September 28, 2007

Nichols family-by-choice reunion

John Nichols and his "big sister"
    Unless you have heard me gushing about Stella, my decades-long spiritual mother, you wouldn’t understand why John introduced me to his Atlanta friend as “my big sister” when he was in town visiting from his home in Hawaii. Looking at our faces (shown in the photo), you’d wonder, How? What’s up with that?

Simple. In the late 1960s, when I launched my first career as an early childhood educator, in Cambridge, MA, I met John, his ten siblings, and their parents, Joe and Stella Nichols. And I immediately claimed them as mine. Since then, neither time, distance, life, nor death has changed this belonging. So, I rearranged my schedule on short notice to catch up with my brother-visitor on his East Coast tour seeking galleries, institutions, festivals, and marketplaces to show his art.

Karen, John's youngest sibling, was among my first beautiful and brilliant Head Start preschool students. When Karen arrived on the first day of school with her slightly older sisters Esther and Linda, the elder sisters' expressions read: "What kind of place is this? Who is this child-woman who calls herself teacher?" Today, Karen, who has earned a degree in education from Gallaudet College where she met, then married a fellow student from Nigeria (now, a professor at their alma mater) is mom to three beautiful and brilliant kids.

Esther, John's eldest sibling, raised her family in the home where her parents raised their own family, then sold it and retired to Mashpee, on Cape Cod.

Joe and Stella Nichols in their Cape Cod garden
(during my visit, spring 2004)
Today, at age 87, Joe continues a lifetime of gardening, fishing, keeping bees, preparing meals (and sharing his bounty with neighbors and guests), visiting shut-ins and nursing home residents, ministering to his flock, mentoring new church leadership, and welcoming family, friends, and seekers of his light.

The night before Yom Kippur we spoke, among other topics, about Unetaneh Tokef, a signature Hebrew prayer in the High Holy Day liturgy, and then Joe asked me to read it aloud in English translation. We spoke our usual brief time — more than an hour, and only ending the call because of my bedtime!

Stella, the woman whom I called "Inspiration" since our meeting that first Head Start year for Karen and for me, died 21 months ago, at age 83. She remains a tree of life — many roots, many branches, and my beloved surrogate parent, adored sister, treasured friend — a permanent force for good.

Family. Tracing blood lines is one way to define family. Marriage confers a family status, too. And then, there is a family of choice, the one we populate with people whom we claim and who claim us. It is easy to accomplish. Just reach across artificial divides. Remain open. And, only connect.

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Josh Gomes is scoring points for Israel

September 25, 2007

Au revoir, Marcel Marceau

My childhood heroes continue to exit the stage, as do heroes of my adulthood. One by one, they release their tools — pens and papers, uniforms and costumes, needles and threads, batters and mixes. Now, they live in memory. And, in some lucky situations, preserved on paper, canvas, vinyl, and digitized bits of reality in multiple formats.

How I dearly loved them, and how they fascinated, entertained, and enlightened me endlessly with their courageously creative signature expressions.

Marcel Marceau spoke loudly in an inaudible voice.

I was a child in New York City when my parents took me to see the French mime who died this week, at age 84. Watching his speechless performances thrilled me as did listening to stories of his courageous exploits in the face of the monster Hitler and his systematic war to exterminate the Jews. Marceau's father was deported and died in Auschwitz. In his twenties, the mime forged identity cards (much as my grandfather did), proving youths too young to be sent to labor camps, and hid Jewish children from the Gestapo and the French police.

The artist spoke to and about all humanity. From an interview, quoted in The New York Times obituary
Mostly I think of human situations for my work, not local mannerisms. There is no French way of laughing and no American way of crying. My subjects try to reveal the fundamental essences of humanity.

What were the fundamental essences of humanity that my ten- or eleven-year-old girlhood memory stored? Fortunately the wonderful online magazine captured some —

. . . going up and down an invisible escalator . . .; attempting suicide; personifying all seven sins; and acting out the creation of the world, from amoeba to man, in 10 minutes or so. . . . His [was] . . . a world fashioned out of thin air. You see a statue, a pickpocket, a matador, a lion tamer, a soldier, a man passionately embraced by his lover.

How does the child in me remember so much about the mime from so long ago? Salon explains —

It's no accident that children are his best audiences, because his art demands active participation, imagination.

In the photo, which I took at the Arab Jewish Community Center in Jaffa, Israel, a bevy of children express themselves joyfully, silently!

Probably, they never heard of the great mime whose art was for them, too, of course.

I pray that some day these children will see his work and listen to his clear unspoken messages on the fundamental essences of humanity. Equally, I pray that they and all children will develop their talents and perhaps bring to audiences the enchantment, comfort, inspiration, and hope, as Marcel Marceau brought to me when I was a child.

