Exploring a new city of San Diego, I feel like I’m glimpsing into the obese future ahead- people’s only exercise along a mostly highwayed city would be the stretching of their ankle against the pedal- but what suprises me and what didn’t make it into the Wall-e films, is that I’m also reminded of something spiritual.
As a New Yorker, we pride ourselves on living without a car, and we look to our neighborhoods for what they can offer us. But while we don’t consume gas, we hope to consume not only in the stores but in some lifestyle, with the right coffee shop, the right restaurant, the right sized bookstore. I’ve hoped to live in the cutest neighborhood, with the perfect coffee shop on the corner, and sure I would feel perfectly content.
Recently, I found a great blog by a recent rabbi TheVelveteenRabbi. She writes about avodah b’gashmiut, worship through the physical. She talks about how she has been weaved prayer into her paying bills, washing dishes, making the bed, even driving. It reminded me of Sufjan Stevens’ new record which he recorded on the highway between Brooklyn and Queens- that kind of wasteland- despised for its lack and chaos.
Looking at the highway here, I’m reminded of how both Sufjan and the VelveteenRabbi see an inspiring pattern in their urban sprawl landscape.
Taken from a great blog, The Velveteen Rabbi
This is spiritual life
On the first day of the hashpa’ah (spiritual direction) training program which I began in early 2009, my spiritual director described what her spiritual practices had been like before she had children, and then she talked about how her spiritual life inevitably changed once her kids came on the scene. She was clear that spiritual life does continue; but she noted that it may need to take different forms than it did before. (She said other things too, but that was what really struck me. I was newly-pregnant then, and did not know that I would miscarry a few days later, so I was hyperconscious of everything having to do with prospecive parenthood.)
I remember hearing similar stories from Reb Marcia, the dean of the ALEPH rabbinic program. At one point during DLTI, she reminisced to us about davening while making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for her kids to take to school and about singing along with a recording of the morning liturgy in the car. She told us those stories by way of encouraging us to get Hazzan Jack’s Learn to Daven! cd and to listen to it often — and she’s right; it’s a great way to become comfortable with the full text of the classical morning service — but I think of her exhortation often now when I daven along with Reb Shawn Zevit’s Morning I Will Seek You in the car on the way to daycare.
It’s easy to think of spiritual practice as something we do when we can dedicate space and time away from our “regular lives.” If I could just get on top of my to-do list, then I could make time to pray. If I didn’t have dishes to wash, laundry to fold, thankyou notes to write, a desk to tidy, bills to pay, emails to return, blog comments to moderate.
But all of life can be spiritual life. I can begin my day with modah ani; I can say the blessing sanctifying the body as I moisturize my skin in the morning, or as I use the bathroom, or as I change diapers; when I see my son beginning to walk, I can follow the morning liturgy in thanking God Who makes firm our steps.
There’s no necessary dichotomy between real life and spiritual life. Spiritual life isn’t just something that happens when we can make time for it, or when we can dedicate ourselves to it wholly — as delicious as that is! Those of us who’ve had the luxury of occasionally going on retreat know that the real challenge can be integrating the peak experience of the retreat into ordinary life once one has come home again. The question isn’t “who am I when I can spend my morning in yoga and meditation and prayer” — it’s “who am I when I wake up to the baby and the bills and the tasks on my plate?”
There’s never enough time to get wholly on top of the to-do list. (If nothing else, cooking/dishes and laundry are self-generating tasks: cook one meal and eat it, and the next day you’re still going to be hungry again.) The time to study a little Torah, or to pray, or to meditate, can’t be “when everything else is done” — because everything else is never done. Besides: Torah, prayer, self-care are important. More important, maybe, than the other things on our to-do lists a lot of the time…though most of us don’t inhabit a paradigm where that perspective is commonly shared.
The real challenge of spiritual life — for me right now, anyway — is remembering that all of life is spiritual life. As I drive wherever I’m going, God is all around me. God is manifest in the people standing in the grocery check-out line or on the airplane jetway. Every step I take is an opportunity to be mindful of one foot, and then the next; every breath I take is an opportunity to inhale God in, and exhale God out. Spiritual practice doesn’t just have to mean meditation, or yoga, or enfolding myself in tefillin and tallit and spending quality time with the siddur. Washing dishes can be a spiritual practice. Babyminding can be a spiritual practice. Self-care can be a spiritual practice.
There’s a Hasidic idea of avodah b’gashmiut, service or worship through corporeality, which I love (and which I’ve blogged about before.) That idea goes like this: physicality, the mundane world in which we all operate, isn’t an obstacle to connecting with God — it’s the very vehicle through which we can have that connection. Tending our bodies, tending our children, eating food and clearing the table: all of these are opportunities for spiritual connection. In Hasidic language, the task is one of “elevating the sparks” — finding the holiness latent in each of these things, and lifting it up to heaven.
Every day is full of sparks waiting to be lifted up. Whatever you’re doing right now can be part of your spiritual life too.