#blogExodus 7: Blessing

12242603645_269a76785f_nThis past Shabbat was my first Shabbat home from my trip to Israel and the West Bank, and I settled back into our usual Friday evening traditions.

Step one is a trip to the A-Frame bakery for a challah and a cookie. We go there on our way home from preschool. I have known Sharon, the baker, for many years. (She catered the party after our son's brit milah.) Every week she marvels at how big he's getting, how tall, how chatty, how sweet.

Step two is Shabbat dinner with special guests who join us via videoconference. At the hour when our son habitually eats dinner, we sit around our small kitchen table with Shabbat candles, silver kiddush cups, and an open laptop.

Skyping with my parents for Shabbat has turned out to be a gift for me as much as it is for him and for them. I'm not sure I've ever lit candles with my parents on a weekly basis. Certainly not in the twenty-odd years since I left home. And now it's something I look forward to every week. Our son does, too.

The previous week when I was in Jerusalem, I experienced some really amazing Friday night kabbalat Shabbat prayer. It was a wonderful service, with great music, great kavanah (intention/heart), and terrific company. I adored it. And I also missed my son, and this Skyping-with-my-parents tradition, keenly. I was aware, in that moment, of what a blessing it is that I was able to miss him so. What a blessing to have him in my life. What a blessing to be in Jerusalem seeking a bit of sustenance for my spirit -- and  to have this reason to feel as though a part of my heart were somewhere else. My heart was in the west while I was in the east, as it were.

All of that was in my mind on Friday night as we sat at the table to Skype with my parents. Things started more or less as usual: he excitedly showed them a seascape he had made in preschool this week, they chatted a bit, and then we got down to making Shabbat. We blessed candles. We blessed juice. We blessed challah. And then, I reminded him, my last blessing would be for him. He knows this already; he sings along with the blessings now, and he knows that after candles and juice and challah I bless him.

But this time he surprised me. "And my last blessing is for you!" he told me in return. He used to respond to my blessing of peace with a blessing of "a piece" of challah, but it's been almost a year since the last time that happened.

"Do you want to go first?" I asked, and he said yes. So I sat back and waited, curious to see what would come out of his mouth.

He said, "Baruch atah Adonai -- " and then paused for a second, and finished, "love -- Mommy." He's got the beginning of the standard blessing formula down! After that the syntax admittedly got a little bit confused. Was he thanking God for love and for me? Was he equating Mommy with love? Was he asking God to give love to me? Honestly, I have no idea, and I couldn't care less. I was so tickled that he wanted to give me a blessing, that he's learned how our standard blessings begin, and that the blessing brought me together with God and with love. What could be sweeter?

It was the best blessing ever, and I told him so. He gave me a hug, and we cuddled for a while, and then I offered the priestly blessing, as I do every week, this time with him half-in my lap. And then we returned to chatting with my parents, who were delighted to have witnessed this spontaneous outpouring of Shabbat joy. A blessing for everyone.

 

The photo accompanying this post is a few months old (you can tell because he's wearing a wool sweater, and also it's dark outside at his dinner hour, which is thankfully no longer true), but it gives you the basic idea.

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.

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Not a sign of defeat, but a sign of engagement

I just shared a post about prayer and parenthood. (Which has garnered some lovely comments, by the way; thanks, y'all!) Next up, I wanted to offer something different. Variety being the spice of life, and all that. But apparently the writing I'm doing this week is either for other sources (and therefore not publishable here), or is on these same themes. As my mentor Jason Shinder used to say, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." I guess this intersection is the work in which I'm immersed at this moment in time.

Lately, in fits and starts, I've been reading Verlyn Klinkenborg's Several short sentences about writing. I've dogeared the page where this appears:

But if you accept that writing is hard work,
And that's what it feels like while you're writing,
Then everything is just as it should be.
Your labor isn't a sign of defeat.
It's a sign of engagement.
The difference is all in your mind, but what a difference.

He's talking about the writing life, of course, though (predictably) I've been thinking of this as pertaining to spiritual life, too. Writing life, spiritual life: both will inevitably contain times when "the thrill is gone," when the spark doesn't feel as though it's there; times when one has to work hard just to get the boulder moving up the hill, or when the journey is arduous instead of scintillating. And that's not a sign of failure, as Klinkenborg notes: it's a sign that one is engaged in something that matters.

Or, taking his words in a different direction, try this paraphrase:

But if you accept that parenting is hard work,
And that's what it feels like while you're parenting,
Then everything is just as it should be.
Your labor isn't a sign of defeat.
It's a sign of engagement.
The difference is all in your mind, but what a difference.

Parenting is hard work! And it's supposed to be. Though rearing a four-year-old presents different challenges than caring for an infant, it's still work. I still struggle to maintain the good humor, the equanimity, the right balance of gentleness and firmness to which I aspire. I still fall down on the job, snap at our son when I didn't mean to, drive myself up a tree with fruitless attempts to convince him to try a food which he doesn't already know he enjoys. But if I take Klinkenborg to heart, then the fact that parenting is hard work doesn't mean I'm failing at it -- on the contrary, it means I'm doing it well.

