Thursday, September 10, 2009


"Who must know the way to make a proper home,A quiet home, a kosher home?Who must raise the family and run the home,So Papa's free to read the holy books? The Mama, the Mama! Tradition!" --From "Fiddler on the Roof"

I'm a Broadway fanatic. I inherited this trait from my mother, who took me to see "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" and "Hair" before I was five years old. I came out singing and dancing, and completely in love with musical theater. Before I would return to school each year, first as a young girl, then as a prep school student, and finally as a college student, Mom and I would go to New York and have a two day Broadway Buffet: we'd fit in as many shows as we could. Between matinees and evening performances, we'd try to do some last minute shopping, and to try a couple of new restaurants. But, the goal of our trip was always the theater. If it was Labor Day, then Mom and I would be in the audience of the St. James, the Gershwin, the Majestic, the Minskoff or any one of a number of auditoriums that sound like a litany when said altogether. Going to the theater, for my mother and me, was our tradition. It was something that never changed, that always could be counted upon and that felt safe and right.

The first time I saw "Fiddler on the Roof", I knew it would be different from other performances I'd been to. For one thing, my mother already knew all the songs, and I had seen the movie version. More than these foretastes of the show, I was also aware that, in many ways, "Fiddler" told my own family's story. This was not just a fantastical voyage come to life; this was a recounting of my own ancestry, and that of many people like me. "Fiddler" wasn't a fairy tale come to life. It was my own sense of learning about where I came from, who my people were, how they did their very best in oppressive conditions, and finally, why they left. I grew up with wonderful parents in a loving, intellectually stimulating home. However, our sense of belonging was very much rooted in the present. I had long had a fascination with the past. "Fiddler on the Roof" gave me that clue to who I was, not in this very moment, but from where I had come. Because my family was not religious, I knew very little about the faith based traditions of our people. And yet, seeing the small actions in the theater characters, little comments they made to each other and telling bits of dialogue, I felt completely at home in the small Russian town portrayed on stage. The quips made between the women of the theater family could easily have been made by my grandmother, cousins and mother. It was as if someone had written down our own family's traditions, placed them back in time, added in religion and voila! My family!

One thing continued to bother me: why didn't we have the exact same traditions as the family in "Fiddler on the Roof"? My parents were simply not interested in religion. My father, a very wise man and a very pragmatic one, said that religion did more to divide than it did to heal. My mother was very comfortable in her cultural, and secular, form of Judaism. I felt sad to be left out of such rich traditions. And yet, as I grew older, I began to see that traditions don't just include lighting candles on Friday nights: they include the small, special ways we relate to one another and the rituals we developed over the years. Our family had a lobster bake with our closest friends at a nearby beach each June and we always watched the fireworks from the boat on the 4th of July. As we decorated our Christmas tree, my mother and I would laugh when one of us would pull out a ratty pompom duck ornament (that I still have). My grandmother and I would wrap up the same tambourine elaborately every year, and give it to one another...each time trying to disguise the packaging a bit more, so that the other would not suspect a thing. While my father would not admit to laughing about this tradition, we would absolutely lose one hard boiled, colored Easter egg, each holiday, someplace in the yard, and would discover it months later. These were all traditions...secular, yes, but meaningful, also yes. The rituals were not written down, nor were they in any way dogmatic. But, they created a connection from one year to the next for us.

The arm of Yoga that I teach is Ashtanga Yoga. Some yoginis feel that this is a very rigid discipline because Ashtanga tends to have a set routine and follows the same plan, roughly, from week to week. I take great comfort in this sense of continuity. I believe my students are pleased to anticipate what asanas are coming next in our series. This doesn't mean that I never challenge my students with new asanas, or encourage them to move more deeply into a familiar one. This also doesn't include room for self-expression. However, as we begin class in the familiar way, we move through our exercises, always knowing what will follow, and end class in our customary manner, my students are able to focus more on their own practice, and less on trying to figure out what I'm doing. Having attended many classes in which the instructor shakes up the dynamic from day to day, I have come to value the tradition of my own class: in which my students can breathe, move and explore, without constantly looking up to discover a completely random, and unfamiliar, asana. By keeping our 'new poses' to a minimum, and by keeping them in the same spot in our routine, I'm able to run an efficient, informed class. We have developed our own traditions.

Traditions don't have to be positive. There have been numerous human rights violations that have been done in the name of 'tradition'. Yet, when respecting the sanctity of human dignity, traditions, whether long held or newly formed, can create a meaningful framework for people. Many of us like to know what to expect; we enjoy remember our days in a string that connects them. If a tradition has meaning, if it makes one happy and it creates its own magic, I believe it's worth holding onto....and that's why I still have the unbearably raggedy duck ornament. When my daughter and I hang it up each year, we say the same silly words I did with my mother, and I know the circle is complete. I just hope he lasts long enough to make it to Caroline's tree in her own home someday.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Year of Wonders

Is it possible to remain in a spirit of affirmation and appreciation in the midst of unspeakable loss? Having just finished Geraldine Brooks' wonderful novel, "Year of Wonders", I was awestruck at how the author managed to convey a sense of beauty, purpose and meaning about a novel about the plague in 17th century England. In this extraordinary debut fiction work by an experienced journalist, I had expected a sad, but interesting novel. Yet, what I discovered during my year long journey with Anna, the protagonist, was not just the shock and horror. Ms. Brooks was able to create a character so resilient that Anna continues to grow, thrive, seek further knowledge and continue in her desire to help others. Based on a real life case of plague in the village of Eyam, Derbyshire, the author takes the actual events, and weaves them into a story of both inspiration and fear, growth and regression, life and death. The village's story, marked by a simple stone indicator in the present day, shows the heroic efforts of the people in trying to hold the spread of the Plague to their very town. These residents did not leave, with the exception of the wealthiest land holder. They requested supplies from neighboring villages, and asked that these be left outside the town markers. Instead of nailing individual families inside their homes, to die alone and in fear, the entire village chose to remain in sanctuary, tending to their own, living and dying together, as a village. It has been noted that the efforts of Eyam were both remarkable and unusual, as Plague was spread often by people fleeing...and bringing the contagion with them.

