Evening sky

Skiesherecould go outside and watch the sky change in the wintertime, but I rarely do.

Sunset is early in winter, and the air is too cold for my comfort most of the time, and my mirpesset fills up with snow and I can't open the door until that snow melts in the spring.

But in summer my balcony is one of my favorite places to be, and one of my favorite ways to spend evening time: gazing at the always-perfect and always-changing sky.

On the one hand sky-gazing can feel frivolous. There's so much that needs doing. On the micro scale there are household chores; on the macro scale there's the badly broken world.

But it's exactly because the work is endless that taking a pause from that work is so important. It's the same principle as taking a Shabbat: ideally it restores me for the week.

And even when I don't daven a full ma'ariv service I can pause to notice, and bless the One Who evens the evenings, mixing the changing colors of the evening sky.


A blessing for blowing the candle out

41enBytTguL._SY355_I love sitting with my son on the mirpesset in the evenings. He doesn't have a ton of patience for just sitting and watching the sky change colors, but I can usually entice him out for at least a little while.

Last night we sat on the mirpesset and I lit the citronella candle on his request. When it came time to go inside for his bath, he wanted to blow it out, but then he paused.

"We should say a blessing," he suggested. 

Generally speaking we make blessings when we light candles, not when we extinguish them, but I didn't say that. (I don't ever want to quash his spiritual impulses.) I said, "Okay, go for it."

"Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam," he began ("Blessed are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of creation" -- the opening words to many Jewish blessings), and then paused. "Wait. I don't know the rest of the words."

"You get to use your own words," I told him.

He thought for a moment.

"Thank You God for the light of the candle. When I blow it out, may Your strength flow through me," he intoned.

"Beautiful," I murmured.

And then he blew out the candle. (Which took a few tries; they're designed to be resistant to breezes!) When the flame went out, a plume of smoke rose and curled and danced up and around, revealing hidden currents. "Look, Mom," he said, "there's God's strength, flowing through the air!" 

Talk about sanctifying the ordinary.

Thank You, God, for the privilege of nurturing this extraordinary soul.


Ordinary days

41753113654_88f5c5d3af_zWhere we live, school won't end until late June, but the end is beginning to be in sight. My kid is starting to talk about becoming a "rising third grader," which boggles my mind. I'm finalizing plans for his day camp adventures this summer,: there will be scavenger hunts and arts & crafts and swimming in ponds surrounded by rolling green hills. The first distribution week at our beloved CSA is coming up soon, and I'm eager to return to the profoundly holy spaces of its fields and gardens and barn.

All of these are sweet -- and none of them is particularly noteworthy. But they are part of spiritual life even so. Ordinary days are part of spiritual life too: not just the highs and the lows, but the stretches in between. These days offer the challenge of sanctifying the ordinary: walks on the dirt roads behind my condo, making supper for my child, unpacking groceries, watering the plants on my small mirpesset where last fall and the fall before I set up a sukkah festooned with tinsel and sparkling lights.  

From the morning's modah ani and m'chayei ha-meitim to the evening's ma'ariv aravim, every day offers countless opportunities to wake up and offer blessing -- and countless opportunities to get bogged down (in scheduling, laundry, the frequently grief-inducing daily news) and forget. It can be easy (or easier) to offer words of blessing at high times. And at low times, the heart may demand to cry out and be heard (mine often does). But much of life is in between those two extremes. 

And that in turn means that much of the work of spiritual life is in that in-between place. It's the work of staying mindful, cultivating gratitude, doing what I can to make the world a better place, reminding myself to rest. It's the work of the everyday, the ordinary, the weekly rhythm of Shabbat and chol. It's the work that happens in traffic (even though where I live "traffic" is likelier to mean a slow tractor on route 43 than a surfeit of cars on the road) and waiting to check out at the grocery store. 

It's not glamorous. It's not the stuff of soul-stirring sermons. But it is the stuff of daily life. It's like parenting: my kid's childhood is made up of mornings and bedtimes and school days and play dates. It's easy to focus on the big milestone moments: starting school, or going on a big vacation, or becoming b'nei mitzvah... but childhood is more than those, and the work of being a parent is more than those. Parenting is in the little everyday things that make up the backdrop against which the big milestones unfold. 

