Tuesday, September 30, 2014

#BlogElul 28 - Give

A prayer for the new year, 5775
(A prayer for the Month. The day. The hour.)
(A prayer for my next breath)

God of infinite compassion,
Creator of Light
and Breath:

Grant me Give.

Teach me to bend
before I break,
And find the
hidden in the hard lines
and straight edges
that cut
and draw blood:
Sometimes mine.
Often yours.
Messy either way.

There is kindness
I think,
And grace,
that can gentle
the right angles
that guard my heart
and my fear,
And there,
in that linear
of slopes and slants,
I might remember
that we all fight
fierce dragons,
On a narrow,

Grant me give, God,
and in that gentle giving
I can breathe

and let go

Monday, September 29, 2014


I dance -
And rest
In the palm of Your hand.
I thought to stay
For a moment
Or a day,
At least until I caught
my breath.
There was a box of treasure
That I carried,
An offering
Of grace
And sin.
I will set fire to it.
And watch the smoke drift
And tangle
In the feathered wings
Of angels.

I don't believe in angels,
Or their glorious
Wings of
Opal and fire,
And their voices that
Sing hosannas to
Your name.

I will sing
A broken hallelujah.
My offering
Of ash and dust.
It is Yours--
The ash of my sacrifice
And the dust of stars,
The angels' tears
And their sacred indifference,
And the holy silence
That fills me
As I dance
And rest.
It is all in me
All of it
In every breath
And blessed sigh.

And I am so tired.
Even the dust of stars
Is heavy.

And so I will rest
In the palm
Of Your hand,
But I will no longer

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Nate's Blog Post - Blind to Difference

The thing I'm most affected by is my religion.

Because I'm black, people just assume that I'm Christian. In reality, I'm a Jew by name, and everyone is so shocked by this fact, that a black man is a Jew. I know it's "rare," but it only goes to show how America is still blind to difference. When people assume that someone is a certain religion, especially for me, it's almost like a tag or more of a label that is immovable, and it's really hard for people to see past that and see the real me.

So a lot of times, I'm asked about which church I pray at. To me, it just makes that label more visible to me. It just makes me want to tear it out even more, but the light that comes from tearing it is a very harsh light of hate, ridicule, confusion and denial, so I have to patch it back up with the harsh ignorance of the American people. From that patch, it only promotes more ignorance on me and my generation about the "Black Christian society."

Nate Robinson
August 2014

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

#BlogElul 27 - Intend

It would be so much easier if this prompt (as I read it, by my rules) were about all of my well-intended actions - to write, to call, to make, to do - all of those things that I mean to do, but can't get myself together enough to actually, you know, do.
There are squirrels. Many, many squir--


But as I sit before my keyboard, three days behind the writing of this, with the brisket in the oven and the actual date that we will all consume the brisket still up in the air, and the invite list still as nailed down as cotton candy on a stick, and all of my music spread out on the dining room table, waiting for me to trace out the words in darker ink so that I can see them while singing in the choir in four ohmygodfour hours, and this is it - Elul is almost over and I am so not ready...

I think intendis a much harder, much richer thing than all of my squirrels put together.

Intend is all about my heart, and if I have learned only one thing in my life, it is this: the longest journey I've ever taken is the one that goes from my head to my heart.

All that other stuff, all that distracted, ADHD forgetfulness, all of that may be symptomatic of this, but it is only a pale echo of the spiritual principle of intend.

There is a psalm, a really horrible psalm, all smitey and teeth-gnashy and eat the babies of the enemies kind of psalm. I would not set it to music and sing it as a lullaby. But within it, there is a verse, hidden in its simple glory and profound grace: Ani tefillah. It is often translated as "I am a prayerful person."

No. Okay - maybe. Who am I to judge anyone's translation of Hebrew. But here's how I would do it (how I actually hear it): I am prayer.

I am prayer. I am a prayer. Either way - it is the intention, the mindful action, that I live my life as a prayer to God. That I enter the world raw and vulnerable and open, cracked wide. All my borders, every boundary, open.

Even in my doubt. Even in my struggle. My anger and pain - I am a prayer. My joy is a dance in the palm of God's hand. My anger a song of praise. Whatever the words - the keva of my siddur, the stilted, flowery English of the machzor - they are not the prayer. I am. The words of my heart, the ones that I whisper in the dark or sing out under a sky of scarlet and gold, the ones I am too afraid to voice - but find a way even so, this is my prayer, this my intent.

As I walk these last steps towards the new year, towards the gate and the hope of redemption, may I never forget that every breath is a blessing, every word that I speak is a prayer. Ani tefillah. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

#BlogElul 26 - Hope

Hope is the moon seen through
skittering clouds
or leaves that have been dusted
by Midas
or maybe by Ms Borgia:
all dusty,
almost brittle red and gold.
It waxes and wanes
and hangs smugly
in a charcoal sky,
like the half smile of a
drunken god.

It is nothing like the Sun
that rules in splendor
and burns

I respond to its tidal rhythms
An eternal dance
that moves me,
batters me,
carries me.
Even so,
 I see it only through
the boughs of trees
and skittering

#BlogElul 25 - Begin


Just breathe. Stand poised at some achingly high pinnacle, where the air hurts, and your arms are lifted over your head in an arc of fluid grace, and just


Until your arms shake from the strain of your posed poise
and the air - God! the air is so thin and cold,
and you want to gasp, but you can't,
because every time you do -
every damned time you gather in your body to catch your breath,
the ground under your feet isn't as solid as you thought,
and it shifts and crumbles, just a little -
just enough to let you know that one good breath will send you
tumbling into some impossibly deep, endless chasm
that will swallow you whole, and you will fall

So you just stand in some poised pose, ready and strained past breaking,
And you tremble and try not to stagger under the weight of your fear.

And then you look up
At a sky that takes what little breath you have away
That is a dome of azure and stars and heaven
And it falls up into forever.

And you do gasp then, at the beauty of it
At the wonder and the glory of that expanse of light and dark
That is soft and hard at once, that is silent and still and waiting
And you realize then, in that instant
That you are the altar; your fear,the offering
and you will bleed out your despair as you are drawn near,
and nearer still.
Leap! Leap out and let your arms fall in a graceful arc
That, too, is your offering, your sacrifice:
All that poise, all that pain, laid on the altar of your body
to be caught, to be ever caught by God, by hope.

Breathe. And again - breathe.
And again

#BlogElul 24 - End

I just finished an essay for the prompt "End." Literally just entered the last period, formatted the text, did the spell check. Every word of it was true. Every word was insanely false, a discordant klaxon of wrongness that made my teeth and my fingers clench. I have enough tension happening these days; I really don't need another source. 

Remember, this is Elul. I am sadly late with a handful of essays that no one has been begging me - or even asking me - to write. But I promised me, and I don't do that often. And during this month, this fearful and glorious and difficult month, I try to honor what I have been taught - to dive deep, to bend the light differently, to explore just who the hell I am, so that when I stand, at last, before that last gate, in that last minute, asking for forgiveness, hoping for redemption, I will stand there clean, having done the work as honestly, as thoughtfully and mindfully as I could.

So. I'm scrapping that first essay, that was true, but that rang false.


Here's the honest and true thing about End to me, during this month of Elul. Nothing ends. At least, nothing in my life does. Mainly because I won't let it.

I live in a land of never-ending forever. I don't let things end - not relationships, not friendships, not bad situations. And the good stuff - the happy, the fine, the soft and gentle and kind stuff? I cling to that with a death grip. I hold on so tightly that my nails dig into my palms a little too deep, and I break the thing I was trying to hold

Sad will never end.

