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Tu BiShvat is on the way

A big beautiful conifer outside our house, flanked by birch trees.

Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, begins tonight at sundown.

Maybe not surprisingly, I haven't had time to collect any new resources for the holiday or to write any new holiday reflections or prayers this year. So I'll point you to the Tu BiShvat category on this blog -- feel free to look there for previous years' posts, including the Haggadah for Tu BiShvat I posted a few years ago.

My own celebration will probably be simple: eating some of the etrog marmalade I made last Sukkot, and maybe treating myself to pancakes with maple syrup -- the fruit of our most truly local trees, and the only local fruit which is currently in season!

Anyway, here's to the sap rising: to more sweetness and more life, to what has been brittle becoming more supple, to the promise of eventual spring.

Legless (Read Write Prompt #111: broken chair)


The sadness arises
and cuts my legs
out from under me

the monotony
of trying to soothe
screams as frequent
as the waves...

I'm tethered,
my body is harnessed
my own desires
pushed aside

sometimes he stares
up at my eyes
as though
he sees me

but then
his chin crumples
resolute and furious
and I disappear

This week's ReadWritePoem prompt is the following photo by sepulture:

The image of the chair which is missing a leg but is still standing sparked this poem obliquely. I resonated with the broken chair -- I've been feeling a little bit that way lately. But the man in the image disappeared altogether as the poem evolved, and the distant mountains turned into an ocean simile instead. The poetic process is mysterious, what can I say. Anyway, this is part of my ongoing series of mother poems.

On a personal note: from the comments and emails I've been receiving, I get the sense that many of you find resonance in these occasional glimpses of the painful side of new parenthood, and I want to thank y'all for responding; hearing from you means a lot to me. It's important to me, both spiritually & creatively, to be honest about these tough realities...but I hope it's clear from my postings here that there's joy in my experience of motherhood too.

As always, you can read what others wrote in response to the prompt by checking out this week's Get Your Poem On post.


Another mother poem: Power


most of all
parenthood requires
endless batteries

for the vibrating chair
with its bright medley
of earworm nursery rhymes

for the mobile, Mozart
sparking synapses
while the baby sleeps

for the baby monitors
like walkie-talkies
which brook no reply

but when the gadgets
run down or fail
all we have are hands

voices, shoulders, breasts
running on power
we didn't know we had

Another in my ongoing series of mother poems. A bit lighter than the last one I posted (also lighter than the next one I'm working on) -- which is part of why I wanted to share this one.

I do find that sometimes I'm drawing on reserves of energy I wouldn't have believed existed. Some time ago I posted to twitter that parenthood wasn't for the weak; my friend Scott responded that while that was true, we would survive, and would discover that we are strong. I think I'm beginning to understand what he meant.


Velveteen Rabbi on the Woodrat Podcast

My friend Dave Bonta is involved with all sorts of literary projects. He's one of the founders and managing editors of the literary journal Qarrtsiluni; he used to co-edit Postal Poetry, and he's also the guy behind The Morning Porch (daily micropoetry), The Woodrat Photoblog (photos and haiku), and of course his terrific personal blog Via Negativa.

Dave's latest project is a weekly 30-minute podcast called The Woodrat Podcast, which debuted two weeks ago. I've listened to the first two editions while nursing Drew. They've been thoughtful, eclectic, and interesting -- not surprising to anyone who knows Dave or reads his work.

Recently I strapped young master Drew to my chest in a Didymos wrap, walked around the house to lull him to sleep, and then stood in front of my computer (swaying gently from side to side to keep Drew dozing) and chatted with Dave via Skype. We talked about poetry, liturgy, the intersection of MFA and rabbinic school, beginner's mind, names for God, liturgical creativity, good religious poetry, writing habits, and more -- and now you can listen in, because our conversation has been excerpted in the Woodrat Podcast, episode 3:

Woodrat Podcast Episode 3: Embodied Miracles

(That link goes to Dave's blog, where you can stream the episode or download it; you can also opt to subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.)

Thanks for including me, Dave; it was a real treat to spend some time talking about a few of my favorite things. Maybe especially now, two months in to this parenting adventure, when it has become a delicious novelty to go an hour without discussing sleep or crying or bodily effluvia. And to everyone else: if you listen, let us know what you think!

The nursing mother tallit

My new "nursing mother tallit."

The first two months of motherhood have been pretty overwhelming. Learning how to care for a newborn, learning how to nurse (which is harder than it appears, and we had some difficulties there for a while), learning how to put an infant's needs at the center of my life: all of these have been adjustments. But by far the biggest challenge, and the most lasting one, has been the sleep deprivation. As careful readers of my mother poems may have gathered, over these weeks Drew has been waking often in the night to nurse, and until this week it always took a long while to rock him back to sleep afterward, by which point it would be almost time for him to wake again and demand again to be fed.

