Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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Location: New York, United States

The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Monday, July 21, 2008

In the Wilderness

Looking at my description at the top of the page and my last few postings in particular, I sense a disconnect. It's not that I don't still care about those things I mentioned, but life seems a little "stale, flat and unprofitable" these days. So I thought that I would post my "confirmation" speech from 2004, the ending of which specifically talks about why we shouldn't allow ourselves to stop caring deeply and feeling strongly. I don't know, though - the life of "quiet desperation" may sometimes be harder to rise above than the kind of shattering experience I talked about in that speech.

B’Midbar – in the wilderness – is the name of the fourth book of the Torah, as well as of this week’s portion. This book covers most of the forty years that the children of Israel wandered between the Exodus and the entry into the Promised Land, with their ups and many, many downs, during which they are transformed from a motley crowd of former slaves into a people worthy of a homeland.

It is no coincidence that so many of the world's spiritual and philosophical traditions place such an emphasis on the retreat or wilderness experience, although Judaism, as is its wont, is unusual if not unique in focusing on the experience of an entire community. From Elijah to the Buddha, from John the Baptist and Jesus to Thoreau, eliminating distractions and confronting the bare bones of life has been seen as essential to spiritual growth.

Like Egypt, however, the wilderness is not only or even usually a physical location. Many of us have gone through traumatic events or devastating periods of our lives in which our psychological and emotional defenses are stripped away and even God seems to have abandoned us. Eventually we have emerged on the other side, stronger if nowhere near being tzaddikim. “What does not destroy me makes me stronger,” wrote Nietzsche, who confronted enormous physical and emotional suffering and was, in the end, destroyed by it. We will never know how many others are destroyed, spiritually, mentally or physically, without leaving the testament that he and others have left.

I cannot claim to have come through anything like what so many others have endured, although to each of us at the time, our “wilderness” seems endless and unspeakably dark. However, at the end of 1997, six months after I celebrated my bat mitzvah, I lost my dearest friend after a short, unexpected illness. Since he was not a close relative, I did not even have the healing rituals of Jewish mourning to ease the transition, except for the Kaddish.

The next four months of what was probably clinical depression and then my own life-threatening physical illness constituted the darkest part of my personal wilderness. On the first night, for one of the only times in my life, I could not even imagine the presence of God. Many of us never find God in that “dark night of the soul”; we are alone, facing only ourselves, with all of our flaws and failures – and emptiness. For us, a sense of the Divine only appears upon our emergence, after we have “bottomed out.”

In my case, it was only near the end of a week-long nightmare of delusion and delirium, caused by medication, illness, emotional distress, or a combination of all three, that I felt an overwhelming sense of love in the cosmos. This was not a generalized, diffuse love, but a deeply personal one, mediated through my close relationship with Carl and what I was starting to perceive as a “benign conspiracy,” as opposed to the malevolent ones that I had been imagining before. It seemed that all those who cared about me were going through an elaborate masquerade designed to help me break out of the place where I felt trapped. The elements of this benign conspiracy, of course, were also part of the delusion, but the fact of it was not. The initial feeling did not last, of course, but I feel that it was transformative.

I do not know if those of us who enter this “wilderness,” which may include most or all of the human race, ever really leave it. Perhaps we only come to the edges and glimpse the Promised Land. Like the journey of the Israelites, our journey is fraught with backslidings, rebellions and returns; as Helen Keller wrote in speaking of conversion: “For a long time we resolve like angels, but drop back into the old matter-of-fact way of life, and do just as we did before, like mortals.”

Perhaps we should not leave the wilderness, even if we could. If we do, we should take part of it with us, as we do with slavery when we celebrate Pesach. To come through and survive is not enough if we end up shutting out feelings and relationships because we are afraid of going through the pain again. Pain is not only a warning symptom that something is wrong, but a necessary prerequisite to empathy. Some children are born with an inability to feel physical pain, and not only can they lose fingers and toes because cuts and scrapes that they cannot feel become infected; they can also have difficulty understanding the pain, physical and emotional, of others.

We must never allow this to happen to us. Of course we must have barriers; we could not bear the pain of the world without either going insane of becoming emotionally paralyzed. But the barriers must be porous. We can neither move on without looking back nor remain mired in the past, In a way we must live on both levels at once, and with its emphasis on remembrance and sensitivity to all suffering, as well as its concrete, this-worldly prescriptions for tikkun olam, repairing the world, Judaism can guide us on this difficult path.

May 22, 2004
Cross-posted on "Turn It and Turn It"

Monday, July 07, 2008

So many books, so little time! (cont'd)

Now for the ones I'm working on. (It remains to be seen whether my orgy of suspense/thrillers is over, since I still have a couple from the library.)

The Quiet American by Graham Greene. Carol and I saw the movie and the next day I was at the AAUW book sale and there was the book, so I thought I'd get it and compare. So far it seems like Michael Caine was a perfect choice for the reporter, but the title character (Pyle) seems much more naive and vulnerable in the book than Brendan Fraser made him in the movie.

Emma and Knightley by Rachel Billington. Obviously, a sequel to Emma. It seems to read pretty well so far, but I'm not too happy with the fact that the first thing she did was kill off Jane Fairfax. Evidently she doesn't know (or doesn't care) that according to Jane Austen, Jane F.'s marriage to Frank Churchill lasted ten years, not one.

The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot by Naomi Wolf. Perfect reading for the 4th of July weekend, but extremely disturbing, as she outlines the ten steps by which democracies turn into dictatorships.

