Friday, October 15, 2021

Sheh'hecheyanu Moments


I’ve been enjoying sheh’hecheyanu moments more consciously over the last couple of weeks - those “first time since COVID” moments that simply invite gratitude and blessing.

The first time  since the beginning of the pandemic that our small family gathered for dinner indoors around our dining room table; the first time in a year and a half, walking into our beloved neighbor’s home vaccinated and unmasked, for a few shared moments over tea; the joyful reunion of our Torah study group, resuming our weekly pot-luck supper and sacred conversation.

Until we “lost it”  I had always taken for granted the central role that “table fellowship” has always played in the well-being of our lives - - the simple act of eating together  with others and conversing around a common table.  ZOOM has filled the gaps in many ways, keeping us connected with family and friends while it seemed so unsafe to gather together in person. I thought we coped pretty well with life on the small screen.  But the joy I felt as I welcomed real live human beings in real time into our kitchen made the  ZOOM connections feel pale by comparison.

ZOOM kept us well connected with our various faith communities - Shabbat services on Friday evening and Saturday morning, Sunday morning worship, Buddhist meditation on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings.  We did not lack for sustaining, nourishing spiritual connection.

But then there was the first Friday evening beach service - - in person!  And then the first Shabbat morning service in the synagogue - in person!  The first time we entered the church sanctuary on a Sunday morning -masked, vaccinated, socially distanced - - in person!

With each encounter there were the slight hesitancies.  Mask?  No mask?  Hugs?  No hugs?  Fist bumps? Elbow bumps?  Hip bumps? Handshakes?  Each encounter a “first time” event to be joyfully (and carefully) celebrated with gratitude.

So a pronounced sense of joy and gratitude blossoms with each renewed connection as we learn to navigate on the big open screen of life again.

“Coming out” of the most intense time of the pandemic is a slow and tender process.  We are still all at very different comfort levels regarding masking, social distancing, vaccinating, touching…
Each encounter brings an opportunity for gracious loving respect of one another as we find our way through  these tenuous “re-openings” in our lives.

Until I lost it, I did not know or recognize the depth of soul connection that happens around shared food and fellowship.  I began to understand in an ever more real way the meaning and centrality of table fellowship in the portrayals of Jesus in the gospels.  I feel a different connection with the meaning of the sharing of food with the multitudes, with the “dinner at home” scenario in the home of Mary and Martha, with Jesus at dinner with a despised tax collector, with the 12 gathered together for a final meal with their Beloved Teacher.

Then of course there is the soul connection that happens during Kiddush following Shabbat services as we harmonize in blessing the Holy One who brings forth bread and the fruit of the vine.  The ritual gets translated into Christian terms on the first Sunday of each month in our congregation - and the richness of communion, table fellowship, in person, draws us together in new ways, deeper in meaning than was even possible pre-COVID.

So many “first time” moments as we measure time from the beginning of the pandemic.

So it is appropriate to bless these moments, even moment to moment, as we celebrate each familiar experience new, for the first time, with joy and gratitude.

Sheh’hecheyanu - - a brakha or blessing for celebrating the first time in the cycle of a year or in one’s life that a special event occurs.  This blessing helps us to feel deep gratitude and to  celebrate new experiences.  Indeed, each moment of “coming out” of the worst of the pandemic is an invitation to bless the Source of Life: Baruch atah adonai, eloheynu melech ha’olam, sheh’hecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu la’zman ha’zeh.   Blessed are you, Sovereign of all the Worlds, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this time.  

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, October 8, 2021

"Pooh and Piglet"

 I sat with him earlier this week. Grief permeated the room. He had experienced the death by drowning of a long time friend and house guest the week before.  The story spun out.  “We were out kayaking.  The sun was warm.   We decided to beach the kayaks and go for a swim.  The ocean looked calm enough - inviting.  Not in the water 5 minutes and a strong rip current started to pull us out.  I had been in rip currents before and knew not to panic. Even after so many years of friendship, I didn’t know my friend was not a strong swimmer. I shouted to him not to panic…to roll over on his back and let the water carry him…we could swim parallel to the shore and make our way out of the current. Fear took over. I got to him…tried to keep him afloat…the waves kept washing over us…his face turned gray…he rolled over - face into the water…I knew he was gone…I held on to him as long as I could…had to let go and head for shore for help…all too late.  I was his host. I was responsible for his safety.  I am in such a dark place now…I  should have known…I am responsible.”

Loving friends bring food.  Texts of condolence keep “pinging.”  Well-meaning folks say “You are not to blame…it was an accident…you did everything you could.”  

