Gratitude

Ramadan afforded me the opportunity to approach the precipice of starvation and look out. From this vantage, I could see how food is understood by our bodies as hope and joy; its absence can lead to despair and sorrow. At times I felt its abandonment as if it were an actual friend. It didn’t help that my human pals seemed to be steering clear of me, saying we’d catch up after my Ramadan experience was over, as if our friendships were based on cramming goodies into our mouths. One day I felt so lonely and depressed that I convinced myself a small snack was a medical necessity to cheer me up. I ate a few almonds hoping they might function in my system like Prozac.

Every evening, as the minutes ticked closer to the time for food, I found that my hunger—which had inevitably dissipated sometime in the late afternoon—would kick back in. Just knowing I’d eat soon seemed to reengage some vital link between my belly and my brain. I worried, then, about those for whom hunger is a real problem—the kind of challenge that recurs, persistent and corrosive. What would happen if I didn’t see an end in sight? How devastating to face hunger again and again without knowing if or when you’ll eat again. It’s not just a physical toll, it’s emotional too.

If this experience was designed to heighten my gratitude for food and drink, it did that in spades. I began to think of water as “beautiful, beautiful water.” I ran an errand one afternoon and the cashier was enjoying an icy beverage from a to-go cup—the clear kind with matching lid and a straw. The liquid inside was amber; I imagined it was an herbal tea of some sort. I made believe it was mint-flavored. I waited in her line, mesmerized by the sight of the frosty condensation gathered across the plastic. I could not look away as she picked up the drink. The spots where her fingers gripped displaced tiny beads of moisture causing larger droplets to snake down. Outside, the temperature was a bone dry 95 degrees and I was approaching my 13th hour with no water. I stared unabashedly as she lifted the straw to her lips and sucked. The sight caused a slight dampness to bloom at the back of my tongue, but it was too little to swallow.

After having been apart from water, my very first sip back offered instantaneous relief and pleasure. It was an uncomplicated homecoming. With food, the re-acquaintance process was more measured, as if the time away had somehow damaged my trust. Even though the last 30 minutes or so before the fast’s end were usually some of the most difficult mentally—a point at which my Willy Wonka fantasies often kicked into overdrive—when the hour finally struck, I approached my meals cautiously. I would start with something small like toast or dates and graduate to items with more substance. I would eat methodically, over the course of many hours, my satisfaction building gradually until, at last, I felt absolutely content.

I was so excited by my normal routine when Ramadan ended. No more middle of the night water chugging. I could hydrate whenever I wanted. I resumed drinking coffee, a ritual I hadn’t realized was so vital to my productivity and sense of wellbeing. My appreciation for lunch and mid-day snacks soared. To eat before one’s energy begins to flag struck me as a revelation. My thinking was sharper, my limbs more adept. I could take walks in the middle of the day. I was instantly more cheerful.

Together

With the notion of Tikkun Olam fresh in my mind I decide it’s time to find out what will happen when I try to reconnect with my old neighbors, the family of Hassidic Jews that lived a few doors down from us when I first moved to Los Angeles. Followers of Kabbalah might think of Tikkun Olam as the process by which pieces of the original vessel, shattered by the “Big Bang,” are brought together once again.

I studied a map of my old neighborhood and found an orthodox synagogue seven blocks from the corner of their apartment complex. As ultra-orthodox Jews, I knew they’d live within walking distance of their place of worship. This was the only place it could be. Perhaps the family had moved, but it seemed likely that someone at the synagogue would remember them. I would reconnect with their community if not the family itself.

I called the synagogue and made sure they were alright with visitors and to see if I needed to do something with my hair. A rabbi with a voice like Joe Pesci said, “It’s not important your hair.”

