SOUL POLLUTION

There’s only a diaphanous membrane separating public pollution and soul pollution. The press chronicle offenses to decency; we have a right to know. Good citizenship means paying attention.  But a steady stream of offense numbs the soul.  The mayor of London is called a loser, a Democratic aspirant is called “low IQ,” a war hero is called a fool.  The list goes on and grows daily by leaps and bounds. The squalor is sustained. It pollutes public space, and it also pollutes the soul.

The press tracks the barrage. If this were a matter of a deadly tornado, we’d have two days of tracking and then we’d move on to other things.  But the political barrage has been non-stop for two years and shows no sign of letting up. The pollution of public space is also the pollution of inner space.

We can leave bar-room dust-ups and shouting, retreating to quiet havens. The soul needs peace and quiet.  We don’t need to return nightly, daily, to bar-room squalor.  Yet where is safe haven from the public pollution, and consequent soul pollution delivered daily, monthly – no end in sight.

The mind, the soul, can’t remain healthy under such endless assault. I wouldn’t live permanently over a barroom known for its shouted obscenities and audible fist-fights.  Yet there is no escape now from the pollution of political obscenities and fist-fights. Perhaps we can buy ear plugs that would only allow the intrusion of civil defense sirens. 

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Inevitable Loneliness

I think loneliness may be inescapable, broadly speaking. I have a friend whose mother, at 85, told her two kids that her friends had all died and she had no wish to live longer; she stopped eating and her grown children ministered to her for the two weeks or so it took her to die.  She never said she was lonely without her friends, but I think that was the subtext of her decision to die.

Loneliness is also a byproduct of mobility — not just a matter of losing friends and relatives as one ages. Each time we move we are uprooted and challenged to cultivate new roots. If we don’t move around through a lifetime, our friends do. The new normal is losing friends and working for new ones throughout a lifetime, with loneliness peaking in the gaps.

Loneliness needn’t be a matter of disconnection from others. I feel lonely quite regularly even though I meet friends each morning at the coffee shop, have regular dinner dates and ‘text friends,’ a rock-solid weekly morning brunch, 3 musical violin groups, weekly choir rehearsals and church performances and coffee-hours, etc.  I’ve never had such a circle of supportive, gregarious and affirming friends. I have no space in my calendar to fit in more social events. For me loneliness co-exists with sociability.  Sociability is a boon, but not a cure-all.

Those who have been in a close domestic relationship will feel poignant loss and loneliness if a partner leaves, through choice, death, or dementia. A close breakfast and bedtime embrace can put a big dent in loneliness. But let’s not forget the couples who cling together without understanding or true sharing. An apparent bond can hide deep loneliness and unhappiness.

Apart from whether I’m with friends or happily coupled, my hunch is that facing my own death is a lonely business, anyway you cut it. If we must die, we must face loneliness.

Facing one’s own death is like realizing that all your friends are going to get on the bus and abandon you at the curb. Why are they leaving you alone?  Of course they have no choice. They must go on. And in an obvious way you’re abandoning them.

They’ll be lonely missing you, as they drive away and you stay put.  Even if they’re holding your hand at the bedside as you leave, you slip away from them as you slip toward death. The loneliness is mutual and inevitable.

Loneliness seems to be built into the fabric of life-and-death.  Like suffering.

 

 

Miracles

I pass on a story of despair and miracles, of real persons — of love, grief, and rainbows. He is the son of a Holocaust survivor and in his forties achieves international notoriety as an Israeli astronaut. You might sense a rainbow over his life, perhaps, a miracle, to have risen so from memories (at one remove) of death camps.

He’s married. Their lives are rain-bowed by children. He dies in the spectacular Columbia space-craft reentry disaster. The world grieves a hero. Rhona plummets in despair.

There is slow recovery from this catastrophe. She raises her now-fatherless children with warmth, attention, and affection. You might sense here a second miracle and rainbow.

Impossibly, six years later, her eldest son, a young air force pilot, dies in air-borne military maneuvers. Her second plunge. Grief laid on grief. She struggles that love for her remaining children can breathe. It does. A third rainbow, third miracle.

This Job-like story of unimaginable loss and survival is also a story of love. I listened, riveted, as it spun forward, nearly out of control. It was as if the shattering, healing, horror and grace were my own.  

Years later, before her youngest child is fully grown, this heroine of survival and hope, discovers she has terminal cancer at age 54. At first, she clings to faith in a miracle. She wills to shoulder herself into survival, if for nothing else, for the sake of her children. God will grant that.

