Monday, December 31, 2012

Reflections and Wishes on a New Year's Eve day

I've often wondered what the big deal about December 31/January 1 is, for any given year.  To my way of thinking, any day is the end of a year (a decade, a month, an era) and the beginning of a new one.  The "official" new year used to be celebrated by much of the world in March.  Frankly, I consider the first of Tishrei (Rosh Hashana) to be my new year.

But I am willing to concede that today is as good as any to make the leap, from one year to the next,  a day on which to declare "h\Here on this side is one thing; and on the other side is a different thing altogether."  And so it is that I offer up my own reflections back and wishes forward as I straddle this watershed moment.

* 2012 was, blessedly, a gentle year for me.  After a handful of years that I'd prefer to file under whatever-doesn't-kill-you-makes-you-stronger-and-at-this-point-I-must-be-strong-as-Atlas-so-let's-just-move-on, this past year has brought a sense of comfort and ease.  For this, and for the people who walked this path with me, I am profoundly grateful.

*  One of the most amazing gifts of this past year has been seeing my son, my beloved boy, start his own journey.  He continues to question and demand, learn and grow, stumble and surprise.  In terms of milestones, he had one of the biggies, and stepped up to help lead a service and chant from Torah for his Bar Mitzvah.  He is becoming his own person, settling into his own skin, finding his own God (who may or may not exist, depending upon the day and when you ask him).  But he is thoughtful and compassionate and funny and smart and a lot of other adjectives that I will relish discovering in the year ahead and beyond.

*  My son continues to learn every lesson I have taught him, whether I intend it or not.  So, he has honed his sarcasm, made a space for a healthy (?) dose of cynicism, and is finding his own political voice, based upon equal measures of compassion and justice.  He is breathtaking in his passionate stance on equality and fairness, and if he still needs to learn to temper justice with mercy and judgement with kindness, he is well on his way to becoming a mensch.

*  I got to celebrate one of my own milestones in 2012: 20 years of sobriety.  I could not have imagined the life I am living today on that day that I, so incredibly broken, stumbled into the rooms of recovery.  I could not have imagined that I would find God or healing, and I shuddered at the very prospect of hope.  I have been given grace, and a life beyond my wildest dreams, one that is bursting to its edges with love, sorrow, frustration, wonder, awe and (yes) hope, a mess of everything all at once, and the faith to put one foot in front of the other, every day.

*  I hurt people I love this past year.  Pretty deeply.  It was not done out of spite or malice, but it came as a result of my actions.  No amount of wishing can unmake that pain.  I can only try to heal it.

*  This was the year that my father lost his voice.  Really and irrevocably.  In early September, he underwent a trachyectomy and the surgeons removed his voice box (and the cancer that had entirely coiled its way around his vocal chords).  Apparently, all those warnings written on all those cigarette packs for all those years were true: smoking causes bad things to happen.  He is alive, and cancer free, and there is no greater gift than that.  But he is voiceless-- this man who has made his living with his voice, who learned to love singing again a handful or so years ago, who used to hate talking on the phone but would always take time to chat when we called, and to whom I would not talk for days and days at a time without any thought-- I would give anything to hear his voice one more time.

*  I am now at the age when attending funerals is becoming more common, and 2012 seemed to have more than its share to attend.  The amazing thing is that, in our sorrow, we come together, as a community, to remember and mourn and comfort one another.  To paraphrase Kafka, we help each other cry, and so find strength in that.

There's more, of course.  There's always more, and 2012 proves that.  But what of 2013?  What could this new year possibly hold?  I have no idea; I gave up the crystal ball business years ago (not that I did a good job of giving it up, and can still find myself dusting it off and peering through its cracked and dusty surface for answers that just won't come).  But I do have some wishes and hopes, and I'll leave you with these:

May we remember to be kind
May we feed those who are hungry, heal those who are hurt, comfort those who are in need
May we work for peace, every day
May we strive for justice, every day
May we study some, teach some, pray some and sing some every day
May we remember to laugh and dance and celebrate every day
May we find wonder and joy and miracles 
May we find one another, and shine our lights in the darkness
May our hearts be whole.

Merry new year to all I love and hold dear.
31 December 2012

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012

My refrigerator may be broken.  I have said this a few times in the last handful of months, with that stomach-sinking, cold-fingered dread I seem to manifest when thinking about repairing things, replacing them and  money.  Or, more specifically, my lack thereof.

When I was growing up, Mom used to insist that we had an anti-Semitic refrigerator.  Every holiday, she would begin to cook.  And cook.  And cook some more, stuffing everything into an already over-stuffed refrigerator, performing some kabbalistic ritual that seemed to suspend the laws of physics.  Having worked her magic, whether or not the ritual actually succeeded, whether or not anything else could fit, she would shove One. More. Thing. into the waiting maw:  all of it, from oven to refrigerator in the blink of an eye.

And then the refrigerator would die.

With the last gurgle and a final consumptive gasp made before a sharp and sudden silence that signified its demise, the mad scramble would begin: neighbors would be called, words would be said (mostly with the immediate admonition that these particular words should never be said by us kids, and certainly never ever said outside the house), repairmen would be summoned, money would be spent (time-and-a-half money). Fingers would be crossed and prayers would be mumbled.

Every holiday.  Without fail.

It wasn't until years later (when the holidays weren't so frenetic, weren't so crowded with extended family, fourth cousins twice removed, the best friends of the in-laws and those random holiday orphans-- friends and acquaintances who had nowhere to go, no family to be with, and how in the world can you let anybody spend a holiday alone?) that we realized that the refrigerator died because it couldn't handle the sudden influx of hot food onto it's cold, cold shelves.  Too much, all at once.  The refrigerator didn't die so much as go into shock.

Not anti-Semitic at all; rather, too delicate to survive the onslaught of our excess.

My refrigerator does not seem to suffer from that particular ailment.  I'd love to be able to say that it is my excess causing its slow but inevitable death.  Oh sure, I can keep the door open way too long while I put away the groceries, and apparently, the coils need to be cleaned more than once in, oh, ever.  But when all is said and done, my dependable workhorse of a refrigerator is getting old.  It may linger for a while, but really, it's just time.

I think I could take the whole refrigerator situation if it weren't for the dishwasher issue.  It is less a dishwasher and more a dishrinser at this point.  Sad to think that I have to wash the dishes before the dishes get washed by machine.

And don't get me started on the plumbing.  Bad pipes.  Bad water.  It seeps and gurgles way too slowly down the drain, lingering and swirling a bit malevolently, teasing me.  It lets me think that this time it may prefer, in fact, to stand at watery opaque attention rather than join its brother and sister hydrogen and oxygen molecules that go racing through drains and sewers and whatnot, racing through a complex underground network on its way to wherever it is that water drains.

What else?  Given world enough and time, I could find a thousand  grievances and glitches, all those minor annoyances that set my teeth on edge and my blood to simmer and make me twitch just a bit.  I can forget to breathe, because it's always just one more thing.  One more thing in an endless procession of things that tumble end over end and gather all together, piling in a tangled jumble of One-More-Thingness, an insurmountable, overwhelming mass of Mess.

The house.
The bills.
The car.
My job.
The bills.
The money.
Lack of money.
The holidays.
Did I mention bills?

The list is endless.  Eternal.  There is always one more thing that needs attention.  Every petty and not so petty thing on my list fights for supremacy--- notice me!  fix me!  I am drowning in this clamoring sea of minor demons.

I know, I know--- it's not as if this were an apocalypse of woe.  It's a garden-variety list.  It's the stuff of life.  No klaxon-call, no cacophony of noise, just the constant murmur, like the tide: a steady in and out, back and forth motion without rest or pause.  I tell myself I cannot breathe. I don't know where to start, which to start.  In the immortal words of Roseanne Roseannadanna: "It's always something!"

And just when it threatens to consume me, this List of all Lists, just when I think I have reached the edge and feel the vertigo pull before toppling into the chasm of tedium and pettiness, a whisper: "You have some pretty high class problems there."

It stops me cold.

I want to argue with that voice (and I suspect it is my own, an echo of some wisdom heard in the hallowed halls of AA.  Dammit).  I want to rail against the sentiment, and wallow in the pure drama of my litany.  It's bad!  Yes it is!  My life is hard!  I have issues!  I have problems!

What I have is a roof over my head.  Heat in the winter, food on the table.
I have a son I love, a job I adore, a life that is immensely and wonderfully full.
I have people in my life who give me the courage to soar.
I have a God in whose I hand I can rest when I let myself.

My mother's favorite saying comes back to me: I used to cry because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.

I have blessings beyond measure.  Family.  Love.  Life.  Yeah, it's been a tough year or three.  I have mourned much, lost much.  I still miss my brother more than I can say.  It's been a couple years of tough, sure: but there's been a lot of good, too.  There has been sweetness and celebration woven into the the corners, inching toward the center.  There have been sudden moments of grace.  

I am surrounded by light, when I remember.  I can live my life as a prayer, when I remember.  I can share the blessings I have been given, when I remember.

And so, as Thanksgiving approaches, I remember that I am grateful for all the gifts that are part of my life.  The good stuff and the bad.  The people, the problems, the glitches and all the glittery, dancing hidden blessings that flit like butterflies and fill me with wonder.  All the delight, all the amazement and awe: it is there for the asking.  Even without asking, those blessings are there, waiting for me to catch up.

A final thought, as we enter this season of hope and thanks: of all the things I've been given, all the things I have, I am astoundingly grateful that I have a sky filled with sky, not bombs and missiles.  The world now is quite broken, and the bridges are all so narrow.  May we find the courage to join hands and hearts wherever we can, to find peace and shine a light into the darkness.

Happy Thanksgiving to all I hold dear.  I am grateful for the lessons you have brought me, the gifts you have given, and the grace you have shown is possible, even for me.  You have made my life richer and my heart more full. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Night of Fire and Glass

Seventy-five years ago, the Nazis marched through the streets of Germany and Austria, attacking Jews, smashing windows of Jewish-owned stores, destroying synagogues, ransacking homes and hospitals, burning books and Torahs.  For two days, Jews were terrorized, beaten and arrested and sent to concentration camps while the government looked on.  When it was over, 91 people had been murdered, 30,000 had been arrested and sent to camps, more than 1000 synagogues had been burned and more than 7,000 Jewish businesses had been destroyed.  After two days of rioting, the Jewish community was fined $1 billion reichsmarks.

How can we possibly speak of such unspeakable horrors, of such hatred and violence and inhumanity, that happened so long ago?  How can we possibly find the words?

How can we not?

We can, because we must.  We find the words, we tell the story, and we remember.

We do, because this must never happen again, to anyone, to any people, in any land.  We find the words, and so we say: amen

Words for Kristalnacht
09-10 November 1938

Stars littered the ground
Crystal fire
Shards of ice

The smoke of a thousand thousand years
Coiling upwards, twisted
With the memory of a People
Chosen once in light
Chosen again
In darkness
In ashes and in blood

Pounding rhythms shout out
Felt through their nsoles 
Driving forward, driving onward
Faster and faster and faster, and pulled forward
Pulled ever onward
In a rush, at a run, rippling in shadow
It invades your blood,
That rhythm,
That pulse,
That pull and push
That wraps ‘round your heart
In pounding and pulsing rhythms
That cradle your source
Your soul

The darkness swallows the cries
Of a thousand thousand lights
A thousand thousand years
A thousand thousand sighs
Of love
Of hope
Of God

Leaving only broken glass
And crystal fire
And glistening stars to lead us

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Desperate Act of Love

I voted this morning.

I almost didn't.  For a split second or three, I actually considered not voting.  Because it was out of the way.  Because I was running late.  Because really, what would my one vote not cast cost?

And I went and voted anyway, because really-- if I didn't, what the hell?  Would it really matter?  (Never mind that I couldn't think of what I would say to my son, what excuse or lie I might offer him.  At thirteen, he is becoming keenly interested in the whole democratic process that is unfolding before him.  History in the making.  Democracy in action.  We talk politics all the time, my son and I, and seriously, my heart swells several sizes when we do, and i can see him get the issues, when he makes the connections and connects the dots, even if his opinion is not always a parroted version of mine.  Especially when his opinion is not a parroted version of mine.  I could have fibbed, told him I'd voted, but that lie sounded hollow, even to me, so-- what the hell; might as well vote.  Get it over with.)

As I drove to my polling place, really not so much out of the way, a name popped into my head: Mickey Schwerner. And then, almost immediately: Goodman.  I couldn't think of his first name (dammit), and it bothered me, teased my brain.  What the hell is his first name?  And the other guy?  Dammit; I can't ever remember the other guy's name.  But for some reason, I always remember Mickey Schwerner.

So I voted, and drove to my office, and went about my day, and started to write during some of the blank spaces in my crazy busy day.

Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman.  

In 1964, they joined with so many others -- members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) the NAACP and a bunch of college kids, the twenty-somethings of their day, and created Freedom Summer.  Their goal: register African- American voters in Mississippi.  Well over a thousand people, white, black, Christian, Jew, young old -- it didn't matter.  What mattered was that these people saw a broken world, filled with violence and ignorance and hatred, and they believed it was their obligation-- their responsibility; their right; their joy and purpose-- to heal it.

In mid-June of that year, Schwerner and Goodman headed south from New York to Mississippi, filled with passion and hope.  They met up with Chaney, a native of Meridian, Mississippi and fellow civil rights worker.  They believed that every person, regardless of the color of their skin, had the right to vote.  

So they started registering voters: men and women who had been kept from the polls by fear and intimidation and law all their lives.  That's it: registering voters-- black voters in the deep South -- during the Freedom Summer of 1964 -- that's what they did.  On June 21, the three of them went to investigate the burning of a black church in Philadelphia, Nashoba County, Mississippi.  In addition to believing all people had a right to vote, they believed all people had a right to worship and pray as they believed, safe from harm.  They were arrested by the police on trumped up charges, held for several hours, and then released, after dark, into the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.  They were beaten there, somewhere in the dark, beaten and terrorized and murdered by a group of 18 men (though only seven were eventually convicted of conspiracy, eight eventually were acquitted by an all-white jury and three cases ended in mistrials).  

Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were beaten and murdered that night by savages who were rooted in hatred and violence and fear.  They were murdered, in the dark, alone, because they believed they could heal a broken world. 

The world is still broken.  We see evidence of that every day:  people in desperate need, driven by poverty or illness or hunger or hatred; a planet that is being choked and starved.  There is greed and ignorance, intolerance and indifference.  Even now, access to the polls is being threatened, and there are many who are being deprived of their right to vote.  In 2012.  Not 1964, not 1865-- this year, this week, this day, there are people who are being disenfranchised.  There are a thousand thousand ills that plague us-- that can break our hearts and cripple our souls.  And yet, in the midst of this desperate need, there is light.  Kindness.  Healing.  Small acts-- great acts, even-- but acts of desperate love that stem the tide and bring grace and healing.

They changed the world, those murdered men.  All of them, all of the bright and brave and hopeful men and women from that Freedom Summer.  Not just them, but all them, all of the bright and brave men and women who have fought so valiantly, with courage and conviction and commitment, all of them, from every age-- they gave their lives to change the world.   And I?  I thought about not voting this morning, because it was inconvenient.  Because I was late and it was one vote among millions and really: what would be missed?  

What would be missed?  What would be missed would be my own desperate act of love, to heal a broken world.  One person.  One vote.  One voice. To heal and change and bring light to the darkness.  Do I care how you vote, for whom you vote?  Of course I do.  I have my own ideas and visions and beliefs on what is right, what is good (for the community, for the broken, for those who cannot speak, for those I love and those I don't).  What is more important, though, to me, is that you vote.  That matters.  Exercise your voice.  Make a choice.  Demand that you be heard.  Your voice, your vote- that desperate act of love matters.

People have died for the belief that voting matters.  People continue to die, every day, for their acts of desperate love and courage and faith, for their belief that they can heal a broken world.  And here's the tough part: we may never see the work complete, our world healed.  But (and this is the big part, the harder part): we are not excused from starting the work, from committing those desperate acts of love.  Our Jewish sages have been teaching this for centuries: Lo alecha ham'lecha ligmor v'lo atah ben chorin l'hitabel mimena.  It is not your duty to complete the work; neither are you free to desist from it.  (Pirke Avot 2:16)

Schwerner and Goodman and Chaney.  They were murdered in darkness, surrounded by hatred and fear.  They were killed for their belief that the world needed healing and their lives-- their voices, their ideas, their actions-- could heal.  The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King once said "If you haven't found a cause to die for, you haven't found a reason to live."  These three men, and the countless, nameless hundreds before and after who were murdered and tortured for their own desperate acts of love-- from Tienanmen Square to the Berlin Wall, from Tahrir Square in Cairo to any trackless, endless place where there are men and women who demand that they be heard, that their voice-- all our voices -- be heard, they found their reason to live.  And let us say: zichronam liv'rcha (may their memories be for a blessing).

Let us celebrate their lives.  Let us take courage from their faith.  Let us vote -- and argue and debate and learn and disagree and demand that our voices be heard.  Let us commit acts of desperate love, because we can heal our broken world-- one voice, one act, one vote at a time. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ten to the Power of One

I found a mystery of ten
or it found me
and will not let me go

Some tens are easy:
Chiseled in stone
carved and cut
commandments of
and justice

But this was a different ten,
uncarved and
not so clearly cut

at least not to me

This was a cantillation of ten
a kabbalah of prayer.
This was
a way to get from ten to

I thought
I remembered
the why of this ten
I thought
I was taught
that this ten
this minyan of men
-- at first just of men
though later we counted too;
we women could stand
with the best of them
with the least of them
with all of them
all of us
Our voices could carry
could ascend
like sweet smoke rising from
old altars
to reach the ears of God,
but it took at least ten
of all of us

I thought
I was taught
in my own days of old
before ever I reached the heights of ten
that the ten of this assembly
came of one man who thought
he could stay the hand
of God
with a mystery of honest men
of fifty
then forty
no lower than ten

But the righteous had fled
or perhaps had never been
not there

Later I thought
I was taught
that ten comes from twelve
Twelve were sent out
and twelve returned
laden with tales of power
and bounty.
Ten told of giants
and doubt
though two stood firm
in the palm of God's hand

Ten swayed the seventy
who swayed the whole nation
the becoming
and dusty
and ragtag
Ten swayed the seventy
who stayed the many
the multitude
of men
and women
together they counted
and feared
and doubted
and turned
like Lot's wife,
they turned back
turned to stone

The power of ten
could turn a world
to unmoving stone
cast out
to wander in dust
and there to find hope
in fluid grace
to find one another
from stone to
to One
we call
one to another
and all together
a numerology of praise
a cantillation
and kabbalah--
A prayer to the power of ten

And this,
the rabbis tell us,
this is the why of it
the heart and the soul of if it:
the power of ten--
this is the community assembled
this power of ten
the power to change the world
This I was taught
This I believe


This I believed in
and rejoiced
in sacred hallelujahs
This I believed


Until there was a time
I was filled with
and doubt
my knees bent
and buckled
and I was bowed and
by my grief
And in that moment
when I was lost
I was found
I was lifted
by the hands of strangers
and friends
unknown altogether
unseen through my veil of tears
Lifted by ten
redeemed by ten:
Gentle fingers
on deft hands
again and again
carried across a
chasm of grief
found by

This mystery of ten--
it was never
bargains with God
nor fear born of freedom and doubt.
It was never that
that could stay God’s hand
or change the hearts of men
and women who counted

It was
It is
ever and always
     gentle fingers
     and deft hands
     that reach out
     and lift us
     and redeem us
     this mystery of ten
     this power of ten
ten to the power of One
Yad b’yad


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Soul's Fire

I stood
Poised at the gate
And sent a prayer out
On the wings of my hope.

  I prayed--
     and light.
  I called--
     and faith.
  I whispered,
     and truth.

I stood
Poised at the gate,
And a song poured forth
Lit by the fire of my soul,
Tempered by the want of my heart.

Redeem me,
  I cried--
     make me whole.
Heal me,
  I sang--
     bring me peace.
Return me,
  I said--
     deliver my soul.

I stood
Letting breath fill me
And light
And hope
They filled me and
Flowed through me

Blessings! I prayed.
Heal me, redeem me, make me whole

I stood at the gate,
So filled with longing
and light
And hope
I walked through at last
And so became my prayer.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Modah Ani

We walked
From one place to another
In quiet wonder at the rising of the morning.

Light filled us
And color.
Under canopies of gold
Shot through with green
And strong branches
Flecked with a suddenness of blue
Stretching halfway to forever.
Geese and crows
Sang their psalms
To the One
Of Creation and
A murmurous mix of
The shuffles of leaves
A muffled crunch
Signaling summer's slow end
Soft-voiced under canopies of gold.

Chill air coiled around my fingers
My bare-skinned fingers
And the rough bark of
Bare trees
Suddenly bared
Gently, sweetly bared
Yet rough
Edged in hardness
And sudden sweet chill.

They began
They ended
Distinct and edged
In beginning to end
What I saw
What I heard
What I felt
On that wondrous
That glorious
That holy walk we took
To greet the rising of the day.

That scent of morning
On that shared path
That leaf-edged path--
The morning scents were
Were not quite
And in-between

They urged me on
Brought me here to this edge
Quickening me to this light-filled edge
This beginning
this ending
Of earth and sky
With such fullness
A richness of sound and light and still,
With an ever-present


To my teachers and friends
all of you who walked this path with me
and filled me with light
thank you.
Shabbat Shira 2012/5773

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Stale Bread and Old Sins

The ducks grow fat on my sins.
The ravens, too.
I saw a flock of them--
A murderous gaggle,
as they swooped down in tight formation,
fat black missiles,
just after we stood on the bridge over the creek
emptying our pockets and plastic bags
overflowing with
stale bread and old sins.

Of course, not all the bread was stale
nor all the sins old.
I'm sure I collected a few
as I drove to our afternoon gathering
at the creek.
And, possibly,
if I'm being quite honest
(and now, I'm guessing, would be the time for honesty)
I believe there is the possibility
that I racked up several more
while wandering the wooded path
that led to the creek.

While wandering back and forth along the wooded path.
Several times--

-- assuming sarcasm is a sin.

But for a moment,
as my bread arced through leafy boughs
and landed in clear and cluttered water
that moved in a stately rhythm
toward some other stream
that leads to some other lake
that leads to oceans and streams and rivers and lakes
from here to the ancient shores of Phoenicia
to rain-laden clouds, pregnant and billowing.--

-- unless imagination is a sin.

But for a moment.
in that delicate and wobbly arc
of bread and sin combined,
there is a moment of
Of Emptiness
that stretches from my fingertips
to stale bread
and old sins
to that small point of infinite
that pinprick of forever,
carried away on sweetly rushing water
that fills me with light.
And breath.
And God.

Monday, September 17, 2012

In the space of Tekiyah: reflections on the start of 5773

This is about the 19th iteration of my personal reflection.  The 19th of today, and the 19th written down.  There have been infinitely more than 19 iterations playing in my head, ever since I was so kindly asked me to write one for Rosh HaShanah.  Knowing what I want to write has not been the issue.  Getting it right, finding all the words and hearing the flow of it--- that's been a bit of a challenge.

You see, there are too many words, too many ideas and things to say, floating around in my head.  I know, somewhere, somewhen, that they connect.  I can feel that, feel them all jostling for position, taking up residence in some little known and cobwebbed corner of my head, leaving a faint pattern in the dust and clutter.

"Pick me!"

"Pick me!"

"Start here..."

Except, when I poke around, to find which of the eleventy-seven stories running around loose in my head is whispering "start here..." I get lost.  That internal torch gutters, sending bizarre fun-house shadows to distort my visions, and then they all go skittering about, playing hide-and-seek with the shadows and light.

And so, since I can't find the beginning of this thread, can't seem to be able to tease and coax the end out from the tangled ball of string it has become, I thought about starting at the end.  I could, but I don't know what that is yet either.  So, I will pick one bright and shiny things to start with, and see where that leads.  It may be a beginning, though more likely, it will be a middle.  There are many more middles than beginnings.  I will pick one thing, and see what happens.  I'm pretty sure I'll at least recognize the end, whenever we get to that.

So.  First -- redemption.  It's all about redemption.  My redemption, to be exact, and my quest for it.  And my fear that I will never find it.  Or receive it.  And it's about God.  It's all about God, too.  Always.  And my quest for God.  And my fear that I will never find God or forgiveness.  And that I will never be able to forgive God.  The pain of this fear is almost unbearable.

I spent a couple of decades denying God and redemption both.  That pain was unimaginable.  I am reminded of the midrash of King David and the origins of the Adonai S'fatai, which is the prayer we say at the beginning of the Amidah.  David, the rabbis tell us, had sent a man to his certain death for the sake of satisfying his own selfish need.  The man, Uriah, was a man of honor.  He would not be  dissuaded when David had a sudden change of heart.  He was killed in battle, along with most of his troops.  David got word of Uriah's death just before eveing prayers.

What was he to do?  He knew that he would have to talk to God, to ask forgiveness.  But-- and here's the hard part-- David's fear: what if God said no?  What if God refused?  David ran into the fields, running from himself, from his fear, from God, until he could run no farther.  How could he ask God for forgiveness, when he couldn't forgive himself?  He stopped, just as the setting sun hit the horizon, staining the sky with crimson and gold and purple, and he cried out, in his fear and longing "Adonai s'fatai tiftach ufid yagid t'hilatecha..."

God, open my lips, that I may declare your praise...

And with that prayer-- filled to its very edges with pain and humility and hope and despair, David was forgiven.

Well sure, the voices in my head whisper, God can forgive David.  Let's face it: he's, well, David.  His very name means "beloved..."  And you're not.  You're... you.  All bet's are off.

It is my greatest longing, my unrequited quest-- to be redeemed.  To be forgiven.  To dance in the palm of God's hand.  To believe, if even for an instant, that though I may not be David, though I may not be Beloved, I may find a small piece of it, and that that may be enough.

So it is fitting, I suppose, that I was asked that I give a personal reflection at this morning's service.  Today is such a busy one!  The Book of Life and Death is opened and the Gates of Justice swing wide.  It's the birthday of the world.  Today, we stand with awe and trepidation as we undertake the breathtaking majesty of diving inwards, a deep and long and solitary dive, into murky waters that make us gasp and shiver with cold.  But eventually, the water warms and the silt and grit settle and we learn to see, to shine a light on the inside, all the beauty, all the pain, all the hope and need.

It is all about redemption.

Today is redemption and majesty and reflection and God.  It is joy and celebration and hope and...

Whatever today is, whatever the ritual and tradition that surrounds this day may be, what today is, what today will ever and always be, is my brother's yahrzeit.  While my head hears whispers of "pick me" and "start here," my heart hears a steady murmur of "this is the second anniversary."  And last year, for all the pomp and circumstance of Rosh HaShanah, for all my desperate yearning for redemption and God, drowning out the music and prayer and the triumphant sounding of the shofar that opened the Book and flung wide the Gate-- all I could hear was the steady cadence of "This is the first anniversary of his death."

This is one of those days that I am less forgiving of God.  This is the second thing.

I know-- absolutely know-- that God is not at fault in this.  God didn't set the butterfly's wings to flapping that ended in the hurricane of my brother's death.  There was no Divine Plan here.  Randy smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, existed on caffeine and nicotine.  He was diagnosed with stage four metastatic lung cancer when he was 45, and died when he was 47.  Not a day goes by that I don't miss him, though I don't think of him every day like I did.  Stretches of time go by-- a handful of days, a week, some small length of time, and I will suddenly stop, feeling the ache of his loss like a stitch in my side, sharp and hot, receding into a dull throb until it is more memory than real.  My breath doesn't quite catch in my throat when I think of him.  Mostly.  I say kaddish every Shabbat, and I do not weep.  Mostly.

He died because he smoked.  He died because he got cancer.  But he died today, two years ago.  On Rosh HaShanah, the day of pomp and circumstance and joy and celebration.  I was with him in the hospital when he died, literally as the shofar sounded down the hall from his room,  And so the Book was laid open and the Gates swung wide and my brother died, all in the space of tekiyah.  And so today has suddenly become hard.  And I am suddenly less forgiving of God.

And for all of that, when I stood in prayer and my knees began to buckle from the weight of my sorrow, when I was filled with an ocean of pain and loss, when I wanted to curse God-- when I did curse God-- there were hands that reached out to hold me steady, and strong arms to carry me through to firm ground.  When I demanded of God, to God-- where the hell are You?  I was answered: here.  No farther than the nearest heartbeat, in the still small voices of all those around me, who showed me, again and again, that I was not alone.  Even in my pain, even in my doubt and despair, I was not alone.

And so, the third thing: Redemption.

I started there, I know.  Perhaps my ball of string, with its jumble of tangled threads and hopeless mess, was less eleventy-seven different things and more a giant mobius strip of one.  Perhaps it is all reflections and variations on a single strand.  Perhaps, at least for me, it is all about redemption.  And God.  Ever and always.

I have spent a lifetime yearning for redemption.  I have spent an eternity of lifetimes searching for God.    I have declared my disbelief in God even as I feared that God didn't believe in me.  I have shouted my rage and demanded answers and whispered my praise.  And the thing I come back to, again and again, like a gift of impossible and breathless wonder--

It is not what I pray that matters.  It is that I pray.

For all my yearning, for all my longing, what I don't ever realize is that I am redeemed.  I have not been abandoned by God.  Neither have I been forgotten.    David had it right in his psalms: we cry out to God and we are healed.  He didn't tell us "God only hears the pretty words.  Speak only of love and praise, only then will you be heard."  No, it's pretty clear: we find healing and redemption because we cry out in our anger and our fear.

I do not believe in a Santa Claus god, who bestows presents on the deserving: God does not provide parking spaces or jobs, nor do we win wars or sporting events as the result of our faith and prayers.  Good people will die, evil people will prosper, the sun will continue to blaze in the noonday sky. world without end, amen amen.

In my faith, in my prayer, what I find, again and again-- what I am given, again and again, is grace.  What I get is strength and courage to face what life has placed in front of me in that moment...even if that thing is the death of my beloved brother.  My faith is not a guarantee that I will never know fear, or that only good and happy things will happen.  My faith, my prayer allows me to put one foot in front of the other and know that I will be carried through.  And in that exact moment,  the moment I take that step, I am enough and I am redeemed.  And in that moment, I dance in the palm of God's hand.

For my brother, Randy (z'l)
May we all dance in the palm of God's hand

L'shana tova u'metukah
May you have a good and sweet year

Monday, September 10, 2012

Ein Sof at sunrise

there is not separation

there is God
whose spirit hovers
like breath
like life
twined and waiting

there is not beginning in this
and no end to this earth that touches
this heaven that laps at
this sea
that slips into
this darkness
that has no end
that is ein sof

there is not sound
in this endless beginning
no voice that calls
and dances on
liquid night
a canopy of eternity in the
midst of waiting

so expectant!
so lonely and eager a God
a wanting and endless God
whose breath is the sea
whose voice is the earth
whose touch is the heavens
who dances in darkness
and light
liquid as night
sharp as need
soft as desire

a separate thing altogether
a severing moment
in an eternity of moments
a division of earth that touches
heaven that laps at
the sea
that dances in spiral prisms
that limns each thing
each separate thing
of earth and heaven and sea
that is beloved of God
that breathes
and moves
and is still
and is gathered
and calls
each to each
one to another

to separate the
and find the edges of
to rim the world in an endless moment
a tidal moment
a gathering, waiting, and restless moment

and there will i dance
in the palm of God's hand
and then will i sing
an expectant psalm
an endless hosanna
a bursting and
rising song

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Small Stuff

Last spring, right around the time school let out (May-ish, when the air is warm but not yet humid, and everyone wants to have class outside (even the adults, locked in their offices of glass and steel and climate-controlled windows that won't open), and the kids are all just itching for the final bell to ring and free them from the prison that is school) last spring,  I got The Call.  It was not a Divine Call to join some religious order or nunnery. Wrong religion, wrong calling.  It was the dreaded Call From School.  My son, far from being sick, far from being awarded some educational accolade or middle school equivalent of a Nobel Peace prize, was being awarded a detention.  Dammit.

My son-- bright and funny and smart and kind and thirteen and, yeah; I'll say it again: smart-- my son lied.  He lied about where he was, when he was, and just what the hell he was doing.  He was supposed to be at an after school club.  He was supposed to be finishing up some homework.  What he got was caught.  What he got was in trouble.  What he got was a two day (two days!) detention in the Vice Principal's office. 

My rational brain keeps sending me soothing messages: "He's thirteen.  He'll get it together.  You weren't an angel at his age.  Look where you are now."

My lizard brain has a salamander basking on a rock in the hot sun, flicking its long, poison-tipped tongue, and whispering seductively in my ear: "Duuuuuuuuuuuct tape. Ssssstrap him to the chairrr and let him sssssssufferrrrrr,  Then ssssssell him" Visions of torture and retribution dance through my head.

Oh great. Turns out, I'm a pacifist with violent tendencies.

My first impulse was to reach for my well-used, dog-eared copy of The Rule Book: A Parent’s Handy Dandy Guide to Raising Perfect Children.

Oh wait— there is no such book. Or, if there is, I must have been out grabbing a cup of coffee when They (the omnipotent, omnipresent They)— I was out when all the other parents were getting their copies. As an added bonus, I had apparently also been absent the day They handed out The Single Parent’s Guide as part of the divorce settlement. I was on my own, flying solo. 


Ah— the joys of parenting.  Single parenting at that.  It hits me oddly, that giddy, terrifying, swoopy, bottom-dropping-out feeling, all sideways and slanted and so totally unexpected. They say that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you makes you stronger. Right. At this point, I am Atlas, and all I want to do is shrug.  I know, I know: it’s really no big deal. He’s thirteen. It’s a detention, not hard time on a chain gang. But, well— it’s a detention. It’s one more thing I have to deal with, in a long line of stuff I have to deal with.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my son: fiercely, unconditionally, wholly. There is nothing I would not do for him. But these moments, where I am so certain that I’ve committed some grievous parenting error, provided him with more than sufficient fodder for future therapy sessions, in which I will have the starring role as Ghengis Khan, Machiavelli and Medea all rolled into one. these are the moments I would gladly trade. These are the times I want to call for a timeout. The Universe is less than obliging.

This isn’t big stuff. Hell, the big stuff is easy. I am the Fixer of Broken Things. So I fix. I act. I do. You shoulder the big stuff because you can’t do anything less. I never realized that it would be the small moments that would trip me up, leave me clueless and frustrated and slightly panicked. You find out the hard way, when it’s 10:00 and you realize you’ve run out of cream for tomorrow’s coffee. It’s that chasm of infinite guilt as you send your kid off to school with that nasty, nagging cough because you have a meeting that you just can’t miss, not today. It’s not signing up for Little League because you work and who the hell calls a practice at 4:00 in the afternoon for God’s sake, and hearing your son say, as you drive past the ball field, in that voice that’s way too mature: “It’s ok, Mommy. Maybe next year.” It’s going it alone, again, ever and always, as you try to navigate through all the lonely, silent days. It’s the easy stuff, the quiet stuff that makes it hard to breathe sometimes.

This is the part, neither big nor easy, but certainly breathless and definitely painful, where I admit that I have no idea what I'm doing. And I'm afraid that I will screw up my kid. Have screwed up my kid. That I'm doing my best, dammit, and am terrified that my best just isn't good enough. This is the part where I say my ego was bruised, and what the hell kind of mother could I possibly be to letsego matter when it comes to her kid? This is the part where I admit, through gritted teeth, that I am more annoyed with the fact that I believed him, rather than the fact that he lied at all.

This is the whispery, secret and ashamed part, where I admit that I had a part to play in this. Not the lying part, but the part that led up to that, kinda-sorta. The part that I knew he was struggling, treading water and not doing a good job at that, and I? I turned a blind eye to it. Ok, if not blind, then at least half-closed and squinty. Because there was the job thing and the bills-to-pay thing and the this-that-and-the-other-thing thing that was really important and had to be done right now and I promise I'll notice you later. And help you later. And teach you. Later.

Later. Ha! He's thirteen: there is no "later."

And I knew that. I knew that he needed me now, and prayed that later would be good enough. Hooray me.

And then I remember: it is a detention, nothing more. Time served, punishment meted. Small stuff.

For all that it can be sad and lonely and silent, it is small stuff.  Painful and prickly and breathtaking-- but small stuff nonetheless.  He is resilient, that boy of mine.  He is bright and funny and smart and kind and thirteen and, yeah; I'll say it again: smart.  He pushes at the boundaries to find his limits (and mine).  He's learning to taste the choices he makes, and savor how they feel against his skin.  He is becoming his own, which is, really, the whole point. 
This is small stuff, and these are small moments.  He lied. It's a detention. We survived the storm (even as I brace for the next one).  But for all that, I get friends who remind me to breathe.  They drown out the seductive song of that damned basking salamander and tell me that the small stuff is just that: small.  They tell me that even the big stuff is small. 
In the midst this, I have found a few small truths:  Parenting is tough (single or paired or in whatever village-shaped iteration one has cadged together to get through these moments).  I screw up, make mistakes, doubt and wonder and panic and dither.  I love my son.  Fiercely, unconditionally, wholly. I love him even when he lies, even when he gets caught.  And for all that I screw up and doubt and dither, my son knows that.  Above all else, he knows that he is loved. 
The trick, I think, is to breathe long enough to gather in all these moments– not just the minor panic and small fears, but the triumphs and joys, and-- most of all-- love, so that we can find that what we get, what we really get when all is said and done, is a life.  Far from perfect, far from solitary.  We get a life filled with everything and then some.  And then I remember that it is all small stuff and I am filled.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Holiness of Separation

As a kid, Shabbat meant brisket. I loved that. Every once in a while, my mother would get inspired and feel the need to… cook? No, she always cooked in those days. It wasn’t until many years later that dinner was more likely to be ordered than made.

But every so often, as a kid, dinner wasn’t just thrown together from whatever was in the refrigerator. Candles were lit. There was no real ritual there, and the melody we used was likely to be the one from Chanukah (because that’s the only one I knew, and I was the designated candle-lighter/singer in those days), but those thick, squat white candles that came in boxes of 48 would be given a place of honor on the stove – just in case, because you didn’t want them to fall over in whatever tumult might arise after dinner.

My bubbie (z”l), who was either prophet or witch, said to my mother in that distinct and scratchy-voiced Yiddish accent, ”You’re going to burn the house down with those Shabbes candles,” and sure enough, the candles did fall over the next time we lit them. They did a slow burn on the harvest gold Formica countertop, leaving an oddly shaped, flaky mark the size of an orange, or maybe a baseball, as a permanent reminder of her powers – which we kids were never quite certain were always used for good, even though she was our bubbie. Maybe it had something to do with the eyes, or the accent, or her refusal to talk about her life in the before – when she lived in Poland, or Russia, or whichever principality claimed the shtetl that was a pawn in skirmishes far removed from the realities of shtetl life, but seemed to impact illusory allegiances and political borders.

I am almost convinced that it was because of my bubbies that we celebrated Shabbat at all. And because of their bubbies. And theirs. And theirs again, down a long, dusty and twisted road of generations, a collection of bubbies stretching back a few millennia. It is a small taste of infinity, a forever line, connected by flame and sweet wine, by twisted bread and a thousand generations, all of whom danced on the head of that same sacred pin: a pause, an inward sigh of breath, just as Friday’s sun kisses the western horizon. They gather us all in, just as they gather in the light around them, their hands circling over and around the candles they light to usher in Shabbat. Those flames flicker and stretch and reach upwards – to God, to heaven, to separation.

One heartbeat to the next. One moment from the next. An endless next, that leads us all to that sacred space: Shabbat.

They kept it, watched over it, guarded it, remembered it – that liminal moment of joy. And in their watching, in their remembrance, they passed it on, one to the next – one heartbeat, one moment, one candle flame, one breath. Down and down, their fingers wove a prayer, and they gathered us all in. They knew, every one of them, as they stood on the threshold of that endless moment, knew and understood the holiness of separation.

It was not the brisket that made it Shabbat when I was a growing up. What mattered was the separation – the fact that my mother knew, somewhere in her heart and hands, to gather us in and surround a moment. And that moment was separate from, distinct and different from, all the other moments that led up to it. It was space, not time. It was holy, and it was Shabbat.

And for that moment, that breath, that heartbeat, we all of us danced on the head of that pin.

And today? No brisket. But there are candles and flowers, sweet wine and twisted bread. As my hands pass over the small flames, I chant an ancient blessing in an ancient language, gathering in the light, gathering in family and those I hold dear, gathering in hope. I watch, from one moment to the next, and remember, from one heartbeat to the next, and welcome in Shabbat, giving thanks for the holiness of separation.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Simple Stories: in honor of a couple of decades sober

You'd think that after 20 years, this would be easy.

Well, maybe not you, but I did.  I thought that after 20 years it would be easy to tell the story of these past 20 years.  I am, after all, a writer.  I do the words.  That's my thing.  More than most other things, I know how to tell the stories-- some filled with wonder and light, some much harder, all twisty and dark-cornered, with frayed threads, but which, with infinite and practiced patience, can be woven together into a threadbare whole until a new story can be found.  Sometimes wonder, sometimes hard and tinged with light.

You'd think, after 20 years-- of living this life and mending all these frayed and broken threads, of finding purpose and dancing with God, of unimaginable pain and unbounded joy-- of living this life, actually living a life filled to the very edges with life, with everything: love and anger and doubt and fear, failure and triumph, all the stuff of a life jammed together and barely contained-- you'd think...

So why isn't this easier?

Why is it so difficult to strip away the artifice and just tell the story, spare and unadorned and achingly simple?  Why can't I just say: There was a time, a long time ago, when time was stuck, when nothing moved and nothing changed and nothing filled me and everything failed me.  And this is the story of how that all changed.

I was taught, early on in Alcoholics Anonymous, that when you tell your story, you say what it was like, what happened, and what it's like now.  Simple.

So, what was it like?  I like to believe that that's where the story takes a sharp left turn away from simple, passing complicated in a few easy strides, never looking back.  That's the story I tell myself.  I like the drama of that, the hint of darkness and the veiled promise of lurid disarray. As comfortably as I live in that drama, I remember what a friend told me one night, early in our sobriety, as we sat in my car under cover of a midnight sky, just learning the rules of friendship in a sober world.  I told him  my stories through the lens of my living chaos theory.  And my dear Jonathan, my new and newly sober friend, he listened, allowed me to rant, took my hand when I'd finished and said "Stacey; you're not as evil as you think you are."  I may have hated him in that moment.

That's the thing, really: I want complex.  I want drama and license and chaos.  But the simple story, the easy story is this: There was a time when I was empty, and in my emptiness, time stood still.  No light.  No sound.  Just an eternity of empty. Who needed chaos when I had despair?  Who needs hope when you can chase more-- more anything, take your pick: alcohol, drugs, sex, money.  Strange, but no matter how much I drank, the empty never got filled.  All the despair, all the hopelessness, untouched.  Untouchable.  An infinite void fed by subtraction stew.

And after twenty years of forever, twenty years of standing motionless on a roiling sea of empty, I was done.  That's the "what happened" part.  I was done: I got sober.  Easy-- got sober.  Ha!  Just don't drink, right?  Easy?  How the hell do I do that?.

They told me, those people in the rooms, from their vantage points of a decade, a year, a day, an hour of sobriety "Don't drink and go to meetings."  Don't drink?  What?  How do you not drink?  How do you not chase that thirty seconds, where you finally sit in your own skin without feeling the need to crawl out of it, that singular instant of time where all the noise in your head stops and you can breathe, really just breathe? Thirty seconds-- that's all you got, ever.  Thirty seconds, where you fit and the gears didn't grind against you and you could just be.   And God, what I wouldn't give-- what I didn't give-- to chase those thirty seconds, again and again, with every sip.  Don't drink?  How the hell do you do that?

And they all of them smiled, and they nodded, and they knew-- all of them, from their lofty vantage point of a decade or three, a day or two, an hour or so--- "Don't drink.  Go to meetings. It gets better.  Simple."

I used to not believe in miracles.  I used to believe that God, if God really existed, had set me up to fail my life.  I used to believe that I couldn't live a life without drinking.

It's amazing the changes that happen when you finally can't imagine having to take one more drink.  It's amazing how infinitesimally  the universe shifts when the pain of drinking becomes more than the fear of not.  How profoundly simple life became: don't drink.  Again and again, one second, one minute, an hour or three, and you just don't drink.  No matter how much the pain of sobriety threatens to swallow you whole; no matter how exposed and raw you feel-- every minute of every day, with not even an ounce of anything standing between you and the rest of the world; no matter how much you're tweaking and want to crawl inside that bottle. 

Again and again: don't drink, go to meetings, and the seconds crawl into minutes and stumble into days and bound into years and you suddenly have time.  And you breathe, finally breathe.  My God, you breathe and the air is cool and pure and fills your lungs like light.  You breathe, and  suddenly you have a life, that moves and leaps and dances.  And you look back, and it's twenty years later.  Twenty years, and you say: simple. 

And now?  Now I have a life.  A life by no means simple or easy; it wouldn't be mine if that were the case.  It is a complex and rich tapestry that is filled to its very edges with life-- with love and light and pain and hope.  There has been despair enough to fill a thousand lifetimes, and hope enough to bring me to a breathless stop.  I have been given gifts unimaginable.  I have sought redemption and been offered forgiveness.  I have learned to live with doubt, and revel in contradiction.  I live in the miracle of a day, a day that stretches before me with infinite possibility and endless hope, filled with simple stories waiting to be found and told and lived,   I have found a life that is mine, that moves and breathes and is filled with all the stuff of a life.  I have found God, and I allow God to be.  Just be, just as I believe God allows me to just be.  

There was a time, a long time ago, when time was stuck, when nothing moved and nothing changed and nothing filled me and everything failed me.  And this is the story of how that all changed. This is the story of how it got better.  This is the story of how I came to believe that I was never empty.  This is the story of how I learned to breathe.


For all the blessings that fill me, for God's grace that lifts me, for all who teach me, simply, to live a sober life and hear God's voice, I give thanks, with humble and profound gratitude.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

At War with the fine art of Writing

A few years ago, I got a letter from my son, who was away at camp.
Let me amend that: I got an envelope from my son.  I was quite excited to receive the lett— the envelope.  He’d sent two letters within the first week.  The first was printed on a scrap of paper.  It began: “I’m not gonna make it.  Pick me up Sunday…”.  The second came two days later, written in some secret code, with the key included on a separate piece of paper (possibly the remainder of the scrap from the original letter, folded  eleventy-seven times for security purposes, no doubt).  The crux of the coded letter was “having a wonderful time; send money…”
So, after another two weeks, with nothing further to grace my mailbox, I was eager to get something.  I ripped open the envelope, took out a piece of paper, and………………………………………………
He’d sent me paper.  Blank paper.  As in: bright white with translucent blue stripes, college-ruled and fringed in all its perforated glory, unsullied by anything as mundane as pen or pencil.  Perhaps, as a follow up to the encoded letter, this one was written in invisible ink.  I stewed a bit, fretted less, and figured I would have heard, from one of his counselors at least, if he had been abducted by aliens, was suffering from amnesia or was dead— if, in short, there was some physical reason that prevented him from writing.
When I retrieved him a week or so later (after the requisite hugging (from me) and embarrassed shrugging (from him), and the commotion of goodbyes and hellos), I asked him about the Blank Letter.  As it had been less than an hour since I’d picked him up, I tried to keep the aggrieved-mom tone from my voice.  I mostly succeeded.  His reply?  “There were no working pencils, Mom.”
I stared at him as blankly as the “letter” in question.  Never mind the pack of 24 mechanical pencils that had accompanied his eight pre-addressed, pre-stamped envelopes.  Or the pen that I’d sent in his care package, along with a book of word-finds and sudoku. 

No.  Working.  Pencils. 

In the entire camp, a camp that housed a couple hundred kids and staff at any given moment, not one writing instrument that worked.  For him.  Sigh.
Why, you might ask, do I bring this up?  Why use almost 500 words to lay the groundwork necessary to talk about writing instruments and whether or not they work?
Why?  Because I stare at a blank screen, free-floating pixels at war with the delete key, and I think to myself “No working pencils.”
I seem to be stuck, at war with my art.  Or stymied by it.  Like that character in The World According to Garp, the woman who wrote brilliant first chapters and nothing more, I stop after the first few perfectly wordsmithed sentences, unable to continue, unsure where my writing wants to go, unclear what I’m trying to say.  And if I got quiet, and allowed myself to listen to the voices whispering in my head, I’d be afraid that I really have nothing to say at all.  Easier by far to have no working pencils than to face a blank screen.
So what to do?  Like a recalcitrant teenager, I ignore the computer sitting malevolent and silent on my desk.  Or at least, I ignore the document section; Facebook and youtube seem to work just fine.  At times, I will type at the screen, though I seem to delete way more than I type.  It is an odd little dance that I do, a two step of add and subtract: one sentence written, three thrown away.
I work myself into a frenzy of writer’s block— frustrated, distracted, mopey— and then, glory be!  A friend reminds me to breathe.  Breathe, he says, and take up my pencil.
So I do; I grab onto his metaphysical pencil, and take a deep breath, plunging into the fray once more.  And as is my wont, I write about the thing that scares me the most.  I write about fear, and doubt, and tiny whispers that leave me breathless and drenched in flop sweat, convinced of my ineptitude.  I write, and I delete– but with precision and mindfulness.  I still feel a bit logy after so long an absence, but the pixels are starting to dance instead of stumble.
Breathe.  Find a pencil.  Write.  A writer writes, even through the fear.  How else do I get to hope?  How else do I get to dance?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Open My Lips: reflections on the Amidah

It's funny, but when I was a kid, I thought that the Amidah was The Silent Prayer (intoned portentously, with a deep and booming echo).  We would stand.  We would mumble some Hebrew-sounding words.  And then we would go silent. 

There were no instructions, no words of wisdom from the bima to bend and bow, chant or sing or speak.  Nothing.  But we all went silent together.  Our prayer book contained some Hebrew, but mostly old and dusty English, littered with "thees" and "thous" and a very male (and very stand-offish, kind of angry) God on high.  So, we would come to this silently screeching halt, and I would try to keep focus, read the English (but really: who could get through that English with a straight face) (or worse, stay awake while reading it), and wait (fidget) until time started up again in a forward motion.

Who knew?

Who knew the sweetness, the power, the community contained in the Amidah?  Why did no one ever tell me of the raw vulnerability offered at its start, and the answers that can be found later in its passion and hope?  Yes, there is silence, but not the silence of the fidgety and bored.  Rather, it's the silence of  thought and consideration and yearning.  It ascends in a delicate spiral, a plea-- for connection, for redemption, for past and present, peace and holiness.  It is all there, a silent prayer, shared.

So, my own offering, another of my Bar Mitzvah poems.  This one a reflection on the Amidah.  Feel free to read it aloud. <3

Open My Lips

It is a reaching out
A yearning
Desire wrapped in longing
Despair wrapped in joy
We cry out into darkness
And luminous silence
And glorious, sheltering peace
And offer
The sacrifice of
Of what?
What do we sacrifice?
What do we place on the altar of our hope?
It is not what we pray that matters
It is, ever and always
That we pray
That changes us
And redeems us
And heals us
Prayer is the heart of us
The center of us
We open our lips
And let our souls fly

Monday, July 9, 2012

From Generation to Generation

Just a few weeks ago, Nate and I were in Rosenblum’s Bookstore, ordering kippot for his Bar Mitzvah-- those omnipresent black suede head coverings, imprinted with his name (in both Hebrew and English) and the date, to be given away at the service-- and on impulse, I asked him to pick out a yad (a pointer to use while reading from the Torah).  He walked over to the case and carefully inspected the array displayed there, and then said “Mom, I want to be able to pass this down to my children.”  

Here's a surprise-- my eyes instantly welled with tears. But my primary thought was "He's getting it."  All the years of talking and teaching and trying to live what's important, and he was getting it: family and connection, from one generation to the next, stretching out to forever in every direction, what was and what will be.  We are a part of it all, the center of it, the border of it, a link in a chain as fragile as memory, as strong as thought.  

So my beloved boy steps into the whole messy, vibrant, jumbly mix, with his own offering: a yad.  It is small and delicate, gold wire wound around a garnet sheath, ending in a hand poised to guide him (and all who will follow) through Torah, that whole messy, vibrant, jumbly and beautiful gift that generation after generation have studied and chanted and struggled with and wept over.  All the love, all the questions, all the doubt, focused at the end of that small and delicate yad.
As he creates a new tradition with that beautiful yad, we practiced an older tradition on the day of his bar mitzvah: I presented him with my grandfather’s tallit. My grandfather wore it as he prayed, and as a cohan, he wore it as he blessed his congregation with the priestly benediction. My father, in turn, gave it to me.  It was the first tallit that I wore, and now I’ve passed it to Nate, l’dor vador –from generation to generation. It is my hope that he will feel the blessings and love of all the generations who have worn it before him.

And so he stands, poised himself, right there, at the entrance-- to adulthood, to community, to his Judaism, to the adventure of his life.  It all waits for him, waits for him to step through

In honor this day, I also composed a series of poems to introduce each section of the service. The poem that follows, The Gate, can be just as much about how we all wait to step through, to enter, to begin as it is about how we gather together to pray.

I hope you enjoy this.  I hope we will meet all together at the gate one day soon.
The Gate
We start, as we always do, standing at the gate.
It’s a good place to wait,
This gate.
It is the entrance to our service,
to a holy place
and a sacred community.
As we step through,
We step outside of
and into Time.
We come together
to celebrate
with friends and family,
with strangers and loved ones,
with song and prayer,
words and silence.
As it happens every Shabbat morning,
We start at the gate.
We start with mystery and wonder,
If we allow it.
We welcome small miracles
And stretch our souls
Outwards and
And meet one another at the gate
This gate
This holy gate
And we enter