Into Each Life a Little Cake Must Fall: Lessons from a Cake-Tastrophe

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Pastry cook prepares a cake with cream and chocolate

This is the tale of an epic Cake-Fail.

It felt, at the time, like an absolute disaster.

Real disasters, like earthquakes, tornadoes, wars and disease put this story in perspective.

But in our day-to day lives, there are experiences that feel like disasters at the time; experiences in which survival adrenaline is at work; in which you encounter failure a dozen ways over. Life itself may not be at stake, but it can be difficult persuading your mind of that fact when faced with the crushing of plans, or a spectacular “miss”when your results are at stake. Your results and failures, of course, never affect just you, but a whole host of people either waiting for your promised outcome, or cleaning up after you when something goes wrong.

Whether your flop happens in a single moment or in a slow build-up over years, when it does hit, all you can see is the ruin—a crisis to deal with, and no-way out.

In thinking about some of the more difficult challenges I’ve been facing recently, I found myself ruminating on that experience, so long ago now…

It’s Not Always a “Piece of Cake”…

It was in the early 90’s, during a short time when I was mostly a stay-at-home mom. Unable to sit around, and with my corporate travel restricted due to my young baby, I had a stint as a high-end cake decorator—pastry school, seminars—the works.

I trained with some of the greats, whose names are known to all the famous cake people on TV today. It was before the Food Network and YouTube turned spectacular cakes into a competitive sport, as well as into a skill accessible to anyone with a computer. Back then it was still a rarified world of buttercream and gum paste specialists, and my own presentations were replete with “ooh’s and ah’s” from admirers when I produced my floral fantasies in sugar, the likes of which few people in that era had ever seen.

Baby shower cake with intricate lacework, sugar doll and hours and hours of work…one of my favorites, done in 1992, prior to the birth of my niece, Jenna.

Through a caterer, I got an order for a cake for a garden wedding on an estate in Greenwich, CT. The couple were very specific about the kind of cake they wanted: poppy seed with raspberry filling. I went to my baker, Manfred, to put in the order. He was a Viennese pastry whiz who sold me delicious “blanks” (un-iced cakes) from his shop. I conveyed the rather unusual flavor request, and he nodded. In my mind, I was envisioning a thin spread of raspberry jam between several torted layers of each cake. Torting, or having many layers of filling in each cake, is part of the art of fine pastry, and I left the execution of same in his capable Viennese hands.

Cake. Chocolate Mud Cake #2
Torted Layers

Two solid weeks were spent working on the elaborate buttercream flowers that would go on the cake. There was no room for food in either my fridge or my freezer; the kitchen was a mass of colored containers of icing and Tupperware containers of frozen buttercream roses, sweet peas, bleeding hearts, daffodils and my specialty: multi-colored pansies.

Not the cake of this story, this bridal shower cake shows a sample of some of the buttercream flowers I loved to do. This is one of the few photos I have available now. Credit for the buttercream technique goes to the incomparable Betty van Norstrand, with whom I studied at Vie de France Pastry School.

When I picked up the “blank” cakes the day before the wedding, I saw that instead of a thin layer of raspberry jam, Manfred had created each cake alternating multiple 1/2″ layers of raspberry mousse with an equal proportion of cake. Not what I’d thought, but, hey.

Ok, then. I set to work.

Fourteen hours of decorating later, after pounding in the requisite dowels and structural supports that go into the architecture of wedding cakes; after endless intricate and meticulous buttercream Cornelli work: after icing flower placements and finishing flourishes, at 10:30 on the morning of the wedding I loaded the cake into the back of my minivan for delivery. Because my daughter was hardly more than a baby, she got to come on the delivery run too, as did my husband, acting as driver and loyal supporter and helper.

Did I mention it was a hot, humid summer day?

As my husband slowly pulled the car about five feet down the sloped driveway, he glanced in the rear view mirror and said: “Oh Shit!”

This was not a good sound.

I ran around to the back, lifted the tailgate, and stared at a fallen, soggy mass of stair-stepped layers. The mere vibration of the car had been enough to coax every torted layer to slip past all the internal supports and external baffling, The gelatinous texture of the filling had provided a nice slippery surface so that with the slightest encouragement, the cake layers had gone for a ride on a confectionary Slip ‘n’ Slide, leaving a disastrous mess of mousse and the pillaged wreck of cake and buttercream.

I can still feel the shock and disbelief that simply did not register at first. I don’t like to think about that moment, even 25 years later.

We jumped back into the car and drove down the hill to the bakery. I was in total panic. Manfred came out to the car and said: “Oh, Shit! Oh Shit!”

He was followed by his wife (the “bad cop” in the relationship) harping loudly: “It’s not our fault! It’s not our fault!”

Manfred shook his head ruefully and then looked at his watch: 11:00 a.m.

“I have some frozen layers in stock. Give me two hours. I can cover them with fondant—then you can just do the flowers,”  he offered.

Fortunately, I always made many more flowers than needed in case of breakage.

Two hours till pickup of the layers…that gave me…how long?

The wedding was at 6:00 p.m.. I had to deliver it well before then. I’d have two, maybe three hours to pull it together. At most.