But that hope is dashed. She dies even as the glow of love for her children abides. At her bedside they return that glow. To save her children excessive mourning, she requests cremation and no funeral ceremonies. The last words of this story are love, miracle, and rainbow. 

The outlines and detail arrived in the mail from my muse, Tami, who delivered words like this at the commemorative gathering for Rona Ramon, who died December 17, 2018.

I’d like to let the tears arise, as they please – not increased by instigation. I’d hold another through these tremors or afflictions.

Or sit by them as comfort—witness, as I’d hope, to things both deep and strange. Where eyes are turned to pearls of tears and back to eyes again, More lucid but more misted than before.                                                                  

                                             ~Postcards Dropped in Flight

 

The Primacy of Appreciation

I approach Biblical stories, parables, or narratives the way I approach the greatest literature and art.  Usually, I just read, pausing with one, skipping to another. I might return later. But what brings me back over and again to Biblical passages — say, in The Book of Job?  There is  no “divine urtext” here, deemed infallible by authority.  The passages are in the same general region as legend or folk tale: not true or false but profound, gripping, or if not, then dull. 

Not being true or false doesn’t deflate them. They maintain a vibrancy — full of wisdom and provocation, like a Beethoven Sonata, Van Gogh self-portrait, or Dickinson poem. They can be true to our sense of the world or reality without being statements about some independent reality. Their wisdom and provocation are, in a sense, self-certifying, resting on no basis other than their own immediate impact and appeal.

With the scientific revolution, starting in the 16th century, narratives are put on the defensive. Science gains authority at the expense of art and religion.  Factual truth-and-falsity and the authority of culturally prevalent values, become measures of importance and reality.  This left Biblical stories and other narratives and dramas out in the cold, versions of mere fairy tale or entertainment. They certainly can’t be verified by “Hard Facts” and they often seem to stand apart from, or challenge rather than reinforce cultural values.  The web of our appreciation is a powerful and indispensable access to the world; it’s neither knowledge of facts nor explicit embrace of values.

We are moved by drama, liturgy, folk tales, or ‘stories my uncle would tell.’  This brings us close to pre-literate peoples. To be preliterate isn’t to be ignorant or barbaric. It’s to rely on something apart from book learning. It’s to rely on ‘an ear for things’  — the ring of a poetic line, the authority of a great-uncle’s voice, the amorphous sense of a generation or the sensibility of a region.  As ‘pre-literates,’ we attend to the stories of elders, companions, and ancestors, and to stories of and about culture heroes and literary figures, and to the sensibility of the streets or of high society. 

These stories and underlying sensibilities possess worthy standing until proven otherwise. They become displaced often through friction with another story or sensibility that acquires a more vibrant ‘ring of authenticity.’ Stories needn’t always be subordinate to articles of faith , to facts that might be true or false, or to values that might be valid or invalid.

Nuance and meaning are central in life. How diminished our world would be if nuance and meaning, conveyed in story, were set aside as frivolous distractions like casual summer reading.  When pressed to account for my interest in this story or that, this parable or that, this sensibility of the street, I don’t appeal to some impersonal fact or theory or customary value.  Often I can do little more than recite the  poetic line again, or tell the story in bits and pieces, hoping my would-be skeptic will hear — appreciate — the allure I hear.

We are knowledge-seeking creatures. We are equally creatures of appreciation. I appreciate things I often know very little about — a sunset or smile.  I appreciate music, art and narratives — novels or Biblical stories. They reside in a space of appreciation rather than knowledge. I become who I am through love, community, great art and rustling leaves — through webs of shared appreciations. Appreciations can grow without knowledge.

A world of multiple revelations just isperiod. Revelations-appreciated need nothing ‘behind them’ for certification. The profundity of a Dickinson poem is self-sufficient, resting on nothing deeper.   “God” often serves to block infinite regress.  God makes love of infinite value. We can’t ask, “But what makes God valuable?” “God is a ‘regress-stopper.’ Thunder-clap-Glory also blocks infinite regress. I needn’t find out what underlies that Glory.” It “just is!” You can’t, and needn’t, get deeper.

Appreciation is a way of being in the world. It’s responsiveness  to textures of life, textures that stories and narratives, music and paintings, display for our appreciation.  In the region of appreciation the smile of a child can be more powerful than E=MC/Squared. Facts, theories, or values don’t give us the intimate radiance or horror of the world.  Narratives, grand, petite, or middle-sized, do this. 