Just so with spiritual life. Sometimes my prayer life and my spiritual consciousness "jut flows," and sometimes it feels as though the channels are blocked, as though God isn't listening -- or maybe as though I can't muster the focus to be listening in return. Sometimes I can't wait to set aside time for daily prayer, and other times I want to skip it all and just go back to sleep. That doesn't mean I'm failing in my spiritual life. If I'm paying enough attention to notice that sometimes it's easy, and sometimes it's hard, then I'm paying attention, period, and that's an essential component of spiritual life.

And just so with writing. Whether I'm writing poetry, or blog posts, or essays, there's work involved in choosing the right words and putting them in the right order -- reading them aloud, winnowing a word here and a phrase there, reading them aloud again -- paying attention to white space, scrapping the boring words and replacing them with words which (ideally) sing. That's the craft of writing. Sometimes it feels like flying, but more often it feels like building a stone wall, testing it for soundness, taking it apart, building it again. (Which is why Stone Work, by John Jerome, manages to be simultaneously about building a stone wall and about the writing life. I miss you, John.)

As Thomas Lux wrote in his poem "An Horatian Notion" (one of the few poems I've ever memorized):

...Inspiration, the donnée

the gift, the bolt of fire
down the arm that makes the art?
Give me, please, a break!
You make the thing because you love the thing
and you love the thing because someone else loved it
enough to make you love it.

(I wrote a kind of d'var Torah on that poem a while back -- What are we here for?) Poetry doesn't come from a bolt of fire. Sustained spiritual practice doesn't either. Though sometimes peak spiritual experiences can involve a kind of ecstatic blaze, the way to cultivate that flame is to tend it carefully, day in and day out, even when you don't feel like keeping the fire burning. The way to cultivate poetry is to keep writing and revising it. And as for parenting -- I don't think one gets a choice, having become a parent, about whether or not to keep doing it on a daily basis! These are long-haul journeys. We enter into them trusting that there will be blessings to balance the labor.

There's something beautiful, to me, in the idea that these lifelong practices take work, and that they're supposed to take work. It's okay if writing is hard -- if spiritual life is hard -- if parenting is hard. "The labor isn't a sign of defeat. / It's a sign of engagement." It's how we know we're actually in the world, doing work that matters.


Privilege, prayer, parenthood

Mudra_000There's a teaching from the Maggid of Mezritch about morning prayer. I love this teaching -- and I also struggle with it. Here it is:

Take special care to guard your tongue
   before the morning prayer.
Even greeting your fellow, we are told,
    can be harmful at that hour.
A person who wakes up in the morning is
    like a new creation.
Begin your day with unkind words
    or even trivial matters --
    even though you may later turn to prayer,
    you have not been true to your creation.
All of your words each day
    are related to one another.
All of them are rooted
    in the first words that you speak.

(That's as cited in Your Word is Fire: The Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer.)

It's a beautiful teaching. I love the idea of taking special care to guard what comes out of my mouth, especially first thing in the morning. I love the idea that when one wakes up in the morning one is like a new creation. I love the idea that all of the words I will speak in a day are rooted, somehow, in the first words I uttered upon waking. What a beautiful idea, to keep silence until it's time for morning prayer, and to begin the day with praise and song. I've done that on retreat, and it's a joy.

Here's the thing, though: most of us don't live on retreat. Most of us don't have the luxury of beginning the day in perfect silence and contemplation, gliding into a joyful morning service, and only then engaging in trivial or ordinary speech. Most of the people I know wake up to someone's needs: the needs of children, the needs of parents, the needs of a sick or disabled partner, the needs of animals. Who has the luxury of avoiding "trivial matters" until after morning prayer? Certainly not me.

I think it's possible that the holy Maggid, may his memory be a blessing, was speaking out of a kind of privilege. Something tells me he wasn't waking up to care for a child who chatters and expects answers -- presumably that was his wife's job.

Continue reading "Privilege, prayer, parenthood" »


Back at Pearlstone

The last time I was at Pearlstone, I was still a rabbinic student, and I was here for two weeks of ALEPH rabbinic program intensive study. It was my first rabbinic school residency as a mom, and our son was less than a year old -- which meant that first Ethan (for a few days before he went to TED Global and gave the TED talk which led to Rewire), and then my mother, stayed with me and took care of the baby while I was in class.

Then Now

Then, and now. What a difference 3.5 years makes.

I had some extraordinary experiences here. It was here that I wrote the mother psalm which begins "Don't chew on your mama's tefillin," which to this day is one of my favorite poems in Waiting to Unfold! And it was here that I first got the chance to introduce my mom to my rabbinic school community and vice versa -- a nice prelude to my entire mishpacha attending my rabbinic smicha the following winter.

Last time I came to Pearlstone, we drove down, encumbered by all of the gear required for a two-week trip with a baby: pack-n-play, quilts, stuffed animals, you name it. (And then had to purchase one item we hadn't thought of -- with no bathtub in the room, we resorted to giving baths in an inflatable rubber duckie which Ethan found at a local store.) Last time, I had to ensure that our preferred brand of baby food had the right hechsher to enter the dining hall. 

This morning I watched cartoons and played board games with our son, ate a delicious breakfast cooked by my spouse, and then traveled solo to Albany, on my flight, and through the Baltimore airport where I met up with three other Rabbis Without Borders. Together we drove to Pearlstone. And in about half an hour, this year's RWB Alumni Retreat will begin.

I'm looking really forward to a few days of learning, (re)connecting, strengthening friendships, and being lovingly challenged to think outside of my usual boxes. It feels a little bit strange to be here without the loved ones who surrounded me last time I was here. But I'm really excited to see members of my RWB fellows cohort, and to meet rabbis from the previous cohorts who I have until now only known online. I'm really grateful to be part of this hevre (community of friends.)


New essay about motherhood and spiritual life in the Huffington Post

HeadlineEveryone says that motherhood changes you. That you see things differently once you become a mom. You relate to your own parents differently. You understand things differently. That made sense to me; I expected motherhood to change my outlook. But I didn't expect it to change my brain chemistry -- or my sense of God.

That's the beginning of a new essay (interwoven with bits of poetry from Waiting to Unfold) which appeared this week in the Huffington Post. (It wound up in the Religion section; I wasn't sure whether it belonged in Religion or in Parents! Story of my current life, really.)

Here's another glimpse, from later in the piece:

Elizabeth Stone famously wrote that "Making the decision to have a child... is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." Not only because I wish I could protect my own child from sorrow and pain, but because I wish I could protect everyone's children. And I can't.

For a congregational rabbi, this sharp and impossible yearning seems at first blush not necessarily helpful. This doesn't help me hold it together when I'm preparing for a funeral -- or when I'm getting ready for Hebrew school. But in my first year of rabbinic school, when I learned hospital chaplaincy for nine months, one of my older colleagues told me that becoming a parent someday would be the greatest theological education I would ever know. I think this yearning is part of what he was talking about...

I hope you'll click through the read the whole thing: How Motherhood Gives Me A Glimpse of the Tender Heart of God.


New essay in Zeek: on Tu BiShvat, parenthood, climate change

It’s fun to teach a 4-year-old about Tu B’Shvat. We’ll probably sing happy birthday to the trees in the backyard, and bless and eat a variety of tree fruits and nuts at a kiddie Tu B’Shvat seder at the synagogue. Maybe we’ll try to connect trees with taking care of the earth, the way Kai-Lan cleans up garbage in the back yard for the sake of the snails.

For adults, Tu B’Shvat offers opportunities for more meaningful reflection.

Tu B’Shvat reminds us to go outside and encounter the natural world where we are. Here in the Diaspora, Tu B’Shvat posters and food traditions remind us of the foodways of our Mediterranean ancestors, including Israel’s blooming almond trees. Where I live, Tu B’Shvat usually means bare trees rising out of snow.

Usually Tu B’Shvat falls during sugaring season in western Massachusetts. The maple sap rises when the days are above freezing and the nights are still cold. All around my region, plastic tubing sprouts like new growth, funneling sap drop by drop into collection buckets and tanks for boiling.

Well: that’s what usually happens. I don’t know how this year’s fifty-degree temperature fluctuations and arctic blasts will impact the syrup harvest. Does that kind of oscillation confuse the maple trees? How about the fifty-below-zero temperatures they’ve been registering in the heartland: how does that impact the food we grow?

That's a taste of Tu BiShvat Reflections on Parenthood, Extreme Weather, & the Human Family Tree, my latest essay for Zeek magazine. I hope you'll click through to read the whole thing.


Comfort

I'm reading in bed when I hear a cry from your room. I put down my book, tilt my head, and hold perfectly still -- as though any of those would help me hear. When the cry comes again, I head toward it. "Hey, hey, honey, I'm here, what's the matter?"

You are sitting up in your bed, face tear-streaked, worried that it's too late at night and we've missed our chance to do something you really want to do tomorrow. I reassure you that it's okay, we haven't missed anything, it's time to sleep now, we'll do that thing after we wake up. "After this day," you confirm. "Then it will be Wednesday?" I tell you you've got it exactly right, and with a sigh you burrow into my shoulder.

We rock a while in the gliding rocker. You are heavy and warm against my chest and across my lap. I can feel your breathing.

We don't do this very often anymore. My arms don't fit snugly around you the way they used to. You're folded over me like a blanket. To think that you were once the newborn with whom I rocked so many endless hours -- it seems almost impossible, except that I've seen your transformation from then to now.

I am grateful that rocking in my arms still brings you comfort.

I know that someday you will have worries I can't solve with a kiss and a cuddle.

Or -- I hope that you will have those worries. Does that sound strange? What I mean is, I hope and pray that I will have the gift and privilege of supporting you as you navigate growing up, even though growing up will mean that you'll have problems I can't fix. I know there's no guarantee that anyone gets as much time as they dream of. I can't hold you, kiss you, stroke your hair this week without remembering that I have friends who are right now grieving the loss of a child only a few years older than you.

I wish I could bottle up the comfort you find now in my arms, and save it to give to you later in life when a hug from Mom won't have this same magic. I wish I could bottle up the comfort you find in my arms and share it with everyone who needs comfort tonight, including -- especially -- my friends who mourn.

I ask if you're ready for bed, and you nod. "Will you carry me?" I promise you that nothing would make me happier. You're giggling as I deposit you on your bed and tuck your Thomas blanket around your shoulders.

I am so glad to be able to carry you. I will always be carrying you.


Susan Katz Miller's Being Both

BeingbothI've just finished Susan Katz Miller's Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. This is a book which pushed some of my buttons, nudged against some of my boundaries, and left me with a lot to ponder. Miller writes:

"[T]he majority of American children with Jewish heritage now have Christian heritage as well. In other words, children are now more likely to be born into interfaith families than into families with two Jewish parents. And Jewish institutions are just beginning to grapple with that fact. // Some Jewish leaders still call intermarriage the 'silent Holocaust.'... [But] many now call for greater acceptance of Jewish intermarriage in the face of this demographic reality."

Given the flurry of communal response to the recent Pew study A Portrait of Jewish Americans (my response, in brief, is Opportunity Knocks in Pew Results; I also recommend Rabbi Art Green's From Pew Will Come Forth Torah) this book could hardly be more timely.

It's no surprise that an increasing number of Jewish children have dual-heritage backgrounds. What is surprising in this book is right upfront in the title: this book articulates the perspective that all paths open to interfaith families are legitimate ones, including rearing children "as both." Here's Miller again:

"Some of us are audacious enough to believe that raising children with both religions is actually good for the Jews (and good for the Christians[.]) ...The children in these pages have grown up to be Christians who are uncommonly knowledgeable about and comfortable with Jews, or Jews who are adept at working with and understanding Christians. Or they continue to claim both religions and serve as bridges between the two. I see all of those possible outcomes as positive."

Conventional wisdom in the American Jewish community has long been that rearing children as "both" will inevitably lead to confused or rootless children, and to assimilation and to the disappearance of the Jewish people as a whole. My anecdotal sense is that American Christian responses to intermarriage have been different from Jewish ones, though there are asymmetries which shape those different responses.

Christianity has roots in Judaism, so it's fairly easy for Christians to consider Jews as spiritual "family." For Jews, relationships with Christianity are often fraught. I joke that the Christian scriptures are the "unauthorized sequel" to our holy text, which usually gets a laugh from Jewish audiences, though there's truth to the quip; there are times when Christian reinterpretation of Jewish text and practice can feel like cultural appropriation. It's also easier for a majority culture to welcome minority outsiders than for a minority culture to welcome members of the powerful majority. For those of us in minority religious traditions, there's historically been an instinct to stay insular -- for reasons I wholly understand, although I don't always like the results.

What this means in practice is often that the Christian side of the family, or the Christian community writ large, is welcoming of an intermarried couple; the Jewish side of the family, or the Jewish community writ large, can be less so. (Though that's changing, which I applaud. For instance, the congregation which I serve openly seeks to welcome interfaith families.) Regardless, when children are born to an interfaith couple there tends to be an insistence that they choose one tradition in which to rear those kids. This book offers a different perspective. Miller writes:

The vast majority of books on intermarriage have focused on the challenges of interfaith life. While I am well aware of these challenges, in this book I set out to tell a different side of the story: how celebrating two religions can enrich and strengthen families, and how dual-faith education can benefit children.... I think being both may contribute to what the mystical Jewish tradition of Kabbalah calls tikkun olam -- healing the world.

Being both might contribute to tikkun olam: now there's a chutzpahdik assertion.

Continue reading "Susan Katz Miller's Being Both" »


Decoration

Plates
The rainbow foil garlands broke
on the night of heavy rain.
Slivers of color adorn the lawn.

Your tears fell like willow leaves.
You insisted we find
the decoration store.

This slow disintegration
is part of the point, each sukkah
as fragile as a life, but

who understands that at four?
A compromise: the art supply box,
our spool of kitchen string.

Now paper plates spin and clatter.
Their crayoned markings face me
then whirl away

like your laughing face
hiding under our blanket
then bursting back into view.

 


Re: "Your tears fell like leaves" -- today is Hoshanna Rabbah, when it is customary to beat our willow branches on the earth; their falling leaves represent our prayers for rain.

(Photo source: flickr.)

