After weaving pine boughs into giant screens that fit into the large panels of the balcony in the cathedral-like St. George‘s Church on 16th Street in lower Manhattan, the church went dark and so silent you could hear the congregation breathing.
As my godfather, the organist Charles Henderson, sounded the first notes of We three kinds of Orient Are on the massive pipe organ E. Power Biggs had played on, an illuminated star started its slow, steady ascent from the nave all the way up to the dome above the alter – taking enough time for us to sing all the verses of the hymn. Mesmerized, we sang to the star – star of wonder, star of light, star of royal beauty bright…. Guide us to thy perfect light. By the time the star had risen the church had gone from darkness to a rich golden celestial glow.
I osmosed the magic of that scene and long after I had stopped going to church – drawn into the secular, culturally jewish world of my father and of the small private school where I attended bar mizvah after bar mitzvah – the thought of it warmed my heart.
Years later, working at Everything for Everybody – a soup kitchen and emergency shelter in the meat market district of the city – I based a Christmas eve play on those memories – deepening and elaborating on them to create another equally heartwarming memory – the glow of which remains with me to this day as part of my Christmas treasure trove – stored in my mind-heart the way my holiday decorations are stored in their plastic tub until I haul them out each December.
The store front, that was the first Everything For Everybody, had long lunch counter running down it’s center with free clothing shelves lining one wall and signs reminding us to “Feed the hungry, Clothe the naked and Shelter the homeless” and that “He who does not work shall not eat“ posted in between giant pots and pans filling the wall facing the lunch counter.
It was the open area at the end of the counter that we turned into the manger. We had a real baby whose mother was Mary for the evening. Farouk, the fluffy white terrier – our mascot – played the sheep and George, a white haired gentleman who had gone from homeless to our grandfatherly caretaker was Joseph. The three kings were in attendance and a few motley shepherds circled the baby.
It was standing room only. All seats at the lunch counter were filled with our soup kitchen regulars with white coated workers from the meat markets, neighbors, guests, curious passersby and staff members perched on the free clothing shelves and crammed every available nook and cranny. The lights went out and from the little office off to the side, I started to play We Three Kings of Orient Are on my recorder.
As people halting started to sing the first verse, my friend Margaret, from Vancouver, slowly hoisted the tree topper star that I’d bought at Woolworths and had threaded through a hook in the ceiling earlier that day. Illuminated and shimmering it bathed the manger in a golden glow – just like it had at St. Georges Church and just like it lit up the sky in Bethlehem and just like it does tonight. As the recorder sang it’s sweet song, people joined in, Farouk barked, the baby cried and a homeless guy came in looking for a bowl of soup and bed for the night following after Mary, Joseph and the baby. No one was turned away.
A few years ago I attended a coaching workshop in Vancouver and I looked up my friend Margaret. She came into the city and we spent the night in my hotel room drinking wine, munching on goodies and catching each other up on the decades of our lives since our gogo dancing days in Montreal. She told me that the Christmas she had spent in New York City with me at Everything for Everybody was way up there on her list of best Christmas’ ever. She reminded me (for I had forgotten) that she was crouched with me in the darkened, cramped office space slowly raising the star as I played the recorder and the dog barked and the baby cried and the scene that is the Christmas story was replayed for real in that then deserted area of the west village at the soup kitchen, emergency shelter and so much more that was Everything For Everybody.
Fast forward 40 years. People from the middle east are following stars looking for a room at the inn of the heart of the world, wandering from one place to another seeking shelter, for a chance to be reborn and for peace on earth. We are still called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless. Everything has changed and nothing has changed.
The holidays are here and, while many are gearing up for parties, family gatherings and celebrations, others are feeling lonely, discouraged, stressed out and depressed.
Be an angel. Take a moment to offer a hand, give a hug, invite someone to dinner, reach out and remind someone that you truly see them and care. Include them in your circle of love. You may save someone’s life including your own.
While the tall order of Everything for Everybody is still being filled, remember that what you do for anyone you do for everyone. There’s no better time than now to put the One Love principle into action, Reggae and every other version.
It is with great love that I wish you all a Merry Christmas and in the spirit of the season – whatever tradition you embrace – may we all join together in welcoming the return of the light to the world as we emerge from the depths of the darkest of days.
Looking for a menorah to place in my office in between the sliver Christmas display and the crimson pointsetta that signals the start the the holiday season for me – I found an advent calendar that I had ordered last year.
It had arrived so late that I’d packed it away in the plastic tub where I keep my holiday decorations: the ornaments my daughter has made over the years, ones I’ve been given by friends and ones I’ve gathered here and there – a humble collection I might add. “Perfect,” I thought. “For once I have an advent calendar in time to open the first window on December 1st and then a whole month of windows to look forward to.”