It looked something like this, only many times worse. Of course, we weren’t standing around taking photos, so I took this facsimile off the Internet. Note that the filling here is also raspberry jam! Hmmmm…

Now I had to call the client. We drove back home, because this was before cellphones. My heart was racing as I dialed the bride’s number.

The father of the bride answered.

“I have bad news and good news,” I began. “The bad news is that the wedding cake I just spent 14 hours decorating collapsed in my car. The good news is that you will have a wedding cake.”

I held my breath, waiting for his response.

The father said, in a voice full of compassionate concern: “Oh, how terrible for you!”

What? Yes, that’s what he said. He paused and thought.

“I think I can buy you a little extra window of time,” he said, with the satisfied air of someone who had just solved a puzzle, “The cocktail hour is at 6:30-7:30 p.m. Why don’t you come then, after the ceremony?”

I could have cried with gratitude. In fact, maybe I did.

While my husband scooped the buttercream disaster out of the back of the van with cardboard shovels that he concocted, I called my sister-in-law to beg her to please come and watch my daughter so I could concentrate on the Herculean task at hand.

She later told me she hadn’t heard my voice sound like that since my mother had died a few years before.

I got to work filling pastry bags and organizing the remaining flowers, entirely re-designing the cake in my head. I had no idea what size layers Manfred had on hand. Fortunately, one layer had escaped the “car”-nage—the small top layer that would rest separately on elevated crystal pillars. One less layer to worry about, I thought, even if it would look slightly different than the rest.

My husband picked up the frozen cakes from Manfred. It’s worth noting that putting fondant over frozen layers is risky, as the fondant will sweat with moisture. The fondant could tear, or the flowers get runny, or who knows what else. I just hoped if that was going to happen, it would take place after the cake was safely at the client’s and I was nowhere in sight.

At 6:30, I pulled my minivan into the driveway of the home-wedding-in-a-mansion in Greenwich. I could see the bride and the guests with their canapes and cocktails under a tent in the distance. The caterer came running out to meet me, threw her arms around me and gave me a huge hug, like a war veteran meeting another battle-scarred soldier. Together, we got the cake settled onto its display table in the house, put the top layer with the bride & groom decoration on top, hugged again and I left. The fact that it wasn’t poppy seed and raspberry seemed to matter not at all.

My husband and I had a dinner out, including a few stiff drinks—and neither one of us was a drinker.

Some time not that long after, my corporate career came calling again, and I laid my pastry bags down for good.

Things I Learned from the Great Cake-Tastrophe

People Recognize that Shit Happens. They Can be Surprisingly Kind and Generous. Also, Looking Back Through the Rear View Mirror, Grace Abounded.

That Manfred had extra cake layers in the freezer, of a wedding cake size— that alone was grace. Otherwise,who knows what I’d have done…I might have had to stack up a bunch of cookies on a plate and plunk a bride and groom on top.

fase preparazione  pasta con macchinario industriale
Commercial sheeter

Manfred also had a commercial sheeter (a machine that can roll out large amounts of dough or fondant in just a few passes). I could never have covered three large cakes by hand in that time, if I’d had the fondant in my supplies—which of course, I didn’t. He didn’t have to offer his help, but he did. In the middle of a busy workday and took his time to bail me out right now. When I later tried to reimburse him for the extra cakes, he told me to forget it.

I was also extremely grateful that it was the bride’s father who picked up the phone, because had it been the mother-of-the-bride, or the bride herself, it could much more easily have been a very different story. (I refer you to any episode of Bridezillas for potential reactions.)

Killer bride photo series. Bridezilla with wooden rolling pin. Studio shot
What I was expecting

The father was not only cool in a crisis, he was kind. His approach to the news was that it was just another thing to deal with, and everything has a solution. He took in the whole picture, not just how he or his daughter were affected. Miraculously, he put himself in my shoes and didn’t make me wrong. He had an ease with the problem-solving and came up with a solution. I was left with the feeling that this quality is probably what made him the kind of businessman who could afford a mansion in Greenwich. This was both Grace and Kindness in spades.

I offered the bridal couple a compensatory anniversary cake for the fact that they had not gotten their flavor request. They never asked for it. They could easily have asked for a refund, or asked me to fulfill on my free cake, but they never did.

What I got

My husband did whatever was necessary in the background without asking about it, dropping whatever else he had in mind for his weekend. My sister-in-law dropped all her plans to come babysit the whole day, and babysitting was not her favorite thing. In a crisis, the reinforcements rallied.

When you share a failure story, you find others have trod the same path. That’s often what makes them compassionate, especially if something similar has ever happened to them. War veterans stick together.

Manfred, a master baker, told me in the aftermath that this is exactly why he hated doing wedding cakes; he’d had enough of his own disasters. Owing to the precarious nature of wedding cake transport, he had evolved the method he had done with me: he left the layers frozen, covered them with fondant at the last minute, put a few simple roses on the cake, drove like hell to the wedding location and prayed.

The caterer at the wedding who ran out to meet me with open arms wasn’t angry, or sniping about how I’d let her down or how her client weren’t properly served. She approached me as someone who has seen her share of disasters and pulled it out of the hat at the last moment herself. That too surprised me no end.

