Embracing Impermanence: A Trip Back in Time

Time

Way back in  college days, across the dormitory hall from me lived a friend who woke up at the exact time of 6:30 AM every day. For weeks on end, or maybe it was months, it sure seemed like the later, he placed the stereo needle on the same record album, cranked up the volume to 11 and reminded us, – it was a time for a new day. Time, he would say, to embrace the Ch-ch-changes shouting along with David Bowie, as the riveting sound from his giant speakers reverberated across the third floor hall and beyond.  I don’t know where this David Bowie Changes-loving hall mate is today, but whenever I hear that song or for that matter whenever I think about the nature of time, alarm clockof change and the impermanence of life and things around us, my mind brings to light those very early morning jolts of awakening.

My mind was doing its remembering thing last weekend, when Connie and I traveled back in time celebrating our “time” together by visiting, several historic sites in Donora, Johnstown, Brownsville, Washington and Fayette Counties – all about 45 minutes or so south of Pittsburgh.

Oh, time has taken its toll.  The weekend was a long lesson in impermanence, and the importance of engaging and embracing impermanence – ’cause we really don’t have a choice. Truly, if we want to live in the present moment and not in some fantasy of a projected future, the only time is now.

Donora is a town that goes back 100 or so years, created by the steel magnates and their friends. (The name Donora is a compromise based upon the Donner and Mellon families partnership). Overnight, it grew rapidly in the early 1900′s with the growth of steel industry turning Fayette coal and coke into building of America. This Mon river town also housed a zinc works based upon a rapidly aging European model that created a great deal of toxic pollution.

Dr. Devra Davis, (from Donora!), one of the world’s leading epidemiologists and researchers on environmentally linked illness, writes about her lifelong battle against environmental pollution tells this story and more in her powerful work, “When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution.” Her’s is a powerful story and very much worth contemplating as the struggle for clean air is far from over.

Smog

A fateful day in October of 1948, near Halloween, an air inversion hovered over Donora and for several days the toxic fumes of the furnaces and the zinc works covered the community. It killed workers and residents, especially the elderly and infirmed – some 60 deaths directly connected to the inversion.  Some died within days, others weeks, months and years later – more than 6,000 people became ill. smog

Known as the “Donora Smog“, it left a legacy of death, illness and economic disaster.  The zinc plant closed down 7 years later eliminating 900 jobs (never seeking to update its smelting process to a “cleaner” one) and U. S. Steel shut its plant 10 year later with another 5,000 jobs disappearing. Nearly all vestiges of these industries are gone now – empty land remains.

The words of Bowie’s song most certainly come to mind:

Changes

I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes

Ch-ch-Changes
Where’s your shame
You’ve left us up to our necks in it
Time may change me
But you can’t trace time

(About two weeks the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the Allegheny County Health Department shared the good news that for the first time since 1999 when the Health Department starting monitoring our “fine particulate pollution” (think all kinds of respiratory ailments and illnesses) we have cleaner air!  Okay, we can celebrate a bit, however, we still don’t meet the standards for sulfur dioxide or ozone, and much more needs to be done.)

And what about impact of Fracking on our environment?  Oh, I digress.

Back to Donora, in the midst of its rapid growth the town’s “owners”, American Wire and Steel, engaged the famous inventor, Thomas A. Edison, to attempt to bring his new creation of “cement homes” to the community.

Colorful Cement Homes

Colorful Cement Homes

Eighty such “poured-in-place” units were built.  Another seventy or so were planned, but not built because the cost of these homes proved too expensive for the town’s fathers who wished to build cheap worker housing.  The historic district is worth a visit to see these prairie-style buildings with their vivid colors in a various stages of life and repair.  Cement, too, doesn’t last forever.

Nearby, and perhaps the best/worst example of change  and reality of impermanence is the town of Brownsville, PA.

Empty wharf plaza

Empty boat launch and wharf  plaza

Once thought to be THE town of prominence, Brownsville, is now a ghost town. This Mon Valley river friendly city was the route connecting the east coast to Wheeling, West Virginia for all those seeking passage to and settlement of the West in middle of the 19th century. You can check out this WQED study. “One Year in Brownsville”.

