“Reds” (Markley Gordon) Wolman died this week. While most of us have not heard of him, there is a whole universe of friends, family, admirers, disciples, students, and beneficiaries who are bereft today, aching as they rarely do upon the loss of an 80-something year old man who lived a full, rewarding and energetic life.
But Reds was no ordinary man. To me, first and foremost, he was the father of an old friend, from way back in high school days. Chana Elsa and I went to Park School together, and while I did not know her father well back then, I could see his imprint and legacy on his remarkable daughter. Even when young, Elsa, as she was known back then, possessed a combination of confidence and humility, like her father; smarts and athletics, like her father; generosity, kindness, a warm laugh and willingness to help anyone who needed her, like her father; a sense of grace and an eye for beauty, like her father. My heart goes out to Chana Elsa and her family at this time of their loss.
But there is of course more to the man. Reds was a pioneer in water courses, streams and how geomorphic forces help shape the land around us. He was like the part of nature he studied, a constant, quiet, influential force, shaping and nourishing the landscape of the lives of those around him just as the water he studied shaped and nourished the landscape around us.
And he was a constant and influential presence at Johns Hopkins University for more than half a century. In addition to his other positions and contributions there, he served as the first director of the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering from 1970-1990, and most recently as director of the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
He was equally known for his kindness to all, from the University president to the greenest, newest, most fearful graduate student. His combination of modesty and brilliance, socratic teaching style and confidence in his students, natural curiosity and a lightness of style, encouraged his students to rise to their greatest capacities.
In his office is a gift from a student of an academic family tree. As reported in a JHU magazine, “The first few lines show the names of some of Wolman’s early graduate students. Branching off of these names are Wolman’s students’ graduate students in geography and geology and then, those students’ students in these fields. As of 1995, the tree boasted 47 children, 106 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren. It’s still growing.”
Reds understood that to make his scholarship and science meaningful, it couldn’t stay in the ivy-walled academy, but had to move to application. Which is why he had a double appointment to both the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering and the Bloomberg School of Public Health. He was one of the early environmental prophets, walking in his father’s footsteps (Abel Wolman pioneered water safety and devised the formula for safely and effectively chlorinating drinking water).
Reds was a gentle, kind and gifted man, who made everyone around feel the urge and urgency of contributing whatever skills they possessed to the betterment of all. He will be sorely missed.
May his memory serve as a blessing.
There is nothing quite so satisfying as splitting wood. You get to choose your target; analyze your problem; design a solution; follow through with your plan; use your physics, your muscles and your smarts and voila. Either you succeed, in which case you have firewood ready to be stacked or burned; or you don’t, in which case you review the situation, correct your mistakes, and try again.
No committees, no forms to fill out, no waiting for an answer, no wondering the outcome, no one else to blame, no excuses.
I split lots more wood today. I am almost running out. About 2 or 3 more sessions and all my wood will be ready to burn. Need to come up with Plan B on how to get more.
Amidst all this snow, and more on the way (which, I confess, I am delighted to see. If this is going to be an historic winter, then, by Gd, let’s do it in grand style. I know. Think about the city budget, the state budget; think about lost earnings and taxes; think about lost school days. But I do so love the snow and it rarely comes to Baltimore in such a boisterous way. Yet, what else is winter for? And did you see, that traffic deaths are down by half so far this year? While reasons are always elusive, some do believe it is because of the snow and the fewer miles traveled.) my trees are budding.
My beech, standing majestically before my home like a sentinel guarding us summer, winter, spring and fall, has sprouted its tiny, tightly wound, reddish-hued leaf spirals. My apple trees, the ones I planted last spring and covered with netting to protect them from the deer, survive! They too are sprouting buds, the soft, fuzzy kind that entice you to stroke them. Or if you are deer, eat them. Gratefully, they were neither touched by human nor eaten by deer.
And I went to see how many more of my pine limbs were freed from their snow casings. Not too many. But I was able to see for the first time precisely how many downed limbs there were, and there are a lot of them. I will have my hands full sawing all those limbs, and those of my neighbor’s, over the next little while. I may need to call in assistance, with a power saw.
However, I managed to rescue some of the still-attached limbs. As pine design would have it, the raft of needles on the ends of branches easily get trapped in the mounds of snow tumbling down on them. Wisely, the branches are flexible, able to bend in great arcs to accommodate the dislocation and disturbance. Still, it didn’t seem right seeing all those branches bending down and still stuck on the ground. So I began to dig them out.
This is not all that hard to do, but you do need to be mindful of where you are standing, lest you be catapulted into the air courtesy of the branch you have just liberated. So, I learned how to carefully position myself, dig just so to loose the needles from their wintry bed, stand back and be treated to the whoosh of freedom, and the silent gratitude of the tree.
Just in time for the next storm.