Even Masters Get the Blues

Chef Kumin
Chef Albert Kumin

Some time after this, I shared my Cake-Fail story with Chef Albert Kumin, with whom I studied at Vie de France Pastry School. Chef Kumin was a former White House Pastry Chef, the founding pastry chef of Windows on the World, a legendary chocolatier, and at the time, one of the few people preserving and teaching the art of pulled and blown sugar. (He also bore a strong resemblance to the Swedish Chef from the Muppets.) When I told him what had happened, he shook his head and said: “Once I was in a big competition in Canada. I’d worked forever on four-foot tall intricate woven sugar baskets with blown sugar fruit. They were so tall and heavy it took a few people to lift them. When I got to the site, I saw they had to be transported through a revolving door.” He shook his head again, sighing ruefully. “We did our best, but, the whole thing shattered in an instant.”

(Anyone who has watched Cake Challenges on the Food Network knows that transporting a large confection from the work site to exhibition the table just 4 feet away can be the most perilous part of the contest.)

Sometimes, Pressure Yields Great Results

The cake I actually delivered, with three large tiers plus the top layer, was assembled and decorated in less than four hours. In some ways, it looked better than the one I’d slaved over for four times as long. I had learned this as a painter back in art school: the quick impromptu variation dashed off after laboring long hours on some drawing or painting was often better than the one on which so much studied effort had been expended. All the carefulness of the first work gets metabolized by that long study; spontaneity arises from that integrated foundation in a freer, more poetic way.Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 1.12.16 PM

Epilogue: 25 years later…

I was on a drive with a friend when this old experience flashed though my mind.

I realized that the memory of the Cake Fail came to me because from some perspectives, life can look just like that mess of buttercream and mousse smeared in the back of my car. I know the image came to encourage others, that even when you are looking at a situation to which the only reaction is “Oh, Shit”, a million small and large graces abound. And out of that mess arose an even more wonderful creation, supported by many other hands.

If I wasn’t on a diet, I think I’d have a piece of cake, just about now!

beautiful young woman eating cake secretly

What is YOUR Cake-Tastrophe? Would love to hear from you in the comments!


Travels with Angel

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The folks who make the Voyage-Air folding guitar have an Owner’s Club on their website and I was asked to contribute my experiences. That led to my written reflections on the place that each guitar that’s come into my life represented a place, a time and a memory, and my realization that I had never really selected my own instrument till a turning point that started with a dream. The article is at their website (link below), and I’ve reproduced it here with a few changes, edits and upgrades. Link to the article at the Voyage-Air site:

Here’s my expanded article with more pix:

Sunday Service with my Voyage-Air at the Casa de Dom Inacio (home of John of God), Abadiania, Brazil 2011

Travels with Angel

Travels with Angel – My Journey to the Voyage-Air
By Rev. Nettie M. Spiwack

Jim Wolcott at Voyage-Air asked me to write a few words about my experiences with their folding guitar, that little marvel of which I was an early adopter.

For a musician, every instrument has its unique place in your history.

One night back in 2001 I had a dream about a guitar. As I came awake, the verses of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Old Beat Up Guitar” were in my mind:

She traveled with me always, through the alleys and the bars

The songs I sang and the friends I knew were a part of that guitar…

Jerry Jeff called his guitar “Angel,” after someone drew one on the top of it. Finding, losing and then finding her again in his travels features prominently in that song he recorded in 1972, and which I hadn’t thought of in a few decades.

Well, a traveling man has trouble holding on to all he owns

And in those years of traveling that guitar fell by the road

Then one night in New Mexico, I stumbled into a bar

And there lay Angel smiling at me on that old beat up guitar.

The dream was a message. I was about to go out to play music for a retreat in California, and I knew it was time to go find my Angel.

I had played many guitars in my life by that time, but in truth, not one of them had I selected and bought myself.

I started playing folk guitar early, in a wonderful setting that was right out of a cliché. I was nine years old; it was summer at Camp Johnny Appleseed where my mother was working that year in the camp office. With mom’s brown Favilla nylon-string guitar—bought in aspiration of her learning to play it, as my parents were part of the Hootenanny generation—I attended a group class, sitting on a porch in the Catskills and learned Woody Guthrie’s “Rambling Boy” with three whole chords in the key of A.

Mom’s brown Favilla became my guitar, the one I toted around in its cracked chipboard case—a glorified cardboard box, really—to group and then private lessons. Carrying my guitar didn’t represent too many difficulties because first of all, I was young, both the guitar and the case were light, no airplanes were involved, and no one around me then knew anything about humidity control, or if it was wise to take a guitar in a cardboard box on the NYC subways in winter. Soon, renditions of Go Tell Aunt Rhody gave way to the music of the Beatles and James Taylor and Crosby Stills & Nash.

1973, playing a borrowed guitar my first year at college. From the shape of the pick guard, I think it’s a Gibson. It’s not Dad’s Harmony, but it looks about the same size!

By my years at the High School of Music & Art, I graduated to dad’s huge Harmony Sovereign grand concert. That guitar remains one of the biggest I’ve ever seen to this day. (Quantity, however, should never be confused with quality). Dad really never learned to play more than “You Are My Sunshine,” and turning his guitar over to me caused him no pain. It too, had a chipboard case, was a lot heavier to lug around, and I can still feel the indentation in my hand from the metal rings on the side of the plastic handle.

