“...examines the complex relationship between the practical and the passionate self, the realist and the dreamer, and the importance of those moments in life that make you feel 'airborne.'”
Writing a song for the bar and bat mitzvah on Saturday morning made me confront what I want to be saying to my own children.
As the Jewish new year approaches, I’m thinking especially about three strangers last month who gave my family their own water bottles when they saw us faltering on a difficult hike.
Last August, we were in the midst of an unremitting vertical trek up Aspen Mountain– (the vertical drop is 3267 feet) and no one had prepared us for such a steep trajectory; our friendly hotel had sent us off with a few miniature water bottles in the morning, assuming (we learned later) that we would only go as far as the first summit. When we told them later that we continued to the peak (don’t they know New Yorkers always need to finish what they start?), they were incredulous: “Your kids did the whole climb?”
We’d set out with energy and enthusiasm on a clear bright morning, but almost immediately we were feeling the press of the altitude, the uncomfortable warmth of the maturing sun, and the never-ending ascent. We passed a famous socialite on the trail, and she was complaining loudly to her husband in an exasperated voice: “Why did you tell me this was easy? This is a nightmare.”
Her husband quipped to us, (without introducing himself,) “If you later hear that we got divorced, you’ll know why.”The socialite finally decided to stop and hike back down.
We pressed onward, which meant upward.
I won’t bore you with the ensuing stages of fatigue (how many times I repeated, “I thought I was in good shape,”) nor will I recount the confusion and dismay when we lost the trail (we managed to take a wrong turn, land on an uncertain path, and add an extra hour to what should have been a three-hour journey,) nor will I relate my temptation to give up (if it hadn’t been for my husband, David, I would have flagged down a lone passing jeep.)
But just when I felt I’d have to lie down and sleep on the stony soil, a middle-aged Asian American named Keith passed us looking stalwart and downright jolly. “How are you folks faring?” I asked a stupid question I knew the answer to: “Do you think they have the equivalent of a snow patrol crew up at the top? Might they send water down if we called up to the lodge?”
He shook his head, with an understanding look: “Take a sip of my water.”
I refused. “We couldn’t possibly…We’ll be fine.”
He insisted. “Pour my water bottle into your empty one. I do this hike once a week; I’m used to it. I don’t need the water.”
After more lackluster protestations, I accepted. I was honestly worried about my children and felt delinquent in my parental duty to keep their engines running. I knew they were strong enough, capable, (and miraculously, uncomplaining,) but they were visibly depleted and I knew we had a ways to go.
Marveling at his kindness, we rationed precious sips of Keith’s miraculous gift, and soldiered on.
An hour later, another dehydrated pause. David kept up the pep talk: “We’ll get there and we’ll feel great that we finished.”
But my legs were failing me. I couldn’t keep going up and up and up. My breathing was strained.
Another stranger came to our rescue: I’ll call him Rugged Bill. This time he handed over his bottle with a merry flourish, and insisted we keep it and give it to the gondola operator when we got back down.
"The gondola." Those two words sounded like an impossible dream.
More vertical trudging. More pelting sun. More altitude.
A third stranger: Annie. She gave us organic energy gummy bears from her backpack.
No tiny snack ever tasted so good. We thanked her like she was Moses leading us out of Egypt.
20 minutes later, we were at the summit of Ajax Mountain. We had glorious Gatorades in our hands and a panoramic view sparkling around us. We felt triumphant and traumatized at the same time.
What stayed with me, more than the challenge of those four-plus hours, was the selflessness we encountered on the path. Three people who didn’t know us, whose last names we will never learn, came to our rescue – without fanfare or expectation. They just helped. Easily. Instantly. Without asking for anything back. Without chastising us for embarking ill-prepared. With just a “good luck,” and a smile.
Maybe this humanity was no miracle, but it sure felt like one. These three strangers reminded me of the kind of uncomplicated goodness that’s all too rare in the world. These gestures didn’t depend on any relationship – prior or future. They were just instinctual acts of empathy.
And they allowed my wobbly family to take another step.
In this new year, I hope I can give that impulsively, that readily, to a stranger. Or two or three or a hundred. I plan to remember Annie, Bill and Keith – and give my proverbial bottle of water – again and again, keeping their anonymous, unhesitating generosity constantly in mind.
Here's what I've realized about blogging. Jewish guilt gets in the way. Because one feels guilty about assuming that one's own thoughts or foibles or adventures might be at all intriguing to strangers. Or even to friends. But I'm resolved to start saying what I'm thinking. And all candid reactions are welcome if you think I should shut back up.
"...examines the complex relationship between the practical and the passionate self, the realist and the dreamer, and the importance of those moments in life that make you feel 'airborne.'"
‘The good news is, you’re all in the show.’ These words, uttered by famed theatrical director Hal Prince, changed Abigail Pogrebin’s life. At the tender age of 16, along with a then 21-year old Jason Alexander, she was cast in the Stephen Sondheim production, Merrily We Roll Along—notable as the only flop in the legendary composer’s otherwise beloved repertoire, which includes the award-winning musicals Into the Woods, Follies, Sweeney Todd, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The theories as to why this particular project didn’t roll merrily along are addressed in Pogrebin’s introspective Kindle Single, but more than that, it examines the complex relationship between the practical and the passionate self, the realist and the dreamer, and the importance of those moments in life that make you feel “airborne.” Forgive me for the pun, but this Single is a true ‘Showstopper.’
- Reviews & Praise
http://amzn.to/iw6Zs8 I wrote about my experience in the original cast of the ill-fated (but now much-beloved) Sondheim musical, "Merrily We Roll Along" on Broadway. It was a remarkable adventure getting chosen, rehearsing, and then watching things unravel as fast as they did. It also gave me perspective on how life promises and disappoints. Kindle Singles are a wonderful new Amazon addition -- inexpensive and digestible. Authors so far include Christopher Hitchens, Jon Krakauer, Susan Orlean, Jodi Picoult, and Mark Bittman. I hope you'll download "Showstopper" -- you don't need to own a Kindle. Just Google "Kindle for Mac" or "Kindle for PC." And let me know what you think: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dwight Garner calls Styron's "Reading My Father" an "ardent, sophisticated and entirely winning memoir." Buy it if you haven't and get one of the few remaining tickets for my conversation with her at the Manhattan JCC next Wednesday April 27: www.jccmanhattan.org
This is a wonderfully candid piece about Hunt discovering her twin pregnancy. I love how unsentimental it is; she's the kind of writer whose language surprises. Read it if you have a second.
(And I'm slapping myself on the wrist for how rarely I blog and how this is the first post in so long. I'm blog-challenged, but I'm working on it. Not that anyone needs my opinions.)
I hope you'll let me know what you think of this: http://www.tabletmag.com/life-and-religion/56589/immersion/