Monday, March 15, 2010

Bread Alone

With Passover only a few weeks away, I find myself craving bread; also pizza, but pasta, not as much and desserts, not really. It is unusual for me to be so focused on hametz; the excesses of Purim usually quell any cravings (especially for sweet things) and make me feel prepared for the freedom/denial of Passover, when eight days stretch far longer in the mind. Depriving oneself seems to do that, slow down time, quite effectively.
My best strategy for Passover is quite simple. I eat as little matzah as possible; usually a maximum of one piece once we have cleared the seders. I continue to eat foods that are kosher at all times: fruit, vegetables, potatoes, cheese, meat, eggs and nuts. I avoid as best as possible all of the fake “bready” foods, desserts included. By the end of the holiday I usually feel better than ever and each year I wonder if I could continue to live bread-free, all of the time forever more. How much variety do I need in my food anyway? And what exactly is essential about bread?
Man does not live by bread alone. The famous quotation seems absurd in that it flattens into the one simple term a stunning array of food items, crossing cultures, eras, culinary imaginations, different grains and an endless variety of additional ingredients. What culture or nation does not have at least one bread that is considered an identifying staple?
But bread of course is a metaphor for the basic physical needs of our survival and that is the gist of the Biblical citation. In Deuteronomy chapter eight, verses two and three, it says (I am using the Jewish Publication Society’s translation):
Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to
Learn what was in your hearts; whether you would keep His commandments
or not. He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees.
The flatness of the matzah reminds us of the speed with which the Israelites fled Egypt. The learning that life is about more than bread anyway reminds us of the forty years it took those same Israelites to die out in the dessert, so that their children could be prepared to live in allegiance to their Lord, albeit freely in their own country. In each miraculous set of events the power of the divine is paramount. We humans are asked to be incredible jugglers, appreciative of the delights of our physical world while yet attuned to the gifts of God as well as to our own limits. It is exhausting to think about. It should be making me hungry. What constitutes freedom and what slavery? What serves as basic sustenance for you, your bread? And what reminds you that life is a gift symbolized by bread, the work, nourishment and creativity that we knead into it, and yet rises above it, into the ether like the scent of yeast looking to meet the airiness of enlightenment. When we are blessed, it rains back down on us in transmuted gifts. ©2010 Leah Strigler

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Poetic Echoes

The Echo Of
Night in an ancient city; I match your footsteps.
Walking alone where many have walked over much time,
where I have walked many times, where you…
Walking together with you.
And the aged stones of the old buildings hold
the wisdom of eternal time. They glow softly with
soaked moonlight and hold the night
for an extended moment
in which our footsteps leave a single echo.
What does this city know of us together?
More than we each know of ourselves,
A single moment glowing softly
that we let fall into eternity, hidden
among stones.

A few weeks ago I shared with two rather new friends some poems that I had written in high school and college. They received a quite enthusiastic reception and one friend has been urging me to post my poetry more regularly. A lovely and most appreciated suggestion, especially since I fell out of the habit of weekly posts (a new year’s resolution) all too quickly. But all written pieces represent moments in time and revisiting old pieces that one has written is even more intense than rereading works that had been significant at earlier stages of life, whether difficult or beloved. In both case one re-acquaints with an older version of the self, but one’s own words are even more potent reminders and evidence of past life. Poetry, with its immediacy and bareness of form, can be particularly wise and difficult; this particular genre has been weighing heavily on me since I returned to it.
Two incidents account for this. The first is that an old friend came to visit and the visit was difficult. Actually, it all but ruined the friendship, although on account of my excessive acceptance and generosity (please read this as self-blame) I held my tongue and did my best to host. The danger in not speaking up became clear when as a thank you he sent me some poems written about his NYC visit, many based on observations that I had made. What are the limits of poetic license? One poem, dedicated to me, re-imagined my apartment as a servant’s room, haunted by a former occupant mysteriously murdered, the case unsolved. It made my blood run cold and I realized that this friendship was dead and buried.
In the mail this week I received my college alumni magazine, with the note that an old friend had died by her own hand. She and I had fallen out of touch a while back but I would occasionally run into her. I remember our last real get-together taking place the week that Yasser Arafat passed away; we sat in a hummus joint downtown and I translated the Israeli news blaring on the television. The media were following the story but an official announcement was yet to be made. She and I were good friends in the early nineties when we both lived in DC. Both transplanted New Yorkers, we delighted in taking long walks together (as few others did there) and sharing literary and intellectual conversation. Her death was announced in the papers and the news is three months old but somehow I missed it and feel badly, both about losing touch and for not knowing. I have been rereading her work this week as that is the only thing I can do to process and remember her. It is beautiful as ever but so much sadder; it feels rewritten in light of the future that had not yet come to pass.
Alas. I should bring up something positive. Poetry was an early love of mine and one of my favorite activities in high school was the literary club, which I co-directed my senior year, also editing the annual journal. At the time I was concerned not so much with the quality of my work as with the joy of the activity; I loved reading and writing and discussing poems. It has been such a treat to go back and re-read these pieces, recognizing myself, my history and my ability with delight. These are not embarrassing snapshots (why did I ever think that I looked better with bangs?) but rather lovely captures of key moments and knowings that have given me renewed strength and dedication to pursuing more such joyful and thoughtful creative activity, not to mention writing and communicating with greater sensitivity and fortitude. I am somewhat in awe of the voice of my younger self and wonder how she could have grown into one so much less sure. Time is a funny process, as is its companion aging. May they and all other processes and forces bless us with many opportunities to recognize meaning and beauty, both fleeting and eternal.
©2010 Leah Strigler