Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Holiness of Broken Things: a poem for parashat Ki Tisa

I carry my brokenness with me
It is holy--
as holy as my breath,
my heart,
my wholeness.

It is a part of me, these
scattered pieces
of shattered longing
and battered dreams.
My sins.
All of them.
I carry them--
all of them;
All these broken things
that bend me and bow me,
together with my wholeness,
these holy things.
Idols to my shame,
wrapped in gold and
adorned in abandon.
I fed the fires of that sacred forge
with fear and guilt,
and the altars ran slick with salted tears.
I offered--
the broken pieces as
my sin offering,
for they are holy,
and I carry them with me,
together with my wholeness.

I carry my brokenness with me--
all my sins
and shame
and salted tears,
and I place them
together with my wholeness
on the sacred altars
holy, holy, holy.
They twine together in red and gold flames,
and Whole
offered together
and returned to me ,
and Broken--
Holy still,
carried together
until I reach the next altar.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

In the Desert with Amalek

"Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came out of Egypt." (Deut 25:17)

I remember
I remember slings and arrows,
Cruel fortune that cast me into the desert
A void of
Bound and bordered by ignorance,
Where we were slaughtered--
Together with the others,
The weak
and vulnerable
and less-than ones.
The silent and
invisible ones:
The Other.

I remember.

I remember
the deserts of Sinai
and Dachau
the dust of Somalia and Selma.
I dream the salted earth of Capetown
And Cabrini Green,
And the poison waters swirling through New Orleans
As they run to the oil-slick sea.

And I remember:

I remember--
Who tastes power
Like wine
Like fire.
He sips from a full cup
and it slips down
Filling him
Slithering into a full and bloated belly
Coiling around his heart and
Whispering "Eat!
Nothing is forbidden
In the desert of your heart."
Amalek stretches forth a mighty hand
In the desert,
His desert
of poison and dust
To grab and grasp and tear
Dreaming his dreams
of insatiable power,
of desiccation and
unfillable hunger.
His soul is famine.
His touch is despair.
He gathers the weak
He takes the Other
And swallows us all--
Wanting only
He stretched out his hand--
     He stretches out his hand--
          He will stretch out his hand
To slake his thirst
Sate his hunger
And need
Until I say "Stop!"
Until I demand "Never again!"
Until I become we,
And the Other is me,
And we remember
And stand together
In that vast and darkened desert
And make it bloom.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mom enough - story for Mother's Day

I am willing to admit, with only a brief round of arm-twisting,  that I received a handful of blessings when I came into the world. I like to think that I'm kind, have a bit of compassion, can do multiplication in my head and can make a mean brisket. I value these qualities and truly feel quite blessed. What I am sure I did not receive, in any way whatsoever, was maternal instinct.

Even as a kid, I did not get that whole mommy thing. I didn't play with dolls. Hell, I barely played with others; why in the world would I play with dolls that did, well, nothing? They didn't talk (not really) or walk (unless I moved their feet) or eat (unless it was one of those strange little magic baby bottles of chemically liquid that was (apparently) supposed to be milk and disappeared when you tipped the bottle one way and reappeared when you tipped it the other). They weren't real, and they certainly weren't clever enough or independent enough to be mistaken for such. They were, in a word: boring.

So, no dolls for me.

And in case I'm being a little too coy and understated: I didn't play house, hated babysitting, shuddered at diapers and felt at a total loss when it came to miniature creatures who would one day, with an incredible amount of luck and training I couldn't begin to comprehend, grow up to be actual people.

But they would do it all without me.

So you can imagine my surprise when I learned I was pregnant. I'm sorry-- what? That can't be right. I'm not cut out to be a mother. I have cats. I barely remember to feed them on a daily basis; how in hell will I remember to feed a baby? Relax, they all told me. You'll remember to feed the baby. It's different when you're a mom. And then they'd snicker (though they'd insist it was gentle laughter, meant more to commiserate with my cluelessness than chide my ignorance). Pregnant. Apparently with a baby. Some poor soon-to-be-human who had the poor prenatal intelligence to choose me as his mom.

Thirty some-odd years (and then some), and I still didn't play with dolls.

