This is a re-posting of an essay I wrote one year ago. It is a quiet appreciation of our natural world, a celebration of faith, a respect for worship, the sadness of loss, the hope for the future. My little dog, Buddy, has left us, but his memory—like those of so many—is a blessing that sustains me. L’Shanah tovah. Stay well. Stay safe. Shalom.
Even early tastes of winter cannot diminish the beauty of autumn. While spring may offer the promise of renewal, it is fall that provides a sense of timely reflection—a gentle lead-in to the harsh dormancy of winter.
I like the colors of fall—brilliant shades of yellow and red that soften over the weeks to muted tones of burnt amber, ruby and gold. The leaves fall into a lush, deep-pile carpet to cover lawns and gardens, sidewalks and streets. It is a satisfying melody played by shuffling through the leaves before they are damped by early snow. The sun usually shines bright through patches of clouds this time of year and my little dog, a snow-white Bichon Frise, digs his nose deep into the leaf piles, coming up for a satisfied intake of the cool fresh air that we know will grow colder as the calendar pages turn.
Sunday is the best time to enjoy this wonderland; the other days seem to pale by comparison. Sunday mornings along the banks of the Yellowstone River move at a slower pace. Few are on their ways to work, getting in that run or breath-taking power walk before the clock strikes a certain hour. We’re slowed because we can be. We can stop to visit with the friends and neighbors we meet during this respite from the wearisome world. I take the time to watch a piece of driftwood from far upstream float by our stand on the gravelly bank.
Buddy and I prefer the quiet. He sniffs out of an inherent curiosity, joyously taking in the wonders of a world of myriad aromas sensed only by him; in contrast, my breaths are labored and concentrated, my focus on the inhalations and exhalations that must be taken at a measured pace, in a prescribed manner.
It is only in the last couple of years or so that I’ve had to think about breathing.
In dog years, Buddy is much older than I am and I’m not sure I like the active comparisons. He still prances and runs, jumping on and off the couch with style, grace and ease, and he rolls about the carpet with admirable zeal. I, on the other hand, have not pranced in years (if ever, really); I stand up from a couch using both hands like a ski jumper uses poles coming out of the starting gate; if I find myself on the floor it is not by choice.
In all fairness to me, Buddy does sleep considerably more than I do.
I don’t know what Buddy thinks about as we make our way together on Sunday mornings. Probably not much. His life is sensory and reactive, any gleaned information a mere product of repetition and his genetic imprint. His cognitive skills are suspect at best. He seems uninterested in the day’s news. I am slowed by age, my senses still sharp, but my reactions only as quick as I can turn a somewhat arthritic neck. I’m not complaining, mind you. Walking is faux exercise; retention the goal.
I have a friend who has lived in this little southwest Montana town his entire life. When he ambles through familiar neighborhoods, he is haunted by childhood memories. Friendly ghosts meet him at every corner, he says. Every street and alley that served as a passage to some long-ago destination has become a private Memory Lane, each house a home to a part of his life. I’m envious, knowing that for me Thomas Wolfe was right: You Can’t Go Home Again. It’s a different story for those who never left.
My years here represent about one-third of my life. I have no childhood memories belonging to these streets and schools and the downtown that have become part of my very being. My childhood is left frozen in time in Chicago; the next batch of memories divided unevenly between New York and Los Angeles.
Some of my earliest memories of here were made before I had a dog I cared to walk. I’d walk alone on Sunday mornings and enjoy the tolling of the church bells.
THE MEMORY IS A FAULTY PART of the brain, frequently exaggerating the actual events or burying the unpleasant. Hubris and humility are intimate; hyperbole, their happy companion. We remember most fondly what we want to and express it as we wish. And so it is that I remember there once being more church bells than can be heard today.
Unlike the noon whistle heard in many a small American town, the church bell’s chime is a call to worship, arguably a more noble call than the siren that announces lunch. Our bodies aren’t always hungry at noon; our souls need tending at any hour.
