Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Commonplace Meal: On the Experience of Jewish Prayer

I have been thinking about the nature of Jewish prayer lately.

It all started about a week ago, when I happened upon a post about the quality and nature of worship by Mama Squirrel over at Dewey's Treehouse. She used a quotation from a Christian author, and the image presented interested me greatly, and so I wrote a short reply, and went on to celebrate Shabbat. But the image has been there in my mind since, and I have been playing with it and how it might relate to Jewish prayer.

This week, I have been wrestling with some big ideas that affect how I think about my field of special education, but my thoughts on Jewish prayer have still been rattling around in my mind, and I have the niggling feeling that the two are somehow connected. But it is something that happened to N. yesterday that really brought the question of the experience of Jewish prayer back into focus for me.

Last night, it was my turn to drive A. and N. home from Machon. After dropping A. off to his mother at the Dairy Queen in Edgewood, N. and I had the drive back to Sedillo and home alone together. N. was unusually quiet on the way out to Edgewood from Albuquerque, but as we neared the Sedillo exit, he began sighing. Mothers with adolescents everywhere know the familiar exchange that followed:
Me: "What's wrong?"
N.: (Heavy sigh) "Nothing."
Me: "Did something happen tonight?"
N.: "Not really." (More sighs).
And so forth and so is pulling teeth to drag something out of an adolescent, even when they really want to tell you about it.

What I got out of N. was that class (about the origins of Ashkenazi Jewry) was "boring, but okay," that he did not get teased about his haircut (which is too short for his liking), and that things were fine between him and A. as well as among his classmates.
The problem had to do with T'fillah, the short prayer service at the end of Machon. (I have already written about the problem of who owns that service, and you can find that at 'Making It Theirs'). N.'s current problem is that apparently one of the "clergy" (I hate using this term in a Jewish setting, it implies knowledge and power that traditionally belongs to all Jews, but this is what they call themselves) has been practicing what N. calls "mind control." Upon further questioning, what this means to N. is that the person has commanded all the teens to keep their eyes on the pages of the prayer book and follow the service with their fingers. Not content with making this demand, the person has taken to patrolling the aisles to enforce this, although I do not know whether this is done verbally or physically. Mind control, indeed.

So now I am thinking again on the experience of Jewish prayer.
And I am starting with two thoughts from Mama Squirrel's post. They are both from John Piper's essay, Desiring God.

"...The widespread notion that high moral acts must be free from self-interest is a great enemy of true worship..."

"...when worship is reduced to disinterested duty, it ceases to be worship. For worship is a feast."

I am thinking that if the Christian Hedonist's worship is a feast, Jewish prayer is a homely and commonplace meal. Traditional Jews pray three services a day, Shacharit, Mincha, and Ma'ariv (Dawn, Gifts--the afternoon service, and Evening). How does one experience the homely meal? It is comfort food and it is often eaten as if by rote as the family talks around the table about other things. But every now and then, when a person is particularly hungry, or when the stew is particularly good, one will notice, in the midst of the ordinariness of it all, the sweet taste and texture of a perfectly cooked carrot, or the color and flavor of the spice, or the warm scent and soft feel of the homemade bread and butter.

And so it is when one is practiced in the art of T'fillah. The services are patterned, the nusach (cantillation) of the prayer is so familiar, and the pace is such that the one praying is often immersed in it as if by rote. One can lean into the prayer, unconsciously, "like a weaned child at rest on his mother's knee" as the psalmist sang in the Songs of the Ascents. And in that unconscious rest, sometimes a word or phrase will come to the fore, colorful and beautiful, asking to be noticed, to be heard, to be ruminated on, and understood anew. And in the way of traditional Jewish communal prayer, the coming together and drifting apart of the holy congregation that is praying, this need is accomodated in the standing, the swaying, the bowing and bending, the whole choreography of the service.

And so, of course, to get to this place of T'fillah, this holy time in which one stands with oneself (mitpallel--in judgement of oneself) before the Eternal, requires the discipline of praying regularly, and of learning the nusach, and the minhag--the customary choreography of the place--and also the use of the props of Jewish prayer, the tallit (prayer shawl) and t'fillin (phylacteries), and the siddur (prayer book). And it is the Jewish custom to focus on the words of the prayer book, words read and spoken in the holy tongue--Hebrew. And this is, or should be, an important part of Jewish education. Thus the importance of the study of Hebrew language, and Torah, and the experience of T'fillah.

