Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On the Threshold

Some of our most memorable experiences happen in life’s borderlands, thresholds where and when we pass from one significant time or place to another. This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, offers just such an episode. Moses, who is soon to die, enjoins a new generation of Israelites: “As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the land that God is giving you, you shall set up large stones. . . and inscribe upon them all the words of this Teaching.”

This passage speaks powerfully to me this week, personally and professionally. Just a few days ago, I sent my oldest daughter off to college. We both crossed a threshold, as she began her adult life away from home and I experienced the unique mix of grief and joy that comes with such moments.

Meanwhile, we stand together, as a community, at the threshold of a new year.

As we prepare to enter the unmapped territory of the future, we can take comfort in knowing that the wisdom of our past travels with us, engraved, if not on large stones, then in our hearts and memories. As I said farewell to Tanya, I offered her the priestly blessing, the benediction I have given her nearly every Shabbat evening since her birth almost nineteen years ago. And as we say farewell to 5770, we can all draw on our shared tradition to give us the strength to move forward. Before Rosh Hashanah, consider what parts of the past you would like to carry with you into the new year, and what you would choose to leave behind.

I’ll end with the words of poet Adrienne Rich, which can be found in Mishkan Tefilah, our Reform siddur:

Either you will

go through this door
or you will not go through.

If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.

Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.

If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily

to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely

but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?

The door itself
makes no promises.
It is only a door

Friday, August 20, 2010

Changes in Latitude

It has been, to say the least, an eventful few days. Tanya is now officially a college student at the University of Colorado, which makes me, officially, the parent of a college student. I am proud and exhausted and happy and a little melancholy, all at the same time, which is, no doubt, par for the course.

The night before we departed from Boise, about eight of Tanya's best friends from high school slept over. One of Tanya's great gifts is her ability to create wonderful friendships with diverse, talented, and compassionate people. As we set out for the airport on Monday morning, it was a time of copious hugs and tearful farewells. Then I sounded the shofar to mark our departure. I had blown that same sound when Tanya was born, almost nineteen years ago, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Having ushered her into the world with tekiah, the call of the ram's horn, I sent her out into the world of adulthood with an echo of that call. It is said that the shofar recalls the wails of a pregnant woman, the labor of the world being born. And of course new worlds are born all of the time, and new selves, too. All of this was on my mind as we left Boise.

When we arrived in Boulder, we met two of Tanya's friends who are also attending CU, together with their families. Lee is a high school classmate and Dana is a friend from Tanya's semester in Israel. We shared a terrific Moroccan dinner together then went back to our hotels for a much-needed night of sleep.

Tuesday was moving day. Tanya is living in a high-rise dorm about a mile or so off campus. The disadvantage is the distance; the advantage is that it is newer and air-conditioned and seems to foster a kind of strong community spirit among the residents.

We moved her in at 8 am. This entailed lots of unpacking, setting up shelves, and more hangers than I ever envisioned existed on earth. It also was the first time we met Tanya’s roommate, Chrissa. She’s from Chicago. Her mother, Cynthia Bowers, is a national correspondent for CBS evening news, and her father runs the photography department of a major European wire service. The two roommates seem to get along well.

Tuesday and Wednesday were filled with orientation activities for Tanya, back to back sessions on all the expected topics: honor code, sex and drugs and alcohol, sexual harassment, diversity, dorm life, etc. Meanwhile, there were a few sessions for the parents as well. I gleaned some good nuggets there but mostly, these days were filled with shopping. Laura and I purchased so much stuff that Tanya needed: linens, bedding, school supplies, shelving, mirror, hair straightener, toiletries, snacks. . . Of course every other parent was doing the same thing, so the stores were mobbed (hint: if you haven’t done so, buy stock in Bath, Bed and Beyond and, especially, Target.)

In between, we did get to take Tanya out for some very good meals in Boulder, which has a thriving restaurant scene. Boulder is a bustling paradigm of the New West, full of high tech and green businesses, nice shops and restaurants and magnificent mountain scenery. But expect traffic, which is very bad. The best way to get around Boulder is definitely on a bike.