My mother used to find Advent calendars covered in glitter that fell like fairy dust when my sister and I took turns opening the windows each morning – shapes cut out like puzzle pieces in the bigger picture that was a nativity scene or a snow covered Christmas tree with rabbits and donkeys and sheep dotting the winter wonderland scene. This was before the edible calendars that made chocolate before breakfast part of the excitement. There they were, twenty four smaller windows leading up to the big window on Christmas day, each marked by a number – sometimes hard to find. Each day was exciting in itself but exponentially charged by the promise leading up to the big day, the denouement, the unveiling – the birth of baby Jesus. It was as though we were on the journey and part of the caravan following a star – full of the eager anticipation that, like hitting the enhance button, heightens everything.
The word Advent comes from the latin ad (to) and venire – come– like in the French venir and is related to the word adventure which, in latin meant a thing about to happen and, in it’s earliest meaning (before it took on the idea of risk, danger and a perilous undertaking) meant a wonder, a miracle and accounts of marvelous things.
The excitement builds. Something’s coming but it’s not quite here yet. Like children for whom a few days or a weeks is an agonizingly long time to wait – our sense of time is compressed and our present is pregnant with the promise of arrival, of fulfillment.
In the mean-time, there’s lots to do. In the church calendar it’s the beginning of a new liturgical year – a time of reflection and getting ready which makes me think of the three women I know who have just had babies – of showers and nesting and painting rooms. In our larger, diverse, secular world it’s a time of decorating and baking, of guavaberry and fruit cakes, of thinking of others, wrapping gifts for our own children and for those not so lucky this time around. As we approach the darkest of days –I squeal with delight when I turn a corner in my travels around the island and am surprised by displays of colored lights. Holiday recipes show up on my face book feed – for Christmas goodies and for Hannukah latkes (my favorites).
This morning I had to scan my advent calendar – now magnetized on my fridge – for the number 2 window. The scene is of the manger. The background is dark with candles lighting up the centerpiece – baby Jesus and the face of Mary who is leaning down to cover him up. On the dark brown background the black numbers are hard to see and I wondered for a minute if they forgot to cut out a number two window but kept scanning the dark background – like searching for Waldo in the manger – until my little eye spied it and I gleefully opened it up to a picture of angel Gabriel announcing the good news to Mary and setting her up for 9 months of waiting like my friends Tammi, and Fedora and Ginny who all just gave birth to sons.
There’s nothing like having something to look forward to in the future to brighten up the present. By having something to look forward to, no matter what your circumstances, you bring happiness into your life well before the event actually takes place. In fact, sometimes the happiness in anticipation is greater than the happiness actually experienced in the moment.
Anticipating positive events sustains the output of dopamine (the happy chemical) into the brain’s chemical pathways. It doesn’t matter if you’re an optimist or a pessimist – our brains are wired to anticipate happy experiences. Since we are wired to anticipate positive events affirming this anticipation keeps the dopamine going, keeps us happily looking forward to, getting ready, preparing – even if what we are looking forward to is days, weeks or months away, which explains the appeal and the power of the advent calendar or checking off days until payday, graduation, a wedding, a birth or whatever you long for.
As holidays come and go reflecting the seasons of the years and of our lives – each calls upon us to focus on what matters most, on gratitude, on new beginnings and the promise of salvation, on the spreading of the light, on love and we get embrace it in our own ways as determined by our beliefs, our traditions, our cultures and our families where everything is concentrated and shimmering and very present in our hearts and minds.
Maybe we can’t hold all of this all at once always so it’s good to have a focus for a time and then to move on to the next focus but I am often left feeling that I’m not done with gratitude by the time advent is upon us and not done with eager anticipation when christmas day arrives and not done with love when the valentine’s day roses are wilted. The challenge for me and I think for many of us is to keep it all alive and to use these special occasions as reminders in case we may have forgotten (and we do forget) – we do need reminders. In the stories that we retell and the celebrations that we carry forth from ancient times we become more awake, more conscious, more loving, more giving, more grateful.
After opening the first window of my advent calendar yesterday I opened the hymn book that has sat on my piano for the past couple of years and opened it to my favorite advent hymn – O come o come Emmanuel. I love that Emmanuel in Hebrew means, “God is within us”, I love the eastern tones of the music and I realized I had never paid close attention to the last of it’s seven verses:
O come, desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind:
Bid thou our sad divisions cease
And be thyself our King of Peace
Rejoice, Rejoice Emmanuel
Shall come to thee O Israel.
My heart is heavy. All week long I have been glued to my computer, scrolling through the New York Times and Facebook. Since the demise of my TV last week, they have been my source of information about the state of the world and of my nearly 5000 “friends” from around the world. I have read countless articles about the events in Paris, about ISIS and Islam and many editorial opinions about what we should do and should not do to combat terrorism. I have cried watching videos – of Syrian children sleeping by the sides of roads, of a 3 year old girl holding up her hands because she thought the photographer’s camera was a gun and of a French boy of about the same age worrying that his family would have to move because of the mean bad people with guns until being reassured that ‘les fleurs and les bougis” (flowers and candles) would protect them as he and he father looked at the piles of flowers and candles left in memory of the victims.
