Candles Always Cry

And Other Stories

Month: April, 2012

Kierkegaard

I found Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher from the first half of the 1800’s, and was immediately intrigued.

I was surprised to find his work so religious, and to find that it was lyrical and searching, not rational and a dissertation.

I know that when I listen to the lectures on it, and understand more of what I’ve read, some of the magic will be gone. But for now I’m still at the stage where what I’ve read has validated and articulated some of the things I always knew but always questioned. I feel less alone.

On faith:

Love,after all, has its priests in the poets, and occasionally one hears a voice that knows how to keep it in shape; but about faith one hears not a word, who speaks in this passion’s praises?

Faith, according to Kierkegaard, is the next step after philosophy. It’s more than rational. In Chassidic terminology, למעלה מטעם ודעת – higher than reason and knowledge.

On choosing the finite over the infinite:

But to be able to lose one’s understanding and with it the whole of the finite world whose stockbroker it is and then on the strength of the absurd get exactly the same finitude back again, that leaves me aghast (amazed).

The mind can take you as far as the infinite. It can lead you to reject this world for something more. But only faith, or what Kierkegaard calls ‘the absurd’ can bring you back, can make you recognize that the true challenge is to find meaning here. That’s the existentialist in him. Forget the spiritual, live in the temporal.

Existentialism should be incompatible with religion and faith. But not in this case. The Chassidic concept of Dira B’tachtonim, bringing G-d here, and not just G-d, but the ultimate essence of G-d – what is it not a celebration of the temporal? Of course according to Dira B’tachtonim, it’s a meeting of the finite and infinite, not one one over the other. Nevertheless.

And my favorite:

What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. (In his personal journal)

He says that every life has one content, in Hegel terminology ‘an unconditional commitment’ to an all encompassing purpose, that provides the content, the direction, the meaning of his life. Until it’s found a person won’t ever truly be a self. Some people never do find it, or commit to it.

Thoughts on ‘Fear and Trembling’ by Soren Kierkegaard, and the lectures on the book by Hubert Dreyfus at UC Berkley, found in iTunesU.

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Three Four

Like morning, or like the danger of empty rooms, the days flow like an angry river, thrashing the shore where fallen trees and mossy debris lie in drunken piles, waiting only to be soothed by the water’s desperate hiccups.

Strips of foam leap in scattered places where the invisible wind twists its lips into a crude kiss, blowing and blowing, again and again, and the water is never exhausted but always puckers its many lips in kind, expelling white froth into the morning.

It happens all the way down the miles of river, as long as the wind won’t let up and the trees won’t stop stuttering, begging for mercy maybe, or singing in morbid praise of the wind’s tireless flogging.

But that’s far, out where the hours are raw, and tomorrow is long gone, and the only reason to keep breathing is because each moment is a war between silence and death.

Here, where it’s just lamplight and dirty coffee, the night time is reminiscent of ancient stars, and down below, here and there, the creatures of the night pray for morning, and the deep snores of angry children are music, and loneliness is the only melody the stars think to share.

The mountains are guardians, not walls. They carry houses and roads and lights in the night that draw a mural on the horizon, and give you more world in a minute than one heart can take. You stay away from windows, full as they are of both promise and confinement, and remain in the only place the escape is not larger than you.

 

Passover in Detroit

Written for my school newspaper and published here.

Home is Detroit. More specifically, a suburb right outside it, just past the long, empty stretches and vacant buildings visible from the freeway, past the soiled gas stations that are mostly out of order, and past 8 mile, where a Metro PCS is hawking cell phone service for only $40 a month.

Spring hasn’t come yet to Detroit, despite a brief heat spell a few weeks back. The trees are still bare, waiting nakedly to show off their green, and the skies are still gray over the one-story house where I grew up.

Spring break conveniently fell on the same week as Passover this year, so I was able to spend the Passover holiday with my family.

Over the course of the eight days of Passover, Jews commemorate their exodus from Egypt, where they were slaves to the Egyptian population thousands of years ago, with festive meals, ancient rituals, and special prayers.

In my case, there were also family members to fight with and reunite with.

Family for me, as it does for many, brings about mixed feelings. I’ve changed since I’ve moved to Los Angeles. Seeing the familiar house, watching my father make himself a cup of coffee, hearing my mother’s laugh, listening to my brothers say the things I used to say and no longer believe–I’m suddenly reminded that I might be more a stranger here than I’d like to admit.

The last day of Passover, I’m in the synagogue listening to the priestly blessing, when the priests bless the congregation in the name of G-d. In the men’s section, the men stand in clusters with their children, each family covered with a prayer shawl.

I remember the first time I was too old to stand beneath my father’s prayer shawl and stayed upstairs on the balcony with my mother. From that vantage point, all I saw were the white shawls dotted throughout the red-carpeted sanctuary, moving to the tune of the prayers. I thought they looked like angels.

Standing there as an adult next to my mother, the familiar words roll easily and I stride through most of the prayers this way, letting their familiarity take over, and listening to it take me over.

Passover is not supposed to be just a commemoration of a historical event, but an opportunity to relive those events.

Everyone has something that is holding them back—bad habits, insecurities, a sense of entitlement, a feeling of resentment. Maybe it’s a wound, a fear, guilt, or self-talk they’ve repeated so many times they’re now trapped by their own identity.

Passover is the chance to both escape and embrace opportunities. It’s a time of rebirth and freedom from the past.

I’ve heard this message, or a version of it, so many times that I usually ignore it. The promises of rebirth are tantalizing but ultimately disappointing. I will always be me, with my genes, my insecurities, my family drama, and my emotional baggage.

I will always be the ugliest of the four sisters, the awkward kid who was too smart for her own good. I will always be the one who wanted too badly to please, who grew up with the values of an ultra-orthodox Hasidic household, and who is the middle child of nine.

So who am I fooling, trying to believe that I can break through?

But then the voice of innocence intercedes again, begging me not to be so cynical, and to believe in the future. And for a moment, while the cantor chants, and my mother in the seat beside me adjusts her glasses, I do.

When the prayers are over I say hello to all my mother’s friends who have always seemed old to me. Now they seem older.

That afternoon, my father and I sit at the dining-room table, mulling over a 200-year-old text and discussing free choice. He sits across from me holding a Styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand, his seventh or eighth that day. He says that a humble person recognizes that even his accomplishments are thanks to G-d.

If you can’t take credit when you do the right thing, then you can’t be accountable when you do the wrong thing, I counter.

We go back and forth for a while, evenly and rationally, without getting very far. What I truly want is for him to assure me that people can change, that we are not predetermined, and that the Passover message of breaking through limitations is true. I never do get him to say it.

But back in Los Angeles, I’m not ready to let Passover go just yet. I know that despite the layers of frustration and resignation, I really do believe in the power of change. If not, how did I get here, where the sun is rarely discouraged and the people say “amaaazing,” from the corner house in a wilting suburb of Detroit?