Pain will never end.

Happy will never end - as long as I can control it, make it stay, make it last.

Because, when things end, when you (I) let them go, wherever it is that they go to when they do go, when you (I) let them, then all you are (I am) is alone. And that really, really never ends.

Every word here rings true. Sings it, in some minor key that is so fragile and tragic and makes my heart hurt. Every word rings true, and it is all false. Every word.

Because this is Elul, and I cannot allow myself to stop at the first turn, the first tug of resistance, to end before I really dig deep. Because the second and the third and the fifteenth - every turn after this first one has shown me that things end - marriages, friendships, happily-ever-after, and dark and stormy nights - they all end, and sometimes I'm alone, and sometimes I'm not. But even the aloneness ends.

Keep the gates open, God! Please - open the gates so that I may step through, to find You, and redemption. We say this, again and again. Keep the gates open. I forget that I have my own gates. I forget that, in my fear, in my joy, how easily I close them, lock them up tight. I close myself off to everyone and everything, and I am, indeed, alone. Perhaps physically, although, let's be honest - so what? That's just a momentary thing.

When I remember, when I choose, when I do the work, I keep my own gates thrown open, and when I do, all of my aloneness ends.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

It Was Not Day

It was not evening,
nor night,
not quite -
although the sickle moon,
dusted in orange,
kissed the passing clouds

It was not morning,
tho the sun
stained the sky
and shivered there,
on the horizon
that was sea and sky together,
and neither sea
nor sky

And so we prayed,
gathered at the water's edge,
in the not-evening-
Almost morning.
We opened our lips
on the border
of land that moved
with fluid grace,
next to the dark glass
of an obsidian sea
that rippled with
the laughter of the stars
that skated its smooth surface.

And all the Hosts of Heaven
waited in expectant
and shimmering
in that not-quite moment,
that sacred place
of not you
and not me;
That place where God lives -
at the very edge
of Heaven
and Earth,
That is the center
And calls to us
With bird song and wind
and the rippling
obsidian sea.

And there the shofar called
A single note,
Stretching out unto

There was evening.
There was morning.
One day.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

#BlogElul 23 - Love

"And it kicks so hard
It breaks your bones.
Cuts so deep 
It hits your soul.
Tears your skin
And makes your blood flow.
It's better that you know
That love is hard."

"Love is Hard" 
James Morrison

I want love to be all hearts and flowers and grand romantic gestures. I want it to be noble and patient. I want it - need it - to be selfless even if it's selfish at the same time. And healing. And holy.

God - I need love to be holy.

What I get though, for all my wanting, is hard. Love is hard. And it hurts. It wraps around my heart and squeezes, slowly, so you can't breathe and you just want to stop feeling anything at all. But, you know, it's love, and it doesn't just stop when you want it to. It just keeps... hurting.

I am not in a happy-hearts-and-flower-love place right now.

I may never have been. 

Frankly, I don't get love. I don't think I ever have. Which is a terrible thing to say, I'm sure. But this is Elul, and I am called to be, if nothing else, honest. So this is honest.

I never doubted I was loved as a kid. Mostly. But love came with strings and conditions and secret codes that changed the minute you thought you decrypted them. And love hurt. It broke you into a gazillion pieces - pieces so small and jagged and sharp that your hands came away bloody every time you tried to gather all those gazillion pieces up. 

At some point, you just stop. Or at least, I did. You stop trying to figure it out, stop trying to feel it - or not feel it. You'd give anything to not feel that pain twisted with hope, that thing that makes you feel like hollow fire, that thing that just pounds you and pulls the rug out from under your feet and whispers all your insecurities to you in the dark. Because you know it will be taken away, the minute you give in to it.

You know that nothing you do will ever be enough to be loved for longer than a minute or three at a time.

And the stupid thing is - the stupid, naive, sad thing of it is: for all you know about love; for all you know how tragic and hard and ephemeral it is; for all you know that it will not last, will be taken away, you are a moth drawn to that incandescent arc of light, and you dance along that path and feel its warmth as long as it lets you, as long as you are able, until you are singed and burned and broken.


At some point, you are scarred enough that, really, you're more like the Sorceress in the fairy tales you love so much - and you love them (love, you're pretty sure, or whatever passes for that, because you just don't know) because the world they inhabit is so pure and clean, and the evil is evil and the good, good and it's all just so easy to get to happily ever after, even if there are horrible quests and adventures in the middle, because you know that Destiny is waiting to deliver that Happy Ending - but that Sorceress, she removed her heart, keeping it locked away in a secret hiding place, so that it would be safe. And if that meant she could never love anyone, not really - at least she could never be hurt again. Fair trade.

Safe. Protected.

And then you have a child. And that child finds all your secret places, without even trying. And that child looks at you as if you could slay dragons and heal plagues and talk with frikkin God, just to say hello - he just expects it. So you do. You do all of those things, and you find the heart you were sure you had buried somewhere long away and far ago, and you hand it over, as if it were nothing. As if it had never been broken.

You start to think that happily-ever-after may be a real thing, which, in your books, is just another way to say redemption. Not that everything with this child is heart-and-flowers all the time. That would be wrong and disturbing. No; this is a real child, who has tantrums and gets angry and snotty and demanding and is kind and giving and selfish and smart and annoying and you wouldn't give up a nanosecond of any of it - in hindsight; in the moment, sometimes you'd give anything to sell him to the highest bidder. But you don't. You just love him. And wonder if what you're feeling really is love, because this is the most singular and glorious thing you've ever experienced, until you stop questioning it and you just do it. You live it. Every day, you're just in it, with him, and it really doesn't matter if you can define it or nail it down or parse it six ways to Sunday. 

And then comes the day when he hurts to the breaking point. Or maybe just beyond that place. This isn't the normal, every day hurt of childhood - or even pending adulthood and the madness of puberty. This is a shattering. This is a hurt that snakes around his soul, and you thought you knew powerless before, when you got sober, and stayed sober for a couple of decades, but this is a whole new kind of powerlessness that brings you to your knees - because there is nothing you can do, at all, to heal that boy. Nothing. All you can do is watch him hurt. 

It's killing you, and you have no idea what to do, how to fix him, how to shield him. And you're sure that you have failed him and broken him. All you can do is love him, and hope that that's enough. 

And while you may not ever have done this for yourself, while you may know, without any doubt, that love is hard, and it huts and it cuts deep and gets taken away - for your child, that boy who is hurting and once looked at you as if you could dance with giants and play tag with the sun - for that boy, you are willing to believe that maybe, please God maybe, that love is, in fact enough.

(c) Stacey Zisook Robinson

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

#BlogElul 22 - Dare

Go ahead - I dare ya! 

I dare me. 


I do dare almost as well as I do change, and I don't actually do change. Change happens; I don't do it. Change is a twister from Kansas, dropping on me like, well - like a houseful of bricks. All that's left sometimes are my shins (battered and bruised) and my stockinged-feet. Dorothy has already taken off with my shoes.

There are days I'd have to climb a ladder up from dare to get to the ease and grace with which I do change.

I have lived a life mostly ruled by fear. Fear of failing. Fear of succeeding. Fear of fitting in - or not. Fear of appearing weaker than, less than, vulnerable. Fear of being found out, not measuring up. Being alone, having friends. I have learned to live with my odd inconsistencies and juxtapositions. It's hard to dare, with all that fear going on.

As a result, I live a very little life, skating along the edges and staring wistfully, resignedly - fearfully - at the center.

It's lonely out here.

I used to think it was safer, being this far away. I used to think I would never get hurt by living small and undaring. I used to think that I could drink myself courageous. I used to think no one would - could - ever love me, but that if I could make you need me, that would be good enough. I used to think a lot of things. Most every one of them was wrong.

I spent a lifetime of "Don't you dare!" 

And then you get sober. And then you get married. And then you have a baby. And you buy a house and you keep not drinking and and you get divorced and you still keep not drinking and you watch over this child who continues to teach you how to love and you start breathing again, almost for the first time in your whole life and you don't drink and you make breakfast and you clean up puke and you pay the bills and you stumble around and get lost and feel broken but you do it all anyway and you get this gift, this amazing, miraculous gift of love - pure and unconditional and filled with trust and grace, and shitty stuff happens to you and astoundingly breathtaking things happen and you're still freaking terrified but you put one foot in front of the other every day and you get out of bed you love - God! you love that boy every day, even on the days when there is just not enough duct tape in all the world to contain him.

And you realize, without ever noticing it, that you have lived a bold and daring life. Even through the fear, you have learned to dare. 

(c) Stacey Zisook Robinson

#BlogElul 21 - Change

I am not a fan of change.

But for that matter,
I am not a fan of clinging
as if to save my
or shield my
From something -
everything -
Some thing
that has wrapped itself around me,
Or that perhaps
I may have agreed
(In some way)
To cling
to that thing,
And so not

I am not a fan of change.

But oh!
I am so tired of
My fingers are cramped
and my knuckles
I haven't moved in so very long.
The view from here
is old,
And frayed
around the edges.

I am not a fan of clinging.

And so I think,
maybe -
Just maybe,
If I let go,
Not with a whoosh,
But a whisper,
A breath
of a prayer,
If I let go
I can rest,
Just a bit,
And let the change
that I am not a fan of,
That will happen anyway
Maybe I can just
Let the change in.

And in the letting,
In the release,
In that moment,
So be changed.

(c) Stacey Zisook Robinson

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

#BlogElul 20 - Judge

Yesterday, up until about 4:30, this was going to be a very different essay. Yesterday, up until about 4:30, this was going to be an essay about a quote by Plato, who said "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle," although he probably said it in Greek, as English wasn't even a glimmer in anyone's eye, and a thousand years or more before it was starting to be invented into something even vaguely resembling English.

That quote, though, is, I think, my favorite. It is something to which I aspire, and often fall far short. It has everything to do with me being judge, jury and executioner. Like the Queen of Hearts, I sit on my lofty (but imaginary) throne, watching. Observing. Judging. 

No one is spared. I judge everything: Clothes. Abilities. Vocabulary. Grammar. Veneer. Happiness. Truth. Sorrow. Drama. Driving. Wit. The list is infinite. I judge things they haven't even invented categories for yet. And I find them all lacking. Without fail. I am proud to say that, these days, at the ripe old age of old-plus-three, I mostly keep my judgement to myself. Not because I am any less judgmental. Mostly because I've learned, in my five-plus decades, that I really do need to filter myself. I am allowed in public much more often, and with much less (imaginary) bloodshed when I do.

As I've said, in other painfully honest essays, my tongue is rapier sharp and I can use it with surgical precision. Sigh.

Many years ago, sitting in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, I heard someone say something about trying to live a life based upon the principles of Patience, Tolerance, Kindliness and Love. It was, literally, a breathtaking moment for me. The thought of living a different way - not based upon fear and judgment, where the best defense was a good offense (and what better offense could anyone have if not push before being pushed, destroy before being destroyed?) that thought rocketed me to another plane. I had no idea how to do any of those things, but just knowing that they were there, that I could reach for them...

It was one of those defining moments that changed my life forever.

Up until about 4:30 yesterday, this essay was going to be about that, and the finding of that Plato quote a few years after that AA meeting, and how I realized the why of being kind: Being kind wasn't about me, or making me feel better or making my life easier. Being kind was all about you.

It was about how maybe, just maybe, when I judge you - when I judge me, my insides, based upon your outsides - I have no idea who you are or what is happening in your life. And that maybe, just maybe, I might be wrong, because I don't everything, let alone what's going on with you. And that maybe, just maybe, if I am kind, if I stop judging, I can be of service. If I am kind, I can take down the walls that separate me from you (whether they're my walls or yours), and offer strength, and kindness and patience and love. And maybe, if I do all of that, maybe there can be healing. Or ease. Or God.

What a holy thing that could be, if I can be kind, because I can be of service, and offer hope instead of pain.

Up until 4:30 yesterday, that would have been my essay. I would have liked that. But at 4:30 yesterday, I got an email from my dad. In case you don't know, he's a federal judge. I like to brag (because, hey - it's really cool) and then immediately minimize, saying "it's not as impressive as it sounds; he's an Administrative Law Judge for the Social Security Administration." Even so, it really cool. He loves being a judge. He's 81 years old, and he loves getting up every morning at 5:00 so he can get to the office early and do his judge thing.

The email yesterday had nothing to do with that. Here's the body of his email, that was sent to all of his colleagues:
I need someone to take my court call for Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014.  I didn't realize that this was the Jewish High Holiday of Rosh Hashanah (New Years day), a day that Jews are forbidden to work.
I have now been informed that I must find someone to trade days with—that if I don’t appear for those hearings, which will not be cancelled by the powers that be, I will be considered as AWOL, which I consider as religious persecution. 
Therefore I request that you consider trading  hearing dates with me.  If you like, I’ll give you’re a 2 for 1 deal.
I'm sorry. What? What the hell century are we in? What country? He MUST work or be considered AWOL? What the hell? Are we still fighting these battles? Am I naive, to think that a worker cannot be forced to work on their religion's holy day? Don't pay him for it - ok. Declare him AWOL? 

Again - what the hell? 

I would much preferred to have written that other essay and been done with it. Stopped there. But I am angry. I am judging - fiercely, with much teeth-gnashing and sword-bashing. I have donned my shield maiden armor and am prepared to do battle.

I hear this voice in my head (ok, I hear a thousand voices in my head, but this one is whispering the loudest - and why is it I can hear the whispery ones so much better than the shouty ones?): be kind. And right behind that: breathe.

This is me: an immediate leap to judgement, declaring war. True, I am doing it on someone else's behalf, but still. It is immediate. Without thought. It may be the right move, but I have no idea if that's the case. My father may have solved it already. He may have changed the language slightly, to say AWOL, rather than a more measured "hey, we can't inconvenience the people who have hearings scheduled for that day in your courtroom, so you need to find a replacement." It's not as if they are saying "you may not take this day off at all." Could be, they're just looking to cover the bases.

Damn it. 

And in an instant, all my self-righteous indignation - gone. All my fierce judgement, so unbending, so sharp (sharp enough to cut) - gone. In an instant. To be replaced with the whisper of patience, tolerance, kindliness and love.

Perhaps I got to write my essay after all.

(c) Stacey Zisook Robinson

#BlogElul 19 - Ask

Before you ask - this is an essay I wrote a few years ago. It had nothing (then) to do with Elul or the High Holidays. It had everything to do with asking questions. Then, and now - it has nothing to do with answers.

Funny, I'm teaching again. Just for a month, because I'm subbing for a teacher who took a slow boat to China. Literally. Ok, it wasn't a boat, but she will be there for three weeks. So, I get to teach. I knew that I missed it; I couldn't have guessed just how much. Last Sunday, my fifth graders and I were having a discussion about God and doubt and struggling (they're my class; of course we were having this discussion) and one of the kids asked - not in that whiny, icky asking that really means "I'm so done with this topic!" but in the marveling, serious, "We're just starting to get to the good stuff" kind of way - he said "Why couldn't God just give us the answers?"

Immediately, another of the kids piped up "But it's the questions that are important. They're the whole point."

Fifth grade, and they get it: it's the asking, because the asking puts you on a path (not even necessarily the right one, but a path nonetheless) that takes you somewhere, carries you somewhere, to another question, and another and another - and all of that asking, all of those questions - they get you close. Closer. Sometimes to an answer, or a partial truth or another question and direction altogether. It's the questions, the asking that matters, because they set us on the path.

A few years ago, I was asking these questions below. You know what? I still am - just as passionately, just as frustrated and curious and riveted. I hope you can join me on this particular path, and maybe shed some light on your questions, your answers.


So, on the first Sunday of the last year that I taught religious school, I challenged my seventh grade students:  "How do you have a conversation with God in the 21st century? Do you even have a conversation at all? How do you come to God when life is good? More, how do you come to God in times of anger or sadness or despair, when all you want to do is curse at God? How do you connect to Judaism?"

Being a fan of symmetry and neatly wrapped boxes, on the last Sunday of the last year that I taught religious school, I asked them: "What is it that connects you?  To Judaism, to God?  Are you connected?  What does it mean, to be a Jew?"

I don't know that I have answers any more now than I did when I started that year.  For that matter,  any more than I did when I lost God, when I was convinced that God had lost me, or any more than when I felt sheltered and carried gently in the palm of God's hand. But I know now, I think, what connects me.  I know, now, what binds me to my faith.

Hooray for me (she said, somewhat dryly) (after all, this is not about me).  But still I ask myself  "Have I done enough? Have I, have we, the community that surrounds and supports these questing, growing, questioning minds--- have we given them enough, to anchor them in their doubt and disbelief, to strengthen them in their journey to adulthood? Will they, too, become Jews by choice?"

I look at my son, who, at thirteen,  is right there: a jumble of belief and doubt and cynicism and hope, so ready to believe, so fearful of his honest disbelief.  What can I give him, that he will choose to be a Jew?  Around and around I go, on a merry-go-round of ask-and-answer.  And every so often, I'm lucky enough to stop long enough to hear enough from others who ride their own merry-go-rounds of hope and doubt and faith and love.

It lets me know, if nothing else, that I'm asking the right questions.  At least, that we are all asking a lot of the same questions.  And we're finding some... if not answers, then at least a little bit of clarity.  And so I can say: what does it take to be enough?  And I can start to hear the tin calliope merry-go-round music of an answer coming back to me:

It's about passion, I think.  My passion.  Our passion.  The passion and joy and exuberance of being Jewish: of study and community and service and prayer and family and God.  It's choosing and being engaged in the choice.  It's mindful and sometimes hard and sometimes frustrating and always, always--- it is ok to be passionate.  It's good to find the wonder and sense the awe of who we are and where we fit.  Judaism can be an intellectual pursuit.  But it is so much more; can be so much more.  If we allow it.  If we let it.  How can we not show that?  How can we not share that?

But wait-- there's more (she said with a cockeyed smile).  It's also about obligation.  We spend so much time sheltering our young, of giving and teaching and doing for them, we don't always remember to teach them their obligation to us, their community.  We don't always show them that there is as much joy, as much passion in obligation and service outwards as there is in being served.  God has taught us that lesson well: we are commanded to serve, we are bound by our obligations one to another, to our community and to God. It is that obligation that helps give us all a framework of connection that can transcend doubt or disbelief.

Passion.  Obligation.  Joy.  God.  Beginning the conversation.  Being caught in the act-- of choosing, every day, to be a Jew.  What else, what else, what else?  What am I missing?  What are we missing?  I don't know it all, not by a long shot.  But I've learned that there are those who can fill in the blanks, if I ask. There are those who can help me find the questions, if I listen.

So-- I'm listening. I'm asking.  Is it enough?  Is there joy enough, wonder enough to bridge the doubt?  What connects us?  What will bind us, one to another and to God?  What words do I give to my son, so that he can find his own way to choose, every day, to be a Jew?

And finally, I offer a small prayer of my own: that we can all listen in wonder, ask in joy, choose in faith, dance with God.  Amen.

Note:  This essay  was written in conjunction with my earlier essay "Jew by Choice."  Here, as in my previous essay, I am attempting to answer, for me, just what it means to be Jewish, just how it is that we can connect to our faith, our community.  Most, I hope to find some answers to just how I can teach this to my son, pass it on so that he can find and foster that connection himself.  It is my hope that this essay will serve as a springboard for a dialog, so that we all learn from each other.  I may not have all the answers, and I'm certainly learning a lot of questions.  I am hoping you all can help shine a light for us all.  


Sunday, September 14, 2014

#BlogElul 17 - Awake

Dear God

Would you grant me awakeness,

Enough to see
leaves the color of heartbreak gold?
Enough to hear
my child,
who has a laugh
that starts somewhere in his belly,
or maybe his toes,
and it fills him
and spills over into Your world
like ribbons
and ripples of

Enough to hear the sound of anguish -
Even half a world away,
or on the next block,
so I can know that
the work is not finished,
That more must still be done?

Enough to feel
the sharp edges of sorrow,
and smell
the sweet spice
of joy that comes
even in that moment of separation?
Enough to taste
the glorious riot
of freedom,
that bursts
in profusion
like the suddenness of

God of Infinite Compassion,

Will you grant me enough awakeness
to see the bush that burns,
that has always burned,
that waits -
for me to notice,
And in my noticing
I will know
that You are near?

And God, Whose Mercy
is ever tempered with

let me be awake enough
to see -
to notice -
to catch my eye
and attention
on that thin blue
and knotted
and filling the corners,

to remind me
that I am commanded
to remember
and to do
and to see
and to

(c) Stacey Zisook Robinson

Saturday, September 13, 2014

#BlogElul 18 - Pray

With thanks to Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, aka Ima on (and off) the Bima. I wrote this as a guest blogger on her site, which you can find at http://imabima.blogspot.com. She is an astounding writer; I hope that you visit her site (and her SupermanSam site) often!

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, all for the sake of satisfying his own selfish desires.  The man, Uriah, was a general in David’s army, and David sent him to the front, knowing that it was certain death. But he really wanted Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. And he was king, so he gave the orders. On the night before the battle, he had a sudden attack of conscience, and so sent Uriah a note, telling him to return home. But Uriah was an honorable man, and he would not be dissuaded by David’s sudden change of heart.  He was killed in battle, along with most of his troops.  David got word of Uriah's death just before evening 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 the colors of royalty: crimson and gold and deep 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 me? Not even close. All bets 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 that forgiveness, and that that may be enough.

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 so we are healed. He didn't tell us "God only hears the pretty words.  Therefore, speak only of love and praise, for 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. 

There was a time 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.

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.

#BlogElul 16 - Understand

Way back in the 80s, when most of my friends were enjoying the excesses of the Reagan years (for the second time) (and trust, me I never understood the Reagan years the first time around; the second set had me reeling)... I digress. As usual.

AS I was saying, while my friends were out merging and acquiring and amassing small to medium fortunes, I took a sharp left turn, quit graduate school (and the full fellowship that had been attached to my acceptance) and became a political activist. Or, as my parents still say - I became a professional beggar and street walker. Really, I went to work for ACORN: the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. It was long before it had become a dirty word, long before the Tea Partiers t-bagged it. In fact, it was way long before social activism and social justice were once again in vogue, having been placed in mothballs somewhen in the 70s.