But T'fillah is also an intensely personal experience, even though it is commonly practiced in the minyan, the quorum of at least ten adult Jews necessary for public prayer. And it seems to me, that when teaching T'fillah, one must provide instruction in the keva, the appointed discipline, as well as the experience of the kavanah, the aim of the heart and soul in prayer.
It is a delicate balance, one which cannot be attained by patrolling the Beit T'fillah like a Prussian schoolmaster, in search of the perfect: the perfect focus, the perfect stance, the perfect sequence of bows and sways. The desire for such perfection ultimately inhibits the dance of prayer. The desire for perfection is the desire for the unattainable, and it inhibits beauty and grace and life. And the beauty of individuality stems from the imperfect; the slightly crooked smile, the laugh lines around the eyes, that certain huskiness of voice that makes us love our lover above all others.

N. has become familiar with the keva and kavanah of T'fillah through the practice of the art of T'fillah. And maybe he has experienced those transcendent moments of realization and focus that come in the midst of the commonplace act of prayer. I don't know. I don't watch or inspect his practice. To do so, is to intrude on a most intimate moment. It is like inspecting and judging someone making love. Or think of it this way, participating in public prayer is like participating in a dance: if one goes to dance, one does not spend the time critiquing every move of the other dancers. T'fillah is not a performance to be judged and applauded, it is an experience to be lived.

So in teaching the practice of T'fillah, the teacher must leave much room for the individual, for the imperfection, and for the serendipity of those moments of transcendence that cannot be commanded or controlled. Prayer is ultimately a wild thing that dies when confined or controlled. And therefore, to return to the metaphor of the commonplace meal, the teacher must have the patience to allow the appetite to come with the eating.

I don't know what I am going to do about N.'s complaint exactly. For some time I have felt myself becoming dissatisfied with the forced feeding of one person's idea of what prayer and study are at our synagogue. Out of sheer self-preservation, I have distanced myself from worship services because of the emphasis on uniform practice, an emphasis that has become intrusive to the kavannah I need for T'fillah to nurture me. The heavy-handed and ungraceful "management" of the holy congregation's prayer has not been confined to the students in Machon. I have seen adults publically corrected--and I have experienced correction--in the middle of a service for the observance of a different minhag, a different custom, in the practice of the choreography of worship.

I am now coming to the realization of how important the culture of the synagogue is to my comfort with what happens there, and how fragile that culture is, and how susceptible it is to change and disintegration. As I have said elsewhere, Reform Judaim has a certain formalistic side to its practice that is at odds with its philosophy of individual choice about ritual observance to be made from knowledge. I guess I want N.'s Jewish education to feed him the knowledge and let him make the individual choice. And I want the same for myself.

Maybe it is time to consider moving to a different table for the commonplace meal?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mountains Making Clouds

Nearly Wordless Wednesday

After the snowstorm,

the sky was cloudless,

and the world was white and gray

and blue and gold.

But it didn't stay that way!

Soon, there were mists of melted snow

rising from the mountain,

to re-join the clouds above.

Winds swept across the mountainside,

lifting the wet snow into the sun-warmed air,

where it condensed to become cloud again.

And as the sun set,

it painted its handiwork

with blue and gray,

pink and gold.

Carnival of Homeschooling 113: The Political Parties Edition

Americans sure are a contentious bunch!

Who was it who said that Democracy is one long argument?
And we can certainly see that from the numerous political parties we have had over our history.

Parties in the US
have a huge range of ideas and agendas.
Ask Ralph Nader if it has been easy bein' Green!

Superangel has provided us

So whether you're Libertarian...

Or a Bull Moose Party adherent,
(though you'd be pretty old now)...

Or if you stand with the
Constitution Party,
You will definitely learn something new
about the history of political parties
and about the variety of ideas about

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Smoothing the Stones: Wrestling with the History of Education

First, a favorite quote:

"An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing just because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its philosophy will hold water."- John William Gardner

This semester, I have been thinking about the ideology of inclusion in special education in the public schools. And in my thinking and reading about the issue, I had come to the conclusion that the mindset of the inclusion ideologues--those who would have us essentially deconstruct special education in favor of full inclusion in the face of contradictory evidence about what kind of instruction works for many students with disabilities--is the consequence of a shoddy philosophical foundation for American education. Essentially, the epistemology (theory of knowledge) embraced by modern American education has been positivism--which has its philosophical origins in Pragmatism. But Positivism is an incomplete philosophy that has neither metaphysics (a theory of reality) nor ethics that are grounded in the foundational axioms of the philosophy. And worse, Positivism does not simply neglect metaphysics, but actively rejects them. An incomplete philosophical basis makes the philosophy unable to "hold water" as John Gardner says in the quote above, or more to the point, it cannot hold its own against the incursions of post-modernist (deconstructivist) thought.

As my thinking on this issue has evolved to this point, I realized that for my Trends and Issues in Special Education class it might be useful to look into the foundational ideas of modern American education, a review of the history of the field, so to speak, in order to understand how we got to this point where advocates for children with disabilities could, with the fervor of the true believer, want to tear down the field entirely, and reconstruct it as a kind of place in which every child will be treated the same regardless of their differences.