And spiritual practice is in the little everyday things that make up the backdrop against which the big milestones unfold. Now that we've made it through Shavuot, the celebration of covenant that is the culmination of the journey of freedom we began at Pesach, the Jewish calendar quiets down for a while. Just in time for northern-hemisphere summer, a season of long days and splashing in the pool and doing all of the quiet ordinary things that make up a life. Here's to sanctifying ordinary time.

 

Image: the beginnings of summer where I live.


The week before spring

40132104624_1bf0a393cd_zThis is the time of year when I am most eager for the coming spring.

This year has felt scrambled. We had unseasonable warmth in February, and now that it's March we've gotten socked by a few nor'easters in a row. It feels like winter has settled in for the long haul, precisely now that we're all starting to crave the coming spring (or at least I am.)

But there's beauty in this snow-covered March landscape, if I have eyes to see. The snow reveals the passage of animals of whom I would otherwise be unaware -- little rabbit footprints outside the synagogue and outside my front door, bird footprints beneath my kitchen window feeder.

The icicles gleam when they catch the light.  At shul (seen here) the melting effects of the sun have caused icicles to form at surprising angles: not pointing downward like they do at my house, but curving inward, a thicket of clear points that look like spun glass, eaves decorated by Chihuly.

Though the world is still mostly monochrome -- the white of snow, the grey of clouds, the grey-brown of bare branches -- color is beginning to return to the palette. Every now and then there is a glimpse of blue sky. The willow branches have a pale gold quality to them that makes them look sunlit even on a cloudy day.

And friends who live just a few hours south report that they've started seeing robins, harbingers of spring, scattered across their lawns. I'm glad the robins haven't made it here yet -- everything is so covered in snow, where would they go for worms? -- but I expect to see them soon. 

The coming week will bring the spring equinox. The northern hemisphere is tilting toward summer, toward green, toward light. In another few months these snowbanks and icicles will be an improbable memory. For now my challenge is to see the beauty in them, even when I'm eager for what's next.


February: turning toward the light

26092538528_aee38fbf44_zFebruary can be a tough month. The Jewish spiritual calendar says we've taken our first steps toward the rising sap of spring, but the rising sap -- both literal and metaphorical -- is invisible to the human eye.

In New England where I make my home, we're entrenched in snow and rain and ice. The days are growing longer, but the world is still cold. My windshield is still obscured with its seasonal scrim of road salt. Winter won't unclench for a while yet. 

I've been taking comfort from the pair of hyacinth bulbs in my bedroom window. They were a gift from a friend a few weeks ago, and when I received them they were plain bulbs with root fronds below and only the tiniest nubs of green on top.

But within days they shot up, green leaves yearning toward the sun. And then they bloomed. Oh, their blooms! I've been under the weather for a few weeks now, but even so I can smell their fragrance, and it awes me.

Reb Zalman z"l used to say that as plants are heliotropic -- they naturally turn toward the sun -- we human beings are theotropic. It's in our nature to "grow toward God," to turn toward the source of light that enlivens us.

As plants draw sustenance from (soil and water and) the rays of the sun, we draw sustenance from a more metaphorical kind of light. We draw sustenance from the "light" of love and hope and connection.

What do you need to turn toward, as we move deeper into this season? What enlivens you and lifts your heart? What gives you a sense of hope? What would it feel like to turn toward those things, and ride that updraft all the way into spring?

 


Stick season

37922047004_3e8e84a50d_kI used to own a long, soft, narrow-wale corduroy dress that always seemed to call to me around this time of year. Its colors were muted: taupe and pale purple and deep fir-green. One day I realized that it matched the Berkshire hills in their November colors: the taupe brown of bare trees seen from a distance, the muted purple of distant hillsides at early twilight, the deep green of conifers on the highest parts of the hills. 

I rejoice when springtime paints the hills chartreuse. I relish the boldness of their summer green coats. I thrill to their yellow and orange autumn garb, though that beauty feels bittersweet because it presages the cold season to come. And now we're in the season I don't look forward to: "stick season," when the hills are bare and the nights are growing longer and plant life begins to go dormant because of the cold. 

