Cement Boots: Musings on Spirituality


It’s sad that we don’t plan as many Shabbat dinners with friends as we used to. We’re not alone in this. Our friend Bob Putnam in his ground-breaking book Bowling Alone has the numbers to show that the frequency of dinner parties has decreased steadily since the 60’s, part of a larger trend of declining social capital in our society.

But we bucked the trend on a recent weekend and invited some folks from our chavurah – our Jewish religious group – to join us for Shabbat dinner. Although this date was on our calendar before October 7th, it’s clear that since the start of these catastrophic events, many people are feeling a need to gather to help work through the complicated tangle of feelings the events in Israel and Gaza have unleashed. It happens that in a recent meeting with the whole chavurah group, we found the people we invited were closely aligned in their responses to the unfolding war.

As it turned out, we spent the whole evening together with hardly a mention of Israel or Gaza, surely a product of profound weariness and confusion. We just needed a break, a luxury we could allow ourselves on this side of the pond, as our daughter Adina likes to call it, an option that was not available to the traumatized people in Israel and Gaza.

As a teenager sitting in on conversations at our dinner table, our other daughter Elana used to be fascinated by the meandering, disjointed flow of adult talk. She wondered what it would look like if we could diagram it, recording all the forks and switchbacks, even within a segment of a few brief minutes. As the evening progressed from the living room to the dinner table, we motored through topics that ranged all the way from the discovery in Africa of the efficacy of vaccinations to protect people from the scourge of smallpox (two doctors among the guests) to the virtues and dangers of the use of psilocybin (two people in the group had very different personal experiences with the drug.)

Sandwiched somewhere between these two unlikely bookends was a topic that I want to spend the balance of this entry on. Apologies to the readers who would rather stay with the psilocybin. One of our guests had just returned from a training session for people interested in being spiritual coaches. The discussion that evolved from her account of the experience was rife with semantic challenges, the first one being whether “coach” was even the right word to describe the role. Was it like being a therapist? A life coach? And, most important, what did we mean by spiritual anyway?

Before our friend got very far into the description of the training, I threw a grenade into the proceedings by confessing that I felt like I was missing a gear in my interior machinery. I was lost when people talked about spirituality. I said that I felt like I was walking the world in a pair of cement boots that keep me earth bound with little ability to lift off. I feel the same way when so many people I love talk about how much they value and benefit from their meditation practices. I’ve tried, God knows I’ve tried, but I never get past that constant scrolling inside my head of tasks to be completed, friends to contact – in short, what I call the “dailyness” of my life. I’m stuck in ways that don’t really make me unhappy so much as sad that I’m missing out on something that might enrich my life.

Here’s where those definitions come into play. On the occasions when I’ve been part of discussions on topics related to spirituality, meditation, even God, friends suggest that I am a more spiritual being than I realize. It may manifest itself in my reactions to nature, to music, to the language of a great novel. I cited an example of seeing the Broadway production of Sondheim’s Sundays in the Park with George. When we went to the lobby at intermission, Rosellen suddenly burst into tears. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “It’s just so wonderful.” I suppose you could say that she was having a spiritual experience, but I can’t get past the idea that spirituality means something more, some communication with a higher force or power that transcends the daily experience. Again, I can’t get past the feeling that I’m incapable of the powerful emotional experiences that other people have access to.

Writing about this subject seems like a case of arrested development. Many aspects of it feel like late-night dorm conversations about The Big Questions that should have happened for me 65 years ago. But I lived at home during my college years where everyone wore those cement shoes and nothing of consequence ever got discussed. When I finally made it to a dorm, it was my first year of graduate school, where there were few leisurely chatting opportunities. Everyone was busy getting started on their careers. Besides, my roommate was a deaf Chinese physics major. He was a nice enough fellow, but conversation was limited, to say the least.

I can anticipate some of the responses to my confession – I heard a sampling of them at the dinner. “If you’re awed by the sunrise, that’s spiritual.” “How about music that transports you to a different realm?” “Isn’t eating a superb meal a spiritual experience?” That isn’t enough for me. I’m looking for something deeper, more expansive, but I don’t think I’m likely to find it because of that missing gear that’s gumming up the works. And I’m running out of time.

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Marv Hoffman

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