Not helpful.  When I ask what message I might convey to people who want to visit or call my friend says “Just tell them not to say ‘You are not to blame.’ It makes things worse.”

For two hours, we sat and talked, or, rather my friend talked and I listened, as he poured out his anguish at the loss of his dear friend. He had held his friend in his arms and watched him die. In the very center of his personal truth, he felt responsible for his friend’s life and for his death. And, indeed, to say “You are not to blame” only inflamed the terrible wounding - - not permitting him to feel the darkest depths of his pain within the safe surround of another human being.  How courageous of him to be able to say how much the denial of his truth further wounded him.

I wondered about how often I might have said something similar, perhaps attempting to make myself more comfortable in the face of unspeakable suffering.  Knowing my friend’s truth made it all the more possible to sit with him in his ash heap without feeling like I needed to make him or myself feel better.  To be able to sit in silence in the darkest truth is a gracious gift.  I came away blessing him for the time we shared.

As I was leaving his home, he said “You are Pooh and Piglet.”   I must have looked a bit startled.  He explained about the story of Winnie The Pooh and Piglet visiting their gloom and doom donkey friend Eeyore.  Eeyore was not having a good day and was not good company.  Pooh and Piglet just sat with him.  And little by little, Eeyore began to feel a little better.

A new honorific to be sure - - “Pooh and Piglet.”

On waking this morning, I began to make my own meaning of the event as my friend had described it.   He had done three most holy acts of Being in the rough waters of the rip current.  He was Presence for his friend at the risk of his own life - Presence for his friend to the end.  He was generous Unconditional Love - not withdrawing Presence until it was clear that it was no longer needed. He was Witness to his friend’s passing.  His friend did not die alone.  He died in loving arms. His friend’s story would be told back on land to those who waited.

States of Being: Presence…Witness…Unconditional Love.  

As I carried these early morning insights into the day, it was with a clearer sense of how to simply Be in the world: Present - - Witnessing - - Loving without Condition - - maybe just one moment at a time would be quite manageable.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, October 1, 2021

Letter to Grief

 Air-sucker. Heart-breaker. Life-wrecker.

Don’t take it personally, Grief, but under our breath, or deep down inside, we sometimes call you such names. We have as many names for you as for the fallen of 9/11. As for the pandemic dead. As for the people vanished in floods and wildfires. As for our cherished life partners, gone too soon. As for our precious children, ending their lives by suicide ….

We have as many names for you as our less obvious losses, mourned in shadows. Dear ones who have moved on, or away, from us. Old friends we no longer understand. Animals whose companionship we miss. Lost jobs. Lost homes and homelands. Lost rights. Lost health. Lost youth. Lost trust. 

Lost hope … 

 It is said, dear Grief, that you’re a mountain; that each of us who is suffering after a significant loss is up at your peak, so injured that we can’t carry anyone else down. We must each descend to the plain in our own way, in our own time. The hard path we take on our downward climb will be like no one else’s. We’ll pass through terrain where nobody else has ever been.

The sad fact is, some of us will never make it back. The trauma we’ve experienced is too grave, or the going down, too rough.

It’s out of concern for those who can’t escape your mountain that I’m writing you. I know you’ll listen, and fathom what I’m saying. Because, despite all the name-calling, I know it isn’t you, really, that robs our lungs of air, or shatters our hearts, or smashes the hell out of our lives when we meet with sorrow. You’re just an easy scapegoat.

The real culprit is love. Love that, deprived of its object, has nowhere to go. Love that has been disappointed, distressed, broken, rejected, frightened, or horrified. Love so confused and without direction, it swirls up like a whirlwind and spins off in a daze. Love that, once exhausted, falls flat on the ground and refuses to rise again, believing that getting up and going on would mean abandoning forever what has been lost, as if it never mattered.

It’s love, isn’t it, that traps some souls on your peak? It’s love that corners them in a tight spot on your sheer face, and pins them there. 

It’s love, too, that tempts us to stay with them, even while, for the sake of our lives, it urges us to hobble away. On this mountain, we can only save ourselves.

So, we must trust your mercies.

I beg you, Grief: Take tender care of those still on your mountaintop. Send sun in the morning to kiss them awake. Send birds with twigs to build them a nest, and berries to feed them. Send breeze to remind them to breathe. Send bugling elks and trickling streams to sing songs of comfort and strength to their despair. Send cups of rock to catch their tears.

Send sweet mist to soothe them in the heat of day. In the cold, send bighorn sheep with thick blankets of fur. When long night falls, send moon and a company of stars to offer them light and help them feel less alone. In the darkest hours, send them radiant dreams and visions.