Speaking of which, I bought Tanya a really nice used one . She’ll get good use out of it and was very happy to have it.

Thursday afternoon, Tanya registered for classes. She got some good ones: cultural anthropology, linguistics, philosophy (ethics), political science (global issues). Should be great reading this semester. While she did the registration, Laura and I met with the Hillel director, Hananya Nyberg. He’s young and dynamic and seems to run a good operation. Hopefully, Tanya will go more than her father did;)

All in all, this was one of the most emotional days I’ve experienced in a long time. When the time came to leave, I took Tanya aside and gave her a big hug, told her that I was so proud of her, that I trust her to make good choices, and that I will always be there for her. Then I offered her the priestly blessing, which I have given her practically every Shabbat evening since she was born. Needless to say, as I did this, tears filled my eyes. I’m only just home and already I miss her so much. But I take enormous joy in knowing that she is learning, making friends, off on the great adventure of learning and living that this life provides. We do all we can to set them on a course and then we get to watch and love them and help however we can.

Being a father has been—and continues to be—the greatest privilege of my life. If nothing else, this experience in Boulder will send me home with an even stronger desire to really treasure the days and months and years that I still have at home with Rosa, and with Rachel and Jonah, too.

It really does take a village to raise a child. Thanks to all who are part of my village.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Once Upon a Time: Bob Dylan, Torah, and Tanya Leaving Home

Tonight, Bob Dylan finished his show at the Idaho Botanical Garden with “Like a Rolling Stone.” And my daughter Tanya packed for college.

I had a longstanding work obligation this evening, officiating at the 25th anniversary renewal of vows ceremony for friends and congregants, so I missed the first half of the Dylan concert. I caught the last hour from the cheap—OK, free—seats: a rocky ledge in the foothills overlooking the garden, where I watched with a group of friendly and enthusiastic Dylan fans. We lacked intimacy of actually being in the venue, but the atmosphere was good compensation. We looked out over the entire Treasure Valley, into the Owyhee mountain range, and as the sun set and the half moon rose, the view was extravagantly beautiful. The stage was a distant array of flashing lights, and we couldn’t see the individual performers, but the sound was excellent.

I am a longstanding, die hard Bob Dylan fan, and I have seen him perform numerous times, beginning in 1978. He is famously inconsistent in concert, and I’ve attended more bad shows than good, but this one—at least the part that I heard—was excellent: a slow and moving version of “Forever Young,” some hard-edged newer blues tunes, an appropriately noir-tinged “Mr. Jones.”

And then the classic concluding number. “Like a Rolling Stone” has consistently been ranked by critics as the best and most influential rock song ever. It is the subject of innumerable essays, conversations, commentaries, and a full-length book by Greil Marcus. And I have sung this song hundreds, if not thousands of times, with my high school band, in my car with the radio (and my harmonica) blaring, with karaoke at Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties, in a restaurant in Jerusalem, a bar in Kathmandu, and numerous dance parties with my children in my own living room. I’ve got Dylan’s nasally whine down cold, as well I should after emulating it for over three decades.

The story of “Like a Rolling Stone” is legendary, and strongly associated with the time when Bob Dylan, who made his reputation as an acoustic folk hero, “went electric.” When he played it on tour at the “Royal Albert Hall” concert (actually in Manchester, England) in 1966, it sparked a revolutionary moment in the annals of rock and roll. As the opening notes echoed through the hall, an alienated folkie yelled, “Judas!” Dylan paused for a moment, then snarled back, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.” Then he turned to Robbie Robertson and his band and instructed them, “Play fucking loud!” The rest is history.

So Bob Dylan has been playing this song for almost 45 years, and performing for over fifty (he turns seventy next spring). And I’ve been listening to him for thirty five of those years.

Tonight, as he sang, I realized the immensity of that achievement, the march of time, and the power of art to reinvent itself and us. That’s the amazing thing: the song, which meant one thing in 1966—an explosion of revolutionary anger and discontent—sounded so different tonight. The fury of Dylan’s younger voice has given way to world weariness. When he asks, in the chorus: “How does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?” he speaks with the tone of one who has spent decades on the road—with its mix of fatigue and fame. Rage has given way to ritual. The song that was once a kiss off to alienated fans is now the ultimate crowd pleaser.