I loved it. It filled me with purpose - I got to do good, every day. I was changing the world, every day, one stop sign, one signature, one voice at a time. I made next to no money. One of the unspoken ideals of the organization was, in order to organize the poor, you have to be poor. I didn't care. There were roommates (all fiery-eyes co-workers who were in the same boat with the same single-minded zeal). There was creative finances There were parents in a pinch, who clearly were appalled that I'd given up academia, but were willing to let me run with this crazy political thing, hoping it was merely a passing phase, waiting until I met a nice Jewish lawyer, got married and settled down in the suburbs to raise babies, bake cookies and join a country club (not necessarily in that order).

I was in the canvas; we were the fundraisers. While the organizers were out, organizing the poor (or, rousing the rabble as my parents were wont to say) I was out, pounding the pavement (walking the streets), out in the middle income neighborhoods, gaining support and funds for our work. I raised gobs of money. I moved up the ranks - first to Field Manager, running a crew of canvassers out on "turf", and later, Canvas Director, running an office. We raised thousands of dollars, every night, rain or shine, hot or cold, five days a week.

I was on fire. I was so alive then! 

As you might guess, staff turnover was pretty high. I did a lot of recruitment and interviewing. First interview was always a group one. This is how I began the interview, every time:
Is housing a right or a privilege? What about access to medical care? How about heat in the winter or cooling in the summer? Money is power - and without it, you have no power. So how do you change things?
 I did not grow up with these questions. Frankly, had you asked me not too many years before my ACORN days, my answers may have surprised you. Even so - I pass that off as youthful indiscretion. By the time I became an adult - a thinking, caring, reasoning adult, I had a whole different set of values, and a whole different understanding of the world and how it works.

I bring all this up because the prompt for 16 Elul is Understand. And I have to say - I don't. I didn't 30 years ago, and I don't today.

I don't understand how how you can believe that we do not have a responsibility to make sure that people have a safe place to live- all people: people we love, people we know, people we don't like, people who don't like us. We have abandoned buildings everywhere, and abandoned people, too. I don't understand how we can tolerate this. 

I don't understand how we have some of the most advanced medical technology on the planet, magical drugs, healers, hospitals - and yet we feel justified in saying "You have money, so you deserve to be healed. You do not. Sorry. Keep your fingers crossed." Hoping for the best is not a treatment plan. I don't understand how we can allow people to die - every day - because they can't afford even the most basic of medical care.

I don't understand how we throw out tons of food, literally, when there are people who are starving.

I don't understand so much of what seems to drive our society here in the states. Of course, I don't seem to understand so much of what drives society in the world at large, either. As cynical as I am - or pass myself off to be - I am so damned naive. I don't understand hatred. I don't understand bigotry. I don't understand sexism, homophobia, indifference. I don't understand war or corruption.

I just don't. 

A few weeks ago, when we read the Torah portion Re'eh, we were commanded "There shall be no needy." And just in case we let something slip through the cracks and there was some needy person, we were commanded to give the needy person whatever it was they needed, freely, graciously. Don't believe in God? No problem - do all of this, demand this, because it is the right thing, the human thing to do. How can it not be that?

If you had to look someone in the eye and say - sorry, no food for you; no house; no care; no money; no voice; no life - could you? Not to the masses, but to a single person, standing before you, asking for help - could you turn that person away, condemn him or her to death?

We cannot stand idly by, while there is want or need. We cannot. To do so would be to turn our backs on our humanity. We must work for a world in which there are no needy. Here's what I understand today, without any hesitation - What's expected of me, of humanity? Seek justice, love mercy and kindness, walk humbly with God. 

(c) Stacey Zisook Robinson

Thursday, September 11, 2014

#BlogElul 15 - Learn

A conversation, heard almost daily in my house when I was a kid:

Mom:   Stacey, you know why they don't send donkeys to college, don't you?
Me (after much eye rolling and shaking of the head for the sheer inanity of the response that was sure to come. And a deep, teen-aged sigh of resigned disdain, which actually preceded most statements that I made between the ages of 12 and, um a lot later in my life).: No, Mom. Why? (sigh)
Mom:   Because nobody likes a smart ass.

Ha ha. Said no one, ever - not in response to that joke. And it was a joke. Right? I'm going with yes: it was, if nothing else, an attempt.

Thing is, I was a smart ass. I was cocky, condescending, sometimes downright mean and obnoxious in my know-it-allness.  I was way too smart for my own good. No one, least of all my mother, could teach me anything.

I stayed a smart ass for a long time. I thought of it as protective coloring: I lashed out with my tongue, my rapier wit, that cut with laser precision, drawing blood and leaving scars, all as a way to push you away faster than you could hurt me. Because if there was one thing I had learned, in my short decade or so, it was that you would hurt me. You would crush me and leave me in the dust. In a heartbeat. So the extension of that great piece of learning: push everyone away, as fast as you can. Make them hurt as much as you do.

I was so very wise for a ten year old. Fifteen. Twenty-three. And on and on. I was so wise that I learned absolutely nothing.

Don't get me wrong - I learned a lot of facts. I was pretty gifted in school. I went to college for free on a merit scholarship. Got a full fellowship to grad school, to work on a PhD in Early Modern English history. This does not roll off the tongue with any grace or ease. I used that as a wry excuse for quitting the program after a year and a half. That was much easier than admitting another great learning of mine: that I was a fraud - at life, at being a student - at being a human being - and if I didn't quit, and run, and hide, Someone would find out. I have no idea what would have happened if Someone - whomever that was - did "find out;" I just knew it would be bad. Maybe I'd get kicked out of school. Maybe I'd get kicked out of life.

So I did what I had learned to do best. I quit. I left. I hid under a suit of armor that protected me from all the slings and arrows that life had to offer.

I hid for years. Mostly, I hid inside a bottle. Alcohol blotted everything out, but every once in a while, I had to come for air. So I hid inside the armor of a fiery-eyed activist, working for peace, organizing for justice. I hid inside a tailored suit, selling stuff with a silver tongue, using my words to draw pictures of need and desire. Even after I got sober, and crawled out of the bottle and into the light, I still hid - in work, in marriage. In God. Even that - I loved the community, the holiness and the life of the synagogue. I loved the struggle and the dance with God. But I hid there just the same.

I hid, because it was what I had learned. What I knew. What felt safe.

I still hide. It still feels like the safest bet to me, and I am desperate to feel safe. I still wear my protective armor day in and day out. I may be old-plus-three, but all those lessons learned still run deep. Bottomless pit deep. I'm like the broken kid who can only watch everyone else running and playing and just being, only from the sidelines, resigned to loneliness, but oh! so very wistful.

I've noticed though, that there a few cracks in the armor. And God, it is getting so heavy. And I am so weary. And I would love nothing more than to say that, for every crack or fissure in that damned armor, some old lesson dies, or escapes, or maybe gets buried, and I learn something new. I learn a different way to be. I learn to live life unguarded. Unprotected. I fear there is no symmetry in this.

I am no longer the condescending, derisive, smart-assed kid who knows everything and so can learn nothing. Thank God. But I don't trust the other lessons much - the lessons on hope, or kindness or love. I am learning them. Painfully slowly, true, but I am learning.

I learned - am learning - to live a sober life. A life without having to pick up a drink to be able to get through the next hour, the next minute, the next bit of eternity. I learned - am learning - to seek God. I am not promised that I will ever find God, but that is not the point. I am learning that the joy and the grace are found in the quest. I learned - am learning - that love does not have to be (and should not be) conditional. I learned - am learning, and I find I face this lesson again and again - that, broken as I am, weary as I am, lost and hidden as I am - I am (just maybe) enough.