And so I have been reading. I started out with secondary sources, such as Diane Ravitch's Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, and then went to primary sources such as John Dewey's Democracy in Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education.And as an antidote to the "schooling" mentality, I also pulled out John Taylor Gatto's An Underground History of American Education. I had ordered this book last year, along with A Different Kind of Teacher, and I read part of it, but got busy with other things and did not finish it then. Although it is not a scholarly book in the traditional sense, Gatto does cite his sources in the text, and presents a compelling view of the aims of modern American education from his experience, as well as from some of the same sources that I am reading.

And this is where it all gets so very interesting, because in the past few weeks I have also

read the columnist Jonah Goldberg's new book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. (I just realized that I was reading an "underground" history and a "secret" history at the same time. I am hearing the Twilight Zone theme in my head). This book is about the American progressive movement's foundations in, and admiration of European fascism, the history and consequences of progressive politics in the US, and the consequences of a marriage of progressive policy and the American character. Although I am not going to review the book here, I will say it is a fascinating read and that I learned a lot about the history of the early 20th Century in the United States that I did not know previously.

Reading both of these books at the same time produced one of those moments of serendipity that seem almost prophetic. I began to notice that I was reading about the same people and the same big ideas. John Dewey. William James. Jane Addams. Woodrow Wilson.

Of course it was not a complete confluence of thinking--Gatto also discussed the founders of American education as we have it today, and Goldberg was outlining the progressives of the same time period. But the interesting thing to me was that many of these people were the same. Or they knew each other. And they had the same pragmatic, statist world view. Essentially, the goal was to overthrow the "cult" of individualism, and create humanity anew, as cogs in the wheel of the state. If you had to read Bellamy's Looking Backward in high school (a very boring dystopia meant to be a utopia--I admit I read the first 50 pages and then used "skippibus" to pass the test), use that to get a picture of what these people envisioned.If you have not read it, think of the dull, gray monotony of the Soviet Union in its waning years, but without the KGB and the Gulag. Or think of the movie GATTACA.

Of course Education (with a capital "E") was to be the principal way this would be accomplished. In the system envisioned by these reformers, schools would be used to separate the children from their families, their particular cultures and belief systems, and made into useful slaves of the state. Woodrow Wilson said: "The chief job of the educator is to make your children as little like you as possible." In other words, the point of schools at least from the point of view of the educational establishment at Columbia Teacher's College, Stanford, and the University of Chicago, was to destroy the sovereignty of the family, and train (I will not use the word educate) students to think of the state as their true home. Only a few, elite people would be educated in the true sense of the word, those who would have the wisdom to order life for everyone else.

These are scary ideas. And they can be found in the primary sources that I have mentioned. This is not some wild conspiracy theory made up by Gatto, Goldberg or others on the right. Gatto presents a much darker view of the envisioned "nanny state" education, the pernicious violence of empty minds, and the dull unreality of Disneyland. Goldberg believes that an American fascism would be 'totalitarian-lite': Less of the jack-booted brownshirts, and more of the social worker mentality. Less of "Sieg Heil!" and more "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."

One ray of light in all of this, is that the teachers and school administrators do not necessarily share these ideas nor do they agree with the incomplete philosophies upon which they are founded. In fact, most schools of education do not teach this history of education in the United States. In my own experience in graduate education (although I cannot speak for the undergraduate level having come by my teaching license in an alternative way) at the master's level, the focus was on methodologies and curriculum, and the history of educational thought was not considered. And although some of the ideas could be gleaned from these very methodologies, I suspect the average teacher working on a project for a class after a full day's work, was not likely to even begin to think about the big ideas at all. Since I was in Gifted Education, we did consider some larger ideas about teaching, and we did discuss the hostility inherent in American education toward the gifted. It was clear to me that American educational philosophy was anti-intellectual, but we did not explore the roots of this, leaving the student to think that it was engendered in the ordinary citizen. We were not let in on the "secret" "underground" history that would make it plain that the anti-intellectual bent of American schools comes from the social engineers of the Progressive movement, not from the farmers and factory workers who wanted their kids to be educated for a better life in the singular, individual sense.

Do you dectect some frustration on my part? You are correct. It is part and parcel of the rearrangement of my internal "maps" of the world. It is the sense of betrayal that Adam and Chava must have felt when they partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and discovered another layer of reality.

Ah, well, this is an education in the true sense. It is the need to grapple with the big ideas of a field, and consider how those ideas shaped the reality we call school and schooling. Certainly, with respect to the current trends and issues in special education, the problem is an incomplete philosophy. But there is an even larger problem to consider. The argument on this larger level is about the purpose of public education in the United States. Is it about preparing our children for the future, teaching them to read and write, to think and to take their place as free citizens of the Republic? Or is it about re-making humanity, and creating a utopia controlled by those who know best what's good for us? The first idea is what the general public thinks about education, and the second resides on the level of progressive social planning. And that leads to another question: Which one of these goals does school, as we currently know it, best fulfill?

