Back on Track
It was odd being away from this blog last week, one of only two or three pauses in two and a half years. I was too busy with Passover preparations and with visiting family, about both of which I’ll say more shortly, but now that the Seder is done, the family is safely back home, the bedding has been washed and the borrowed cot and folding table have been returned to our helpful building neighbors, I’ve had some time to think about the role these weekly entries has played in my life.
The word Seder means order in Hebrew. It denotes a fixed sequence of rituals through which we proceed at the Seder table, both before and after the much-anticipated dinner. As we make our way through the stations, we chant their order, stopping at the next one to be addressed. We also anticipate the points at which we must consume one of the required four cups of wine. There’s something reassuring about knowing where we’re heading and how far we’ve come on the journey. There’s not much in the rest of our lives that offers such absolute predictability.
That’s exactly what the blog has done for me. It’s the spine around which I construct my “work” week. Monday morning is posting time and time to respond to the few loyal readers who react to the contents of that week’s musings. Then the cycle begins again on Tuesday of deciding what’s worthy of comment this week (that’s where I am right at this moment). Although the entries are short, they usually take me a few days to flesh out, revise and hand off to my resident editor for comment. She’s almost always too kind and positive, with only technical corrections to offer, so if you have trouble with my language or with the clarity of how I’ve constructed my thoughts, she shares the blame.
For someone who has stepped away from a fairly structured work life, mostly built around the rhythm of the school day and school year, retirement can be an unsettling experience, particularly if you’re not blessed with hobbies or projects of whatever kind to keep you moving forward. Before the pandemic, I constructed a schedule of school visits and partnerships that nobody was asking me to do – or paying me for – but they provided a sense of purpose to my life. It’s that loss of purpose that can be the major casualty of retirement. The new center can be anything from volunteering for a worthy non-profit (I did that for six years following my retirement) or caring for grandchildren (my granddaughter was too far away to make that an option). For some, it’s all the delayed travel plans, but that tends to get old and falls victim to inevitably failing physical capabilities. Besides, it’s short on purpose other than personal gratification.
The pandemic unraveled many of my earlier quests for purpose. I was able to pursue some of them remotely, but the fact that I have not set foot in a classroom for two years would have been unimaginable two years ago. There was never such a gap in more than 55 years as teacher, school director and teacher educator. Even though I started my blog before Covid hit, it has quickly become my Seder, the order of my life as well as my vehicle for reporting to the world that I’m still here. That speaks to a central fear of both retirement and aging – the fear of disappearing. That fear was heightened during the Omicron Period, as I think of it. After being briefly suckered into believing that things were opening up, we got knocked back into a second, more demoralizing round of isolation during which I felt more hemmed in and cut off than in the early months of the The Delta Period. The blog became even more of a “humanitarian corridor” to the outside for me. (Note how Ukraine has penetrated both our waking and sleeping hours.)
The Seder itself provided another opening to the outside. I’ve written before about how unsatisfactory the remote Seders – particularly last year’s – were. An event that is built around friends and family gathered in the warmth of one’s dining room and living room becomes as flat as the TV monitor on which it is being projected when celebrated remotely. I vowed that whatever the risks, we would gather in person this year. We consulted with our usual attendees about what we could do to make them feel as safe as possible. The consensus was testing the day of, optional masking and some arrangement that allowed for distancing. Several of our regulars still didn’t feel comfortable with these arrangements and decided, in the spirit of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, to “wait until next year.” We both expected and respected that choice.
The distancing arrangement involved creating space for small pods in our living room, each seated around a TV tray table containing a Haggadah, the text for the evening, plus all the paraphernalia needed to participate in the various stages of the ritual. In the center of the room were two folding tables to hold the Seder plate with all the symbols of the day, the candles which were lit at the start of the evening, a cup of wine for Elijah the Prophet, who is expected to visit after the meal and a cup of water for Miriam, Moses’ sister, who plays a part in crossing the waters in the escape from Egypt. We had planned to have two separate eating areas to allow people to spread out more, but by the time we arrived at that point, the group consensus was that we all eat together.
Usually, by the time dinner is done people have had enough and begin to leave. We are forced to forego opening the door for Elijah, the final two cups of wine and the raucous singing that was always my childhood favorite. However, this night was different from all others because almost everyone hung on till the sweet end. Despite the massive cleanup effort that lay ahead, I felt restored and returned to a world that had escaped me these last two years. May we gather again next year to celebrate the liberation of all who are oppressed.
A final note. Part of the Seder ritual involves reading the list of ten plagues that God inflicted on Egypt in punishment for Pharoah’s refusal to set his Jewish slaves free. Now we must add to the list an eleventh plague – Covid-19. On the morning of the Seder, we heard that our son-in-law Peter in New Haven had tested positive. Our family had miraculously remained free of this plague by dint of exercising a strong measure of caution, but things had opened up a bit too optimistically at Yale, and Peter succumbed. Fortunately, with the help of a round of anti-virals, he is on his way to recovery. A few days later our daughter Adina also tested positive. Their illness reminds us that, in spite of the lifting of all kinds of restrictions nationwide, this plague is still with us. Don’t let your guard down all the way.