Abandoned rail tracks.

Abandoned rail tracks.

Signs pointing to its revitalization abound amid the boarded up storefronts and weed-filled vacant lots.  A new small boat launch along the Mon River stands in stark contrast with the dozens of empty buildings in various state of decay.  Directly under a bridge in downtown stands Fiddle’s, the local restaurant with a mix of locals and “tourists” (us), while

Future home to ...

Future home to …

the menu tells the history of this once bustling steel town that time and everything else has passed by. The loss of the steel industry in 1970′s seems to have sealed Brownsville’s fate.

You may ask again, “so why such a trip?”  A very valid question, so let me offer a few answers. Certainly a love of history; a great curiosity about these small western Pennsylvania towns one sees on a map timepastbut has never visited up close; a realization that there is both beauty and Divinity even, especially in those things that decay; a bearing witness to the thousands of now anonymous men and women who built those communities, worked in those mills and foundries and struggled to live with dignity; and finally, that impermanence and our own mortality are very real and need to be engaged and embraced.

Impermanence

barn

Again Mr. Bowie teaches us what I like to call: “Boundless Torah” lessons that speak beyond the boundaries of faith or creed.  Lessons offered with humility and grace for which I am very grateful.

 

Ch-ch-Changes
Pretty soon you’re gonna get
a little older
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can’t trace time

Celebratory flowers next to a gifted hand-crafted wooden box – both, of course, subject to time – like the towns of the Mon Valley and both filled with Boundless Divinity.

With much gratitude,

Art

Letting the Earth Teach Me: Encountering Clay

2014-02-23 13.59.25

It has been a long time since my hands and the rest of me played with clay!

I knew right away when I opened the door to the brand new Ton Pottery studio in Lawrenceville that I would sign up to take a class.  The atmosphere of Dan Kuhn’s new teaching and retail endeavor was so inviting.  The earthy smell of raw clay and the shiny glazed works of professionals and students alike beckon me forth.

Ton Pottery

Invited to take a seat at a wheel and test drive a piece of clay, I rolled up my sleeves, removed my jewelry and with a big helping hand from Dan proceeded to miraculously turn a lump of clay into the small bowl pictured above!  It was “done” in a matter of minutes.  The urge to “do more” quickly arose, but I resisted as I knew that I would return.

Sweet memories of art classes and summer camp hours spent in the ceramic studio (instead of the pool) joyously rose to my consciousness bringing a smile to my face. It’s amazing how the mind works – one minute its directing my hands to press gently to raise up the sides of a newly forming bowl and the next moment it literally takes me to the stuffy ceramics room at the new New Jersey Y camp.

All this is to say that I signed up for six weeks of classes and have begun to explore letting my hands, body and mind sink into an ancient and new world.  People have been using clay for thousands of years to form utilitarian vessels and great works of art.  I’m still contemplating what this all means to me, knowing, at least, that I’m drawn mindfully to delving into this creative endeavor not for the sake of necessarily “making stuff”, though I probably will (like the cat platter below decorated with tiny birds

Cat Bird Platter

or the hand-built vase for kitchen table both still to be fired and then glazed).

Hand-built vase

No, just feeling the aliveness of the clay between my fingers and hands and letting go of myself into the Mystery of it all; this would be enough.

 

With gratitude,

Art

“Raise Hell for Heaven’s Sake” – A Life of Love!

Who are your heroes?  Who inspires you?  Whose life story fills your heart with love and compassion?

Once upon a time the ancestors of all our great wisdom traditions told and retold tales of mythic proportions.  Most of us probably learned, for example, of the heroic Greek myths of Zeus and Hercules.  I studied these and other stories in a captivating eighth grade class entitled, “Great Books” at Washington Elementary School in my hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey. I even remember the name of the inspiring teacher, Ms. Mollie Baroff.  (Amazing what the mind can bring to present consciousness! She was a terrific dynamo of a teacher.)  And at the same time, in my home, however, heroes were not ancient mythic figures, instead they were flesh and blood, living and breathing, civil rights leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, and Rosa Parks marching (or sitting) for equality and justice.  My late mother, Rose, I’m told, helped to organize the first union at Maidenform Bra Company, many, many years ago, so you get a picture of the kind of home in which I was raised.