In the height of the folksinger/songwriter era, numerous other guitars had joined the family as my siblings and I played: my brother’s Guild 12-string, his Gretsch electric, my sister’s La Madrilena classical guitar, and a ¾ version of the same which my mother was determined to, this time, learn to play. (She didn’t.) There was always something to play and often someone playing it. I spent most of those years working out Joni Mitchell’s repertoire and figuring out an occasional open tuning for playing her songs.

I married a man with a Martin D-28, the gold standard of a serious player at the time. (I married up!)  He was trying to make it as a performer when we met, though that dream eventually got put aside, and both of us stopped playing for a long stretch. When years later, we parted, he was kind enough to let me keep his Martin on extended loan, for by that time I was starting my career in spiritual music, and guitar was once again front and center in my life.

The D-28 had its legendary sound, not to mention cache, but it had some drawbacks. First, it had tough action, and my hands had a touch of arthritis, which made bar chords on the very rounded neck painful to hold. And then, there was the case. This guitar had the heavy hardshell case with weighty gravitas to match its content. The problem was, I was now in my 40’s and lugging it around to gatherings near and far, and worse, through long airport corridors and onto planes, got harder and harder. Not to mention that my ex was not enthused about my traveling with it.

After that Jerry Jeff dream, I knew it was time to return the Martin to her rightful owner and to go find my own Angel to travel with me.

That first Angel was the Larrivee Mahogany Orchestra Model, which fit me and my hands to a “t”; which I loved and which I lugged with its big heavy hard case through airports, across the USA, and even through India. Angel was later joined by a Taylor 12-string, whose case is so heavy that she’s rarely left my living room.

Performing with Soulfyre in Chicago, playing my Larrivee guitar, 2008. Photoart by Shirley Arendt

But as Angel and I made our way around over the next eight years I noticed that I wasn’t getting any younger, there’s never a roadie when you need one, the airport corridors got longer, and the airplanes fuller and fuller.

I needed another Angel. One I could travel with but that could still produce worthy sound. I was heading back to Brazil, to a retreat and healing center where I often end up leading music for hundreds of people.

I scoured music stores and the internet for travel guitars. It seemed that not much had changed in the years since I’d last looked. The choices were some sticks with strings, or perhaps a parlor-sized guitar. I had just about settled on a Baby Taylor, when I did one last search. And up popped the aptly named website,  When I saw the Voyage-Air’s folding neck, I thought: it’s too good to be true!  Then I realized, it’s like rolling luggage: once it was invented, you can’t imagine that no one had figured that one out before.

But how could I buy a guitar off of a website, never having played it or heard it?

Jim Wolcott patiently answered my many questions with great enthusiasm. His passion for the Voyage-Air persuaded me. My family and friends got together and gifted one of the Songwriter series to me for my birthday.

Welcome to the era of Angel II.

I was happily surprised by everything about the guitar…how good it sounded, how easy the action was, how well my hands could manage the (mercifully flatter) neck. And how light it was! Truth be told, I have many purses and totes that are far heavier!

Since 2009, this Voyage-Air guitar has traveled twice to India, several times to Brazil, and on countless trips around the USA. It’s been on every type of airplane, and by zipping off the computer case, I even managed to squeeze it under the seat on a small flight from Madurai to Bangalore when it looked like I might have to check it.

Playing for a ceremony at the end of the Dassera festival, Madurai, India, 2009

My Voyage-Air never fails to cause a stir. It’s still not widely known, and I’ve even had flight attendants ask me to open it so they could see it!

This summer in Brazil, a classical guitarist almost fell over himself when he saw me fold the neck down. He held it mesmerized, smiling, unable to believe the sound and the engineering.

Playing the Voyage-Air at an interfaith ordination in Brazil, 2011

My Larrivee, Angel I, now holds court in my house and steps out once in a while for local gigs. She’s enjoying her retirement, and truth be told, sometimes I look at her wistfully when I’m going on the road, thinking maybe this time I’ll take her. But Angel II always wins out.

Playing my Voyage-Air at a recent blessing event in San Mateo, CA, 2011

Now she travels with me always, through the alleys and the bars

And the friends I make and the songs I write are a part of that guitar,

Some nights it is my pillow resting underneath the stars

Day and night I stay alive with that old beat up guitar.

Well, being a minister and all, I’m neither in alleys nor bars, and I’m more likely to be sleeping on a plane than under the stars. But the spirit of my Angel is the same to me as Jerry Jeff’s was to him, which he captured so beautifully in that song.

Jim and I talk about my upgrading, and maybe at some point I’ll welcome Angel III.

Till then, if you see me at an airport with my Voyage-Air, wave hi!

Rev. Nettie M. Spiwack
Interfaith Minister

“That Old Beat Up Guitar” by Jerry Jeff Walker, from Jerry Jeff Walker, MCA-37004 1972.