 


First morning

DecorationsI wake to the sound of feet on the stairs, but keep my eyes closed so that I can pretend to be startled when our son shouts "boo!" from the bedroom door. This is how mornings begin, these days. We cuddle for a while, and then he says -- as he does every day -- "I was thinkin'..." He pauses for dramatic effect, then goes on. "You could put on your robe-in, and come downstairs, and make me some waffles, and put on some cartoons, and then you could shower!" And that's what we do.

Once I am dressed for the day, I take up my lulav and etrog. "I'm going out to the sukkah," I tell him. "Do you want to come?" At first he says no, he wants to watch cartoons, so I come out here alone. It's a stunning late-September day: clear, sunny, bright blue sky. Our sukkah sparkles, tinsel garlands reflecting the early morning light. I make the blessing, shake my lulav in all six directions, sing some of the psalms of Hallel.

I am interrupted by a shout from the deck. "Does this one go on this foot?" It's our son, wanting to confirm right and left before putting on his sneakers and padding out to join me in the sukkah. "Daddy built this sukkah an' I decorated it," he tells me proudly. He gets up on the stepstool to admire the little birds which he so proudly hung on one of the rafters before the festival began. "One is for me," he says, "and one is for Daddy, and one is for you!"

LulavThen his attention turns to the lulav. "What's that," he asks. I tell him it's a lulav, and that the fruit is called an etrog. I encourage him to smell the etrog; he makes a surprised face at its strong scent. Then he says "It goes on the roof." He thinks the lulav is more schach, roofing branches; not an unreasonable theory, actually. I tell him that if I can find last year's lulav, which might be in my study somewhere, we can add it to the roof -- but this one is special; it's for shaking in all different directions and bringing blessings. I pick it up and show him. Then he asks if he can try.

His hands aren't big enough to hold the lulav and etrog together, so he just holds the lulav. He wiggles it this way, that way, the other way. "Blessings over here," he crows. "Blessings over here!" And then he gets bored and puts it down and wants to run around the yard looking for more branches for the roof, which is okay too.

It is such a beautiful morning, this first day of Sukkot 5774. I don't know how to end this post except with this deep wash of gratitude. For the pileated woodpecker and the rooster calling in the distance. For the quiet hum of the crickets and the chipmunks chasing each other in the first rustling fallen leaves. For this airy little house which my sweetheart built and the sparkly adornments which suited our son's aesthetic just so. For this beautiful tall boy with his curiosity about everything. For everything.


#BlogElul 12: Trust

After the sutures

 

Everyone falls down.
No one enjoys the aftermath.

But the real test
comes after the sutures --

the chance to thank the surgeon
who did his quiet work

despite the imprecations
and the thrashing.

Sometimes when I miss the mark
I flail and lash out

just like our three-year-old.
But when I calm

I remember how to thank You
for my mistakes, even when they hurt

for Your messengers who cradle me
for the mountains and the moon

for my son's long body nestled
into me like a crane

for Your arms and heart
holding me together

on the days when I break
and the days when I am whole.

 


 

Blogelul2013I started working on this post after our son got stitches, late last month. (He's fine! He just took a tumble, as very active kids are wont to do, and needed a few stitches on his chin.) What amazed me about the experience of taking him to the emergency room is that while he clearly had a tough time with the actual stitches (and who wouldn't?), as soon as the suturing was over, he calmed down, and as we left the E.D., he thanked every doctor and nurse "for fixing my boo-boo." It's incredibly powerful for me that our son says thank you after a traumatic experience like getting sewn up -- even though he didn't enjoy the stitching, he understood deep down that these people were there to help him, and that when people help you, you say thank you.

I'm sharing this poem today as part of #BlogElul -- you can find other posts on this theme by searching with that hashtag.


#BlogElul 10: See

Beluga

 

When we entered the aquarium        
you flew to the glass wall.

Behind it: sunlit aqua water
as though we were standing

in the parted Sea of Reeds.
A sleek white shape swam past

spinning gracefully. "Look,"
you shouted, "a beluga!

A real beluga! Right here!"
Help me to see the world

as you see it, every day
a new reason to jump for joy.

Blogelul2013


#BlogElul 9 - Hear

Blogelul2013I try to really hear the voice of my child. Sometimes he has things to tell me -- about his day at preschool, about Curious George or Diego, about a favorite songs. Sometimes he has sorrows to pour forth, as when he's not allowed a snack right before dinner. Sometimes he wakes in the night with a scary dream (usually about a frog on his bed. I'm not sure why.) I try to listen to him as best I can. I want him to know that his voice matters to me; that his ideas matter to me. That he matters to me.

I try to really hear the voices of my congregants. Often they have things to tell me -- about what's happening in their lives, about their hopes and their fears, about their children or their parents. Sometimes they have sorrows to pour forth, or joys to share. Sometimes they bring budgets or board business to discuss. No matter what, I try to listen to them as best I can. I want them to know that their voices matter to me; that their ideas matter to me. That they matter to me.