I am getting pretty good at splitting wood. At least the softer pines and tulip poplars. The well-worn axe I am using, courtesy of a friend, has a sharp, cutting edge on one side and a blunt, flat, broad hammerhead (otherwise known as a maul) on the other. It is also adorned by an extra helping of weight slipped on the handle and slid down to the end. I soon discovered why.
I am sure there are almost as many ways to split wood as there are people wielding axes. While I am very much still learning and experimenting, and would definitely welcome advice and anecdotes about how to make things go better, I am enjoying finding my way. Here is what I have learned so far:
1) Always split wood from the end, never from the side. This is obvious to anyone who has tried it but a revelation to those of us who had to discover it on our own. The impulse to split the wood from its side is clear: it offers a larger and more secure target. Logs are not known for their pristine cuts. That is, their ends are often uneven or slanted so that they don’t stand up very securely. Laying them down gives you - the aggressor - greater ability to prevent them from moving around when you work on them. But as physics would have it, wood approached side-on is immensely resistant to your muscular efforts.
2) Despite what some folk suggest, I do not make a notch with the axe first and then slip the splitter (a heavy, metal, sharp-edged wedge) into the groove. I find that I am not adept enough at aiming the axe and end up with splintered and gashed wood. Instead, I position the splitter over a chosen section of the end of the log. If I am lucky, the wood is well-enough seasoned that it has developed cracks. Using them to my advantage, I place the splitter on them, and use the maul side of the axe, aided by the weight, to hammer the end of the splitter securely into the wood.
3) Securing the log on its end while using both hands (arms and back) to smash an axe-head, maul side first, into the splitter is a bit challenging. This is the system I have devised to date: I set the log against a brick wall by my garage which is met by a slight ramp at 90 degrees. Then, I use my foot to wedge the log into the corner where wall and ramp meet. So far, so good, meaning success in splitting the wood without doing injury to me, the wall, the ramp or the cars nearby. But I am very much open to other suggestions!
4) I have devised various methods of dislodging the splitter when it gets wedged deeply, unbudgeable, into the log. But I would welcome any tried-and-true methods to (a) either avoid that uncomfortable dilemma altogether or (b) easily or at least reliably free the wedge.
One distinct measure of progress though is that while on the first day that I took up splitting wood about a week ago, I split only two logs before so bruising my hands that I could not hold a pen or type without discomfort, today I split six logs, nice big logs, several into quarters, without an ounce of pain. There is something immensely comforting in sitting before a fire whose wood comes from the trees on your land and was split by your own hand.
Next, I just may install an outdoor hand-pump, stick one of those low-rise rotary wind-turbines on my roof and see how far off the grid I can go! (Check back with me on that after I broach this with my husband.)
The weather has been gentle these last few days, allowing the snow to release its grip on our homes, our cars, our streets, our trees, our mobility and perhaps most of all, our spirits. It has pulled back from its monstrous presence, returning to a more reasonable scale, allowing us to believe, somewhat, that we can now manage it and our lives a bit better.
In its retreat, it has opened up access to the leading edge of the downed pine limbs that litter my front lawn. I decided, therefore, that it was time to begin harvesting them. I was unexpectedly overwhelmed by the lessons I learned.
In the quiet of this early, sunny Sunday morning, I stepped outside, almost directly onto a small bird, sitting quite still, but quite alive, on my front door mat. I imagine that it must have just flown into the glass of my door, and was recuperating from being momentarily stunned. But its gentle vulnerability almost collided with my unseeing stride. We barely avoided a small but distinct tragedy, in both our lives. Luckily, we passed each other, both apparently unharmed, for the bird was not there when I returned.
Still, the possibility of deep, unintentional harm was on my mind as I gathered my saw and trash can (into which I was putting the bounty of my harvest) and headed toward the pine trees.
The snow was deep enough that I could not get to most of the limbs. But it had cleared enough to reveal a fuller sense of the scope of the loss of many branches and the story behind it. It was classic: a limb from up high had taken on too much snow and snapped off, taking with it, in a cascade of gravity, several of the limbs that lay beneath it. Many branches lay in a heap, tumbled one upon the other. They were difficult to untangle, especially those still encased in snow. They will have to wait for other 40-degree days. Then I should be able to free them.
I knew that the limbs that were down would be too green, too fresh, to burn now. I will need to leave them be, let them settle and ripen. They will have a full year to season before next year’s winter. But what I hadn’t anticipated was how difficult it would be to saw this fresh, sappy wood, and how surprisingly pungent and intoxicating the pine scent would be.
It took me but a half hour to fill my large garbage can with middling sized wood, the kind that fills the gap between the kindling and the large logs.
Throughout I was aware of the metaphors of human pain and hurt that this mild devastation of timber revealed.
There are times when someone - either we ourselves or someone we know or love - becomes laden with a burden they can no longer carry. Weighed down without relief, they eventually tumble, unwittingly, unwantingly, taking with them those around them, even those who sought to hold them up.
