When Mother's Day hurts

In the United States today is Mother's Day. We're reminded of that in a million little ways: from television commercials for Hallmark cards, to ads for Mother's Day brunch deals, to countless social media postings about mothers and motherhood.

I'm always aware that days like these can be fraught and painful, for all kinds of reasons. Maybe you had a difficult relationship with your mother. There are mothers who are neglectful, narcissistic, and/or abusive; maybe yours was one. Maybe this day reminds you of everything you wish your relationship with your mother could have been but wasn't. Or maybe you had a wonderful relationship with your mother, and now she has died and this day reminds you of how much you miss her. 

Maybe you yearned to become a mother, and faced infertility. Maybe you yearned to be a mother but your marriage has ended. Maybe you've had a miscarriage, or an abortion. Maybe you are a mother, and you have a painful relationship with one or more of your children. Or maybe you are a mother and your child has died -- the English language offers us a word for a child whose parents have died, and a word for a person whose spouse has died, but we don't have a word that means a parent who has lost a child.

All of these are land mines hidden among the greeting cards, the commercials, and the friends on social media posting photographs of their happy families and hand-drawn mother's day cards. There are endless social and cultural messages telling us how we are "supposed" to feel today. And it can be extra-isolating to feel out-of-step with the way we think we're "supposed" to feel on a birthday or an anniversary or a holiday like this one. Days like today can evoke, trigger, and intensify feelings of loss. 

If you are someone for whom today is purely sweet, I am glad for you. May you be blessed to always experience this day as a source of sweetness. 

If you are someone for whom today contains bitterness or sorrow, I am holding you in my heart. Be gentle with yourself today in all the ways that you can. 

 

Other resources:


Learning to Walk in the Dark

51LLOq4rwuL._SY344_BO1 204 203 200_If you are in the middle of your life, maybe some of your dreams of God have died hard under the weight of your experience. You have knocked on doors that have not opened. You have asked for bread and been given a stone. The job that once defined you has lost its meaning; the relationships that once sustained you have changed or come to their natural ends. It is time to reinvent everything from your work life to your love life to your life with God -- only how are you supposed to do that exactly, and where will the wisdom come from? Not from a weekend workshop. It may be time for a walk in the dark.

-- Barbara Brown Taylor

When we were in Tuscaloosa, my friend and colleague Reverend Rick Spalding mentioned to me that he was reading Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark. "That sounds like a book I need to read," I said. Not long thereafter, I found his copy in my mailbox, waiting for me to read it.

And oh, wow, did I need to read this book. The copy I was reading wasn't mine, so I didn't give in to the temptation to underline and highlight -- but if I had, it would be marked up everywhere, because so much of what Barbara Brown Taylor writes here resonates with me. Like this:

Even when you cannot see where you are going and no one answers when you call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone. There is a divine presence that transcends all your ideas about it, along with your language for calling it to your aid... but darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.

Sometimes we feel that God is agonizingly absent from our lives, but this is a matter of epistemology, not ontology -- a matter of how we experience the world around us, not a genuine indicator of how that world actually is. This is a core tenet of my theology. I felt a happy spark of recognition, reading it in Brown Taylor's words.

Continue reading "Learning to Walk in the Dark" »


Parsley dipped in tears

33109547490_120fdd0378_zA few weeks ago, on a Friday morning, I walked with a dear friend in the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Where we live the world was covered with a winter coat of snow, but in Georgia the first stirrings of spring were underway. There were daffodils blooming, and leaves preparing to pop free.

But the thing that most drew my attention was one of the beds in the herb garden, filled with different varieties of parsley. The moment I saw the parsley plants growing, I tasted Passover.

The third step of the seder journey is karpas. We bless and eat something green, dipped in salt water. The green represents the new life of springtime, while the salt water represents the bitter tears of slavery. 

There's a deep truth hidden in that bite of green. New beginnings may not come easy. Often they require hard work, and willingness to name and to take responsibility for what's been bitter.

We've all had moments when we feel as though whatever constraints we habitually inhabit are permanent. Maybe we've had moments of losing hope that whatever narrow place we're in -- depression, or tough life circumstances, or grief -- will ever be different. 

But spring does come, even when winter feels most entrenched and unmovable. And Jewish tradition teaches that when we cry out from the depths of our lives' narrow places, there is One Who hears us and helps us to break free. And every year we retell the story: not as something that happened to them back then, but as something that is happening to us right now. 

It's okay if the green of new life is bathed in salt tears, if our new growth is tender, if change sometimes hurts. That's exactly the flavor of the parsley dipped in salt water. Sharp, and intense, and a little bit salty: sadness for what was, mingled with hope for what's coming. Remembrance of the old, and embrace of the new.


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. 


On grief and moving forward

This morning I presided over a funeral for a beloved member of my congregation. It was hard to shake the sense that many of us were mourning not only that loss, but also the loss of a vision of our nation as a place of hope and inclusion. Even those who are happy with yesterday's outcome may be feeling shaken by the reminder of how stark are the divisions within our nation.

To everyone who is feeling grief today, I say: it is okay to feel how you are feeling. Whatever you are feeling, take permission to feel it. Let yourself grieve.

Take comfort in what you can: the presence of friends or family, whatever sweetness or kindness you can find, a cup of coffee, the fact that the sun rose this morning.

Recognize that grief comes and goes in its own rhythms. So, too, does healing. Be gentle with yourself today and in days to come. Be gentle with those you encounter.

When grief is strong, it can seem impossible to imagine that one will ever feel differently. But this is not all there is. Loss is not all there is. Grief is not all there is.

Jewish tradition wisely instructs mourners to retreat from the world for a week. The customs of shiva are designed to insulate mourners from the hard edges of the outside world. They remind us to take the time we need to tell stories, to remember, and to grieve.

At the end of shiva, there is a custom of leaving one's house through one door, walking around the block, and then entering the house through a different door. We will emerge from our grief changed by the experience of the grieving. We will exit what was and enter into something new.

In this week's Torah portion, Lech-Lecha, God calls Avram to leave his home and go forth into the place that God will show him. The opening words are often translated as "Go forth," but they can also be understood to mean "Go into yourself." Like Avram, we too are called to journey deep into ourselves, to dedicate ourselves to the spiritual work of becoming.

Avram had to leave everything that was familiar. He too must have felt that he had lost his narrative about who he thought he was and what he thought was ahead of him. But somehow he found the strength for the journey, and so will we.

We may need to grieve, but we must resist despair. Despair is corrosive, and it denies our agency and our ability to create change.

We can cultivate hope. We can build a better world. We owe it to ourselves and to those who will come after us to continue trying to build a world of justice and lovingkindness, a world in which no one need fear abuse or mistreatment, a world in which diversities of all kinds -- of race and creed and sexual orientation -- are honored and celebrated. A world in which the vulnerable are protected. A world in which bigotry and hatred vanish like smoke, and generosity of spirit and compassion prevail.

In this moment I don't know how we will do that. I don't know what steps we will take or how they will get us where we need to go. But I know that this is the journey to which we are called, and that we will journey together.

 

 


You may find comfort, as I did, in this from Rabbi David Evan Markus: The Day After.

Cross-posted to my congregational blog.


Take care of yourself as Election Day approaches

Election-stress-americaThe American Psychological Association reports that the Presidential election is a source of "significant stress" for a majority of Americans. I'm not surprised to hear it. Everyone I know is surfing waves of anxiety right now. I don't ever remember an election where the choices seemed this stark, the rhetoric this toxic, and the nation this divided.

Anecdotal conversation with a colleague who works as a therapist yielded a report that she's never seen pre-election anxiety this dramatic in all her years of practice. If you are feeling anxious, stressed-out, and/or afraid of what may be coming, you are not alone.

Take care of yourself over these next few days. 

For some of us self-care might mean pounding the pavement with get-out-the-vote initiatives, or making phone calls to potential voters. Taking action can be a way of asserting some control over a situation that otherwise feels vast and out of our hands, and that can be a form of self-care.

For others of us self-care might mean turning off the television, clicking away from Facebook and Twitter, and resisting the temptation to refresh Five Thirty Eight one more time. Self-care might involve choosing to diminish our intake of the 24-hour news cycle and the constant stream of data and opinions across social media networks.

Do what you need to do to take care of yourself. This goes doubly for those of us who are tasked with caring for others -- our children, our parents, our loved ones, our congregations. It is always okay to engage if that will help you through, and it is always okay to disengage if that's what you need to do. Listen to your body and to your heart, not just to your mind and the narratives your mind spins about what you "should" (or shouldn't) be doing with your time as the election approaches. 

For me, self-care includes ensuring that I get enough rest, cooking foods that I will enjoy eating, pausing to articulate gratitude for being alive and for the food that I have to eat, seeking out small sources of beauty like the red leaves on the bush I can see from my home office window or the bright orange of the pumpkins at our door. Lately it also includes pausing for short stints of contemplative practice during which I recognize the anxiety that the election is provoking in me, and give myself permission to feel what I am feeling, and then gently tell the anxiety that it is not needed and do my best to let it go. 

Most of all it means seeing myself through gentle eyes, and being kind to myself. May you find access to your best forms of self-care in the coming days. 

 

 

Related:

How news and social media can hurt us, 2014

Salve, 2014


After every funeral

Every time I am called to do a funeral for someone who had grown children, I notice my own emotions arising in response to what I witness in the emotional landscape of the mourners. I'm blessed that my parents are still alive... and when I preside over a funeral where adults mourn their parents, I can't help thinking about the day when I will be in the mourner's shoes instead of the rabbi's. I'll come to it with countless funerals under my belt, and surely they'll inform how I experience my own journey -- and yet I know as well as anyone that there's a vast chasm between experiencing someone else's grief from the rabbi's vantage, and experiencing one's own grief without the comfort of the rabbinic role. 

I often ride to the cemetery with one of the lovely gentlemen from the local funeral home with which we work. And every time, as we drive to my synagogue's cemetery in the hilltowns, as we chat about their kids and mine and what it's like to serve in their role and mine in a community of this size, some part of me is thinking: I should call my parents. Just to say I love you. Because I can. Often, afterwards, I do. And I wonder what goes through their minds when I mention that I've just done a funeral. Are they thinking of the friends they have buried? Are they thinking of their own mortality?

Across every axis of difference in the world, death is the thing we all have in common: every life ends. Everyone someday says goodbye to their parents or to those who reared them. Everyone someday says goodbye to loved ones and peers. Everyone someday says goodbye to this life and moves on to whatever it is that comes next. No two deaths are the same, no two griefs are the same. And yet every grief partakes of a sameness. Grief is like a hologram: every individual grief carries the imprint of the whole universe of grief within it. My prayer is that every grief carries the imprint of healing, too.

When there has been a profound loss, one can feel as though life will never be sweet again. As though the moment one wakes the grief will be crushing again, and it will be crushing until sleep, and then maybe also even in sleep. But it isn't perennial. The day will come when you wake and grief isn't the first thing to arise. The day will come when you wake with ease. With comfort. Even with joy. The crushing weight of grief will lift, and on the other side -- please, let there be gentleness. Let there be gratitude. Let there be the sense that (as our liturgy teaches) God every day renews the work of creation. Let all who grieve reach sweetness. Let all who grieve be renewed.

 

Related:

Good grief, fall 2014.


On spiritual thirst

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My latest post just went up at The Wisdom Daily. Here's a taste:

Sometimes in difficult circumstances, the safest thing to do is to shut down awareness of one’s emotional or spiritual thirst.

But like any other coping mechanism, this one can outlive its usefulness. Human beings can grow accustomed to almost anything. There is risk in allowing the practice of ignoring one’s thirst to become habitual. After a while, one might not even notice anymore that the thirst was ever there. And our emotional and spiritual thirsts are important. They come to tell us something about who we most deeply are.

Read the whole thing: An alternative to the life you lead.


Written with tears


Ac6a8a5f48135ac1d719676a129e873cI belong to a small group of local Jewish clergy which meets once a week at a coffee shop to study together, and for the last year or so we've been slowly working our way through Heschel's encyclopedic masterwork Heavenly Torah. Recently we read something about the final verses of the Torah which continues to reverberate in me. 

The book of Deuteronomy ends with the death of Moses. This poses an interesting challenge for the classical tradition: if Torah was dictated verbatim by God to Moshe, then how can it contain verses about Moshe's death? How could Moses have told the story of his own death if it hadn't happened yet?

The tradition offers a variety of different answers, among them "he didn't write those last eight verses; Joshua did." But the answer I find most moving is that as Moshe heard about his own imminent passage out of this life, he wrote the final eight verses not with ink (or not only with ink) but with his tears.

Moses didn't get to cross into the Promised Land, but he did cross that threshold from this life into whatever comes next -- as everyone eventually must do. When he wrote the last verses of his story with his tears, what was he feeling? Were they tears of gratitude, or of longing? Tears of regret, or tears of joy?

Each of us, the tradition says, is to write a Torah. That's understood in a variety of ways: one should learn the scribal arts, one should fiscally support a Torah scribe, one should contribute commentary to the tapestry of tradition... and, perhaps, one should recognize consciously that one's life is a sacred text unfolding.

One of my favorite passages in this Heschel chapter holds that Moshe could have written the whole Torah with his tears, but then it would be too luminous for us to read. There are chapters in everyone's Torah of lived human experience which are written with tears -- tears of sorrow, and tears of gladness.

What would it be like to name those moments in our lives which are washed with tears not as something to be hidden away or avoided, but as luminous connections with the undercurrent of spirit which enlivens all things? What scripture might we write if we allowed ourselves access to the invisible ink of our cracked-open hearts?

 


New at The Wisdom Daily: What do you yearn for?

Logo-twd-headerMy latest essay is up at The Wisdom Daily. Writing this essay was really meaningful for me; I hope that reading it is equally so for you. Here's how it begins -- with a story from the beginning of my hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) training with ALEPH several years ago:

We sat facing each other, two women who were reasonably friendly but by no means intimate. We were enrolled in a spiritual direction training program together, and this was our first week of class. Our task in this moment was to ask each other one simple question: what do you yearn for?

My partner asked me, and I had a ready answer. I had just learned that I was pregnant, and the yearning at the top of my consciousness was to be a good mother. So that's what I said. Then she asked the question again. I refined my answer. She asked again. I went deeper. She asked again.

After ten minutes of continuing to answer this question, I was weeping. Not in sadness, but in awestruck recognition of how many yearnings I ordinarily keep buried beneath the surface -- and of how remarkable it felt to be able to articulate those yearnings and to have my answers received with gentleness and grace.

If you ask me what I want out of life, I can answer you fairly easily. If you ask me what I hope for, I can answer that too. But yearning feels deeper than either of those. Yearning feels more tender, more vulnerable. Yearning arises from the innermost chambers of my heart...

Read the whole thing: Ask yourself: what do I yearn for?


For those who are struggling this thanksgiving

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In the United States today is Thanksgiving, a day for cultivating gratitude and giving thanks. I'm a big fan of both of those things. And I also know that there are times when I haven't been able to access gratitude -- and that feeling cut-off from gratitude can be especially painful on special days like holidays. If you are in that place, or if you think you know someone who might be, don't miss this post from Rabbi David Evan Markus at the Rabbis Without Borders blog at My Jewish Learning. He begins:

Happy Thanksgiving.

Now, let’s get real: some don’t feel thankful today. We might feel like the turkeys got us down. We might feel burdened by hosting, harried by travel, lonely for having nowhere to go, bothered for having to go somewhere we don’t want to go, or pre-triggered by a secular holiday season happier in advertising than anticipation or reality. It’s well to act grateful even if we don’t feel it (a practice worth trying), or imagine Plymouth Rock as the House of God (my post last Thanksgiving), but what if we (or people we love) don’t feel “thanks” on Thanksgiving?

Turns out, we have a turkey for that, too.

Rabbi David tells the parable of the Turkey Prince, which comes to us from Reb Nachman of Breslov, and offers some deep wisdom for those who are struggling today and those who love someone who is struggling today. Worth reading -- today and every day: It's Thanksgiving, But What If One Doesn't Feel Thankful?


Then why am I?

At the very beginning of this week's Torah portion, Rebecca feels her twins struggling for dominance in her womb. Her response is an existential question: "If this is so, then why am I?" Every year when we reach this parsha, this verse leaps out at me. And every year when I apply the diamond of this verse to my own life, it reveals a different facet of my own heart and mind. (I love that about Torah study.)

If this is so, then why am I? This year the question resonates for me in an interpersonal way. There are people I love who are sick, and I am helpless to heal them. There are people I love who are in tight straits, and I am helpless to free them. There are people I love who are suffering, and I am helpless in the face of what they're going through. I want so much to make things better -- and I can't.

Rebecca's question reverberates in me. If I can't bring comfort, if I can't bring healing, if I can't make things better, then what am I doing here? Why am I even, if I can't balm the suffering of those I love? It's not an intellectual question, but a heart-question. Something is wrong and I can't fix it even though I yearn to do so with all of who I am. If I can't make it better, what am I even doing here?

Rebecca brings her question to God, and God gives her a narrative answer: there is a struggle inside her because she is carrying twins who are destined to tussle with each other. When I bring this same question to God, the answer I receive is just one word: love. Why am I? Love. What am I here for? Love. What can I extend to those in my life who are sick or suffering or grieving? Love. Only love.

I imagine that as my heart overflows for those in my life who are in tight places, so God's heart overflows for all of us.  I think there's something about the experience of yearning to make things better for a beloved which is integral to human life -- and maybe this is part of what Torah means when it says that we are made in the divine image and likeness. As God feels compassion, so do we.

And maybe that is itself an answer to Rebecca's question. That's what we're here for. To feel with others, to feel for others. To wish we could make things better for each other. Even when we can't fix, we can choose to continue to feel; we can choose to continue to love; we can choose not to turn away.

 

 

Related:

Rivka's questions, our answers, 2006

Why am I and how can I integrate?, 2013

Peace parsha: if this is so, then why am I?, 2014

 


Sitting with sorrow in the sukkah

Sukkot is called זמן שמחתנו, zman simchateinu, which means "season of our rejoicing." But what does one do if one isn't able to rejoice at this season? If sorrow, or grief, are getting in the way of the ability to rejoice? What then? My answer is this: we bring whatever we are feeling, in its fullness, into the sukkah with us. Even if it isn't joy. Spiritual practice asks us to be present to what is, whatever it is.

There are five megillot (scrolls) in Jewish tradition which are associated with particular festivals. At Purim we read Esther. At Pesach, we read Song of Songs. At Shavuot, we read Ruth. At Tisha b'Av, we read Lamentations. And at Sukkot, we read Kohelet (in English, it's called Ecclesiastes.) Think "A time to be born, and a time to die..." In every life, there is a time for gladness, and a time for sorrow.

When I am wrestling with sorrow, there is comfort for me in the knowledge that everything comes and goes. "This too shall pass" -- even the deepest of grief. הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל -- often rendered as "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" -- can also be translated "Breath, breathing; everything is fleeting as a breath." Even our sorrows are not forever -- though they may feel that way when we are in them.

Sukkot is a festival of impermanence. For a week we do our best to dwell in our little harvest houses which must have roofs through which one can see the stars. We remind ourselves that the structures we build in our lives are not forever. The challenge is finding joy not despite the temporariness, but in it. Not despite life's sorrows, but even as we allow ourselves to wholly feel those sorrows.

Enter Rabbi Jay Michaelson's essay Entering the Gate of Sadness, published in Zeek in 2007. (Speaking of which, I'm looking really forward to reading his new book, The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path, coming in a few days from Ben Yehuda Press.) Jay writes:

Sadness is not an expression of the heart to be discarded in favor of those which are better. To believe that everything happens as it must is not to be fatalistic and cowed; it is not to believe everything happens for the best; it is to understand that sadness is part of the unfolding of the God Process. Praise God with it. Even that which is not, apparently, for our best may be turned to an instrument of praise. Not by denying its painfulness, but by deeply seeing this soul, in this body, at this moment, as manifesting the unfolding of the One. The pain is real, and it is God.

For me the critical words there are "Not by denying its painfulness[.]" There is always a temptation to respond to sadness by shutting it down, or papering it over, or pretending it's not there. Maybe especially at times of year when we feel we're "supposed" to be happy -- at anniversaries or birthdays, at holidays. But spiritual practice calls us to resist the temptation to put a bandaid on what hurts.

The mitzvah of Sukkot is  לישב בסוכה / leishev ba-sukkah, to dwell -- literally, "to sit" -- in the sukkah. If your heart is breaking, then bring that into the sukkah and sit with it as best you can. Sitting in the sukkah can be a kind of embodied meditation, an opportunity to feel what comes and what goes. Torah tells us to rejoice in our festivals, but if you can't, that's okay. God is with you, wherever you are.

Maybe singing the praise-psalms of Hallel will "help," in the sense of lightening your heart, and maybe not. (You might find more resonance in מן המצר קראתי יה / min ha-meitzar karati Yah -- "From the narrow straits I called to You!" -- than in the more overtly joyful verses.) Either way, bring what is with you into the sukkah. Let yourself feel whatever you feel. And remember that this, too, shall pass.

 

Related: Joy, 2009.

 


Beautiful

LogoHas anyone told you today that you are beautiful?

Not because of what you're wearing. Not because they like your jewelry or your tie, though maybe they do. But your clothes aren't the point. Not now.

Not because they want something from you and are trying to butter you up. Not because you did something for them and they're trying to thank you. Just because it's true.

No?

I'll tell you, then. You are beautiful.

There is beauty in your eyes. When you let your neshama, your soul, shine through -- it takes my breath away. There's beauty in your hands -- in everything they do, have done, will do in the world.

There is such beauty in what makes you you. I know that the world we live in doesn't always feel like a safe place to let your light shine. I know that you don't always feel beautiful. But believe me: you are.

I wish I could make your life endlessly sweet. I wish I could smooth the rough edges, gentle away the sorrow, remove suffering from your path. I can't, because those things aren't given to me to do.

But I can tell you that you are beautiful, and that you are precious, and that I cannot fathom that a loving God put you on this earth to suffer, and that I want every good thing for you. Every single one.

I can tell you these things because I have been blessed to hear them myself. And I know that if they are true for me, then they are true not only for me. And if I needed to hear them, maybe you do, too.

I know that we are all reflections of God's beauty. I don't always see that beauty in myself, but when I look at the people I love most in the world, their beauty is more than I can describe in words.

I look at the people I love, and I want their lives to be paved with kindness, with gentle encounters and generous conversations, with an endless outpouring of love, because they deserve every good thing.

I believe that God sees each of us that way. The heart-overflowing limitless endless love that I feel for the people I love most in the world -- God feels that way toward every one of us. Can you imagine?

Think of the person you love most. How beautiful they are to you, because you see them through the eyes of love. Now imagine yourself, seen through the eyes of someone who loves you that intensely.

Because some One does. Even if you feel completely alone in the world. Even if life right now is hard. You are beautiful in those eyes. And you are beautiful in mine. You are beautiful because you are you.

 

The image illustrating this post comes from the folks at you-are-beautiful.com. It's one of the two bumper stickers on my car.

 


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.


In a time beyond time

 

Breath comes slow.
Behind the curtain
a gurgling: fish tank?
Medical equipment?
I don't part the veil.

Snatches of liturgy
wash over me and are gone.
My God, the soul You placed
in me is pure. Shelter
her beneath Your wings.

Now and forever.
Now is forever.
And when the soul is ready
to let go, tether trailing
like spider-silk...?

The sages say
sleep is one-sixtieth
of death. Perhaps one
who rarely wakes
can glimpse the other side.

 


"My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure..." comes from the prayer Elohai Neshama. My favorite translation contains the line "You created it, you formed it, you placed it within me, and you will take it from me in a time beyond time."

The imagery of a soul sheltered beneath the wings of Shekhinah is drawn from the prayer El Maleh Rachamim.

The teaching that sleep is 1/60th of death comes from the Talmud.


Praying for what's possible

MiShebeirach Card (front)What does it mean to cultivate hope when the doctors say "there's nothing more we can do"? Hopes for a cure have to be set aside. There will be no miracle, no Hail Mary pass, no eleventh-hour wonder. Every specialist has been seen, every possible avenue of treatment or exploration exhausted. All of the tests have been run. What does it mean to pray for healing when the body cannot be healed?

Every Shabbat morning after we read from Torah we offer a prayer called Mi Sheberach, "May the One Who Blessed..." It asks God, Who blessed our ancestors, to bless our sick loved ones with healing. Some years ago at my shul we began using an alternative text. We still ask God to bless those in need of healing of body, mind, and spirit. To be with them, comfort them, strengthen them and revive them.

But not to heal them. Because we recognize that not everyone who is ill can be healed. And as one of my congregants has taught me, asking God repeatedly for healing which we know is never coming can be painful. And it can lead to (entirely understandable) fury at God for not fulfilling the yearned-for wish. Her perspective is actually quite aligned with Jewish tradition, in a certain way. Tradition teaches us not to pray for the impossible, lest we damage our own faith in the Source of blessing.

During the dry season in the land of Israel, it never rains. So all over the world during that season, when we reach the line in our daily prayer which asks God for the nourishment we derive from water, Jews pray instead for dew. Because rain is simply not possible (in the place where our prayers originated), and we don't pray for things which are impossible, perhaps because doing so would be tantamount to "testing" God.

Jewish tradition teaches that when one hears a fire truck going by with sirens wailing, one shouldn't pray "please, God, let it not be my house burning" -- either it is, or it isn't, but the prayer won't change whatever is already real. I learned this when I first studied Mishna several years ago (see Brachot chapter 9) -- one who prays over something which has already happened is praying in vain. Sometimes a medical diagnosis can be like that. All we can change is how we respond to what is.

When a loved one cannot be healed, perhaps a time comes when we stop asking God for healing. We can ask for perspective, for strength, for loving care. We can ask God to be with our loved one and help them find blessings in each day. We can ask for comfort, for some sweetness to mitigate our loved one's suffering or grief. We can ask God to be with their caregivers, and to strengthen the work of their hands. We can ask for what is possible, and that has to be enough.


Salve

You, standing in line
at the coffee shop

or shivering at the gas pump --
what phone call do you dread

in the back of your mind
from the moment you wake up?

I don't know what grief lurks
in your dark corners

or what kind word
would settle around you

like a knitted afghan
warming your cold places,

would salve
your abraded heart.

 

 

I've been thinking a lot lately about the invisible worries and sorrows we carry with us, whether intimate or geopolitical. This poem came out of those reflections.

