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Death and Rebirth of the Spirit

I guess I don’t get out much. I mean, I’m at work so much of the time. But when I’m not there, I’m pretty much at home. Part of it is I’m a busy guy, and there’s always temple work to be done, even at home. Part of it is I’m a busy guy, and when I manage to steal some time away from temple, I want to be with my family. But part of it is also that I’m a couch potato. And whether it’s a television or a computer, I keep myself infinitely entertained in front of electronics.

So besides work, my home is my world. Norman Corwin, a writer and producer of radio drama during the 1930s and 1940s, described home life in this way: “A home is a minuscule world. If it has 10 books, it is partly a library; if three pictures, a little museum; if six tools, a repair shop. If one big crowded closet of bric-a-brac, a warehouse. Whenever a piano or fiddle is in use, it is a part-time conservatory. At mealtime grace, or in answering a child’s question about God, it is a fraction of a church. In the throes of argument or the heart of discourse, it becomes a court; in sickness, it is a field hospital; when you discover old forgotten letters, pictures, souvenirs in a trunk or attic, it is a wing of archaeology. [And] when the kids climb trees, fences, high furniture, or other forbidden obstacles, it’s a commando camp.”

That pretty much describes the bulk of my world.

Every autumn, looking outside the windows at 25 Oak Street, or while driving from there to temple, I always think about how much I’d like to take that drive that has no other purpose than to watch the leaves turn from green to golden. But since the thought always comes at the busiest time of our temple year, I never seem to get that chance. So year in and year out, the seasons change and I’m only a partial witness to its dramatic shifting of the backdrop to our lives.

Then along came Charlie. Charlie is a medium-size beagle/basset hound mix, who came into our lives last July when we adopted him from the nearby Elmsford Animal Shelter. From the day he arrived, life changed. Four times each day, Charlie goes for a walk. If he doesn’t, there’s a price to be paid. Carpets get peed on. Furniture gets chewed on. Family gets endlessly pestered. So Katie takes the early morning walk. Aiden takes the late afternoon walk. I get lunch and nighttime. But as often as possible, I open the back door of my car, Charlie jumps in (the only time, by the way, when he’s off-leash and doesn’t shoot down the street or into the backyard in a bold and dramatic escape), and we head over to the East Rumbrook Park dog park.

There are two sections to the dog park. The first is a fenced-in area where people and dogs mill about chatting about all things dog (the people, not the dogs), and sniffing one another’s rear end (the dogs, not the people). Behind the fenced-in area, however, is a moderately large woods where, although I believe it’s officially unallowed, dogs can run off leash, often frolicking with one another and playing in the stream (probably, I suppose, named Rum Brook).

The walk from the front to the back of the woods takes about ten minutes, ten minutes to come back, and anywhere from ten to thirty minutes inside the woods letting Charlie run around. It’s in these woods that I have been afforded the opportunity to watch something I’ve never truly watched before. Namely, the changing of the seasons. Walking the same path again and again, I’ve watched this one landscape progress from last summer’s heavy foliage, to autumn’s color changes, to winter’s bareness, and now, the woods’ reemergence into its former summertime glory.

Winter was remarkable. Since all summer long, I had been losing Charlie as he disappeared into the ground cover which rose just above his body, it was quite incredible to walk into the woods after what appeared to be God’s picking up the toys and vacuuming the floor. With the ground clear, I could watch him run almost the entire woods, never losing sight of him (except the time five deer came prancing by and Charlie pursued far beyond what my eye could follow).

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been witnessing nature’s remarkable return. One which we all see, but might not truly take notice of, except for a brief moment or two when buds appear on trees or the season’s first flowers bloom. We may smile a bit or even comment on it to a friend. But in the woods, everything happens in bulk. Tiny green chutes emerge from the woods’ floor, but there are hundreds and hundreds of them. Buds appear on the trees that accompany me the entire length of that wooded journey. Even the moss, which has begun to grow on rocks near the creek, becomes a spectacle in that formerly barren chamber. And then, when Charlie and I return only a few days later, the progress nature has made is dramatic.

And all of it puts a smile on my face.

I’ve been thinking about this return of nature from winter’s sleep. Witnessing what appeared to be dead, and watching it move through its rebirth, has affected me deeply. I’m just a bit more than two years out from that terrible night in March of 2009 when the phone call came from Buffalo that my 19-year-old son Jonah had died. Having now experienced two full cycles of the seasons and, in particular, having watched this progression from Charlie’s arrival in July until now, my heart can’t help but pose the question: If so much of nature can come back from the dead, why can’t my child? I certainly know it won’t happen, but nature doesn’t offer a whole lot of comfort when it seems to be renewing itself all the time.

But that’s quite the point, isn’t it? Nature doesn’t really die, even if it appears that way. The top, outer surfaces drop off in order to conserve energy through the winter months, but everything is very much alive beneath the surface. Not so my Jonah. Dead is really dead, I’m afraid.