In the immediate aftermath of the fall, it is hard to disentangle one body from the next, one pain from another. It all just sits there, in a heap, hurting. But as time moves on, the snows recede, the edges begin to reveal themselves, the full and distinct extent of the loss appears. There is, at first, nothing to be done but weep.
Only then, only after that, can the healing begin. At least a little bit. Even when healing dares to come, it moves not in a constant, linear direction. In the sunlight, the snow can melt, loosening its grip, offering promises of freedom and renewal. But come night, the snow freezes, encasing the branches once again in a frigid grasp.
Still, over time, the weather warms, the branches claim their new shape, things settle. And in the midst of this cleaning up and clearing away, the reviving scent of the pine is released, as if to say: there is life even amid this loss. There is a spirit that renews us even in the rubble. Keep working, keep clearing, for the fragrance of experiences of life past will carry us to the blessings of life yet to be.
And hopefully, by this time next year, the downed limbs will be seasoned, ready to release their hard-earned energy into the flames that will soothe our
spirits, and warm our homes.
I will go out again later this week, and saw and gather more wood.
In yesterday’s Baltimore Sun, Robert Nelson argued that Obama should open ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development (http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bal-op.anwr0216,0,3437846.story). His arguments dismissing both environmental concerns and religious values were astounding, especially since, regarding the first at least, he is a professor of environmental policy at the University of Maryland.
I submitted the following response to the Sun, hoping they would publish it in their letters section. Just in case they don’t, I offer it here for public scrutiny:
“Let me see if I got this right. Robert Nelson is arguing for opening up ANWR because the oil companies will make lots of money, with the citizens of Alaska and the Federal government getting a slice of this poisoned pie as well. Of course, the financial hit that we will all suffer due to the economic, environmental, and human consequences of adding more CO2 into the atmosphere and compounding our greenhouse gas crisis is not computed in Dr. Nelson’s neat arithmetic of profits.
Even more, the inevitable environmental damage that he concedes will occur is both justified in his mind by these short-term financial gains and defensible given that the caribou population has not declined too much or too severely (by whose standard is unclear) and is even apparently increasing in some places as they eat the trash left by the oilfield workers.
Dr. Nelson does not mention that even if fully exploited, ANWR only has enough oil to serve the US needs for a year and a half. Then we will be right back where we are now, no further along in our quest for renewable energy sources. Where will we scrounge for other degrading and increasingly inaccessible and expensive fossil fuels then?
He ignores the fact that the old system of energy production is broken and that no amount of desperate rummaging for its last dregs will set us on the new course that is both necessary and inevitable. Why, as an environmental policy expert, would he encourage us to waste our time on such a dead-end project?
Imagine what other ways we could spend the $300 billion he says will need to be invested in ANWR oil development. Material and energy scientists are discovering new and better ways to harvest and store sunlight, whose abundant power is, for all intents and purposes, inexhaustible. Imagine what an infusion of R&D funding would do to move us closer to running much of our households, industry, transportation and marketplace on all sorts of renewables,now being researched and yet unimagined.
And Dr. Nelson seems as bent on dismissing, devaluing and discarding the spiritual impulse as he is about defending profits above all else. Nature, creation, does inspire many of us. Many of us find comfort, renewal, peace, purpose, humility, beauty in the natural world. These are not bad things. Imagine what it would be like to live among friends and neighbors, scientists, politicians and policy-makers who were not replenished by these gifts.
Even more, nature is increasingly becoming our teacher in technology, for we are increasingly recognizing how to live more sustainably by observing and mimicking the hard-earned lessons of this 4 billion year old experiment of life. We dare not segregate civilization and progress over here from the natural world over there. Such a division is inherently both false and unattainable. We live in, are part of, and affect nature. The question is: how shall we choose to do that? And that is where the spiritual imagination that Dr. Nelson seems to denigrate can serve well as humanity’s salvation.”
A report on the radio this morning talked about the financial hit the two back-to-back snowstorms laid on Baltimore and Maryland. It spoke of the cost of snow-removal, lost sales, lost wages and lost overtime and thus lost income taxes that would otherwise have come to the state, and more.
There is no doubt that all that is true, and should be considered so that proper responses could be taken to address any immediate needs and proper policies could be crafted to develop better future procedures.
But it also overlooks a huge piece of the puzzle, namely the impact of the storms on the quality of life. A front page story in the Sun yesterday talked about how neighbors who didn’t know each others’ names organized a brigade to shovel and transport the snow so that the street would be clear enough for cars to pass. Now, those neighbors are talking about organizing a summer festival, building on the greater sense of support and mutual responsibility they gained by their sweat equity.
A friend of mine in Catonsville hosted 25 neighbors at her home Saturday night in celebration of their surviving this mild natural calamity. The bonds of community were made a bit stronger by that gesture of good-will and friendship. And they built on the fact that over the past few days, many neighbors walked to a local store that most usually drive by to pick up odds and ends they needed. This was good for the local economy, and good for a sense of neighborhood and belonging. Everyone was commenting on how crowded the store was and how good it was to see everyone, folks they almost never saw during the course of a week or month or even year.
