When I was young I enjoyed the Christmas season even though I’m Jewish and never celebrated it. The Christmas season coincides with the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, the Festival Of Lights. However, it went beyond that for me because the 1950s and 1960s Christmas had a far more genuine quality about it than it does now. Feelings of acknowledgement still achieved parity with the tradition of gift-giving. For those few weeks at the end of each year, the incense of spirit scented the air.
Like just about everything else in today’s culture, the Christmas holiday has lost much of its soul with the vacuum being filled by the netherworld of delusion. As people now rush about each day, tethered to electronic devices, operating primarily from the superficial aurora of their souls, Christmas’ soul-core has been largely eviscerated and gift-giving has devolved into nearly meaningless exorbitance. How much better it would be to simply take the time to be present with one’s whole being for our loved ones rather than to squander savings on non-essential items that will ultimately find their way into the Goodwill bin or someone else’s Christmas stocking during next year’s frantic potlatch.
Gift-giving only has meaning when it serves as a heart-felt expression of acknowledgement and appreciation of another’s singular soul. On the other hand, when it merely serves as a substitute for this, it is, despite appearances to the contrary, a detour from the path of soul-to-soul encounter that hastens the drying of the cement of estrangement.
However, back in the mists of my youth, the colored lights strung around windows and doors and along eaves reflected real feeling and so gave comfort, even to a Jewish boy as he walked along empty streets on cold Brooklyn nights—more so when this multicolored illumination twinkled in harmony with the diffused orange glow of window-placed Chanukah candles.
In the early 1970s I was teaching science in a Brooklyn school. By this time, Christmas had begun its decline and I no longer felt any connection to the holiday other than annoyance at its undiluted commercialism and the monotony of non-stop Christmas music on the radio and store sound-systems. By the thousandth playing of Jingle Bell Rock, I was thankful for the respite provided by the arrival of New Year’s Eve.
During the holiday season’s school break in one of those 1970s years, I took the subway to the American Museum of Natural History. As far back as I can recall, I’ve had a driving interest in science. As a young boy I was primarily drawn to geology and had a well-organized rock collection. The museum’s rock and mineral gallery exuded a strong allure for me. By the time I was in fifth grade, I was riding the subways by myself all the way from Canarsie to north Manhattan to visit the museum at least one Sunday a month. In today’s world, it would be unthinkable to allow a 10-year-old boy to make that trip solo. My mother would nowadays no more let her 10-year-old son travel the subways alone than she would agree to his practicing tight-rope walking on the power lines.
By my science-teaching days, my focus had shifted primarily to biology and ecology, but I still retained my love for rocks and gemstones. Hence, I looked forward to a thorough touring of the museum’s diverse galleries one cold winter’s day, the pale sun veiled by grayness and chill. It had snowed a few days before and mounds of shoveled snow mantled with soot bordered the sidewalks. I boarded the Canarsie Line, switched at Broadway Junction for the “A” Train, and headed north to Manhattan (or what Brooklynites refer to as “The City”).
The museum has its own subway stop: 81th Street, on Central Park West. I got off the train and walked through an exit door on the platform that led directly into the museum. I moved to Washington State in 1976, so my memories of the museum are frozen in the 1970s. There have been many changes in the place since then, but in those days, perhaps still, when transitioning from the gritty underground subway environment into the museum, you were greeted by a fierce-faced Kodiak bear rearing on its hind legs. Nine feet tall, mouth agape and teeth bared in roaring mode, claws like stalactites projecting from its paws. Sure, you knew it was a stuffed bear, but even in death it retained the power to frighten visitors.
I walked awhile among the mammal gallery with its dioramas of a wolf-pack trekking across a moonlit snowfield, two bull moose locked in brutal rutting-season combat, lions lounging yet alert on the Serengeti plain, etc. I give a lot of credit to this museum for fostering my determination to live surrounded by nature and to explore its wild places.
Just outside that gallery there was a diorama of a Blackfoot teepee with mannequins attired in rawhide seated around a fire and surrounded by the implements of that nomadic Plains tribe. I gazed awhile into that vanished world and moved on to the gallery that featured various biomes, including wetlands, desert and forest. There was a diorama of the Olympic Rain Forest that I especially loved. I had spent time in the forests of Washington State and the diorama stirred my longing to return there. I yearned to leave the concrete, wailing sirens and crowded locomotion of New York to be back among the giant evergreens and the silence of sword ferns, circling hawks and migrating clouds.