Biblical narratives invoke and deliver God and revelations of God. In my view, we don’t have God first as a fact, and then discover his/her revelations. We have revelations whose appreciation circles around the narrative of their being propelled from a divine source. But appreciation does not await certification or authentication by a divine source.

As I see it, to worship God is to appreciate, to kneel before, to be ‘blown away by’ an endlessly revelatory world. Creation is not an event in historical time. It’s the endless unfolding of the beautiful, holy, and good, and of the dark shadows of each. If we have no space for appreciation of beauty, glory, or of the world’s darkness, we have no space for God or the Devil; no space for radiance or terror.

 

Kibbutz and Kids

When I first heard of Israel, it was a place you could join a kibbutz. That was in 1961. I didn’t actually leave for Israel until 2011. At Oberlin College, I ate at a socialist cooperative residence and dining hall.  We did the work. “We” for the most part were students from NYC left-wing Jewish backgrounds. A WASP, I was attracted to the rebellious culture of New York Intellectuals.

Later, one of my friends went to Israel to hold “encounter groups.” Arabs and Israeli’s talking at a kibbutz would bring peace. She liked working the fields and singing folk songs at night.  Later, she married Herbert Marcuse.

I was soon teaching in California and forgot about the kibbutz.  But in 2011, I was on a plane to Israel to be with a kibbutznik.  Tami Yaguri is the granddaughter of a man who came from Ukraine in 1914. In the ‘20’s he formed a kibbutz with 8 other young men. They acquired several square miles near the ruins of an Arab village, “Raju.” With statehood, the first Prime Minister, Ben-Gurion, pushed for citizens to take on Israeli names. Tami’s grandfather took the name “Yaguri” in recognition of the local kibbutz.

There were more than 40 Kibbutz in Palestine by 1930. This was at the start of Jewish settlement — people mostly from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Most were secular and cultured enough to read Marx or appreciate Mozart. Golda Maier, came from the Soviet Union, first to Minnesota, then to Israel. She and Amos Oz are Ashkenazi Jews. The culture supported world-class classical musicians – Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, among others. Most Holocaust survivors are Ashkenazi. In the early decades after statehood was declared, Ashkenazi (Eastern European and Soviet Jews) represented 80% of the population and were leaders in politics and culture. The first prime minister came from a kibbutz. Today television hosts dress informally. This is a holdover from kibbutz culture.

When you arrive in a new country, its people can blend together. In a Paris Metro, your dominate impression might be, “these are the French.” Subtleties of class or ethnicity escape you. I still can’t tell, by looks alone, important differences among Jews on the streets of an Israeli city. There will be Israeli-Arab Citizens, 20% of the population. There will be Arabic-speaking Jews, Sephardi from Morocco, Libya and the Mediterranean, and “Knitted Yarmulkes,” West Bank settlers since ‘74. Orthodox Jews are identifiable by their dress; Ethiopian Jews, by color. Politically, the secular Ashkenazi have been in decline for the last 50 years. The right wing grows and grows. They resent the Ashkenazi, now a minority. Many recent Russian immigrants are right-wing and relatively indifferent about whether democracy should spread to the West Bank. They’re just happy to be out of Russia.

In 2013, I went to Israel to live with Tami Yaguri, who was born in Kibbutz Yagur, just south of Haifa. I joined her in a town just north of Tel Aviv. We made many trips to Kibbutz Yagur, and a few time folks from there came to visit with us. 

The Kibbutz is still thriving – the tents are long gone. It’s now common to work “in the outside world.”  The spirit thrives in communal dining, and a pervasive neighborly spirit. Kids visit each other’s families and in high school can move out to live together in their own apartments. The head or secretary of a Kibbutz can be a man or woman and is elected for a fixed term. When it is over, he or she circulates back to what was most important, the dignity of skilled labor. Luxury items or having more than your neighbor used to be unheard of. Consumerism today is muffled.  Early on, children were raised communally, on principle, and as a practical holdover from the time when working in the fields, cooking, and accounting required all hands. One or two women were trained to assume the professional job of child-rearing.

In the early days, evenings, ideally, were for folk dancing, singing, and reading Marx and Nietzsche. Idyllic. The settlement was socialist in the sense that community came first, and community would be egalitarian and based on skilled labor, not on competition, consumption or careerism. 