Due to the storm, a neighbor of mine lost several limbs from his trees (as did I). In the past, he would have called a tree surgeon to come and cut them up and haul them away. In an expression of neighborly synergy, he and I agreed that I could come at some point (when I can get better access to his trees) and take his downed limbs so I can chop them up and store and weather them for a year or two so I can use them in my wood burning stove. Everybody wins. Plus, I have corresponded with a neighbor that I have not encountered or chatted with in almost a year.
Then there are other benefits, tangible and not, from this storm. How many gallons of gasoline did we save by staying at home this past week? How much less energy did we use by having businesses stay closed? How much CO2 was kept from the atmosphere? How many hours did parents spend playing with their children? How many hours did children spend playing outdoors in the snow, experiencing the sheer joy of unstructured, self-guided, liberating play in the company of nature? How many home-cooked meals were prepared and eaten? How many families snuggled on the couch reading books or watching favorite movies? Or now, watching the Olympics?
How many people were able to slow down, share a bit of the magic of Shabbat that many of us enjoy every week, knowing there was no place to go, no pressure to show up, deadlines that were deferred?
How do you put a price on all that? For some of us, especially already hard hit by the recession, missing out on yet another day of work is indeed a hardship. But for many of us, missing a day or two of work is a reminder of a different way of life, a simpler way of life, a different set of values that just might be better, healthier and happier for all of us. More money is not the answer to all of life’s questions.
After the point of “enough,” when we pass into the realm of excess and indulgence, there is no discernible bump in happiness, satisfaction or other measurement of sustained joy. Indeed sometimes it is just the opposite, a slow decline in satisfaction that paradoxically urges us to even more intensive pursuit of empty, vacuous consumption.
Excess and indulgence take their toll on our time, energy, and creative talents (never mind the natural resources consumed in indulgent behaviors) with no discernible, and even possibly a slight negative, return on our investment. In any other realm, that would be considered grand waste.
It is time we change our national narrative. Success - both personal and national - is not all about money. After fundamental needs have been met, it is about health, time spent with loved ones, using enough but not too much, learning well, the joy of discovery, indulging in one’s curiosity, creating supportive communities, getting to know one’s neighbors, supporting local businesses, knowing and reveling in the local natural environment.
To change our narrative, and change our values, we must change what we measure. It is this very task that the state of Maryland is just beginning to explore. More on that in future posts.
I just spent a magical Shabbat with 120 Jewish idealists, land-bound millenarians you might call them; spiritual, hopeful, cultural game-changers, seeking questions, answers and each other at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center. They came wanting to plant their feet and hands firmly in the soil with their hearts and spirits reaching for the heavens. They were mainly 20 and 30 somethings, along with a handful of their joyful children, who came to learn more about the modern application of ancient Jewish agricultural laws, the growing Jewish farm movement in America, how they can be a part of it and in the process, how they can help tranform this world.
They gathered here from around the country, called by Baltimore’s own Jakir Manela, the pied piper of Kayam, an organic, teaching farm at Pearlstone that seeks to give modern interpretation to ancient Jewish farming practices. Jakir, along with his educational director, Casey Yurow, and a handful of dedicated co-conspirators, are molding Kayam into a nationally recognized Jewish agricultural, educational center, and a model that communities around the country are looking to emulate.
Since its founding just three years ago, Kayam has hosted over 9,000 visitors of all ages, and many backgrounds, introducing them to the sacred, spiritual core of Jewish farming.
This gathering was nothing less than historic. I felt as if I were in the presence of the spirit of the moment that gave rise to the back-to-the-land movements that founded the kibbutzim in Israel, or the Am Olam (eternal people or people of the world) farm movement in America in the late 19th century.
Beersheva, Moses Montefiore, Lasker, Hebron, Gilead, Touro and Leeser are names of seven agricultural colonies founded in Kansas in the 1880’s and funded by German Jewish philanthropists. In 1903, we had a similar effort right here in Maryland, Yaazor, the Hebrew Colonial Society, a 351-acre commune that was on the border of Baltimore and Howard counties. (You can read more about it at http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2008-03-30/news/0803300241_1_commune-colonial-society-shtetl)
Baltimore is once again quickly becoming a gathering point for dynamic, young, hands-on, hard-working, fun-loving, text-studying, land-enchanted idealistic Jews, a handful of whom also have in mind just maybe beginning a moshav of sorts, a collective gathering of like-minded, land-engaged families right here in Baltimore County. How wonderful for us would that be!