Living without sustained sleep has had a major impact on my spiritual life. As a result of the sleep deprivation (and some depression, related but also relevant on its own), I spent much of my first two months of motherhood largely unable to pray, except when I would lie down after putting Drew back in his crib and would silently beg God for at least an hour to recharge. Needless to say, this is not the maternal prayer life I had imagined.

Very recently I've begun to emerge from those depths, in part because he is finally beginning to give us longer blocks of sleep. Some mornings after the dawn feeding, as I rock Drew I silently pray parts of the morning service. I know the matbe'ah tefilah (structure of the service) by heart, so I can walk myself through its various steps, silently davening a pearl from each prayer even if I can't call the whole liturgical text to mind. I used to have the luxury of taking as much time as I wanted for morning prayer: with or without one of my many siddurim, I could sit solitary by the window or (in season) daven on the deck for luscious long periods of time. Not anymore. I can't count on having a sustained period of time to daven when I won't need to swoop in and pick up the fussy baby from his crib or bouncy seat, or nurse him again, or burp him, or dance him around the room.

On a spiritual level, this means I need to integrate davenen into ordinary life -- to approach regular tasks like baby-soothing and diaper-changing with prayerful consciousness. If I'm in the middle of praying and the baby demands my attention, I need to be able to shift focus to the baby and to understand the ensuing physical acts as part of my prayer. Prayer and ordinary life need to interpenetrate.

On a practical level, this means that anything I wear during davenen has to be able to withstand the possibility of effluvia. I've been missing the experience of davening enfolded in a tallit. But I don't wear anything anymore that isn't machine-washable: anything on my body is likely to wind up spotted with spit-up, and I'm not willing to risk my precious silk or fine wool tallitot in these ways. What to do?

My solution: create a machine-washable tallit, designed for the exigencies of nursing motherhood. It's simplicity incarnate: a length of machine-washable fabric, with detachable tzitzit. For the fabric I chose a beautiful scarf which was already in my closet, and I sought input from my ALEPH chevre on the best way to handle the tzitzit. Reb Zalman, and many of my friends, suggested tying tzitzit which aren't affixed to the corners of the cloth, and then attaching each one with a slipknot which can be undone for washing. But I've learned that these days, I'm looking for economy of action in every way: if something takes two steps instead of one, I may not manage to do it. So I opted instead for tzitzit on clips, which can be unclipped for washing and then easily reclipped once the tallit is clean and dry again. I thought I'd share the idea, in case there are other liberal Jewish nursing mothers out there who have been looking for ways to integrate tallit-wearing davenen into their nursing lives!

Rabbinic pastor Pinchas Zohav and his wife make clip-on tzitzit. He notes that they could be made using clip-on earrings instead of formal tallit clips, or instead of the plastic clips you can see in the photo above -- my nursing tallit features clip-on tzitzit made for me by Rabbi Jan Salzman. Reb Pinchas suggests adapting earrings which belonged to one's foremothers, to add a feminine ancestry connection to this holy garment. (He adds that he and his wife would be happy to make the clip-on tzitzit for you in this way, using earrings you provide for the purpose. If you're interested in purchasing a set, you can reach him at p.zohav at verizon dot net. Of course, you can also decide to tie your own tzitzit -- here are some YouTube instructions...)

Even on mornings when I'm not able to muster the focus to properly daven, I'm hoping that wrapping myself in this tallit as I care for my son will help me to feel connected with the tradition and with God again. And I can't wait to take my new tallit to shul! Someday I'll wear my mottled silk and woven rainbow wool tallitot again, but for now, this is exactly the tallit I need.

On a related note: those interested in questions of nursing and prayer might find food for thought in this Conservative teshuvah on breastfeeding in synagogue, by R' Bradley Artson Shavit. I am not a Conservative Jew, but I found his response intriguing.

Another mother poem: Besieged


Seven weeks in
I am rubble, strafed
by a round-cheeked pilot
who attacks at random
with his air-siren wail

I lie in bed
pleading with no one
for just one hour
but the monitor crackles
and deals its death blow

yet once he's milk-faced
and sleepy, head lolling
in the crook of my arm
I fall in love with the enemy
all over again

his imperious voice
and grabby hands, his eyes
like slate marbles
and his endless hunger
never satisfied

I didn't manage to write to this week's RWP prompt (though it is an awesome one -- my friend and mentor David Lehman encouraged us to work with faux-translations in this way when I was a Bennington student!) Instead, this week, I wrote another in my ongoing series of mother poems.

The seed of this poem was planted during one of the past week's infinite middle-of-the-night feedings. Someday soon I hope to write more about the experience of sustained sleep deprivation and about how it's impacted me emotionally and spiritually -- but right now you get one facet of the experience, refracted into a poem.

As always, you can see what other ReadWritePoem folks did with this week's prompt (or, perhaps, aside from the prompt -- like me) by going to this week's get your poem on post.