Missing Carla

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Carla at Ordination, June, 2004

As the weeks go by, the memory of how she looked at the end is fading. The steroids had rendered her an almost comic cross between Buddha and Uncle Fester. She’d long since lost her hair, and her features had all but disappeared into what was now a swollen and unfamiliar visage. I still see the last moments we were with her, as her eyes went back and forth from one to another of we “sister” friends who had come to say our goodbyes. She had a half smile on her face, at the same time her eyes were thoughtful. It was a quintessential Carla expression. At the time I thought she might have been confused. But Carla was always a thinker who needed time to process things inside.

I believe it was the moment she was really getting it. This was finally it, the road had come to a close. Her gaze caught mine for a long, long moment.

I have to go?” she half asked, half stated. Then she repeated it, as if to herself: “I have to go.

“You’ve been a great friend,” I had said to her a few moments before this last declaration.

It’s been a pleasure,” she replied with her eyes closed, a loving half-smile on her face.

Now that I remember it, I know where I had seen that expression before. It was on my mother’s face, 24 years ago, as I stood at her hospital bedside in her last conscious moments, listening to what were to be her final words. Her closed eyes had signaled: “I’m tired, I have to go.” The half smile as she spoke her last phrase, said everything else.

I was seeing that expression again, on the face of my friend.

The truth was, I hadn’t seen a lot of Carla in the past year or so since she moved from Westport further up the Merritt Parkway to a condo in Stratford.  Whereas during our years singing together in our group, Soulfyre, we had seen each other at least once a week, (often at her home), the same disease that had ended our group’s performing days eventually ended Carla’s social life as well. That isolation is where I think she suffered the most.

For a very introverted person, Carla was a real social animal. She enjoyed the bustle of her grown kids coming and going in the chaotic household. She loved having us over for rehearsals and visits at 7 Loren Lane in Westport. She loved being a guest, too. My last good memory of her is her staying over after both Christmas and Passover this year. She made it down here on her own, but needed to stay over rather than drive home.

She loved to stay up late and talk on such occasions. And to watch movies. Carla was a movie-going companion, always up for going to a flick or watching one at home. She had her own little soundtrack: a habit of exhaling a deep audible breath whenever there was a moment of strong emotion on the screen; whether it was happiness or sadness didn’t matter. She was completely unaware of this trait till one day this year I told her about it. It surprised her, and made her both laugh and think about its source. Laughing and thinking, that was Carla.

Carla and I had many great kitchen talks over the years. They followed a pattern. She would share a dilemma of a perception in which she knew she was trapped, and she would plunge headlong into an inquiry into breaking down the limitations of that viewpoint. I would hear that emotional exhale of hers often in such interactions. She was determined to wrest out of me whatever perception would get her another measure of freedom. And many measures she did indeed win.

Carla knew I had something she wanted. She told me so right from the beginning in those words: “whatever you have, I want it,” she laughed. And she worked herself like hell to get it. She remade her interior self more dramatically than anyone I’ve ever known

I want some of what she had too. Her bravery. Her kindness. Her sensitivity to others. Her pitbull quality of holding onto something she wanted to have happen and not letting go. Her absolute fearlessness in facing her future, even if what she was facing would have cowed many a weaker soul—like mine, perhaps.

We didn’t see each other much recently, as I said. So not seeing her now hasn’t felt so strange. Just getting through the real “end” when it was finally, inescapably here was the hard part. Now, it’s almost back to life as it was before she passed.

Those last images are mercifully beginning to fade. And as they do, I find I miss my friend. The one who never stopped being a hippie, who wore the woven Guatemalan pants that I had tossed away when I outgrew them on my way up the scale, who had very few material desires other than the wish to travel, whom I had to gently tell, the day we went to the NY Philharmonic on Valentine’s Day in a blizzard, that it really wasn’t appropriate to knit during a concert, even if it was a rehearsal.

The Carla who is coming back now is the one who always arrived with a big smile and her special laugh, the one where she would toss back her head when something was really funny. I see her tending pots on the stove, cooking for her kids long past the age when they could take care of themselves, simply because she loved doing it—both the cooking and the caring. I remember how much she loved being with me in Brazil at John of God. Abadiania was the closest she ever came to the life she’d probably envisioned in the 60’s—a small town where people walked the streets with smiles and community, agragarian, peaceful. She had wanted very much to go back there and to stay for months, if not forever.

I asked her at that last hospital visit to find a way to let us know she was with us once she was on the Other Side. She nodded yes. I’m a medium myself, as a few of us from Soulfyre are. But I’m waiting for something really big. Something I know I couldn’t make up. And I know I’ll get it one day.

Because once Carla gets something in her head, something as small as death of the physical body certainly isn’t going to stop her.

So I’ll end with the words she said to me, back atcha.

It’s been a pleasure.


Weather You Like it or Not

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This confusing image is of my friend’s car underneath the tree limb that smashed it.

In the first 24 years since I left New York City for the suburbs, there was only one time when we lost power for days. It was when my (then) husband and I had just moved to Armonk, NY and Hurricane Gloria passed through, forcing us to move in for three days with my parents in the Bronx since we had no power, water, etc.

(In those days there was no internet, and no cell phones, the fax had just been invented. The reality of being tied to devices in order to run business and life was still a decade away.)

