Saturday, December 28, 2019

Seventh Night of Chanukah: Tell

A few years ago, I took part in a Passover writing exercise, offered by my friend, the Rabbi (who is also a writer, and a damned good one): write a short something-or-other, based upon a given prompt, every day for the 15 days of Nisan that lead to the first seder of Passover. I tried, I really did, I tried to write something every day. A noble attempt, but it didn’t happen. Even so, I managed to kick something out for one prompt: Tell. 

Of course, the first thing I thought about, given that Passover prompt, was Bye, Bye Birdie, replete with Hugo, Kim, and Ed Sullivan. Immediately after that brain-grinding shiver, though, I could think of nothing other than Chanukah. I just couldn’t get that Chanukah song to stop running through my head. You know the one - "Who can retell the things that befell us...?" (And now it's running through yours as well; you're welcome). 

It worked for the exercise
 just the same. At least the opening verse. Just substitute Moses and Aaron and Miriam and that cast of hundreds of thousands for all those Maccabees, and you can pretty much retell the story of oppression and slavery and freedom and bloodshed and war and miracles and redemption, there and back again.

That's the part that I get stuck on, the "...and back again." We tell and we tell and we tell, again and again and again. It’s an awesome story, filled with heroes and pyrotechnics that could keep the special effects masters at Industrial Light and Magic on their toes and at their drawing boards for years. Decades. Forever. The stuff of life is present in every word of this story we tell, all the drama and majesty and love and passion and danger and discovery and betrayal and loss.

Tell this story. Tell it to those who ask and those who don't even know there's a story to tell. Tell it as if you were there, part of the original action. Tell it as if you are still there, that we are all still there, living and experiencing it all right now.

Tell it, and tell it again. It is that important.

But here's what I'm thinking these days (as if my statement above were not hint enough): there are far too many "again's" in our story. That is, how many times do we find ourselves in need of heroes and miracles? How many times must we tell the story of soldiers and blood and war and terror?

Yes, and redemption. And yes, God. I love that  redemption and God  are the base of all of the stories we tell.

When, though, do we learn? When do we change? Of course we must tell the story of the Exodus, and the Maccabees, too! Of course we must celebrate our journey from the very narrow places into the wide open space of the wilderness where we meet God! Of course we must tell the story of our journey from slavery to freedom.

Let's face it, Moshe takes an entire book of the Torah to retell our story, and we had experienced it all live and in person. Is it any surprise that we are urgent to retell the story of our struggle a few thousand year later? There was war and defilement and miracles galore! There was redemption and rededication. They're were villains and heroes and or ragtag band of guerilla warriors triumphed over the superior forces of the evil empire.

We are out stories, good and bad.

It just seems that we tell this same story, with only slight variations, of oppression, of idols and enslavement and fear and war in every generation since then. That's a lot of generations, a lot of oppression and fear and bloodshed.

And sometimes, in the quiet, away from the flurry of cleaning and preparing and cooking and lighting, sometimes I wish we could tell the story with a different ending.

I'm a dork. I get that. Sometimes, I wish we could tell the story of a world that, because of our wondrous redemption, we needed no heroes, no magic, no soldiers, no war to save us yet again. I wish that we could finally learn that until all of us are free, none of us are. That the story we tell, year after year after day after month, ever and always is the story of everyday miracles, of peace and wholeness and grace...

Chag urim sameach
5780



Friday, December 27, 2019

Chanukah, Sixth Night: Miracles

Miracles are counted on
the wings of angels
who dance on
the sharp end of a pin,
and whose feet come
away bloody.
They are a mighty host
of smoke and mirror
to move the heart
of God.

I searched for a sign,
for the light to grow
and last far longer than it should,
a simple flame grown to
pieces of eight
to illumine the darkness
and the martyrs of battle.

I heard the hosannas,
a miracle of blessing and praise.
There were portents there -
a riot of glory and sacred grace
I lifted my eyes,
watching, waiting.

 I almost missed
my beloved smile.


Chag urim sameach
5780


Thursday, December 26, 2019

Chanukah Day Five: Liberation

Three views of liberation, since three is the number of intention.

First, for this fifth day of Chanukah, Judah the Maccabee, the Hammer of Judea. He took a rag-tag band of guerrilla warriors, and from the dark corners of the land, he and his band of merry men overcame the superior forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, fought them and finally won the day.

Huzzah! Liberated - but still, there was much work to do.

The Temple had been overrun with Assyrians, Greeks and idols (oh my!). The altars had been smashed, or worse, defiled. It was unfit for people and for God.  So it was reclaimed, cleaned, made pure and holy again, and finally dedicated before the glorious miracle of the oil: only enough to last a single day, that oil, once lit, lasted for a full eight days, just long enough to get a new supply.

Nes gadol hayah sham - a great miracle happened there.

Huzzah, again. The people rejoiced in their liberation from tyranny and oppression, scrubbed the Temple -- and promptly ushered in one of the most corrupt and oppressive regimes in our history. And as long as we're talking about cleaning - let's not forget the dead, the bodies of various Judeans who were not collateral damage, but the victims of internecine warfare. Apparently, we weren't content with fighting just Antiochus' soldiers.

We jumped from the frying pan straight into the fire. Liberation is a double edged sword. It cuts, no matter which side of the blade you're on.

Fly through a couple  thousand years after the Hammer hit home. Humanity has learned a staggering amount during the intervening millennia, whether learned ex nihilo or some refinement of the original, that allowed civilization to flourish. Here's a list, in no particular order (and I'm not even gonna Google this, and I'm gonna miss a gajillion things here) - the stirrup, the printing press, perspective, language, poetry, drama, fireworks, gunpowder, paper, music, smelting, science, astronomy, philosophy, physics. My God! We went from the Bronze Age to the Age of Reason in the blink of an eye, and with every jump, with every advancement, there remained some spots of darkness and decay.

Let's not even list the timeline of weaponry that paralleled that of music and dance, of art and architecture. We went from rocks to sticks to swords and spears, cannon and gunpowder. The holy oil that burned in the Temple could also burn your enemies. 

Let's talk about the Jews, still considered the scourge of the western world. If we weren't thrown out of a country (don't cry for me Spain, I'll hitch a ride with Columbus), we were put into ghettos (medieval Italy) or made chattel of the king (hooray for the Magna Carta)). We were practice dummies for the wonderful knights of the Crusades. We were demonized as money-grubbers and child-killers. 

While the Age of Enlightenment and Napoleon seemed to liberate us from the bondage of the past, there were still a few hills to climb, and work to be done. Liberation is a double-edged sword.

Second view, a little closer to home.

A decade or so go, I got an email from a friend. It had a huge distribution list along with a link to a video. The body of the email read "My God, you must watch this!" Normally, I would delete such an email, wise in the ways of phishers and scams. However, I trusted the friend so I clicked on the link. He was right. It was something I needed to watch. You should, too.






Were we ever liberated? Who can retell the things that befell us? Who can count them? Evil arose, covering the world with smoke and darkness. Our people were rounded up like animals. Humans were rounded up - Jews and Gypsies, Communists and Catholics. It didn't matter. A king arose with the power to strip people of their humanity, of their personhood, so they could be bound and gagged and murdered, one by one by one, fed into the pits of some hell that we don't believe in. 

And can you imagine? Truly - having been made a slave, having been starved and beaten and worked unto death -- in the very first moments of your liberation, you sing of hope. You sing praises to God. Can you imagine? 

Baruch hashem - blessed is God's name. Nes gadol hayah sham - a great miracle happened there.

We rejoiced in our liberation. There was so much work to be done! We learned from our liberation. "Never again," we cried out. This degradation, this dehumanization will never happen again. We cannot allow it. We learned to be strong, To be vigilant. To be free.

And we dug in our heels, put our backs into building a land that the desert had claimed for its own. And we kept watch and we defended and we sang out "Never again" like a psalm. And we worked to make it so, to make sure we never again felt the boot of the tyrant on our necks.

And we taught the ones who came after - "Never again." And we meant it. And we meant it for the world entire. "Never again." Never let our past become another's present. Let us learn that all of us - Jew and Gentile, Muslim and Sikh, every single one of us - we must all sing the psalm of Never Again, and we must all make sure that our song is true.

And so, the third view of Liberation, for the fifth day of Chanukah, the holiday of light and liberation - liberation is hard, and is a double edged sword, and the work is long.

Sometimes, the hardest lesson of all: failure. From the dead in the Killing Fields of Pol Pot to Bosnia and Herzogovina and Rwanda. From the sex slaves in every city and town the world over to the child laborers that allow us to buy our toys so cheaply. Look at the Women of the Wall. How different are they, really, from the girls stolen by Boko Haram a few years ago?

I could go on, it seems for an infinity - a whole swath of infinity: Flint. Ninth Ward. The African American community. The poor. Women. The differently-abled. Separated families and children in cages. Does it matter, which group of oppressed? How can we rest while there is such pain? 

We are all human. 