Interestingly, in 1976, my last year of teaching in New York, I took one of my science classes on a trip to the museum. I led the class to the Olympic Rain Forest diorama and announced to this street-wise assembly of inner city kids that I intended to live in just such a forest after the school year ended. They were genuinely impressed (not an easy thing to achieve with this group), and six months later I followed through and headed west.
After the biome gallery, I made my last stop at the Hall of Minerals and Gems. When I had visited the museum as a boy, the mineral and gem gallery was a large, upper floor, high-ceilinged old room with large sash-windows through which lemon-gray Manhattan light washed over the glass cases of stones. By the 1970s a new, elegant gallery had been constructed, carpeted and dimly lit with dazzling gemstones set upon dark velvet. There was the 563-carat blue sapphire Star of India, the 100-carat DeLong Star ruby, the 632-carat Patricia emerald and an orange topaz large enough to use as a stump for splitting kindling. The most majestic gemstones were individually illuminated like a cabaret performer who, with houselights switched off, stands motionlessly poised, derby brim pulled down and walking stick planted, to launch into a signature number. I moved among the stones for an hour or so absorbing their beauty and power.
It was now late afternoon and with a long train ride back to Brooklyn ahead of me, I backtracked through the galleries, along old marble hallways and stairs, past the Kodiak bear, still standing on hind legs intimidating the city folk, out the door and back on to the subway platform.
The museum door was a semi-permeable membrane that regulated passage between two totally different worlds. I left behind the exotic world of wild nature and stepped into a dark subterranean enclosure isolated in virtually every way from wild nature except for the anonymous chill breeze that pushed its way through the tunnel.
The 81st Street station has since been renovated, but back then it was the same as when first built, perhaps in the 1920s or earlier. The walls were covered with square, white porcelain tiles and the platform’s concrete embedded with 50-years of grime. Incandescent bulbs, some of which were bare, primarily illuminated the station and so the place had the intimate, lonely feel of a large room lit solely by shaded table lamps.
Largely, recent immigrants from Europe and poor black men, all eager for the job and the wages it provided, built the subways at the beginning of the 20th century. It was grueling, dangerous labor tunneling like badgers, often with only picks and shovels. More than a few of these men paid with their lives for the privilege of that employment.
Since that time, generations of people have traveled these lines and the passages were imbued with the artifacts of their essences. I sat down on an old hardwood bench and waited for my train. No doubt, 1920s women in cloche hats with children in knickers in tow had sat on this same bench. Perhaps a World War II serviceman in navy blue or khaki wool had sat here before shipping out to some remote Pacific atoll or forbidding North African desert from which he never returned.
There were a few people scattered along this platform and others sat on the platform across the way, waiting for the northbound train. We were like chess pieces on a nearly empty board. I noticed an old black man standing to my left, near the edge of the platform that bordered the darkness from which the oncoming train would soon erupt. He wore an old-fashioned long winter coat, worn shoes and pants. His clothes were neat and clean but he was plainly poor. His head was uncovered and he held the long sensing-cane of the blind.
A northbound train rumbled into the station across the tracks. It idled there for less than a minute while people boarded. Backlit passengers at the windows resembled Renaissance-era portraits. When the train departed, the opposite platform was empty as if those people had vanished via an illusionist’s trick.
When the train’s sound had evaporated to the north, the station filled with hollow silence. Suddenly, a new sound emerged as if from within the chill air: the sound of singing, softly at first, than increasing to full volume: “O come all ye faithful. Joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem…”
The blind man’s deep and mellifluous voice, billowing like a sail catching the wind, filled the air like a wolf call on a clear night. His dense gray hair and dark brown face, shining in the incandescent light, was framed by the blackness of the tunnel at the platform’s end. He could not see but clearly he was seeing beyond. The song emerged from the deepest recesses of a soul shaped by darkness and hardship and the genetic memory of enslavement, yet brightly illuminated by pure faith and the capacity to communicate “I-Thou” to his personal savior.
Of course, this Christian hymn, originally composed in Latin by an 18th century Englishman, is not something I was taught in Hebrew school. However, it was not the words, foreign to my own beliefs, that magnetized me, but the real feeling that was projected and then responded to with an answering call of spirit. All of us on the platform turned toward the singer who subtly rocked forward and back, chin raised, shoe tips near the platform edge, sensing-cane planted like a prophet’s staff. Transfixed, no one moved, popped gum, rustled in a purse or turned a newspaper page.