This week, I learned of another hero of that time, someone I wish I would have had the honor to meet personally.  Reverend Donald McIlvane, died this past Sunday at the age of 88.  The headline of his beautifully written Post-Gazette obituary read, “Catholic priest and outspoken rights activist.” Learning about Rev. McIlvane, his path to ministry, his dedication, and his passion, really filled me with great love and admiration.  The story of his dedication to social justice – from marching in Selma, Alabama to monitoring the first post-apartheid South African elections – alongside “six decades of parish ministry, chaplaincies and tireless efforts to ‘raise hell for heaven’s sake’ ” deserves to be shared again and again!

Perhaps what resonated most with me was a quote in which Father McIlvane explained, way back in 1964, his mixing matters of the spirit with practical help for those in need, in particular prison inmates, he said ,”this business of saving souls is fine – but we don’t save souls in a vacuum.”  No, we don’t.  Great spiritual teachers throughout the centuries have always mixed the “spiritual and the practical.”  Buddha, Jesus and of course, Moses, just to name three!

Today, Rabbi Michael Lerner’s work to push forward the agenda of The Network for Spiritual Progressives, Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s efforts with his beloved Shalom Center, and locally, the efforts of the Thomas Merton Center and the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network all are great examples of carrying on the mantle of “mixing matters of the spirit with the practical” which I would suggest find inspiration from the prophetic biblical ideal – “Do justly, love mercy and walk humble with God” (Micah 6:8).

Rev. McIlvane is with God now.  Thank you for your humanity. May your memory always be for a blessing.

With gratitude,

Art

Facing Winter: Practicing Gratitude & Experiencing Compassion

Driving through town today my eye was drawn to the public works crews working in the 8 degree weather fixing any number of Pittsburgh’s famous potholes.  And this has been a winter for potholes, for sure.

pothole

I know that these folks have done their jobs for days on end this year as the snow and ice seeps or pours into the cracks in the street.  The temperature drops, the roads expand and then contract again, and then, mix in the salt and well you know the rest; your car goes bouncing down the street as if it were part of a Kennywood amusement park ride. You turn quickly to avoid one hole only to find yourself deep in another praying, that your tire doesn’t blow, that your rim isn’t damaged or that your axle doesn’t snap in two.  You breathe a sigh of relief at the first stop light you come to, knowing for at least a moment or two, everything is still in one piece.

I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for 20 years now and I can still remember my first winter here, 1994, when I “enjoyed” that deep freeze, the mounds of snow and everything coming to a halt.  Having just arrived here after 4 years of south Florida winters that first Pittsburgh experience was quite a jolt to the system.  Wonderful kind Pittsburghers kept apologizing for the cold and the snow and the potholes, as if they could have prevented any of these from happening.  Now I really understand why they offered all those apologies.

These last few days especially as the temperature has dipped, once again, to numbers I prefer not to  type, I have been filled with much gratitude toward those whose daily jobs, this time of year are all about “filling in” just enough to make the lives of the rest of us better and safer, if only until the next big storm and arctic freeze.  And I have much compassion towards them fighting off the biting cold as they patch as many ruts, cracks, holes and craters as they can before I’m sure exhaustion takes hold.

So take a moment, perhaps when you gently ride over one of their freshly patch holes and breath and offer a word, a prayer, a thought of gratitude for their efforts as well as compassion towards their lives.  I know for me this practice is helping to make these winter days a bit easier to bear while until the glorious coming of spring.

May these workers be well.

May they be happy.

May they be safe.

And may they be free from suffering.

DSCF0051

With gratitude and compassion,

Art

A Groundhog, Shadows, & a Favorite Spiritual Comedy

Well, it seems that the infamous little furry Phil from Punxsutawney, PA, just down the road a bit from Pittsburgh, “saw” his shadow, again!  And, yes, this means that we can look forward to another six more weeks of winter.

