Monday, December 28, 2009

רבי טרפון אומר׃

רבי טרפון אומר׃

היום קצר
והמלאכה מרבה
והפועלים עצלים
והשכר הרבה
ובעל הבית דוחק

Pirkei Avot 2:15
Rabbi Tarfon says:
The day is short,
the work is heavy,
the workers lazy,
the wages high,
the master of the house, insistent.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Decade of Shame

All in all, it has been a decade full of shame.

Looking back over the span of it, the sheer calamity of it all, it is hard to raise one's head and feel proud about the progress of America, the human race, the drive and desire we have as a species to create a better, less hostile world.

But, there is also a privileging of ourselves in this view. We over-think our importance as a generation, as a people of a specific time, and our negative thinking of our era becomes a kind of reverse narcissism.

There have been worse times; there are far worse places. Things are bad, but could be worse. And the future is, as we all now, not a settled issue. Anything can happen. And this has both good and bad implications for the human species.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

הכל אלוהים

הכל אלוהים

Yes, everything is God. Again.

For me, the exploration of the world, of literature, of science, is ultimately an investigation of God or Being or the ground by which we understand our existence. Very little of my formal writing deals with others topics. And by way of self criticism, I produce very little good work that does not deal with this topic, the topic of all topics.

God edges His/Her/It way into nearly every story I write, and it the self-evident topic of my two non-fiction, published works.

For me, this is a very real premise. As I grow older, the impulse has only grown stronger. I have found that many of my impulses are starting to be subordinated to the impulse to find, dwell and exist within God. It is now what I look for when I look out at the world.

My definition of God is necessarily expansive. It includes everything, everyone, everywhere, at every time. It is the seemingly good and bad and holy and evil. It is a difficult program of inclusion and acceptance, with a strong Hebraic-Jewish flavor. It is not for everyone, nor is it necessarily even advisable to act upon this supposition at all times.

But it is a beautiful view even when just briefly glimpsed

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

יצר הרע‎ - The Darkness Within

Maybe it is the darkest day that makes me think of dark things.

There is this simmering, sometimes overpowering sense that the world just is not a good place; and that humanity is fundamentally bad/evil.

After all, look at what we have done to each other and our planet. Look at the casual indifference with which we treat each other every day. What can be done? How can we think about humanity and our predicament in new ways?

One way: Normative Judaism does not view people as inherently good or evil. We are neither. We are beings capable of angelic good or demonic evil. Most of us dwell in shades between.

יצר הרע‎‎, Yetzer Hara, the Evil Inclination, is a key concept in Judaism's grappling with human impulses, and differs from conventional ideas about evil. Yetzer Hara is evil; it is selfishness, greed, lust, all the common notions of badness or evil that we can imagine. But יצר הרע‎ is necessary; without it, much of the positive work in the world would not get done. If a person did not seek to profit for him or herself, no food would be grown. There would be no trade. It would be a war of all against all if there was not a kernel of evil in each of us.

So what to do when the feeling, the inner sensation, is overwhelming?

Well, again that is one of the positive elements of Judaism. Traditionally, you can feel or think anything you like, even think the most atrocious things, about yourself, other people, even God, but as long as you don't act upon them, and act for the good, that is fine. It is practical intention that matters, not internal intent.

And one leads to the other. The more we act good, hopefully the more we feel good. Action and intent dovetail and become one.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Today, Tomorrow, Yesterday

There seems to be some element of dysfunction with my connection to the past.

My dreams are crowded with images of past people, places, things, and the urgent sense that something needs to be made right that is wrong.

I've discussed these dreams with a professional. The image of the house is paramount in my dream-scape. Its has obvious connection to family life and its connected image of safety and security. Many of my dream houses are semi-permeable. They are missing walls, or private spaces that spill out into public spaces. There are uninvited people in their rooms. There is the feeling that the private space will be invaded by some unknown force.

Last night was a typical dream:

My family was in a house without real walls; in front of us, the house of my very old friends from Long Island. There was a great scaffold or crane, and this family was on it. They were in danger of falling but appeared not to sense it. They were joined by other people, strangers. Then, one man began to dangle from the contraption. He fell. I remember thinking: now I must explain violent death to my children. He landed on the ground in one unlikely hop and walked away.