Liberation is a double-edged sword. It never means "and then we all lived happily ever after." It means there is work to do, much work. And the work of liberation is difficult. We may never finish the work; neither are we free to desist.


Chag urim sameach
5780

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Night Four, all about Light and Chanukah

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!
5780

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Chanukah Day Three - 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.


Monday, December 23, 2019

Chanukah, Night Two: 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's Pippen,  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 a 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 myself 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 I 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...

Perhaps then I will find, not the crippling of corruption, but peace instead.


Chag urim sameach
5780



Sunday, December 22, 2019

First Night - Chanukah and 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 hi 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 even 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's 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
5780





Saturday, November 2, 2019

Esa Einai

I walk a path of in-betweens;
Of not-quites
and almosts--
Scattershot potential
spread before me
In infinite array.

But I am filled
Filled enough,
so that even on this narrow path
of scattershot possibility,
bordered by almost
and limned in not-quite,
I lift my eyes
Up--
Raised,
like mountains or breath,
In a limitless ascent.













Wednesday, October 23, 2019

B'reishit: a poem for Creation and Tzimtzum

The Beginning didn't just break;
it shattered,
splintered and spilled
in a hundred -
a thousand
an infinity of directions.

God was not content,
apparently,
with the tzimtzum of Her creation,
the inhaled withdrawal,
an absence of essence.
Into that empty space
that once was filled
with the endlessness
of God, was filled now
with the chaos of dark
and light.
A single day,
and then six more,
and it was,
they were, mostly,
good.

And in that exact same instant,
in the inhaled breath
of the endless god,
light!

There was evening,
there was morning,
again and again and
again and again
millennia of agains,
and then a few more.
Tzimtzum

Year upon year,
age upon age,
mountains rose and
empires fell.
One day followed by another
and another
and another,
so often that sometimes
they ceased to have
meaning
or weight.
They were merely
time and again,
day upon day,
life after life,
mostly good.

A pretty good trick
to play, a sleight of hand
with space and light -
a divine game of cups.
Pick a hand held behind God's back.
He seems to favor that position.

What would it be like
I wonder, to be endless -
without end and infinite,
the superlative of all
superlatives?
would it be lonely
do you think
to be that
indivisibly singular?
To be filled to empty to full
in the blink of an eye
all at the same time?

I think if that were me,
I would want to scream.
I would want to gather in all my
everythingness, only to realize
there was nowhere to gather,
no thing to hold,
because I was everything
in every direction.
Only me,
with no spaces
or cracks
to let the light in.
Would I even know
what light is
or space?

Would I know sun
and sky and water and rain?
Would I see the Glory
and know that it was all
incompletely good?
Would I know God
and would I sing
praises to Her name?

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Chazak

I held earth and air 
and fire and water
in my arms,
and I danced.
It was good.
I turned, and turned again,
with all that glory,
with all that binding,
dizzy with every letter
that burned with white fire.

Speak, and the world comes to be.
Sing, and God is exalted.
And so we ascend,
an image of holy,
ever holy
and good.

I held light.
I held joy,
and I hold fast to it,
touching heaven
surrounded by love.


For simchat torah 5780
In honor of Congregation Hakafa

Sunday, October 6, 2019

A Momentary Pause: welcoming the new year, 5780

Entering this new year has been a bit different this year, to say the least. I spent most of my life staying outside of, separate from, content with being needed rather than loved. Afraid of being loved.

And this whole past year, I've felt a change. Not a tsunami of change rolling over and crashing into me, but something infinitely more gentle, certainly less dangerous, a blessing, no longer a curse - because yes, love, for so long, felt so much like a curse!

This past year, because of my weakness, because of my vulnerability, I have learned to find strength in asking for help. I have learned to accept that I am not less than. It's hard. It still doesn't come naturally and I don't always act with grace, but I have learned to lean in to you and so roll on.

What a gift! It is not that it took my heart stopping to have learned this lesson. It is that, and the coming of this new year that have given me the opportunity to pause for a moment, to reflect on just who I am as I enter 5780. And here's what I found, the greatest truth of all:

I am loved.

Thank you for helping me find this gift. And in case I haven't acknowledged it, or said it enough, I love you right back. No strings, just love.

A happy, sweet and joyous new year. Shana tova u'metukah!

And, in case you missed it, I wrote the poem below to honor this journey I've undertaken, to acknowledge all of the twists and turns and difficult moments that had brought me here, to this place - of God and you and me and love.


The Longest Journey

The longest journey
begins with a breath -
   breath being one of the names of God -
and ends in Breath:
   as the name of God is a prayer: amen.

It is played out
on a bridge more narrow than fear
and wider than Heaven,
and gathers together
the battered, embattled rubble
of broken days and history.
It is - as if it ever wasn't - love,
that journey of unknown proportion,
coming not because of,
nor in spite of, but 
a love that is whole
and endless
   and love -
      God, yes!
         Love,
             in all its infinite
                 and glorious
                    unknowing
                       boundlessness -
                          Love.

                          Love.
That is the journey.
That is the breath
That is the name
of God

Amen.


Sunday, September 22, 2019

But I Will Tend You

To the earth, I say  thank you
for the abundance
of your gifts.
There is grace in
the wheat that dances,
and bounty.
I cannot own you,
but I will tend you
with care.

To the heavens I say thank you
for your glory.
There is such wonder in
the play of stars
and light. For you,
I reach; in you
I find.
I cannot own you,
but I will tend you
with care.

To the water I say thank you
for your lithesome
liquid beauty.
There is power
in your ceaseless
surge and release.
I cannot own you
but I will tend you
with care.

To God I say thank you
for bringing us here
to this season of joy.
We cannot own
Your bounty,
but we will tend it all
with care,
so that we may come again
to say thanks
for this season
of joy.


Friday, September 20, 2019

The Birds Have Fled

The birds have fled,
flown the coop
as it were.
They've gone the way of the dodo
and the cricket
and bullfrog.
Good old Jeremiah has grown
silent with their absence.
It has not made my heart grow fonder,
not at all.

At least there is good parking now.

Still, I miss the birds,
and the sounds of
exultation as they rose in
such graceful joy,
from earth to
heaven, again and again,
angels caught,
captured in an updraft
on their way
to God.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Psalm 151

A psalm, a song of beauty and grief.

I have lived a life of fierce joy,
pursued a world of justice;
every breath a hymn to Your name,
every step a prayer.

You have lifted me
and I rejoice.
You have sheltered me
and I am redeemed.

And now I am weary,
my body spent.
I long for Your promise
of sweet grass
and still waters.
My words have all been said,
and my music,
once exultant,
has quieted.

There is great beauty in this silence,
and grief.

And You, God,
ever-present,
You speak,
so that time and worlds
continue to be.
You sing,
and the glory of Your song
urges us all to rise.
This was the beginning.
This will be the ever and always.
This is the eternal now.
Selah.


Sunday, September 8, 2019

Triptych: a death in three parts

Part I
06 September 2010

My brother is dying.

As I write this, he is laying quietly, oxygen mask covering most of his face, sedated beyond recognition. He's been like this for days. Every so often, his breathing becomes labored and he becomes agitated. Great rasps then, desperate, gasping rattling breaths. So much so that we strive to breathe for him, will air into him. The nurses come to inject more of whatever it is medication that they are giving him, into the ever-present tubes that snake in him and around him.

The meds are not life sustaining.  They are palliative. We hope.

The doctors say it will be soon.

And so we watch, and wait. We sit in a dimly lit hospital room, the sibilant hiss of the oxygen so constant that it is almost inaudible. Almost, but not quite. There is so much that is almost, but not quite these days.

I have been composing this particular post in my head for almost two years now. I want so much to honor him, to celebrate him and his life. I do not want to sink into the maudlin. I do not want to appear trite. I want this whole, painful, drawn-out, uncomfortable, scary, sad mess to be over. I want everything back to normal. I want my brother to be healed. Made whole. I want him to be at peace.

I want to blame someone, something. It feels as if there is so much blame to go around.

But this is not about blame. As easy as it would be to sink into that messy pit, all shiny and burbly and self-righteously fatuous, thereby avoiding all the hard stuff, like love and meaning and fear and a thousand other difficult and honest things - this is harder.

This is about my brother, who is dying, and me trying to find some meaning in that.

I cannot talk about his death, find meaning in it, without talking about his life. He was intense and passionate and fiercely protective of those he loved. He was stubborn and opinionated. He was courageous beyond measure. He was human beyond measure, and so had his moments.

He lived on caffeine and nicotine. For decades, he walked around with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other (and one tucked behind his ear, just in case). He moved constantly - walking, pacing, jiggling a foot when sitting, tapping out a rhythm to some private noise in his head. It makes watching him now, so still and silent, all the more difficult, because it is the antithesis of him.

He hasn't opened his eyes in a few days. The last time he spoke to me, he said "This is not - this is not - coral!" Coral? What? The drugs, perhaps the cancer, perhaps both, were stealing words from him, even as they stole his grace, his energy, his life. It meant something to him, surely, but the path to meaning, to connection, was becoming buried and tangled. They tell us, the nurses and aids and doctors, that he can hear us even in his stupor. So we talk to him, reassure him that he is not alone, that he is loved. We tell jokes and stories. We sit, quietly and lovingly. We hold his hand and comfort him through touch (we comfort ourselves through touch).

My baby brother is dying, and there's not a god damned thing I can do about it. All I can do is be with him, witness his journey through that dark and shadowy valley, love him. And hold his hand.


Part II
08-09 September 2010

Mom called while I was at work. "Come now. The doctors say it's a matter of hours."

I felt the ice in my center radiate outwards, a sheath of cold and darkness. God no. Please God no.  Not today. Okay - not ever, but really not today. Sundown will be Rosh Hashanah, the new year, the celebration of the world's creation. God will open the book of Life and Death tonight. God will record who will live in joy, who will die in pain. Please: don't let my brother die.

Don't let him die before I can say good bye.

Another round of sitting. Hand holding. We soothe and comfort and cry and watch. There are no masks now. His breathing, labored and difficult and strangled only a few hours earlier is quiet. Steadier. They've taken him off oxygen and he is breathing on his own. Slowly. Shallowly. We gather around him, quietly talking, reminiscing. We are learning how to care for one another again, be a close family again. After years of wear and tear, strain and hurt, we are learning to love each other again. We are fragile and cautious and have on kid gloves.

For Randy, we will do this. It is one more way to honor him.

I can't sit for long. Sitting with family is both easy and hard. It is as if our voices are rusty. If not our voices, then perhaps our hearts. We have been separate for so long. It doesn't take much time to find those familiar patterns, sink back into the rhythms that defined us for decades. What is more difficult than re-learning and re-establishing those rhythms, is reaching out to others, to prepare them for the worst. After all, we are here, together, with Randy, cocooned by our love and fear and sorrow. But we are here, together. The others are outside, separate. Although we try to bridge that endless chasm, we fall short. We are here. They are not here. There is a difference. They love him, us, no less, but there is a layer between them and this death, a thin, membranous shield. There is that microscopic difference, though the sorrow still flows in steady waves, carrying us to one another close as breath, as light or air. But, there is a difference.

The hours wear on and we continue our vigil. Randy continues to breath, to dream, to struggle against pain. It is almost sundown, almost Rosh Hashanah. "Go," urges my family. Pray, and talk to God. Find comfort and peace and struggle and light. And so, tenuously, I welcome the new year. I can lose myself in the music of the service, in its rhythms and cadences. It is the birthday of the world and God's Book opens. I shudder at that thought, even as I sing those ancient hymns. It hits me, suddenly, that this is merely another kind of vigil.

Thursday morning. Randy has had a rough night but he is stable. Ish. The nurse tells me it could be any time. Mom tells me to go to services, to pray. Another holy vigil. A small solace in the face of despair. In going through the motions of that holy dance, I get lost again, for a few hours. I feel surrounded by something, protected, sheltered. I even manage to sing B'Rosh Hashanah without stumbling, without trembling:

"On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be;
who shall live and who shall die..."

The shofar sounds at last. I rush back to the hospital.

And so we sit, and wait. A softly, murmuring watchfulness. Randy lays quietly, his breath soft and slow. He hasn't opened his eyes in days. We talk softly, we surround him with our love, with music and stories and love. And one last time, Randy opened his eyes and smiled and died.

Part III
23 October 2010

It's been over a month since my brother died.

Those first few days were an impossibility. Grief so palpable I could feel it rise, slow and inexorable, threatening to drown me. Guilt just as present, because I lived, because I don't have cancer, because whole minutes, sometimes hours would go by and I would realize that I hadn't thought of Randy once, that I wasn't grieving, that I may even have laughed or smiled or forgotten for just a split second that Randy had died.

We buried him on a magnificent day in September. The sun shone in a cloudless sky. The leaves rustled, still summer green with just the barest suggestion of gold. There was a coming together that day. A sharing of sorrow and grief and memory. There was a gentleness that seems to be missing so often from the quotidian pace. There was a sheltering grace in that day. It went too fast and spun too slow. It was filled with sadness and laughter and family and love.

It was about honor and courage and frailty. Death was there, certainly. But life too. Little boys tumbled like puppies, shrieking with laughter and competition and exuberant joy. Adults did their own dance of remembrance. Sadness laced our speech, but we carried one another to firm ground, sheltered one another with peace and strength. Randy's final gift.

I miss him. There is a... missingness. The quality of something missing. Slightly empty and lopsided. But only out of the corner of my eye, in hindsight. It is a passing thrum, a tremor of memory and desire. I think about stories I want to tell him. What I wouldn't give to just sit with him for a few thousand years, not saying much of anything, or maybe saying everything, coffee in hand.

I miss him, and there are bills to pay and laundry to do, and work and school and oil changes and piano lessons, and... life. There is life, an abundant and full dance - sometimes a waltz, sometimes a two step, something that fills the space of the day. If you're lucky, it morphs suddenly into a jitterbug or the Charleston, a celebration of life and joy, before slipping back to familiar paths.

I miss him. I remember him. I love him. And that's it. That's the deal. It's what matters - not the completion, but that we journey for a time together, touch each other's lives and hearts and souls. We remember, and we live, and love and grieve. And we go on, whether it's done or not, whether it's complete or not. We walked a lifetime together, my brother and I. I am grateful for our journey, for the lessons he taught me, for the light he shone in my darkness.

Ever and always, Randy.
Zichrono liv'racha

Friday, August 30, 2019

Ready

There is a rising expectancy
A hold-your-breath
gathering in,
 at the edge
that drops away
ten thousand feet
and ten thousand more.

A moment--
just that one,
that separates you from
everything else.
You hold yourself so
still,
so poised.

There's a heartbeat's difference
between waiting
and ready,
a heartbeat,
a moment,
the distance between
breaths,

You have walked the ten thousand steps,
and ten thousand more,
an eternity of steps
to cross that narrow distance,
to stand in hushed--
in rising
expectancy.

To leap into that moment,
to complete that breath,
to bridge the distance
between waiting
and God.

To stand
in grace,
in quiet stillness,
in breathless wonder,
on the other side of waiting.
And you gather in those tethers
that have shackled you
You gather them
and let them fall,
cracked and dusty and rusted through.

A breath.
A heartbeat.
A moment that stretches into
the rest of forever
(and then some)
And then
you leap.

Ready.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Harder Than Hard Ever Was

The floor was hard.
Never had there ever been anything harder.
She traced a scuff mark
with her finger,
her hand so small -
pudgy-fingered and soft.
There has never been anything ever so soft,
except maybe her heart,
which was tender and young
And had never known pain.
Not really.
She drew her knees up
to her chest,
where her tender heart beat,
and made herself small
As small as small as could  be
and never was she ever so small,
not when her Mama told her
how big she was,
how glorious was her spirit.
Don't hide, Mama said,
so she made herself as big as big could be.
But not now,
now was a time of small
and unknown pain,
and fear as big as the sky.
Now was the time of
a cold hard tile,
an ungiving tile,
scuffed,
empty,
Harder than ever hard was.
Harder than ever was pharoah's heart.
Harder than waiting
for Mama to come.

Monday, August 5, 2019

The Longest Journey: a poem for Tisha B'av

The longest journey
begins with a breath -
   breath being one of the names of God -
and ends in Breath:
   as the name of God is a prayer: amen.

It is played out
on a bridge more narrow than fear
and wider than Heaven,
and gathers together
the battered, embattled rubble
of broken days and history.
It is - as if it ever wasn't - love,
that journey of unknown proportion,
coming not because of,
nor in spite of, but 
a love that is whole
and endless
   and love -
      God, yes!
         Love,
             in all its infinite
                 and glorious
                    unknowing
                       boundlessness -
                          Love.

                          Love.
That is the journey.
That is the breath
That is the name
of God

Amen.


For Tisha B'av

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Poppies

The poppies distract me.
They are so bright,
a riot of rich and royal-hued reds
mixed so democratically 
with purples and pinks and an occasional yellow.
They each lift their petalled faces 
to catch the sun.

With them come gasps and delight,
and quiet, joyful benediction
upon the suddenness of their glory.
With them comes praise 
for the grace of their difference.

We are all poppies, 
riotous in the fields of this land.
We are all poppies,
sun-warmed and sweet,
a glorious gift of beauty
and difference.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Praise on My Lips

I dreamed an ancient desert,
a wilderness of copper and gold
under skies of infinity blue
and heaven.

God dwelt there, made the ground holy,
built a Temple of canvas
and devotion,
and we sang, each morning,
my sisters and I -
Hosanna!
Hallelujah!

I woke then, with praise on my lips -
sweet, and it buzzed against my tongue,
made my body a holy Temple
of sacred grace.

And so I sang a song of rising,
under heaven and infinity blue,
a song of devotion and desire,
sweet benediction to the glory
of God.


