Friday, September 10, 2010

Rosh Hashana - Day 2

(I'm suggesting you begin reading this series on the 2010 Rosh Hashana Cleanse with Part (-2) and go in order. It'll make more sense. Enjoy.)
Next thing you know it's morning. I lie there with the gray light creeping in through the blinds and remember that last night I'd totally forgotten I wanted to pray every night before I go to bed. I dwell on my first day of fasting: Cereal, pretzel, burrito and pot. I think I get an F.

Still, I feel good this morning - except I've still got a chalky mouth. Weird. I brush my teeth. C'mon, Tom's of Maine. Don't let me down! But it makes it worse. I'm actually troubled now. What's wrong with me? I'm not being hard on myself. I think there's something actually wrong with me. And I still have to read from the Torah again this morning.

I start the day with a banana because I didn't have time to juice it into a smoothie and I need some confident calories because we're doing a hike before the service. I need energy to get through that as well as the reading. I figure I'd just put it in the blender anyway for a smoothie. It's still the same content, just a little less mushed. I'm getting closer to starting this fast for real.

And once I've showered and thrown on my whites, I bust over to Temescal Canyon where we're doing the hike which is led by Andy Lipkis, founder of Tree People.

Yesterday, Rabbi Levy gave a sermon that focused on finding your divine life mission this High Holiday season. She said the place to look for it, is in the spot God has given you the greatest obstacles to overcome. She then gave the example of this animal preservationist she'd heard about on NPR who had a severe stutter. I'd heard the program she was talking about when it first aired a while back. Alan Rabinowitz was interviewed by host Krista Tippet on her show “Speaking of Faith” (just retitled "on Being" this month). I'd been introduced to the program by my ex, a spiritual Christian Scientist who was deeply devoted in a way that made me never feel spiritual or pure enough. Though I finally realized her devotion was rooted in countering her own even more deeply held existential fears of which I only saw a glimpse of once in the entire two years of intimacy.

Dr. Rabinowitz grew up in the 50s with a severe stutter. He was so ashamed of it, he barely spoke to another human being 'til he was 19. They didn't know what to do with him back then and his reluctance to speak made them think he might be mentally retarded. In fact, he was a whiz, but like many with a stutter, the only times he could mouth his words without getting stuck was while singing or talking to animals. Unblessed with anything resembling a fine vocal instrument, he monologued at his little beasts… in his closet. You see he grew up in Manhattan and they didn't have so much as a dog. So he'd come home from school in tears every day, run into his closet and talk with his pet turtle until dinner time. Granted it was a one-sided conversation, but at least he was talking. No one even knew about this 'til he was almost 20.

One of the few times he was happy was when his father took him to the zoo and he saw the big cats - the lions, panthers and cougars. He saw in their eyes exactly what he was feeling. He knew they were powerful, grand, creatures, trapped and baffled as to how to escape.

Once he saw that, he realized his mission. He got degrees in zoology and then began doing things that no other naturalist would dare do. He'd go deep into the jungles, risking life and limb to track and save the Big Cats worldwide. He's now known as the “Indiana Jones of Wildlife Protection and he has single-handedly, through his unwavering devotion, he's convinced unstable governments, despots and dictators, to turn over millions of square miles to him and his organization to maintain and protect sanctuaries for Big Cats from Berma to Belize. Here's a NYT article about him.

And all because he overcame his greatest obstacle and thereby found his divine life mission. What was my greatest obstacle? No idea. I'd have a whole hour-long walk to think about it.

Andy Lipkis who led the walk this morning had a great divine life mission clearly outlined and he'd known it since age 15. Over 30 years ago. As Andy told me the story a while back, he was at camp and someone was going to cut down a bunch of trees to build a parking lot. It was the early 70s and he was so incensed that he wrote a letter to the editor, then started a petition and eventually got the parking lot construction halted. It became a “kid does good” story in the LA Times. The mayor came out to support him. Adults founded a not-for-profit around him and he ran it even while he got degrees in environmental studies. He got more and more funding. He asked to care for and reseed a chunk of land in LA, up along Coldwater Canyon and Mulholland. The city gave him hundreds of acres. Right in the middle of Los Angeles. Over time, they gave him thousands of acres.