The challenge is finding the beauty in this spare, sere landscape -- because it is still beautiful. The hills reveal their contours in a different way. Other neighborhood houses, once hidden by stands of trees, become visible again. The grass gives up on being green and begins to turn pale wintery gold. Hints of red pop against this muted backdrop: old apples still left on the trees, berries nestled among the thickets of sticks. 

In my mind I anthropomorphize our local plants and trees and bushes, imagining that they heave a sigh of relief when their performative season ends and they can rest. Okay, that's a stretch, but I know that the plants and trees that live here need to have a dormant season. It's as though the earth herself is taking a Shabbes: some downtime, some time when she doesn't have to produce (whether food or fruit or blossoms), some time when she can just rest and just be. Can I better learn that practice by paying attention to the world around me? 

Instead of being (too) attached to any particular season's gifts, I want to learn how to seek the beauty in whatever the world around me presents. Right now my task is retraining my eye to notice the gifts of New England November: the subtle gradations of color, the delicate traceries of bare branches, the sweetness to be found in this gentle, muted visual palette. Mother Nature isn't always showy, but there's always something worth noticing, if I can maintain the practice of being willing to see.

 


On stillness after the holidays

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...This is our time to rest, like bulbs cradled in the embrace of the earth. It’s time to slow our breathing, like the shavasana pose that ends many yoga classes. We’ve been pouring out our hearts: now it’s time to wait and see what flows in to replenish us. Like the trees, like the bulbs, our souls need to lie fallow....

 

That's from my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily.

Read the whole thing: Why the stillness after the wave of Jewish holidays is so important


the skies here

All through the long winter, I wait with eager anticipation for the long days of June. I have this in common with my mom, who also loves summertime's long days -- though at her latitude the winter days aren't as short, nor the summer days as long, as those I experience here. One of the things I anticipate most about summer is sitting outside in the late evening, listening to birdsong, watching the sky change color.

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The house where I used to live was on a mountaintop, and it had absolutely spectacular views. When we first went to see it eighteen years ago, the real estate agent who was showing it to us laughed at the look on my face when I got out of the car and looked out at the view and the sky. Leaving that view was one of the hardest things about leaving that house.

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But I am blessed that the place where I live now has a little mirpesset, a little balcony overlooking an expanse of green. (That's where I built my sukkah in the fall.) And here too, there is a patch of horizon and trees and sky. It may not have the over-the-top splendor of the view from the old place, but it has afforded me some beautiful glimpses of the changing sky.

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The sky's transition from afternoon to evening, sunset to nightfall, is predictable. It happens every day (unless there is rain.) It is the very definition of mundane: ordinary, worldly, banal. And yet sometimes it opens my heart to connection with transcendence. In this, it is like other ordinary and banal things: rainbows, or the way my heart dances when I see my child joyful, or what I feel when I marinate in love. 

 

Related:

Who rolls back light before dark and dark before light, 2016

Summer gratitudes, 2015

Looking at the prayer for evening in a new light, 2013 

 

This post borrows its title from the name of my first collection of poems, published by Pecan Grove Press in 1995.


Winter prayer among the trees

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

So we do.


New in The Wisdom Daily: Everything Breaks. It's What We Do With The Pieces That Matters.

31967190051_a22ff3cf91_z...On my scraps of paper, I jotted down phrases like “the sorrow of my divorce” and “tendency to diminish my own needs” and “feeling silenced.” I felt both humbled and hopeful: humbled by the recognition that there’s much I need to shed, and hopeful at the prospect of truly letting those things go.

When we were done writing, we went around the table and took turns reading each scrap of paper aloud and then holding it in the fire until it began to burn. We dropped the flaming bits of paper into the dish that held the tealight. We burned old griefs and bad habits.

When we were done, one of my friends suggested a variation. We each wrote blessings for each of the others,  read those aloud, and lit them on fire too — not because we wanted the blessings to burn up, but because the act of setting them aflame felt like a way of offering the intentions up to God.

As we finished reading and burning our hopes and blessings for each other, we heard a loud crack. We promptly blew out the flame, but it was too late — the ceramic dish holding the tealight had broken in two....

That's from my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily.

