Shavuot and parenthood, then and now

When I think of my last Shavuot of rabbinical school, all I can remember are glimpses. Like the slide shows that I remember my parents used to project on the dining room wall. Most of my memories of my son's first year of life are like that. They're a punctive story told through images. He didn't sleep through the night until he was well over a year old, so my memories of that first year are spotty. The visuals are points on a line that don't quite add up to a whole.

When I try to call up the slideshow of those Shavuot memories, I see the square of light that used to shine when the carousel was first turned on, and then I see disconnected moments. Click: trying to get my kid to sleep in the portacrib in the closet area of my room at Isabella Freedman. Click: walking with the stroller in the middle of the night to the great hall, because if my kid wasn't going to sleep, then by God I wasn't going to miss Reb Zalman's 4am teaching.

Click: pushing the stroller in circles around the back of that room while I listened to the rebbe teach. He taught about the Torah of our mothers. Click: morning davening, singing in harmony with beloved friends. (Have I ever known a more fervent form of prayer than singing in harmony?) Click: morning davening, leaving the room so I could nurse my son in private on the other side of the wall. Nursing him while still immersed in the sounds of the community singing.

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My son and me: Shavuot, Isabella Freedman, 2010.

My son was six months old then. We had survived colic and postpartum depression. Sleep was still hard to come by. When I went to Isabella Freedman for Shavuot that year, I packed the "bouncy seat," the little inclined chair that played music and vibrated gently. I carried it with me. On the second morning of Shavuot I parked him in that seat so I could try to daven my way wholly through shacharit for the first time since he was born. It was harder than I expected.

By the following Shavuot, I was ordained and in the process of negotiating for what would become my first rabbinic position, serving Congregation Beth Israel, where I still serve. In coming years I would occasionally send congregants to Isabella Freedman to hear Reb Zalman teach, but I didn't feel able to go myself. I didn't return to the Shavuot retreat experience until last year, when I took a delegation from my congregation with me. (This year I will do the same.)

The year I took my infant son to Shavuot at Isabella Freedman, I knew that I would someday tell him that over the first Shavuot of his life I took him to hear my rebbe teach, and to receive a blessing from the teacher of my teachers. I wish I could remember the blessing that Reb Zalman gave him. I was still so sleep-deprived that my brain wasn't forming longterm memories, and I didn't know then that if I didn't write it down immediately it would become lost to me.

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My son and me, a few days ago.

I couldn't have imagined, then, what life would be like now. My son is seven and a half now: tall and lanky, funny and sweet. This past Shabbat we played Trivial Pursuit. The first question he drew was one about which day is considered the day of rest in Judaism, and he crowed with delight. He sings me songs, reads aloud, assembles his stuffed animals into elaborate families. (One is a family of stuffed kittens. The other features both Pokémon and giraffes.)

Parenthood has given me new ways to understand the idea that God is constantly revealing Torah. The Kotzker Rebbe taught that Shavuot is called the day of the receiving of the Torah, not the day of its giving, because God is always giving. Shavuot is when we notice the gift that we receive. Parenthood too is an adventure of always-receiving, though I'm not always mindful of the Torah that's coming through. I forget, lose track, and get caught up in ordinary life's minutiae.

And then every now and again I wake up again to the reminder that I can learn from the Torah of every human being I meet, including and especially the tall funny cuddly seven-year-old human being who is in my care and keeping. I'm grateful for what he teaches me about finding God in the presence of change. One of our tradition's names for God is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming." Parenthood is an amazing reminder that in change, we glimpse God.

 


Intensive care

A few weeks ago I received a couple of photo albums in the mail from my parents. One of them contained photographs from the first months of my life, beginning with the weeks I spent at what they then called "the neonatal unit." (Today the standard name for such a ward is NICU, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. When I was born, the hospital at which I was born didn't have a NICU, so they rushed me to Santa Rosa. Today most hospitals have at least some capacity for neonatal care.)

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That's me, about a month old, in an incubator at the neonatal unit at what was then known as Santa Rosa Children's Hospital -- now called The Children's Hospital of San Antonio. I spent forty days and forty nights there before I was well enough to go home. The number feels symbolic to me, since in the rabbinic understanding, that's a period of time that represents maturation, fruition, and change.

While visiting Texas with my son, I had the opportunity to visit Santa Rosa again with my parents and my son: not only to see the current neonatal unit (which I had seen once before), but also to visit the even newer NICU that they're building now.

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Because of hospital regulations, my son couldn't go into the NICU, but he had the opportunity to use a stethoscope to listen to the heart of the baby mannequin they use in training, and to learn a little bit about the kind of care they provide to babies who are born too soon.

The whole visit was extraordinary, though there were two parts that were especially special for me. One was having the opportunity to walk through the NICU and say silent prayers for the babies who are being cared-for there. Sister Michele O'Brien told me that they are able now to operate on babies whose hearts are the size of a quarter. Dr. George Powers, who led us on our tour, showed us the equipment they use now and explained how it differs from what they had at their disposal when I came into the world.

The other thing that was special for me was visiting the hospital chapel with my son. When one first walks into the Children's Hospital, the chapel is the first thing one sees, which is intentional: a reminder that spiritual life and care are at the heart of what they do. It's a beautiful chapel, unsurprisingly, and we spent a few moments sitting there in contemplation.