If my TV hadn’t died I probably would have been watching scenes of horror, interviews with survivors and bios of the deceased like I did for days after 9/11 until my then 12 year old daughter told me to ‘turn it off and stop it,” letting me know it was time for me to get a grip, return to the here and now and be a mom to a daughter who was very much alive.
Most of my ‘friends’ on Facebook are peaceable but there were a fair share of “bomb them out of existence”, “close the borders”, and “seek vengeance” comments, reminding me that world events, not unlike minor skirmishes on shopping lines and at the DMV are experiential Rorschach tests. How we react speaks volumes about how we see the world, our coping strategies and the kind of world we are, with our very thoughts and actions birthing into existence.
At every juncture, there are only two choices – love or fear (hate being a bi- product of fear). In a Native American story, a grandfather tells his grandson that inside of each of us there is a battle raging between two wolves – one standing for greed, hatred, vengenace and power and the other for love, well-being, compassion, generosity and joy. Looking worried about the gnarling of jaws and the battle to the death, the grandson asked: “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” Grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”
As someone who has been known to feed the dogs scraps under the table and invite everyone to the feast, I am paying more attention to the inner pot- luck offerings that are showing up. I am taking the time to discern what will nourish my soul and what will nourish my ego – what is the food of love and what the food of fear.
Someone told me that at fire drill at a government building the other day staff rushed out of the building in fear that the alarm signaled a bomb attack by ISIS and shortly afterwards a friend who has just moved to Florida and has not had cable installed, told me that he’d had no idea what had happened and had been peacefully sitting by the water fishing oblivious to what was happening across the pond.
With all this swirling around in the news and in my head I am focusing on how to still my throbbing heart and tap into that peace that passeth all understanding and at the same time to make the kind of difference that doesn’t require guns and bombs and armies, panic buttons and mass hysteria and promotes peace, love and understanding.
Pema Chodren, a Buddhist nun, has been my go to person for this kind of help for a long time. Here’s what she has to say:
“We awaken this tenderness for life when we can no longer shield ourselves from the vulnerability of our condition, from the basic fragility of existence. In the words of the sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, “You take it all in. You let the pain of the world touch your heart and you turn it into compassion.”
She goes on to describes a meditation practice know as Tonglen which has served me well in my work and in my life. It seems particularly and poignantly called for right here and right now.
I join Pema in saying: Let’s do Tonglen for a world that is falling apart.
“Sitting comfortably with the spine upright, you breathe in and on this in-breath, you breathe in whatever particular area, group of people, country, or even one particular person is suffering. Maybe it’s not this more global situation, maybe it’s breathing in the physical discomfort and mental anguish of chemotherapy…. Or maybe it’s the pain of those who have lost loved ones, suddenly or recently, unexpectedly or over a long period of time, someone dying.
But the in-breath is—you find some place on the planet, in your personal life or something you know about—and you breathe in with the wish that those human beings or those mistreated animals, or whoever it is, that they could be free of that suffering. And you breathe in with the longing to remove their suffering.
And then you send out—I often say just relax out—and send enough space so that people’s hearts and minds feel big enough to be able to live with their discomfort, their fear, or their anger or despair, or their physical or mental anguish. But you can also breathe out for those who have no food and drink. You could breathe out food and drink. For those who are homeless you could breathe out—send them shelter. For those who are suffering in any way, you could send out safety and comfort.
So with the in-breath you breathe in with the wish to take away the suffering, and you send out with the wish to send comfort and happiness to the very same people, or animals, or nations, or whatever it is you decide.
Breathe in again with the wish to relieve their suffering, and on the out-breath sending them relief. And just keep breathing in, deeply, and breathing out, taking in as fully as you can, radiating out as widely as you can.
You could do Tonglen for people you consider to be your enemies— those that hurt you or hurt others. Do Tonglen for them, thinking of them as having the same confusion and stuckness as your friend or yourself. Breathe in their pain and send them relief.
As you do the practice, gradually over time, your compassion naturally expands and so does your realization that things are not as solid as you thought. As you do this practice, gradually at your own pace, you will be surprised to find yourself more and more able to be there for others even in what used to seem like impossible situations.”
When asked if we should pray for Paris the Dalai Lama said:
“People want to lead a peaceful lives. The terrorists are short-sighted, and this is one of the causes of rampant suicide bombings.
We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.
We need a systematic approach to foster humanistic values, of oneness and harmony. If we start doing it now, there is hope that this century will be different from the previous one. It is in everybody’s interest.”
As we are tempted to hit the panic button, to rush to judgement and allow fear to run the show or to bury our heads in the sand, there is nothing more important than to stop, breathe in and connect with the suffering of others and with our own suffering and as we breathe out to fill our hearts and the world with compassion, harmony and the truth that we are all in this together, are one big family – ONE LOVE
This is my first podcast lesson using pod cast changes …….
This is a test using the Podcast about Anne’s trip to India.