Sara Davidson is a respected American journalist and best-selling author of, among other books, Leap!, Loose Change and Joan: Forty Years of Love, Loss and Friendship with Joan Didion.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, more familiarly known as Reb Zalman, is also a best-selling author – of more than a dozen books. The one you are most likely to know even if you haven't read it (you should), is From Age-ing to Sage-ing.
You should also read the book I am telling you about today. Every old person and probably some not-so-old people should read it. Here's why.
A few years ago, Reb Zalman contacted Sara to propose that they conduct a series of conversations together, conversations she would turn into a book. At age 85, he told her he wanted
”...to discuss the stage of life he calls December, 'when you can feel your cells getting tired, and your hard drive is running slow. I've been in your years but you haven't been in mine,' he continued, 'and I want to help people not freak out about dying.'”
So in 2009, they began The December Project, meeting for an hour or two on most Fridays over the next two years as the Rebbe gentled lifelong and sometimes combative skeptic, Sara, with love and warmth, insight and understanding, great wisdom and much laughter into a deeper awareness of her mortality.
The book, I believe, might do the same for you. It does for me.
Although little of it is new to his “fans,” some of Zalman's personal story Sara relates helps make clear to readers who are unfamiliar with the Rebbe that this is a book for all people who are seekers.
Even a devout atheist would have trouble dismissing a man of god who counts among his teachers and friends the influential Christian theologian Howard Thurman, the Catholic monk Thomas Merton, the Dalai Lama and Timothy Leary with whom he shared an acid trip.
Taking LSD with Leary (something I too once did) reports, Sara, had broadened his views:
[UPDATE FOR CLARITY: I thought the parenthetical remark was clear but apparently not - it was I who took LSD with Tim Leary at his Millbrook home in New York State - as did quite a few people I knew in those days.]
”'It was clear that what I'd experienced in prayer and meditation before – the oneness and connection with God – was true, but it wasn't just Jewish. It transcended borders.
“'I was sitting in a Hindu ashram with Tim Leary, who was Irish Catholic, and I realized all forms of religion are masks that the devine wears to communicate with us.
“'Behind all religions, there's a reality, and this reality wears whatever clothes it needs to speak to a particular people. For Jews, it's a Torah with a crown. For Christians, the log-on to the infinite is Jesus. But no single point of view alone is right.'”
Reading that, I wanted to remind Reb Zalman that many non-believers also feel a oneness with the infinite without the trappings of organized religion. Then I realized almost at once that Zalman is too wise not to know this.
In one Friday session, Zalman told Sara about a personal task he was then working on – forgiveness - which has, he explained, three parts: repairing harm you have done, forgiving those who have harmed you and, the hardest one - forgiving oneself.
Sara, as she so often does in the book, asked my question:
”'How do you arrive at the point where you no longer feel ashamed?'
“Zalman called that kind of shame 'high fidelity regret,' writes Sara. 'I don't think there's real fire in hell,' he said, 'but if you experience intense regret, that's what the fires of hell are.'
“He said there's no point trying to dismiss or bury what happened. 'But to suffer all the time is stupid.'”
You can't fault Reb Zalman for being indirect. And then he shows Sara how she can learn to repair the harm, the pain, the fear.
At the end of the book, Sara the skeptic seems less freaked out about dying. She sums up the Rebbe's precepts:
”...trust intuition; when your memory fails, focus on your inner sense of presence – 'I am'; keep your attention on the road forward, not the rearview mirror; be generous without judging; forgive – everyone, especially yourself; and practice letting go...
“I've noticed that I'm more at ease with the reality of dying,” she says. “I view it less with dread and more with increasing readiness for the loosening and releasing of ties. This is not a fixed position, of course...”
No. On this subject, it never is.
There are 10 short chapters at the end of The December Project. Ten little lessons or exercises devised by Zalman, his wife and Sara to help readers “become more at ease with mortality.” They cover such issues as giving thanks, what to do when memory fails, kvetching to God and reviewing your life.
The book will be published next week on Tuesday 25 March when it will be available here and at most of the usual booksellers. Half the proceeds from sales go to support Rabbi Zalman's work.
Here is a photo of Sara Davidson and Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi from back of the book's dust jacket.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: My Angel