Saturday, September 18, 2010



Today I spent the better part of the day in the Kerhonkson Synagogue, an adorable, toaster-shaped shul, in the Catskill Mountains, about 100 miles North of New York City, and as some of the readers of this may know, it was because today was Yom Kippur, the day of atonement -- prayer, seeking and offering forgiveness. I find it's really hard to locate and identify my own "sins," (a word I"m not too comfortable with, so take it with a grain of salt) though like everyone, I'm always pretty good at identifying the sins that have been comitted against me. So I've usually spent Yom Kippur dispensing forgiveness, and not being too clear on where and from whom I should be beseeching it. If I got upset, and had a bit of a fit, well, it was for good reason! I wonder -- is an outburst always something to regret? If you seek forgiveness for something you did, does that always mean you shouldn't have done it? How do you know when you transgress? I have a feeling it happens in large and small ways a few times a day. If I only had a really good mirror I know I'd see how I'm hypersensitive, alternating with control freakishness. Small things throw me and I overreact. I see cross-eyed when Al doesn't take his shoes off as soon as he comes through the door. I'm a mess. I know.

A childhood acquaintance, Meg Charlop, who died in a flukey bicycle accident this year, was on my mind often during the week. I stood for her over and over, every time Kaddish was being recited. An extraordinary person, someone you might call out-sized, someone who embraced life and people like noone else I've ever known had a line that seems to be governing me lately -- "It's better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission."

But the rabbi today didn't get into the fine points, looking for the possibility of purposeful transgression, and that was fine. You get the feeling that the day is not about parsing the word "forgive." But after hours, over a wonderful break fast meal prepared by a friend, my friend wonders, like me, "Forgive. What does that mean?!" How are you supposed to feel after you've forgiven someone? Al, in reply, quoted Robert F. Kennedy. "Forgive your enemies but never forget their names." But Rabbie Mallen, in the Kerhonkson Synagogue, admonishes us to not just "forget" about an act you regret, but to do something about it. To CHANGE. aarghhh. He looks around the small historical room, inviting personal confessions. No way. I feel like a cat caught under the sheets (panic stricken) when someone makes that suggestion. Change. It's great advice, and I'm sure what all those prayers and stories are getting at, especially Isaiah who blows my mind every year, but ... What would that mean for me? Probably get a grip on my temper for starters. (though it seems God has quite a temper) Then there's really going for it.

Hopper comes to mind. Hopper -- a volunteer with HOPE Project -- who I met in Violet, St. Bernard, La. did an amazing thing out of personal regret. A construction manager who worked for an insurance company, Hopper (aka Nate) was sent to New Orleans as an insurance adjuster, which is to say, he was told to pay out as little for damages as he could. That was his job. So for about a year, he turned down one desparate homeowner after another until he couldn't do it any more, and indeed felt pretty damn awful about what he'd been doing. And so he took a "vow of poverty," moving his home from somewhere like Wyoming, down to a gutted house in a devastated section of the New Orleans environs, and deciding that for a year he wouldn't earn any money or do any other work but help New Orleanians rebuild -- all on his own dime, except for the cost of materials.

Project HOPE (Helping Other People with Everything) was an ever-changing cast of 10 or so characters, devoted to rebuilding homes. They had as little of their own infrastructure as possible and seemed to enjoy all that came with that -- the anarchy, and even the dirt. When I met them they had just moved from the floor of a gutted church to an empty shell of a donated house. Since it didn't have running water or electricity, they camped out essentially, cooking all their meals late at night (a typical dinner was served close to midnight) over a camp fire, and capturing rainwater for essentials. Boy, those dinners. They weren't just hot dogs and hamburgers. Hopper rolled out his own tortillas, and spiced the chile filling to perfection. Somehow there were always cases of beer on hand, and other intoxicants. And during the day, Hopper and his co-Saint, Mike, managed crews of green volunteers, kids who'd never held a hammer, turning them in a week's time into competent sheetrock hangers, painters, roofers, even electrical line stringers. Maybe a half dozen homes were rebuilt over the course of a year. And the incredibly grateful homeowners, who might to this day, still be waiting for their Road Home money, served up meals and crawfish boils, medicinal plants, hot showers.

Hopper and I ran into each other three weeks ago. Actually, Hopper called me on my cell, on a hunch I'd be there, on the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I screamed when I heard his voice on the other end. Yes, I am here!!!

We met up the next day, on an overcast afternoon, and I showed him the acre where a few of us hope to start a community garden, named by Mama Sue, Garden of HOPE (yup). Mama Sue joined us and we all drove over to this example of a gazebo that Sue envisions claiming the center, the heart, of the garden. Can we build something like it? As soon as we walked into the space, which you need to enter on a walkway that crosses over a pond, Hopper paced the interior, eyeballed the height, made a few suggestions and said without hesitation he'd build it -- at no charge.

So that's Hopper. Redeemed.

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