Read the whole thing: Everything Breaks. It's What We Do With The Pieces That Matters

 

 


As the year draws toward its close

End-of-the-yearAt the end of the Jewish year, there are practices of introspection designed to help us re-align ourselves. The work of teshuvah (repentance / return / returning to our deepest and truest selves) calls us to look seriously at who we've been and who we want to become. The end of the secular year isn't as much a time of inner work for me as the end of the Jewish year, but it's still a natural time to pause and take stock of who I am and where I'm going.

It's a truism to say that no year is quite like any other, but 2016 was particularly unusual for me because it was the year during which my eighteen year marriage came to its end. Midway through 2016 I moved out of the home I'd lived in since 1999, the home in which I had once thought I might live out the rest of my days. And I began to live on my own for the first time. Not "alone" -- thanks to my seven-year-old -- but on my own.

That's a big transition, and it's one I'm still navigating. Those of you who have lived on your own for a long time may take those rhythms for granted. Those of you who have lived with a partner, or with other family members, for a long time may not realize in how many subtle ways one comes to rely on the patterns that evolve between people who share a household and a life. I knew this would be a big change, and it has been as momentous as I expected.

Spiritually speaking, the latter half of this year has been an exercise in drawing on what sustains me. Sometimes that means meditation and prayer, sometimes singing in harmony with friends, sometimes hot tea and solitude.  It's also been a time of navigating grief. It's also been an exercise in finding small pleasures to savor: the chickadees discovering the bird feeder I hung outside the kitchen window, or my mastering a new recipe in the slow cooker I bought at a tag sale over the summer.

As I look ahead to 2017, I know that I will need to continue being attentive to what nourishes my heart and spirit. I will need to continue learning how to rely on myself and trust my own strength -- and also to lean on community, family, and friends sometimes, and not to isolate myself from the communities of which I am a part. I'll keep working at making a home for myself and my son, brightened by Shabbat candles and by the presence of friends.

2016 has been a difficult year, but has contained gifts that counterbalance its sorrows (on a personal level, at least; I'm not looking in this moment at the traumas of the globe, which have been substantial.) I'm grateful for the old year's gifts, and I know that the secular new year will contain gifts too. Whatever your 2016 has been, I hope that you can find blessings to uplift as the secular year begins to wind down -- and may we all release the sorrows of the old year, and let them float away.

 


A crack in everything

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I was walking with my son at MASS MoCA on a recent rainy day. He was collecting Pokémon on my phone, and I was letting my mind wander with our footsteps. The asphalt of the pavement beneath my feet was cracked in several places. As in many places, the cracks had been filled in and repaired.

But then I noticed that these repaired cracks weren't quite like the ones I see everywhere else. They gleamed. They were golden. And then I noticed the small plate on the side of building 11 indicating that this is an art piece by Rachel Sussman, part of an exhibition called The Space Between. Here's how the artist herself describes the piece:

Fracture is investigated by Rachel Sussman, who restores cracks in pavement in the museum parking lot by adapting the Japanese art of kintsukuroi. On the ground in the interior courtyard behind the museum’s main building, resin and gold powder fill the cracks on the ground caused by cars and weather. The tiny streams of gold create fractal patterns recalling aerial topographical photographs. The philosophy of kintsukuroi treats cracks as fundamental parts of an object, noting that value lies in accepting change and underscoring the aesthetic qualities of imperfection and use rather than disguising flaws.

I learned the name of the art as kintsugi, and I've written about it before (see From trauma to healing, a d'var Torah I shared for Shemini a couple of years ago.) I learned about it from a blog reader, who told me about it after I posted the poem Find in April 0f 2015. The art, as I understand it, inheres in repairing broken things with gold so that their brokenness becomes a focal point and a locus of beauty, rather than being a cause for shame. 

We all have broken places. Our bodies break -- I became aware of that in a new way when I had my strokes. And even absent something dramatic like a stroke, our bodies all have flaws, and the older we get, the less our bodies match the supposed ideals of youthful slimness that our current culture so prizes. Our hearts break -- we experience love lost or unrequited, seasons of loneliness and invisibility, the personal griefs that we all come to carry. Our minds break -- over time they lose their elasticity, and remembering things becomes more difficult. And our spirits break -- the world is unfair, children fall ill and do not recover, world news can be horrifying and disheartening. We are all broken, sometimes.

