Saturday, April 30, 2011

Spiritual Gardening

             Gardening has the potential to be an incredible spiritual discipline. It's all a matter of frame of mind.

             I should say that as I write my forearms and ankles are covered in anti-itch cream as I've just finished weeding (for the first time in my life) and I got all scratched up. Though I've been planting for a couple of years now I'm still very much a novice. Being a novice isn't a bad thing at all. The fact that gardening is an art that requires mastery and that many of us never get beyond the novice phase is a surefire sign that gardening is a spiritual discipline.

             Let's get practical. What is spiritual gardening?

             1. Different for every person. While all of us (or the vast majority of us) respond to nature in fairly predictable ways (awe, inspiration, fear, gratitude) we all connect in unique ways as well. For some it's the mountains, others the beach, some love skiing, others love sleeping under the stars. When it comes to enjoying nature's bounty we all have different tastes and palates. Foods awaken deeply personal associations. Spiritual gardening begins with an awareness that gardening is a way of connecting to and participating in nature. Through gardening we come home to the reminder that we too are created beings needing sun, water, love, and attention.

            2. Creation and creator. Gardening is a way of partnering with God in the work of creation. God provides the sun, water, soil, and seed. We tend, care, and protect.

            3. Constant energy. Gardens change day to day. There's great joy in discovering that cherry tomatoes have sprung up overnight or that the first strawberry is ripe for the picking. Visiting a garden every day we notice the subtle differences. The new shoot or blossom or pest-devoured leaf catch our eye. I know my garden more intimately than anyone else. I witness the sun and water stimulating the foliage.

              Becoming accustomed to spiritual gardening is different for every person. Here are a few techniques for infusing your gardening with spiritual awareness:

               1. While gardening recite the words of hamotzi as a mantra. Hamotzi is the Jewish prayer recited before eating a meal. It reminds us that God is the Source of all sustenance. By reciting hamotzi as a mantra we invoke the notion of divine blessing and sustenance. We remain mindful of the miracle of divine sustenance.

               2. Engage all senses. Working the earth is a multi-sensory endeavor. Whether we focus on all senses at once or one sense at a time, engaging our senses gives us a feeling of wholeness and connectedness.

               3. Garden intentionally. Know your garden. Aspire to understand what kinds of plants grow best in what spots. Be sure to honor plants by giving them the space they need to grow. Think about why you are growing food and what you plan to do with your harvest. Try to make your garden beautiful as well as functional. Care for your soil and try to make it rich. Embrace your role as steward and cultivator and think about how the lessons of gardening apply to your life beyond the garden.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Education and Inspiration

            This morning I returned to The Davis Academy after Passover break to find my fellow administrative colleagues smiling and chatting animatedly. What had I missed? A kindergartener, Jacob, had come to school with a book that he'd written (and illustrated) on the topic of "Passover" and told his teacher that he wanted to share his literary creativity with the Head of School. Eager to please, his teacher escorted him to the Head of School's office so he could proudly share his book. In showcasing his work he was sure to point out a few interesting features:

       1. He was not only the author but the illustrator too.

       2. The book was dedicated-- to his teacher. 
       3. On the back of the book (14 pages in length he pointed out) it said "PJ Library" because Jacob intends to submit his manuscript for publication to the PJ Library (a Jewish publishing house). 

          Education is about inspiration. It's about kids being challenged to dream, imagine, and create. It's about creating the desire and the ability to envision new things and bring them into being. It's about empowering Jacob to grab some markers and wide-lined paper and write a book. Then it's about celebrating, publicizing the daily miracles, and believing that the future will be brighter than the present because of our efforts and the children we teach. 

         At least that's what education is about at The Davis Academy. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Jewish Music

This week was a major first for me. I've spent most of chol ha'moed Passover at Gallup Studios in Tucker, GA. I've been there laying the foundation for an album of original Jewish music. Mostly for my own benefit I want to grab some of the narrative surrounding this project. As with anything in life, the more reflective we're able to be, the greater depth of meaning and awareness we can achieve.
I've been playing music for a long time. Looking back, music has always been a form of communication. I find playing guitar and mandolin (my primary instruments these days) to be incredibly relaxing and comforting, and also a great challenge. Whenever there's a guitar close by I know I'm at home. If I end up strumming for more than 1/2 it usually ends up being a good day. When I play music I often feel a sense of gratitude and connectedness.
The idea of writing a song is a strange one. It's like writing poetry and music. For me there's not a formula. Sometimes the lyrics come before the chords, sometimes the chords come years before the lyrics. Sometimes the lyrics are original, sometimes they're lifted right from Jewish texts. Sometimes things are literal and sometimes abstract and free-associated.
One long held notion I have about music is that it teaches us about the transience and fluidity of life. A chord is strummed, it lingers and fades. True music enters the world, impacts it, and dissipates. While we'd like to hold onto a beautiful sound, there's something powerful in listening to it fade.
For many years I struggled with the idea of "songwriting" because of my belief that music comes and goes. There was so much joy to be found in strumming and noodling that writing a song seemed inauthentic. However in recent years I've found myself doing a lot of "songwriting" and deriving deep meaning and satisfaction from the process (if you can call it that).
Songwriting in a Jewish context is an interesting enterprise. For starters I've often said that inspiration is easy to come by because the Eternal/Holy One/Source/Good/Truth/God is an ever present muse. I don't need heartbreak, alienation, or melancholy to feel like I have something to say. Also, I stand firmly planted in a diverse community of Jewish musicians, past and present. From King David to Mattisyahu to Peter Yarrow and beyond, Jews have interpreted and created Jewish culture through music. For me (and for others) music is Midrash-- an inquiring, seeking, interpreting, engaging, loving interaction with Jewish thought, life and the world.
The universe is overflowing with inspiration. There's no place that's more inspiring than The Davis Academy. I can trace the moment when I started writing songs to the early months of my joining The Davis Academy community. The children, their humor, intellect, energy, and wisdom, are incredibly inspiring. It's also inspiring to be a part of an educational institution-- a place where hearts and minds are open to learning. At Davis it's not just the students, but the teachers, administrators, and faculty as well. There are days when I'll come home from a long day and come up with 3-4 song ideas.
The studio is a humbling place. As with anything the best way to improve yourself is to surround yourself with experts. That's precisely what I've done. The musicians that are joining me on this musical journey are incredibly gifted and incredibly "gifting." Meaning they are generous, creative, energetic, and dedicated to bringing the songs to life. Yesterday I spent an entire day in the studio without picking up a musical instrument. We were recording bass and drums and I was there to witness, affirm, celebrate, critique, and enjoy. I see my role as checking my ego, believing in the value of the music, carrying the vision (and making sure it is shared), and helping to create the context where the gifts of others can be fully realized. My goal is for this Album to be a gift to The Davis Academy, the Jewish People, and anyone who loves music. We'll see how the process unfolds!