Finally, O Grief, send our voices echoing up the silence of the slopes. Let the sound surround those whose sadness holds them close to the heavens. In that circle, keep them  safe.

Air-stirrer. Heart-holder. Life-bringer.

These, O Grief, are the truest of your names.

Phyllis Cole-Dai

 This post first appeared in a recent issue of Staying Power, Phyllis’s weekly care package for creative, compassionate spirits. Get a boost in your inbox!

Friday, September 24, 2021

"Where is the Balance?"


Whenever I go to the doctor these days, the nurse gives me an initial quiz. Perhaps you get the same routine. My quiz always includes a question about whether I’ve fallen. The first time I heard it I thought, “What, do I look unsteady on my feet?”

Now I recognize that as we get older, it’s easier to lose our balance. Sometimes the blood isn’t flowing quite right. There are those dizzy moments after climbing the stairs or being sedentary for too long. Bones are more fragile in falls and they take longer to heal with age. Sometimes good or poor balance can mean the difference between life and death.

Recently I was introduced to the situation of vertigo. Those little crystals of calcium in our ears can get so out of whack that there is no balance in our body. Everything is spinning. We need a steady hand holding us up. We need a physical therapist moving our head in rhythms that move those crystals back where they belong.  

Today, I want a nurse, a doctor, a physical therapist for my country. My country can no longer put one foot in front of the other. Everything is spinning and out of control. Fall follows fall. I want the question put to my country. “Do you have dizzy spells? Have you fallen recently? Have you lost your balance?”

If I may be so bold to answer, it would have to be, “Yes, my country is dizzy. The situation is approaching vertigo. The country has fallen, again, and again. It has been out of balance for most of my adult lifetime.” Perhaps it started before Vietnam with Korea. But certainly Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have been catastrophic falls, with subsequent broken bones, lives and nations (including our own).

For me, the crystals in the inner ear of our country are dollars. They are flowing in the wrong places, making us dizzy with war and preparation for war, with death and destruction. We have vertigo. We are seemingly unable to right ourselves and envision the possibilities balance might bring.

It is estimated that since 9/11 we have spent $21 trillion on our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; our military operations in Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Pakistan; and enhanced homeland security. After 20 years of war, almost a million deaths (300,000+ civilians and 15,000 U.S. military), and all of those dollars, what do we have to show for it? Even if we pick up the pieces for the broken limbs and spirits of our veterans, who will right the balance in those countries left behind?

There is no balance in our government. Military spending is non-partisan. In the wake of our exit from Afghanistan, the House Armed Services Committee voted to add another $25 billion to the proposed defense budget, $37 billion more than approved for this year, for a total of $778 billion. We are told it will help “ensure we have the resources to counter the growing threat from China and other adversaries.” So we need $4.7 billion more for shipbuilding, $1.7 billion more for aircraft, and $878 million for combat vehicles (I suppose for those we left behind for the Taliban).

More than half the federal budget goes for war and the debt of past wars. Why? A recent study revealed that nearly four dozen members of Congress are invested in weapons corporations that have seen their value rise nearly 900% since the start of the war in Afghanistan. Every state now has defense industries and military bases that can determine the economic well being of whole regions. Our national economy is a war economy. Let’s face it! Where is the balance?

The greatest threat to our security right now is a global pandemic. A bill has been introduced in Congress to take $9 billion from the Pentagon budget that would help vaccinate 30% of the population in low income countries. Rep. Mark Pocan said, “At a time when America spends more on its military than the next 11 closest nations combined, we should be able to sacrifice a little over one percent of that to save lives, build global goodwill, and actually make the world a safer, healthier place."

Have we learned the lessons of empire? In a warming world that threatens us all, can we shift our emphasis to healing, instead of causing, the brokenness? Is our spiritual life rich enough to rein in materialism? Can we begin to restore balance in our country?

Carl Kline

Friday, September 17, 2021

Random Notes from a River Raft


  After a long, strenuous hike, you happen upon a river. A crude raft is beached on the sandy shore. Tacked to it is a paper that reads: “Take me downstream.” The handwriting strangely resembles your own.

You don’t know who made the raft, or why they’ve left it here. You don’t know how well it’s constructed. Does it even float?

You don’t know where the river leads, or how easy it will be to navigate. There may be calm pools ahead. But there may also be white-water rapids, even a waterfall.

You choose to trust. You wade the raft into the lazy current and shove off.