There's a little metal "tree" in the back of the chapel. People are invited to write prayers on colored paper hearts and to hang them on the tree, and when the tree fills up, the hearts are taken out into the surrounding grounds and buried there, because -- in Sister Michele's words -- the place where the hospital stands is holy ground.

My son took a heart and carefully wrote "Thank You God for this," and then he paused. "Mom, can you write 'hospital'?"

I wrote "hospital," and he hung the heart on the tree. 

Thank You God for this hospital indeed. 

 

With gratitude for everyone at the Children's Hospital of San Antonio and the extraordinary work they do to provide care for families in need. 


Winter prayer among the trees

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"This is where I like to explore," my son tells me. To an adult eye, this is the smallish band of trees and underbrush between our condo development and the condo development down the road, but to him these are The Woods.

I remember exploring the woods across the street from my house with my friends who lived down the block, when I was a kid, and I am grateful that he has a place like this where his imagination can soar.

"Thank you for showing this to me," I reply, as I follow him.

 

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"This is a place where we can talk to God," he offers.

"Thank You God for the beautiful snow," I say, feeling tickled that this is still something he and I can do. I know that someday he will outgrow the desire to let me overhear his conversations with God, but that hasn't happened yet.

"This is the special place where I feel God's spirit," he tells me. "When you cross through here, you put your hands like this." He brings his hands together in prayer. I'm not sure where he learned that posture, but I am not about to argue with him. Here in his special place, he is the guide and I am the student.

 

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"Thank You God for the woods that you made and for the snow on the trees and for this place where we can talk to You," he says, and then emerges from the sacred grove. "You try," he tells me.

I cross into the place where he was standing and I emulate his posture. "Thank You God for this beautiful snow, and for the trees, and for my wise son who teaches me things every day. Amen."

He beams at me. "Thanks, Mom," he says. "Let's go explore some more."

So we do.


Light in the darkness

NertamidAt the end of Shabbat, my son and I walked into the sanctuary of one of the synagogues in the bigger town south of here for a county-wide havdalah.

He immediately noticed the ner tamid -- the eternal light -- hanging on its chain in front of the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept. 

(He compared it to something in an iPad game, because he is an ordinary seven-year-old boy, and animation is one of his frames of reference. This ner tamid is made of white glass shot through with lines of red, which made him think of digital fire. I couldn't find a picture of that particular ner tamid, so I'm illustrating this post with a different one. They come in many styles, and all are beautiful.)

"We have one of those at our synagogue too," I told him. "But ours is made of colored stained glass. Remember?"

"Oh yeah," he said. "I know what you're talking about."

"Every synagogue has one," I said. "It's supposed to always be on, all the time." And then I thought to ask him, "Why do you think that is?"

I don't know what I thought he would say. I was primed to give him a standard answer for why the ner tamid is there -- that it represents God's loving presence which is always with us. (To an adult, I might have also added that it represents the ancestral fire that Torah teaches was to be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.)

I should have known that he would have an answer of his own.

"To light our way through the darkness of our fears," he said confidently.

Now, maybe I primed him for that, the previous morning. We'd talked about people's hopes and fears upon the inauguration of a new President, and how he might hear something about those at the havdalah event on Saturday night.

But even if my mention of hopes and fears planted a seed for him, he made the leap from there to the ner tamid all on his own. He saw intuitively how our fears can feel like darkness, and how divine presence can be a beacon. It was obvious to him that the purpose of the ner tamid is to help us find our way when life feels dark.

"You just taught me something," I said to him. "Thank you."

"I did?" He seemed excited at the prospect. "Will you write it down?"

My child knows me well. "I will," I promised him.

And now I have.


Our spiritual work is our life as it is

Here-and-now_0"I would be more spiritual if my circumstances were more perfect."

That's the "first illusion" cited by Ward Bauman in "Letting God be God," an article in Presence about lessons learned from Meister Eckhart.  (And wow, is it a familiar illusion to me!) Bauman writes:

Meister Eckhart is emphatic that our spiritual work begins where we are right now, because God is in our circumstances as they are....

Eckhart goes to the heart of the matter when it comes to spiritual work. The sense that there might be perfect circumstances that would allow us to be more spiritual is simply an illusion. We cannot escape our circumstances for some better or more spiritual condition. Our spirituality is never dependent upon the exterior conditions but rather upon the inner condition of our heart....

Our spiritual work is our life as it is.

I read the article while sitting with my sick kid who was curled up on the couch watching cartoons and found it surprisingly relevant. I know that Meister Eckhart was a Christian monastic. Rearing children was not part of his life's work or his spiritual practice. But his point that "our spiritual work is our life as it is" can be a deep teaching about spiritual life and parenthood.

There's a temptation to imagine that if I hadn't been home with my sick kid, I might have done something lofty and "spiritual" with my day. But I know that in truth, spiritual elevation arises in the attention and intention I bring to whatever is at hand. That's true whether I'm leading my community in prayer, or checking my son's temperature for the umpteenth time today.

The struggle to remember that spiritual life is "our life as it is" (not as we imagine it could or should be) isn't limited only to those who are rearing young children. Anything can feed the illusion that if only my circumstances were more ideal I would lead a "more spiritual" life. If only I had the perfect job, or if only my relationships were in better order, or if only life were different.

"If only I could afford to hire a cleaning service, I would spend more time praying" -- so goes the fantasy, anyway. But the real work is what my Hasidic forebears call avodah b'gashmiut, "service in / through corporeality." Can I find God's presence even in cleaning my house or tending my kid? Can I remember that spiritual life is always and only ever right here, right now ? 

The place to encounter God's presence is this place. The time to open to God's presence is this time. Not the imagined place-and-time when all the obligations will be taken-care-of, when all the tangles will be untied, when all the obstacles will be surmounted. The "obstacles" themselves are opportunities to search for meaning, to open to something greater than myself.

As this week's Torah portion reminds us, God can be in this very place! It was true for Jacob who dreamed of a ladder linking heaven and earth, and it is true for me in my living room with the LEGOs and the in-ear thermometer and the kids' Motrin. My circumstances will never be perfect, and neither will I. The work of spiritual life is finding holiness in the here and now.


Reflections on the anniversary of becoming a mom

4166882213_c88ecdf42d_zUntil I became a parent, I didn't think much about how every person's birthday can (or at least might) also mark a day of transition for the woman who brought that person into the world. I didn't think about how my birthday is a kind of anniversary for my mother. Year after year, my birthday must be for her a reminder of the day in late March when I decided I was ready to enter the world some ten weeks ahead of schedule.

Each year on my son's birthday I remember what it was like to drive to the hospital on the day after Thanksgiving. I remember how it felt to be attached to the pitocin drip that told my body it was time to begin labor, and to move through labor (with expert assistance from nursing staff, doula, and obstetrician). I remember closing my eyes and singing we are opening up in sweet surrender silently to myself when it was time to push.

I remember holding an impossibly tiny newborn on my chest, snugged in a warm blanket fresh out of the dryer. I remember the clarity of mind that accompanied that moment -- the realization that my life had changed in ways I knew I couldn't yet imagine. I remember eating pizza, that night -- we bought several, after he was born, and distributed them giddily to the nursing staff on duty -- and how good it tasted after the work of labor. I remember thinking okay, now what?

I didn't know then that the valley of the shadow of postpartum depression awaited me. I didn't know then that I would write one poem a week during my son's first year of life -- the poems that now make up Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, 2013). I re-read that collection now and feel a strange combination of recognition and unfamiliarity. Life with a seven year old bears almost no resemblance to what I chronicled then. But I am endlessly grateful for the adventure of parenthood. I'm endlessly grateful for the soul that is in my keeping, this beautiful and thoughtful and goofy and funny human being who I am privileged to parent.

IMG_3754Becoming a parent has changed my relationship with God. I have been blessed to learn deep compassion and empathy in other ways too, not only through the vehicle of parenthood. There are others beyond my son to whom I extend my heart and my care. But I feel a unique responsibility for and to my son, because I grew him from component cells. Because I brought him into this world.

I take the love and compassion and anticipatory grief I feel for my child (who is beautiful, and perfect, and deserving of care, and who I know will experience losses over his life, as we all do) and I magnify it by the number of souls who have ever lived and will ever live, and I glimpse of what God must feel. Ha-rachaman: the Merciful One, the Enwombed One, the One in Whose Compassionate Womb all of creation is nurtured!

And the pride and joy and satisfaction I find in my child (who is kind and thoughtful and surprising) magnified by the number of souls who have ever lived and will ever live... Contemplating that, I have renewed empathy for the cosmic Parent Who weeps with us when we are hurt, and rejoices with us when we are glad, and wants us to grow into all that we can become, as I want my child to grow into everything that he can become. 

Today, as I wish my son a happy seventh birthday, I wish myself a happy seventh anniversary of motherhood. May I live up to the challenge of rearing him to be simultaneously strong and gentle, thoughtful and empathetic, creative and rooted: a citizen of the wide world who knows where he comes from, whose deep roots enable him to spread his wings as he becomes whoever he yearns to be.

 


Letters to God from a little boy

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At the end of the summer, not this past summer but the one before, I led davenen at my synagogue with Rabbi David Evan Markus. It was such a spectacular Shabbat morning that we decided to set up chairs outside, beside the little wall that extends beyond our building. When we turned east for the bar'chu, the people who were sitting right next to the wall turned and faced the wall in prayer and suddenly several of us made the exact same mental leap: the wall became our mini-kotel. (I wrote about it at the time.) When the Days of Awe rolled around, I tried an experiment: on Yom Kippur I invited congregants to write kvitlach, notes to God expressing whatever they most needed to say, and to tuck them into the holes in that wall as pilgrims tuck notes into the cracks between the stones at the Kotel in Jerusalem.

So many people came up to me afterwards and thanked me for that practice that I resolved to do it again. This year once again, at the close of Yom Kippur morning services, I invited those who are comfortable writing on chag to write notes to God saying whatever they most needed to say and put them in the wall, and I invited those who do not write on holidays to walk out to the wall and place their hands on the wall and take a few moments for silent prayer. And people did so, and I was glad. When the day came to its close, I went outside to collect the notes in order to burn them as I had promised that I would do... and my son, who is going on seven, followed me outside to see what I was doing. I explained to him what the grown-ups had done, and to my surprise, he got upset. "How come I didn't get to write one?"

