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