It can be tempting to try to hide the brokenness. To put a bandaid on it, or cover it over with makeup, or put on the proverbial happy face and pretend it away. And there are times when pretending at gratitude can help us actually get there. But there are also times when pretending away our brokenness and our grief is a form of spiritual bypass. I think that often authentic spiritual life demands something different: that we feel what we feel, and that we call it what it is, honestly and openly. Sometimes we feel broken. (Sometimes we are broken.) And that's okay. Granted, it doesn't feel good. Nobody wants to be broken. But pretending that we are otherwise doesn't actually change anything. The art of kintsugi offers a different path: paint our broken places gold.

Paint our broken places gold, and embrace them. Recognize that the more life we have lived, the more scars we are likely to have -- visible or invisible -- and that our scars are not a flaw in us, but an intrinsic part of what makes us human. Beyond that: our broken places can paradoxically be a source of our wholeness. The sages of the Talmud taught that if an earthen vessel becomes tamei ("impure," charged-up with spiritual energy in a dangerous way) the way to make it tahor (pure) is to break it and glue it back together. Torah teaches that we are beings of the earth: we too can become pure and whole not despite our brokenness, but in and through it. Or as the Leonard Cohen z"l wrote, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

I'm grateful to Rachel Sussman for adding a little bit of beauty and sparkle to the rain-drenched pavement outside of MASS MoCA, and for reminding me to find the beauty in my own broken places.

 


Entering the empty month

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Today and tomorrow are Rosh Chodesh, new moon, the "head of the month" -- the beginning of a new lunar month. On the Jewish calendar, we're entering into the month of Cheshvan. Cheshvan is remarkable because it is empty: aside from Shabbat, which comes every seventh day all year long, Cheshvan contains no holidays. No feast days, no fast days, no special practices, no special liturgy. Nothing at all out of the ordinary. Jewish time is separated into kodesh (holy / set-apart) and chol (ordinary time), and the month of Cheshvan is -- aside from its Shabbatot -- completely chol

I love the Days of Awe. I love the whole rollercoaster: from the low point of Tisha b'Av, through the month of Elul (introspection, inner work, psalm 27), through Rosh Hashanah (day of judgement, birthday of creation), through the Ten Days of Teshuvah, through Yom Kippur (day of atonement, intimacy with God), through the seven days of Sukkot (little harvest house, lulav and etrog, facing impermanence) and Hoshana Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. And by the time we get to the end of all of those special days, with their customs and practices and words, I am wiped out.

Enter Cheshvan, the empty month. On the solar calendar we are moving toward winter in this hemisphere. The days are getting colder, the leaves have largely blown off the trees, the hills are taking on their more sere and muted late-autumn hues of soft purples and browns beneath frequently clouded skies. The outside world feels like a reflection of my internal spiritual landscape. The time for the finery of the Days of Awe is over. Now I cup my hands around a mug of tea, now I sit and breathe deeply, now I let everything that was activated and stirred-up in me by the holidays begin to settle like fallen leaves.

Cheshvan is the beginning of a spiritual fallow season. Just as the earth needs time to rest between harvest and new planting, so too do our hearts and souls. Now we let the ordinary passage of ordinary time work its magic. We trust that the coming season will somehow -- alchemically, mysteriously -- transform the discoveries and emotions of the holiday season into the inner qualities we will most need as we approach the festivals of (northern hemisphere) spring in a few months. We are like fallen leaves not yet ready to serve as mulch for spring's new growth. We are like seeds curled tight, waiting.

We can't know yet what will arise in us after the quiet winter. If we had a telescope to let us look far out to the horizon we could maybe barely glimpse the beacons of Tu BiShvat, Purim, and Pesach in the distance. But there are months between now and then. In the northern hemisphere the days are growing shorter. It's Cheshvan, the empty month. Time to let our hands be empty, let our hearts be open, let the hard work of the holiday season begin to percolate in our hearts and souls. It's Cheshvan, the empty month. Time to hunker down, tend our internal fires, and let ordinary time balm our tender places. 

 

Related:

Seasonal, 2013

 

[Image source]


The woman who used to live at number 9

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Sometimes I think about the woman who used to live in the condo that now is mine. I bought this condo from the grown children of a woman named Sally, who died at 91. I never knew her, though this is a small town, and I have encountered many people who did know her. "Oh, you bought Sally's place," they say. Usually after that, people say something like "she was quite a character."