Dark Cosmos by Dan Hooper. To be fair, I've only read the introduction on this one, but I'm pretty sure I'm going to keep going. A point in its favor for immediate reading - it's not very long.

I am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter (library book). I'm not very far into this one so it remains to be seen whether I'll finish it this go round, but what I've read so far is fascinating. It addresses the nature of identity and consciousness, a subject (along with evil) that I've always been a sucker for. (Sorry, Esther - "for which I've always been a sucker" just doesn't cut it.)

A Nation of Wimps by Hara Estroff Marano. Subtitled The High Cost of Invasive Parenting. Need we say more?

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (library book). On the day that Willie (Wilhemina, I think) Upton returns to her hometown, pregnant by her dissertation adviser, the remains of the town's legendary monster surface in the nearby lake. Her hippie-turned-born again Baptist mother then informs her that Willie's own father isn't some random pickup from the West Coast, but a local man who is somehow related to them, and Willie sets off through the family history to discover who he is, something her mother refuses to tell her.

So many books, so little time!

Well, at least I have finished a couple of my own, in addition to library books. My brain seems to be fried - maybe that's why you're theoretically supposed to read lighter stuff in the summer. Except for those poor kids - I don't remember ever getting reading lists when I was in school! Not that I didn't read constantly anyway, but I always balked at being told what to read, unless it was actually part of the curriculum. I still remember poor Mr. Arnault trying to get me to do my book report on The Fountainhead in 11th grade English, when I wanted to do it on Gone with the Wind. Guess who won that one.

Anyway, here are some books that I've finished recently:

Rachel, the Possessed by Katheryn Kimbrough - yes, one of the dreaded Phenwick women! I'm so ashamed, but they're like popcorn or chocolate - you know they're no good for you but you keep having another one, and another. I've got three more and just ordered #9 & 10. ** 1/2

Beneath the Skin by Nicci French (library book). This is the third one of hers I've finished and have enjoyed all of them. I like the fact that each of them is completely different from the others. (SPOILER ALERT!) What I was particularly impressed by in this one is that it deals with three victims of a stalker, and you get to know the two who are killed as well as the one who catches the guy and survives. Usually the only one the author allows you to get to know and care about is the one who makes it, and the other victims are just incidental. ****

In a Dark Season by Vickie Lane. An Appalachian mystery. A healthy older woman with (seemingly) everything to live for suddenly attempts to kill herself, and a "newcomer" (only been there 20 years) who has just become friends with her sets out to find out why. Intertwined with her present-day search for connections to a crime that occurred 11 years before is a story of love and betrayal from the 1850s. There's also a hint of the supernatural. Very atmospheric. ****

Dead Guilty by Beverly Connor (library book). Three bodies are found hanging from trees in the Georgia woods, and forensic anthropologist Diane Fallon has to glean as much information from them as she can, as people connected to the find start being killed around her. I thought the plot on this one was a little convoluted and the solution didn't really live up to the buildup. There was also a lot of information presented by various characters to one another in what felt like little mini-lectures. On the other hand, they didn't slow down the pace and it did keep me reading. *** 1/2

Thieves of Heaven by Richard Doetsch (library book). A reformed thief whose wife is dying of cancer accepts an assignment to steal the "keys to heaven" from the Vatican in order to pay for her treatment, and discovers that he's been working for the other side, as it were. A little far-fetched, particularly in some of the details, but very enjoyable. *** 1/2

Saxons, Vikings and Celts by Brian Sykes. An account of a genetic study that attempts to unravel the tangled genetic strands of the four countries making up Great Britain, and to see how well the actual genetics of the Brits matches with the stories told by archaeology and folklore. *** 1/2

Coming up next: What I'm reading now (a bit more edifying than that lot)

Friday, July 04, 2008

Happy Independence Day

I highly recommend the following for your edification and enlightenment. Please click on the title to read entire article.

Commentary: How dare they rip the Fourth Amendment?
Joseph L. Galloway | McClatchy Newspapers

Early next week the U.S. Senate will vote on an extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, with a few small amendments intended to immunize telecommunications corporations that assisted our government in the warrantless and illegal wiretapping it has grown to love.

That such a gutting of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution even made it out of committee is yet another stain on the gutless and seemingly powerless Democratic majority in both houses of Congress.


We are living in a time when the right of habeas corpus — which simply put is your right to be brought before a proper court of law where the government is made to prove that there is good and legal reason to detain you — recently survived by a margin of only one vote at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now these bad actors are prepared to set aside your right to privacy — written into the Constitution as a key part of our Bill of Rights — with hardly a nod in the direction of the true patriots who rebelled against an English king and his army to guarantee those rights.

That they will do this while the last empty phrases of the political windbags at the Fourth of July celebrations are still echoing across a thousand city parks and the bright red, white and blue bunting and blizzard of American flags still flap in the breeze is little short of breath-taking.

How dare they?


Somewhere across an ocean and a desert, hiding in his cave, a man of hate named Osama bin Laden is laughing up the sleeve of his dirty robe at the thought that he and a small handful of fellow fanatics could tie a great nation in knots — knots of fear stoked by our own leaders.


The questions I pose are these:

How can even one senator on either side of the aisle in good conscience vote in favor of this law that does nothing to enhance our security and everything to diminish our rights as a free people?

How can both men who seek to become our next president cast such a vote when both should be standing shoulder-to-shoulder declaring that they would govern by our consent and with our approval, not by wielding the coercive and corrosive and corrupt powers that King George III and his latter-day namesake from Texas thought are theirs by divine right?

Amen to that!