Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Prayers like dry leaves

I have been collecting
They are sweet -
even the ones
that rattle like bones
and sound like
echoes and
dry leaves.
Even those,
I catch them on the wind
and the tip of my tongue,
where they melt like fear
Or sin,
and I can taste their
Bursts of glory.
Sometimes they drift,
lighting on my skin,
where they wait,
in silent insistance,
for me to notice their gentle
I collect them all,
let them slide and
tangle through
my fingers
like silk, like
rope -
all those dry,
echoing bones
of grace
and sweet glory.
I savor their blessings
and sing.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Chanukah: Fourth Night - POWER

Long ago (too long for me to comfortably remember exactly how long ago it was), I read Steinbeck's The Short Reign of Pippin the Fourth. I think it was in middle or high school, after we'd read The Pearl. It may have been soon after I discovered Stephen Schwartz' Pippin! which captiovated and entranced me no end. I read anything that had the name "Pippin" in the title (and even stretched it a bit, reading Great Expectations because the main character's name was "Pip").

What has stayed with me, though, from Steinbeck's brilliant novel - short, riveting and laser-sharp in its satire - was his discussion of power. In Steinbeck's Pippin, France has decided the Republic has failed, and they are looking to reinstate the monarchy. They find one lone direct ancestor to Charlemagne - Pippin, who will be the Fourth of that name. As the modern-day Pippin grapples with the enormity of what confronts him - kingship and history and government and rule - he is reluctant to assume power, fearing (like all wise men) that he will be corrupted by it.

However, he is told by one of his advisers: it is not power that corrupts, nor absolute power that corrupts absolutely. Rather, it is the fear of losing power that corrupts.

What an riveting idea! I think, for myself, how much I am ruled by my fear, how often I base decisions for action (or inaction) on my fear of losing control, giving up my power. And these situations, where it is fear, when I do not sit comfortably in my own skin - in fact, am most likely trying to crawl out of it - these things never end well. They blow up in my face and leave a swath of destruction in a radius of miles. IU spend more time picking up the debris from these ill-fated actions than anyone ever should. 

If I had just done the right thing - even through my fear!

But I don't. I horde my power, clutch at it like Gollum clutches his Ring of Power - only to lose it and then later, teeter at the brink of destruction. I hold my power jealously, refusing to ask for help, denying help that is offered, believing foolishly that help is just another word for weak, or less-than. 

And while I may not have been corrupted by my fear of losing power and control, I have certainly been crippled by it.

Zechariah tells of his dream, and the angel who declares ?Not by might, not by power..." We read this text during Chanukah. Perhaps, we read it - I read it - to remind me that my "power" is merely illusion to begin with. Or, if not illusion, then certainly immaterial. 

So it is with hope, this Chanukah season, that remember this lesson beyond the light of the menorah, and carry it into the days and nights ahead of me - not by might, not by power, but by spirit alone...

Saturday, December 20, 2014


Call me Platespinner.

You know Platespinner, don't you? He's the guy, that vaguely Eastern European-looking guy who wore a red satin shirt and tight-but-balloony black pants, who ran around the stage on the Ed Sullivan show, while some invisible orchestra played The Sabre Dance in the background, and the guy, the Platespinner guy, ran around the stage to keep the thirty-seven five-foot tall dowels spinning in mad counterpoint to the music, all to keep the plates that lay on top from toppling.

Manic. Frenetic. Exciting. Exhausting.

No time to think: just act. Keep it all spinning. Forever.

Call me Platespinner. Welcome to my life.

I don't remember a time that this hasn't been the metaphor for my life. Some people have theme songs; I have a metaphor. And ok, I probably have a theme song, too, but that's a subject for another time, a different essay. Because this is all about

This is about

What I'm trying to say is

Here's the thing --- Why are there so many fucking plates spinning on top of those fucking spindly dowels, for God's sake?! 

Who the hell put them there? And what the hell do I care if they spin or not? And why, God - God of Infinite Mercy, God of Sneaky Irony, God of Whatever Thing You Want - why do I never once stop to question why I keep adding plates  to this unholy fucking mess? Seriously. Even this has become merely a new plate to spin. And it has already become lost in the forest of all those naked dowels. Just add one more to the pile. To the pyre.

Because at some point, this forest, this pile, it all becomes a pyre, and those flames will burn hotter than my guilt and shame put together. They will skip and dance up to heaven itself, and carry me - consume me - along the way. And I just keep adding more fuel. And more plates, over and over.

There's work stuff and Nate stuff and house stuff and God stuff. There's carpools and repair shops and therapy for me and grocery shopping and what do we do about Mom and did you remember to pay this bill and what about that library fine and you promised we could, you said that I could and have you talked to Dad lately and can you help with homework? And can you bake for this? And can you fix that other thing? Can you talk - write - pray - sing - do - run - drive - go - cook for me? For them? Just a little? Just this once?

And that's just the Stuff stuff. The tip of the iceberg, everyday, ordinary stuff. That doesn't even come close to the other stuff - the Dream stuff, and the Fear stuff and the Hopes stuff - all those things you put into all those boxes you've labeled "Pandora." Mostly you keep those lids on pretty tight, but every so often, almost like that scab that you just can't quite leave alone, you pick at one, open one, just a crack, and out slips - something.

All those Dreams you had, of becoming something – someone – great. Or maybe that secret fear, that really is mostly just shame dressed up into something so much finer, that you thought you had conquered that last time, but there, in the dark, when you're tired and maybe a little lonely and, ok, let's face it, cranky, which you'd really like to blame on the hormone thing, but, if you had to be honest, it really is that you're angry - out creeps that shameful, dressed up fear. It crawls out of the box and up onto a plate, spinning now like a whirling dervish, and singing at the top of its metaphoric lungs.

And don't forget your Hopes. For you. For your son. For your friend, who's been struggling some lately, whose mom just died, whose dog is sick and her husband got laid off and left and what hope is left for her? And, of course, you can't forget your hopes for the world, and all the starving people who seem to multiply daily and the poverty that threatens to drown entire countries, and maybe even continents in endless, insatiable need, and all the oppressed people, and the dolphins and baby seals and bees. What the hell is happening with all the bees, and what the hell are we going to do if they all just die off? Who is going to fix that?

Have we hit thirty-seven plates yet?

In a walk.

I breathe, and six more plates pop up, almost of their own volition. And I never once stop to question why, God, why do I just keep adding fucking plates. I never once stop to ask what would happen if a couple dozen of them came clattering to earth, scattering into shards and dust and broken, jagged pieces.

And right now, this very second now - there is nothing left. The field is full. Fuck the plates and my insane drive to keep them all spinning and unbroken. If I try to put in one more dowel, add one more plate - no matter how fine and delicate the pattern - I will break. 

This has happened before. I live my life, spinning and whirling and running as fast as I can, gathering up plates and piling up stuff and sealing boxes that keep cracking at the seams, just moving until I am lost, and moving for the sake of moving, mindless and driven by all the hounds of hell.  There's no fucking reason, other than to keep it all in the air.

Because I can. Because I must.

I am the Fixer of Broken Things. I fix. I heal. I mend. I do. And I do. And I do. No help. No questions ever asked. No hesitation. No pause. Fix it all. Take it all on. Take it all in. Alone. Because you hurt. And you need. And you want. And you ask. All for you. And please don't confuse my frenzied action with selfless sainthood! Good God. It is all self-preservation! Because if I can fix you and mend you and focus on you, then I don't have to look at me. 

Because I could do it all. Because I didn't need anyone. Because asking for help meant being less -than and wrong and horribly, painfully vulnerable. Because that's when the white hot pokers came out, looking for all the soft spots. Because I would rather die than admit that I needed help.

Because I knew I would die if I asked for help.

Because I knew, way deep down, that if I asked for help, it wouldn't come.

So you breathe. And you breathe again. And you add a plate; then another, and another and another. Just pile 'em on, do more, run more, breathe and gasp and stumble and spin and spin and spin. Keep spinning. Just keep it all going, more and more, until you're bowed and bloody and broken. And then you just - do more.