The tradition, I’m told, is rooted in a German superstition that says if a hibernating animal casts a shadow on Feb. 2, the Christian holiday of Candlemas, winter will last six more weeks.  Believe it or not, here we are in the 21st century America, where we can hold a small wireless rectangular device that fits in the palm of our hand that can “communicate” with someone halfway across the world while pulling in weather forecasts for days on end and yet we are fascinated with and beholden to a furry little critter and its shadow.  How truly awesome!  How beautifully low-tech!  And what is it about this “shadow” stuff? How down right Jungian! And how inspiring that Phil (as in Punxsutawney Phil and Friends) gave us one of my favorite ‘spiritual comedies’ starring Bill Murray, among others; “Groundhog Day,” which is filled with deep spiritual teachings.

Groundhog_Day_(movie_poster)

I usually try to watch the film each year on February 2nd, but I missed it yesterday.  Yet, the beauty of one of film’s messages, is that, of course, I can watch the film today – because – spoiler alert – each day Bill Murray (who plays the weather forecaster, Phil Connors) finds himself physically “waking up,” over and over, each morning to the same day, in a time loop – so that today can be Groundhog Day, too.  To some, this plot may seem inane, at first, for how much can one get from repeating the day over and over?  Hmm.

Think about it. We learn along with Murray’s character, Phil Connors, that given a chance to “do over” each day we might be tempted as he was to take advantage of the his newly found knowledge, this unique situation and the vulnerable others’ lives, until “one day”, or is it the same day, he awakens spiritually and then is truly aware.  Phil, (Murray) sees deeply and clearly his shadow-self. Then, in an instant, he is  “Enlightened” to the fact he has been given a great gift, an opportunity to completely change the way he “views”  and lives his life, to become his True or Highest Self and in doing so ends up – using this newly discovered wisdom with compassion –  begins joyously serving others.  Phil Connors (Murray) in terms of Mussar (Ethical teachings) realizes some of his character flaws, lets go of his selfish, ,arrogant, egotistical, manipulative self and becomes a “mensch” in Yiddish,  or in Buddhist terms perhaps a “bodhisattva” – someone who puts the well-being or liberation of others before his own and the “reward” is beyond his wildest imagination; he becomes a fully alive, very present, and compassionate human being.

There is much we may learn from both “Phils”. Our ‘shadows’ can offer us rich teachings when we aren’t afraid to see into them. Phil Connor (Murray) spiritually woke up to his gifts as we can, too. So give yourself a gift tonight or for that matter, any night, smile at the snow falling outside reminding us that winter’s shadow has another six weeks, put a few logs on the fire, and enjoy what, in 2000, readers of Total Film voted “the seventh greatest comedy film of all time.”  And watch American literary theorist Stanley Fish named, “among the ten best American films ever.” (Thanks wikipedia for geeky stats.)

Check out weather.com’s report: http://www.weather.com/news/groundhog-day-2014-phil-sees-his-shadow-signifying-6-more-weeks-winter-20140202

With gratitude,

Art

Planting a Tree: Changing your View!

So a few weeks ago Connie and I planted this tree in Lawrenceville (a couple weeks aheadtreelarryville of Tu’ b’Shevat – the Jewish New Year for Trees).  It was a really cold day. (Well, not as cold as the -9 we just experienced). Little did we know how powerful this simple act of digging, lowering, arranging, tapping down, tying in place and watering would be.  On this street nearly barren of trees we could sense the life inside the bark growing, pushing outward and calling to us, as if to signify – you will never see this street the same way again. How true! I’ve passed by a few times since then and I always smile. Also, I have begun to wonder what the Spring will mean for this tree and for the millions of trees on our planet as they too call to us – care for us, nurture us.

In a way this new Blog, “Rabbi Without Walls – Pittsburgh”, too, is a planting – a seedling, a harbinger for good things to come.

I invite you to join me on this endeavor, let me know what you think. Share a link with your friends. If you need any of the services offered here, in addition to what I hope will be thoughtful reflections and spiritual insights as well as my musings on health and wellness, social justice, world religions and practices, and cultural and political issues of the day, by all means be in touch!

With much gratitude,

Art