Archive for September 17th, 2009

In the Space of the Days of Awe

Sharon September 17th, 2009

I realize that there are a number of readers of mine who think that my tendency to G-d-bother, as a friend of mine puts it, is one of my literary weaknesses.  I’ve had the emails “you’d be such a good writer if you’d just leave that archaic religious stuff out” one person put it.  That’s ok with me - I annoy the humorless with the comic posts, the people opposed to soppiness with the moving ones, the left, the right, the middle, Jews who don’t think I’m religious enough or hate my politics on Israel, Christians who think I’m too Jewish and should shut about about it already…and so I’d feel rather bad if I never got so much as an eye-roll out of my athiest readers ;-)

I write what I write, whether silly or serious, practical or analytic, simply because I want to write it.  I’ve never claimed otherwise - this blog is, as the sidebar says, a synthesis of all things of interest to me.  And the question of where we go - in our inner and outer lives - when there seems to be little hope for change is of a great deal of interest to me.

This post comes from an email I got from a reader, who asked that I give a friend of hers who is worried things aren’t changing fast enough a reason for hope.  At first I wasn’t going to do it - I know people need to feel hope, but I get impatient hope sometimes, since it seems to be more about comforting people than getting work done.  But I wanted to write something for the new year, and I thought perhaps there was a way to write about hope that might be useful.  It seemed, at least, an interested exercise.  So here goes.

The first talk I ever did was at the Community Solutions Peak Oil Conference in 2006.  Pat Murphy, director of The Community Solution had read my writings and called me up and asked “do you give talks.”  Now as everyone knows, the answer to that question is “yes” whether it is true or not, and so I did.  The conference took place on Rosh Hashana, and I almost said I couldn’t go because of that, but I figured I’d never be asked again.

I’ve told this story before, in _A Nation of Farmers_ and elsewhere, but I’m going to repeat it anyway.  I had spent several months laboriously constructing a talk about food and agriculture for the conference.  Peter Bane, editor in chief of _Permaculture Activist_ magazine was up before me on the Sunday morning that I spoke, and his talk, also on food and agriculture, covered pretty much every single thing that I’d planned to say in my talk.  I had allotted myself 5 minutes at the end of the talk to a. throw up in panic and b. make sure that my breasts didn’t leak milk all over my shirt, since it was the first time I’d been away from Asher who was 10 months old at the time.

Instead, I had to construct an entirely new talk in that five minutes, while panicking in the rest room.  I had one or two ideas that hadn’t been covered, a nice quote from Thomas Paine, and not much else.  So, when I got up the stage, I did what everyone who needs to buy time and can’t do soft-shoe routines does - I told a story, one about precisely the question of how much hope we have. 

You see, Jewish tradition teaches that at the New Year, G-d inscribes the fate of all the world.  At that time, who will live and who will die, and the future of each person is written down for the year to come.  At that moment, all that will be is decided.

Except, that it isn’t.  Because we are taught that only for two groups of people are the inscriptions final.  The truly righteous, the saints and the best of all human beings are inscribed in the book of life with their fate written down.  And the evil, the truly bad have the same.  But the vast majority of us, the ordinary, incomplete, imperfect, turbulent mass of the rest of us get another shot. 

Because Jews are taught that G-d gives us one last chance and does not close the book. In the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, each person gets one more chance to change what is written, to make themselves and their future a little better.  Why do we get this one last chance, when, after all, we knew that the New Year was coming?  Well, from the mercy of G-d, of course, but also, because a space in which to change is the greatest gift anyone can ever have.  How many of us have ever stood, while disaster struck our lives, thinking “it cannot be happening, please, just let me go back and undo it.”  This doesn’t give us the promise of undoing anything, or even the promise of change. But the story gives us the hope of a second chance to at least brighten our future a little, a gift that all of us can appreciate.

Now I am not a religious literalist - my point, when I stood up and said these words in front of 250 people in 2006 was this - that we too live in the space within the Days of Awe, in which it is possible, not at all certain, that the right actions on our part can reinscribe our future in some measure.  The space of second chances - not do-overs, but space in which some small softening of our blows can be enacted, need not be metaphor.