I’ve never answered the call of a church bell, although I enjoy their peals as if they were a symphony of resonant brass playing in some distant hall. In my faith, a shofar is blown to announce that God is ready to listen to prayers and pleas. The sound of the shofar varies, determined by its player. A church bell’s sound was determined when the bell was hammered from bronze by skilled artisans. Time doesn’t change its key.
I doubt there are many bellfounders left. Too bad. It seems like a worthy craft and calling, one inspired, perhaps, by a greater good—not unlike building the spires that reach so majestically to the heavens from European cathedrals.
What I find appealing about the Christian tradition is one deeply ingrained in the imagery of Norman Rockwell. His work was exemplary of an ideal that was empathetic, inclusive and diverse—for the time. People we knew as archetypal characters graced the covers of The Saturday Evening Post. The themes were often simple, but they celebrated complex stories, among them the freedom to worship and the enjoyment of companionship and family, the pain of a scraped knee, carefree skaters on a frozen pond. There always seemed to be more than met the eye.
In my mind, I often see what seems like a Rockwell painting in motion. Families newly defined by the times make their ways through the streets. The elderly with their walkers; a pair of women clutching each other’s arms for balance and strength; a young couple with only the future in view. They make their ways to the churches made of bricks or wood, their interiors pulling one’s eyes from the entry to the stained-glass imagery designed to invoke piety and devotion.
There are songs and readings in those houses, announcements, prayers, a homily and a benediction. There is an offering and perhaps communion is offered and accepted. The congregants shake the minister’s hand on the way to coffee and donuts in the church basement.
I consider myself a pious Jew who is convinced of the spirit of God if not the existence. The first Commandment of our 613 mitzvot demands a belief in God, and the second that He have no competition in the form of other gods; the rest prescribes the way to live as a Jew, from business dealings to grooming to diet. As Rabbi Hillel said, “that which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” We don’t believe strictly in an afterlife and therefore are expected to do good for its own sake. Try as we might, we are fallible; our failings human and therefore profound.
I’ve spent much of this week thinking about the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which began last Sunday. At sundown on Tuesday begins Yom Kippur—a day of fasting, prayer and reflection as we atone for the sins and transgressions of the previous year. It is the holiest day on our calendar and it demands attention. I went to the Yellowstone River for a private tashlikh, a tradition that asks us to cast our sins to the depths of the sea. In time, my sins will settle in the Gulf of Mexico.
And today my thoughts are about Tony, whom we lost just one year ago. When he died, he was thirteen—the age of a man, according to my faith. I miss him, as do all who knew and loved him. None will ever understand why he left us, and I wonder often about the future he will never have. I imagine it as fine and productive, full of warmth and love. I had stories to tell him, and I wanted to listen to his. I weep for what was lost, what would never be.
These days have emerged as an untidy convergence of sorrow and regret, gratitude and hope; there is an ongoing need for solace, respite from the rigors of life.
My temple offers views of snow-covered mountains, the sounds of the river in motion, the wisps of wood smoke from warming fires spiraling from red-brick chimneys, people walking at a snail’s pace to take it all in, kids zooming by on their bicycles and skateboards. The pews are the benches and retaining walls scattered about; the altar a stand of cottonwoods where the river parts. This is a vivid expression of life, framed by trees in an arboreal cathedral. It may or may not have anything to do with religion or a greater being, but it is valid to seek answers in their expressions. It is an acceptance of faith no matter how defined.
There is great spirit actively at work. To take an hour for quiet contemplation or to sit quietly in a sanctuary to sing a hymn, greet a stranger or friend with a heartfelt smile, think about the needy and the infirm, or say a prayer for peace is a blessing. A mitzvah.
And to walk among the bowed flowers and the fallen leaves of a bright autumn, to cast a sin to the river, to listen to the world’s soul in the wind, to be included in the next year’s Book of Life…each is a blessed reward.
A morning walk seems in order.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska