Fire on the Mountain, Water on the Shelf

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, August 24, 2018 / 13 Elul 5778

When I was a boy, I collected water from around the world. Sort of.

What actually happened is that my grandparents traveled a lot. Before one of their trips, I asked them to bring me back water from their journeys as a memento. Don’t ask what prompted my request. The original impulse is long forgotten. But it’s reasonable to assume I wanted in on their adventures. I’ve always had the wanderlust.

They were good and loving grandparents, so they would have a beverage on the airplane and then keep the empties of those little bottles the flight attendants used to give you for free in coach. Then when Papa Jake and Nana Mimi reached the appropriate destination, they’d fill the bottle, screw the lid on tight, and bring it back to me. In those days, no one cared if you carried liquid on to an airplane.

Lined up in a shelf of my bedroom, I managed an inventory worthy of a liquor store—a display of Johnny Walker, Jim Beam, and Beafeater’s bottles. Over the years, much of the water managed to evaporate, but a few of those bottles remain filled.

I wondered what stories those waters could tell? The oceans and rivers from which they were drawn? The mood of my grandparents on the day they scooped up the water? The cycle of life of which every drop of water plays a part? I even pondered if a laboratory could analyze each bottle and provide a unique description of its source waters.

I don’t think about that childhood collection much anymore. The bottles, after all, remain in my old bedroom, far from sight.

Yet this week, I’ve been thinking about them as we’ve all dealt with the wildfires and the wheezy smoke-filled air.

We were supposed to go camping. Work days are already stretching into that pre-high holiday fever pitch. It was to be the last hurrah with the family before the deep demands of a new year took charge of us all.

As we left Portland, it looked like things would clear up and air quality would drop back into the yellow zone. But as we drove north, it was all red alerts. By the time we reached Tacoma, we knew that it would be too dangerous to go camping. Thanks to the miracles of technology, we were able to find an air b&b and rescue something of a vacation from our smoked-out camping trip.

You know, for a period last summer, the forest fires also choked us all into indoor submission. It was the Gorge burning then, and we all recall how devastating that human-caused fire was. This time, the flames weren’t ignited by boys with bottle rockets and firecrackers. These were standard forest fires.

Or were they? NASA posits that global climate change has extended the fire season by several days in something like a quarter of the world. A few extra days in the hot time is all it takes. So maybe we all share more in common with those Gorge teenagers than we’d like to imagine?

But it got me thinking what if our Northwest summers consistently become dim with ash. Could we collect the smoke in small bottles, and send them to a laboratory for analysis? Would we be able to develop a science that could read each smoke signature the way my imagination read those bottles of exotic water? Might we develop a tool that could decipher the experience of each tree that gave itself up in another tempestuous conflagration?

It was Robert Frost who composed the short apocalyptic poem, “Fire and Ice.” It’s short, so here goes:

Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

I suspect that each of us has a small part of our soul that we’ve brought to the edge of annihilation. Sometimes we’ve starved it by frigidly recoiling from life’s heat, frightened by the loss of control it threatened. Other times, perhaps out of ennui, we’ve chased an excitement that has caused us equal pain. Drowning or burning, drowning or burning.

There’s a collection of our misdeeds, lined up on the shelves of our memory like small bottles of water. Most of the time, we push them out of view, hoping to forget both them and their impulsive origin. Once a year though, the Jew is urged to dust them off and stare straight into their heart. We maintain a hope that there’s a lesson we can glean. We seek the story they can tell to make us better. It’s there for the taking.

That’s the adventure we all are on.

In this holy month of Elul, I send you my blessings,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

This week, develop three questions that arise out of today’s Oasis Song.

Ask yourself these questions. Then ask a friend.

Discuss over a cup of tea, a glass of wine—or maybe a small bottle of water!

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