(c) Stacey Zisook Robinson

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

#BlogElul 14 - Remember (A Partially Obstructed View)

I have lost the sharp edges of you.
Even my longing
is softer -
Soft enough to bear
without buckling under
its weight.

I miss the sharpness
and the hurt of it,
When I could feel
the missingness of

Now I only have
a partially obstructed view--
an old photo
in black and white,
It sits on my dresser,
leaning against the wall
in front of it a vase
bought in my Blue Period.
The vase holds loose change,
not flowers.
It should hold flowers.
And you should not have died,
So there is an odd
symmetry there,
if only because I want
the easy gracefulness of that.

Now you are shadowed
and shaded,
and no amount of strain
or neck-craning
will give me full view
of that static,
achingly young,
towel-wrapped ,

I swear
You were never that still,
and your life never
black and white.
There should be no softness
in my memory.
The edges should be sharp -
sharp enough to cut,
even through
this partially obstructed view.

(c) Stacey Zisook Robinson

#BlogElul 13 - Forgive

There are twelve steps in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Each of them has their own truth, their own spirit. Their own degree of difficulty. You learn, if you are a member of any twelve step program, that they are written in this order for a reason.

There are many who enter the program, beaten and spent, more than willing to admit that their lives have become unmanageable. For many, almost immediately, there is this sense of euphoria, as if a huge albatross of a weight is suddenly lifted, and for the first time in as long as they can remember, they didn't take a drink today, and they they can, in fact breathe. Really breathe. Many of these, filled with the fire of release, fly immediately from Step One (admitted we were alcoholics and that our lives had become unmanageable) to Twelve (basically, carry the message of AA to all who suffer).

Many times, in their newbie zeal, they tend to carry the mess, rather than the message. They are welcomed back with open arms and open hearts - if they make it back. Doesn't always happen that way.

There are others who enter the AA dance competition. There is the Waltzer - the person who bounces between Steps One, Two and Three. They can admit their powerlessness, they are willing to find a Higher Power, but the willingness to trust that Higher Power, to turn their will and their lives over to the care of that Higher Power (whom some choose to call God, some call Ralph and still others haven't quite found a name for Whatever-It-Is, but are willing to go with it anyway) - that is beyond them. So they  waltz, stuck.

I was a Two-Stepper myself: one-two, one-two. On and on and on. I struggled mightily with the whole idea of a God (whatever God's name might be) who could restore me to sanity. Who could protect me or save me or keep me from picking up a drink. I've written volumes about my struggle; I won't bore you (again) here. Feel free to browse the blog. Better - reach out to me and we can talk.

I got over it. Thank God. I finally figured out what worked for me, and I leaped. Sure enough, God caught me on the other side.

I did the inventory thing> Several times. It's not that I didn't get it right the first handful of times I did it. Rather, as they say in the halls of AA - more was revealed. The longer I stayed sober, the longer I continued to work the program, stay honest, do the steps - the more I figured out who I was, and how I used that to bludgeon myself and the world around me. Funny - for years, when I swore I had no God (even in AA), I always managed to do steps Four and Five (personal inventory, then admit it - to God, myself and another human being) right around Yom Kippur. That was not an accident. My life has always been about the struggle and the search.

As I said, every step has its own degree of difficulty. That degree changes by person, by time, by spiritual state. Six (get willing to have God remove the defects of my character) and Seven (humbly ask God to remove the defects), for this Jewish girl, generally make me falter a bit. They always strike me as a little too Christian, a little to magical. Thankfully, I get over it; it never hurts to ask, right?  And when I ask, in that instant, I am made whole again. Boom. That I pick up my defects almost immediately thereafter is on me, not God.

Then came Eight and Nine. Again and again, every time I did the stupid steps, I got here (sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. I can be an awesome dancer at times...). I breezed through them pretty quickly the first couple of times. Especially Eight - made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. How easy is that? I mean, I had the list already, didn't I? When I did the inventory thing in Four, I had the list.

Ok, so maybe I forgot a person or three. Maybe there was a bill collector - someone who had the temerity to want his money at a time when I wanted to keep all of mine - who fell off the list. Accidentally. I swear. Maybe because I was bending the light differently, trying to live more mindfully, trying to keep my side of the street clean, I found more of those folks whom I had harmed.

So I built the list. Again, how tough could that be? To become willing? A little more challenging, but doable. Around about five or six years sober, I was working my program hard. I was in some kind of a spiritual crisis, some place of stuckness and fear, where my brokenness was all I could see, but my experience with living a sober life told me (creamed at me, pleaded with me) to get unstuck, to make the leap, to find all the broken pieces and move. And I knew, because I'd done it before, and my sponsor told me, and all the millions of other recovering alcoholics who'd gone before, they did, too, and I was willing, if even for an instant, to trust them all, and to trust that whole God-thing, and to know, that if I did the steps, in order, with an open heart, things would change. My life would change. Wouldn't be perfect - but it would be different.

So. The Eighth Step. My sponsor and I would talk - "Ready to make the amends, Stacey?" she'd say. Almost, I'd answer, and then find eleventy-seven thousand things I had to do before I could make the amends required in Step Nine. Really - my parents weren't in a hurry, were they? Or my brothers? The rest of the family? We were all good by now anyway - weren't we? Holidays, birthdays, sometimes no reason at all, we'd get together, with no shouting or tantrums or slamming of doors. 

And secretly, so secretly that I kept this from myself even, for months, I was waiting. Waiting and watching the clock and the giant scoreboard in my head. Because, you know, I may have ruffled some familial feathers and all, may have borrowed stuff with the intention of giving it back, may have been thoughtless and unkind and mean. But, you know, so were they.

Fair is fair. I'd make amends, just as soon as every one of them, any one of them, made amends to me.

I went to meetings. I met with my sponsor. I spoke and prayed and meditated. And I waited. And I was broken and weary. Every day. And I wanted it to stop. Please God, just let this pass

And one night, doing nothing in particular, it hit me. How simple. How profoundly simple. And difficult. I called my sponsor, immediately.

":I have to forgive them, don't I? In order to make amends, to ask for their forgiveness - I have to forgive them first. And not ever expect them to make their own amends. Right?

"Yup," said my sponsor, and I could hear the relief - that I had gotten this lesson, finally, that I would finally be able to act and move - to forgive and ask for forgiveness.

That's the lesson of forgiveness for me: I cannot ask for forgiveness until I have forgiven. I cannot ask for forgiveness with the expectation that it will be given to me, that I'll get the relationship back exactly as it was before I broke it. That I have to pray, really hard, for the willingness to be that loving, that vulnerable in front of another human being.

We all have our parts to play in each other's lives. We are all bound to mess up. And that messing up - even unintentional, can hurt like a sonofabitch. And we need to clean up our messes, fix the hurts and leap, with all the humility and vulnerability we can muster. And when we do - there is grace and hope and possibility, and we find - each other.

(c) Stacey Zisook Robinson

Monday, September 8, 2014

#BlogElul 12 - Trust


Ugh. Son of a bitch. Fifty-three, and I still only mostly trust the bad stuff. The good stuff, the stuff I don't trust, when that happens, it's always a surprise. Even so, I wait for the other shoe to drop. Sometimes I feel as if I am walking through a minefield only I can see. The traps are many and deadly, and their placement has no rhyme or reason.

Nowhere is safe.

