Silence is White

It took a while, but I realized what is so very different about this snowy world of white. It is the silence. There is the occasional sound of wind clacking the bare branches of the naked trees, or rounding the corner of the house. There is the occasional sound of snow sliding off the old slate roof.

But the landscape, the snowscape, now over two feet of fluffy white, is completely silent. There are no birds. Even the deer come in the night silently looking for food leaving footprints but making no noise.

Where I live the landscape is always noisy, the birds are constant, the frogs croak. And of course there are cars, sirens, trucks and people. Here, there are no cars, no sirens, no trucks, no birds, no frogs, no people. It is like living in a photograph, beautiful, still and silent.

I grew up in New York City and noise is always familiar to me. When my mother first came to this place I was afraid of the night. It was so dark and so silent and so foreign. Even in the more rural places I have lived there has always been noise, especially birds, sometimes cars and other evidence of human habitation. Less often, light. Here it feels like total isolation. Of course you can get in your car and “go into town”. But in this snowy winter, I have no place to go.

Oddly, the lack of ambient light allows me a glorious look at the night sky, filled with stars. It is rare to be where there is no light pollution, so I look for the beauty in my photograph life and in the snowy isolation. And I have learned that silence, at least for now, is white.

Notes From Isolation

So I woke up this morning. Did morning things. Said to myself “why am I making the bed?” The cat, being present, had no answer. The question remained.

I have been trying to establish routines, even though they differ from those I was used to. Some days I am more successful than other days. Finding productive ways to fill the time on some days, reading all day on others. I have striven to exercise most days although I am not a super motivated gym rat type. But I know how much better I feel when I exercise, despite the various aches and pains of sixty seven. I am growing things I have never succeeded in growing before – the pleasure of seeing tomatoes ripen, the promise of cucumbers. The cat is my constant companion, always near, begging like a small dog.

Now, as my state goes into phase one of reopening, I wonder what my “normal” will look like. I do not believe it is time to reopen, I do believe the numbers will continue to go up and that more people are going to die. We are not done with this thing here in Florida.

In the land of the free, the camo people believe that their rights trump (pun intended) the good of the majority; although I must say I don’t know who they were going to shoot armed as they were. It is always stunning to me that so many people don’t understand that every right has a corresponding responsibility, or burden. Rights don’t stand alone folks, they don’t exist in a vacuum. But that is a rant for another day.

So frankly, I don’t think my new normal will look much different than my current normal, at least for a while. Maybe I will stop purchasing everything I need, or don’t, on Amazon. Maybe I will go to the store a little more often. I am “high risk” according to the CDC and so I will continue to wear my mask, use my wipes and distance myself from others. I will wait to work until it is safe and continue to struggle with my bills. Maybe, when I can, I will get a haircut.


Get Up, Make Your Bed, Write

During this odd time of isolation, I see people’s posts on social media perhaps more than I ordinarily would. A great many of them talk about spending all day in pajamas, being paralyzed, eating too much, binge watching shows I have never heard of.

And not that I haven’t done all of those things; a little. I think, unfortunately, we are in this for the long haul despite what the talking heads are currently saying. I think normal is behind us and a new normal has to happen, and will whether we like it or not.

And taking the long view, pajamas really won’t cut it, binge tv is fine in the evening and eating all the time will only result in high blood sugar and blubber. So what to do?

Since retiring I can’t say I get up early. One of the great joys of retirement is going to sleep when I’m sleepy and waking up when I’m not, although I try to go to sleep at a reasonable hour just to keep my rhythms intact. But once up I am establishing a routine. I make my bed. A small thing I know but it makes me feel as if I am actually up like a real person with things to do. I exercise as best I can, I am not a super motivated exerciser but I am doing it despite myself – not enough – but doing it. I get dressed in outside world clothes. Yes, it has been a good while since I put on makeup or jewelry and I definitely need a haircut, but I am dressed.

Of course the first weeks of this experience was taken up with arranging bills, finances, long long phone holds with various companies and agencies. Frustrating but necessary. Then there was getting my son and his fiancee home; his job ended. It was complicated and full of drama but it is done.

Then there was tending my plants and my tiny garden. There will be tomatoes! It is pretty exciting. There will be cucumbers. This is all assuming the snails don’t get them, or the squirrels, etc. But all my plants are very happy as the normal benign neglect has ended and they are tended daily.