And that brings me in a round about way to a personal insight about my choices with regard to my career as a teacher and my choices about the education of my own son. In my years as a teacher, my job choices were toward smaller classrooms where I could teach kids using methodologies that were different than those commonly in use in this day of educating to least common denominator. By teaching special education for children with learning difficulties, behavioral difficulties, and then, the gifted kids, I placed myself outside the mainstream. The first such class I taught were the throw-away kids, the ones that no one cared how I taught them. And the gifted kids were those that the system did not worry about--they'd already met the minimum standards. In this way, I was perhaps, a guerrilla teacher, although certainly I did not think of myself as engaging in subversive activities. My purpose was simply to get through each day with these kids without boring either myself or the students to death. That required the use of 'stealth' methodology. "When an administrator comes in," I'd tell the kids, "look serious. When we close the door, though, we can have fun and get something real accomplished."

And I still had to leave the classroom. Not because I was a bad teacher, nor because I disliked teaching. I was a pretty good teacher, I think, and I enjoyed the teaching. But dealing with the educational establishment became more and more joyless and wearing, though I did not understand why. And there was my son to think about. He was not making it in the classroom. This was partly because he had disabilities that the school had difficulty dealing with, but it was mostly because they could not capitalize on his unique strengths.

But when I took N. out of school, I did not fully realize the implications of our choices. As we evolved toward unschooling, I still did not recognize the revolutionary nature of what homeschooling means. Only now, as I reflect on how it has impacted the growth of my son, who has become a confident, self-reliant, adventurous learner; and the impact on our family, for we have become people who like each other and want to be together--only now do I have an inkling of how revolutionary homeschooling is. It appears to be a political act done for deeply personal reasons. It is a repudiation of the fascist notion that people are interchangable parts, who exist for the purpose of some greater "utopia" governed by those who always know what's best for everyone. And it is a very personal journey from the narrow places where my son's future could be predicted by IQ scores and standardized tests, to a vision of the high places of individuality and choice.

And is there hope in this field? How will I continue in it, knowing that everything I believe stands in opposition to the philosophy and to the commonly held beliefs about the field I have chosen? And yet, within me there is a sense that this is an important pursuit. And I take hope from the very sources that have made me wrestle with my internal maps.

"A relative handful of people could change the course of schooling significantly by resisting the suffocating advance of centralization and standardization of children, by being imaginative and determined in their resistance, by exploiting manifold weaknesses in the institution's internal coherence: the disloyalty its own employees feel toward it. It took 150 years to build this apparatus; it won't quit breathing overnight. The formula is to take a deep breath, then select five smooth stones and let fly. The homeschoolers have already begun."
--John Taylor Gatto, "I Quit, I Think" from The Underground History of American Education.

This wrestling with a philosophy that does not hold water may have its uses. After all, it is water that smooths the stones.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

And Another Surprise

Last night when we took the dogs out for their last walk, the clouds had enclosed us, and very large, wet flakes were flying at us out of the west. We came in wet and had to dry the dogs with towels.

In the middle of the night, I awoke to Bruce saying, "It's snowing, honey."

I reached for my glasses, and it was lovely.

This morning, we walked out to this enchanting scene. Clouds racing across the sky, and about five inches of snow on the driveway. Sunshine and shadow were playing catch with each other across the pristine snow.

As we walked up Via Sedillo toward the top of our ridge, we looked north to see South Mountain parting a veil of clouds for a momentary chance to shine above the snow-laden trees.

The paper delivery guy had made it down Teypana, and his were the solitary pair of tire tracks on the roads in Rancho Verde.

At the top of the ridge, we walked near Cresta Vista, and marveled at the mountains of clouds to the south across the Juan Tomas valley.

Soon after we took this picture, the clouds closed in, and thick fog rolled across the mountain top, and wove around us, cool and wet.

What a changeable, blustery day.

As we descended along Via Sedillo again, we came below the fog.

As we looked to the north, above the trees, South Mountain was once again hidden in the clouds and fog, which swirled around her so quickly, that we could catch only short glimpses of her ridges and trees.

Here again..and gone! A coy game of hide-and-seek courtesy the clouds and wind.

Later, as we ate breakfast, we watched from the breakfast room window as dark clouds again encroached on a clear blue sky.

The frontal boundary that told us that the snow was not going away by noon, as it did last week.

It is one of those days, one where I feel that I must be near the window most of the time, in order to make sure I do not miss anything new that the clouds and wind bring to the constantly changing vistas.