Sunday, April 28, 2019

To the Glory of God:a poem for Poway

Come, all of us, and enter
into the place where God dwells
and bend, and bow
and offer thanks
for this place,
this moment
of grace.

Bend, and bow
and offer praise
for God's glory
in wonder
and awe.

Bend, and bow
and offer a prayer
for wholeness
and safety
and peace.

And when the shots ring out
like the voice of thunder,
and blood flows like water,
like wine, a benediction
of grief that bends you
and bows you,

Cry out, cry out!
The glory of God is forever -
mercy flows from God's left hand,
compassion from God's right.
Bend and bow then
to the lord of hosts!
Exalted is the One who 
creates harmony on high,
blessed is the One who brings peace.

And let us say, amen.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

This Holy Place: a poem for Acharei mot

What do you sacrifice
to stand in this
holy place?
Do you wear your sins
like fine linen
and gilded shame?
Does your skin
glisten with water and oil
and the scent of blood?

What do you offer
to stand here
in this holy place,
whose walls are
fitted with mirrors
of silvered glass, and
edged in guilt and
hope?
They reflect
and refract to
infinity,
a bountiful gift of
infinite Glory.
Their smoothed surfaces
of infinite hardness
show every crack
and broken sliver
when the light
shines upon them, that
disappear in the shadows
and dark.

Every crack is holy
here in this holy place
where you stand:
a sacrifice,
an offering,
found in the corners
and littering the
earth with their bounty.
Do you stumble?
Do you love?

Place your doubt
here on the altar,
and light the fire
to burn with incense
and your fear,
and stand
here in this holy place
of cracks and
reflected Infinity,
a prayer of grace
upon your lips.


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

What's the Story?

A few years ago, I took part in a Passover writing exercise, offered by my friend, the Rabbi (who is also a writer, and a damned good one): write a short something-or-other, based upon a given prompt, every day for the 15 days of Nisan that lead to the first seder of Passover. I tried, I really did, I tried to write something every day. A noble attempt, but it didn’t happen. Even so, I managed to kick something out for one prompt: Tell. 

Of course, the first thing I thought about, given that Passover prompt, was Bye, Bye Birdie, replete with Hugo, Kim, and Ed Sullivan. Immediately after that brain-grinding shiver, though, ├ącame Chanukah. I just couldn’t get that Chanukah song to stop running through my head. You know the one - "Who can retell the things that befell us...?" (And now it's running through yours as well; no good deed and all). It works, just the same. At least the opening verse. Just substitute Moses and Aaron and Miriam and that cast of hundreds of thousands for all those Maccabees, and you can pretty much retell the story of oppression and slavery and freedom and bloodshed and war and miracles and redemption, there and back again.

That's the part that I get stuck on, the "...and back again." We tell and we tell and we tell. It’s an awesome story, filled with heroes and pyrotechnics that could keep the special effects masters at Industrial Light and Magic on their toes and at their drawing boards for years. Decades. Forever. The stuff of life is present in every word of this story we tell, all the drama and majesty and love and passion and danger and discovery and betrayal and loss.

Tell this story. Tell it to those who ask and those who don't even know there's a story to tell. Tell it as if you were there, part of the original action. Tell it as if you are still there, that we are all still there, living and experiencing it all right now.

Tell it, and tell it again. It is that important.

But here's what I'm thinking these days (as if my statement above were not hint enough): there are far too many "again's" in our story. That is, how many times do we find ourselves in need of heroes and miracles? How many times must we tell the story of soldiers and blood and war and terror?

Yes, and redemption. And yes, God. I love that these are the base of all of the stories we tell.

When, though, do we learn? When do we change? Of course we must tell the story of the Exodus! Of course we must celebrate our journey from the very narrow places into the wide open space of the wilderness where we meet God! Of course we must tell the story of our journey from slavery to freedom.

It just seems that we tell this same story, with only slight variations, of oppression, of idols and enslavement and fear and war in every generation since then. That's a lot of generations, a lot of oppression and fear and bloodshed.

I love Passover. It’s my favorite holiday. How could it not be? I love that we are commanded to tell this story. As a writer, how could I not? But sometimes, in the quiet, away from the fury of the cleaning and preparing and the cooking, sometimes I wish we could tell the story with a different ending.

I'm a dork. I get that. Sometimes, I wish we could tell the story of a world that, because of our wondrous redemption, there in the wilderness, we needed no heroes, no magic, no soldiers, no war to save us yet again. I wish that we could finally learn that until all of us are free, none of us are. That the story we tell, year after year after day after month, ever and always is the story of everyday miracles, of peace and wholeness and grace...

