Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sands and Hourglasses

OK, so I finally power watched the new season of House of Cards. Some call that binge watching--when you don't leave the couch until all 13 episodes have been consumed. But I prefer to classify it as an exercise of endurance. It takes real strength to ignore the dishes stacked in the sink with every fork you own buried somewhere under that mess. It's not easy to ignore the loud ding of the dryer when it begs you to remove your clothes before those sweaters become irreversibly wrinkled. Thanks to my dedication and years of training, I made it through Season 3 in one weekend.

There was one tiny thread of a story line that caused a flood of memories for me. Don't worry, there are no spoilers in this post. (But what the hell are you waiting for? Watch the damn show!)

One episode featured a group of Tibetan monks creating a sand mandela in the halls of the White House.

If you haven't seen one of these masterpieces up close, you should most certainly put it on your bucket list. Watching the monks create this magnificent display of colorful sand quite literally a few grains at a time is really something to see. Witnessing the process draws you in with a kind of hypnotic calm.

This Tibetan art is called dul-tson-kyil-khor and it takes these monks weeks of bending over a table to fill in the geometric shapes and religious symbols. Each monk holds a metal funnel called a chak-pur in one hand and a metal rod in the other. He runs the rod down the funnel, which causes the sand to flow out like ink.

But here is the most amazing part of the creation of a mandela. Shortly after the monks complete their masterpiece, they destroy it. They carefully sweep together the sand, mixing the colors into indistinguishable mounds. They collect the sand and take it to a river, where they release it back into the world.

Because the monks know this. They embrace this. Nothing in life is permanent. Everything is transitory. And the more that we accept that, the more at peace we can become.

When I saw that mandela being created in House of Cards, I had such a flood of memories. I once had a very close encounter with this intricate sand art.

When I was a senior in college, back in the Grunge Age, I got an amazing internship with the public relations office of the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office. It was filled with experiences like nothing in my life would ever match. I saw my first dead person. I was held out the side of the Snowbird Tram by some members of the SWAT team so I could take photos of them doing their free rappelling drills. I was working there when they lost an officer in the line. And I was running information between the command center and the press when Lloyd Prescott happened.

In 1994, the Sheriff's Office was located in a building adjacent to the Salt Lake City Library.  Lloyd Prescott was off duty that day, only in the office to catch up on some clerical work. Someone ran into the Sheriff's Office frantically yelling that a man was in the library with a gun and a bomb and was taking hostages. Then Officer Prescott did something quite amazing. He ran into the library, in his plain clothes that hid his service weapon, and joined the group of hostages without the man waiving a gun taking notice.

Officer Prescott waited with the group of terrified hostages for more than 5 hours. He was afraid to take a shot on the chance that the dead man's switch being held by the gunman was really connected to a bomb. As Hour 6 approached and the gunman told the hostages to draw straws to see who would be shot first, Officer Prescott decided to risk the bomb detonating because he saw that there was a thick wooden table between the bomb and the hostages. He shouted to the hostages to drop to the floor as he pulled his gun and shot the man who was--in one way or another--changing all of our lives. If you are curious, here are more details of the incident.

As the dust of this event was settling, I was tasked with fielding the press inquiries, which included the LA Times, Good Morning America, and Newsweek.

But the thing I remember most about those couple days is the mandela. You see, in the library when this hostage crisis began, there was a group of Tibetan monks meditatively vibrating their chak-pur to fill in the intricate design they had laid out on a table. None of the monks were taken hostage. But they all had to flee the building.

If the story had a different ending, maybe the monks wouldn't have returned to finish and then dismantle their mandela. But it didn't end differently. And only hours after the SWAT team had cleared the building and allowed people to re-enter the library, the monks went back to work on their mandela.

I was lucky enough to observe how those monks--after being interrupted by a frightening, life-threatening situation--returned to their art. All the while reaffirming that all life is transitory. I think everyone involved that day came a bit closer to learning that for ourselves.