Panic gripped me, and the angst almost ate me alive. I lived, for nine long months, playing an endless loop of "what-if? in my head" What if I drop him? What if I break him? What if he doesn't like me? What if I mess him up? What if aliens conquer the earth and separate us and he grows up to become an ax murderer? He could be unpopular; worse, he could be popular, and what the hell would I do then? Oh God- what if he's a Republican? There were a hundred things - a thousand things - an infinity of things, real and imagined, that my child could be, and what if I fail him?

Ah. There it is, the secret shame, the real fear, named at last: what if I am not up to the task? What if I fail?

My son, and not a mothering bone in my body.

And then I held him. They placed that small body in my arms- warm and swaddled and wrinkly. His head fit perfectly in the palm of my hand, his body curved into mine as if he were the piece of me, of my heart I didn't even know was missing. My son. My child. And I held him. cradled him against me, and felt the presence of God, knew that God lived in the space between our breaths, between the beat of our hearts.

There, on the fringes of my panic, driven by doubt and fear, I prayed to every god I could think of, including the one I'd finally made my peace with not too long before this miraculous instant-- I prayed; no, I demanded "Now what?"

I mean, really: now what? I learned, just in the nick of time, that I had, if not a maternal instinct, then at least a connection to my son. It was profound. It was more than love. It bordered on magic, and certainly on a miracle or three. It filled me, this love, to the very edges, and then overflowed in small waves, until I felt like I was drowning, or maybe breathing for the very first time. There was this life- tiny and fragile and innocent and our hearts, our breath, were woven together, an inextricable bond, and now fucking what?

So, I loved him. So what? Bad pop songs went spinning through my head, a calliope of the banal. The world needed a helluva lot more than love. I needed a helluva lot more than love. I needed, at the very least, an instruction manual. They were sending me home with this infant boy. Did They - whoever They were - some omnipotent They, related to the Editorial We and the Royal Plural, those power broker rule-maker mavens - did They not realize how little I knew, how unprepared I was? They gave me a diaper bag, a handful of glossy pamphlets, some samples of formula and some other tchotchkes, my son and a fare-thee-well.

We were on our own, and I was still waiting for that maternal instinct to kick in.

I guess I was waiting for the bolt of lightning, angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin kind of enlightenment. I wanted to be infused with that mommy glow of knowing, quickly and painlessly. What I got was something else entirely.

I got the disorganized mommy gene, the one that had at least one major item missing from the traveling circus diaper bag that it was necessary to carry any time we left the confines of the house that was now a cross between a padded baby prison and a toy store. Other parents showed up with extra bottles and binkies, a change of clothes, little Tommy's favorite toy, crackers and cheerios in environmentally safe packaging, and their infant, clean and calm and smiling. I was lucky that I remembered the baby. Extra stuff? I'd be happy with enough stuff.

Birthdays were celebrated with joy and merriment. Parties were hit or miss. We did them most years. They had no themes. I didn't realize babies and toddlers needed themed parties. We almost always had cake, and a present that showed up, sometimes wrapped, within 48 hours. Almost.

Calendars and school vacations were mostly theoretical. There were a couple of times I took him to school, only to find that there wasn't any that day. Pulaski Day. Really? I don't know that he can spell it, let alone know who the hell Pulaski was. But apparently, he's important enough to close the schools around here as a show of honor and respect.

Forget Little League and after school activities. Apparently, these were all designed and scheduled in a wormhole from 1957, an era in which both parents didn't work and kids could walk willy-nilly and unsupervised across town to get to the ball field or wherever said activity was being held. And there were carpools and gangs of neighborhood kids and you knew people and other parents who could step up every so often, except your "every so often" was every time, because you work full time and you're a single parent and you barely know your next door neighbor, let alone the parents of your kid's classmates. So you die a tiny little bit, when that kid, that not-quite-so-small and still defenseless and slightly older kid looks at you as you drive past the ball field with practice going in full swing and says, in his most grown up and understanding voice "That's ok, mama. Maybe next year."

Then there were the days that you prayed to everything that was holy that your child stayed this side of not-quite-sick long enough for you to make the meeting that you just couldn't miss. Those were the days that you cringed every time your phone rang, hoping it wasn't the school nurse letting you know he'd gone from not-quite-sick to sick enough, please take him home. Worse were the days you were out of town and you couldn't be there at all, had to depend on someone else - anyone else - to fill in for you. Good God, those were the days you had to depend on someone, and come to think of it, they were probably a helluva lot more organized than you, more focused than you, more mom than you anyway, so what's the big deal?