That’s when I thought: listening to Bob Dylan is, for me, a lot like reading Torah. Each year we encounter the same words, the same portions. And yet each year, I find new meaning, new expressions, new emotions and insights and subtleties in those ancient words. The song remains the same. But the singer—and the listeners—don’t.

“Like a Rolling Stone” begins with the classic fairy tale opening line, “Once upon a time. . . ”

Of course what follows is really an anti-fairy tale, a story about coming to terms with very hard realities ( “having to be scrounging your next meal”; “when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”) But for all of its cynicism and loss, the song never completely strays from that opening. It invites us, like any story beginning with those four words, to look back on where we’ve been.

I haven’t needed much invitation to do that these days, anyway. Tomorrow afternoon, my daughter, Tanya, leaves for the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she will begin her freshman year. As I type this, she is in her bedroom spending a final evening with her high school friends, who are soon to all go their different ways. Bob Dylan turns seventy in March. By then, I will be fifty. And Tanya will begin her adult life tomorrow.

Growing up, growing older, heading out with no direction home, with nothing to lose, then making a life with all of its joys and heartbreaks. And experiencing the same things again and again--but learning to understand them differently with each passing day. What else is there?

Once upon a time, indeed.

Thanks for everything, Bob.

And Tanya.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Running On

I just got home from attending a Jackson Browne concert at the Botanical Garden here in Boise.
It was a beautiful evening, and since the garden is practically around the corner, I rode my bike. As the concert progressed, the sunset filled the crystal clear sky with pink and orange and violet light, and the mountains glowed warmly before darkness finally settled around us. A truly magnificent evening.

And also, for me, deeply nostalgic. Jackson Browne played the first concert that I ever saw, a free "no nukes" show on the Mall in Washington, DC back in 1976. Some friends and I played hooky from school and enjoyed that afternoon/evening a great deal. A couple years later, I saw him again at the Post Pavillion, where he recorded two of his biggest hits, "Running on Empty" and "The Loadout/Stay".

Almost thirty five years have passed since those days. Jackson Browne is now over sixty and I am on the crest of fifty. But the music still sounds good. It brought me back to those days of my youth, a much more earnest and less cynical time. Singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne believed that they could change the world, and, to a certain extent, they did. Their songs were personal and confessional and, at the same time, political and ambitious. I admired them deeply, and I still do. I was, of course, shaped profoundly by that era, a time which was, in many ways, defined by its music, which served as a kind of sound track for the civil rights, feminist, and peace and justice movements. It was a heady time to be young and while we were no saints, we were idealistic like the artists who inspired us.

And as I listened all those old favorites--The Pretender, Fountain of Sorrow, For Everyman--so many memories filled my mind, and my heart. I was reminded that music is perhaps the best and strongest bridge back to the selves that we were long ago. In so many ways, my youth feels lost to me, a land of inchoate, mist-shrouded experiences that sometimes feel like they were lived by someone else. But these tunes cut through the fog and brought them all back, so many moments I'd thought were gone forever. The first few chords of "Bright Baby Blues" flooded me with bittersweet feelings; I listened to that song for hours on end while suffering the pangs of adolescent angst after a girlfriend dumped me for another guy. "Running on Empty" brought smiles: I sang that one with a classmate over the loudspeaker in our high school one caffeinated morning. And the rousing "Doctor My Eyes" brought me back to that evening on the Mall, where I experienced, for the first time, in the seat of American political potency, how music can move us to action and speak truth to power.

I've experienced a lot over the intervening thirty-five years, successes and failures and everything in between. But tonight I was reminded: in good times and bad, music still moves me like nothing else, just as much as it did in my youth. And though, like our era, I am a bit more jaded than I was at sixteen, I still believe that well-crafted songs--and we, who are moved by them--have the power to change the world.