Friday, February 02, 2007

Sanctification Eludes Me

I went to Limmud for the first time this year. [See my Limmud NY 2007 photos.] David Klinghoffer suggested that “Limmud New York, while conceived as a celebration of Jewish life, might more appropriately have been expressed as an act of mourning for what liberalism will do to our future.” I had a very different reaction.

From the first workshop I attended, which was Jacob Staub’s session on Spiritual Direction, to the last writing workshops by Kim Schneiderman and Patricia Eszter Margit, entitled “Soul Narratives” and “Writing as an Inward Journey,” I found inspiration to tap into my tradition and confront the challenging questions that Jacob set before us in the first session: What is God’s invitation to me at any given moment? What am I being called on to do?

I wanted to extend the Limmud experience beyond this long weekend and was determined to continue to practice the writing and journaling exercises that I took up in Kim’s and Patricia’s workshops. But I also knew that the distractions of everyday life would overwhelm me and dilute my best intentions. This determination needed an anchor.

The Skirball Center catalog arrived with the offer of an eight-week workshop, a “Writer’s Beit Midrash" for creative nonfiction writers. A financial commitment and a weekly obligation to show up might be just what I needed to keep myself on track and develop good writing habits.

I hesitated briefly in the face of the requirement to provide a writing sample. The application deadline was the next day and I had no writing that I considered finished. I imagined the judgment of the samples submitted to this writing workshop was designed to weed out rank amateurs such as myself, but I submitted the application despite my feelings, submitting a web link to one of these blog entries as my writing sample.

Shelly Fredman’s response could not have been more encouraging. I had passed the entrance exam! The final challenge was to properly structure the day so that I would complete all the work I had to do and get into New York before the class’s start time of 7:00 PM on Tuesday.

To do this, I had to be sure to allow enough time every Tuesday morning to run a series of updates to a rather complicated database and create and publish an agenda for a Wednesday morning meeting based on the contents of the database reports, allowing sufficient time to respond to any comments in reaction to the agenda and still be sure to leave my office promptly at 4:00 PM.

Everything came together. I left my office on schedule. My car was back in my driveway by 4:15, and I had a light snack packed and had begun the mile-long walk to the station by 4:25. I arrived at the train station by 4:45, a full five minutes ahead of the New York train.

I then cut a path through the waiting area to the men’s room. I found an unhappy black man glowering at the door. I shuffled past him and pushed against the door before I realized that there was a sign taped to it declaring that the rest room was out of order. The other fellow shook his head and began to walk toward the track as I weighed the contents of my bladder against the length of the train ride and decided that I was comfortable boarding without indulging in a precautionary visit to the toilet.

I should have sought out a toilet at the other end, but I didn’t. And as I walked uptown, the cold wind aggravated a developing urge to urinate that was undeniable by the time I reached 57th Street.

For several blocks I had been searching for likely places to relieve myself. Fifth Avenue is saturated with upscale specialty stores, churches, and apartment houses guarded by uniformed door men. The specialty stores seemed well fortified and inscrutable; the churches had an inevitable gauntlet of homeless men clustered in their vestibules; and, while the doormen seemed my best bet, I suspected that the going rate to bribe a doorman was at least ten dollars and that the negotiations were likely to be awkward at best.

This part of the journey was not going well. I needed to stop, but any stop that was unsuccessful would hasten my losing control and wetting myself. The best strategy was to walk faster and hope I found a proper place to relieve myself before it was too late.

But then another disordered notion descended upon me: what was I even doing on Fifth Avenue? It occurred to me that Skirball was west of Fifth Avenue. Below 59th Street that would be just a few feet west of Fifth Avenue, but I just then realized that at 66th Street, east and west were separated by all of Central Park! I turned west and ran halfway to Avenue of the Americas before I double-checked this delusion and discovered that the address was in fact east of Fifth Avenue and that I had nearly gone way out of my way. It was already ten minutes to 7:00 and the urge to pee was nearly undeniable.

I ran north, screaming inwardly every time I was forced to stop for a red light, as crosstown traffic whizzed by, blocking my path.

I finally reached 66th Street and rounded the corner. I could see that the entrance was at least 300 feet away as the wind picked up and dared my bladder not to burst. Immediately ahead, two parallel concrete partitions separated a construction site from oncoming traffic with a sidewalk grate between them. Barely three feet high, they obscured my desperate deed but did not entirely conceal it. There were no pedestrians on the street, but I faced a steady stream of headlights as I released my steady stream into the sidewalk grate. Thus humbled, I entered the Skirball Center for my first class.

It was not yet 7:00, but the other students and the teacher were all there, sitting round a square table. The group was a veritable Gilligan’s Island of writer castaways, the chance cross-section of New York Jewry I would have imagined in an adult education course if I had not been dreaming of legendary writers’ retreats in Vermont cabins deep in the woods, attended by invitation only, supported by generous grants. And who was I—Gilligan or the Skipper? Neither. I was the guy who peed on the sidewalk.

I always endeavor to make peace with my opportunities, so I embraced this gathering and listened attentively. I participated with enthusiasm, but I think that I talked too much at times and then held back at the end when it came time to read what we had written. This last move was possibly more arrogant than my overt participation. What I had written so pleased me that I fretted it would be cruel to read it in contrast to the hasty, unpolished offerings provided by the others. (Three days later it no longer seems nearly such a grand piece of writing!)

Sitting there, deliberately not offering to read, I was also puzzling over the teacher’s announcement that her critiques would focus on our strengths rather than our weaknesses. I wanted my weaknesses exposed and held under the microscope so I could transform them into strengths under the guidance of a professional tutor. But then I heard the offerings the others wrote that evening and I realized that this writer’s beit midrash was really a space to rehearse a personal dialogue with God; that whether we were writing of memories or hopes, goals or disappointments, we were writing prayers. And prayers are beyond criticism; subject to mercy, not judgment.

Was it ironic that the text we studied that evening was Leviticus 11:44-47? In this passage, God commands us to sanctify ourselves, to not make ourselves impure—“to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean.” How do I relate this text to the desperate physical struggle I endured on the street below? Did the resolution sanctify or pollute me? These are the ideas I wrestled with as I packed up and made my way back to Princeton.

I was hungry when I reached Penn Station. The light snack I had consumed several hours earlier had not sustained me, but I was mindful that we had just studied a text that concluded with the commandment to make a distinction “between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten,” and I wanted to find food that was designed to nurture rather than to stimulate a craving for more of itself. I wanted to find something other than those addictive fast foods that leave one spent but not satisfied.

Sanctification eluded me. I only came as close as a fried fish sandwich.