Then there was cooking. Oh yes, made bread, apple galette, and all manner of other things. Now mostly cooking healthy food for myself, not so creative but less blubber making.

And there is banging out songs on the piano. And there are all those myriad of household chore/projects that I have procrastinated for years. I am slowly but surely getting rid of paper. I am going through clothes. I am sorting through old cooking magazines that I just don’t need. I am catching up on my New Yorker reading, as well as chewing through every unread book in my house. The problem, of course, with reading is that I end up sitting all day and that is not healthy for me. So I try to confine my reading to the later part of the day, I do not easily relinquish a book once I sit down with it.

We have organized the garage, cleaned the lanai, scrub our bathrooms regularly, vacuum, dust, trim the hedges, go for walks. All to fill the days that used to be filled with social activities – teaching, meeting, rehearsing, lunches, dinners, friends.

And of course there is writing, the thing I now have time for and don’t do enough. Sitting still is hard, unhealthy, so this is the hardest of all. Nevertheless – Get up, make your bed, get dressed, do something productive and do something that makes you happy. Don’t sit too still.

Yet Another Movie

Because I so rarely had gone to the movies in my former working life (subject for another post) I find myself really loving going now. I am choosy, a little. I don’t care for most comedies, fantasies or armageddon movies. I tend to like thrillers and dark emo sorts of movies. I don’t mind shoot-em-up movies if they are fundamentally entertaining. And at this time of my life I definitely do not like romance/chick flicks for the most part. So now you know what I mostly don’t like.

I recently went to see The Mule with Clint Eastwood and Diane Wiest, among others. The people I went with found it slow, lacking movement and didn’t like it much. I don’t mind slow if it is about developing the story or the character which I thought in this case it was. I thought the movie was brilliant but extremely sad and depressing. You knew from the moment it started that it would not end well and it did not, although there was a kind of heroic undertone to the tragic ending.

The movie is, I presume loosely, based on the story of an actual World War II veteran to whom this happened which makes the narrative in some ways sadder but more convincing. Clint Eastwood as an old man was utterly convincing, he is an old man. He retained just enough of his tough guy loner persona to be interesting and not just old. It was sad nevertheless.

He reminded me of my father, a creative smart guy who couldn’t sustain family relationships with wife or children and as a result ended up alone and a bit desperate. His need for social accolades parallels my father’s needs very much. It made me think about several generations of veterans who came home and were unable to talk about what they had seen. Perhaps the need to keep that silence contributed to their intimate isolation. In the movie, very desperate, falling into what he falls into almost by accident but very much as a result of his isolation from family.

I thought it was very much worth seeing but I also left with a sense of real sadness for both the state of the elderly in this country and for the failure of relationship. In the very end it is poignant, sad, illuminating and truthful while being a good and resonant story of our time. See it but don’t expect to leave “entertained” in the usual sense of the word. It did capture my full attention, and you will be thinking about it as you walk out.

Oops ! Last week’s Torah portion – Tazria

Leviticus still. This is my fourth d’var Torah on this parsha of Tazria and it is such a strange and difficult, really almost unpleasant, parsha.  It continues a discussion of ritual impurity, childbirth and the ritual of the mikvah, circumcision, etc.  Wait, we have not gotten to the icky part yet.  This is the parsha that most people associate with leprosy.  But Tzarat, or the affliction in question, is not necessarily that; it is a mysterious affliction that can affect the skin, the garments or even the s home. 

I have always found this dichotomy fascinating, the idea of the progression from outer to inner or conversely inner to outer.  From the inanimate to the animate or the reverse.  From the very impersonal (although your home is personal in some way) to the extremely personal or, again, the reverse.  Do we reach inward for G-d or do we reach outward or out-toward G-d.  If we are made in the image of the divine is that an outer, or physical likeness?  Or is it a spiritual likeness? As I do not believe in G-d as a humanoid figure, for me it is obviously an internal or spiritual/emotional likeness.  We strive for divinity in our behavior, in our everyday dealings; isn’t that what the mitzvah drive us to?  A striving for perfection and holiness, however unattainable it might be?