I try to listen to the people I encounter every day. In person, whether at the CSA or the grocery store; online, on blogs and Twitter and Facebook. It can be easy to forget that there is a human being behind every online interaction, but of course there is; the internet is just another tool for the ordinary and extraordinary communications which mark every day of human life. Sometimes the people I meet have sorrows to pour forth. Sometimes they have joys to share. I try to listen as best I can. I want them to know that their voices matter to me; that their ideas matter to me. That they matter to me.

When I think about hearing Jewishly, I think of the shema. "Hear, O Israel; Adonai is our God; Adonai is One." (That's the first line -- the prayer continues from there, but that one sentence is the ikkar, the essence.) I've been in services where we're encouraged to replace "Israel" with our own names. Praying the words with my own name swapped in for the communal name "Israel" has been surprisingly powerful for me. Recognizing that this isn't just a generalized call for our community to hear the Oneness of all things, but a call for me, specifically, to listen to God's voice and experience unity...! Holy wow. I love that my tradition calls on me not only to listen but to hear.

During this month of Elul, what kind of hearing can I do? In listening to my child -- in listening to my congregation -- in listening to the people I meet every day -- in listening for the voice of God -- there are opportunities for teshuvah, for repentance and return. I always aspire to listen wholly...and I often fail at that aspiration. It's all too easy to be not entirely present: to my child, to my community, to the people I meet, to God. All I can do is notice when I'm not wholly listening, and take a deep breath, and strive to do better. I want to really listen when the world speaks.

 


Related: Kol Echad: the voice of the one in the voices of the many, July 2013.

Also worth reading: Shema: Hear! Listen! by Gloria Scheiner at The Jewish Writing Project.


Shabbat shalom to all!

 

Drew and mama make motzi. Photo by David Curiel.

Every Friday, I post on my synagogue's Facebook page, "Shabbat is coming! Get ready for that extra soul to descend and enliven you..." I love the idea that we each receive a second portion of soul, a neshamah yeteirah, on Shabbat. An extra spiritual spaciousness. An opportunity to breathe deeply and open up our heartspace.

There's an old story which says that every Friday, an angel looks in through the window at each household. If that angel sees familial strife, dirty dishes, tension and frustration, the angel sorrowfully says, "...may next week be just like this one."

But if the angel sees a set table, a family relating to each other with loving harmony, candles and challah and grape juice or wine, the angel joyfully says, "...may next week be just like this one!"

As we move toward Shabbat today, may each of us find the resources we need (both practical and spiritual) to reach a state of readiness -- so that when that angel peers in at us, it is able to offer the blessing that our Shabbat joy should continue, now and always.

Shabbat shalom!


My first poetry reading with our son by my side

By the time we find the right room, it feels as though we've taken every elevator in the hospital complex. Though once we go down the right one, and exit on floor G, I realize in a flash that I have been in this place before -- this is the floor where we took childbirth classes, an infinity ago before our son was born. "I think I've been here before," I say aloud.

"I don't think so," says our son, who is holding his pink Hello Kitty water bottle in one hand and holding my hand with the other.

"It was before you were born," I tell him.

"Ohhh," he says, meaningfully, though I'm not sure he really understands what "before you were born" means.

We're at Berkshire Medical Center to be brief special guests at a MotherWoman training for caregivers -- therapists, nurses, and so on -- who work with postpartum women. When we enter the room, it's packed. And it is the very same room where Ethan and I practiced different kinds of labor breathing.

Their time is tight and they have a lot to cover, so I'm only going to read two poems from Waiting to Unfold. Since this is a training about working with women who may have postpartum depression, I choose an early poem from the collection which was written during the worst of the depression: "Besieged." As soon as I tell them the title, a knowing hum runs around the room and someone murmurs, "that's all you really have to say." I read the poem, and I can feel them receiving it and taking it to heart.

After I finish the first poem, our son, who is sitting at a table full of therapists, says "Mommy?"

"Yes, my love?"

"Can I help you read the story?"

"You can come up here with me," I offer, and he does; he stands at the front of the room, holding my hand. I can feel the energy in the room shift. Everyone here saw me come in with a little boy, but there's something different about hearing these first-year poems with the subject of the poems standing at the podium too.

I start reading the last poem in the collection, "One Year (Mother Psalm 9)," and as I read the first few lines, I realize that I am near tears. "When the doctor brought you / through my narrow places / I was as in a dream" -- and this is the very building where the doctor did that very thing -- where I was transformed from a woman into a mother.

As I'm reading the words, time is telescoping. I'm inhabiting two spaces in time at once: his birth and those early days, and this moment, right now, standing with our tall and funny three and a half year old in front of a room of caregivers reading this poem.

And then he chimes in, over the top of the poem, "And don't forget, you have to look out for alligators!"

The whole room collapses in laughter. I manage to finish the poem, they thank us for coming, and we find our way back to the right elevator again.


Reflections on shopping for kids' pyjamas

41wPLumQ+fL._SX190_CR0,0,190,246_One of my earliest memories of shopping with my mother is a memory of looking for what we called "footie" pyjamas -- PJs with the feet attached. I must have had the same habit my son now has, of toeing off socks during the night and waking up with ice-cold feet! I don't remember where we were shopping; it was probably one of the department stores at the local mall in my hometown.

I remember the saleswoman searching the racks with us for my size, and then telling my mother regretfully that the only footie PJs she had were "B-O-Y-S' pyjamas." I'm reliably informed that I learned to read early, and I was small for my age, so I'm sure it never occurred to her that I could spell. Without missing a beat, I chirped, "That's fine, I don't mind wearing boys' pyjamas!" As I remember the story going, the saleslady almost fainted in surprise.

Over this past weekend, as our family was strolling the aisles of our local Target in search of a few necessaries, our son fell in love with a pair of truly adorable pyjamas. They feature hearts on the leggings, and Dora the Explorer and her companion monkey Boots on the shirt, along with some fetching pink and purple ruffles. (They're not exactly the ones depicted here, but they're similar.) "Look, Dora PJs," he enthused, with visible excitement. "Can I have these Dora ones? Pleeeeease?"

I remembered the oft-retold family tale of how I startled the saleswoman with my ability to intpret "B-O-Y-S," the subtext of which has always been that I was not only precocious but also flexible, because it was assumed even then that a girl would naturally prefer something marketed to girls. (And I remembered the story which was circulating online not long ago, about a German dad who wears skirts because his son likes to do so.) I thought about how lucky we are to live in a community where no one would bat an eyelash at a little boy wearing pink and purple or proudly displaying his love of Dora and Kai-Lan.

We've wanted, from the start, to rear a kid who doesn't feel constricted by society's expectations of what "boys do" or "girls do." We both grew up on Free to Be You and Me. At the end of our seder each year, we fervently sing the musical setting of Judy Chicago's Merger Poem. We're pretty classic twenty-first-century feminist parents. And yet we've been amused (and sometimes surprised) by the way our guy gravitates to many of the things which our culture says are "boy things." He seems to have an innate love of things which go, especially contstruction equipment. Kids receive all kinds of subtle social cues about this stuff, no matter how hard we try to eschew any sense that certain things -- activities, colors, clothes -- are relegated to one gender or the other.

I can't tell how conscious he is of any of this. But it's interesting, for me, to watch him navigate his path -- a path which, so far, features both a love of excavators and a love of sparkly pink. (You should see his delight at the Hello Kitty temporary tattoos we picked up in the dollar bin.) Of course, it wasn't so long ago that pink was considered a boys' color (See When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink? | Smithsonian Magazine.) Still, I like to hope that as our guy grows up, he'll learn that he can love whatever he loves, regardless of whether or not society says it's "appropriate." Sports or ballet, pink or blue -- or both! For now, those Dora pyjamas are pretty darn cute. And I'm happy to encourage his joy in all of the things he likes best.


Ode to your joy

This post -- a letter to our son -- was written earlier this spring, and for some reason languished in my drafts folder for a few months. I can no longer remember why I didn't post it when I first wrote it, so I'm sharing it now.


Sweet boy,

One of the things I admire most about you is your ability to feel and express joy.

Some of this is your age, I'm sure. You're more in-touch with your emotions than most adults are, and you haven't learned yet to be embarrassed about what you feel. It's a precious kind of Eden, which you won't appreciate until it's gone. That's the human condition.

Whatever you're feeling, you feel it intensely. That's true whether you're feeling frustration at the injustices of your existence (not being allowed to snack right before dinner, or to stay up past your bedtime) or delight at the many joys life puts before you: loved ones, favorite songs, favorite foods.

But I think -- I hope -- that some of this is your temperament, too. Maybe openness to joy will be native to you. I hope that your life's circumstances will always provide you with easy access to joy. And I hope that you will always be ready to throw yourself into experiences which are joyful for you.

Becoming a mother -- becoming your mother -- has given me greater access to joy. Not only to my own joy, though there is that, sometimes; but to your joy. I didn't understand, before we began this adventure, how my own heart would exult when I get to see you joyful.

I love watching you in your joy. I love the way your eyes light up when you see me at preschool at the end of a schoolday. I love the joy you take in a good toy (your magnet tiles or Thomas trains or marble run), in leaping at the bouncy houses at the mall, in our weekly pilgrimage to the bakery for a challah and a cookie, in seeing your grandparents in person or via Skype.

I love that one of the things I most often hear you say (to us and to family and to friends and even to people you've just met) is "I'm so happy to see you!" I don't think you know the word "joy," but I know you know the experience of it. Someday, when you're older, maybe you'll begin to understand how much joy you bring to me.

All my love,

Your mom


A weekend's ordinary joys

A paper-flower crown for Shavuot, featuring three of our son's four names.


A Shabbat service where my community's students -- from first grade through seventh grade -- sang the prayers and songs we'd been practicing, to their parents' obvious delight. The gusto with which they banged on the drums.

