Creativity Under Constraint

Three weeks ago in Boston I got on a train headed to Los Angeles with the understanding that my life was about to change. Little did I realize the rest of the world was about to embark on its own journey of radical transformation, just a couple weeks later.

I’d long been imagining 2020 as a year of integration and renewal. Maybe I’d move to a red state? Or dedicate my life to building new forms of social infrastructure? The particular details were slow to come into focus, but I knew I had no choice but to act in response to the charged emotions I was experiencing in light of our dysfunctional public discourse and disgraceful political and moral leadership. This was no longer a time for moderation or patience. Like Martin Luther King Jr. writing from a Birmingham jail at another crisis moment in American history, I was being called to action some might consider “unwise and untimely.”

So, when I got the call to move across the country to establish the first ever national multi-faith incubator for social change, I thought, Perfect!

Almost as soon as we started to get ourselves settled in LA’s Koreatown news of the Coronavirus was ominous. As we drove to Santa Barbara for a weekend retreat, we talked of handwashing and diy anti-bacterial gel. As we calendared our first programs, we wondered whether we could in fact responsibly invite people into our new home next month. And as we shopped for emergency food and provisions amidst mandated “social distancing” and looming long-term quarantines, the central theme of Purim rang in my ears: “You have come to your position for such a time as this.”

I’ve long said creativity works best under constraint.

Our community, established less than a month ago with the explicit mission to bridge the social distance across religious and cultural difference, will likely not hold any in-person gatherings for months.  

So all is for naught? 

Au contraire.

All those events we planned next month to observe Passover and Easter and Ridvan and Ramadan: we’re still going to do them. We might be the only ones who physically attend but we hope to imagine new ways to share and activate those experiences for members of the community, near and far, who have to keep their physical distance.

And, now that everyone’s in the house all the time, we’ve started “Religion School:” a daily lesson about our respective faith traditions (We’ve already had one Zoom visitor, maybe others would like to join?)

A week or so ago I signed up for a three-month “Assembly” called “Queering Death” at a Downtown LA art space. I had no idea what any of that meant, but I thought it would be a good way to meet people, and I love using queer as a verb. Our first meeting was last night. It was virtual. And surreal.

When the 20 or so of us signed up to explore together end of life care and new ways to ritualize death, a reality of quarantines to protect from pandemic wasn’t on our radar. In this first meeting of strangers, it was front and center. How do you grieve a loved one if you can’t visit their deathbed or attend their funeral? And as the floating heads of friends-I-hadn’t-met-yet shared their anxieties and frustrations, one line of discussion struck me: a desire to zoom out.

Yes, the economy is tanking and most devastatingly this novel virus is spreading and killing, but when you took a walk today did you notice how fresh the air was? Have you been making more of an effort to check-in and connect? Have you been Cooking and Singing and Praying. . . Have you seen how clear the canals in Venice are!

Certainly a deadly pandemic is nothing to make light of, but in this unprecedented time of social and economic reordering, what will you and I create? More pollution and financial obligation and fear? Or something different. Something better.

You’ve probably already seen this widely circulating poem, but I think it’s perfect and want to share it again here.


What if you thought of it

as the Jews consider the Sabbath—

the most sacred of times?

Cease from travel.

Cease from buying and selling.

Give up, just for now,

on trying to make the world

different than it is.

Sing. Pray. Touch only those

to whom you commit your life.

Center down.

And when your body has become still,

reach out with your heart.

Know that we are connected

in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.

(You could hardly deny it now.)

Know that our lives

are in one another’s hands.

(Surely, that has come clear.)

Do not reach out your hands.

Reach out your heart.

Reach out your words.

Reach out all the tendrils

of compassion that move, invisibly,

where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–

for better or for worse,

in sickness and in health,

so long as we all shall live.

–Lynn Ungar 3/11/20

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