25 May 2009

Unstructured Summer

Let me call it as it was: I had to fight to get my time for myself.

I guess it's the way it is for many kids, the way it was years ago and remains today. Summers could be frustrating. It wasn't a matter of laziness, so much as a kind of frustration over someone else setting the agenda for my time. Whatever it was I was required to do, what I can say assuredly is that all I wanted to do was hang out somewhere quiet, listen to music, and read. Once a bookworm...

In this context, summers in Royalston always had a special feel—and not without its frustrations either. The rambling old farmhouse, and the seemingly endless surrounding woods and fields; the black flies (particularly in May) and the mosquitos; the periodic hammocks and tire swings; the cool inner parlor, with its uncomfortable couch; the warmer, outer parlor, with a similar couch; the childhood bathroom, with an Americana-themed wallpaper, and the childhood bedroom, still mine, with (oddly) a flower print wallpaper but a slate-blue trim on the doors, windows, and molding; and the kitchen, the big, farmhouse kitchen, the center of all activity as it is in most homes, but here (situated at the front of the "little house," for anyone familiar with the classic New England "big house, little house" construction) even more central, providing access to the main house, and with doors out to the east and west sides lawns; all of this reminds me of how much I treasured my unstructured summers, and how much I yearned for them when I couldn't have them. How much I yearn for them still.

Underneath that Faulknerian paragraph-sentence is something simple: the idea of freedom to explore: one's self, one's surroundings, and one's relationship to the world. And as much as we do this in relation to other things, we also need the freedom to do it in relation to nothing so much as our own thoughts. This is what summers are meant for, just the way that Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn found the good weather a supportive partner in their explorations of the world. One can navel-gaze any time of the year, but the warmth of summer is especially good for this. Having spent the weekend in Royalston, in this comfortable, Crossing To Safety-esque sometimes home of my childhood, I’m reminded of the whole dynamic once again.

And I’m reminded of what I want for my daughter—the same opportunity to experience the pleasurable freedoms of summer, to create a set of childhood memories that connect to a place and a time and a sense that the whole world, contained within a backyard, awaits exploration or quiet contemplation.

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13 April 2009

The Letter & The Spirit

I think there are two direct ways to approach a law: to abide by its letter and (or) to abide by its spirit. We can do both, as we interpret each. Or we can choose one path or the other, also subject to some interpretation. Let's put aside "big" laws, like prohibitions on murder or rape. For smaller laws - let's say jaywalking, or speeding on the highway, I think most of us are inconsistent. We obey certain laws to the letter, devotedly. Others, we choose to view as more flexible prohibitions, deciding for ourselves where the spirit of the law (not going 95 MPH) is more important than the letter (staying at or under 65 MPH). I have been thinking about this issue a lot this Passover holiday, and I'll tell you why.


If Jimi Hendrix had been an observant Jew, right now he might be posing the question: have you ever been afflicted? Well, I have.

Six days into the matzah-eating holiday of Passover, I feel fine. I have controlled my intake of matzah this year, and worked to balance it with a slightly higher proportion of fibrous fruits and vegetables than I have in some years past. If you are Jewish, and you've binged on matzah, you know what this is about; if not, I'll spell it out: constipation. (It's almost the opposite of a dirty word.)

Still, even with the occasional burdens of matzah, I love Passover. It's a joyous holiday, that reminds me of many of the best qualities of Judaism, particularly the ability to reflect on the past while focusing on the future - and embedding firmly the idea that part of the key to future success is teaching and exploring ideas, across (and within) different generations.

But part of the problem with Passover is that it seems to have lead contemporary Jewry - almost regardless of the degree of orthodoxy - to make some stark choices between the letter of the law and its spirit.

During this holiday, there is a wide category of foods that are off-limits, which in a short and untechnical description can be rendered as: any grain-based food that may have had an opportunity to leaven or rise, or any food that includes grains or other rising agents. It's that simple, and that simply defines the letter of the law.

The spirit of the rule, however, I interpret differently. We are told to eat matzah because of the symbolism of this flat, unleavened bread in the context of the holiday: it was the bread of slaves, and a reminder of that experience. Therefore, to me, the spirit of the law dictates refraining from other grain-based products that one might normally eat in leavened form - even if they follow the letter of the law in being produced with no leavened grains, as with the kosher-for-Passover marble cake, pasta, and cous-cous pictured above. I am sure the folks at Osem, Savion, and Gefen are all nice people, simply making a product for a niche in the market. At the same time, I think companies like these have helped create that niche where it did not used to exist.

We have these products in my house right now. We have a toddler, and I would rather her eat, and eat according to the letter of the law in this instance, than violate both the letter and the spirit because she needs more food than we can muster under a matzah-only regime. But I find these foods to be problematic; even for me, even with my own very personal and quirky levels of observance.

Mostly, I find them a challenge to the underlying message of this eight-day holiday: if, throughout Passover, we eat foods that are very similar to those we eat the rest of the year, I fear we will degrade the message of the holiday itself, the teaching from one generation to the next that we should remember when we were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the joyousness that came with our freedom. Matzah is that reminder, where kosher-for-Passover faux-Cheerios are not.

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