Then he brightened. "Hey, can I write one now?" I said yes, of course. He took a pad of paper and a pencil and carefully wrote, in his round first-grade handwriting, three separate notes to God. One of them said "Thank You God for the words that we speak." (I told him I think that's a beautiful prayer.) Another was an apology. And the third he kept to himself, and I don't know what it said. Together we rolled them up, and went outside into the moonlight, and tucked them into the holes in the wall. "I don't want you to burn them yet," he said. "I want them to stay there for a few days, because I just put them there, and maybe God hasn't received them yet." I said okay, and we left them there -- scraps of wadded-up paper, holy messages gleaming as white as his Yom Kippur shirt against the velvety darkness of the night.


Halaila hazeh (on this night)

After pyjamas, tooth brushing, and reading a book (which lately means him reading Press Here to me), we turn off the lights. Beneath the glowing stars on the ceiling we say prayers and sing our bedtime songs. This always includes the one-line shema, sung to the melody my mother taught me (which I now know to be by Sulzer.) This week I've started singing the first two of the Four Questions at bedtime, too.

Last year I sang the first question to him every night for a month and by Pesach he was able to belt it out proudly. This year I suggested he could learn the first two, and at first he balked. "I don't know," he said. "What if I can't do it?" I assured him that if he isn't comfortable singing them by Pesach, he won't have to. Grudgingly he admitted that I could sing them to him, but insisted he wouldn't sing along.

That was a few days ago. Then, one night as I began singing "Mah nishtanah," he joined in. To my surprise, he sang both of the questions with me, giggling all the way. When we were done I told him I was proud of him. He said he'd sing the questions to himself until he fell asleep. Then we sang the angel song. These days he usually chooses Shir Yaakov's melody over Carlebach's, though I love them both.

Then he said "Wait, before 'Goodnight You Moonlight Ladies' can I pray for one thing?"

"Of course," I said, startled.

"Thank You God for all the things You put in the world that make us feel better when we're not so happy," he said earnestly, and my heart grew three sizes at his spontaneous offering of prayer and his comfort with speaking not just about God but to God.  "Amen," I said. "That's a beautiful prayer." (And I wondered what brought that on, though by then it was already well past official bedtime, so I didn't ask.)

Then I sang him our variation on James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" (that's the aforementioned "moonlight ladies" lullaby, which we've been singing to him pretty much since the week he was born) and kissed him goodnight. Sure enough, when I walked by his room on my way upstairs, I heard him singing the Four Questions to himself. "Halaila hazeh, halaila hazeh..." On this night, on this night...

On this night, I am proud of my kid. On this night, I am humbled by my kid. On this night, I am so grateful for my kid.


Ten years with the angels

1.

The year is 2005. I am at the old Elat Chayyim -- in its original campus, the Catskills hotel in Accord, NY. It is "smicha students' week"  and I am not yet a student. I'm spending the week with the ALEPH Ordinations Programs community: learning with them, dining with them, davening with them.

This is part of our mutual discernment process: is this the right program for me? (I know in my bones that it is.) Am I the right fit for them? (I pray with my whole heart that I am.) I am staying in a room with two students and another applicant. I don't yet know that I will begin the program in the fall.

DLTI -- the Davenen Leadership Training Institute -- is meeting during this same week. I will realize, years later, that this must be their third session of four. Their facility with leading prayer, and the way their energies and harmonies interweave seamlessly, would not be possible during week one.

But at this moment I don't know that, and I'm mostly just awed by the way they lead prayer. This is the first time in my life that I hear weekday nusach, the melodic mode used for weekday davenen, and I fall in love with it instantly. It's also the first time I ever hear an invocation of the angels at bedtime.

One night, my room-mates who are in the program sing it to the two of us in the room who are applicants. The melody is by R' Shlomo Carlebach z"l. "In the name of God, the God of Israel -- on my right is Michael, on my left is Gavriel..." When did anyone last sing me a lullaby? It brings me to tears.

 

2.

The year is 2010. I am once again at smicha students' week -- this time at Pearlstone, a Jewish retreat center outside of Baltimore. I am spending two weeks there with the entire AOP community. It will be my last summer residency as a rabbinic student. It is also my first summer residency with a baby.

My mother spends a week there taking care of the baby so that I can go to class. She brings him to me when he needs to nurse, and otherwise she strolls him around the grounds, reads him board books, plays with him. One night she asks me the name of the beautiful Israeli folksong I sing him at bedtime.

It takes me a moment to realize that she means this piece of traditional liturgy, set to R' Shlomo's melody. I explain that this is an invocation of the angels -- Michael, Gavriel, Uriel, Raphael -- to watch over us while we sleep. Part of the liturgy of the bedtime shema. Every night, she listens to me sing.

 

3.

The year is 2015. I am perched on the edge of my son's bed. "Do you want me to say the prayers tonight, or do you want to say them?" I ask. Tonight he wants to do them himself. He blesses everyone. He sings the shema. And then he sings me the angel song, in Hebrew and in English.

Some of the Hebrew words are a bit garbled. And I have no idea what he thinks an angel is. But in this moment, I am awestruck. Ten years ago the idea of invoking the angels of wonder, strength, light, and comfort was new to me. Five years ago, it was new to my mom. But this is not new to my son.

For him, this is ordinary. A natural part of the bedtime routine, just like saying "God bless..." and singing the shema. And sometimes now, before his own bedtime, my son sings the angel song to me -- just as my friends did, bringing me to tears in that dorm room at the old Elat Chayyim, a lifetime ago.

