My Wabi Sabi Spiritual Journey
By Stevi LischinPresented to the MCWRET April, 2011
Wabi Sabi is a Japanese word that means appreciating the value and beauty of imperfection. “Wabi Sabi honors the quirks, the oddities, the perfectly imperfect uniqueness of you and me and everything. It highlights the value of objects, events, and the entirety of our lives ‘as is’.” from Gold, Living Wabi Sabi, 2004
A Walk in Charleston
Five years ago or so, I was walking on a street in Charleston, with my son and husband. My cell phone rang and though I hesitated, I answered it.
“Hello, Stevi, this is Dee Smith.” “Hi, Dee”.
I felt a little disoriented, receiving a call from an acquaintance in NJ while I was feeling so far removed. Dee explained that her Church wanted to conduct a Seder at Easter time.
“That’s wonderful”, I said, “I wonder why are you calling me? Is there some way that I can be helpful?”
” Well you’re Jewish aren’t you? I thought of you when we were looking for someone to conduct the Seder.”
“Dee, I’m honored, but I don’t know much about Seders except for the foods. I’ve never even been to a real Seder, my family just gets together to have a great meal.”
… “But you are Jewish? aren’t you.”
“Well it is my birth religion, but I don’t know much about the religion. “
“That’s ok, we’d still like for you to conduct the Seder. “
In typical “Stevi Style” I accepted the invitation as an adventure , journey, and challenge. So for the month between the call and Passover, I read everything I could about Seders. I selected a Humanist Haggadah, and asked an observant Jewish friend, who had lived in Israel and speaks Hebrew to partner with me. I found magnificent Passover music sung by Opera Singer Richard Tucker. Dee (not her actual name) and the members of an AME Church selected various Passover foods to serve. The pastor made the Charoset! Friends came and helped. My mother gave me her Sedar plate. Dee enlisted a Greek friend who had once owned a diner to make a huge pot of matzoh ball soup. I invited my Intercultural Communication class to join in, and they surprised me by distributing themselves amongst the group. We had maybe 125 people show up, beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. It was a deeply connecting event. The Humanist Haggadah tells the story of the struggle for liberation of many people in addition to the Jews.
Creating the Sedar brought out the best in me. It was emblematic of my spiritual journey. It served as a springboard for me to study about my roots and find ways to connect it to the stories of humankind.
So, What is My Religion?
Ask me what me religion is and I will answer “well, I don’t practice a particular religion.”
My birth religion was Jewish and that tradition shaped much of my behavior in this world, from talking with my hands, to the value of service to others.
Until the age of five, I lived in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, NYC. There was much that was rich for me in these years. I lived with six adults, my grandparents, my aunt and uncle and my parents in a small apartment up several flights of stairs. I’m told I was cuddled and loved by each of them. My grandmother dubbed me “the midnight scholar,” because I would never go to sleep as long as there was any activity surrounding me, as I never wanted to miss anything. This is still true to this day! I was often rocked to sleep to the tune of the late late show! Then we moved to Whitestone Queens a place with more sunshine, trees and room to ride bikes. But it was still a Jewish enclave.
So where’s the “religion”? I recall very few visits to a synagogue. One was for the holiday called Purim, which, to a child was fun and tactile and visceral. We were all given noise makers that we were to sound when we heard the name of the wicked Hamen.
Jewishness just was! It was mostly about family gatherings on holidays. At my lovingly permissive grandparents’ apartment, my cousins and I stuck our fingers in the chocolates to select the ones we wanted to taste. My grandparents believed that people were more important than a neat and tidy house – a principle that I learned from them and still hold today. We created dramas for the adults using my grandparents’ wardrobe as our costume chest, no holds barred.
There was also one particularly significant relationship – that of my cousin Gerilyn, who was a few years older than me. We had a soul connection. Whenever we were together it was as though no time had passed. For instance we could sit in one spot under the boardwalk at Rockaway Beach for full days and weave as many games as our imaginations could create. Connection with Gerilyn was the quintessential bonding of friends and sisters. It taught me how little effort is needed when two people have the highest regard and trust for each other.
So, I began my spiritual journey with deep nurturance, safety of caring adults, creative and imaginative play and the connectedness of family.
My mother was an artist. Her last painting/collage was of her own mother. It won an award in a juried art show. It was titled ,“You’re Never Finished With Your Mother.”
I learned from my mother that you do not have to be “religious”, or adhere to one religion’s teachings to be good and moral, to have celebrations, and care for others and the world.
My mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I’ve ever known. Without the help of religious texts or outside authorities, she taught me, by example and rich conversation, the values that many learn through formal religious instruction: honesty, empathy, discipline, hard work, appreciation of beauty, and simple joys.
A few days prior to her death, a Rabbi, who had never met her, spent quiet time sitting with her and observing her artwork. At her funeral he noted that her paintings covered such broad terrain as injustice, social issues, family scenes, brilliant flowers, and the dark tumultuous sea. My mother wore no masks. I am so fortunate to have been given the gift of such a friend. I know she felt the same. We were the wind beneath each other’s wings.