Then the family, the old friends, came down. My old friend came to my broken little house, no more than beams and posts, and gave me a half embrace. His hair, long for over twenty years, was cut.

That is all I remember. What is it about? It is about the mind's attempt to meld the past, the present, and the future. Today, tomorrow and yesterday. How can it all be related? The self, seemingly so stable, is under constant pressure to change. What is the thread that connects yesterday with today and with tomorrow?

There is the obvious sense in this dream of fear, danger, and need for protection and solace, the idea that we are very puny in the universe. This is expressed in this dream. But also the hope. There is continuing love, even if it is only in the form of a half hug through broken down house.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

אֵין עוֹד, מִלְּבַדּוֹ

I recite the 18 benedictions every morning and most afternoons.

This is in Hebrew, of course, with a tallit (prayer shawl) over my head and a kippah (a large one) on my skull. I look upon these prayers as meditations more than prayer, although there is an element of supplication here as well. For the most part, it is just a moment to acknowledge two things: my importance as a single human being with worth, value, and merit; and equally and opposite, to discover that I am just a fleck of dust in the universe; that I am at the mercy of greater, higher, universal powers.

At these moments, I can feel the tug of something greater than myself. You can call it God (or HaShem, as I do) or the pull of the Infinite, Eyn Sof, or even the desire, strong, thwarted, ardent, to merge with the Oneness Of All Things.

Regardless, I'm often moved to tears by this experience. All my life I have been a religious rationalist. Now I find myself weeping at the expansiveness of it all. I find myself filled by a desire that appears to originate outside of me.

אֵין עוֹד, מִלְּבַדּוֹ

Eyn od milvado. I repeat this Hebrew refain like a mantra. There is none beside God.

Blogging, the Diary, and the Confessions to the Self

I have been keeping a journal since 1999 just before I had a major medical problem. I started to write in a small notebook. I see it now as a prelude to my more extended, organized writings in both fiction and non-fiction which I would later publish.

Then, it was just an attempt to capture what I felt was the fleeting nature of time. I was 29; I was perched on 30. What had I done? If I got hit by a T, slipped in the shower and lost my memory, at least I'd have a journal -- a document of my time. Then, when I got sick a few months later -- a truly bad illness -- the journal took on a more urgent note. The entries get more desperate and strident. Time was running out. Time to write it down. Time proved me wrong. I am still here. And now, perched on 40, with 40 a few weeks away, those old journals from 1999 make for interesting reading.

Time's flow is inexhaustible.

Turning a decade older turns more than years. It turns the ideas of self, time, identity on their head. It shows the progression of thought and feeling over time. Hopefully, it shows a widening of humane feelings. We are all in the same predicament. What we see as difference is only surface dross. What we once thought as separate is instead connected. That Self that I was is that Self still; just with different preoccupations and a horizon of expectation.

and here it the deeper lesson...

There are sentiments, opinions, perspectives in those notebooks that I would not want anyone to read. That is, of course, the pivot around which the Blog and the Diary hinge and then depart company. The blog is for public consumption. The diary is strictly private to its inner core.

A blog that is an intimate diary, especially if attributed, is a terribly crass object. There are other venues where the Self can romp around in its own narcissistic rumpus room. That is of course the diary.

The diary will take anything I throw at it. I can say the most vehement things about the people I love, hate, wish to stop hating, have known and lost and wish to see again. And no one will ever read it. It is a buried treasure without the benefit of a map. There is still room for this type of self-confession for the writing human being. It can't all be out there like a shirt tail hanging out. Some of it must be hidden in the drawer. Part of us should be hidden

The Other Zions

Years ago, when I lived in Boston, I came across a Jewish history atlas. One of the maps was called "The Other Zions" and it contained the mostly failed experiments and Utopian fantasies in establishing Jewish states away from the land of Israel.

The idea must have been interesting to me, because it lay dormant in my mind for perhaps ten years. Then, following the publication of my first book, I thought that I had to strike the iron when it was hot. I began to research the book, using some sources I already had and some that I newly discovered. The journey in writing the book was simply amazing; I learned far more about Jewish history, Jewish ethnic identity and nationalism, then from simple reading.

What the researching, writing and publishing of the book confirmed is a kind of truism about Jewish history that is refreshing to come across once again: there is a wide variety of the thing called Judaism and the people called Jews. This includes concepts of nationhood and the land area where that nation can exist.