 

 

Related:Bedtime angels, July 2015


Navigating transitions with grace - at the Wisdom Daily

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...Watching my son learn to navigate transitions has given me more compassion for myself as I navigate my own emotional landscape. I have more life experience than he does, so I should be able to face transitions with less anxiety and more grace. And frequently I do. But I also struggle with beginnings and endings. I think everyone does.

One season gives way to the next. Summer vacation gives way to school. On the Jewish calendar, we've just moved from an old year into a new one. All of these transitions come bearing gifts - as well as challenges. And if that's true for annual transitions like the shift from summer to fall, how much more true it is for emotional transitions which may not follow any calendar or arise predictably....

That's a taste of my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily. Click through to read the whole thing: Can You Learn to Love Navigating Transitions?


New Year's Poem 2015 / 5776


When the list of school supplies arrives
my heart skips a beat. I'm not ready.

How can I be surprised? I've known all along
how one month follows the next, but

kindergarten looms. (Not, though,
for the five year old. Time renews itself

every time he opens his eyes.) When the days
of awe appear again on the horizon

my heart skips a beat. I'm not ready.
How can I be surprised? I've known all along

how the spiral of the year recycles end
into beginning again. Another summer

yields with less or more grace to fall
and I do too. Sometimes my gears grind,

I wish tomorrow would come sooner
or yesterday would return. I blink

and a month disappears. Where was I?
How can I be surprised? I've known all along

without my attention next new moon won't be
the world's birthday, just a night with less light.

And this impossibly precious moment
when I could be cupping my hand

to the side of your face with tenderness --
gone like the numbers on a digital clock.

But if I stop to see what's in front of me
and choose the blessing in it, if I

sanctify the threshold between now
and what comes after now, and after now,

then every moment gleams, infinite
as the love which links your heart and mine.

 

לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו

May you be inscribed for a good and sweet year!

From me and my family, to you and yours.

 

(For those who are so inclined, here's a link to my archive of new year's card poems... and here's the new year's poem I co-wrote with my ALEPH co-chair Rabbi David Evan Markus.)


i carry it in my heart

B9646da06dccdd354b36623ee8b98897You've probably heard the aphorism that being a parent is like having a piece of one's heart walking around outside of one's chest. Being a parent means being vulnerable to everything that can go wrong in the world. It means (or should mean) being intimately attuned to someone else's physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual wellbeing; feeling their sorrows and their joys.

This is not only true of being a parent. It is the complicated blessing of being a person who loves any other person deeply. When someone is beloved to me, and I to them, our hearts become permeable. I open myself to feeling some of what my beloveds feel. I yearn for my beloveds to be blessed with joy, and I accept that when they feel grief my own heart will ache along with theirs.

In this place and time the language of love and beloved is presumed to be romantic, having to do with two people "falling in love." But I think that if that's all the word "beloved" means to us, then we're shrinking the capacity of our language. A sibling can be beloved. A friend can be beloved. We don't just "fall" in love; if we're blessed to have relationships which deepen over time, we grow in love.

Every intimate relationship comes with the price tag of having a piece of one's heart walking around outside of one's chest, vulnerable to harm. If I give a piece of my heart to everyone who is beloved to me, then my heart is always expanding. A little piece of me travels with each of my beloveds wherever they go. An invisible thread connects my heart to theirs, always. They are never alone. Neither am I.

This is an incalculable gift. It is beyond words, and I don't say that lightly -- God knows I have plenty of words for most occasions! But emotional and spiritual intimacy beggars my language. We don't have good words for it, and the words we do have are too-easily written-off as overblown or corny. To love and to be loved -- to be beloved...! The connection is more than I know how to describe.

And sometimes the heartache is, too. I don't mean the heartache you hear about in pop songs, one lover leaving another behind. I mean the heartache of precisely the opposite: of being connected, heart to heart, feeling a loved one's happiness with them -- and also their sorrow or their grief. Have you ever felt so much love for someone that your heart threatens to burst out of your chest?

I've been thinking lately about what it means to seek to live with an open heart -- even when that also means that my heart is vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, not only my own but also the fortunes of those whom I love. How can I live that truth with integrity? How can I express my love in a way which will help to sustain my beloveds, and how can I receive their caring in return?

I'm using the term "beloved" to mean someone dear to my heart. But Beloved, with a capital B, is one of our tradition's ways of imagining God. God is the ultimate Beloved, and to God, we are all beloved. God has compassion for us, which is to say, God feels with us, because we are beloved of God. When we feel sorrow, God's heart breaks along with ours... and when we feel joy, we illuminate the heavens.

Our liturgy teaches that we are loved by an unending love -- a love transcending all space and time. A forever love. An infinite love. Sometimes I catch glimmers of how the love I feel for my beloveds is an infinitesimal fragment of that ahavat olam. Sometimes my love threatens to overflow my chest, and I think: I'm just one. If we could put together the love of all humanity, we could move mountains.

To borrow a term from Thich Nhat Hanh, when we love each other we inter-are. I become a part of you, and you become a part of me. This is one of the places where I experience God: in the connection between your heart and mine. God is in the space between us which is charged with concern and with caring and with love. And that's true whether we are physically side by side, or a thousand miles apart.

