Monthly Archives: May 2022

Don’t Look Down

It’s a critical moment in the movie. Two people are escaping, climbing a rope or a scaffold or a fence. They dangle there in space, high up. Or two people are running over a narrow bridge, below them a yawning chasm. They must cross if they want to live.

We’ve watched these scenes so many times. Often, we’re perched on the edge of our seats, breathless and scared. Some of us can’t watch; it’s too real, too terrifying. Inevitably, the more heroic of the pair will turn to their quaking partner and say, “We’ll be okay. Just don’t look down.”

I don’t know any mountain climbers or skyscraper construction workers. I’ve never asked a high diver nor an acrobat about what it feels like up there, so far from the surface. Do people dangling in the air, by choice or necessity, follow the same credo? Is the general rule of thumb to not look down?

There is so much bitterness and angst in our lives right now. The Uvalde massacre has pierced our hearts to the core. That such brutality and evil exist in our world is inconceivable. It literally makes no sense. But then, it didn’t make sense when we read about mass murder in Buffalo or so many other places.

What is there to say? Which, by the way, is the title of an editorial in this Thursday’s Boston Globe. It is a pastiche of quotes from editorials over the last 20 years, decrying gun violence and mass murder, and the deaths of innocent children. It is a poignant and sorrowful document to read because, after all, what has changed? What has the Federal government done to curb gun violence?

The more we dwell on the seeming futility of real change, the more we go down the path of anger and anguish about what politicians and leaders are doing to benight the world. It beggars the mind to realize that they genuinely want to transform our nation into a dominant, dominating white Christian culture. What hangs in the balance? A woman’s right to choose and the folks who help them. A gay person proudly living their life with dignity. Parents supporting their trans child and the village that helps them: teachers, medical teams, and neighbors. Affordable health care. The rise of antisemitism. The false claim of a rigged election.

All of this is connected. All of it is terrifying. Reviewing it feels like getting sucked into a black hole. The weight of it all is too much to handle.

So I say: don’t look down. As hopeless as it feels, we must keep looking ahead towards the horizon. Not hoping is a surrender to the malevolence in the world around us. Shaking our heads and succumbing to despair – as natural and justifiable as that would be – will destroy us.

Don’t look down. The Bratslaver rebbe said over 200 years ago, “Jews! You are forbidden to despair!” He knew a lot about pain and sadness and struggled with the dark places. He didn’t teach that we should cover our eyes and pretend that everything was copasetic. Instead, he said that we must keep our eyes and our hearts open, acknowledging the pain and possibilities in the world.

Don’t look down. Amid the darkness, we gather the light and then raise it up. We become like Havdalah candles; many smaller wicks all woven together to cast a brighter light. It is easy to traffic in cynicism and curse the darkness yet perpetuate the pain by only speaking of what is not rather than what might be.

We are all climbing a mountain in a raging storm. It is steep, and it is cold and scary. We must keep going. Keep hoping. Keep working for the change. And don’t look down.

Closing the Box

Do you know that experience when you empty a neatly packed box and then try to fit the same contents back in the same box – and it just won’t fit? It’s maddening! It becomes a test of your sanity. You know with absolute clarity that it should be simple to put everything away. And you can’t do it.

But you keep trying anyway. Folding and refolding. Wedging stuff in. Turning it onto every side. Without success.

At a certain point, you reach the prime frustration moment. My experience at this stage is to throw the entire mess in the box and then tape the whole thing up with duct tape, even though the box is bulging at the sides and on top. Just to be done.

I’ve been trying to stuff Covid back in the box it came in. I don’t want to think about it anymore. I want it swept away and filed with other historical periods of pain and woe. I want it in a file box next to the other ones: the Vietnam War, Assassinations in America, 9/11, and a few more.

Covid is turning out to be exceedingly difficult to stash away. The lid won’t fit. Because the coronavirus is constantly mutating. While some variants seem to vanish, causing little ripples of surges in their wake, others have kept driving large outbreaks. Experts say a new form, BA.2.12.1, is spreading rapidly and will become the dominant form of the virus in the United States in the next few weeks.