There are meds to take and doctors to visit and shoes that leak water and buttons that fall off and homework that needs to get done and teachers to correspond with and you manage, barely, to feed him every day and put on clean socks every day and make it to school every day and love him every day. Every day, you do those things. Some days are better than others. Some are more organized. Some, you swear there's not enough duct tape in all the world to contain him and give you just a minute of quiet, so you can catch your breath before the next round. Some days you want to crawl into a corner and weep because you know, you just know, that you have failed him. And every day, you love him, just a little bit more.

Every day, again and again. Every day, in an endless succession of over and over. And you can't imagine living your life without it. Thank God (or whatever deity in which you currently believe) you have been given this gift, this miracle, this awesome and fearsome and breathtaking boy, to care for and comfort and learn from and love. Every day.

And then you pause. You think: That maternal instinct, that thing I've been aching for since the day I first knew that I carried another heartbeat, another soul-- is that the feeling of dread and guilt and annoyance that fills me? And the feeling of bursting-at-the-seams pride when he achieves and creates and laughs and sings and brings you a flower and makes something out of pasta and glitter and spray paint? And the dread you feel, wondering if you will break him, or ruin him or can't fix his hurt or heal his heart?

Could it be that sure and absolute knowledge, before anything else-- before everything else-- the idea that the only job you have, the only one that matters, is to love that boy, that now-kinda-large and suddenly adult boy, and make sure that he knows, with his every breath, without doubt or hesitation, that nothing he does or says could ever make you love him any less, that he is loved and he is, ever and always, enough?

Is that maternal instinct? Is that being mom enough?

One of my favorite stories: a woman is bemoaning her single status to a friend, wondering why she can't find the man of her dreams. So her friend, being wise, asked her to make a list of all the characteristics she wants in this perfect man. The woman sets about her task with enthusiasm, taking a week or two to compile a list of everything she considers a prime quality in this mythical-but-hoped-for man. Finally, she is satisfied that she has everything covered. She returns to her friend, hands over the list and waits for her friend's words of wisdom and advice. The friend glances at the list (which covers several pages), barely seeing a single trait, hands it back and says, quite gently, in a voice filled with love and kindness: "Now become all those things."

I wasn't looking for my perfect man; I was looking to grow a boy, to teach him to be a person - a mensch. But-- maybe yes, become all these things. Become them, because how on earth could I teach him forgiveness if I did not learn to forgive? How could I expect him to understand the strength it takes to ask for help if I hid my fear behind a wall of pride? I have not become all those things, not by a long shot. But I try. He, marvelous boy that he is, has learned every lesson I have ever taught him, intended or not. Trust me, I have spent much time apologizing. "I'm sorry; I didn't do that well (or right, or kindly, or patiently, pick an adjective, any adjective); I will try to do better next time. We need to learn this better, ok?" 

My son is smart and funny and annoying and sarcastic (in spades) and kind and self-absorbed at times and curious all the time. He splits hairs until I want to scream. He challenges the powers-that-be in politics and religion and science, both their reasoning and their conclusions. He has a moral compass set to JUST, and is finally learning to temper his judgement with mercy and compassion. He tastes life, in great gulps and with much passion.

He has become... himself. He steps through his life, sometimes faltering, sometime boldly. But he walks through it. Every day. He succeeds, he tries, he fails, he stresses, he questions, he knows -without hesitation - that he is loved. He knows, without doubt, that he is enough.

And that, forever and always, is enough for me.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Faith enough

Over the course of a handful or so of years not too long ago, I managed to lose a little bit of everything: stuff, people, things of inestimable value to me-- one thing after the next, again and again.  And then yet again.  Sometimes the pace of loss was so fast I could barely catch my breath or stop long enough to grieve. Worse were the slow and lingering losses. They were excruciating and exquisite disintegrations of heart and spirit.

With each loss, I would hit bottom. Absolute rock-fucking-bottom. I would lay, crumpled and still,  every nerve taut and throbbing, fairly singing with the tension of shame and grief and sadness, until I was numb.  Numb, and relieved, that at least I had finally found the bottom.

And every time-- every single time I sagged in relieved acceptance of  my failure-- I would find the trap door.

There is always a next level of low. Always.