The village of Eyam chose to sacrifice themselves so that others may live. When the townspeople receive news that the disease had spread to no other village in their shire, they were convicted that they had taken the correct course of action. This was not without a great deal of disagreement. Their minister, Michael Monpellion, preaches of Jesus' words "That there is no greater love than this: that a man should lay down his life for his friends." Reverend Monpellion asks the villagers to take this piece of the gospel quite literally, as the town lost more than 2/3 of their population. There were insurrections, rebellion, grave digger's wanting to rob victims and those who preyed upon false superstition. But, in the end, the village was victorious. They buried far more people than remained alive. They did this not even knowing, as we do today, the way in which Plague is transmitted: from fleas in over 90% of the cases. Without even being aware of this knowledge, the residents of Eyam knew that contagion grew worse if people left. And so, they created boundaries and lived, or died, within them. Despite this novel being a work of fiction, the character development is so brilliant that I feel as if I've met the real people who lived, worked, tended, died and survived in this real life village.

Interestingly, the Pandemic of the Spanish Flu (from 1918 to 1920) not only killed more people than World War I combat, that was also claiming lives concurrently, but than the Plague had centuries earlier. In Thomas Mullen's novel, "The Last Town on Earth", I read a very different story than that of "The Year of Miracles". Mullen's novel focuses on Pacific Northwest towns cutting themselves off from the rest of civilization: but to protect others...only to protect themselves from the outside world. Interestingly, like Geraldine Brooks' novel, the country was at war (her novel takes place during the civil War in England) and yet, war is only in the background of both books."The Last Town on Earth" takes the opposite approach in stemming any tide of illness: they post armed guards at the entrances to their village of Commonwealth, Washington. When an injured, starving stranger appears at the gates, this town has three choices: to allow this man to die outside their parameters of exposure or infirmities, to shoot him themselves to prevent him from gaining access, or to allow him inside and render aid. While I read this novel more than two years ago, I found memories of it working their way to the uppermost part of my consciousness as the story of another quarantined town made itself known.

The question remains: is this the same story? Why, or why not? While I do find these two excellent novels, based on actual historical events, to contain many parallels, I do not believe it's the same premise. While both the Black Death and the Spanish Influenza brought with them widespread hysteria and unthinkable masses of dead, the reaction in Brooks' novel is one of self-sacrificial hope. The message in Mullen's novel is that of insular, fear driven selfishness. There are both "good" and "bad" characters in both novels, and each have their share of moments struggling with terror overriding rational decision making. However, whereas one novel chooses to keep their own illness to themselves, to prevent spreading it to neighboring towns (where family and friends might reside), the other chooses to ignore their neighbors' (and the rest of the world's) cry for assistance. "The Year of Miracles" continually speaks of faith. "The Last Town on Earth" speaks of prejudice. When taken together, it's a terrifying picture of real pandemics, and how they have effected civilization, socially, ethically and practically. In this age of Bird Flu, H1N1 virus, and other virulent forms of illness, these novels present a serious look at what has happened in the past.

Where would I have stood on this issue? It's always impossible to gauge unless one has been faced with the reality of a situation. That being said, my hope is that I would take a stand for honor, wherever that lies. There is very little honor in refusing aid to others, even if it means putting yourself at risk. Having been hospitalized in intensive care, exactly 2 years ago, I do not know how I would have survived had I not been treated by a brave, fabulous team headed up by an Infectious Disease specialist and pulmonologist, as well as countless wonderful nurses. Did they turn and run away from me? They did not. They solved my mystery, they were able to treat me, and while it was not an easy road to recovery, I was blessed to have medical attention for a dreadful, unexpected infection. What if I'd been tossed out the hospital door and said, "Sorry. You're out of luck. We don't want you infecting anyone"? I have been treated with dignity, with conviction and with bravery. I believe I'd be a sorry survivor to maintain the lifeboat theory from here on out: "I'm fine here. You're on your own." Therefore, I believe it is my duty to help out wherever I can, in whatever way is necessary. I may not be able to cure a disease, but I can bring comfort to those who need respite.

One of the lines I find most life affirming in Geraldine Brooks' novel is the true naming of the Plague year of 1666: Annis mirabalis: the Year of Wonders. John Druyden, an exceptional poet of the day, was living and writing at the time. Many religious leaders had predicted that 1666 would be the 'year of the beast', based on the 666 from the Book of Revelation. They weren't far off the mark: London's Great Fire, the English Navy's total defeat in battle at Sea, the Plague and other unfathomable disasters. Yet, Druyden chose to interpret the time as "The Year of Miracles" in his poem of the same name. It was his decision to choose to see the events as blessings, rather than curses, as so many people did. Druyden decided to view the events as facts and occurrences, rather than the end of the world. I admire his resolve, during this very difficult time. I would rather stand with the the John Druydens, the Isaac Newtons and the characters like Anna, in this world, than lock myself away in fear and exclusivity.
What would you do?

Anger will never disappear so long as thoughts of resentment are cherished in the mind. Anger will disappear just as soon as thoughts of resentment are forgotten. ~ John Druyden