I'd like to say that it's gotten better. And you know, at times, it has. There are times, when my faith fairly pulses with life, when I fit inside my own skin and my own head, when I am not hungry or angry or lonely or tired - it is infinitely better then. I trust. Not just that the good stuff will happen, but that the bad stuff most likely won't. Or, that even if the bad stuff does, or the good stuff doesn't, it's still all good. Because that's just stuff that happens around me. It' isn't me. It is not God's cosmic party joke of pulling the rug out from underneath my feet like the bad magician does to the tablecloth. It's not karma, payback for sins real and imagined (and trust me: I have an awesome imagination).

Stuff happens. Or doesn't. And life continues, in all its glory and joy and pain and wonder and delight.

Like I said, this is me, on a good day.

Me on a bad day? Minefield, laced with quicksand and evil spells. And faith that is, if not absent, infinitely small. And while I would love to live in the drama of woe-is-me, this is Elul, and so I am called to right-size my life, my belief, my thoughts and fears. Small as that faith is, microscopic, and if it were sound it would be pitched so that only dogs could hear it - it is enough.

You get the picture. My faith shrinks. And my ability to trust - really trust. not just wait for the horrors of life to visit themselves upon me - is directly proportional to that faith. Here's the curious thing though. Even when I am stuck in that waiting line of dread, I can (to mix a metaphor; sorry!) step back. I can, disconnectedly and dispassionately get out of the way (sorry, one more mixed metaphor) and leap. 

Sometimes, life is hard. And you're afraid. Or I am; you may not be. And you're - I am - tired, and a little lost, and kinda broken and lonely and maybe you skipped lunch and the noise was too loud and the damn air conditioner broke-- or not. It could just be one of those beautiful, sunny, blessedly cool and non-humid days, and the sky is a liquid blue and everything is just going right. Sometimes it's one of those days.

And you're asked - I'm asked - to trust. Something. Someone. Some Deity. And I freeze. And I can't. And my faith has taken a powder and I am defenseless in a very scary world.

But you do it anyway. You leap. I leap, as if the dogs of hell were nipping at my heels, or sometimes I just stumble and fall forward-ish. But I trust anyway, because I know, even if I can't feel it in that moment, that I will be okay. I will be caught and carried and held, safe. I will not always get the Good Stuff. The bad stuff of trust will still happen.

As Stephen Sondheim said, "Well, now you know. People love you and tell you lies. Now you know." 

But I do it anyway - trust. I suck it up, screw my courage to the sticking post and get out of the way. And life goes on. And good stuff happens. And bad stuff. And I stumble around, almost blind, and just when I'm absolutely certain that I will fall - fail - there is a hand to hold me up and help me along my way.

(c) Stacey Zisook Robinson

#BlogElul 11 - Count

I count everything; it is a small, and I hope harmless obsession.

I count words. I have to, as a writer, especially considering that my personal motto seems to be "why use ten words when a hundred will do?" It is more granular now, counting not words but characters in a text, though they keep changing the rules and I have no idea how many characters are allowed in  text. My son thinks me very unhip for not knowing.

I count steps - both the move-yourself-forward-from-one-place-to-another as well as the move-yourself-up-an-down-in-a-building. There are fourteen steps to a floor in my building. There are 1,500 between me and the nearest Starbucks.

I use six grape tomatoes in my salad, cut in half. Always. If there are olives, there are five.

I count calories, points and carbs in some complicated kabbalistic iteration. I am not as obsessed with this as I should be, as the pounds on my scale will attest. I count pills out and calculate how many ccs of insulin I need to take. I am much more religious about counting these out, and I resent every one of them.

I have 852 friends on Facebook and 28,732 people have viewed my blog. I am not particularly proud that I know these things, but I do, nonetheless. Just checked - make that 28,797 views. And since I was checking, I have 87 drafts and 193 published posts there. I counted once, about 4 months ago; there were about 80,000 words then. I'm guessing (and yes, I'm sure I'll check after I've done writing this) there are another 10,000 words since. Maybe more.

It has been 8,066 days since my last drink. Twenty-two years and a month, exactly. I could do the hours and minutes, but that's not a an accurate picture. In the early days of my sobriety, time didn't function well. There were a few passes through eternity then. Ad even now, every once in a while, there are minutes, or hours or days that seem to stretch well beyond the borders they are supposed to measure.

Three years, eleven months and 30 days ago my brother died. I would give anything to stop counting those days. Or rather, to have no reason to count them. Thing is, 1,460 is just a way station. Tomorrow the count will be one more than that, and one more the next day, and on and on. it is a meaningless, impossibly difficult calculus. Tomorrow will be his English yahrzeit. I will mark it. I will remember and perhaps cry. And I will relive it, this sadness and mindful remembrance, in a few weeks - in eighteen days, to be exact, for his Hebrew yahrzeit. Lucky me.

I count, and I measure, and I count again. I add time and things and steps - as if any of this mattered. As I walk through this month of Elul, and dive a little deeper bend the light around me differently, live my days more mindfully - none of that counting matters. For me, it is an attempt, sometimes clever, sometimes manic, but always, always, always - it is my attempt to control my life. It is not a calculus of grief, nor am I solving for X. My counting is so much more hopeless: a magical incantation to make all of the disparate and desperate strands of my life fit neatly on the little boxes I have labeled for them.

I cannot control all of those pieces. I can't. I have learned that lesson again and again. Life - and death - are what they are: a perfect tautology, but true nonetheless. Where I find peace, where I find that place of comfort and I fit inside my own skin - it is when I stop counting, when I stop focusing on all of the things that measure, and let my life - and all of the swirling pieces that fill it so fully - just come. Just flow. I am not here to measure my life. I am here, with all the grace I can muster, to live it.

(c) Stacey Zisook Robinson

#BlogElul 10 - See

Earlier this year, I was afraid that I was going blind. Sorry. Wrong. No. I wasn't afraid. Afraid is for spiders or the dark. Heights (or, in my case, falling, which I think is a much more healthy and realistic fear). Lots of things to merely fear.

I have retinopathy. Proleferative retinopathy, to be exact. In layman's terms, I have bleeding in my eyes. Both of them. Every once in a while, the veins there leak. Blood seeps, forming what I like to call little paramecium branches waving in front of my line of sight, making it difficult to see. I have laser surgery to cauterize the veins, and voila! I can mostly see. One morning, last summer, I woke up and it was as if someone had taken a gob of Vaseline and smeared it across my right eye. I could see color and light. That was it. Shape escaped me, except in some vague, amorphous way.

What I felt wasn't fear, a walk in the park, that get-shivers-in-the-dark-the-test-is-today? kind of thing. This was absolute terror. This was oh-my-God-what-will-I-do-if-I-can't-see? This hits everything. I'm a single mom. I drove to work, drove to visit clients, drove everywhere. My job depended upon hours and hours in front of a computer screen, analyzing data stored in teeny, tiny little Excel cells that were getting harder and harder to see, even when I blew them up. Large. The less contrast there was, the less chance I could see. On grey days, on the gray streets with the silver cars and a fine mist of rain, I was lost. In the dark, almost literally. I grounded myself from driving at night altogether. And did I mention that I'm a single mom? And a writer. What the hell? How could I write - how could I take care of my son if I couldn't see?

Almost a year ago, a friend called, asking if I would chant Torah for one of the intermediate days of Sukkot. Would I chant? Of course I would! I love to chant. I worked long and hard to learn to do it. I find a certain calm majesty in it, and feel a chain of connection, a special bond to those others who have chanted these words since the Masorites first developed the system more than 1,500 years ago. That there are only about four people on the planet who actually know the particular chant that I do? Bonus.

(And yes, I realize there is a certain amount of pride and ego in this. Upon reflection, I'm ok with that. These are not always bad things.)