Once we were slaves, now we are free.



Sunday, March 31, 2019

To Rise, a poem of healing

Let me rest this body
that has known pain,
yet still it slips into numbness.
Let me rise,
Your right hand to guide me
and place healing on my lips,
tasting of sweetness and sky.
Oh, let me rise!

I want to soothe this caged-wing soul,
loose feathered and desperate,
let go the moments that slip through,
withering and dull,
so that I can no longer feel 
the glory of You,
though its shadow 
rests upon me like a kiss.

I want to fly with the larks
who rise in exaltation.
They know Your secret name
and sing it, each one, an ascension
into the vastness of sky and wind,
a psalm, 
song, 
a glory.

Oh! Let me rise,
so that my heart rejoices,
so that my being exults,
my body rests, secure
But let me rise and be whole.



Based upon Psalm 16

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Elijah Invented Sarcasm - for the Haftarah of parashat Ki Tisa

Elijah invented sarcasm.
Before stones and altar;
before water flowed like blood;
before hearts moved backwards,
and fire rained down to
drench the waiting sacrifices -
First there was sarcasm.

Perhaps your god sleeps,
or maybe he's busy,
running a few errands,
said the Undying One.
We'll wait - and why not?
He had all the time
in the world.

Elijah is way too holy
to hide a smile behind his hand,
or wink on the sly
to all the terrified masses
assembled and cowering,
who had, after all,
backed the wrong horse,
and the wrong god
and knew not of sarcasm.

But they knew -
after the shouting and slaughter
the water and blood and fire
that streamed down like rain,
that lifted smoke and smells
to Israel's God.
They remembered,
and remembering,
returned.


Based on 1 Kings 18 1-39

Saturday, February 2, 2019

I Hold Up the Sky

I hold up the sky.
My arms stretch deep into blue,
a trick of the light.
Its waves echo the waters
ruled by the moon,
that circle and curl against my legs
and my grounded feet,
set apart, according to the 
rules of prayer,
as if I were praying.
I am not.

I hold up the sky,
my arms reaching upwards,
trembling with the weight of heaven
and the glory of God.
The waters are cold against my skin,
but I stretch into blue,
and hold the glory of God.
I will not bend.
To bend is to break.

I hold up the sky
until I am bowed. trembling 
under the weight of blueness.
I am bent, according to the rules of prayer.
I do not pray,
and it feels as if I am breaking - 
its own kind of glory, 
under this vast rim of heaven 
rooted in the the mutable 
curve of water and earth.
Its blueness is a trick of the light.
I am bent; I am bowed,
and I pray.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Counting Infinity - a poem in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day

I wonder about the
infinity of light
that shattered
in a single Breath -
and the dust of Adam
that scattered, a
sweeping whirlwind of
limitless everywhere upon
the earth, and the stars
that Abraham counted -
numberless,
and distant,
and cold fire.

We counted
time by moonlight
and threads of
blue -
Exquisitely finite
and eternal,
a holy cadence
of one
plus one
plus one again
a never-ending measure
of binding and grace.

So I wonder,
with all the counting
of all the endlessness
of stars and dust
and light
and time
and one
plus one
plus One -

what happens when
six million -
when twelve million -
when a thousand -
when a single one
disappears from
infinity

Sunday, January 6, 2019

She Thought of Painting

She thought of painting
the morning into being,
of darkness shot with light,
a riot of royal hued color
and a rippling shimmer
 on leaves of heartbreak gold.

She wondered how to paint
the sound of birdsong,
or the scent of coffee
and wood smoke.
She thought of painting
the glory of the day
and the joy of it,
the sheer exaltation of it.

 She let her thoughts drift,
like petals on water,
and she stilled
while the sun warmed her.

For Julie
With love

Thursday, January 3, 2019

How Shall I Know You: a poem for parashat Vaera

How shall I know
that you are God,
my Lord and Master,
Judgment in your right hand
And mercy on your lips?

How shall I know
that I am home,
that I will be gathered,
be beloved,
be returned?

Will I know You by my enemies,
by their decimation and ruin?
Is that Your glory, Lord,
Your secret name?

Are You the eternal Lord of Hosts,
battle-ready, all iron and stone -
My Rock,
My Redeemer -
Is there yet no give in You?

How shall I know You, God?
What shall I call You?
How will I know I am home?


Based, with a twist, on Ezekiel 28:25 - 29:10, the haftara for parashat Vaera