BA 2.12.1. They’re not even bothering to give it a Greek name. Because no one wants there to be a new subvariant, and if it doesn’t have a name, maybe it’s not real…?

I want to stop thinking about Covid. I don’t want to talk about it or write about it. I want it to be done. Yes, it’s wishful thinking. And it’s such an ardent wish.

But I can’t move on. Not when, in just a few days, we will be mourning the 1millionth victim of Covid in America. It’s a number so preposterously high as to be almost absurd. But when discussing death, it would be profane to use the word ‘absurd.’ We can bemoan how many of those deaths were avoidable. We can say it’s a shanda – disgraceful. For those who still mourn, there is nothing absurd about their losses.

We know extremely well that there’s no such thing as simply moving on. As much as we want to put it all away, we acknowledge the extent to which Covid is so present. We must consider who we lost and what we lost. We must be cognizant of how Covid has messed with our children’s lives, how their schoolwork and their social development came off the rails.

Covid is a puzzle piece that fits into everyone’s puzzle. It’s a part of what we are. And even if we want it to be done, it is not done with us.

I will not look away as we approach that dolorous one million mark. I will continue to say kaddish for those whom we have lost. I will continue to beseech my fellow Americans to get vaccinated and boosted. This box cannot yet be closed.


I go to my favorite bookstore, Newtonville Books, all the time. Mary Cotton, the owner and the guru of book suggestions, always greets me so warmly, as she does all of her customers. Mary is the bookstore host par excellence: open, funny, smart, and, along with her staff, ridiculously conversant on any number of current and not-so-current literature.

Newtonville Books provides deep access to disparate genres. You can find titles on everything from young adult literature, to bios, to mysteries and speculative fiction, to a fabulous array of history, to, well… go see how widely their stock stretches.

In addition to all the practical reasons I enjoy shopping at Newtonville Books, there’s a vast collection of tchotchkes: t-shirts, pens, coffee mugs, Moleskine notebooks, magnets, and other goodies that are simply irresistible to booklovers. The ambiance is so strikingly familiar and comforting. It’s the smell of new books, a combination of ink and glue and paper. It’s the feel of a new paperback. Speaking of which… some years ago they changed the kind of paper finish on paperback book covers. Instead of the smooth, glossy feeling, it is now more of a matte finish, a thicker feel to the touch that some describe as rubbery.

I had been imagining that this book cover issue was in my head. But as it turns out, it’s a thing! This is actually a real subject of conversation.

The fact is that I love the heft of a book. It’s reassuring to pick it up, to absorb its weight in my hands. Of course, books can be a pain to read while you’re sitting in a restaurant, trying to keep it open without putting one’s oily fingers on the pages. And when you’re traveling, a hardcover can really add weight to the carry-on.

And yet, though I read the Times and the Globe and the New Yorker and Atlantic online, I prefer my literature on paper. It’s not rational. It’s a throwback to what it felt like to own a book and then slowly fill a bookshelf and then a bookcase and then a floor to ceiling installation. It’s a feeling of knowledge and dynamism I get with a book in my hands.

What are you reading now? Right now I’m into Ruth Ben Ghiat’s Strongmen, a sobering analysis of authoritarian political leaders, from Mussolini to Trump. It’s a cautionary history. I’ve also just started The Immortal King Rao, by Vauhini Vara, a dystopian novel that sounds remarkably prescient. Talking books is so satisfying.

I admit it: I’ve ordered a lot of books through Amazon. It’s so easy and so addictive, and the discount is welcome. And I am not anti-Amazon, though I’m told I should be. I wish Jeff Bezos no ill-will. But I do wish Mary Cotton and Newtonville Books continued success. I am pledging to order my books from them from now on. Because, in a world that has so many sharp edges and anguish, it’s nice to duck into a local bookstore to browse, touch covers, find some peace, and smell the sweet aroma of the written word.

Shabbat Shalom,