In the scant two years since I’ve moved to my current location in CT, there have been four times when the power has been out for several days…up to four or more.

So, the Northeast was socked by yet another storm that knocked everything off kilter, worse than when Hurricane Irene came by in September. the leaves are still on the trees and a heavy wet snow fell; the weight of it brought down power lines and trees all over. There’s a state of emergency on in many areas around.

After spending a night in a very cold house in the dark, I packed up the perishable contents of my freezer and made my way around blocked roads to my brother’s house 40 minutes away. They have a generator and so had light and heat.

One gets very grateful for such “small” things. I didn’t think I’d get back to my house for a week or more, but they did our block quickly, so it was only two days this time.

Many of my friends, as well as my business place, are still without power and are camping out where they can with friends in the city, or are just making due. At least the temperatures went back up to “normal” fall levels.

In the midst of all this, the street was just clean enough by Halloween that the trick-or-treaters came out in force, including people who migrated here from other areas where power cables are still down and too dangerous.

Disruption of all kinds is the new normal. And with each one comes an increasing sense of vulnerability at just how dependent we are on this fragile infrastructure we call modern life.


Namaste: Beholding & Projecting the Divine

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On my first visit to India for a world diversity conference in 1997, I made friends with Marisa, an Indian woman who lived in Mumbai. Though she was Catholic, she was quite comfortable in the Hindu culture surrounding her. While sightseeing in the city, she took me to a temple that, if it wasn’t actually ancient, was in enough disrepair to qualify it as such.

We took our shoes off at the designated place in the outer courtyard. Like many entrances to Hindu temples, there was a statue out front. It was a bronze cow or bull, (I wasn’t sure), that had been worn shiny by countless hands touching it in reverence before entering the inner sanctum. Suspended over it was a bell.

Come, let’s ring the bell, and let the gods know we are here,” she smiled, beckoning me to follow her example.

I kept looking at the shiny bronze cow, which in all its relaxed golden glory looked exactly like something Charlton Heston smashed with the original tablets of the Law in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”—just seconds before cartoon fire descended from heaven to consume all the “ye of little faith” crowd. (Those were top-of-the-line special effects back then, in the days before Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic.)

Despite my multi-cultural self, all my Jewish upbringing arose, and I couldn’t bring myself to touch that golden calf…er…cow…er…bull. (I did, however, follow Marisa into the temple).

Such is the power of cultural implants.

Perhaps the original derivation of the term “throw the book at them”

Judaism and Islam share something in common in this area: one is not supposed to make “graven images,” or represent God in any physical way. Art will express itself somehow, and from this proscription, you get the absolutely stunning Islamic calligraphy and decorative arts. (I think Jews were too busy being chased out of various countries around the world to develop a parallel artistic accomplishment on the same scale).

The point is, one didn’t paint pictures of God.

Dome of the Hagia Sophia in Turkey

Someone failed to tell that to Michelangelo, however, and to countless other Christian artists before and after him. As we all know, the Catholic and Orthodox churches developed a sophisticated vocabulary of imagery precisely focused on statues and icons, thus giving us some of the greatest works of art in the Western world—which, as an art student all my young life, I imbibed with my milk and cookies (and later wine and cheese). Yet, like many outside that culture, worship that included images or even more disconcerting, statues, was beyond my understanding.

As I later got more and more immersed in teachings and culture of India, I got a different lens on the whole phenomenon. The Jungian writer, Robert A. Johnson, wrote in his biography Balancing Heaven & Earth:

Soul work, or inner work, takes place when something moves from the unconscious, where it began, into conscious awareness. The path is never straight and neat inside oneself, as if you could go to a library and do all your inner work there. Instead, when something is ready to move from the unconscious to the conscious, it needs a host or intermediary. Generally this intermediary is some person or thing.

In other words, a saint, guru, picture or statue.

Spiritually speaking, we need to project those divine qualities that are our birthright, that we carry within us, onto someone or something else.

Seen in a magnified way in another, it become easier for us to grow into those holy qualities, be they goodness, kindness or holiness itself. Indian tradition takes that a step further—a student literally worships the guru as God, with the understanding that the Guru is in fact a stand-in until the student can hold that Divine energy him/herself.

Ammachi at Devi Bhava (blessing from the energy of Divine Mother) Seattle, 200

I attended a ritual in the city of Madurai on my last trip in 2009. At the end of the nine-day Dassera festival came an evening devoted to the women. As part of that holiday’s ritual, a young girl was dressed up as a goddess Parvati, and the older women fed and tended to her in a worshipful manner. The beautiful girl accepting the devotions of her elders was graceful and stunning. At the core of the ceremony was yet another variant of that all-encompassing Sanskrit greeting: Namaste: the God in me beholds the God in you.

Young girl dressed as Parvati for the end of Dassera, Madurai, India 2009

When Mother Theresa was asked how she could embrace the most destitute and dying on the streets of Kolkata, she answered that when she looked at them, she saw Jesus. This, too, is the projection of the Divine.

In my home, I have little altars in most of the rooms. All around are pictures of Great Ones, statues, rocks; all triggers of remembrance. My daughter, when she was younger, used to complain that the house looked like a monastery, “with Bibles everywhere!” (The two Bibles I have were in my study.)