Others who were gathered at Pearlstone read like a who’s who in this still-marginal but emerging movement: the heads of Teva Learning Center, America’s foremost Jewish environmental educational organization (tevalearningcenter.org); The Jewish Farm School (whose mission is to practice and promote sustainable agriculture and to support food systems rooted in justice and Jewish traditions (http://www.jewishfarmschool.org); Eden Village camp, whose inaugural summer will launch this June (whose stated mission is to be an: environmental overnight camp for 3rd – 12th graders, supporting each camper in developing outdoor and leadership skills, exploring new interests and awakening a sense of positive Jewish identity, purpose, and joy); pioneering Jewish organic farmers and folks who are working hard to decipher the arcane rabbinic texts that detail the ancient laws.
The young people gathered this weekend are not alone. While they may be the most fabrent, the most passionate and committed to exploring this new way of life, they should also be seen as the leading edge of a generational wave of Jews blending food concerns, sustainability, earth care, social justice and Jewish values in a wholistic, vibrant, energetic life.
I hope to do more reading on the early American Jewish agricultural efforts and report back some of what I find.
Meanwhile, Baltimore should be proud of its home-grown pioneering effort that one day will be written in the annals of our history. We should all do our share to assist them - to build these lessons into our synagogue and day school curricula; to devote rabbinical school courses to the exploration and unpacking of such ancient texts; to train teachers who can carry this message to the entire community; to create institutions that offer hands-on opportunities to grow produce guided by Jewish law; to operate our Jewish institutions, our catering facilities, our simchas and our homes according to these fundamental values. And we should hope and pray that these pioneers meet with hatzlahah, grand success. For then we will all be winners.
Yesterday’s storm was a bully, so different from the one over Shabbat. The shabbat snow was lovely, wet and thick, enveloping with passion every object it encountered. It was indiscriminate in its affection, shamelessly clinging to every surface along its way. And in the process, it allowed every surface, every branch, every pole, to shine, until it smothered it with volume and weight. For a moment at least, as with last week’s snow, it was all so very beautiful. It was as if the storm wanted to be loved, only it did not know the fullness of its power.
Yesterday’s storm, however, just blustered. The flakes were too fine and sharp. They seemed more interested in blowing than settling, and so they did not settle well. The trees look a bit chaotic now, that is, covered with dashes of indifferent snow tossed erratically here and there, unlike last week, when they appeared elegantly coated with the stuff that tenderly clings to its lover.
Perhaps that explains the differing responses we have to it. Each storm may have unlocked its own chamber in us.
Perhaps it is how white the whole world looks right now; perhaps how pristine it all seems. Perhaps it is how overwhelming it feels, or how raw and honest; or even how brutal. But there is something in these back to back storms that has unleashed pent up depths of emotion, for better and for worse, across Baltimore.
On the darker side, while homicides are down, domestic violence is up. Frustration and immobility, being forced to stay put, feeling trapped both emotionally and physically, seems to have triggered a rash of assaults against those we live with. We can understand it and must rail against it, but perhaps also with all the exigencies we are cautioned to prepare for in the approach of a storm, explosions of violence should now be among them. Potential victims, potential abusers, hotlines, emergency response teams might all be on higher alert and take precautionary measures when cabin fever threatens to set in.
On the positive side, story after story has been shared across phone lines, emails, text messages and more about friends and neighbors helping each other out, checking in and otherwise being there for each other. A family member making a last minute grocery run calls to see what you might need; parents and adult children talk more than usual just to be sure everyone is okay. Neighbors grab shovels on streets where plows can’t go and, like an old-fashioned barn-raising, go house to house to shovel everyone out. Parents spend time just being with their young children, playing games they haven’t seen in months. And the rare but intrepid cross country skiers amble about deserted roads and empty towns enjoying views not ordinarily seen.
With few of us daring to venture out, more of us re-discovered what it is like to eat in. That meant more home cooking, fuller kitchens, dusting off old family recipes, creating new family traditions, making brighter hearths, warmer hearts, and more intimate, honest conversations. Perhaps sharing thoughts long overdue; perhaps just sitting side by side, catching up on what you meant to say weeks ago.
Nine months after the great summer blackout of 1977, New York City experienced a small baby boomlet. Perhaps nine months from now, mid-Atlantic hospital nurseries will also be full.
Natural disasters tend to bring out the best and the worst in people. We are creatures of the world, in the world, in more ways than we dare to imagine. Our biographies, our personal narratives, our very relationships are affected by the weather, the climate, the way nature behaves all around us.
The personal stories of what happened this historic week may never all be revealed. But for some of us, they will never be forgotten. May you make yours a story of blessing, one for the ages.
I am reading a book called Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, and found this quote:
“The attitude of the Navaho is that ‘on the road of life to his final destiny, which will make man one with the universe, he is concerned with maintaining harmony with all things, with subsistence and the orderly replenishment of his own kind.’”
And it made me think of this: what if the earth received us, and treated us in death, the way we received it and treated it in life?
Would we find this notion chilling, humbling, comforting?
At the end of our lives, would earth imagine itself our steward, our protector, caring for the re-absorption of our bodies as a tender act of love? Or would she see us as commodities to be ripped apart and dispersed according to her most indulgent whims?
Mostly, I wonder, how would we act differently in the here-and-now if we knew that the earth had discretion in how she handled our bodies once they were commended to her in the here-after?
Perhaps now is a good time to talk about excess. The snow last Tuesday night was lovely, muting the harsh tones of civilization without dulling its overall hum. The Baltimore Sun even ran a front page story congratulating all of us for not folding under the press of 5+ inches of snow.
Then there was the Shabbat snowstorm: 20-30 inches of snow. Power outages; heavy, wet stuff that hung on anything and everything; plows that strained; emergency crews who worked til exhaustion. Plowed drifts 10 feet high, blocking the view of on-coming cars. Never mind those streets that have not yet been plowed.
Still and all, we are doing what needs to be done: neighbor helping neighbor; opening and closing buildings, establishments and programs as appropriate; rescheduling life; kids and adults lavishing their unrestrained joy on the well-packed surface of this ephemeral playland.
But just as we were getting used to the scene, the driving, the drifts, more snow! What will we do? How will we handle it? Where will we put it all? Can our roofs support it? How will the homeless, who are used to the more temperate winters of seasons past, cope? This cannot be good. (Well, one good thing I can think of at the moment is that if the snow melts well, we should not have to worry about a drought this summer, neither those of us on public water or those of us on private wells.)
Is there in all of this, then, a lesson about too-muchness, excess, on the one hand and satiety, enoughness, on the other?
Like snow, commodities like food, money, leisure, space, cars, all seem like wonderful things at first. In some ways, if we believe that a little bit is good, then a lot would be great. We are seduced into the false logic of the-more-the-merrier.
True, it is hard to imagine, sometimes, how more money can be a burden; how too much leisure can lead to lethargy; how too much space can lead to emotional distance. But it can. We are not built for excess. If too much is around, we often turn gluttonous and wary, protective and ugly, difficult to please, unable to say, “Enough. I am full”. Despite the popular vision of Paradise being a place of unearned bounty, in both creation stories, Genesis 1 and 2, the humans had to work for their survival. Nothing was just given to them.
Study after study shows us that, after the threshold of fundamental needs is met, additional wealth, additional stuff, does not yield additional happiness. Just the opposite.
There is much talk lately of the family that sold its over-sized house, donated half the proceeds to charity and now live a more fulfilling, shared and engaged life in a smaller home.
A friend of mine who recently lost her job is now making a living de-cluttering people’s homes! We are constrained by too much, even in a time of recession. We become paralyzed and cannot recognize what to keep and what to throw away. We come to see that we can own too much and still have too little. Like the snow drifts, too much stuff can compromise our view, block our vision, hide the sight of the other coming toward us. Piles that are too big prevent us from getting to all the stuff we own. We can only access the latest stuff that we can reach on top. The treasures that lay buried underneath are not only inaccessible, they are most likely totally forgotten.
It is only when clearing excess away - perhaps even giving it away to those with too little - that we can reach and use all the riches we have.
There is a concept we have spoken about here before: sova, enoughness, fullness on just the right amount. Sova is not about restraint or sacrifice. Sova is about not needing more, or wanting more, or having room for more, because we experience the sense of fullness. We stop wanting more when we are full. Market consultants tell retailers to have large shopping baskets and carts strategically distributed throughout the store, not just at the entrance. People, they explain, tend to stop shopping when their carts are full. The bigger the cart, the longer road to “fullness,” the more people will buy.
I believe we are born with a healthy, modest, appropriate set of appetites. Watch a baby eat - they stop when they are full. Life, however, teaches us to stretch our appetites, build and fill a bigger closet, keep up with the Joneses. This inexhaustible capacity for a never-ending, ever-growing appetite is one source of our endless unease. How can we know happiness if we are always plagued by an unfulfilled desire for more?
But to know sova, that sense of enoughness, that sense of satisfaction, is to enjoy a sense of fullness, of calm and purpose. It is, spiritually, to be able to reclaim the way we choose to spend our energies, not in the pursuit of excess determined by the other, a vacuous pursuit that buries what we already have in an endless grab for more, but rather, in a vibrant pursuit of discovery (of self, other and the wonders of the world), of true relationship, of curiosity, healthy progress, and adventures that bring true joy to ourselves and those around us. And in the process, in consuming less, we may discover that there may just be enough stuff for everyone to have enough, and true joy for us at the end of the day.
With all due deference to the place of privilege conferred upon the eyes, I profoundly believe that our actions also serve as true windows to the soul.
An example: Take a look at your to-do list and see what items get done first. Barring true emergencies or drop-dead deadlines, most of us choose to do the things we like best, or detest least, or are the easiest to accomplish or otherwise offer a low threshold of resistance. We do not always attend to those that are most important, even most urgent, or most responsible. In other words, we do what we most want, not what we most should.