My father was a different story. I actually have much amnesia about him. For work he was a travelling salesman. With a few twists Arthur Miller , In Death of a Salesman, wrote my father’s story. He was a tragic hero. He was away, “on the road”, most of each week. He grew up in the Bronx where being “street wise”, was a survival tactic. I recall my mother singing “Daddy’s Little Girl to Me” and have many photos of him lovingly holding and playing with me.
He cheated on my mother, and brought much anguish to our lives.
But, there is a great “BUT”. He was very loving toward us as well. Uncharacteristic of the typical salesmen of his time, and unlike Willy Loman, he made some of his dreams come true. He had great passion for horses. Now this was a mixed bag for me. We spent most spare time when he was at home riding horses at a nearby horsemanship academy. There was little me grooming horses, riding in horseshows, even winning ribbons and trophies. However, it was never my love, and I was petrified much of the time.
But I learned some powerful and positive life lessons.
One was that despite fears, I could be capable and strong. Another lesson was that even those living in a little apartment, doing a mostly mundane job, can still have a life that embraces large dreams. Enhancing this passion of his, we also spent innumerable hours watching TV Westerns like Bonanza.
I realize now, that I learned many additional lessons from my relationship with him. One being, that people who do wrong things, can also love and be loved. From all those Westerns I learned about honor and justice and “True Grit”. And maybe some of his poor example contributed to my fierce loyalty toward my friends and family.
Stranger in a Strange Land – Moving to Glen Rock, New Jersey
My mother scrimped and saved while my father was “on the road”. So we “upgraded” to a lovely, grass filled suburban town known for its superior school system. Moving half way across the world could not have created a greater culture shock! I was very miserable as I entered my teen years! I was not prepared for these suburban “aliens”. No one dressed like I did. They wore ultra conservative penny loafers, I wore old sneakers with no sox. In New York City I had excelled in gym classes with maybe eighty students, and was even selected as a squad leader. In Glen Rock I was humiliated to be on a unfamiliar soccer field with kids who had been playing the sport since kindergarten.
Teachers seemed cruel. At age fourteen I felt awkward, lonely and confused. Did no one notice how out of place I felt? I had previously been in NYC “special progress” classes, even skipping a grade. Now I felt like I could not add two plus two in the same manner as all the others did. Somehow they did everything differently.
Whew, AND Jewish holidays! In Queens, no one went to school on those days. It was normal to bring matzos to lunch on Passover. Now exams were scheduled on these days, no excuses permitted. These experiences could have led me to a period of religious pride, but, instead, they left me spiritually blank and confused. In retrospect from this period I learned how it feels to be a stranger in a strange land – the minority.
A sudden dark storm ripped through my life in Glen Rock and I was forever changed. One night, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, there was a shocking phone call. My dear Aunt Sheila died, suddenly and unexpectedly, while shopping for the holiday. She was a mother of four children. She was warm and beloved. From my age perspective, Aunt Sheila seemed much older than her thirty-six years. I loved her food, everything she served tasted better if Aunt Sheila made it. I can still sense the warmth in her hugs. On the counter of her kitchen, on the day that she died, was all the food she had prepared for the holiday. We were to have dinner in her home.
When my father returned from a road trip that afternoon, I ran to tell him that his dear “little” sister died. The world became icy and barren. Filled with so much shock the adults in my life were no longer able to embrace or be there for us. So much scrambling, confusion, chaos, filled our lives for a long time to come. There was no guidance, for example, I did not even realize the importance of attending the funeral and opted to stay away. In this dark period, there was no religion, no spirit, nothing to do with grief but to bury it.
The devastation of Aunt Sheila’s death was soon followed by the death of my grandfather (a year to the day later) my grandmother’s a year after that, and my father soon after at age forty-six.
I will never say that darkness is “my friend.” Yet it is part of the cycle of life. I will, however, accept that pain can be a powerful teacher .
There was another painful period when things fell apart and a big crack occurred shattering life as it was. I had a year long “mystery illness” and almost shriveled to a skeleton until it was finally diagnosed. Post surgery, my healing was interrupted by Robert’s open heart surgery and my dear Gerilyn’s suicide. With lightening striking my two best friends, I shriveled even more, wanting to remain in a snail like position, under covers on the sofa. I received support beyond imagination. I took the time I needed, walked the beach, and returned poco a poco to hope and activity.
It was several decades later, with my teaching a course on Death and Dying and the loss of my mother and a disintegration of my relationship with my brothers that I finally experienced the process of grieving so necessary to personal loss. Robert and I have created a ritual of cemetery visits recently, and I have felt the peace and even joy of beautiful memories that can accompany this most significant life passage. Sitting comfortably with silence, I allowed time for my brothers and I to again express our love for each other. I have learned to keep an open heart, to forgive, to accept comfort and to appreciate the wonders of healing.
The lesson of Wabi Sabi is as strong as ever. I need to forget about perfection and accept that there’s a crack in everything and as Lenard Cohen said, “ that’s how the light shines in”.