If we see the Divine outside ourselves enough, eventually we bring it home where it belongs, in the inner temple.

Where are your divine projections focused? Where do you think they come from? (People of different backgrounds see that divine seed differently.) How do you remember the sacred?

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Rosh Hashonah Reflections

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Holidays live in the past as much as in the present.

Major holidays inevitably serve as triggers of memories: the memories of childhood celebrations, the memories of phases and people in adulthood that have come and gone. They are visceral, sensory-laden cues: the sight of a holiday symbol, the sounds of songs or the chants of rituals, the smells and tastes of foods that we eat now while mixing in memories of “then.”

The High Holidays bring a mixed bag of emotions for me. The season has always carried with it a subterranean unsettled feeling.

Growing up, we were barely a generation away from the Eastern Europe “Fiddler-on-the-Roof”-Russian/Polish-Ashkenazi-Jewish experience that continued to live on vividly in our own young lives in the form of the elders of our big, Jewish cooperative neighborhood.

But comparisons to the shtetls of Eastern Europe cease there. There were no men with sidecurls, tsitsis (fringes) and long black coats on our streets. Yet, who among us had a grandparent without a heavy Yiddish accent? Impossible to imagine!

Mom’s parents, and many of their crowd who formed the community in which we lived, had thrown away religion as shackles that kept them oppressed. They were modern, progressive, labor-supporting humanists. My mother professed herself to be an atheist, with the Holocaust as her ultimate proof.

But Mom was a fiercely committed Jew. She practiced a highly-refined brand of Culinary Judaism blended with a secular observance that merged our rich Yiddish-influenced environment with a big dose of pro-Israel activism. She was committed to our Jewish identity as a people and a culture, and she maintained an uneasy truce with the religious aspects from a safe distance.

Every now and then, we got a smattering of religion thanks to the fact that the only synagogue in our area was Orthodox, so if there was a bar mitzvah in the circle of friends, it was going to be under the aegis of the fire-and-brimstone-leaning Rabbi Sodden.

(I must pause here to note that my impressions of Rabbi Sodden were formed from my few visits to his temple on the High Holy Days, where, like any good Orthodox practitioner of his day, he took the opportunity to harangue the once-a-year crowd and douse them in a little bath of guilt. Later, under other circumstances I got to see a more empathetic side of him. I read that he passed in 2007, having served his community for 60 years.)

Dad, on the other hand, had served some time in cheder, and had a more religious inclination, although it wasn’t much expressed.

Except for at one time of year: The High Holidays.

This, I realized, was the Season-of-Mom’s-Discontent.

The September holidays weren’t at all like Chanukah for her, with its child-centered celebrations happily observed—awash in presents, candles and oil-infused latkes. And they weren’t like Passover, either; Passover, with its dramatic story of the Exodus—and with a dinner that took a month to prepare; relatives joining from near and far at a table that reached from one end of our Bronx apartment to the other—had the same importance to Mom that Christmas has for Christians.

But these Days of Awe—it seems there was no escaping the fact that they were days of Awe about one’s relationship to God. It was a temple holiday, or more properly, a synagogue holiday.

And we didn’t go to synagogue.

Except, Dad usually made his way to the shule during the holidays, and, mindful of the fact that he was not a regular, he would stand in the very back of the sanctuary that had its folding doors rolled back to accommodate the crowd.

Our erev Rosh Hashonah ritual consisted of mom preparing a big dinner, set out on the white tablecloth reserved for Shabbes (yes, we observed Friday night as a special dinner/family time). She would then periodically go to the window where she would watch impatiently for the sight of people coming back from the shule. Often there was an air of annoyance or impatience, one I can now well appreciate, as she had four hungry children to keep occupied, holding them off till Daddy got home.

In New York City, at some point long after these memories, the Board of Ed decided to close the schools for the Jewish holidays. Mom, a NYC teacher at that point, remarked that so many of the teachers of that era were Jewish, they really didn’t have the option to stay open with that many teachers out. But when we were young kids, the schools were open on the High Holy Days, and we, like all the Jewish children, stayed home.

There was no school for us, but no playing around either. We got into our dress clothes and walked around the neighborhood to visit our grandmothers. When I asked once why we couldn’t go to the park, my mom uneasily stated that if you weren’t in school, you were supposed to be in shule, and so she did not want us to be cavorting in the playground. This, then, was her show of respect. We dressed up, visited both our grandmothers, and waited for school hours to be over to be released to play. The message, she repeated often, was that religious or not, if you did not respect your own holidays, certainly no one else was going to.

A few times in my memory, Dad took us to the synagogue, perhaps at the end of Yom Kippur, for the last few moments of the service, to hear the final blast of the shofar. Since it was an orthodox shule, my going required my mother’s presence, in order for me to stand with her on the women’s side. I felt her impatience with a service all in Hebrew, her general discomfiture, her feeling out-of-place. I remember her turning to me and saying “that’s Adon Olam” (the song/prayer)—it means that it’s almost over” she said with a sigh of relief, both that the service was ending and that she had at last understood something in all that Hebrew.

Obviously, I was very sensitive to my mother’s signals.