Relatedly, I know that no matter how much I protest that I really am feeling better (as I did time and again this week after being felled by a hat-trick of ailments), it is only when I start cleaning up that you know health is on the way. If I say I am better and prove it by going into the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea, bad news. But if I go into the kitchen, grab the broom and start sweeping, or grumble while washing the dirty dishes left in the sink, then you know I am on the mend.
Which leads me to the following question: what am I to make of the fact that the first thing I did this morning after but 2 hours sleep (our electricity went out from 6:30 a.m. Saturday til 4:00 a.m. Sunday and there was lots to do to make sure the house stayed warm and the family comfortable and the food didn’t spoil) was bundle up, grab the shovel and clear my front walk? Mind you, the street was only moderately drivable, my driveway was impassable, piled high with snow, and, to state the obvious, we were not expecting any company. But there I am, at 7:30 a.m., battling with the well-packed snow, clearing a path no bigger than the shovel is wide, along the 35 feet or so of my front walk.
(By the way, if you ever wondered how the Eskimo can build their igloos out of snow, the weekend storm offered the perfect answer. You could literally cut the snow into blocks. That is how I shoveled it. In chunks sliced off at the edge, like serving a huge birthday cake. So imagine if the snow were colder and denser and had more time to set. This weekend’s snow would have made fabulous igloo material. And I can attest to its insulating power. We went without a heating source for 12 hours on Shabbat and lost only five degrees of heat during the entire time, no doubt due to the blessing of snow on our roof. Many of us may have smaller energy bills this month because of the snow. Now we just have to worry about it melting.)
My son emerged from his room close to noon, glanced at the shoveled walk that led to nowhere, and asked me, incredulously as only a 17 year old can, “What were you thinking?”
It was a reasonable question. Clearly, I wasn’t thinking; I was just doing.
My husband suggested I shoveled the walk because I couldn’t get to the gym, which didn’t open till midday today (and besides, we were still snowed in).
And there may be some truth in that. But here is what I also think, more altruistically, contributed to my decision: the need for neighbors and neighborliness multiplies during snowstorms.
If we have strength and health, shelter and company, food and a source of warmth, light and security, we can settle in, hunker down and enjoy the show. But if we do not, snowstorms can be frightening, lonely and dangerous. To know that there is someone down the road whom you can count on, someone across the street who will dig you out, someone whose door is open to you should you need them, is to turn a potential terror into a fun, family story for the ages.
I know several neighborhoods, cul de sacs mainly, that have a tradition of gathering in one of the homes on snow days and power outages. Everyone brings something: food, a game,a buoyant attitude, and the group celebrates this time-out-of-time together.
Then there are my dear friends who spent much of the day digging out elderly and sickly neighbors. Their caring and company were as valuable as the tangible results of their kindness. To know you are remembered when least able to be seen, to know that despite being unable to give back you are deemed worthy of being given to, is to feel loved, unconditionally. That is what we all seek. Yet it is hard to show that during normal times. As benefactors, we hardly have the time to give. As recipients, we wonder with skepticism at the generosity of the benefactor. So how wonderful that snowstorms provide both the time and the circumstance that allows this social exchange, this knitting together of proximate lives that too often are lived apart.
My neighborhood is not conducive to personal shoveling. The driveways are too large; the seasonal contracts for plowing have long been signed. But the one thing I can do is signal this intent of caring, of symbolizing the open-home to any who need it.
In the Talmud we read that during mealtimes, Rabbi Yehudah would hang a napkin outside his home signaling to all who were hungry that dinner was being served and there was a place ready for them at the table. We no longer live in such mixed neighborhoods, nor are we at ease inviting such others into the intimate places of our homes. But my shoveled walkway was meant to signal something similar: that despite the apparent barriers society throws up, despite the emotional distance so many of us place between ourselves, it is good to know that perhaps deep down, our homes are always open to those in need of warmth, a bowl of soup, a comfortable chair, a tender heart, and a listening ear.
It wasn’t until I got my new wood-burning stove that I learned to appreciate the value of kindling. You know: tinder. Those small pieces of wood we generally overlook, kick aside or sweep away when they fall on our front walks. Several friends have shared with me stories of finding their preferred wood vendors; the secret art of stacking wood; the pros and cons of pellet vs wood stoves. But only one mentioned kindling to me.
She knew that there is pride in starting a fire with just one strike of the match. But to do that requires more than dry logs and bits of crumbled newspaper. The experienced fire-maven knows that the secret to a good start is good tinder. The twigs have to be big enough not to be consumed in a flash of flame, but they also have to be flammable enough to catch with just a whiff of intense heat. Brittle twigs with dry pine needles attached are the fire-tender’s philosopher’s stone. They turn brown waste into golden flames. Using wood saturated with an accelerant or other chemical fire-starter is cheating. (Not that I am above cheating every now and then, but it is hardly something I aspire to.)
If all goes well, the paper lights; the tinder catches; the twigs burn; the smallest logs heat and you are off and running.