September 18, 2007

Yom Kippur thoughts: Our choices do matter

Blowing the shofar (greeting card image)
Eastern Europe, early 20th century. Courtesy of
the Fund of the New Synagogue Berlin, Centrum Judaicum.

The shofar calls
Awake, you sleepers from your sleep, rouse yourself you slumberers . . . Examine your deeds, return in repentance and remember your Creator. Those of you who forget the truth in the follies of the times and go astray the whole year in vanity and emptiness, which neither profit nor save, look to your souls, improve your ways and works, abandon your evil ways every one of you!
Maimonides, in Hilchot Teshuvah, The Laws of Repentance 3.4

"And when the great shofar is sounded. . ."
. . .  a small quiet voice is heard, and the heavenly beings are thrown into fright, and, seized by a terrible dread, they declare: Behold, the day of judgment has arrived, when even those in heaven's court are judged for none can be exempt from justice's eyes! . . . You do not desire a person to die, but only to change and to live. . . 
Unetaneh Tokef, a Hebrew liturgical poem (English translation in Mahzor Leyamim Nora’im, Prayerbook for the Days of Awe, The Reconstructionist Press)

* * * 
Since the Hebrew month of Elul that precedes Tishrei, when Rosh Hashanah begins, the shofar has been calling, its sounds ringing in my ears. And I am eager to continue this evening, Yom Kippur, the difficult spiritual work during this mandated pause in Jewish time. Guiding the congregation and service leaders will be the High Holy Day machzor, a rich anthology of prayers, hymns, and passages from the Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, and Zohar that tell the story, vision, core values, and history of the Jewish people.

The hard part of spiritual work is reflecting on my specific deeds and thoughts (intentional and not) and critically assessing my mis-takes (split word intended) the preceding year. Without this work, how would I recognize my past choices and discern the possible consequences and results each choice entailed? How else could I identify my responsibilities and make wise choices today?

It is this ability to choose that makes us human. And I want to know, How will I make choices that matter?

Last month, the popular author of the children's classic ''A Wrinkle in Time" died, at age 88. From The New York Times' obituary of this deeply faithful Christian:

Why does anybody tell a story? [Madeleine L'Engle] . . . once asked, even though she knew the answer. . . . It does indeed have something to do with faith, she said, faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically [emphasis mine].

My related Yom Kippur posts

September 11, 2007

On the anniversary of 9/11: One hour, three conversations (excerpts)

  • 2:15 PM — Today, after seeing my periodontist and before leaving her office, I conversed casually with her assistant, who suddenly blurted out: I am 44 and my father abused me until I was seven. I have forgiven him and my mother for allowing it because today I know he was a sick person.
  • 3:00 PM — On my way home, waiting at the subway station platform for a train to the bus depot, I chatted with a fellow passenger. When our friendly conversation turned to religion, she announced: Oh, you are Jewish? All Jews are rich.

  • 3:15 PM — Waiting for my connecting bus at the depot, I picked up a longstanding conversation with the station master. On his six children, he began: My eldest is a sniper in Baghdad. When he left for Iraq, 24 months ago, I told him, 'I wish I could go in your place. Just obey orders and concentrate on protecting your buddy to your right and your buddy to your left.'
During each conversation, I wondered, What is this person really telling me? And later, I pondered, How is each person connected to me and to the others?

September 10, 2007

L'Shanah Tovah, Happy New Year: On this day, the world was conceived.

Traditional holiday fruit, a pomegranate pregnant with seeds

Hayom harat olam.
On this day, the world was conceived.

These words conclude the first and most central idea in the Rosh Hashanah Jewish festival prayer service that begins this Wednesday evening of the year 5768 in the Jewish calendar.

. . . throughout this day and the ten days of return and renewal that it introduces, we remind ourselves . . . that the universe is a cause for wonder, for acknowledgment, for worshipful thanks, and for responsibility. . .

. . . Birth always inspires us with awe and wonder. . . But today we are to reflect not on the birth of a single child, not on the mystery of our own existence, not even just on the existence of whole species of life, but rather on the conception and the birth of the entire universe.

— From the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL)

A call to profound awareness.
What responses are possible?
The ruminations, thoughts, and introspections — the responses drive the cheshbon nefesh, accounting of the soul work I have already begun this High Holy Day period.

About the pomegranate.
On the second night of Rosh Hashanah, we eat a new seasonal fruit that we have not yet tasted. Why a pomegranate? The pomegranate, one of the Seven Species, or fruits and grains that the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 8:8) lists as special products of the Land of Israel, is considered "pregnant" with 613 seeds. The Bible mentions 613 mitzvot, commandments of good deeds to perform, and so we want our mitzvot in the coming year to be legion.

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