I have a picture from the ‘20s that shows a rocky hillside with a dozen two- person tents. That’s how the first arrivals lived. The first real structure was for children. There were periodic conflicts with surrounding Arab settlements in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. Kibbutznik, men and women, were armed for self-defense. Today, all Israeli’s have mandatory military service. The militias opposed the British, who took over with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire after WW1. Teenagers learned to handle rifles. By the early ‘40s the kibbutz sent soldiers to oppose the Nazi, then worked underground to oppose British rule. With the declaration of statehood in ’48, they fought off immediate invasion from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

The kibbutz movement is not what it was. But when I visited Kibbutz Yagur, or they visited us, the imprint of communal living was still striking – to me.  At gatherings all sit in a circle – not kids off to the side, not adults chattering in clusters of two or three. There’s no table with a head or a foot. No adult holds forth as if in charge. Equality crosses generations and spreads among all.

Youngsters roam within the circle and are engaged by any adult, not just their parents. They’re comfortable roaming. They don’t cling to parents (though the tiniest are held by mothers or fathers). Watching them as an outsider, it’s not obvious who are their parents. During secular holidays there are tables (rather than a circle). The traditional readings for the holiday in question include all. The youngest may struggle with a script, but no one is impatient.

Activities meant to involve everyone start up. A narrative might be written out and copies passed around, relating some phase of Kibbutz or Jewish history. Adults and kids take turns reading, even as the youngest barely hold their sheet of paper right side up. The children seem quietly self-confident and eager to have a place in the circle. Parents aren’t impatient. They learn to value words, value stories with “object lessons,” and value group participation among equals.

I think Jewish intelligence — Marx, Freud, Einstein, and Buber are superstars here — rests on these practices of attention to children. When religious education is at issue, there’s not a list of creeds or beliefs. There are stories, and when a child asks a question, the answer is another story. Questioning and individual interpretation are the model. The Talmud is laid out for conversational interpretation. The center of the page holds the original text streaming top to bottom. The wide margins to either side hold a first and second round of interpretation of the central column. Story, interpretation, and interpretation of that interpretation embody the model of endless discussion.

I have an Israeli friend who spent a semester at the University of Chicago where her husband was doing graduate work. She would meet regularly with other mothers and their pre-school kids at a local park. Once a girl ran up. She was abruptly told by her mother, “Go play, we’re talking.” My friend was shocked. Israeli kids would not get dismissed that way. Their voices count.

Two other angles on the prominence of family quite apart from the traditions of a Kibbutz.  It’s not optional whether you visit the cemetery on the anniversary of a death in the family — every year.

Also, the American nuclear family — parents, siblings — is not of primary importance. For example, if there’s a “welcome home” gathering for a youth returned from a trip abroad, the entire clan within driving distance will attend the celebration. It’s the extended family: parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles that counts. It’s beyond question that all will be present for birthdays, a ‘welcome home,’ or any other occasion for celebration.

 

 

Tribute to Mary Oliver

[Borrowed from Brain Pickings by Maria Popova <newsletter@brainpickings.org> Sun 1/13]

 

“The most regretful people… are those… who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”  — Oliver

 

“In the wholeheartedness of concentration,” the poet Jane Hirshfield wrote in her beautiful inquiry into the effortless effort of creativity, “world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.” But concentration is indeed a difficult art, art’s art, and its difficulty lies in the constant conciliation of the dissonance between self and world — a difficulty hardly singular to the particular conditions of our time. Two hundred years before social media, Eugène Delacroix lamented the necessary torment of avoiding social distractions in creative work; a century and a half later, Agnes Martin admonished aspiring artists to exercise discernment in the interruptions they allow, or else corrupt the mental, emotional, and spiritual privacy where inspiration arises.

But just as self-criticism is the most merciless kind of criticism, and self-compassion the most elusive kind of compassion, self-distraction is the most hazardous kind of distraction, and the most difficult to protect creative work against.

How to hedge against that hazard is what beloved poet Mary Oliver explores in a wonderful piece titled “Of Power and Time,” found in the altogether enchanting Upstream: Selected Essays.   Oliver writes:

It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

Oliver terms this the “intimate interrupter” and cautions that it is far more perilous to creative work than any external distraction, adding:

The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that? But that the self can interrupt the self — and does — is a darker and more curious matter.

Echoing Borges’s puzzlement over our divided personhood, Oliver sets out to excavate the building blocks of the self in order to understand its parallel capacities for focused creative flow and merciless interruption. She identifies three primary selves that she inhabits, and that inhabit her, as they do all of us: the childhood self, which we spend our lives trying to weave into the continuity of our personal identity (“The child I was,” she writes, “is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.”); the social self, “fettered to a thousand notions of obligation”; and a third self, a sort of otherworldly awareness.

