Monthly Archives: August 2020

No Boundaries

The other day I was engaged in some pre-High Holy Day wordsmithing – what else would I be doing?  I looked at some past notes and saw a favorite thought about Jews and Yiddish and what the language reveals about us. The standard Yiddish greeting is, “Vos machs du a Yid?” This doesn’t mean, “How are you?”, but rather, literally, “What are you making, bro?”

I suppose over the centuries wellbeing could be measured in what one produced, or what one’s skill set was. I began to think about that; what do I make?  I can use tools, roll a Torah, cook a good meal without a recipe, drive a car, and so forth.

I think at this stage of my life and in this particular Universe, I have a decent enough skill set. I’m not looking for any new merit badges. The notion of a bucket list, so compelling for some people, ignites no fire beneath me. It’s not that I don’t want to go places and do things I haven’t ever done. But frankly, these days I don’t think about traveling, because I don’t know when that will happen again. I probably should be amassing a bunch of really inexpensive plane tickets and making reservations for a luxury suite in Jerusalem for the 2021-22 season. I’m sure I’ll be reading articles about the smart folks who strategically made plans and put money down.

On the one hand, you could argue that these past months have felt constricting, filled with compelling reasons to stay in place. The limitations are truly grievous, and I often feel angry about it, that I can’t see who I want to see when I want to see them.

On the other hand, and quite remarkably, the very experience of being cloistered has led me to a rather remarkable conclusion. My state of consciousness is growing. No, I’m not a Timothy Leary proponent, and this is not a psychedelic experience to which I’m referring. It’s my brain’s response to the closed-in nature of my existence to push outward, to expand. It could be what happens when one’s mind gets gummed up by a form of existential claustrophobia.

I was about to go off on an extended tangent about the amazing adventures in astrophysics I’ve been having. I actually have an astrophysics mentor who periodically sends me articles and videos and then has the enormous fortitude to field my essentially moronic questions about black holes and gravity and the spacetime continuum and so forth.

But I stopped. Because you probably aren’t reading this for a discussion on event horizons and singularities. And because the essence of my excitement, the feeling I truly want to share is that aging is not the dimming of the day. The life of the mind doesn’t seem to care all that much about mortality. There is no speed limit to learning, to expanding consciousness.

My daily hope and desire is that by the end of the day I will have acquired some new fact or concept, something that makes me pause and take a short breath, and say, “I never knew that!” It can something as superficial as a sighting in Djibouti of a weird mammal called an elephant shrew, which I’ve never seen or heard of. Or it can be as ridiculously intense and complicated as string theory or the hard problem of consciousness.

It is this accrual of information that pushes my consciousness further. Every new thing lights a torch that burns brightly. It’s a potent reminder that feeling restricted and cut off does not mean I am a prisoner of my fate. This period in our collective existence is intense and uncertain. But the boundaries end as soon as we embrace learning for learning’s sake. It is what gives us strength and illumines our paths.

Did you know that there are more stars than grains of sand on the beaches of the Earth?

Keep going. Keep growing.

Shabbat Shalom


Puzzle Pieces

I got an email last week from Ginny, owner of Stellina, a wonderful, long established restaurant in Watertown. It read, in part: “After 34 years, Stellina is closing its doors.  Next week is our last week…  I’m hoping that many of you will make time to come celebrate our time together and have… whatever your favorite dishes are. The reasons we are closing will come as no surprise to anyone:  the persistent presence of Covid19 and the limited seating required to keep people safely distanced make operating Stellina untenable.”

I read the email twice, searching for a missing paragraph about reopening or Doordash deals or selling their products during the day (as the valiant Dave Punch does at Sycamore). There had to be some sort of link to click to get calm reassurance from Stellina. I needed a sign, a signal that everything was going to be alright.

Liza and I dined at Stellina probably 35 times or more over the last 20+ years. It was easy to find parking. No battling crazy traffic or North End tourists. We loved the patio, the ambiance, the wait staff. It was a part of our complex jig saw puzzle life. It wasn’t a big piece, but it filled an important spot, nonetheless. And now that puzzle piece is about to disappear.

The second time I read Ginny’s email, I actually got choked up. It wasn’t just a restaurant closing; it was losing a friend, a little chunk of the pre-Covid world. I imagined those breathtaking videos from Alaska or other frigid zones when a glacier cracks and a piece of it slides into the sea, waves crashing, snow and frost clouds shooting into the air.

So you might think I take my food a little too seriously. And you wouldn’t be wrong. You might say I’m being a tad overdramatic. Well, yeah, I’ve heard that one as well.

Be that as it may, my sadness, my true sense of loss here isn’t just about the food, which was, by the way, terrific. It’s the place and what it represents. We’ve counted on people and places all of our lives. We’ve always assumed that the restaurants and theaters and concert venues and salons and arenas and stadiums are constants, that those places are always going to be there for us.

But Covid time pulled the rug out from under us and from under the people who serve us food and bag our groceries and show up to collect garbage. Covid time is harsh. All of us are continually confronted and confounded by how many puzzle pieces are missing. This is the stark truth we are juggling.

So what do we do? We take that quintessential jazz tradition of improvisation and employ it. We continue to work with what we have. As Janet Kessin, our most senior TBA member who, at 100 died of Covid, used to say, “Take a deep breath and keep going, one step at a time.”

We’re a month away from a new year. In this particular period, the month of Elul, we should bravely think about our losses. Because every loss recapitulates the previous loss. And the older we get, the longer the list grows. We are still here, still trying to make meaning in our lives and mourn the people and places in our lives that we have lost.

But Elul is also the time to number our blessings. It is the time to reflect on the cornucopia, the bounty we share. It’s not about being delusional. Covid time is sharp and jagged. We need to be realists, to wear our masks and look out for each other. And: we need to be thankful for love and being loved.

Stellina was so overwhelmed for final reservations that they extended the closing for another week. Maybe they’ll be like the Rolling Stones who’ve had about five retirement concerts over the last 10 years. And maybe not. The Stones will retire one day. Stellina will probably close next week. And I for one will miss that puzzle piece. I pray that Stellina and their crew will be ok in the months to come.

Elul: a time to reflect on loss, on blessing, on love. I will shed some tears over it all, and then as Janet used to say, I’m gonna take a deep breath and keep walking.

Shabbat Shalom