On Pyramids and Impermanence

Roses, Thorns, and Buds

One of the many glues that binds our family together is our love of storytelling. We rarely miss opportunities to replay our highlights (and lowlights), reveling in the snowball effect as the stories gain meaning, matter, and momentum with each retelling. And because of a reflection ritual that we’ve shared at our dining room table, dinner time has become a sort of writer’s room for new stories to enter the canon.

“Roses, thorns, and buds” offers each of us an opportunity to share a high point from the day (rose), a difficult experience (thorn), and something coming up that we’re excited about (bud). Given that all three kids are at school during the day, it offers us a window into their lives that we otherwise might not get a glimpse of, and it gives each of us an opportunity to pause and reflect on the day that was.

For the last few weeks, our youngest daughter, Ayla, has offered almost the same three items when her turn to share has come up. “Ayla, what’s your rose for the day?”

“I built a big, big structure out of Legos! I worked really hard on it!” (Her face truly lights up every time she reports this. Her pride in the accomplishment is truly evident.)

“Wonderful! And what about your thorn?”

“Jack smashed it.” (Alternatively, he “knocked it down,” “broke it,” “smushed it,” or “took it apart”…On the plus side, her vocabulary is exploding!)

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that! How did you feel about that?”

(Ignoring my question, but reverting from the thorn-inspired frown back to beaming) “But my bud is that I’m going to build another structure tomorrow!”

The Power of Pyramids

My family of origin, too, reveled in the art of storytelling. My father would regale us with tales of growing up in Lynn, Massachusetts (Lynn, Lynn, city of sin; you try to get out, they pull you back in). My mother shared tales from the desert farm in southern Israel where she grew up. And, when we were still blessed by the presence of their parents, it was clear where they learned the art. My grandma Etta would rarely make it through an anecdote without drawing out full-belly guffaws from everyone in the room – herself included. And my savta Victoria, who lived until 102 years old but had a well of tales that was easily ten times deeper, told stories like proverbs, each with a moral to spare.

My childhood dinner table was also the place where so much of this storytelling magic happened, but never more so than during our Passover seders. Unlike weekday dinners, there was never any rush, so we could luxuriate in the colorful minutia of our family lore, our spirit lubricated by Manischewitz and good company.

I can’t pinpoint precisely when I first noticed them, but at some point early in my childhood, I became enamored with this antique brass set of stacking pyramids that we would display on the seder table each year. All through the seder, I would fidget with them, stacking and unstacking them, arranging them in different patterns, and wondering whether they looked anything like the real thing. In my eyes, these mystical talismans were perfect: symmetrical, sturdy little structures that represented not only the hard work of my distant ancestors but also the staying power of the mortar that held them together. All these years later, after wars and storms and earthquakes and floods, after civilizations rose and fell and rose again, the pyramids still stood strong.

Sometimes, I would drift into a daydream during the Seder (not all the stories were winners) about what it would be like to create something in my own life that would last as long as these pyramids have. Maybe I would become an architect and build the world’s tallest building. Maybe I would become a mason and assemble stone walls that could withstand a thousand New England winters. Or maybe I’d become a woodworker and craft a dinner table that would elevate the seders of descendants so far down the line that the only thing they would remember about me is that I could build one heck of a sturdy table.

The 10,000 Year Clock

My desire to create something that lasts beyond my years here on earth is a yearning as old as time. From the troglodytes who inscribed the walls of their caves to Nimrod and his vain attempt to build the tower of Babel to, well, Jeff Bezos and his superyacht, humans have forever been locked in battle with Father Time. Today, there is no more obvious manifestation of the desire to skirt mortality than the 10,000-Year Clock, a.k.a. The Clock of the Long Now. Supposedly designed to inspire humanity to embrace long-term thinking, it has been widely panned as yet another vanity project of the Silicon Valley elite, who have famously tried to solve death for several decades (nb: so far, no luck).

Perhaps, however, there is a much more fitting and arguably much more inspiring lesson to be gleaned from the clock, or more specifically, from the 35-year history of the attempts to build the clock, which have thus far been fruitless. The creator, Danny Hillis, has encountered more challenges than he could have ever anticipated: financial challenges at every step of the process, engineering roadblocks, construction snafus, permitting issues, and – of course – time constraints. At 67, Hillis has spoken openly about his age and his concern that the clock is still a ways away from its first cuckoo.

Rather than being inspired to dodge the relentless passing of time in the name of immortality, perhaps the real lesson to be learned from Hillis’ attempts to build it is that we really have much less control than we ever imagined. As such, we might consider spending our limited time on this earth worrying less about how to transcend time and learning better how to embrace it.

As Father Richard Rohr writes, “We all come to wisdom at the major price of both our innocence and our control.” 1

Tomorrows

Last week, as I was preparing to drop Ayla off at the Early Childhood Center, I asked her how she was feeling about the day ahead. And, given the prominence that Jack (not his real name) had gained at our dinner table, a part of me was looking around at the drop-off line and wondering: “Who is this Jack, and why is he terrorizing my daughter?!?”

I could see the excitement building up on Ayla’s face as the countdown to 8 o’clock began (no separation anxiety there, apparently). As the door opened and her favorite teacher knelt down with open arms to invite her in, I gave her a lingering hug and wished her luck in dealing with Jack. She pulled back, brushing off my concern, and smiled ear to ear, responding:

“It’s okay, Abba. Nastaran taught me that if Jack didn’t smash my buildings, I wouldn’t be able to have the best part of my tomorrows: building a new structure!”

At the age of 4, she already has the hard-earned wisdom that has evaded me for four decades.

In the words of Clal co-founder Elie Wiesel (z”l): “God gave Adam a secret—and that secret was not how to begin, but how to begin again.” As Passover approaches, may we each relearn that very same secret, beginning again as we retell our stories – and our spirits – into newness, year after blessed year.

 

*Photo is from iStock.com, and is not the author’s child.

  1. The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (New York: Convergent Books, 2019), 247–48[]
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