It was such a gift.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Because It Still Matters

I have been in a bit of a blogging slump in the last couple weeks. So I was feeling quite good that I had not one but two great ideas for posts. But those got bumped when I heard a news story today. So Tibetan monks and beating the chimps will have to wait.

I’ve pretty much decided that I am an atheist. I guess I just need to emerge from the atheist closet and be out and proud. But strangely, I find the need to label myself an Atheist Jew. Because being Jewish is deeply rooted in my genes. I have people who share my DNA that died in concentration camps. I am in a great deal of karmic debt to those relatives.

I guess I am Jewish in my heart and Atheist in my head. This news item certainly struck both heart and head.

Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich died yesterday of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Last month, Schweich announced that he would seek the GOP nomination for the 2016 Missouri gubernatorial race. Before taking his life, Schweich had been talking to a reporter, alleging that Missouri Republican Chairman John Hancock was telling Republican primary voters that Schweich was Jewish. Although Schweich had Jewish grandparents, he himself was Episcopalian. In his final message to this reporter, he asked that someone come to his home for an interview. In his message, Schweich says, “To me, this is more of a religion story than a politics story, but it’s your choice on who the reporter is.”

It is a religion story.

Why would Hancock be telling people that Schweich is Jewish? Because he is a political rival of Mr. Schweich. And there are only two reasons to mention someone’s religion in anything other than a first date situation: to assign it as an asset or attach it as a liability.

Why would Schweich care? Because he knows that being labeled as Jewish—whether true or not—will impact the votes of many of his constituents.

Because—still today—being Jewish matters. It’s a religion story.

In elementary school, my sister lost a perfect attendance award because she missed a day to attend Rosh Hashanah services. (I was never in danger of receiving a perfect attendance award at any point in my life.) I've been called a kike a few times in my life. My aunt once told me that I should take a beautiful stained glass Star of David from my front window so strangers wouldn't vandalize my house.

I took the stained glass down. But I have a mezuzah on my door. I had a Jewish wedding. In fact, I had a Jewish divorce. I take buckets of plastic dreidels to my son’s school Christmas party. I have already started fretting about that kid’s Bar Mitzvah. Oy gevalt. It’s in two years!

I did none of those things because of any sense of faith or belief. I did them from a strongly-ingrained sense of solidarity. From an obligation to every person that ever died because he or she was Jewish. From a stubborn tenacity to shame anti-Semites as the racists they often tell themselves that they are not.

Hancock, the originator of the “whisper campaign” that Schweich was alleging, has stated that he only mentioned that Schweich was Jewish as a fact similar to “he was from St. Louis” or “he went to Harvard Law.”

Here is the thing, though. Schweich was running for Governor of Missouri. So being from St. Louis is important because he grew up in the state he wanted to govern. Having gone to Harvard Law School speaks of an important credential of any elected officer.

How does “being Jewish” fit in? Don’t spend too much time thinking about it. Because it doesn’t fit in.

I hated Mitt Romney’s politics and choice of a running mate. I couldn't disagree with him more when it came to most of the things that came out of his mouth during his Presidential run. I was (and still am) a fervent supporter of Obama. And every time I saw or heard someone bring up Romney’s religion, I cringed. If I could, I replied. As often as I could, I would loudly shout (in all CAPS if necessary) that his religion doesn't matter. His qualifications matter. His plans matter. His politics matter.

While Romeny’s Mormonism certainly and necessarily shaped his thoughts in secular life, they did so with no more strength than any other person and any other person’s thoughts. If I were somehow miraculously elected President, my atheism would most certainly influence my thinking. We all have some form of framework for our ideas to build on. But that is all that it ever is. A latticed scaffold erected to stand upon as we build ourselves.

Aside—If I did somehow get elected to anything, I think I would have to assign that victory as a burning-bush-level miracle. Which, I would imagine, invalidates my atheism. Ahhh…. irony….
If you don’t think that anti-Semitism is still deeply rooted in our society, read the comments section of this People magazine article about Tom Schweich’s suicide. In those comments, no one gets called a dirty Christian.

Stay tuned for monks and monkeys.