The first two selves, she argues, inhabit the ordinary world and are present in all people; the third is of a different order and comes most easily alive in artists — it is where the wellspring of creative energy resides. She writes:

Certainly, there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.

Oliver contrasts the existential purpose of the two ordinary selves with that of the creative self:

Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco. What do you ask of the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth?

Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self. You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure. You want nothing fancy, nothing new. You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do — fly an airplane. You hope he will not daydream. You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought. You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary. So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship. Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more. Their ordinariness is the surety of the world. Their ordinariness makes the world go round.

In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.

Part of this something-elseness, Oliver argues, is the uncommon integration of the creative self — the artist’s work cannot be separated from the artist’s whole life, nor can its wholeness be broken down into the mechanical bits-and-pieces of specific actions and habits.

Dani Shapiro insists that the artist’s task is “to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it,” and Georgia O’Keeffe’s counsel that as an artist you ought to be “keeping the unknown always beyond you,” Oliver considers the central commitment of the creative life — that of making uncertainty and the unknown the raw material of art:

Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Van Gogh’s spirited letter on risk-taking and how inspired mistakes move us forward, Oliver returns to the question of the conditions that coax the creative self into being:

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.

Above all, Oliver observes from the “fortunate platform” of a long, purposeful, and creatively fertile life, the artist’s task is one of steadfast commitment to the art:

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.

She returns to the problem of concentration, which for the artist is a form, perhaps the ultimate form, of consecration:

The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work… Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another.

It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

Upstream is a tremendously vitalizing read in its totality, grounding and elevating at the same time. Complement it with Oliver on love and its necessary wildness, what attention really means, and the measure of a life well lived.

 

 

 

Festivals of Dark and Light

A little over three weeks ago, Phyllis Marley took her last breath. She met her end with equanimity.  I knew her from the choir. She had sung with it over 40 years. Her spirit survives, and that’s a Gospel lesson. Death is terribly sad, and often cruel. And death is also transformative. Death raises up the best of spirit to a higher plane.

Death can be a prelude to rousing celebrations. It lives hand-in-glove with resurrection. I can grieve Phyllis’ departure and simultaneously celebrate her good life.  Her life is raised to a new level. Her life-and-death give us emblems of joy and emblems of grief, emblems of hope and emblems of despair. They’re all mixed together.

Life is bits and pieces, full of grief and full of hope — full of laughter and full of sadness — full of pain and full of exuberance. There’s a time for everything, a time to laugh and a time to cry. Life is not one-dimensional. It’s a mosaic of ups and downs – with room for boredom and sleep in between.

I learn a song in bits and pieces. I get to know someone, bits and pieces. I build up unfinished mosaics of songs and people, mosaics of hope and faith. Now I see as through a glass darkly.  When will I see life face to face? Fear of death, like fear of the night, places our lives in bondage. Festivals of Light defeat fear and set us free.

You can hear funeral bells and heavy steps in Schubert’s D946 Piano Sonata. They toll sadly for the composer’s early death, a death he was aware was upon him at the young age of 31.

Schubert faced death joyfully – as well as darkly. Tolling-bell passages are interrupted by passages of child-like happiness and the freedom of dance. He is somber about death yet joyful about life—all within a moment or two. He sees his life as a mosaic of light and dark.

In early December, I traveled to the holy land for Hanukkah, known in the ancient world as the festival of lights, the festival of hope.

Between the fifth and first Centuries BCE first the Romans, then the Greeks and Syrians, invade Palestine. The Israelites fight back but are usually defeated. Each defeat is followed by a trashing, a desecration, of the Temple.

In 168 BCE Judaism is outlawed in Jerusalem. To rub it in, Yahweh is no longer the temple deity. He’s replaced by Zeus. When Israelites take back the Temple after a period of desecration an oil lamp will be lit as part of the restoration – the lamp will be lit as part of the re-consecration. The lamp burns day and night. If military danger approaches again, the sacred lamp is secreted away.

Traveling the road from Tel Aviv up to Jerusalem we stopped mid-way to see the burial ground for the Maccabees who fought against and defeated the Greek and Syrian invaders. Under Judah Maccabee (164 BCE) the temple was rededicated. Zeus was thrown out and Yahweh was restored. But in the confusion, only a one-day supply of consecrated oil was at hand. Only one day.

But darkness did not triumph. Lo, . . .  a miracle. While new oil was pressed and consecrated, the flame did not die. It lasted for more than a day. It lasted eight days. Out of darkness came light.