My book shows, I hope, that old conceptions are not as true as we think. That new thinking is in order on an old subject.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Moment of Being

Sitting in the "Cocktail Lounge" portion of Uris Library yesterday, I chose one of those shallow, odoriferous chairs. I read for a bit, looked out the wide sweeping window at the gray and brown landscape. Then I thought it time to meditate. So I closed my eyes, and with every thought that arose, I pushed it away with a mental broom. Thoughts wander and can be aimless, but with some concentration, it is surprising how easily they give up. The more you push them away, the less pop up.

Then, for moments, brief in duration, there is no thought. Or if there is thought, it is of a non- image, non-conceptual kind. There is just a kind of flow to things; the filter of thought is gone, and suddenly the body, the mind opens up and floats. The mummer of the surrounding students sounds like static. There are gaps and valleys in perception. How long does it last? Precious few moments. There is the feeling that one's whole being has slide delightfully over a cliff, again and again.

Then, when the mind sweeping exercise was over, I began to repeat the phrase Eyn Od Milvado, there is none beside [God]; a Chasidic chant of the pervasiveness of HaShem. This brought a feeling of interpenetration. I felt there was no difference between the thing called me and the person on the other end of the room, murmuring. I felt the continuum of the things we call things; I sensed the speciousness of our sense of separation from them.

Then it was over and I felt as if I was asleep. The world was bright and moving. And I gathered my things and it was over.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The End of the Break That Never Began

In 2009 I published a book, two short stories, finished articles for an encyclopedia, completed a draft of a novel, submitted stories, wrote more stories. So, I decided to give myself a break in the last third of the year from serious writer type occupation.

But I haven't done it; I have kept plowing forward. And then, shame of all shame, I started writing yet another novel and am now at 10,000 words.

If life is something we chose to live, if it is free will and drive, then writing is compulsion. And as compulsions go, it is a harmless vice. Perhaps a break from it is not the proper thing. There is hardly a better feeling than the created world of words.

When one is writing, and hitting the mark , stirring the primordial pot where your ideas and inspiration reside, to ignore or suppress that impulse is not only ill advised, but can destroy the creative life.

So my break that was never a break is over. Something inside of me wants to find continued expression. I am going to let it take me where it wishes me to go.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Big Format

I spent much of the spring and summer revising my book, reading the proofs, correcting some errors, and getting it to press.

It went from contract to book in about six months, which by publishing standards is the speed of light. A book format, a big format, takes time and effort to get into shape. But there is nothing quite like the feeling of having a book in the pike and knowing it will be bound. When I did this for my first book, the experience was akin to making love for the first time. You concentrate less on the act itself, and more on the wonder of it; then when it is over, you hope that you will get to do it again.

Writing and then getting your stuff out there is like no other sensation. Your words will have a life of their own. But it can also be a bruising experience. There is the experience of rejection (which is nearly universal for writers); the critique of the work --- which at all times is blunt and nearly always insulting. Finally, there is the lack of feedback. Who reads the book? Is there anyone out there who is moved by the story? How do we know?

Ultimately, it doesn't matter. As others have said with more style than I am, the writing is important, not the ultimate result. That said, I'd not like to give up the big format of book publishing. There is nothing like it at all. It is the highest level of the writing chain of being.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Everything is One

There is a secret to the heart of existence: everything is one.

Statements like this can easily degenerate into cliches and simple parables. Too much talk or writing about it runs the risk of making it too prosaic and dull.

But what is meant here is actually quite simple. The supposed space and distance we see between things in this world do not exist. Everything is actually connected. And this connectedness continues to infinity. And we can call this total interpenetration of everything with everything God.

In the Jewish mystical tradition it is often called eyn sof: infinity or without-end. This is an elitist position in Judaism, one that has only been held by a minority of people. But it is a growing supposition today. Eyn od milvado, there is none beside him/it is a common refrain among Hasidim. What are the practical implications of this view of the universe and God?

Taken as a credo and a lens to view the world, it is a humbling mechanism. You are connected to that person you feel a secret derision toward on the bus. That college slum down the road is a part of you. The haughty sense of separation between you and your enemy is not ontologically true. Everything you see is not as you see it. The you of you is not true, or not true in the sense that you thing it is.

Everything should be reevaluated from the viewpoint of God. And this is a big project.