I keep wondering what happened to La Nina. It must be weak indeed, for the storms and moisture keep on coming from the Pacific across the Southwest, like a normal year. Usually La Nina pushes the storm tracks north, and a high pressure gets parked over the four corners, and we have a dry winter and spring. This year, it is not as intense as an El Nino, but we have above average snow cover on the mountains, more like a normal (not El Nino, not La Nina) year.

I am longing for spring weather, but the beauty of these storms--the clouds, the snow, the sudden glimpses of sunlight--is a blessing, too.

And my mantra has become: ...and we need the precipitation. We need the moisture. This was a particularly good snow, too. Wet and heavy, and five inches of it. Marvelous.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!

The night we missed the eclipse (for the most part), we took the dogs out for a walk and we could smell moisture in the air.
But it was 45 degrees. So we left the vehicles down the driveway, the boots on the porch, and we went to bed.

Imagine our surprise when we went outside yesterday morning.

The newspaper told the whole story.

A wet, snow about an inch deep over everything, and as we cleared the windows on the truck and car, it started snowing some more.

And of course, the wind was such that the boots and shoes left on the rug by the door were covered.

I walked the dogs in pink walking shoes, my jeans tucked inside my wool socks to keep the hems dry.

Before the walk, I put the step-stool in front of the pellet stove, and the boots were laid out on the step-stool so that the high tops were pointing directly toward the heating draft. Maybe I'd have dry boots for the noon walk.

It was a cold, blustery day, with winds and clouds and more snow showers off and on throughout the morning and afternoon.

Sometimes we got some week sunshine, as you can see on the Adirondack rockers.

They look so--well incongruous--covered in snow.

Our front porch looked like a resort cottage closed for the season.

The snow was beautiful, and we do need the precipitation. But is was hard, hard coming on the heels of a few warm days. Ah, well, February, I always say is a changeling.

Last night we got a light dusting as I was driving home from my late class, but the moon was shining by the time I went to bed.

This morning, the barometer was still low and the clouds were pink and moving swiftly in the dawn sky.

Now it is sleeting and snowing again, a sort of "frozen mix" of all that February can offer.

Just to remind us that it is not spring. Not yet. Winter has a few more tricks up her sleeve.

Well, it's a good night for a hot Shabbat bath.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Road Trip: Gran Quivera

Tuesday was the last day of a long weekend for N.'s friend, A., and the forcast was for a warm but cloudy day. It is February, that time when winter seems to be hanging on forever, and the routine begins to feel unbearable.

It was, in short, a perfect day for a road trip. So we picked A. up at home in the morning and stopped at Smith's in Edgewood for some junk food. That's right, what's a road trip without junk food?

And it was off to the south for a Visit to the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument--Gran Quivira Unit--about 70 miles south of Tijeras. Gran Quivira is the most southeastward set of ruins of three Indian villages that comprised the Salinas District of the Spanish Colonial Missions. The Tompiro speaking natives of this village had traded salt from ephemeral lakes left behind when Glacial Lake Estancia dried up about 7000 years ago. They had first come to Chupadera Mesa (south of Mountain Air, NM) between 1200 and 1400 CE, and were then made a Spanish possession in the late 1500's. The first mission church was built in 1630.

This picture, looking south from the village ruins, is of the ruins of the first church (built 1630) right next to a ceremonial kiva, the center of the Puebloan religion. The boys commented on how odd it must have seemed to the Tompiro natives, to build such a large structure for two men with no wives or families, when the Puebloans, far more numerous, worshipped in the intimate spaces of an underground kiva, and lived in small 'apartment' rooms in the pueblo.

This is the nave of the larger church, built with an attached "convento" in 1670. This church is set apart from the pueblo village, and a little to the northwest, whereas the first church was located right next to one of the larger ceremonial kivas near the village center.

By this time, Gran Quivira was an important trading center for the Spanish, salt being an especially valuable commodity. It was also a jumping off point to trade with the native people of the plains to the east, although missions did not get built among those people, as they were not settled and were also quite fierce in defending their territories.

Here are some of the ruins of the Tompiro speaking pueblo, Cueloze, taken from the partially excavated upper village. The boys had a great deal of fun on the upper village, following the maze of walls so that they might identify kivas hidden beneath the peublo 'apartments'. Although the Fransciscan missionaries had tolerated the larger, open kivas and their ceremonies to begin with, they soon forbade the "pagan" rituals practiced there, and the Tompiro who had not joined the new church were forced to hide the practice of their own religion. In 1601, one Marcello de Espinosa wrote:
"There is a sweat room (kiva) painted all over with large and small idols in the same manner that they paint devils here. In the middle are sculpted large idols of stone or wood to which they offer maize...and when they make a 'sacrifice' they all join in a circle to dance..."

