by Renee Skudra
After six years of living in North Carolina, some argument can be made that I am a Jewish Southerner. In some ways that is admittedly a messy business – in its best iteration, there is the striving to understand others religiously and also culturally but also the critical examination of self through an intentionally Jewish lens. I’m sitting on my porch in a beloved rocking chair, the Southern furniture that you can see as defining outside-the-house furniture from West Texas to Northern Virginia. Hours ago a power outage happened and threw into high relief the dwindling bit of light until the darkness enveloped everything. A flashlight in my hands is all I have to force a less than acute evocation of place into an admittedly limited vision.
The deep and shining life beneath the commonplace is for the moment has disappeared. My son is angry because the power outage has stopped him in mid-sentence on his lap top computer, composing an article we hope will see publication. The evening sky is dark now, with whisps of cumulous clouds still visible. I will not be cooking tonight or watching a movie but I tell my boy that I am actually grateful for the power outage and that it is important that we consider just how one might arrive at such a perspective.
I do not dispute for a moment the inconvenience of having no electricity. A dinner with friends which would have occurred hours before has been canceled. I have spent a lot of time this year alone and from a Torah perspective, being alone is not a good thing (Genesis 2:18). The chance to share a culinary event would have bound both of us to being a part of a community and breaking bread together might have obviated the solitary trajectory of a daily existence. As a therapist friend of mind says, we cannot change an event but we can change our attitude as to how to respond to that event.
We sit on the porch steps, the nightbirds singing, the sounds of the cicadas punctuating the air and I say aloud, “this power outage is actually a good thing. It gives us time to consider everything we DO have to be grateful for.” Earlier that morning I was reading passages of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ writing and I am as usual mesmerized by his words. At this moment I have time, ensconsed in the near-blackness of my neighborhood block, to ponder his sentiment that every time you use the word “self”, try using the word “other” instead.
With my son, I discuss his notion that the Jewish imperative is to be true to your faith and a blessing to others, regardless of their faith. My son responds that as Jews the biggest responsibility we have is to fix the world. My gratitude begins here: I am grateful for the wise words of Rabbi Sacks and my son’s understanding of their import.
Under a canopy of stars, I am grateful now for so many things – the chance to sit in darkness and be at peace with my favorite person in the world and our beloved Bichon Frise at his feet, a mass of blinding white fur even in the total absence of light. Several people are dancing in the street and I am grateful for their exuberance which keeps at bay any catastrophe that I might indulge in.
As we sit here marveling at how an unfortunate event (the power outage which is assuredly only transitory – we hope – in nature) through the power of cognition can be changed into a transcendent one, a car suddenly rolls up in front of our house and a close girlfriend jumps out with something in her hand. “I made you guys a cake so at least you have something yummy to eat with the power being gone.” I laugh because I know cake, in the South, is taken seriously here – whether it is 18-layer, upside-down, dump, Bundt, sheet or gas station cake. So now I am grateful that on top of Rabbi Sacks’ wisdom, we have good cake to accompany it and the kindness of a friend.
I am grateful for so many things. The dogwood trees on our property are still alive with autumn colors and the Toyota is still running. No immediate health challenges are on the horizon and an academic paper will soon be published and another thereafter. A total stranger performed a mitzvah of mowing my formerly ungovernable lawn and that has sharpened my sense of Jewish gratitude. The world is turning in the direction of goodness, moments later as the house suddenly is flooded with light.
For a moment I stumble emotionally, remembering that a day before my son was laid off from his job and our financial moorings are consequently more precarious. Admittedly there is so much to be overwhelmed by. Out of nowhere, like a universal thump on the head, I recall something from the Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, popping into my mind: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief, but do justly now.” The rain has commenced pounding upon the roof and some droplets are falling on the living room floor, victims of a structural crack in the ceiling.
It would be easy to bemoan our situation but another idea suddenly appears: I tell my son that at least we HAVE a roof over our heads and it is only a very little bit of rain, so scant that it can be easily captured in a metal pot. The truth is that there is so much in the world to be grateful for – the love of family, friends, the interest of strangers, the beauty of the natural environs, our ability to make the world intelligible and bestow blessings on others.
In the morning, as is my custom, I wake up and with some solemnity say “modah ani.” The sun is shining brightly and I am excited to begin a new day. The power outage is a thing of the past. With a bow to local tradition in Greensboro I decide to make something special for dinner and run to the market to purchase the ingredients for my intended dish. In a magazine there I open a page and laugh when I see the words “Southern fried chicken is an art form. Approach that cast iron skillet with reverence.” How could the author possibly have known that this is exactly the meal I will be preparing!
I am grateful that I have the money to buy the food and an old cast iron skillet to bring the fried chicken into respectable culinary life. I buy enough chicken so that I can share it with friends, intent on paying things forward. My son turns on the radio in the car and an old country-western tune of Willie Nelson’s comes on the air. I suddenly remember seeing him being interviewed on television and the specific words he said: “When I started counting my blessings my whole life turned around.” This is not wisdom from the Torah but undoubtedly it is sagacious insight, full of good instruction for living.
At this moment I am grateful for Willie Nelson too. The power outage of last night allowed our family to recalibrate the significance of things and to see that the barometer of gratitude is the best way to measure the sanctity of one’s life. It allowed us a measured space for silence, unhampered by the vagaries of imposed sound and all its furies. As I walk into my home I say a bit wryly, out loud, thank you Hashem that the electricity is on and the newscaster on TV is animatedly describing the weather for the week.
Living in the South, I’m always interested in what nature has in mind to deliver on any given day, whether it be a pop-up storm or a mind-bending heat. Whatever the weather will be, I’m grateful that we are here, quite simply, to experience it in whatever glory it chooses to arrive in. I’m grateful too that there is still some of that scrumptious chocolate mayonnaise cake in the fridge.