Usually titles are hard for me, but once the last couplet came together I knew what the poem's title would be. I like the way it hints both at balm and (via Latin) at salvation.


Good grief

Grief is a funny thing. A peculiar thing, I mean, not an entertaining one. It creeps in unexpectedly when everything seems fine, silent as Carl Sandburg's fog which "comes / on little cat feet." It does not listen to reason. It pays no attention to any list of gratitudes. When it wells up, cue the waterworks.

Grief brings fragility. As though the delicate eggshell of the heart could crack open at any moment, revealing an endless salt wellspring. Even writing about it from a distance, I want to keep it at arm's-length. I use stock phrases: "a funny thing," "cue the waterworks." I'm deflecting to keep it at bay.

Grief doesn't only come in the aftermath of loss. There's anticipatory grief, awareness that a loss is coming. And sometimes losses compound one another. The loss of health. The loss of the unthinking freedom which comes with health. The loss of an anticipated future, of what one thought would be.

Grief is, I find, not like depression. When I have experienced depression it has placed a scrim between me and the world, whereas grief leaves one exposed and open. When I can head depression off at the pass, that's a good thing, whereas trying to evade grief seems emotionally and spiritually unwise.

Also unlike depression, grief has a known cause: loss, or the expectation of loss. It's not an existential sadness without explanation. Grief has meaning. As Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz has written, grief can offer the gift of transformation when we allow ourselves to feel it fully and to be changed.

Continue reading "Good grief" »


How news and social media can hurt us

Crying_computer_userLately I've been talking with rabbinic colleagues about how best to minister to our congregants who are struggling with the news out of Israel/Palestine. We're hearing from people who are unable to fall asleep because they can't stop thinking about the images of destruction and grief, or who wake up and immediately start agonizing about the conflict or worrying about loved ones.

For some, the realities of what's happening there provoke a crisis of faith. For others, those realities provoke profound anxiety. How can we best care for people who are struggling in these ways? The question feels especially relevant to me because not only am I tasked with extending pastoral care to people who are struggling, but because I myself am also struggling to maintain my emotional and spiritual equilibrium in the face of the violence, destruction, and fear.

Maybe the first thing we can do is honor the reality of the struggle. A colleague just pointed me to something I found really interesting -- research showing that media exposure to trauma can create trauma in those who are watching, even from afar.

Tens of thousands of individuals directly witnessed 9/11, but millions more viewed the attacks and their aftermath via the media. In our three-year study following 9/11, my colleagues and I found that people who watched more than one hour of daily 9/11-related TV in the week following the attacks experienced increases in post-traumatic stress (PTS) symptoms (e.g., flashbacks, feeling on edge and hyper vigilant, and avoidance of trauma reminders) and physical ailments over the next three years.

The previous conventional wisdom had been that indirect media-based exposure to trauma is "not clinically relevant." But these researchers found otherwise. The article continues:

The relevance of indirect media exposure became apparent again after last April’s Boston marathon. In the days following the marathon bombings, my University of California, Irvine colleagues and I decided to replicate our 9/11 study and examine the impact of media exposure to the Boston Marathon bombings. We sought to look at all types of media: how much TV people watched, their exposure to disaster-related radio, print, and online news, and their use of social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Vimeo in the week following the bombings. We were especially interested in responses to social media coverage. Unlike traditional media that warn us about the gruesome nature of an image before showing it to us, social media typically display such images without warning.

Here's the conclusion to which I really want to draw your attention:

People who consumed lots of bombing-related media in the week after the bombings were six times more likely to report high acute stress than those who were at the Boston Marathon.

Let me be clear -- I am not suggesting that those of us who are following stories out of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza from afar are experiencing more trauma than those who are there. I recognize that from afar we can only barely begin to grasp the terror and the trauma. My child is safely watching cartoons; other peoples' children have been terrorized and killed. There is no comparison. What I am suggesting is that the media we consume has an impact in all four worlds: spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and even physical.

Continue reading "How news and social media can hurt us" »