Each Day a Masterpiece

September 7, 2010

6 min read


This Yom Kippur I'll be thinking about living every moment to its fullest.

John Wooden, the famed UCLA basketball coach, passed away recently. He was 99 years old. He was an old-fashioned, no-nonsense man who led his team to multiple championships during the turbulent sixties without tolerating any disobedience or acting out. If they didn’t like his rules, they could look for another team. That principled stance alone merits at least one separate article; it is so unusual in today’s world of badly behaved celebrity athletes. In fact, Wooden’s life and values offer many lessons for all us – about loyalty, love, faith and joy.

I want to focus on the last component. He lived by a set of rules. One of them was to “Make every day a masterpiece.” I love that one. It is a very Jewish idea.

When our forefather, Abraham, died, the Torah says that “he came with his days.” The traditional understanding is that he lived every day to the fullest, he didn’t waste a moment. In John Wooden’s lingo, he made every day a masterpiece.

That’s what I am thinking about this Yom Kippur. I want to live every moment to its fullest. I don’t want to waste or “kill” time. But even more than that, I don’t want it to be grim endurance. I want to take pleasure in each moment. I too want to make every day a masterpiece.

As I write this, I am sitting in a cabin in the woods just outside Ashland, Oregon. The sunlight is filtering through the Douglas firs, the sky is really blue (not the smoggy haze of Los Angeles) and the only sounds are the birds. Deer roam freely through the forest – and even alongside the highway. We leave our cabin to hike, kayak, and bike (and see the occasional play – there is a Shakespeare Festival here after all!). It’s easy to make everyday a masterpiece in this environment. I wake up, look out the window and the masterpiece is already painted.

But real life is not vacation. How do I take this back home? How do I make this change amidst carpool and laundry and homework? While mopping and teaching and writing (!) and paying bills? (And I’ve only listed some of the easier chores.)

How do I make the most of each moment? How do I avoid empty time? And most important of all, how do I access the joy available in every minute?

Ideas and theories are nice. They’re certainly a good starting place. But I need tools. I need a plan. I need a schedule and strategy. One of the 48 Ways to acquire Torah is to treat our life like a business. We need mission statements, goals, strategic steps to accomplish our goals – and even a budget!

Ever since I have reached that stage of life where reading glasses are a must, I have placed a pair in almost every room in the house as well as in my purse and my special evening bag. It is very frustrating being unable to read what is directly in front of me. The problem lies when I go out with my husband. I usually don’t bring a pocketbook. If he doesn’t bring his glasses, who knows what we could end up ordering? I am working on being more prepared.

Likewise with my time (you were wondering where this was leading!) There are so many situations where we are stuck waiting – for late friends, at doctors’ offices, at the bank, for carpool (do you notice that back-to-school theme?), even at weddings. I am now planting a book of Psalms in every purse and glove compartment for just these eventualities. Even reading the news online on my Blackberry is better than “spacing out,” than wasting that precious gift.

I am also planning my schedule a little better (at least I am while I sit here and there is no phone service and limited email access to distract me!). I have noticed that if I save my growth-related learning for evening, I am frequently too tired to do it (“Gotcha!” says the yetzer hara) so I am moving it to the morning – before I jump into my day. I will have to exercise great discipline and self-control – and not enter that room with the computer in it – or the one with the stove in it – or the one with the washing machine…

I also need to be a little more methodical about my reading. I have the books piled by my bed. Now I have to get organized about reading them – and about focusing on the ones that I can really benefit from.

And finally – the joy. I saved it for last because it seems to be the hardest. Yes, it’s easy to see and make the masterpiece as I sit here alone (My husband and son are out hiking so it’s really quiet) but the masterpiece is also available at home. I just need to look harder and work on it. While it’s true that you can’t see the stars (in the sky) in LA, the flowers and trees are beautiful too. Our garden should make me smile. The mildness of the weather, the beauty of the state is a real gift. My children are each masterpieces – An artist frequently notices the smudges and misplaced brushstrokes – we need to step back and appreciate the whole! It is a blessing to live in a community – to give and receive and to share the joy and the pain. Being part of Jewish people is being part of the masterpiece of the Almighty’s creation – a privilege and a responsibility that are priceless.

Each day is already a masterpiece; I just need to change my focus. I need to concentrate on the gifts and pleasures and downplay or ignore the negative. And I need to make each moment count! This Yom Kippur, I am trying to make that change. I am trying to live like our forefather Abraham (or at least like John Wooden!) by both making every day a masterpiece and through enjoying the masterpiece of a day that the Almighty has created just for me.

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