TreePeople has now planted over a million trees in Los Angeles and they're in the thick of a campaign to plant another million trees. After the Griffith Park fires two years ago, the first person The Mayor called was Andy. The Mayor asked him what he should do and Andy came up with a plan to rehabilitate the scorched earth so it would grow back even stronger than before.

Andy told us of his newest obsession. Capturing lost rainwater in cisterns. He described how the tree's roots create a natural water filter for rainwater before it goes into our natural water table. But when trees are cut down, the water skims away, down and down until it reaches the ocean - lost for human use. He wants to create thousands of water tanks all over the county to capture the rainfall. We lose millions gallons to the sea for every inch of rain. And if we could capture just a fraction of that, Los Angeles wouldn't have to import water from thousands of miles away at great expense to our wallets and the environment from which we're stealing water in northern California and Oregon. He was now in talks with major companies and government figures to make this happen. He was single handedly trying to solve the ongoing water crisis in southern California. Andy Lipkis is the green Mulholland of the 21st century and someday they'll have streets named after him. All because he knows his divine life mission. He didn't have to go through any spiritual cleanse to find it. He didn't so much as pray to God. He saw them trying to turn part of his camp into a parking lot and he said, “NO.” But his unwavering commitment has made the world conform to his vision. Slowly, some might say. But in other ways, remarkably quickly.

This was the guy leading our little hike. It was more than just a hike though. It was an hour-long silent meditation - a perfect way to prepare yourself for a few hours of prayer. The section we were reading in the Torah (Genesis 22:1-24) actually inspired Nomi to hold the 2nd day services outdoors to begin with. It's the old story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. But he doesn't do this in his backyard. Nope. He goes on a hike, up a mountain. And there, in the silence, surrounded by nature alone, does Abraham raise his knife to strike his only remaining son given to him at the age of 100.

So to get a taste of where Abraham was - and how close he was to The Lord as well as the angels who swooped down to save young Isaac - we held our service in a cleared field while the rest of Jewry that day fought to get highly sought after seats in which they would sweat in their fancy suits, under the roofs of well-endowed temples.

It was a good hike and we got to the clearing early where they'd put out chairs for the service. I went off to find a quiet spot to practice my portion. I've learned only too well in the theatre that second night blues can be treacherous. Just when you think you're set because the opening went well, your second night you're not as focused and mistakes flourish in that environment. Once again the woman who organizes the readers panicked that I wasn't there and hadn't realized I was reading the same section two days in a row. I reassured her and we started up. I found a seat next to my cousin who introduced me to Rabbi Levy 14 years earlier and was able to enjoy this somewhat truncated service in the woods.

When I got up to read, I was told they couldn't find the yad (pointer) so the rabbi handed me twig. I smiled. While the day before I was singing in a grand space. sixty foot high ceilings and white walls peppered with stained glass, today I had trees, sun and a clear blue sky. So blue and clear it reminded me of 9/11. And this was 9/10. The 9th anniversary was the following day. Speaking of which, Channel 11 local news was there and they shot our ceremony and even interviewed a few of us. I couldn't believe they asked me what I thought of the pastor who wanted to burn the Koran. I said his position was, “Untenable.” The broadcaster clearly didn't know what the word meant and he asked someone else for a reaction. He then asked them what thoughts they had on September 11. He wrapped up before coming back to me, because I had a good answer for that one. I'd have said, “What I'm thinking of is that, it was that no one ever covered the smell. I don't mean whether it was toxic and people got ill. I just mean, I woke every morning for months and I could smell the death and destruction as far away as 85th St. And you could smell it that day. That beautiful day. Clear blue sky. Perfect temperature. Just like today.” But he never asked.