I've heard anecdotes about her climbing over fences, playing golf with celebrities, enjoying a scotch before dinner. The house was empty when I moved in, but hidden in corners that her children had missed I found a few of her things. I kept the coffee mug emblazoned with the logo of the Clark Art Institute; I gave the long, wickedly elegant black and white cigarette holder to Goodwill.

I wonder what she would think about the fact that her home is now inhabited by a single mother and a first grader. Did she have kids when she lived here, or did she move here after her kids were grown? I wonder what she would think of the bright red curtains I hung in the living room, or the wine-colored duvet and pillows in the master bedroom once curtained with a print of pink and green.

In the kitchen I've hung photographs I took in Buenos Aires and in Jerusalem: did she like to travel? Had she ever been to either of those places? What would she make of the music that fills these rooms -- sometimes Nava Tehila, sometimes Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, often the theme song to the Pokémon cartoons my son likes to watch? What would she have made of the sukkah I built on the mirpesset?

Sometimes I imagine her keeping company with the people whose furniture I have inherited. My ex-husband's maternal grandmother, for instance: her bedside tables are in my master bedroom now. Or my own maternal grandparents, whose Czech bookcase serves as a dining room sideboard. I imagine them as a friendly chorus of elders watching over me in this new chapter, fondly, from afar.

 


Back to the beginning

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This week we begin again. The cycle of fall holidays is finally over: we have returned to ordinary time. I don't mean by that term precisely what my Christian cousins mean by it -- for them it has a more particular liturgical meaning than it does for us. What I mean is something more like חול / chol, non-sacred time. Usually we speak in terms of שבת וחול / shabbat v'chol, the holiness of Shabbat and the ordinariness of the non-sacred workweek. After the star-studded expanse of the Days of Awe and all that comes before and after them, this first ordinary Shabbat of the new year feels to me almost like a kind of chol. It will be Shabbat, of course, which makes it holy -- but it's a holiness that partakes of the regular rhythms of the year. The smaller ebb-and-flow of Shabbat-and-week, rather than the big peaks from which we have only recently descended. We have returned to normalcy.

As the parent of a first grader, I am conscious of the gifts that come with normalcy and routine. Transitions are hard. Big holidays are disruptions in ordinary time, and they need to be -- we need them to be. We need to be shaken out of our complacency. We need to be confronted with experiences that awaken our sense of awe and majesty, that remind us that we are mortal and today might be our last chance to lead the kind of life of which we can be proud because tomorrow is never guaranteed. Jewish tradition is wise in giving us these things, and in giving us so many of them in a row that our emotional and spiritual defenses weaken and let our true hearts begin to shine through. And after so many of them in a row, now we need the return to ordinary time. Just as my son needs to return to the regular rhythms of schoolnight bedtime, so we need to return to our regular rhythms too. 

And what do we do on this first Shabbat of ordinary time? We begin our great story again. We roll our Torah scrolls back to the very beginning and we read about when God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth, and creation was wild and waste, and the spirit of the Divine hovered like a mother bird over the face of the waters. We return to the moment in our story when all of creation was as-yet untapped potential. At the beginning of the story, anything could happen! Of course, the words of our Torah are already written. We know how that story will go from here. But there's still power, for me, in returning to the narrative moment when everything began. It's a new beginning, a new year. The story in our scroll is already written, but what we will make of that story this year is up to us. What we will make of our lives this year is up to us. What we will revise ourselves into is up to us.


Moving into late January

Late January can be a difficult time. It's cold outside: this morning my car's thermometer registered seven degrees. The world is mostly monochrome: white snow, brown and grey tree trunks, sky which is often clouded in shades of pearl and grey. Midwinter's excitement (whether that means Christmas, or New Year's, or the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy) is over and gone, but winter's not going anywhere. Whether or not you put stock in the idea of Blue Monday, this time of year is tough.

I've learned over the years that this is a good time of year for small pleasures. A glass of vibrant, tart, bright-red hibiscus tea. Luxuriating beneath soft blankets. Making the effort to bring in wood and light a fire, even if it's just me in the house, because it feels good -- both the warmth from the burning wood, and the emotional warmth evoked by the crackling flames. This is a good time of year to paint my nails some outrageous bright color, and to wear my insulated purple gloves: anything to gladden the eye.