"When you love one another, then God is within you," as the Shaker hymn has it. Maybe that's why my heart feels too expansive for my chest. What human ribcage could contain that luminous Presence which is made manifest within us when we open our hearts in loving connection? As e. e. cummings wrotei carry your heart(i carry it in my heart) -- and in the link between our hearts, there is God.


Childhood cancer: I have no words.

A few years ago I posted about two little boys who were fighting cancer, named Gus and Sam. At the time, Gus was four and had recently undergone brain surgery to remove a tumor; Sam was six and was undergoing treatment for leukemia. Sam -- a.k.a. Superman Sam -- died of his cancer. Gus went into remission.

Until now. Gus' mom Sasha recently posted that the doctors have found more tumors in Gus's brain. They are going to operate again, a few days after he finishes kindergarten.

I have no words to offer in response to the horror which is pediatric cancer. I am holding Gus and his family in my heart and in my prayers. Jewish tradition teaches that prayers are uplifted by our tzedakah, our righteous giving. Perhaps my prayers for Gus will have more "oomph," as it were, because I am accompanying them with a gift of money in his honor / toward his treatment or care.

If you would like to help defray the expenses of Gus's treatment, his family has established a dedicated PayPal account at 10birthdaysforgus@gmail.com -- but they request especially that we donate to the Tanner Seebaum Foundation. His mom writes, "It's run by friends of ours and directly supports research into Gus' cancer, most of which is done by his oncologists. Right now, that research is going to save his life."

If you can spare a few dollars, the Tanner Seebaum foundation is a good place to give them. Give in honor of Gus; give in hopes that the research that foundation is doing will find better ways to help kids like Gus and their families who are dealing with tumors of the brain and spine.

In memory of Sam, donations are also welcomed at the Sam Sommer Fund, established by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer and Rabbi Michael Sommer, Sam's parents. That fund supports pediatric cancer research and pediatric cancer patients and their families. The Sommer family has also supported the St. Baldrick's Shave for the Brave campaign.

On a related note: those who follow me on Facebook may have seen recently that I posted a link to Rabbi Phyllis Sommer's TEDx talk Dead is Dead: Euphemisms and the Power of Words. It's about fifteen minutes long and it is incredibly powerful. (It has also shaped my willingness, in this post, to use real words like "Sam died" instead of euphemisms like "Phyllis and Michael lost their son.") I recommend the video highly.

Please join me in praying for Gus and his family.

May the One who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless those in need of healing of body, mind and spirit.  May the compassion of the Holy One be upon them and watch over them.  Strengthen them with courage in each day, along with all who are ill, now and swiftly.  And let us say: Amen.


 


#blogExodus 7: Ask

Blogexodus5775Every night before bed I sit with our son and we say our prayers (asking God to bless everyone we know and love, "and everybody else, amen" and the shema) and then we sing a handful of songs.

There's a lullaby we've been singing to him all his life which is still part of our bedtime routine (though just this week he's beginning to insist that he's outgrown it, which feels bittersweet.) Usually one of us also sings "I Love You, A Bushel And A Peck."

About a month ago, around Purim-time, I started adding the first question of the Four Questions to our bedtime routine. Within a couple of weeks, he was singing along. Now he sings the whole first question by himself proudly, and sings along with most of the words of the other questions too.

I love hearing him sing the Four Questions. My heart swells every time I hear it. One of my strongest memories of my own childhood seders is of singing the Four Questions proudly in front of my aunts and uncles and cousins. It was my job, and I loved that moment in the spotlight. That our son is now growing into that role brings me tremendous joy.

Asking the questions is central to the seder. Why is this night different from all other nights? Why are we doing these unusual things? Why are we putting pillows on all the chairs, why are you roasting an egg, why are we reading a storybook during dinnertime, why do you have your guitar at the dinner table, why are we hitting each other with scallions? According to one theory, all of the rigamarole of the seder evolved precisely in order to spur kids to ask the question "why."

Because when the kids ask, then we can answer. We do this because of what God did for us when God brought us forth from slavery to freedom, from constriction to expansiveness. We do this to remember that we are free and that with freedom comes responsibility. We do this because it connects us with the generations and with our community around the globe, through all space and time. We do this because it makes you want to ask, and when you ask, then we can tell you this story which we so love.

 

This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.

Last year I wrote a poem in response to this prompt. It's here: Daily April poem for #blogExodus: Ask.


The work

Post_black525This is the work: remembering reasons for gratitude before I even get out of bed. There is always something for which I could be saying thank You.

This is the work: balancing brisk ("c'mon, we've got to get out of the house, I'm going to be late") with gentle ("want me to help you with your sneakers?")

This is the work: laughing at the same jokes again and again, because no one has an appetite for repetition like a five-year-old who's just discovered the "interrupting cow."

Noticing where I've made progress in my inner life, and celebrating myself for that. Noticing where I'm bumping again into things I thought I'd figured out, and forgiving myself for that.

Fixing the same meals, singing the same songs, doing the same bedtime routine. Waking myself up to the sweetness cradled in that routine's familiar contours.

Finding blessings in whatever unfolds. Even when the day is boring or grey or I feel as though I'm walking on a treadmill without getting anywhere. Can I turn the treadmill into a meditation labyrinth, where what matters are my conscious foosteps, not the destination?

This is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. It only comes once. Tomorrow will be a new day, filled with new joys and new adventures. Or filled with new sorrows and new challenges. Or all of the above. But whatever it is, it won't be today. I don't want to miss today.