Read Write Poem #109: six weeks


the changes leave me

baby shouldered
and wibbling,

froth at the corner
of his cupid's-bow mouth

stretch marks
like a tiger-print tattoo

marking my belly

days distilled simple:
nurse, diaper, repeat

some day soon
you'll smile

and these sundered nights
will be redeemed

This week's readwritepoem prompt is a word cloud, from which I took the words sundered, shouldered, fertile, froth, simple. These are the words which leapt out at me as soon as I looked at the cloud. Following my mentor Jason Shinder's mantrum "whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work," I know that right now my best poems (okay, who am I kidding: my only poems) are going to be motherhood poems. The experience of parenting a newborn is so overwhelming, so relentless, that there isn't room for much else in my brain. So I chose words which fit the mold into which my life already feels poured.

To see what other RWP'ers did with the same prompt, check out this week's get your poem on post. And I want to offer thanks to the RWP community for coming here and leaving comments on my poems even though I'm not able to reciprocate right now. Someday, my friends with kids assure me, I'll have more space & time for my literary life again -- I look forward to being a better conversation partner then!


By the by, I've created a new category on this blog: mother poems. Poems which fit this bill will be filed both under the "poetry" category and under this more precise "mother poems" category, so if you're ever looking to read all of the motherhood poems I've posted, now you can.

Ohalah 2010, seen from afar

This weekend, the ALEPH ordination programs community -- students in the rabbinic, rabbinic pastor, hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) and cantorial programs -- has gathered for a Shabbat retreat which culminates in our annual smicha (ordination) ceremony. Immediately after the smicha ceremony, the annual conference of Ohalah, the association of rabbis for Jewish renewal, will begin.

Last year I went to Boulder a few days before the Shabbaton, to begin a three-year training program in spiritual drection. I entered that experience with an exciting secret: I was pregnant for the first time. A few friends and teachers guessed the news just from seeing me; a few others learned the news because I was too excited not to share it. I remember Friday night services especially vividly -- dancing around the ballroom at the Boulderado, wearing my burgundy velvet dress and a white pillbox kippah which Ethan had brought me from Dubai, thinking about the fact that by Ohalah 2010 I would have a three-month-old in my arms.

By Shabbat morning, that pregnancy had ended. I spent the  rest of that Shabbat in a fog. The miscarriage and its aftermath feel incredibly distant now. In mid-March, I shared my miscarriage poems with the world, releasing Through for anyone who might need it. Then Ethan and I went on vacation. By the time we came home, although we didn't know it, we'd conceived our son.

Now it is January again. My community has gathered, and the ordination ceremony will take place today -- though no longer at the historic Boulderado; this year we're meeting in a more affordable venue in St. Louis. And this year, for the first time since I began the program in 2005, I will not be there to laugh and cry and cheer my beloved friends on as they celebrate this new stage in their religious journey.

It's amazing how much can change in a single year. When I left the Boulderado last year, I didn't realize that I wouldn't be returning. I didn't know that I would become pregnant again so soon. I couldn't have imagined, then, what it would feel like to be home with my six-week-old son (who is miserable with the first cold of his short life) while my community has gathered without me. Parenthood is an overwhelming journey so far, one which I'd love to write about if I could find the brain cells and the time. (It's been six weeks since I got a decent night's sleep; I count myself lucky if I can string together two hours at a stretch.) Everyone tells me these early weeks will have flown by, once they're gone, though right now individual minutes pass at the speed of cold molasses.

This time next year, I'll be with my community again. Drew will be a year old and these difficult early weeks of parenting will be as distant a memory as my miscarriage is now. And if all goes according to plan, next year's smicha ceremony will be a particularly special one for me. For now, though, I can only be where I am: sitting by the fire with a snuffly infant strapped to my chest, thinking of my friends and teachers in St. Louis with love from afar.

This week's portion: labor


[T]he Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth. (Exodus 1:19)

Shifrah and Puah, sent to strangle
any Hebrew boys who survived

the dangerous passage
through the narrowest of straits

cupped basins to catch vomit
and counted breaths between pains.

They cradled feet up and open,
stretched each woman's fingers down

so she could feel the tiny head
emerging, changing everything.

Pharaoh didn't understand
no one births a child alone.

This week we're reading parashat Shemot, the first portion in the book of Shemot (in English, called Exodus.) Rereading the portion this year, I was struck by the lines about the Egyptian midwives commanded by Pharaoh to kill the Hebrew boy-children. I've always been impressed by their willingness to stand up to Pharaoh, to offer him the bald-faced lie that they haven't been helping the Hebrew women labor. This week's Torah poem emerged out of that verse.

A ReadWritePoem note: I didn't manage to write to the prompt this week (I barely managed to write anything at all!) but if you want to see what other folks did with this week's prompt, check out this week's Get Your Poem On post. To RWP'ers: continuing apologies for my inability to read and comment on your work! I'm managing to post this because I have tied my fussy boy to my chest and am typing standing up in the kitchen while swaying side to side, but it's not exactly a comfortable or ergonomic way to read or write...