, I am usually quickly reassured that I have many more healthy years to go. I sense a distinct distaste for a serious conversation, although the infirmities of age are joked about a lot.   The reassurances are well intentioned, but hollow. The truth is, most of us just don’t know the amount of time remaining to us and all we do is just hope for the best.

How does one prepare for a life that could become in all likelihood increasingly infirm? Can one prepare or should one prepare?  Even in a partnership like marriage, one of the partners will always go through end of life without the other.  Romance can take you just so far.

Recently, a dear friend of mine died after a long illness.  I’d lost touch with him over the years. I always found a reason not to visit with him during his illness. “Next week,” I’d tell myself.  It turned out that next week did not arrive for him.  From my sadness and frustration with myself for not visiting, I have made a vow that I will never overlook such a visit again.  Another lesson learned.

This friend lived with intention and lived a full life even if he did die at a younger age than hoped for.  His life was celebrated at his funeral service.  Those who did have the courage to visit him in his last weeks spoke of a man not afraid to die and still present for his friends.   He and the other mourners  were convinced that his soul would live on.  I can give lip service to that hope, but in truth, I have no idea of what that means or if it really means anything.

I recognize that acknowledging the projected shortness of a  life span  has made me more conscious of how I want to spend my time.

On my last birthday I was ninety-three years old. That is not young, of course. In fact, it is older than ninety. But age is a relative matter. If you continue to work and to absorb the beauty in the world about you, you find that age does not necessarily mean getting old. At least, not in the ordinary sense. I feel many things more intensely than ever before, and for me life grows more fascinating.  Pablo Casals.

I remember being uncomfortable when my mother, in her 70’s,  wanted to give some of her treasured belongings to me.  I didn’t want to think of a time when she wouldn’t be there.  But I know now, that she was just preparing herself to let go and I regret not being more willing to enter into that conversation with her.  I’ve also learned that timing is everything in life.  If you’re not ready, you’re not ready.

I’ve said for a long time that I don’t want to get to the end of my life and regret that there were things I wanted to do, but held myself back from doing out of fear.  That’s proven a good motto.

As our necks become unrecognizable and our knees sag, and new brown spots appear with startling  regularity, we learn that physical change (not of an adolescent nature) now, is a constant. Kindness and patience towards self is an essential requirement of aging.  It’s too easy and self-destructive to be self-deprecating.

Elders are survivors.If we can, we might find a way to redefine living a relatively healthy, purposeful and satisfying older age.

It’s foolish to worship youth, they have an entirely different set of circumstances to grapple with. I wouldn’t go backwards for anything.   Age can be liberating.  You’ve developed a deeper understanding  of pettiness, foolishness  and vanity and begin to focus on the essentials.  I’ve begun meditation to develop the ability to quiet my monkey mind.

Let’s get to the essence of what’s meaningful and not a useless distraction.  I’m at a point in my life where I appreciate, more than ever, the wonders of nature, the joys of friendship and family, the stimulation and beauty of the arts and the pleasures that life still offers, if you’re lucky and pay attention.

 

Let us cherish and love old age; for it is full of pleasure if one knows how to use it. Fruits are most welcome when almost over; youth is most charming at its close; the last drink delights the toper, the glass which souses him and puts the finishing touch on his drunkenness. Each pleasure reserves to the end the greatest delights which it contains. Life is most delightful when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the abrupt decline.”
Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

The Jewish New Year Demise of the Fabulous Red Petticoat

The Jewish New Year is bittersweet for me because it requires looking over my shoulder; in particular, it means missing my parents.  My husband might be described as memory neutral when it comes to the religious impact of his childhood.  Therefore, any acknowledgement of the holiday, be it going to services, eating a special dinner, etc. must be initiated by me.  I’ve gotten lazy over the years and no longer care whether I attend services or not.  This admission brings Jewish guilt.

blessed

THE SETTING

The Jewish New Year brings back memories of my childhood and time of year that was of great importance to my mother. She was not a particularly religiously observant person, but she fervently held on to the High Holidays and expected her children to follow suit without question.  This meant going to religious services at our conservative synagogue for both the first and second mornings of Rosh Hashonah, an inevitably dull and tedious affair for me.

Because the synagogue wasn’t large, if there was a crowd of congregants, children had their own boring services in the ugly basement of the temple building.  Teenagers could move out of the basement and into the sanctuary.

At least in the sanctuary of the synagogue, I was able to stare at the stained glass windows to relieve the tedium of a service in a language I could read but could not understand.  I did enjoy the traditional music and would come to life when they were sung because I knew the lovely old melodies and had memorized the Hebrew words. Continue reading “The Jewish New Year Demise of the Fabulous Red Petticoat”