This is the work: setting boundaries even when our son doesn't like them, even when he tells me tearfully "if you say that one more time I won't be your friend!" Letting him know that it's okay to feel what he feels, and that I hear him, and that the rule still stands.

Letting myself know that it's okay to feel what I feel, and that God hears me, even when the world doesn't conform to my every wish any more than it conforms to our son's every wish. Remembering that even on my crankiest days, I am loved unconditionally.

Setting aside expectations so that I can embrace what is, whatever it is. Trying to grow radical acceptance and trust in the sometimes rocky soil of my heart. Watering that soil with prayer. Practicing the mantra of "I love what comes and I love what goes."

Parenthood is -- spiritual life is -- a parade of constant changes. Infancy gives way to toddlerhood, which gives way to childhood. The bitter passes away, and so does the sweet. Maybe for God, every instant of our lives coexists, but we're time-bound. This is the work: this moment, right now.

 

Image: a poetry postcard featuring a quote from Sophie Cabot Black. I learned the phrase slightly differently from my mentor Jason Shinder z"l -- "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work."

 


What we remember

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My maternal grandmother; her two daughters; three of their daughters, including me.


Sometimes I wonder: what stories will our son tell about his growing-up, in years to come? How will he remember his childhood? What memories will he seize onto and hold fast amid the swirl of all the other memories which wash away? Sometimes I can't believe that he won't remember much of these early years. How can it be that he won't remember last night's potluck dinner in the synagogue sukkah, sitting at the kids' table, singing along with the Shabbat blessings, and then whooping and laughing while playing tag with the other kids in the deepening dark outside the sukkah which gleamed with strings of little lights?

And yet I don't remember much about being five, much less the years which came before it. My fifth birthday party was a dress-up party at a fancy restaurant called the University Club, at the top of one of the few tall buildings near our neighborhood. I remember dressing up in one of Mom's blue dresses -- made of crinkled chiffon, I think, or something like it -- and wearing a big strand of her pearls and a floppy sun hat. I remember that she asked if I wanted to pierce my ears to surprise my father, but I wasn't ready to do that, so we got me clip-ons instead. I remember the scratchy gold ribbon which held the high heeled shoes on my feet. Do I remember this because there is a Polaroid picture of it and I've had that photograph to remind me in the interim? Am I remembering a memory of a memory?

I must have been attending the Judson Montessori school then, in the old church building just around the corner from the Pontiac dealership. I remember painting at an easel, doing math with sticks which represented tens and hundreds, looking at a timeline made out of felt which depicted the earth's history. (Most of it was black, denoting the time when the earth formed and cooled. Then there was green for the time when plants arose, and yellow for the dinosaurs, and human history was represented by a tiny nubbin of red felt at one end.) I remember eating meals there while listening to Ravel's "Bolero." I remember coming home and throwing tea parties with my miniature set of rose-printed china, filling the tea cups with Bosco-flavored chocolate milk.

A basically happy childhood blurs together in memory. We remember the unusual moments against the backrop of undifferentiated normalcy. (Take the winter of 1985: I remember the "San Antonio blizzard of '85" which dropped thirteen inches of snow on my hometown, and I remember my middle brother's wedding the week of that blizzard, but the rest of the season is lost to me now.) As we age, it seems, our more recent memories are stacked on top of the pile and the oldest memories compress like flakes of soft snow packed over centuries into glacial ice. What would it take to find those memories again?

Continue reading "What we remember" »


A day in the sun

An afternoon at a friend's house. The scent of sunscreen, the feel of water lapping against my body, the excited squeals of several little boys wearing floaties and splashing around the pool clutching pool noodles and kickboards emblazoned with superheroes.

In between swishing our kids through the water in giggly circles, the adults talk about books we've been reading, about the local college (from which many in this circle of friends graduated, and where others among us now teach), about summer memories.

I remember chlorinated swimming pools, and fingers wrinkled pruny from spending all day there. The rub of the diving board beneath my tender toes. Sunwarmed bricks at the edge of the pool. Night swimming, lit by one underwater light.

I remember the warm waters of Lake McQueeney and the gentle Guadalupe which feeds into it. I remember floating in an inner tube down the river, or leaping from the back of a boat in a lifevest and skis, letting rough woven rope play through my hands.

And I remember basking like a contented lizard in the south Texas sun, lying on a woven chaise and listening to Ottmar Liebert or k.d. lang as sweat dripped down my nose, holding out as long as I could before diving into the pool and exulting in the cool splash.

In between swimming this afternoon we pause to eat cold crisp cubes of watermelon and fresh local strawberries warm from the sun. I wonder what this group of little boys will remember about this ordinary, extraordinary summer day when they are grown.

 


Talking to kids about friends, neighbors, and danger

My dear friend Ayesha Mattu tweeted this to me, and my mind started racing. Because on the one hand, I am an incredible admirer of Abraham. I try to take him as a role model. At every Jewish wedding I perform I mention that the chuppah (wedding canopy) is open on all sides, like the tent of Abraham -- a symbol of welcome and openness to the diversity of human experience. I love that Abraham is called the "friend of God," and I love that our tradition teaches he went forth in response to God's call into unknown adventure. I want our son to grow up to emulate Abraham in these ways.

