Monday, February 27, 2012

Song, Unfinished

There are very few things that I will admit to doing well.  That is, that I will admit to doing well without a whole lot of arm-twisting and cajoling, all the while secretly loving all that arm-twisting and cajoling.

I mean, let's face it: it's kinda nice, when people argue your merits for you, to you.  Sure, some of those people are family, so they almost have to (even in those weirdly dysfunctional families that are tangled and messy and just a little bit nuts; they still (at least in public) sing your praises and claim connection to your talent).  Others are mere acquaintances, some casual, others less so, who say these nice things because, surprisingly enough, they just may be true.  No one is holding a gun to their heads, and the don't seem motivated by blackmail or ransom.  Nice.

But I do admit, pretty freely, that there are a couple of things I'm good at. 

Writing is one of them (she says with only a small amount of knowing self deprecation).  I am in love with words.  Have you ever watched a little kid learn a new word?  You can almost see how they taste the words, roll them around in their mouths to make sure they feel right, taste right.  I try to do words that way when I write: they can be so succulent, juices sweet and tart and running down my chin so I have to slurp them up, and forget using napkins or even my sleeve, it's skin-on-skin to catch every drop of them.  When the word is right, it tastes like dusk in summer, or moonlight on snow.  It is apple-crisp and bursting and whisper-soft, all at once.  It fits, and I will go to any length to find the perfect word, to craft a perfect sentence. 

I am awed by the raw power of words.  Whoever first uttered the phrase "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never harm me" was a liar of the first order.  Bones heal. Words wound, which is infinitely more cruel.  They fester and ooze and corrupt.  They don't wound; they kill, if not the body, then surely the soul.  And yet, they have the power to heal a heart and change the world, and create joy and celebration. 

Writing helps me to understand who I am and live a very examined life.

And if writing helps me to learn about myself, if it helps to keep me honest and grounded and connected to the world at large (and my life in particular), then singing is the thing that helps me to fly, to crawl outside the boundaries of my own head and find God.  It is holy and sacred and transcendant, in a way that writing, for all its power and glory can never do.

It is no surprise that, somewhere in my fledgling adulthood, deep within my angry and existential angsty period, when my search for spirituality and meaning more often than not led me to a drink or six, that I gave up the two things that mattered most, that helped me to find myself and God.  And believe me, this was a conscious and deliberate decision on my part.  Abandoned by God?  I'll show You:  I will deny You (as I was denied).  I will reject You (as You rejected me).  "I will never sing again,"  I said deep inside my heart, "I will not write."  And I didn't, not for two-and-a-half grueling and lonely and desparate decades. 

I was trapped in my own head, a tiny universe of one, silent and solitary and dark as fear.

It was a bad couple of decades.  Getting sober helped.  Having a child unlocked so much.  Day after day of searching and seeking and hoping, the darkness slowly got brighter.  Finding others along the way, who offered their own illumination and could help point the way, they helped.  It all helped; it was all balm to my hurt, but I was not healed.

And then one day, after my long, self-imposed exile, I walked into a synagogue.  More surprising: I asked if there was a chance to sing.  I didn't know I was asking to have my life changed.  I certainly didn't realize I was asking to be healed, or made whole, or find God.  I got all those things: in that instant, all my unasked-for yearning was answered.  I found something, through my voice- through music and song- that I didn't know was possible.  I certainly didn't know it had been missing.  I found a connection to God that was startling in its simplicity.  It was prayer and forgiveness all at once. 

What began as an off-the-cuff question became an avalanche of joy.  I learned how to dance a path to God, to celebrate and sing a new song.  More (and here's the wonder, for me): I learned how to help others find their own path to God.  It wasn't easy. It meant learning to be vulnerable, letting people in, not always singing the prettiest note, but rather the most honest one.  It meant showing up, unafraid, and allowing myself to believe-- even if only in the moment that I sang-- that I could be redeemed, that I would be forgiven.  When I did that, however falteringly, however much I stumbled along the way, I blazed a trail strewn with a light that all could follow and so sing their own songs to God, find their own voice of foregiveness.

If I sound all noble and charismatic, forgive me.  It isn't like that at all.  A little wonky, sure.  A bit God-centric, absolutely.  I was like a kid who'd just been released onto the playground after a long confinement : I wanted to feel the sun on my face and swing my arms and race the wind-- and take everone aong with me.  It was all energy.  It was all glorious, joyful play.  "Come sing!" I shouted. "Come play with me!  Oh!  What fun we will have, all singing and praying and laughing together!"

And they came.  Not everyone.  Never everyone,  but many did, to my delight and astonishment.  And it wasn't all just me; far from it.  Leaders and followers- we exchanged places in a stately dance, again and again, sometimes a smooth and studied legato, sometimes a quick staccato rhythm..  It was fluid grace and joyous celebration and intense, prayerful wonder. 

The more I sang, the more I sang my prayer, the more I found God.  Found me.  Found you, and my place with you, the place that I fit, that I belonged.  I was home at last. 

And then one day, quite by surprise, I couldn't sing anymore.  Couldn't find my voice, sing pretty.  What had been effortless was suddenly strained.  What had been unthinking beauty was now spotty and intermittent.  My heartfelt prayer, my connection to God and grace now dust and shadow. 

I had a friend once, who prayed with his guitar.  That was his voice.  You could see, when he prayed, when he cradled his guitar to him, made it sing and cry out, made it laugh and weep and whisper and shout, he became incandescent, a light of sacred beauty.  And when he set his guitar aside for a time, when the silence of his nylon strings filled the sanctuary-- you could see how that silence filled him as well.  What light had flared so brightly, shining into darkened corners and weary hearts, guttered and dimmed.  I was so sad for him, for us all, who were denied that spark of holiness that each of us has, not for ourselves, but as an offering to others.  I was so sad that he could not find his voice without his guitar, varnished wood and nylon and metal, slim-necked and faintly worn paths that fit his fingers so perfectly, tuned to the music of the spheres, an altar upon which to place his prayer.

Sad, yes, and so hurting for my friend.  And so secretly smug (I admit now, shame-faced), because I had my voice.  I could pray without music; my very prayer was music.  As I said, to anyone who would listen: "At first, I came so I could sing.  In time, I came so that I could pray." It was all prayer, all praise, all holy and sacred.  And I sang, and raised my voice, and found the spark and made the offering and shared the gift and sang and soared and danced and was filled.

So now, I cannot sing.  How, then, can I pray?  How will God hear my voice without the music that carried it- without the music that carried me?  This was my gift-- not that was given to me, but the thing I had to give, my offering of thanks and gratitude.  This was my salvation, a small bit of grace that illuminated the wilderness and filled it with sound.

How can I pray into this silence? 

How can God hear my song when the notes are trapped inside my head?

I do not know the lesson I am supposed to learn here, if there even is a lesson.  I don't believe I have a God who tests me.  My God, of infinite kindness and compassion, of endless grace and gentle foregiveness, waits for me to cry out in the darkness.  This I believe.  This I know.  But I cannot cry out in a voice that feels so broken to me, sounds so strange. On the willows there, I hung up my song; how can I sing in this foreign land?
So I stumble along, into this new-found silence.  I feel quite lost; desolate and weary, and desparate to sing a song unto God that will be pleasing, that will reach God's ears. 

I don't know if I have lost my song forever, if this is permanent.  But perhaps I should stop searching for the familiar notes, the well-trodden pathways.  What I need is a new song.  Not for God; God hears the music between the notes, the songs our souls sing, and is gladdened by it all.  Perhaps I need a new song for me, so that I can find a new path to God, an undiscovered territory that is deeper and richer and resonates with a different joy.  Perhaps my song is not ended but unfinished.  Perhaps if I listen in this silence, I will hear a different melody, so that I can sing a new prayer.

It is all prayer, all grace-- every shout, every whisper, every cry of despair.  It is all God's music, even the silence.  So I will stumble, and pray, and shine light on new pathways, and sing a new song, and find me and God.  Ever and again, I will find God.  And together, we will sing.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

For Herschel (z"l)

He straddled continents
and countries
and oceans
and time,

With clear eyes
and big dreams
and whispered hopes
of change
and tradition.

He was last.
He was first,
and strode through centuries
Seeing the turn of revolutions,
the flare of war
the startlement of peace;
Witnessing the birth of nations
and the death of ideals.

He found eternity
in the eyes of his children
And grace
in the heart of his bride
And God
in sweet wine
and gentle flickerflames
and sun-kissed horizons
of sacred nights
and holy days.

Holy, holy, holy.

Zichrono liv'racha
May his memory be for a blessing