The great philosopher Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” paradigm is an important element in the theoretical construct of Spiritual PhytoEssencing, the art I developed that uses essential oils for deep soul-level healing. Buber writes: “The basic word I-Thou can be spoken only with one’s whole being�I require a Thou to become; becoming I, I say Thou… Inner actuality is only where there is reciprocal activity. The strongest and deepest actuality is to be found where everything enters into activity; the whole human being, without reserve, and the all-embracing God; the unified I and the boundless Thou.“
Accordingly, one can relate to another human being, an animal, a tree, an essential oil, or God as either an “I” or an “It.” In the case of the former, one’s unique “I,” the authentic core of each individualized soul, encounters, with full presence of being, a person, a rose bush, lavender oil, etc. on a soul-to-soul level. Operating from his or her “I,” one acknowledges the singularity and value of the encountered “I,” and that Thou reciprocates in kind. On the other hand, when reducing a person, essential oil, etc. to an “It,” one bypasses acknowledgement of the “Thou,” and merely uses the ensouled as objects.
Of all I-Thou relations, one serves as a template for all others. Buber explains: “Only one Thou never ceases, in accordance with its nature to be Thou for us. To be sure, whoever knows God also knows God’s remoteness and the agony of drought upon a frightened heart, but not the loss of presence.” I did not read these words until 35-years after I sat on that bench, waiting for my train. However, as soon as I did, the vision of that blind man singing his actuality flamed-up from latency in my memory.
The Kabbalah teaches that Keter, the highest vessel on the Tree of Life (the point of interface between the Infinite and emanated creation) is the superconscious source of faith. The power of faith emanates from the hidden juncture where the human soul clings to its divine source (i.e., Keter). It is this connection that imbues the soul with its eternal quality.
In Spiritual PhytoEssencing, rosemary oil is considered to have a particularly strong association with Keter. One of the identifying themes of rosemary oil is: If I can stay warm (on both physical and spiritual levels), remember (what is good in one’s life, and those who have been good to her), be faithful (to God, one’s family, marriage, ideals) and achieve harmonious “oneness” (within oneself, with God and with the natural universe), everything will be okay.
Keter is also said to be the point of origin of humility. The kabbalists explain that even though Keter is so high that it is completely hidden from rational consciousness and is imbued with the quality of infinity, it recognizes that it is nothing compared to the Infinite upon which it borders.
Thus, true proximity and intimacy with God deeply instills both faith and humility. Keter is so high an aspect of the soul that trying to directly access it would be like gazing with the naked eye at a star-filled sky in order to glimpse a planet in a distant galaxy. Nevertheless, as the first step in the creational process toward individuation, it has attained a degree of differentiation from the Creator, to whom it can now say Thou. As noted above, Buber observes, “I require a Thou to become; becoming I, I say Thou.” Perhaps one of the purposes for God’s creation of a finite world, was to facilitate divine completion through the potential for reciprocal acknowledgment.
That blind man of faith was encouraging the speaking of the words: “I-Thou” when he tilted his chin upward and sang into the subway air: “O sing, choirs of angels, Sing in exultation, Sing all that hear in heaven God’s holy word…” I believe he was also saying “I-Thou” to those waiting along with him for the southbound train. Maybe this was his way of giving us all the truest of holiday gifts: the gift of acknowledgment and caring.
The song ended as the sound of the oncoming train began to reach us like wind rolling forward through a forest. The spell lasted until the train pulled in and its doors slid open. The car was nearly empty, thus, when boarding we maintained approximately the same spatial relationships we had while waiting on the platform. All of us, including the singer, sat down and withdrew back into our personal orbits. It was now our turn to be Renaissance portraits to those we passed at subway stops. The doors closed and the train began to roll along the burnished rails out of the station and into the rest of my life.
I knew even then, in the self-absorption of youth, that I had just had a powerful, meaningful experience. It was not until many years later that I came to fully appreciate that it was a lesson of great import.
The spirit of the holiday season, the unique intersection of Chanukah and Christmas, is not actually lost. A glowing ember of spirit is still buried beneath the ash-heap of delusion. It can be uncovered and bellowed back into life by the cumulative influence of faith, humility and the determination to speak “I-Thou.”
If I could reach out now to the soul of that man singing just beyond the museum door, I would thank him for a holiday gift which will never be outgrown nor become obsolete, and say, Merry Christmas, sensei.