A wedding where the couple's visible joy in each other and in the moment illuminated the gauzy white chuppah, the lawn where the chairs were set up, possibly this whole quadrant of the earth.

Opening a Torah scroll for a group of young children, and reading the priestly blessing to them, at which point our son exclaimed, "We say that on Friday nights!" Yes, my little love, indeed we do, and I am so happy that you know that.

Following that up with the making of paper flower crowns, and then with ice cream sundaes -- in celebration of Shavuot (when we eat dairy because the Torah is compared to milk and honey) and the end of the school year.

Hearing from a friend and congregant that she loves hearing me read Torah because I translate as I go, and because my translation is so informal and colloquial that it makes the text feel alive.

Our son pushing his plastic lawnmower around the deck in a light rain while his father mowed the actual lawn. The scent, which I hadn't realized I'd forgotten over the months since the last lawn-mowing, of grass clippings mixed with wild thyme.

 


Motherhood, the bitter & the sweet, in Zeek

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Just in time for Mother's Day (in the US, anyway), I have a new essay out in Zeek. The essay tells the story of what becoming a mother was like for me. Here's where it begins:

My memories of the earliest months of parenthood are blurred by that perfect storm of surging hormones and sleep deprivation. In retrospect, I can’t imagine how we survived sleeping in 45-minute increments, much less learning how to care for a newborn while doing so. Even more disorienting: I wasn’t sure who I was, now that I’d had to set aside my identities as student, writer, scholar. In that one long day of labor, it seemed, I lost access to almost everything that had previously defined my existence. The exceptions were those stalwart souls who made the effort to stay actively in our lives despite the colicky infant — and, however faintly, poetry.

WaitingToUnfold-smallAs the essay continues, I talk about postpartum depression and how dubious I was that anything would ever get better -- and about the miraculous fact that, once I got the help I needed, things did change. They didn't necessarily get easy, but they did change, and I am forever grateful.

Over the course of the essay, prose is interspersed with excerpts from several poems from Waiting to Unfold. I think the essay contextualizes the poems in a certain way. Reading the collection takes you on a journey through my experiences of that first year. Reading this essay offers you that in microcosm, along with some of my thoughts about that year and about motherhood now that I've been doing this for three and a half years.

Here's another little taste of what the essay says:

There are times when parenting is an unalloyed joy, and at those times it’s easy to feel connected: with my own mother and grandmother, with all the mothers I know, with all the mothers who have gone before me and who will come after me. I feel cradled in an endless chain of blessing.

And there are also times when parenting is hard. Miserable. Exhausting. Overwhelming. For those of us who have to wrangle postpartum depression, those times may wildly outweigh the sweet ones, for a while. I wish I could find every mother who feels the way I felt in those early months, and say to her: it’s going to be okay. You are not alone. It won’t always be like this.

Beyond that: feeling this way doesn’t disqualify you from motherhood. There shouldn’t be shame in not savoring every instant of exalted motherhood. And feeling that anhedonia, that inability to savor — whether it’s fleeting or recurring — does not exclude one from the community of mothers, the chain of connection as far as the human imagination can see.

Read the whole thing here: The Bitter & the Sweet: Reflections on Motherhood. My gratitude is due to Erica Brody, the (new) editor at Zeek, for soliciting this essay and giving it a home.

 

 


Lessons in gratitude from a three year old

The last pink rays of afternoon light are coloring the very lip of the distant mountains. Everything else is already in shadow. Wind rustles the dragonfly chime, a periodic descant over the quiet song of spring peepers, a distant car, a barking dog. Our son is in bed; I'm on the deck as twilight begins to take over from afternoon.

Watching our son experience his fourth spring has been delicious. As excited as I've been to see the leaves unfurl (and I have; I relish this spectacular chartreuse unfolding every year -- spring is one of my very favorite seasons in New England), he's been more so. "Look, mommy," he keeps saying. "The trees are waking up! The trees are waking up!"

Each morning we pull up to his school's parking lot and he asks, "can we go see the purple flowers?" He means the stand of tulips along the walk by the bank, next door. "They growed up! They're so beautiful!" Beneath a flowering tree, he solemnly tells me, "this is the most beautiful tree I've ever seen."

I don't think I can take any credit for his finely-honed sense of wonder; I think it's innate to who he is. Or at least I hope it is. Family lore has it that my first word was "wow," and there are reasons why modah ani is my perennial favorite prayer. There's so much in the world to appreciate, so much to be grateful for.

All I can hope for is to help him cultivate and retain his gratitude and his willingness to say thanks. To the teacher who pours him a glass of water ("it's the best water I ever tasted!"), to his father ("thank you for building me a big-boy bed, daddy"), to the Holy Blessed One ("thank you God for this beautiful car!")

Thank You, God, for this beautiful child. Thank You, God, for this beautiful evening. Thank You, God, for everything.