The boys asked many questions about theway that the conquering Spaniards forced their religion on the natives, and were quite interested in learning that many of the Pueblo Indians identify as Christians to this day. They speculated about how that compared to the way that near-eastern religions were spread by conquest, and also Christianity to Europe, and Islam to North Africa and Asia. They drew parallels between the hidden kivas, and the conversos, the hidden Jews of northern New Mexico, some of whom retain their hidden Jewish practice to this day. They were very happy to discover that the Katchina dances of the nineteen Pueblos of the Rio Grande are the religion of the Puebloan peoples, practiced to this day.

These are the steps of the convento, leading up from the south courtyard and gardens to the common areas and cells. The boys were also fascinated by the windows, which had very thick walls that slanted inward, to make shadows so that the summer sun would not overheat the rooms inside.
N. also pointed out that the shape would work well for defense, with two bowmen able to creat crossfire from either side of the window, and yet remain hidden by the angled walls.

I am often taken aback at how much they have learned about history, about religion, and about warfare without me being much aware of it. In visits to many historical sites in New Mexico, they have learned that the Puebloans, and later the Spanish and then the Americans, had to always be aware of the raiding Apachu--a Tewa word for enemy or thief--the fierce Apache, Athabaskan speakers who hunted the plains and raided the stores of the settled peoples.

It was indeed a beautiful day for a road trip,
and at Gran Quivira it was 60 degrees.

Although partly cloudy, the sun did shine on Chupadera Mesa, as we stood above the newly built ramp to spot golden eagles hunting the vally and hills between. We tried to imagine what it must have been like to be the Tompiro people, meeting the Spaniards for the first time.

And what it must have been like to be a Spanish mission priest, out here on the edge of the empire, sitting outside the church on a February day, watching the eagles hunting from the top of the Mesa.

And so our road trip, undertaken to break the monotony of blustery February, became a field trip, a chance to delve into New Mexico history, and to think about issues of colonization, economics, warefare, and religion.

As N put it: "History. It's everywhere you want to be."

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

For the Birds...Really

Nearly Wordless Wednesday
In honor of last weekend's Audonbon Society Great Backyard Bird Count, I thought I'd just post some of the pictures of birds I have taken this year for your enjoyment.

At the birdbath.
Photo Copyright by Elisheva Levin
September 2007. Sedillo, NM

A Stellar Jay feeding on Ponderosa Pine.
Photo copyright by Elisheva Levin
August 2007. Mount Shashta, CA

Sentinal of the forest.
Photo copyright Elisheva Levin,
February 2008.
Sedillo, NM.

Flight of the Condor.
Photo copyright Elisheva Levin,
August 2007.
Tamalpais, CA.

Condors at rest.

Photo copyright Elisheva Levin, August 2007. Tamalpais, CA.

There's just something about the freedom of a bird in flight, the view of a bird at tree-top, the joy of a bird feeding, the peace of a bird at rest...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Kicking Myself: Third Day Bird Count


I knew I should have taken the camera. Today, the third day of the bird count is the first one that dawned clear and bright. I decided on a shorter walk with the dogs because yesterday I slipped on an icy rock and strained a muscle in my leg. It is sore this morning.

And since we were going to just walk the meadow behind the house and then the high meadow, I did not take the camera. I have plenty of pictures of the high meadow on a sunny winter morning, after all.

As we were coming down the high meadow back toward the new road, I saw him.

Perched like a king at the top of a Ponderosa Pine, he sat, solemnly surveying his kingdom.

It was a Red-tail hawk, sunning himself. It would have been a perfect picture.
He was still against the blue New Mexico sky.
The sun was behind me as we walked along the meadow edge.
And I did not have my camera.

Calm and lordly, he watched us walk all the way down to the new road.
The only thing that moved was his head.

And I did not have my camera.
Always, always take the camera.
If you don't take it, that will be the day you want it.

How many times will I beat my head against this particular wall?

Ah, well.

Today's count:
  • Dark-Eyed Juncos -- 9
  • Northern Flicker -- 1
  • Stellar's Jays -- 5
  • Scrub jays -- 2
  • Red-tail Hawk -- 1

I have to make do with a picture from Wiki-Commons.

Rubies From My Valentine

It's my beloved's birthday, and he has been playing all day up at Angel Fire with the scouts, while CGP and I stayed home to walk the dogs, study and hold down the fort. And so, since the week was busy, and I did not do a Valentine's day post, I would belatedly pay tribute to the romance in our lives tonight.

Of course, Valentine's Day is not a Jewish holiday.
Strictly speaking, it is the feast day of a Christian saint.

But romance is romance, and love is love, and my Engineering Geek, like many geeks,

has a tender and romantic heart.

I will digress here to tell you two stories from our courtship--isn't that such a lovely word?--that will demonstrate my point.