There are many examples of “light” shining on my spiritual journey. The Home that I live in, The Work that I do, and The Teachers in my life nurture me, and contribute to my joy and well being. I also have a profound appreciation of the fragility created by the storms.
There have been a few memorable sanctuaries in my life such as Chincoteague Island, Sandy Hook National Beach and The Cathedral of St. John the Divine. For now I’m going to reflect on our home as sanctuary.
The view from our home reveals both the tumult and solace that nature provides. It is forever changing. Perched on a hillside, our cottage, with its large windows. faces Sandy Hook bay and beach. Beyond that is the Ocean. Turn right to view a vast and ever changing seascape. Turn left and see the lights of The City.
The fury of storms seen through the frame of the window can render me feeling frightened and meek. Nature has a “mind of its own”. As much as I’d like to wish away the storms, I cannot. More often though, Sun Rain Snow Wind take turns creating awe and wonder.
Inside I am cocooned. A few carefully prepared shrines containing photos and artifacts are evidence of the travels near and far that have been so important in my spiritual journey. Other objects are treasures and photos of many other aspects of my life.
A favorite is a painting from Mongolia of two people on horseback talking with each other, their horses’ necks stretched to the ground as they nibble the grass. This painting serves as a reminder of my greatest value – taking the time to be with a friend/or friends.
Evidence of the spiritual nature of our home is that when people enter their sense of ease is palpable; they often comment “it is so peaceful here”. Our home is sacred, my temple. When my mother frequently stayed with us, Ean used to clear a path through his clutter for his Mema (grandma) who slept in his room and he slept on a sofa. She lovingly accepted both his generosity and imperfection.
My Life’s Work
I am fortunate that my life’s work is an integral part of my spiritual journey; it has never been “just a job”.
A few mentors recognized my abilities way before I was aware of them. Eventually I was invited to teach in an innovative Graduate School program . Here with my colleagues I honed a teaching style that is person centered, collaborative, and involves a balance of facilitating and instructing. This experience and previous teaching experiences such as teaching in urban areas, in an experimental ecumenical Lutheran – Catholic High School, and at a University in Korea, inspired me to co-create The Project for Intercultural Development with Robert. Everything about this process was spiritual: for instance, meeting people from every corner of the earth, hearing their stories, and encouraging them as well as myself to approach each new experience with a sense of fascination and wonder.
My Great Teachers
My spiritual journey has been inspired by several great teachers. Here I am mentioning a few.
You, the members of the Monmouth Center, have been in many ways my greatest spiritual “teachers”. You come from many religious and spiritual paths and parts of the world. You collaborate with me in the challenging pursuit of deep listening and transformation.
Another great teacher is our son Ean: from my relationship with Ean I am always learning that the best path to a deep relationship is “unconditional positive regard” (Carl Rogers). I would like to think that his attending schools from elementary to graduate school, that did not following one size fits all prescriptions, travelling with us, and a having a nurturing community of friends and family, helped him to have a kind of authenticity that makes people relax and feel worthy in his presence.
In his thirty years he has exposed me to new ways of understanding as I have observed him exploring friendships, new places, theater and music with beautiful passion.
Robert: with Robert I laugh a lot and know a deep sense of happiness. Our values are in tune and when they aren’t we spend rich time discussing and disputing. I share with Robert an appreciation of solitude and a dedication to bring out the best in each other.
Also my relationship with my students gives me a purpose to be creative and open to diversity that reaches beyond ethnicity and faith. They have opened me to the challenges of being a new immigrant, the experience of being a soldier, and conservative and liberal points of view, as well as tattoos, piercings, rap (and other) music genres .
Not THE END
When I read about Purim, I learned that the phrase “the whole megillah” comes from this celebration. It refers to the Book or Scroll of Esther, a long and circuitous story, which is read on this occasion. I’ll make a leap here and say that, compared to Robert, I have more of a tendency to tell the WHOLE story. I think it’s in my genes.
I have shared, some of the salient periods of my spiritual journey. Although not written here, this reflection on my journey has revealed to me not only details, but a flood of ideas and memories, more stories waiting to be told, And more conversations to be had.
Exploring our journeys has the potential to reveal what is essential and sacred in our lives. The process of reflection, and in my case writing, has in itself been a means of spiritual growth.
Mine is a Wabi Sabi path. One of looking for beauty in imperfection and insights that may reveal themselves from the most profound and the simplest aspects of life.
Reflecting on my spiritual journey has made me grateful for my life to date.
Concluding for now, here are a quote and a poem that speak to me:
Alan Watts said, “Paradoxical as it may seem, the purposeful life has no content, no point. It hurries on and on, and misses everything. Not hurrying, the purposeless life misses nothing, for it is only when there is no goal and no rush that the human senses are fully open to the world.”
The poem is by David Whyte. A friend brought it to me when I was very ill, and not feeling much hope or faith.
I want to write about faith,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,
faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.
But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.
Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.
NOT “the end”
from the April, 2011 talk to the MCWRET firstname.lastname@example.org