The raft has a sturdy push pole by which to propel the vessel forward and steer. For now, though, you collapse on the deck, content to drift. Your tired body has carried you over so many trails through arduous terrains, it’s relieved at last to be carried.

You snag the piece of paper from the screw fastening it to the raft. By some magic, the paper now reads, “To the Traveler.”

You flip it over. “Random Notes from the River Raft” is scribbled at the top.

Beneath that heading, you find a list of musings. Again, the handwriting looks just like yours. You can’t explain this. You can’t explain any of it. But as you read, you know it’s true:

You can’t say no to the river.

If you weren’t ready to make the trip, you wouldn’t have found me.

As your raft, I’m guaranteed to give you the ride of a lifetime.

 Get to know me.

 I’m one of a kind.

 Appreciate my build.

I’m made from materials recycled from your life. 

I can’t but stay afloat.

I’ll always support your weight, if you travel light.
The river is the guide and the journey. It knows where it’s going.

You’re the river’s passenger and companion.

Respect it.

Be grateful to pass through wherever the river takes us.

Nothing we pass through is forever.

Your life jacket is stored in your chest.

Forget what you think you know about rafting.

Begin again.

There’s no reason to push the river.

But you might have to push yourself.

Use slow, smooth pushes of the pole.

Fast strokes make us unstable.

Accept that I’ll never move in a straight line.

Learn to love zig-zags and circles.

Avoid over correction.

Trust my natural buoyancy.

Trust the water’s grace and flow.

Watch out for hazards or you’ll end up wet.

This is a law of nature.

No matter your skill, you’ll sometimes end up wet, anyway.

This is also a law of nature.

When you fall off me, float.

The river will always hold you up.

Its banks are waiting to receive you.

Maintaining balance while poling in mud requires extra practice.

Embrace it.

To move in deep water, transform my pole into a paddle.

All it takes is a little re-visioning.

On the river, you’ll have everything you need, even when you don’t.

When you don’t have everything you need, keep going until you discover you do.

You’re never alone on the river.

If you feel forsaken, pay closer attention.

When you’re finished with me, leave me on shore.

Somebody else will use me someday.

But I won’t be the same raft.

You never get to the end of the river.

I’ll see you there someday.

Deep peace,

Phyllis Cole Dai

This post first appeared in a recent issue of Staying Power, Phyllis’s weekly care package for creative, compassionate spirits. Get a boost in your inbox!

Friday, September 10, 2021

Contemplating The Deluge

The island has been feeling the brunt of some storm or other - steady rain since last night, drizzle at times, a teasing promise of breaking clouds, a pale bit of sunlight and then another steady downpour.  Traffic is backed up at 5 Corners, notorious for its easy flooding.  Main roads are a bit narrow as streams of water rush to find their own level.  Navigating the wet roads is more challenging than usual, but I am mindful that as soon as the rain stops, the water will recede into the sandy soil and within the space of a day any signs of the deluge will have pretty much disappeared.   

This is not a Louisiana parish by any stretch of the imagination and yet the presence of so much rain definitely leads my thoughts to the suffering occurring in so many places in the south due to heavy and relentless rains and high winds.  

I try to imagine losing everything in a storm.  I can’t.  The best I can do is watch the TV news footage to try and grasp the enormity of loss - - homes, treasured possessions, irreplaceable memories, beloved pets.  And yet I hear time after time “Yes, we have lost everything but we are grateful to be alive.” 

Time after time I see people who have lost everything helping their neighbors who may be even worse off.  A greater humanity seems to kick into action during the crisis.

Tonight the news is filled with the remembering of  the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers.  Time after time, witnesses, survivors, victims of the attacks recall how the country came together in the aftermath; how we were kinder to each other; how much more we treasured our all too vulnerable lives, how we were more likely to tell our loved ones how much they meant to us.

It didn’t last long.  Revenge for the attacks seemed to bring with it division and rancor. It continues today with all the pros and cons about the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.  The sorrow and bitterness and confusion fracture our political minds.

Nearly 20 years later, COVID has created another national crisis, another opportunity for the country to come together to support and care for one another through all the sickness and death, the terrible vulnerability and uncertainty that rides on the coattails of the virus.  We have named our community heroes, our frontline medical workers, all the essential workers like supermarket personnel and caregivers, police and firefighters, EMTs and on and on.

But in short order, blaming and shaming became part of the response to COVID.  In so many places personal rights became paramount and superceded responsibility for each other and for the health of our communities.  To mask or not to mask - - to vaccinate or not to vaccinate - - to trust the science or disregard it - - issues that have divided friends and families and communities across the country.  Curiously, all of this happens against the backdrop of a worldwide crisis: Not enough vaccines to care for the poorest countries while controversy grows about the distribution of booster shots to those in wealthier countries who have already been vaccinated.