First Story: Early in our courtship, Bruce took a trip to California to visit his brother and sister, and to have the unveiling for his parent's tombstone. While he was gone he called every day. The day after he was due to arrive home that weekend, I had a breakfast appointment with a good friend, and so I thought I would not see him until later. As P. and I were having breakfast, Bruce came into the cafe, carrying a red rose. He walked up to our table and announced: "I am looking for the love of my life." And then he handed me the rose. P. excused herself fairly quickly, and it was Bruce and I that had breakfast together.

Second Story: It was clear by the fall of 2001 that Bruce and I were heading for marriage, and I wondered how he would "pop the question." Rosh Hashannah went by, then Yom Kippur and...gornisht (nothing)! At the end of September, Bruce made a presentation to The Albuquerque Astronomy Society (TAAS) about the total solar eclipse he had observed in Zambia that summer. The day of the presentation, he was uncommonly nervous. He insisted that I sit in the front row "for moral support." I thought he was going on about not much, because he had been president of the society in years past. These were his friends and colleagues in stargazing after all! The presentation was great and was well received.

At the end, the president at the time, Eric, got up and said, "Well, if nobody has any further questions, then Bruce has a question about the Diamond Ring Effect." I was unsuspecting, thinking that it was the trivia question, because they had neglected to pass one out at the beginning of the meeting. And then, I realized that people were moving away from me, and taking out cameras. And then Bruce was kneeling in front of me, and presenting me with a beautiful diamond ring.

Oh! That "diamond ring effect!
I was speechless. I guess I said yes, because I am wearing the ring. Later, some of his friends told me that he had planned this ahead and called them. They were all a little worried about what would happen if I said "No." But he was undeterred.

So, as I was saying, my husband does have a strong romantic side to him.
And I get to see it every Valentine's day.
He likes flowery cards with sentimental messages.
The envelope is always labeled: "To My Dear Wife."
And I usually get chocolate and a dozen roses.

I am spoiled.

This year was different and especially nice.
On Valentine's day in the evening, I had a class to attend.
We did meet for dinner at Gyros Diner, with N., too.
I gave Bruce a card and a gift then.
By the time I came home, quite late, I had forgotten all about Valentines.

But my Beloved remembered.

There, on our dresser, was his usual beautiful card.
And a small box wrapped in red paper.

Inside, was a ruby necklace with matching earrings.


And on Shabbat evening, he asked me to be sure to wear them to the table.

Just before the kiddush, as he does every week, he took my hand and said:

" 'Eishet chayil...A woman of valor, who can find? For her worth is far above rubies. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and nothing shall he lack...Place before her the work of hands, for her deeds speak her praise.' " And then he said, "And I give you the rubies, 'for you surpass them all...' "

A woman of valor? That seems a little beyond me. But... will pardon me, I am sure, for thinking I am the luckiest woman of them all.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Morning

This was one of those days in New Mexico.

A day on which if a person did not like the weather in the morning, by afternoon it was completely different.
We awoke to a snowy, foggy, gray and white morning.
So when the dogs and I went out for our morning walk, I decided to take the forest trail.

Originally, I had thought to go around the road to the meadow, but the path from the side of the house down the hill to the new road beckoned, and so we went.

I realized that I have taken many pictures of this path coming up, but few going down away from the house.

It's amazing how the same path looks so different depending on one's direction.

What a monochromatic morning. Gray sky and white snow with gray shadows. Slate colored bark on the trees, and gray-green branches of juniper and pinyon, broken only by the brown of scrub oak and the lighter straw of the grasses. It had a November feel.

Today was the also the second day of the Great Backyard Bird Count. Through the first part of the walk we saw only a few birds, this one perched high in a tree, and two in flight.

Later, we heard and saw more activity, as the morning drew on, and the fog lifted a bit, and the light, though still diffuse, grew stronger.

Today's count:

  • Norther Flicker (Red-shafted)--2
  • Stellar's Jay --5
  • Western Scrub Jay--2
  • Black-Capped Chickadee--2
  • Dark-eyed Junco--2

Since it was a Shabbat morning, and we were footloose and fancy free, I decided to go farther up the mountain than I usually do. The forest trail, usually rocky and red-soiled, with dappled sunlight, was instead white covered, and the rocks were dark in contrast.

I kept thinking of Robert Frost's poem, Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening, even though this was in truth a "snowy morning."

These woods are indeed lovely, dark and deep, but we were in no hurry to keep any promises this time. Instead of continuing up the mountain, when we came to a fork in the path, I decided to go down the Sedillo watershed, a small arroyo that only carries running water this high up when it rains.