This too, presents a dichotomy of inner and outer.  There is the outer, or physical appearance of a person, and there is the inner, the spirit and character of a person.  The tzarat, or mysterious affliction, requires the afflicted to dwell alone outside the camp, tent or city until no longer afflicted.  This mandate of isolation brings me to two different ideas.  those with actual leprosy, continued to be quarantined or isolated in parts of the world considered civilized. 

The last compulsory isolation in the United States was enforced in 1960 and it was not until 1975 that the section Code of Federal Regulations dealing with medical care for person’s with Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) eliminated the word “detention” from its text.  There was no debate in the United States regarding the appropriateness of compulsory isolation but, rather, “involuntary admission” was administratively abandoned until Congress addressed the closure of public health hospitals between 1981 and 1986 and the elimination of “hazard pay” for those who worked in leprosaria or hospitals for those with Hansen’s Disease.  The law finally passed in 1985 spared the one national center for the treatment of the disease and required that person’s with it be treated without charge.  There is much more to the history but you get the idea, compulsory isolation and involuntary admission was in part a result of the fear of infection.  But reasonably effective drugs for the arresting of the disease, although it is not technically curable, have existed since the 1940’s and yet this isolation and discrimination continued.  Why?  I believe it is because those with the disease were too hard to look at, they were sometimes disfigured in pretty horrible ways.  The history of more than three quarters of a century, just in this country, was primarily based on judging people on how they look.

Didn’t your mother tell you not to “judge a book by it’s cover”?  I think perhaps it all started with this parsha, with Leviticus and the tzarat.  Just as, perhaps, we should look for G-d within ourselves, for the spark of the divine within, the striving for perfection, we should look at the character of a person, at their spirit rather than at their physical appearance.  It is hard to look past physical imperfections or the difficulties imposed by poverty to see the person within, but that is what we are required to do.  If the divine image, or the spark of the divine in us is inner, then that is where we must look.  I have often told people who asked how I could represent murderers in my past life that nobody is the one worst thing they have ever done.  I wish not to be judged by any singular act but by the whole of who I am and what I have accomplished, tempered perhaps by what I am less proud of.  We are all a composite, the inner being much more important than the outer.

I would be remiss here if I did not note that on this Shabbat, which is the shabbat to fall on or before the first of Nissan we are commanded to read also Hachodesh, the portion of exodus that speaks of G-d’s words to Moses in Egypt, two weeks before the  exodus.  The portion commands us to bring the Passover offering and eat it with matzah and bitter herbs, abstaining from leavening for seven days.  Just as our mother’s taught us to judge a person’s inner beauty, so G-d commands us to teach our children of the exodus, of our journey from slavery to freedom.  The Torah is full of this idea of passing down or passing on, the stories and practices to our children as they were passed on to us.  Think of the V’ahavta, one of the most seminal prayers in our liturgy – teach them to your children, bind them as a sign.  The concept of l’dor vador, from generation to generation is crucial to us as a people, it is a cornerstone of our culture, our faith, our very survival.

But I digress. The second theme I found in this idea of isolation in Tazria is again of the inner and outer. As in the example of Hansen’s disease, we have historically isolated those whose outer appearance is distasteful to us for various reasons.  Those whose inner ppearance is distasteful are another matter altogether.  It is possible for the miserable of spirit to camouflage their ugliness sometimes, to learn to act in acceptable ways socially while acting out in uglier ways perhaps in business, or in their intimate relationships.  But what I think is ultimately true is that those who are miserable in spirit are almost always emotionally isolated, they have created their own isolation from which it is very difficult to emerge.  In this case the outer is perhaps more palatable than the inner.  And in the end,  those who are miserable of spirit do dwell alone, outside the tent.

 The two ideas come together when we think of how we feel, or make others feel, when we them by how they look, or their lifestyles, or their beliefs rather than looking at them to see how they actually “live”.  What matters is how they treat people, how honest they are, how gracious and how charitable.  When we judge them wrongly, we make ourselves miserable and therefore isolated.   

On this Shabbat, as we enter Nissan and prepare for our physical spring cleaning and the re-telling of our story of freedom, let us look within to find what is best in ourselves and others.  Let us look within to find the spark of the divine in each of us and clean our spiritual houses of judgment, gossip and ugliness and come to the table without tzarat in our homes and in our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom