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Yom Kippur Message 5781

09/29/2020 07:29:34 PM

Sep29

I.

This past year I returned to an old hobby of mine, taking up various styles of needlework.

My cross-stitching projects have included small pieces, some no bigger than 4 inches around or 6 inches across. Often, they feature “bad words,” surrounded by the kind of genteel floral patterns one associates with antimacassars and porcelain tea cups. So the raging impulse behind pieces that read BAD WORD-capitalism, or Feminist-as-BAD WORD, are set off against a backdrop of pleasantly intertwined pastel-coloured borders of vines and flowers.

A larger project involved the technique called bargello, using even vertical stitches on canvas to create patterns that can look three-dimensional. In our living room – right over there – is an old telephone table. It sat in my grandparents’ dining room throughout my childhood and held a large, heavy black rotary telephone on its curved glass top. Even though the inner shelf has not held a phone book for years, and no one sits on the tiny seat to make or receive calls, its stained cover called out for repair.

Reverend Susan Cooke Kittredge offers these reflections from an essay called “We All Need Mending.

The solace and comfort I feel when I pick up my needle and thread clearly exceeds the mere rescue of a piece of clothing. It is a time to stop, a time to quit running around; it is a chance to sew actual rips together. I can’t solve the problems of my community or the world, but I can mend things at hand…

Mending something is different from fixing it. Fixing it suggests that evidence of the problem will disappear. I see mending as a preservation of history and a proclamation of hope.

Mending doesn’t say, “This never happened.” It says, instead, “Something or someone was surely broken here, but it can be brought to new life.” So too my old pajamas, the fence around the garden, the friendship torn by misunderstanding, a country being ripped apart by economic and social inequity, and a global divide of enormous proportions – they all need mending.

We’re all metaphorically threading needles while eyeballing problems of vast proportions, gaps as large as a melting polar icecap or as vast as whole burning coastal states, craters left by an exploding harbour, all while in the bewildering and frightening grip of a global viral illness that is tearing away at vast swaths of humanity.

We all need mending. Every corner of the world has tears… or is it tears?

II.

Like most of my colleagues who serve congregations, I try to stack my summer reading list with titles that will inspire me – for moments like this one and for the general purpose of uplift and meaning-making.

This summer my attention was captivated by Anne Lammot’s Stitches – at first just for the title, and then because I enjoy her writing. Her books always address Very Big Things – in capital letters – in her particularly intimate and quirky way. Participants in Exploring Judaism and Machaneh Shabbat may recall a reference to Lamott’s teaching, gleaned from another of her book titles, from when we learned about the three types of Jewish prayer: Help, Thanks, Wow.

Reading Stitches was a consoling, cozy affair, like being curled up underneath a family quilt. Even with its rough patches, or the fabric squares that remind you of an unpleasant relative or a regrettable time in the past, there is comfort in recognizing the connections.

Lamott’s book also grabbed me by its subtitle – A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair. She writes:

One rarely knows where to begin the search for meaning, though by necessity, we can only start where we are. I do know it somehow has to do with sticking together as we try to make sense of chaos.

We work hard, we enjoy life as we can, we endure. We try to be more present and less petty. Some days go better than others.  

And then there’s a mass shooting, a nuclear plant melts down, just as a niece is born, or as you find love. The world is coming to an end. In environmental ways, it’s true, and in existential ways, it has been since the day each of us was born… Where is meaning in the pits? In the suffering? I think these are questions worth asking.

Exposing some uncomfortable truths about her life, she encourages us to pick up the worn and torn patches of our lives, along with the lives of those around us, and sew them back together. She draws us from the search for meaning, through hope and towards repair: “You start wherever you can. You see a great need, so you thread a needle. You find one place in the cloth through which to take one stitch, one simple stitch.”

Lamott’s Stitches offered a very different read from some of my other summer titles, especially ones that address the Very Big Things I wanted to learn about. One of these was Colson Whitehead’s novel with the deceptive non-fiction-sounding title – The Underground Railroad. With grandeur in scope and scale, along with minute attention to details that are breathtaking in their horror, Whitehead brings to life the daily experiences of enslaved people on a 19th century cotton plantation in Georgia, and in the cities along the escape route that was the Underground Railroad.

The fictionalized truths of this novel made me beyond uncomfortable. There was nothing cozy about, as one reviewer described, “this brutal, vital, devastating novel” with its “extraordinary prose and uncomfortable home truths.”

Whitehead exposes the raw brutality of the web of owners, overseers, slave catchers, and lynch mobs, seamlessly weaving together a saga set in a specific time in America that leads the reader, inexorably and inevitably, to recognize its impact in our present moment.

It was also a different experience from the actual non-fiction title that  accompanied me through the last month of summer, Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City. The northern city is Thunder Bay, only incorporated in Ontario in 1970 with the merger of Port Arthur, Fort William and two surrounding townships.