After about ten minutes down the mountain, a dark form caught my eye, a mountain lion across the arroyo-bed leapt into the brush. I have never seen a mountain lion up here, and unfortunately, it was gone before I got my camera out. However, after proceeding a ways further on my side, the path entered the arroyo-bed, and there we found its track. The mountain lion registers the hindfeet into the track of the front feet, except here, where it slid just a bit on the ice. Since there was no sun, this is the best contrast I could get for a picture, but it makes the track deeper and wider than they looked in the snow of the pathway. Compared to coyote and dog tracks, these actually conveyed a sense of lightness, in the snow.

The dogs got very excited when we encountered the tracks--they had not seen the animal itself--and I imagine it was aware of our coming long before I saw it, and that is why it left the arroyo and crossed over to the other hillside. The jays were letting me know where it was, and they also were letting it know where we were. And when they saw the tracks, the dogs hair was up on their necks, and they did a good deal of silent but alert sniffing.

Soon, however, we came to the track that would take us back to the high meadow, along the new road and up the hill to home. We left the arroyo there, and so never found out where the tracks oringinated--probably somewhere farther down the mountain.

We had rambled for over an hour, enjoying the snow, and it was time for a leisurely Shabbat breakfast, some coffee and good book before the fire, as the fog and cloud continued to roll down the mountains.

It was warm and cozy in the house, dark and blustery outside. And

And it was nice while it lasted. By two-o-clock, the sun was out and the snow fast melting away.

Like they say here: If you don't like the weather, wait awhile. It will change.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Great Backyard Bird Count Day One

The first morning of the Great Backyard Bird Count did not dawn. The light incrementally increased through clouds and fog.

Here are our mountains as they looked this morning from the living room window. Tijeras Canyon and the valley are covered a fog below the peaks.

We did our observing while walking the dogs through the open space meadow behind our house, and on up to the high meadow above the new road.

The first animal signs we saw were not birds at all, but the deer tracks frozen into the mud on the meadow.

The deer have been out every evening and every morning, and the meadow paths and game-trails are just covered in deer prints, overlain by coyote tracks, deer and coyote scat, and even a few rabbit prints.

In the meadow we saw a two ravens riding the wind, hunting the meadow. They then went soaring away to the north, where we saw them settle on the road. They were probably breakfasting on road-kill or someone's carelessly put out trash bin.

Here is our first specimen perched at the top of a Rocky Mountain Juniper just outside the living room window. This one, like most in this range has red bars on his wings. I thought he was a dove until I saw the markings and the beak, because he looks so gray in the light we had this morning.

In the upper meadow, we saw two of these Southern Rocky Juncos. Although according to the species list, they are not called that any more. It is thought that all of the Juncos are the same species, and are divided by color. They are just called Dark-Eyed Juncos. These are the gray and slate variety seen in the southern Rockies and down here just south of them.

Our total count today was:
  • Redtail Hawk--1
  • Northern Flicker (red-shafted)--1
  • Stellar's Jays--3
  • Ravens--2
  • Black-capped Chikadees--4
  • Dark-eyed Juncos--gray-headed --2

It is supposed to snow tonight, so it will interesting to see what kinds of birds (if any) are out and about tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A February Walk

Nearly Wordless Wednesday

Over at his blog, Deliberate Wanderer, Farmer Ernie sometimes posts a "Walk with Me Wednesday" series of pictures and descriptions. I think it is such a nice idea, that I am going to do the same about once a month for a Nearly Wordless Wednesday Post. So here is a February Walk.

In the cold of a snowy, February Dawn,
as the sun comes up over Los Pecos Ridge and One Pine Hill, come take a walk with me and Zoey and Lily.

Picture by Elisheva Levin, February 1, 2008.

Across the low meadow,

and towards the mountain
we wander, pausing to
sniff the cold air,
and investigate the deer tracks,
frozen in the snow.

Picture by Elisheva Levin, February 1, 2008

Up from the new road,
along steps of rock and roots,
we climb,
the crunch of the snow beneath our feet
the only sound in the still air.
Ahead, the rising sun is
just beginning to paint the high meadow
in golden light and long shadows.

Picture by Elisheva Levin, February 1, 2008.

When we climb into the high meadow,

the sun rises, too, ahead of us,
and we blink in the sudden lift of light.
As we turn to the west,
the Sandia fault block draws the eye,
as does the play of wind, light and
deep shadow on the meadow.
Picture by Elisheva Levin February 1, 2008

When we descend to go homeward,

the sun is hidden by the ridge once more,

and then we come through the woods

and up the the hill, in the shadows

of pinyon and juniper and scrub, laced with

moss and mistletoe.

Picture by Elisheva Levin, February 1, 2008

Home is a ahead,

and the turn of the earth is just bringing the sun

to peek above the ridge,

the porch and windows glow,

a beacon to us still under the hill in the pre-dawn.

Hot coffee and breakfast are waiting.

Picture by Elisheva Levin, February 1, 2008.