This was not the life I had planned on. Not that I had actually made a plan for my life. But still, this wasn't it. What the hell-- I was a nice Jewish girl from a nice middle class family, living in a nice little suburb. And while I had taken a twistier path than most to that place, there I was: a nice Jewish girl with a husband and a child and a house and a job, living the American Dream.

And then one day, again without plan, I wasn't.


Like sugar in water, I watched it all dissolve. I wanted to yell "Stop!" I wanted to scream "Wait!"  I needed time. I needed something-- someone-- to fix it, make it better. All I had was me. And clearly, I was not up to it. Let me just catch my breath.  Let me just rest for a minute. A day. Maybe another. Please. The light is too bright, and it's dark and cool under these covers. Let me just sleep a little longer. Let me just die a little bit more.  

You know what's worse than bottoming out when you're a drunk, killing yourself a bottle (a glass, a sip) at a time? Bottoming out sober. Everything is raw. Everything is screaming: your body, the voices in your head, the people you love. Worse: the people who love you, who just want you to get it together, get better, stop being so fucking sad all the time. Jeezus, Stacey-- enough! Get over it already. It's been weeks. Months. A year. More. Too long to grieve. Too long to be stuck. There I was, a  butterfly pinned to a black velvet board, raw and defenseless and twitching.

They got bored with me, my friends. Hell; I got bored with me. I wanted to curve into myself, disconnect from the pain that seeped into and out of every pore.

I wanted to drink.

Almost two decades sober, almost two decades of learning how live without drinking, learning how to live with God, and I wanted to drink. Funny thing-- I knew, absolutely knew that I would get, maybe, 37 seconds. Thirty-seven seconds of relief, where all the noise would just stop, and I would be able to breathe and my skin would stop crawling and I would disconnect enough to not feel and not be.  Thirty-seven seconds. And I was in so much pain, it seemed a worthwhile trade: my life, my pain, for thirty-seven seconds.

And I didn't.

I'd lost my marriage, my house, my credit, several jobs, numerous friends and a beloved brother, and I wanted to drink and I wanted to disappear and I didn't. What the fuck?

Oh, yeah: faith.

It sweeps in, peeks around corners, stumbles around blindly, in infinite variety, offering healing and grace. At times, it is cool and resonant, a joyful transcendence that leaps and soars. It is fearless, filled with surety and possibility and hope. It is a glorious and mindful act, all breathless wonder and full beyond measure. It illuminates the darkness. It is intimate as love, brave as love, near as love.

And when I'm in that wonky, spiritually fit place, when life is balanced and I'm not teetering on the edge and unfixably broken, this is the faith that fills me. At these times, in that place, everything fits and flows, endlessly effortless-- God's in the heavens, all's right with the world. Amen, amen.

This was not one of those spiritually wonky places. This wasn't effortless and clean. It was dark and twisty and alone.  This was a dangerous and elusive faith,  limned in pain, dancing on a razor's edge of  hope. This was not a host angels singing loud hosannas while dancing on the head of a pin. It was a much more difficult faith, like pebbles strewn across an impossibly huge plain. Almost insurmountable. Almost invisible. Almost.

But in all these impossible almosts, there was God. In the midst of the jagged edges of my pain (no less so than in the midst of that impossibly joyous and majestic sweep of calming grace), there was God.

So what does that get me? What good is God, or faith, when it is broken despair that is transcendent, driving me? Where was God? And why? Why God, and faith, when we are still stripped and laid bare, when the only prayer we can offer is "fuck you, God?" What the hell does faith get us, when the money is running out and the solitude swallows you whole and the road shifts suddenly, bedrock becoming quicksand in the space between breaths?

What good is faith? Even then-- especially then: there is faith, and God. Faith does not mean that I will never know pain again, or fear. People will die, foreclosures will happen, jobs will be lost. Of course, miracles will happen, too, along with acts of breathtaking kindness and astounding heroism. Life will happen, in all its messy glory. And faith, sometimes a grand, sweeping gesture, sometimes blind and leaping-- faith allows me to put one foot in front of the other. No matter how small the step, no matter how faltering, I put one foot in front of the other, and know that I will be carried through.

And with that act of faith and defiance-- that has everything to do with love and hope and grace and God-- life changes. The world changes. I am changed. Changed enough to put one foot in front of the other, again. And that, I am sure, is faith enough.