Until it all comes crashing down. Until you are buried under the weight of your failure and your guilt.

Please God, you whisper, no more. Please. And you ache and you twitch, like an addict desperately seeking - and hopelessly dreading - her next fix, you tweak and you sweat and you crave, actually crave setting up the next plate and setting it into motion. It is your motion of the Heavenly Spheres, perfect and glorious and deadly in all that vast and empty space.

Please God, you whisper into that dark and dangerous place, please; I am so tired. Please - can I stop now?

And you wait. And you listen, straining past the breaking point to get an answer, that it's okay to stop, to rest. To just let it all go, plates be damned, because the world will spin on its axis without any help from you. And you feel as if you could die from listening so hard, and your body is fairly thrumming with the effort, and your chest is about to explode because you haven't actually taken a breath in a while.

And it is silent. And it is cold and lonely and vast. 

One more plate. Just one. Promise...

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Chanukah: Third Night - WAR

I joke with my son: "I''m a pacifist with violent tendencies..."

He laughs. I laugh. And then I sigh - because sadly, it's true.

I remember talking to a gaggle of pre-teens once, telling them about my heroes, Dr. King and Gandhi. They wanted to know why, and I told them about non-violence. I climbed up my metaphorical mountain and sat there, in some divinely serene lotus position, and the vantage point of my lovely, modern, suburban life, and waxed profound on the profound nature of peace. And one of the smart kids (being in 6th or 7th grade, all of whom have a natural tendency is to search out every chink in an adult's armor) raised his hand, and asked in a voice loaded with innocence, "But what about the Holocauset? Would you have fought then? If you could have killed Hitler, would you have?"

They all perked up then. They sensed blood. "I don't know," was my only answer. "I am really grateful I have never been in a position that I have to choose." Even as I said the words, I could feel my insides twist and churn. Would I? In those days, I was single and childless. Now - I have my beloved son. What if the threat were to him? Would I be able to maintain my position of non-violence if the threat were to my child rather than to me - or to my community?

Hannah had an answer. She lived with her seven sons somewhere in Judea. She supported Judah and the Maccabbees, and worked to defeat Antiochus and his army. When the soldiers came, as they did to every Jewish household, to force conversion upon then, Hannah was so steadfast in her beliefs that she was able to watch those soldiers throw each of her seven sons off the roof of their house, one by one, because she would not kneel and pray to a false god.

What a bizarre twist on the Hillel story - he was stopped by a Roman soldier who put a sword to his throat and said "Teach me the Torah while standing on one foot. If you can, I will convert. If you cannot, I will kill you here." Hillel, we are told, thoughtfully stands upon one foot and answers, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary. Now go study.," And the general, so the story goes, did just that.

Hannah was told, "Bow down and pray or we will throw your sons to their deaths!" And she refused, because she was steeped in her faith. She held firm to her convictions and watched each of her sons die. Did they scream? Did she cry? Did the soldiers think twice, wondering how they could kill an innocent child? Did the soldiers question their inhumane orders? Did Hannah even once question a faith that could revere martyrdom over life? She was so sure that right was on her side; did she forget Moshe's cry: "Choose life!"

We were at war, fighting for our lives, our beliefs, our identity. And war - it changes you. It changes us all. We celebrate our victory over the Assyrians, and praise the bravery and might of Judah and Mattathias and the Maccabbean army.

And still, I am torn, between my love for peace, my belief in non-violence, my absolute conviction that violence only leads to violence, that it never solves anything. And I look around the world, at the wars and the conflicts that are killing us - all of us (because we are an "us," this world of ours, this human race of which we are a part) and I still cannot answer the question "Would you fight? Is there a Just War?" with more than an "I don't know, and thank God that I haven't had to make that choice."

It is Chanukah - a time to celebrate miracles and identity and victory. Perhaps - I hope, I pray - the lesson of this war, of any war, is not to help us answer the question "Would you fight?" but to spur us to redouble our efforts to create a world in which there is no war. Work for peace, for justice. Fight poverty and ignorance and need, not one another.

I am naive, I know. But that is my hope, even so, and I will cling to it, hold fast to it, work tirelessly for it.

Earlier this year, war broke out in Gaza. It was horrific. People died. People lived in fear and anger and despair. I wrote this poem in response to the news, to express my own anguish over war and how it changes us all. I include it here, on this third night of Chanukah, because war is war, and I am a lover of peace...

And I am a Lover of Peace

War is not holy.
It is made of blood
and fed by fear,
Ravenous and insatiable,
It devours the world
In pieces.

It touches
Ten thousand miles
Or five hundred feet
Or ten inches away.
It sends out
delicate, grasping, choking tendrils
to curl and
over the rubble
of bombed-out buildings,
and the razor sharp ruin
of hearts and

Blood is blood.
It seeps
red and
turns brown
and black
as it dries
in the dirt.
Blood is blood.

And the thing about war--
The madness
of its twisted,
suffocating existence,
Is that it changes
it touches,
And it touches
So that a lover of peace,
who listens for God in the
and finds God in small moments
of holy devotion,
And carries the music of God
Out into the world--

In war,
A lover of peace,
in a moment of quiet
Where once there was
to fill that holy space
of grace and glory,
And now there is only
a lover of peace
Will learn to say:
Blood is blood,
But better their blood than 
And I am a lover of

As if that matters.

War touches
And changes
And kills,
And shatters,
And destroys
What it touches.
And war is not holy
And war makes blood flow.

And blood is blood.
That matters --
Blood is blood,
And I am a lover of

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Chanukah: Second Night - LIGHT

I had this awesome essay about Chanukah and light all worked out in my head. Oh, the wondrous tapestry that I wove, in these vibrant jeweled tones and of scarlet and blue. The words and the color and the sheer light of it all all twisted and tangled exactly right, a tightly woven fabric that deftly connected the festival with light.

It was Uh. May. Zing - hanging in free=float perfection there in my head, just waiting to go from thought to pixel to screen.

And then I got my eyes dilated. So much for that mythical, mystical essay.

Talk about a whole new concept of light. What at any other time is serviceable, and sometimes bordering on the dull-please-get-a-higher-watt-bulb now has an intensity that is almost painful. Even at this time of year - mid-December, with its infinite shades of gray, where you count the minutes of light that dwindle every day, and you wait and pray and tell yourself that you just need to make it to December 22 and all will be well again - even this late afternoon half-light is too bright.

Right now, the light positively glows. Right now, the light - the lamp, the sun, the source doesn't matter - the light is different. I am pulled out of my unnoticing, so that I have a chance to see.

That's as far as the metaphor will stretch; my apologies. It's not the dilation that is driving this verbose introspection; the light does hurt, even as it is all glowy and fuzzy. No, it's Chanukah itself that's causing this reflection on light (no pun intended, and so you know, I've practically burned out the delete key, in my efforts to avoid this too-obvious but unintentional pun). 

We go about our days, filled with work and carpools and groceries to be put away and fresh laundry to be folded and dinner to be made. There's homework in there, and correspondence and bills to be overlooked one more week. We run and we do and we go, an ever-moving faster pace that keeps us hurtling forward. There's planning to do and calls to be made. It is never-ending. ANd don't get me wrong - there's a whole lot of joy in all of this, along with great stretches of nothing much of anything - the "normal" cacophony of emotional noise that flits and flutters through our heads and hearts. It's life, and it drives us along pathways that are at once familiar and comfortable and ignored. 

But for these eight nights, the light is different. For these eight nights, I get to stand next to my son and pause as we light the candles of the menorah. I hear the scratch and sizzle of the match, I see the flickerflame of the candles - one more each night - dance atop graceful pastel tapers. I get to chant a blessing that feels as old as the sun, and that hangs in the air in weightless beauty, as if lingering, too, for just a few seconds more, to watch the light dance and flow. And my son and I, we stand, and we watch and we linger just a fraction of a second longer before the rush of our lives returns.

For these eight blessed nights, I am given the gift of light - a light that shines differently, a light that dances and glows and allows me to pause and share something ancient and holy with my son. 

Blessed are you, God, Ruler of the All, who sanctifies us and commands us to kindle the lights of Chanukah.

Chag urim sameach!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

First Night - Freedom

Once we were slaves, now we are free.

I know, I know - wrong holiday. Sue me. That particular phrase, that particular concept is woven deep throughout my everything. Really. I am absolutely awed at the thought of such power and wonder and love (yes, love, because if I can anthropomorphize my relationship with God, I can certainly apply the same human logic and longing to my God). 

One day we were slaves; the next - free. Ta da.

How does Chanukah fit in with all that? While we swap Moshe and his prophetic gravitas for Judah's guerrilla tactics and military prowess, the story remains hauntingly familiar: under the thumb of a king of great power who tried to break us, to take away our humanity, our spirit, our God, we were redeemed. And we have the miracles to prove it. Seas parted. Oil lasted. Food became a dicey prospect for digestive tracks. Let's face it, fried food is merely a difference in degree, not kind, from matzoh.

And after the redemption part? After the pyrotechnics and miracles and wonder and awe? Clean up on aisle seven...

Sure, we celebrate first. There's dancing and singing and praising galore!.I mean, really: we were redeemed! That is big - HUGE - awesome stuff! Talk about a shehecheiyanu moment! Literally: thank you God, for bringing us to this season of joy. But what happens when that first blush of celebration is over? What happens when the music stops?

As I see it - that's when the work of freedom really begins. Freedom is an action, not an event. It was never a gift; not for Moses and the people fleeing the narrow places. Not for Judah and the Maccabees and the other Judeans. There was a lot to attend to -nation building and temple-cleaning. Learning just what it meant to be God's people. This wasn't freedom from ---or freedom to ---. This was stay-in-the-game-freedom and do the work of being free. Because when you don't do that work, when you don't pay attention to the being free and being bound by that freedom, well, suddenly - you lose it. Suddenly, you're under a different thumb of a different king that is really just the same thumb of the same king, over and over again, ad infinitum.

And so tonight, on this first night of Chanukah, we gather to celebrate and find joy and sing praise (and eat latkes and spin dreidls and all that other family stuff of Chanukah-ing) - and we are reminded (I am reminded) that the work of freedom is part of the deal. Freedom binds me, to God, to you, to family, to the world, and so I find a purpose in it, and a fierce joy there. And with all that - the freedom and the binding and the joy -  I celebrate the gift and grace of freedom.

Chag urim sameach

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Long Line of Dreamers

I come from a long line of Dreamers

My Fathers
dreamed of the desert,
a great swath of golden dust
and sculpted sand
that stretched from here
to eternity.
They dreamed of mountains
that cast long shadows
over growing grain
and shattered hearts.
They dreamed of angels
and Men,
and sometimes,
they could even tell
the two apart.
It was never a
perfect science.

My father was a master of visions
and dreamed of God,
as well as angels
and Men,
who romped on ladders
and waged fierce battle
in the dark,
and shrouded by fog.
They claimed the  Power of names
and Prophecy,
though they could not defeat
the sunrise when it came.
But of the stars,
skittering like sand
across the vault of heaven,
my father planted his feet
and his flags of possession,
and built a nation upon
that scattered field
of time and

I, too, have dreamed of stars,
and wheat that bowed
in graceful supplication.
Even the sun, in its radiance,
and the Moon -
a silvered disk against
a fold of night -
They bowed to me in
my Dreams.
What need do I have
of nations and time,
of angels
or Men,
when all the spheres of Heaven
and the bounty of God's earth
have given me
my proper due?

I am a dreamer of

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Ex Nihilo

From nothing
Came -
Comes -
The everything:
Each beginning,
Every ending,
And the eternity in between.

This I know.

I know That endless nothing,
That is not dark
or light
or Ever, or
It is empty.

And then - 
not Until, 
not After,
not ever and 
Again -
The empty is 

And in that moment,
That endless and eternal moment -