But before I got interviewed, I had to read Torah. And while the day before 300 people were crammed in a deep alley stretching far away, today 100 people crowded around me. For this more informal gathering, instead of having aliyahs reserved for VIPs, Nomi announces, “Anyone who's had a major accomplishment this year, come on up.” Twenty people then stand to one side of the torah and chant the blessing before reading the torah together. The category of people just before I read was something like “Anyone who wants to have blessings in the new year,” come on up. So basically everyone got up and stood around me as Nomi announced, “And now David will read with his beautiful voice.” No pressure.

I took my twig and it happened again, the world disappeared and my voice soared. I charged through the piece a little quicker and less indulgent than the day before, but I still needed a nudge at the beginning of the same sentence.

Here's a video my cousin took:



I don't remember the sermon that day. Some go right to your heart and others go right through you and honestly, I hadn't addressed the one from the day before. I didn't know what my divine life mission was and I was disturbed to be around people like Andy Lipkis, who's a real mensch and a friend, but whose very presence brought into such stark relief what you could accomplish with that profound clarity. Sure I created Raw Impressions, Inc. which was an extraordinary thing. I just don't think it was my divine life mission. It was a bizarre obsession that came out of 9/11 and an attempt to avoid the fact that my artistic career wasn't taking flight. Instead, just think what I could have done by now if I had Andy's self-knowledge and such a clearly defined channel in which to pour all my energies. What if all I wanted to do was save trees?

* * *

When I got home from temple, I didn't know what to do. I juice some carrots. I guess I'll really start this juice cleanse. I've had nothing to eat all day but that banana. Yesterday may have been a false start, but I can do this.

Yet, I suffer a quiet malaise. I'm done with my temple duties for all high holidays. And I did well with them. But now, I'm done. Nothing more to study or worry about. My girlfriend's gone. And I'm not allowed to do work. So I do laundry. That's not work. That's a luxury. And part of my spiritual cleanse. Doing two loads of laundry and cleaning my room let's me physically breath easier. I decide to continue that trend and go to yoga after sundown. It starts with a meditation and turns out to be a good, vigorous, but gentle class and a great end to the day. Not to mention it keeps me on target for my goal of going to yoga 20 times in 30 days. Just another part of my spiritual cleanse that will take the whole month of September, and run concurrently with my juice fast.

When I get home, I feel quiet, but a friend I haven't seen in months calls me to go out for a spontaneous drink. I don't really want to go, but it'll be months before I see her again with her schedule. And I decide I'm not going to drink. Or eat. It's actually easier to do that in front of someone else. I have an audience to my sacrifice. I'd gotten high and wolfed a burrito the night before, but I was unwatched - my piety and suffering would have gone unnoticed, so I didn't bother. And I have to admit, the public nature of my endeavors is a motivating factor. So I agree to meet her and pose as the ascetic. In truth, I also just didn't have the money to eat out. My last two unemployment checks haven't arrived and I was getting concerned that my status with the unemployment agency was in peril.

So I sit with her at the bar of the classy and spare Rustic Canyon as I watch her eat gourmet bread and olives with her gnocchi. She washes it all back with two glasses of Malbec. It's painful, but I enjoy parading around my willpower. And I'm definitely glad I don't have to keep pace and pay for an equal share of all that. I later calculate for the entire month, I've spent $90 going out for food for the entire month. This would have added another 50% to that total and I just can't do that.

My friend finishes her gnocchi and I'm ready to bolt. I didn't have enough juice today and I'm feeling a little woozy. Just as I think we're done, she orders a desert. Hand-crafted, salted caramel ice cream. I want to excuse myself, but feel it would be rude to abandon her at the bar by herself. That was probably stupid, if I'd left, maybe she'd have met the man of her dreams instead of felt sad and lonely. I always expect the worst and put pressure on myself to somehow be the responsible one, when in fact, I may be hindering the normal flow of the universe, with my unreasonable upstanding behavior.

So I finally leave, much later than I'd like, tired and hungry.

I go home and get my laundry out of the drier, but have no energy to fold or even re-make my bed, so without prayer, drugs, porn or food, I fall on the bedspread, throw the comforter over me, plunk my face in an uncased pillow and go out like a light.

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