Early on in my wood-stove career, I skimped on the kindling. I built my wood mound with lots of paper; the slenderest of logs and then the bigger logs. Needless to say, the stove and I did not bond. The fires weren’t strong; they petered out; and I got frustrated. It was only when I tended well not only to the logs but also and especially to the tinder that the fires roared and my relationship with the stove ignited.
I am still discovering what my stove likes and doesn’t like, and what I need to do to get the most out of it, but learning to tend well to the tinder was a huge first step.
That would have been grist enough for a blog, but then, I was sent this article by a new friend from, of all places, Grist. (The article comes from Grist, not the friend.)
The article begins this way: “The environmental movement is divided over the importance of small steps — are they a critical starting point or a distraction from needed policy and institutional changes?”
This may be a new question to the environmental movement but the answer is age-old wisdom to the religious community: tend to the details. Mind the small stuff. Develop the habit.
The article, thankfully, comes to the same conclusion.
The authors focus on three impulses that build on the small stuff:
(1) People like to feel virtuous, and doing something small that connects them to something large makes them feel virtuous. If we can give people small acts that are expressions of grand values, they will not only be likely to act accordingly but feel good about doing so. That then begins a feedback loop where they want to do more good so they can feel better about themselves and so on and so on.
(2) “People [seek to] justify their past actions according to their values.” Sometimes that means we change our behavior to endorse or live our values. Other times it means we change our narrative to match and support our behavior.
(3) Which explains how “daily conscientious actions can cement a gradual shift in our deepest values.”
In short, we become what we do. I know this flies in the face of our popular understanding of Ginott, that we should not conflate the behavior and the child. And that is true when the behaviors we are talking about are episodic and rare. But when behavior becomes habitual, it is likely to express who we are. Indeed we become the personality we act.
Which is why we have to sweat the small stuff. And which is why getting started up this mountain of environmental behavior can be so easy. We just need to begin with one, repetitive, accessible step, which we can justify in light of a greater, indeed global cause. We can choose recycling or turning out lights or air drying our laundry. Whatever we choose, as long as we do it consistently (which is why giving once a year to an environmental cause is not as powerful or transforming an act), will shape the person we become.
Acts are like tinder. We cannot get from cold to hot, inert to inspired without it. So find your tinder, see how it fits in the overall vision of values, and set your match to it.
Once again I am at the cabin, a solitary refuge tucked away in the woods. Once again, the woods do not disappoint. Indeed this time, they outdo themselves. For six hours, the skies showered them with snow. For six hours, the trees stood like so many buoyant children, heads tilted upward, arms outstretched, welcoming, delighting in, the snow.
Looking outside now, I can see that I am surrounded by mounds of the glinting, gleaming, glistening freshly fallen stuff. At moments such as these, the woods are enchanting, seductive, alluring. They are calm, serene, still, deep, soothing, healing. It is hard to cease praising them. From the base of their sturdy trunks to the very tips of their delicate limbs, they are draped in their snow-dappled mantle. In their quiet majesty, they subdue and overwhelm. For the moment, they are all that exists. I can see no other house but mine; no road; no hint of humanity beyond my own.
If the woods were not so lovely, they would be threatening. It is they who have the power. I am their supplicant. They are my guardians. I am their guest. Quite different from what we experience back in the paved-over, built-up, rushed-through environment of civilization, where we reign, or so we think, and at our best act as guardians of the trees. We know what we are like at our worst.
But perhaps the woods here look so lovely because I am warm and snug inside. I am tucked away in the cabin, while the woods remain safely out there. As long as I stay here, they cannot menace me, cannot lead me deep into their thickening midst, or turn me around and cause me to lose my way. They cannot suddenly loose a bear or wolf on me. They cannot cause me to fall into a root pit camouflaged with the cover of snow.
Paradoxically, my inside refuge comes from them as well. For this cabin is made from them. The walls are pine logs, rough on the outside and shaved and finished on the inside. The floor is hickory; the cabinets cherry. It is wood that protects me from the woods. The tamed protecting me from the wild.
And yet, there is something wonderful, at this safe remove, to be able to feel the fear of the wild that the woods once caused our ancestors. I remember as a child, sitting in the suburbs of Pikesville, listening to “Peter and the Wolf” and wondering where such a terrifying, wonderful place as those woods could be. Surely not among the well-mown lawns of our neighborhood. What would it have felt like to know nature that way! What have we lost by shielding ourselves from such feelings.
But the truth is, nature still can ambush us unexpectedly. Haiti is only the latest, tragic reminder of that. How much more prepared would we be practically, how much richer spiritually, how much more sated economically, how much more inventive scientifically if we could once again experience the awesome rawness of nature.
So to be in the woods, able to reach out and touch the edges of nature’s raw wildness and the terror it conjures up, all the while risking little to myself, is a rare joy, and a valuable lesson.
It will be light soon. The animals will be stirring and the mystery of the woods will recede. I better go find my boots.