Back to chanting. I didn't have much time - a few days. But it was only a few verses, so no big deal. I practiced. I studied. I learned. No problem. I sat in the sukkah on a drizzly gray day, wearing a sweatshirt even though it was only mid-September (good thing there's no global climate change happening...).

Somewhere between the morning blessings and the Amidah, I started to panic. Not because I didn't know it. I did. Not because I thought I would mess up. I was pretty comfortable with the verses I was to do. No - I started to panic because, all of a sudden, I realized I might not be able to actually see the words in their crabbed and scratchy and achingly beautiful script in the Torah.

I really thought I was going blind then.

This wasn't the middle-aged my-arms-are-getting-too-short-and-I-need-reading-glasses thing. This was the actual, honest-to-God I-think-I-might-be-going-blind thing. Earlier that summer, I woke up one morning, only to discover that someone had taken a giant gob of Vaseline and smeared it across my right eye, so that I could see color and light, and not much else. Vision in my left eye was marginally better. Where the right was a nightmare landscape by a

I am making this so complicated.

I keep adding strings of words and thoughts and twisting them into some weird tapestry that, in my head is all clean lines and distinct colors: ordered, measured. One could even say, stately and fine. On the screen, it is squiggles of black, with occasional blotches that smudge and hide whatever lines of text it is that keep spilling, end over end, world without end, amen.


Here's the deal: I am terrified that I am going blind, that I will lose the ability to see.

It is a real, though perhaps unlikely, fear. I have a handful of health conditions, all related, all requiring specialists and special attention. And one of those conditions is an eye thing. As a result, I have a retina guy. I have an eye guy. I get lasered and treated and operated on every so often. It is controlled, my condition, but barely. It is progressive, they tell me. It will probably get worse. 

And from there, from here, this simple, solid spot, I spin - a whirlpool of dark and limitless power that sucks and pulls and consumes all of the light, all of the hope...

See? Even when I stop (try to stop) the spilling and spinning, the anguish and the angst - they seep into this simple thing: I am terrified that I am going blind.

How will I see the color red? Or that single line of light that separates the sky from the sea? How will I see the messiness amid the grandeur - for every fiery sunset, For every sky stained scarlet and gold, that makes you breathless with wonder and awe, there is a river choked by sludge, or a village ravaged by war and poverty. 

How will I see my words, put them into their proper order, see their rhythm and flow?

How will I see the words of Torah, painstakingly, lovingly drawn in their regulated sameness, row upon row upon column and page, so that even the mistakes are present and made beautiful, and every single scroll, every single scribe for millennia has infused his own spirit, his soul into those letters? How will I see to chant those words that fill me and still me and baffle me? This is the offering I give- will it be my sacrifice?

How will I see my son's face, watch him grow and change and become all of the things that I can just glimpse now, the strength and compassion and hardness and surety, all of those amazing things that have been germinating and are now just beginning to show? How in the world will I see this beautiful boy become a man if I am blind?

Every morning, we give thanks to God who opens the eyes of the blind. I do not have this faith. I believe in the metaphor of this prayer. I fear though, that I am going blind.  

Saturday, September 6, 2014

#BlogElul 9 - Hear

We are commanded to hear. Of course, the commandment, as I read it, is more about "Listen up - something really important is coming, that you need to hear," I take it to heart: Listen. Hear. And I hear everything. All day, every day, there is a lot of noise out there, and it doesn't stop. And every noise seems to proclaim "Listen up! Hear me!" and I do.

I want it to stop. I am afraid of the quiet. And so it goes: a constant barrage of noise, from soothing to seething and reeling and roiling, there is an eternal psalm of noise that needs to be - yearns to be - longs to be heard.

I dwell in the distraction of all that noise.

There are times I hear better than others. I can hear my child laugh from a great distance. I can hear him weep or cry out no matter how loud the cacophony around him is, and I hear his breath at night. I hear him with my heart, where there is no such thing as distance or clutter, just connection.

I tend to hear music, instrumental, piped in, live. Doesn't matter. I'll be sitting with friends over coffee, chattering and fluid, and suddenly hear the faint strains of some piece of music (usually bad elevator music that has no life or pulse in it, and I am grateful when it is not that); "I hate this song," or "I love this song," I will say, and am met with "What song?" Can't they hear it? I'm forever amazed that the music goes unnoticed, unheard. But I hear it. I am witness to the notes that play.

I am woken by dump trucks, startle at sirens, calm at bird song and get lost in the sound of water. I have found God in the sound of the waves that lick and jump and tangle with the shore. 

I am commanded to hear, and so I do.

There is one sound that I look for, strain for, miss more than anything: my father's voice. I didn't love it. There is no special resonance in it. He was a baritone - the in-between pitch of Everyman. Normal. Pleasant. He sang beautifully, but I don't remember his songs, or his voice when I reach back into the memory banks of my childhood. He sang Barber Shop in a choir years later, long after he had moved to Memphis. It was his joy, his love, his retreat after the long hours he sat on the Federal Bench. He often sent me CDs of his performances. They went unlistened to; I am not a fan of Barber Shop quartets.

And please - don't misunderstand! My father hasn't died. He is just voiceless. Two years ago, in order to treat the cancer that had invaded his throat and voice box and tongue, the doctors performed a trachyectomy. They removed his voice box in exchange for his life. We are all good with that. 

But I miss my father's voice, even though I can't seem to remember just what the hell it sounded like.

He has a mechanical voice now. As my son, much younger then dubbed him, Robot Zayde. IT is painful and difficult for him to speak. So, he doesn’t talk much. Not that he ever did; he disliked talking on the phone, answered questions with an economy of words that astounded me (considering my motto is “why use ten words when a hundred will do?). He is quiet. He is content. All good.

A few nights ago, I had a house full of people. Sadly, we had all gathered to sit shiva for my mother’s brother, Uncle Phil. While I have thrown myself into my Judaism over the last handful or two of years, searching and stumbling around, looking for meaning, looking for God, my family has not. At my bat mitzvah forty years ago (oy!), I called my parents “lox and bagel Jews.” Not much has changed since then. While holidays are celebrated gastronomically, they tend to avoid the more formal expressions of Judaism. When my son became a bar mitzvah a few years ago, although they couldn’t manage to make it to the synagogue on Friday night, at least everyone was there on Saturday morning. And so it goes: we have all taken a different path to God.

Shiva was what it always has been for me – a celebration of life, a time to mourn and remember and find strength in community. If I – when I falter, I am caught, ever and always. It is, to me, the best of who we are, this uncompromising demand that no one ever grieve alone. So the house was noisy and crazy and full to the brim. Even that day, the day my uncle was buried, there was a coming together that made sure we each of us knew we were not alone.

The minyan service seemed to take its cue from the day: quiet, hesitant, leaning in and reaching up to one another. Hebrew and English mixed and twisted together, forming a tight bridge, or a handhold – something to grab onto. The air and the walls buzzed with softly droning chants, as people murmured and mumbled their way through the evening service. We made time for words, and then time for silence.

As we came out of that silent meditation, my friend began to play the familiar chords to Oseh Shalom, creating her own bridge between prayer and memory. And into that holy space, of peace and wholeness, my father brought his hand up to the mechanical device that allows him to breathe and speak, and he sang with us. “I am here;” he sang, “hear my voice – I am with you, and moved by you, strengthen you and find comfort in you.”

I am so grateful that I was able to be a part of that sacred moment, a part of that song. It was not the voice I remembered, my father’s harsh, mechanical and flat voice. It was much more beautiful than anything I’ve ever heard. 

(c) Stacey Zisook Robinson