Moreover, I would argue that the space of the Days of Awe, which we can think of as a kind of box in which to enclose our Schroedinger’s cat-like selves, in which we stand, potentially able to change, and equally potentially fixed and inscribed, is a space of hope and optimism. Hope is not a word I have a lot of truck with, at least in the way that a lot of people use it.  My own thinking is that “hope” is a cheap emotion unless it causes you to break a sweat - I’m only interested in hope when it inspires us to work.  But, of course, that’s the value of hope - not as a balm to our souls, but to the calluses on our palms.

What has changed since 2006?  In 2006, I had vastly greater hopes for our capacity to change, to reinscribe ourselves.  In the years since, we’ve seen that climate change is a much more acute situation than anyone had known.  At this point I think there is real and honest reason to doubt whether even our strongest actions could make a difference - that does not free us not to try (although we are not trying, generally), but it is likely that the words are written.  Instead of a steady and gradual increase in oil prices that drives us in the right direction, we are facing a volatility that means that most people simply can’t fully grasp their situation. 

We are closer now to Neilah, the closing of the gates, in which our fate is inscribed, and we shift to acceptance of our fate.  Much closer - perhaps they are already closed, we do not know and can not know, and must live our lives as though they are open.   Most of us don’t grasp how very close we are to disaster - we go on through our everyday life, and things don’t seem so very bad, and so many people have predicted disaster before, and there’s every reason to believe we’ve got all the time in the world.  Except, of course, the fact that nearly every expression of our science tells us otherwise, that it is time and past time.

It is possible to believe that it is both too late to do anything and possible to do a great deal - in fact, I think this contradiction is the only way to go forward. I spend a lot of my time and energy finding ways to deal with this contradiction, asking how I simultaneously say to people “what you have had is lost, and there is no hope to get it back, you are living in a dead culture and simply haven’t seen it fall over yet” and also “you are needed to act, there is reason to hope and things to look forward to, and much, much work to do” - how does one do it, and say it so that others can hear? The truth is that even what is done, and closed can be helped - we may not stop one disaster, but we can pick up the fallen, tend the sick, help the hungry, bury the dead, and pray.

Again, I know many of you probably aren’t theists and most aren’t Jews.  But I’m not sure that matters - I don’t pray because I’m sure that G-d answers my prayers, or even because I’m always sure G-d exists - I pray because prayer is a form, like the shape of a sonnet or a dance.  One masters the forms, does the discipline of work, in order that maybe someday something transcendent might come out of it - I might work all my life at poetry and never create a great poem - but unless I master the form and discipline of my art, I know I will never create anything great. 

 The same is true of prayer - I do not pray because I think it will mend the world, any more than I garden or write because it will mend the world - I pray and write and garden because I can, it mends me, and it might help - and that’s enough reason.  For some people this may seem cynical, to me, it is consolatory - and hopeful.  It is easy to imagine that the only tools and things that matter are the ones that save the world, that save the day, that fix everything.

But we may be past that point.  And now the things that merely help, that simply make things better begin to come into their own.  The things that allow us to work and cope in a place where there may be nothing more we can do, or where we are constrained, enable us to pick up the tools we have, regardless of circumstances and use them as we can, for the best we can.

These things are small, mostly, and far less shiny and impressive than the tools of world saving, of resolution.  They require we get grubby, both metaphorically and literally down and dirty with the world around us, and that we accept limited results - not enough potatoes to eat all year, but enough for a week.  Not enough money to have what we want, but maybe most of what we need.  Not enough time to fix it all, but to save some, and soften the hurt for many.  Not one single solution, but something close to a whole answer in the actions of thousands and millions and billions, each softening and easing the pain of another a little more.

I hope all of you have a happy and healthy new year.  And I wish for you all the small things, the great joys, hope, and that you may break a sweat.

L’Shana Tova Tikatevu!