By the time I left for the Saturday morning service, the only thing showing besides my hair was my face and hands. I arrived early. I thought parking would be a nightmare, but a space directly in front sat waiting. I wondered what the building was before being converted into a synagogue. A WWII dance hall? Inside looked like an old gymnasium. I spotted a couple of elderly women behind a partition and I joined them. They were speaking in hushed tones and they nodded in my direction and went back to whispering. I flipped through a prayer book with no English or phonetic translation, just a sea of squiggles, and listened to the rain falling outside. Everything felt damp and dreary and not at all welcoming. I wondered how often they were visited by non-Jews. I reviewed my motives hoping some element of insincerity would grant me good reason to flee. I decided I was coming from a genuine place and that the discomfort was a sign of this effort’s importance.

No one paid any attention to me. Male voices chanted on the other side of the room divider. More women arrived but they seemed not to notice me. They set about chatting quietly with one another. Every once in a while one would stand, bow, take a step back, and mouth prayers. Occasionally some kids would wander in to say a few words to their moms before being ushered back to their classroom.

I sat mutely for what felt like a very long time. As the sounds and activities went on around me, I was painfully aware of my own presence, even more so because no one else seemed to notice it. After what felt like an eternity, a woman my age approached and asked what brought me here today. I could tell she was trying to be friendly, but she didn’t smile.

I’ll call her Rachel. She looked surprisingly normal. I knew her hair was a wig because most Hassidic women use wigs to cover their real hair, but it looked like my hair except better. My hair was a fuzzy mess from the moisture in the air but hers was smooth. I explained to her about living down the street and how I saw the kids but never spoke to them. “I’ve come back,” I said. Spoken to a stranger, the endeavor seemed bizarre, but she nodded like it was the most natural thing in the world.

She said, “My husband grew up there.”

I stared mutely. I couldn’t believe it. It was that easy. I had found them.

The climb

“Is Christianity changing?” I ask Jackson.

“No,” he says, “but we are.”

I nod. Almost everything has changed since the first Protestant settlers came here: our cities, our houses, our transportation. Our tastes in music and fashion. How we navigate in space, how we take in information. All these broad shifts that influence how we think and act. Not to mention the countless incremental and personal changes that occur over each of our lifetimes. Just in these last several months, I’ve changed. Who would have thought I would have engaged in this epic church-going experiment? Not me, and certainly not anyone who knew me. The mention of God used to make me uneasy because I thought it had to be a very specific thing: big man in the clouds.

Critics may claim that a particular generation or population group is more spiritually complacent or less curious, but I don’t think you can judge what’s going on in others’ hearts and minds. Because despite all the changes, something fundamental stays the same. It’s what makes our need for the tools Christianity offers as vital today as ever. Each of us struggles to come to grips with being here, and with the knowledge that we will leave—as if these realizations are a fresh new thing just added to the human experience. Religion reminds us that people have been grappling with them for centuries. It’s spiritual dialogue across generations.

But being told a thing takes us only so far. We have to engage in it, each of us putting in the effort to make sense of it for ourselves. We wrestle with it so that we can reach beyond for a deeper joy. It’s like the Biblical reference to the mustard seed—all that potential sits in us, but it is the process, the expansion, the opening, that matters. No single church has changed me, no one sermon. But the act of going, of walking in those doors, is changing me. I feel my heart softening to people I had dismissed, my mind opening to ideas I once ridiculed. Each time I show up and come elbow to elbow with others who have also showed up, the chances are I’ll have a moment, however brief or fleeting, where the beauty of creation strikes me—the awe of this shared experience—and it won’t feel overwhelming or like something I can’t handle, but poignant and profound.

One point Jackson made in his sermon about Nehemiah stood out for me. In the first moments after learning about the destroyed walls, Nehemiah is overcome with grief and begins to weep. Jackson paused and asked everyone to think about the sudden painful rawness of Nehemiah’s emotions. Nehemiah hadn’t witnessed the walls being smashed—it happened earlier and far away. But all at once Nehemiah realized it was not an abstract occurrence that happened to others, but his very own experience. After a moment, the wave of anguish recedes, and he makes his plans.

A flicker of understanding rises in me: I see that each fresh recognition of the awesomeness of life is the huff and puff of gaining elevation on a mountain climb. Because it’s the facing it—the working through it, the accepting it—that gets us closer to the top where compassion, for ourselves and others, and gratitude resides. Each time we grasp the intangible, the mustard seed grows.