Monday, October 1, 2007

Chol ha-Moed: Facing Fear and Fragility in the Debris Hut

It seems that our lives and time has been taken over by the need to observe Holy Days and Festivals this month. And that is true.

But we are now deep into the Chol ha-Moed of Sukkot--the "ordinary days of the festival" during which we can engage in more ordinary activites, because after all, eight days of holy day, even of such a joyous one as Sukkot can become somewhat wearing.

Fall has truly arrived on our doorstep, here in the East Mountains. The sunflowers have dropped their petals and gone to seed, although the yellow daisy flowers are in full bloom. For the most part, the weather has been vintage autumn--sunny, warm days and chilly, clear evenings.
We did get some rain on Saturday afternoon--quite a downpour, as a matter of fact--and just when we were setting up for having holy guests for dinner and havdalah (separation from the Shabbat time) in the sukkah. So we set up the dining room for eating, but we were lucky in that a short lull between rain and wind allowed us to make the motzi--the blessing over bread--in the sukkah. However, after dinner, when havdalah time rolled around, the wind had come up and the ears of corn were dancing in the sukkah, so prudence required that the ceremony be done inside. It does involve a lighted candle. That would be difficult and possibly dangerous in a windy, wooden booth!

On the first day of Sukkot, we change the weather blessing said in the daily Amidah prayer from tal--"who causes the dew to fall" --to ruach v'geshem --"who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall." Although we begin to pray for rain during Sukkot, in the land of Israel, rain during Sukkot is deemed to be premature and bad luck. The winter rains are supposed to come after Sukkot. However, here in the southwestern US, after ten years of drought and wildfires, we welcome rain whenever it comes.

During the Chol ha-Moed, we have been learning more about Sukkot, telling stories and baking bread together, as part of our homeschooling, but N. has turned to some other activities as well. As part of his Kamana studies, he has been reading about edible plants in the southwest, and studying the art of shelter. Shelter in the wilderness is a theme for Sukkot, so this ties our religious and educational lives together seamlessly. But it was not planned or directed by me. Although I have been getting anxious about math, I have curbed my need to control and have been watching what N. is actually doing.

When we were getting the branches together to make the schkak for the sukkah, N. cut more branches than necessary. I curbed my desire to question his motives in cutting more branches than necessary, but before you congratulate me on my self-control, I must tell you that it was mostly because we needed a number of trees trimmed for fire safety alone!

After he got some branches together, N. cut a pole that was as tall as he, plus an armlength. Then he used that as the ridgepole of a lean-to-like structure covered with branches and stuffed with leaves. Pine boughs made up the floor as well. This is what he calls a "debris hut" which he says is modeled after what squirrels do to make their nests warm and cozy.

It looks like a mound of branches on the ground, scarcely noticible to someone who is not looking for it. The middle of the debris hut is hollowed by the simple act of crawling inside and snuggling. All around him, N. has the thickness of an arm length of branches and leaves, that keep him warm and cozy even on a cold night.

Although N. successfully spent the night in a debris hut during his Coyote Tracks camp experience, he is currently working on conquering his fear and uncertainty of the night at home. At Coyote tracks, he and a partner spent the night together in the debris hut. Also, there were others doing the same all around.

Here, though, we were not spending the night outside. We left the back door open and made sure that the inside night lights were working and went to bed. During the first night, N. came in about two hours after we retired to bed. Over breakfast next morning, N reported that the dogs next door had begun growling at something and he heard something moving very near to him. Now the dogs were probably growling at N. and it was probably N.'s movements that caused it. We talked about fear and uncertainty and then N. said he would try again. The next night, he actually fell asleep and stayed out until two-thirty am. But then the wind came up, very strong and woke him. He couldn't hear anything but the wind, and that made him nervous, so he came inside.

We have talked much about the fragility of life that is honored during Sukkot, and about the need for a person to face and deal with fear and uncertainty. N. has planned to try again. However, on the third night it rained and on the fouth night he stayed over with a friend who does not have a debris hut--yet. So maybe he will make it through the night tonight. We'll see what he and the weather decide to do!

For me, this is a letting-go learning as much as it is for N. I get nervous at the thought of him alone outside of our secure house. At the same time, I know it is important for him to venture beyond the apron-strings and face and conquer his fear. I have not nagged him about his fear nor have I kept him tied to me with mine. I am trying to walk the middle path. I talk to him about his plans, make a few suggestions about facing fear, and accept what he decides. I know that when he accomplishes his goal, he will have more confidence than before, just as he did after his Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

I am beginning to understand that education is more about setting and accomplishing hard tasks for oneself than it is about content of lessons. Yes, he is learning a good deal of content as he studies Kamana. But more importantly, he is developing a sense of confidence in his own ability to learn and grow and make things happen for himself. In this way, he is learning how to learn whatever he might find needful to know. And he is becoming a self-disciplined human being; a person who is not easily deceived by dazzling technique or propaganda. This kind of learning makes for a person capable of the self-determination that is the hallmark of an adult who is capable of coming up in the world. Even more importantly, he is developing a sense of being at home on this planet, a kind of rootedness on this earth, and a physical, intellectual and spiritual connectedness with all of life on it. This sense of place and time is necessary for a person to resist getting lost in addictions and the wasteland of pop-culture that eat away at the heart and mind and destroy the soul.

And these are the lessons of Sukkot as well.


Tikkunknitter said...

We share your (almost) relief at the slow passage of the "ordinary" days of Sukkot. The few hours in the sukkah every day are a welcome respite from the exhausting sequence of high holidays. And as if there isn't enough to rejoice about during Sukkot, there's Simchat Torah to look forward to! How do you manage to study and homeschool with all this excitement?

Dana said...

This was a fascinating post to me. Thank you so much for sharing it!