And on the other hand...our son is four-and-a-half. I know that he still inhabits the Eden of believing that everyone in the world is loving and kind and genuinely wants the best for him. Someday I am going to have to teach him that he can't trust everyone, and that breaks my heart -- but that's a heartbreak I infinitely prefer to (God forbid!) the heartbreak of him blithely following someone into harm. How do I navigate that tension?

The Hasidic master known as the Meor Eynayim ("The Light of the Eyes") taught that when Abraham opened his home in hospitality to strangers, he was greeting the face of Shekhinah. In other words: when we open ourselves to those who are different from us, we encounter the presence of God. I believe this deeply, and I aspire to live by its light. After all, the verse most often repeated in Torah the injunction to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Being kind to the stranger is central to our tradition.

We've tried to teach our son to be kind to everyone he meets. To treat everyone he meets as a potential friend. To be gracious (okay -- as gracious as a four-year-old can be!) in sharing toys and art supplies and stickers when friends come over. To be open to meeting new people and having new adventures. So far I think it's working. He is one of the most open, sweet, and (age-appropriately) generous kids I know. Once, in an airport, he saw a baby crying and he wanted to give that baby his lovey, because he knew the lovey helped him stop crying when he was sad. I love this about our kid.

And yet I know that not every new person, not every new adventure, is safe.

I remember a few years ago taking our son to the local coffee shop (with which he was already intimately familiar!) and standing at the counter to buy some ground coffee -- and looking down to discover that he was no longer by my side. I panicked and shouted his name. "Oh, he's over there," said the barista, pointing to a table, and I saw our son seated with four perfect strangers, merrily babbling to them as they laughed, clearly enjoying his company. "I figured you knew them...?" I did not know them. Thank God, they were friendly strangers! And in our small college town, that's usually a safe assumption. But that isn't true everywhere.

In the Twitter conversation which arose out of Ayesha's tweet, she mentioned the tension of wanting to keep her son safe and also wanting him to connect with the homeless and with those in need. I know the feeling, though I'm pretty sure our son has never seen a homeless person -- homelessness does exist in our rural county, but not in his orbit. We try to teach him generosity in the small ways that we can (for instance, teaching him that the clothes he's outgrown go to other kids; that toys he's outgrown go to kids who might not have toys of their own) -- but I don't know how he'll respond the first time he sees genuine need. And I hate that we will eventually have to teach him that there are people in the world who seem ordinary but might have hurtful intent.

How can I teach our son to emulate Abraham's openness and hospitality without putting him in danger? Right now his experiences with unfamiliar adults are curated and moderated by we who care for him -- his parents, his grandparents, his schoolteachers. As he gets older, we'll continue teaching him discernment about strangers and safety in different situations. (Here's a good article about how to talk to young children about strangers.) I desperately want to protect him from harm -- and I also don't want him to lose his ability to be open to, to befriend, and to learn from people who may be different from him.

Other parents, teachers, therapists, social workers, anyone reading this who wants to weigh in: how do you balance teaching children about openness to strangers, to the "Other," with age-appropriate awareness of the world and its dangers?


Thank you, God, for the flowers on the trees

Tree-blossoms-pink-spring-flowering-trees-baslee-troutman-baslee-troutman-fine-art-printsOur son has been really excited about the slow unfolding of spring. Never mind that it's been in the forties and raining. Ever the optimist, he asks every morning if today's the day he can wear short sleeves. He literally jumps for joy at the sight of daffodils. And today we glimpsed the year's first blooming tree.

"Look," I said, pointing out the car window, "that tree's starting to bloom!"

"What does bloom mean?" he asked.

"Bloom means flower," I told him. "That tree is going to have flowers." I spotted another one. "And that one, too!"

"Wow! I didn't know that! I thought flowers grow on the ground."

"They do," I agreed, "and also, some kinds of trees have flowers in the spring. Actually, there's a special blessing to say when you first see trees blooming," I told him. "Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam --"

And then I faltered. I haven't said the blessing over blooming trees since last spring; I couldn't remember exactly how it went. "And then you thank God for making the beautiful trees and their flowers and everything in the world," I concluded.

"I can't say all of that," he told me primly. I guess even in English, that's a mouthful.

"You could just say thank you for the trees and their flowers," I suggested.

"Thank you God for the flowers on the trees!" he crowed, satisfied. And then he had an idea. "When it's Friday night we could say 'Shabbat shalom, trees!'"

"We could," I agreed. Thank You, God, for this kid, I thought, as we drove on.

 

(You can find the blessing for blooming trees, along with some commentary, here: The Annual Blessing Over Trees.)


Daily April poem: terza rima

 

GIFT


You stand beside and sing the words with me.
I did the same in Texas years ago.
How is this night different? Come and see.

My childhood seders aren't for you to know.
You draw an orange on your seder plate.
What will you remember as you grow?

You're bleary-eyed: we kept you up too late.
I can't regret allowing you your glee
at finding hidden treasure. Now I wait

to see what sticks. What matters most to me
is that you come to love the telling too.
Once we were slaves to Pharaoh; now we're free.

The songs, the story -- they're my gift to you.

 


Today's prompt at NaPoWriMo asks us to try terza rima, a form featuring three-line stanzas with a specific rhyme scheme.

My poem arises out of last night's seder, which was wonderful in so many ways. Chag sameach / happy holiday to all who celebrate!

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