The Canadian colonial-era legacy of segregation lives on in the spirit of the communities alongside its rivers, Port Arthur reflecting a predominantly European population and Fort William home to many with First Nation heritage, including those who have relocated from remote Northern communities. Even the names of its rivers reveal the contrasting cultural and historical legacies: Kaministiquia, Neebing and McIntyre.

With similar meticulous attention to research that informed Whitehead’s novel, Talaga connects intimate family stories, political policy, and historical injustices with their lasting impact on the first peoples of Canada. In 2011, Talaga was assigned to write a newspaper feature exploring why Indigenous Canadians were refraining from voting in the federal election. Instead, she found herself compelled to turn her focus on the lives of seven Indigenous youth who had died over the previous decade while attending high school in Thunder Bay.

So much mending, so many tears, right here too, in our little corner of the world.

III.

We seek threads of hope we can grasp, in order to take part in the repair of our lives and the lives of those who name the place we live Turtle Island, regardless of whether we are on this or the other side of our southern border. In both Canada and the United States, at the close of the second decade of the 21st century, the colour of one’s skin remains a significant determinant of status and life-expectancy. Right here on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinabe Nation we recognize a damning legacy of how Canada, how our government, our ministries, our agencies and our police forces have treated, and continue to treat, its First Peoples.

All three of these books moved me, inexorably towards these days of awe, and this Yom Kippur, with its own book, our mahzor, redolent with passages about meaning, hope, and the possibility of repair through active, purposeful teshuvah.

This Jewish moment is filled with the call to repair the ways we mess up. And through this Jewish moment, we find ways to mend our ways. By mess up I don’t only mean the ways in which our personal interactions might cause harm. I’m talking about bad words written into centuries of policies and practices that cause damage so harmful, so injurious to the fabric of our social interactions that it is taking generations of unravelling and mending to repair.

This is what all of these books were clarifying for me, how, while we might recite or hear the traditional words of the alphabetical Ashamnu and the Al Het, the communal confessions, they speak to so much of what we are living through in this moment.

How will we weave together all of these historical, global and intimate strands into our teshuvah? By naming not just the injustices but how we will change ourselves in the face of those injustices, as a means of repairing the tears of the fabric. Teshuvah, reconciliation, learning and un-learning – acknowledging how we personally and collectively mess up – can mend the gaping wounds of discrimination rooted in race-based prejudice. Reverend Cooke Kittredge called her stitching “a preservation of history and a proclamation of hope.” The remnants of the gaps will always be visible. Darning and patching doesn’t do away with a hole, but it pulls the frayed edges together, one careful, purposeful stitch at a time.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, some of us were able to be together for Tashlich. I noted that while we might often name that “alef-bet” of bad “things in the world” we wished were cast away, the intention of tashlich is to frame what we personally and actively wish to discard from within ourselves.

Drawing from intentions written by Jada Garrett of Bechol Lashon, an organization raising awareness of the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of global Jewry, we cast off our inactions, hesitations, and errors in the face of racism with first-person statements:

  • I cast away my ignorance of racial injustice and commit to becoming more knowledgeable about how racism is perpetuated, how it’s been sustained
  • I cast away ignoring harmful acts or words of racism and bigotry that occur in my presence and commit to calling out those acts
  • I cast away judging those I perceive as different from me and commit to finding our similarities and enjoying those differences.
  • I cast away my conscious and unconscious bias and microaggressions that I am guilty of and commit to being more conscious of the way I am feeling and speaking
  • I cast away inaction and commit to taking action in the spirit of tikkun olam, a world of equity and justice for all.

IV.

There is one spot left to stitch in my most recent project. It was inspired by the late US Congressional Representative John Lewis, who relentless persisted in his pursuit of economic and racial justice throughout his life, from the sit-ins and the streets to the chambers of government. The cross-stitch piece in his honour does not feature a BAD WORD, but rather a gentle imperative, one he was known to offer in various speeches and interviews: MAKE GOOD TROUBLE.

We strive this day, and in the days ahead, to keep stitching together a community, a city, a country, a world with a calm yet relentless imperative to repair. In my own efforts, some BAD WORDS may still cross my lips - or appear in my needlework designs! Thankfully, I will have every day of the year to pick up the thread, pick up the needle, and imbue my stitches with hope, prayer and the commitment to do better.  

Shana tova and gmar hatima tova – may this day and your new year be filled with opportunities to repair and to be renewed, for good.

Notes

Susan Cooke Kittredge, “We All Need Mending” https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18582136

Anne Lamott,  Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/315633/stitches-by-anne-lamott/

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad http://knopfdoubleday.com/guide/9780345804327/the-underground-railroad/

Alex Preston, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/09/the-underground-railroad-colson-whitehead-revie-luminous-furious-wildly-inventive

Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City https://houseofanansi.com/products/seven-fallen-feathers

Jada Garrett, “This Tashlich, Let’s Cast Off Our Inaction Over Racism” https://globaljews.org/blog/this-tashlich-lets-cast-off-our-inaction-over-racism/

Sat, October 31 2020 13 Cheshvan 5781