This abundance of light is remembered years later as the festival of lights. Centuries later, it’s called Hanukkah. Nowadays it’s the Jewish custom to light a new candle in a menorah for each of Hanukkah’s eight days. Light replaces dark – hope replaces despair. This is the festival of light.

**    **

Hope’s work is varied. We may not be walled out of Jerusalem, needing hope. But as we live on and on we can be walled out of youth. Aging takes its toll. As we age, we hope for the light of reasonably good health.

At State Street we face our pastor’s resignation and we muster hope for good light as we tend toward her replacement.  The death of a loved one, or the specter of deportation can trigger our need for light-giving hope.

A refugee from a war-torn African state needs hope to begin a new life here in Portland. I felt a strange pride yesterday reading that Fox News has singled out Portland Maine as a bad place. We fail to wall out immigrants.  Good for us!

Children and parents need hope moving from infancy to childhood, and from childhood to young adulthood. Transitions are treacherous. Hope carries us through – we hope!

The way from young adulthood to maturity, and from maturity to full age, can also be covered in darkness. Yet each resting point in transitions can be a festival of light and hope.

What about that final transition, from here to there, from life to the netherworld — or nothingness — or paradise of death. Can I hope for a festival of light?

Abraham died at 175, a great age and died in fullness of days. His days were full of satisfactions. He was close to God. He became a light for others. We would be blessed if we could die in the fullness of days — at 175.

We would be blessed if we could die like Moses at 120, with God’s kiss. The Hebrew is al pi Adonai, “by the mouth of the Eternal.” The kiss sanctifies. If birth is marked by pain, death can be marked by a kiss. In that case, death — then — is not a dark deprivation. It’s a shining moment of intimate light. 

To die as Moses or Abraham in blessedness can’t be a certainty. It’s a HOPE – hopes, by definition, can be painfully disappointed.

During her first pregnancy, a dear friend looked forward full of hope to the blessing of a natural childbirth. It would have been a festival of light. After struggling 40 hours doctors intervened and performed a caesarean. Her hopes were dashed. There was no festival of light.

I can hope for death in equanimity, like Phyllis, but a stroke or an auto crash or dementia can dash my hope. Will I be blessed by equanimity at death? I can only hope.

I hope for a natural death in fullness of days free of much surgical or pharmaceutical intervention – But who knows? I hope – this is a HOPE — to greet death with joy and gratitude, as Abraham and Moses did. Yet my joy will be mixed with sadness, sadness at leaving others I love behind. Emotions are mixed mosaics.

I’ll not be sad, I hope, from a sense of being cheated of even more life. More of a good thing isn’t always a good thing. Like desert, I should be satisfied with my serving.

Why live like Scrooge — in ingratitude, jealously hoarding, never having enough?  More money, more life.

It can be sad to leave others behind whatever my joy, peace, and gratitude. Whatever my equanimity. I’ll remember what’s been best in the times shared with those I love – it’s been a kind of heaven. A festival of light.  To lose this will be sad. So I’m entering a kind of hell, a festival of dark. How can there be happiness without those we leave behind?

Emily Dickinson knew this:

Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.

We know heaven in embracing others — most poignantly as we part, as we bid goodbye. And we know hell in leaving others — most poignantly as we say goodbye. Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.

I’d hope to leave in a mosaic of three worlds — joy, sadness, and gratitude.

Gratitude is not stingy. Winter darkness steals the light. I might feel resentment at the theft. Yet I can look on a setting sun with gratitude for the fullness of this day. 

In the fullness of days death doesn’t cheat us. There is no cosmic balance sheet, and no need to scrooge after another hour, day, or week. Scrooge snuffs out the light.

When I die give what’s left of me awayto children and old men that wait to die.And if you need to cry,cry for your brother walking the street beside you.

And when you need me, put your arms around anyoneand give them what you need to give me. I want to leave you something,something better than words or sounds.

Look for me in the people I’ve known or loved,and if you cannot give me away,at least let me live in your eyes and not in your mind. You can love me best by letting hands touch hands, and by letting go of children that need to be free.

Love doesn’t die, people do.So, when all that’s left of me is love,give me away.

I hope for festivals of light and God’s kiss as I drift toward the last hour, toward the last dark. I hope to be buoyed by this affirming State Street, this temple of light that gives hope. We light candles against the dark

 I imagine Phyllis Marley departing with God’s kiss. I would hope for the same. Death and Hanukkah embrace, an embrace of Festivals of Dark and Festivals of Light.