Grieving has quite a learning curve to it. While at one point or another, everybody does it (and more than once) not many of us get any training beforehand. So our heads try to rationally understand and respond, probably making more than a few correct choices along the way but a few poor ones as well. And our hearts … well, our hearts just go nuts on us. 52 years of careful theological decision-making thrown out the window as feelings trump logic and I foolishly (but touchingly) await my Jonah’s return.

Colorado.1992John Burroughs, early-20th century American naturalist, stopped by to visit a woman who had become an ardent admirer of his writings. Well aware of his love for winged creatures, she asked, “Why is it, Mr. Burroughs, that there are so many birds at your place? I have none at all in my yard.” Burroughs, who had been watching, in absorbed fascination, all sorts of birds, flitting amidst the shrubbery and flying among the trees around the lady’s house, replied, “Madam, you will not see birds in your yard until you have birds in your heart.”

And so, I discover that perhaps I’ve been looking for the wrong rebirth. Or, at the least, I may have been looking in the wrong places.

The return of ground cover, leaves and lichens to the woods of East Rumbrook Park may have a message for us all about what appears to be, the disappointment which accompanies what isn’t, and the eventual comfort that arrives along with what really is. Surely something died in the woods this winter. And everything that is coming back will do nothing to regrow what can never again be. But despite that loss, everything that is coming back offers abundant beauty and comfort for the journey that follows loss. I will never be able to bring Jonah back; he has died. But my heart has not (even if it sometimes feels like it has), and it is very capable of a new greening, of a new blossoming, of what appears to be rebirth but is, in fact, an awakening from the winter’s sleep of sadness which began two years ago.

I am not, of course, alone in the difficult struggle to carry on that often accompanies a tremendous upheaval in life. Others, more than a few right here in this room, have lost a loved one, or lost robust health, or lost economic well-being, or lost a dream held close which has faded or been torn away. Often (too often, our hearts cry), we are forced to give up some piece of our lives that we have cherished, and without which we simply don’t know if or how to resume. But, as John Burroughs noted, the birds of joy and beauty have likely not abandoned us; if anything, we’ve abandoned them. We lack, or have lost, the tools to welcome them back into our lives. Our task, should we desire to resume contented, jubilant living, is to readjust our sights.

In thinking about all of this, I was reminded of Moses and the Burning Bush – that, in the desert, dry bushes, usually ignored, even when aflame, don’t draw our attention. So why was it that Moses watched this one? And further, how long does one need to watch a burning bush before we sense that it may be burning but it’s not burning up? Moses must already have been on the lookout for God’s presence, and he must have been ready to detect that presence anywhere. Even in a homely, non-attention grabbing, dried out bush.

Death is dramatic. It draws our attention. Renewal is much quieter. It doesn’t grab headlines. And if we want it, we’re probably going to have to come looking for it. “Mindfulness” is a word my friend Corey Friedlander often uses. It’s a fine word, and one we might all benefit from using. My walks with Charlie have made me more mindful of the turning of nature’s wheels. That has been quite wondrous to see, and I am grateful to be part of such a world. And just as I take frequent walks through the woods behind the dog park, I think I need to take more frequent walks through those other wooded areas in my life. I too wish to hear the birds sing in my backyard.

We’ll soon be sitting down to our Pesakh seder tables, where we’ll retell the ancient story of our people’s emergence from the narrow places of Mitzrayim. And we’ll remind ourselves that “tight spots” exist in every age, ours included, that we ought not resign ourselves to servitude, that we ought to feel ourselves worthy of liberation. And whether our burden is from the challenges of health, of finances, of relationships, or of existential despair, this holy festival comes around each year – just as springtime is renewing the world outside our homes – to remind us that renewal can occur within, as well.

Dead is probably still dead, and I have to keep working to come to terms with that. We all have to keep working to come to terms with loss. But in a world where good never, ever fully disappears, there is so much that is worthwhile, worth celebrating, worth living for. The tremendous variety of food and of ideas that we find on our Seder tables. And the even more precious variety of human bonds and spirit that we can find around those tables, these are the building blocks of rebirth. It may be that such activity is easier for nature. Because we have both heads and hearts, we feel – deeply and for long whiles – and that makes our rebirths far more taxing (there’s my reference to today’s date, April 15th). But our spirits can be so resilient. We may need to help one another. In fact, we must help one another. But when we do, there’s almost nothing on earth to keep us from living full, loving, incredibly worthwhile lives.

There was once a violin-maker who always selected the wood for his violins from the northernmost side of the trees. It was the side upon which the wind and the storms had beaten throughout the years. So whenever he heard the groaning of trees in the forest at night, he didn’t feel sorry for them. They were just learning how to be violins.

Adonai oz l’amo yiteyn … give us the strength, O God, even when pain causes us to sometimes forget … Adonai y’varekh et amo va’shalom … even then, may we remember the strength with which You have blessed us. The strength to forever appreciate the blessings of life which, while not ours forever, touch us with beauty and grace and goodness and, when we’re really awake, with wholeness and peace.

Billy

This entry began earlier this evening as Shabbat words at Woodlands Community Temple.

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