There was one place among the High Holiday observances where Mom conveyed a different sort of tolerance for the worship at the synagogue. It was when Dad would go for the afternoon Yizkor (memorial) service, in memory of his parents and his brother and sister-in-law. Mom did not accompany him; her memorials were in the candles she lit on that occasion, but there was a different sort of understanding in her voice when she referred to that. We did not go with Dad for that either, because in Orthodox practice, you did not go to Yizkor if your parents were alive.

As time went on I married, and with my husband, I joined a Reform temple. There, High Holidays were a family affair, with men, women and children seated together. It was a whole different atmosphere, with new music and new styles of worship. There were many years of enjoying that familial experience. But after my divorce, the suburban family temple no longer felt like home, and as my spiritual life shifted, many aspects of that environment no longer spoke to me in quite the same way.

Every year I question whether I want to go to a service or not. Some years I do, some years I don’t. I laugh now, that it appears that in this area, I have inherited some of my mom’s ambivalence around this particular holiday, or perhaps around traditional observance of it. I’m hardly alone. Ask any non-orthodox Jewish person if they are fasting on Yom Kippur and watch the dance begin.

I didn’t go to a service this Rosh Hashonah. I didn’t have a round challah, or dip apples in honey, or even spend time with my siblings.

But more importantly, I am aware of what this holiday represents: a time to review your life; to make amends, to complete the past, to start anew. This year, Rosh Hashonah was an internal affair. Next year? Who knows?

May we all be inscribed for a good year.


Chasing Saints

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While visiting Julio, (my friend of more decades than I care to admit) at his house in Florida some dozen years ago, I found in the guest bedroom—a room that vaguely resemble a monk’s cell if you don’t count the opulent bedspread and plush mattress—a single book with browning pages. It bore this intriguing title: “The Incorruptibles”. While it sounded like a 1950’s movie starring a gang of teens, it turned out to be a captivating account of many Catholic saints whose bodies were documented to have been found intact years or centuries after their death. I stayed up late into the wee hours, reading the somewhat grisly details of various body parts or even whole bodies in inexplicable states of preservation; no mummification required.

Around that time we were planning a trip to Italy. I was also studying with the mystic, healer and former Catholic priest Ron Roth, whose main guide was the 20th-century mystic and Capuchin priest, Padre Pio. So when I floated the idea of a detour down the Italian boot to San Giovanni Rotundo to visit Pio’s home-base, Julio’s eyes lit up as did his face with his (paradoxically) devilish grin: “I’m there, baby! I love chasing saints.”

Julio has a gift for such bon mots. The phrase made me laugh aloud, and it stuck. As it turns out, the two of us did chase saints across Italy, or as we later joked, Padre Pio chased us across Italy. In years after, we went on to chase saints halfway round the globe.

When I was growing up as a Jewish girl in the Bronx, in a secular Yiddishist environment, such a notion as saints would bring puzzled laughter. I remember my mom making humorous comments from time to time, like: “It’s the building next to that church, you know: ‘Our Lady of Ten Thousand Mitzvahs.’ ” In a largely agnostic/secular/atheist environment, the idea of devotions to deceased mortals and their representative statues was an inexplicable phenomenon of a culture diametrically opposed to our own.

It took many years of study and experience for me to begin to understand the world’s attraction to saints, and my own as well.

The first big piece of news for me was that those regarded as saints are found in every faith, and devotion to them is not limited to Catholicism. There are even those who could rightly be regarded as secular saints. The second was that there are among us today many who by any regard fit that description.

I’m fortunate enough to have been in the presence of some of the greatest of our time. It’s been my encounters with the living ones that gave me the understanding of the intense devotion to those who no longer walk the earth.

So, I think for a while, I am going to run a periodic series of reflections on sainthood; what it means for us in this era, and some of my personal experiences with those whom we may hold in this regard.

I leave this post with my favorite quote from one of my most powerful influences: the writer, Jungian psychologist and perhaps saint himself, Robert A. Johnson. Anyone who has heard one of my talks knows I am fond of quoting him, and this paragraph from his autobiography: Balancing Heaven & Earth: A Memoir of Visions, Dreams and Realizations sums up one of the most important and least understood aspects of this rich topic. Having once been invited to be the saint for a rural village in India after he spent several weeks there, he later wrote his reflections on the experience, which, while he kept in humble and humorous perspective, clearly affected him deeply. While I have come to appreciate other aspects that distinguish saints of all backgrounds, this unique perspective provides a good jumping off point:

I have meditated on the subject of sainthood many times since this experience, and I find a bit of wisdom in understanding that saints are people who suffer the projection of unlived holiness from a group of people and are made to serve in this strange role whether they like it or not. It is only the other side of the coin of scapegoating, in which a group chooses an individual to carry the dark side of their own personalities, which they are unwilling to own for themselves. This idea has been borne out by careful examination: every group I have ever experienced has done this living-out-by-appointment of the human elements that are too good or too bad for an ordinary person to accommodate in his or her own life. The group gives that overwhelming characteristic to some person nearby. God help the poor person who is landed with either of the excesses that humankind finds equally difficult to bear.

Stay tuned.

Love and blessings,

Rev. Nettie