Thursday, July 25, 2013

Sermons, Headaches, Botox, and Spiders: A Story about God

I Sit Here, Grading Papers

            Out there in the Rabbi-and-Cantor-World, my colleagues are writing High Holyday sermons. I sit here, grading papers. We all do what we must; all the work is holy. They ponder God’s work in the world; I check for active verbs, passive sentence construction, and the proper usage of the colon and semicolon, my two favorite forms of punctuation, the Bentley and Mercedes, respectively, of the World of Punctuation. These remarkable dots connect two related sentences: they perform what I believe language should do; it should connect ideas, and people. The colon and semicolon do their small part to shorten distances, and bring peace to this stumbling, erring world.
            I excuse myself from grading from time to time, for forays into the world of the Web, a world of ideas. Some ideas are popular, some intellectual. Many are narishkeit, foolishness, but they relax my mind; some are political—by signing a petition here, decrying a politician there, bemoaning a war on the other side of the world—I beguile myself into believing that I am involved in this world, that I am actually doing, accomplishing something, when, truth to tell, I am simply here, tapping on a keyboard, sending strokes of light into the cyber-ether. I am no slug, O World; I cry silently, I am ideas personified.
            What can I do? This is my function: to learn, to teach, to pray, to serve God, through what I do. “There is no choice; you are embarked,” says the Midrash.
            I went to the neurologist yesterday: my headaches were increasing—too little sleep, no visits to the gym, teaching a double load, with classes both morning and evening, and doing administrative work in my cubicle in between. (Thankfully, I am not gaining weight; one of my headache meds has the happy side-effect of burning calories, as long as I don't pig out.) She listened as I spoke, and tweaked my meds somewhat. She was happy that I am able to control my headaches; so am I. There is a particular combination of meds which works for me, thank God and modern medicine, and a head-banger which used to put me in bed for a full day in years past can be beaten back by a nasal spray and a powder stirred into a glass. (I had awakened at 4 am one morning, lying on my back—I am usually a side-sleeper—with a stiff neck and shoulders, my head poised on the edge of the pillow, and a throbbing pain in the back of my head; usually, my migraines are usually behind either one eye or the other.) Does it matter that the pain is in the back of my head?
            No, says the doctor. You have had an MRI, and we found nothing in there.
            Nothing of importance, I say, and we both laugh.
            She recommends—suggests, really—the anodyne of the moment, Botox.
            I decline: I like, enjoy, really, raising my brow, knitting my forehead, looking ironical. Botox would paralyze my forehead: I had had ample time to study the poster trumpeting its wonderments while waiting for the doctor in the examination room. No Botox for me, I decided.
            The meeting is done. I pay the co-pay, descend to the parking lot in the Florida heat, well over 90 degrees. As I walk to the car, I pass an enormous web, occupied by a spider the size of my thumb, almost. I study him closely, and am reminded, not of the evil, godless spider in Robert Frost’s “Design,” but, rather, Walt Whitman’s far more genial arachnid in “A Noiseless Patient Spider”—God, perhaps a pantheistic, Transcendental God, has sent this wee beastie into my ken, so that I may observe it doing its job, waiting patiently, and learn therefrom how better to do my own:


A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.