As a  species, we seem unable to sustain a long term and consistently loving and compassionate response through the fall-out from a major crisis.  We need to blame someone.  We need to hold someone accountable.  We need to claim our own personal rights and sense of wellbeing whether this is damaging to someone else’s rights and well being or not.

Once again, I contemplate the heavy downpour.  An ancient story tells of a straight 40 days of rain - flooding the entire earth - destroying all but a handful of lives and a boatload of animals of every kind.  A meta-cleansing of earth’s people gone awry.  That story ends with hope - a rainbow and a steadfast promise that the Creator will not destroy creation in that way again.

Next time - we will be the ones held accountable.

And yet - as someone penned: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”  This Sunday we will witness a baptism - the initiation of a young child’s life into the fellowship of the church.  The child to be baptized has a powerful name.  It means “He who progresses and helps others to progress.”  His middle name means “He who wins the struggle.”  Perhaps a name we could all embrace in the service of a more loving and harmonious world where we move together toward the elusive goal of a more fully human, more fully divine way of doing life  - noticing one another - bringing one another along in the great struggle for life in all its abundance - - winning the struggle together.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, September 3, 2021

"A Present Absence"

 One of the spiritual direction questions that my rabbi friend often asks when we are bewailing the tragic events that dominate the headlines is “Where is G-d in this?”  It always confounds me and then sets me to looking more closely at what is going on.  Where is G-d in the massive flooding that is drowning the parishes of New Orleans again?   Where is G-d in the senseless loss of life at the hands of a suicide bomber?  Where is G-d when humans can’t seem to cooperate to get a grip on eliminating a deadly virus?  Where is G-d in the massive structures of systemic racism?  The question is so open ended…WHERE IS GOD?

My meandering around the question led me to a brief and poignant few verses in Deuteronomy

(31:16-18) as Moses nears his death:

And the Lord said to Moses: “You are going to rest with your ancestors, and these people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them.  And in that day I will become angry with them and forsake them; I will hide my face from them, and they will be destroyed. Many disasters and calamities will come on them, and in that day they will ask, ‘Have not these disasters come on us because our G-d is not with us?’  And I will certainly hide my face in that day because of all their wickedness in turning to other gods.

It’s not a message I would want to hear on my death bed after spending my life in behalf of a congregation, but there it is.

Sometimes asking the question almost leads the way to an answer, or at least a different way to think about the question.  I stumbled on The Way Into Jewish Mysticism by Lawrence Kushner.
He ponders the same question, but with greater wisdom than I possess.  He writes: Often it is not what it seems at first to be evil that is the problem, but our inability to see how G-d is behind it or within it. In Jewish mysticism, this is called “G-d hiding G-d’s face.”

When I look back at the Moses episode again, I see that G-d didn’t say “I’m out of here -I’m leaving,”   G-d said:  “I will hide my face.”  To me, this implies Holy Presence in Absence.

Back to Kushner where he cites the Baal Shem Tov, a master of Jewish mysticism: In G-d’s “hiding” we are not able to fathom the good that is latent within the hiding.  Indeed, if we could understand that some greater goodness is concealed within G-d’s apparent absence - that the hiding is for a reason, then we might be able to discern the purpose of G-d’s apparent withdrawal.  The Baal Shem Tov would conclude by saying that “I am more afraid of not realizing that G-d is hiding than I am of the actual hiddenness itself.”

Rounding one more bend in the road, I recall something I read in Teilhard de Chardin’s work years ago.   Kind of nice to know he pondered the question of evil and God too.  He didn’t write in terms of God’s presence or absence, but rather brought his own scientific and philosophical mind to the question: Evil in all its forms -injustice, inequality, suffering, death itself - ceases theoretically to be outrageous from the moment when, evolution becoming genesis, the immense travail of the world displays itself as the inevitable reverse side - or, better, the condition, or, better still, the price of an immense triumph.  Earth becomes the matrix in which our unity if forged.

So, tonight, when sleep eludes, a bit of mind bending meditation perhaps - - Divine Process hidden within the tumult and the chaos, in what appears to be relentless and unending sorrow and suffering, violence and ignorance.   Well, of course!! Isn’t that what the ancient story illustrates:

In the beginning when God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth was welter and waste and darkness over the deep…a chaotic scene to be sure and a Holy Breath brooded over the chaos, invisible, imageless, hidden…working.  

An ancient story for our time.

Vicky Hanjian