Some days I manage to pause and sing the the evening service. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who with Your word bring on the evening...  The Hebrew suggests that evening is a mixture, a blending of day and night. It's the cusp, and as evening transitions toward night the sky's palette shifts and deepens. One evening last week I sat outside with a friend and as chevrons of geese flew overhead we caught sight of streaky pink clouds of winter sunset -- there and then gone. 

I am a creature of summertime. I love the long days, the warmth, the light, the effusion of greenery, the gloaming of a long summer twilight. I'm happiest in sandals and something sleeveless. At this season I have to work harder to notice what's beautiful: the sparkle of sunlight on crisp snow, or the late afternoons where moon and stars illuminate the sky. My gratitude practices remind me to seek something every day for which I can be thankful. I'm thankful for those practices, at this time of year.


To affix the mezuzah

23278205325_439633ff6b_zMy study at home doesn't have a door. It's part of a bigger room, walled off by standing bookshelves which face in both directions. Because my study doesn't have a door, it doesn't have a doorframe or doorposts. As a result, there's never been a mezuzah at the entrance to my study...until now. 

I've had this glass mezuzah for as long as I can remember. I think that I bought it from a visiting sofer (scribe) at the Jewish day school I attended in second grade. It's traveled with me from place to place, room to room, always sitting on a shelf or on a table. (From time to time, as needed, it travels with me to my shul so that the local sofer can examine it when he comes to examine our Torah scrolls.) And now it hangs on the edge of one of the bookshelves which acts as a doorframe to this ersatz room.

As I was preparing to hang it, I was struck by the particular phrasing of the blessing for affixing a mezuzah. In English, one way to translate it would be this: "A fountain of blessings are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe! You give us the opportunity to make ourselves holy with these connective-commandments, including the commandment to affix the mezuzah."

The word I'm rendering as "affix" is לקבוע / likbo'a  – the same root as in the phrase מקום קבוע / makom kavua, the "fixed place" one is supposed to make for oneself in prayer. (Here's a nice commentary on that -- I especially like the idea, from Dr. Alan Morinis, that when one chooses a fixed spot for prayer, one frees up the rest of the space in the room for others -- just as when one maintains good ego boundaries, one frees up the rest of the psycho-spiritual space in the room for others.)

Contrary to the Gemara's instructions, I don't have a "fixed place" for my spiritual practices, whether poetry or prayer. I do both wherever I go, including when I am on the go. Sometimes I pray aloud while driving the car. (Sometimes I write poems in my head while driving the car.) This life is one of perennial multitasking. Rabbinate, parenthood, serving ALEPH, writing poetry: all of these roles interpenetrate, and I embody them wherever I go. I'm still mom when I'm at the synagogue. I'm still rabbi when I'm packing a lunch for school. I'm still a poet when I'm writing sermons or making pastoral care calls. I am all of these things wherever I go, and my spiritual practices are portable -- they go with me. 

Still, affixing a mezuzah at the entrance to my study feels like a way of making that room an extra-special place for my spiritual practices. Now when I walk through the "door" into my study, I can pause and kiss my fingers and touch them to the mezuzah -- sanctifying the transition from one space to another, one room to another. I love that our tradition gives us this tool for noticing liminal spaces and making them holy. And I love that when I enter this room where so many of my poems are revised, including this year's many poems of love and longing for the Beloved, I'll be reminded to love the One with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my being (because the prayer which reminds me to do so is written on the mezuzah's parchment.)

Most days, I also wear the words of that same prayer -- the declaration of God's Oneness, and the exhortation to love the One with all that I am -- on a silver amulet designed by artist Jackie Olenick. Maybe that amulet is the portable "mezuzah" on the room of my body, the room of my heart. My glass mezuzah can help me sanctify my home office -- not necessarily my only fixed place for spiritual practice, but one of the places where I practice; and my necklace can help me cultivate holiness as I bring my spiritual practices with me, wherever I go. 

 

Related:

Doorposts, 2010

 


Hidden light

EarthshineAt this time of year where we live, it's dark by the time the students and I pour forth from the synagogue at the end of Monday afternoon Hebrew school. And now that my son is in kindergarten, he comes to Monday Hebrew school just as the older kids do. So the two of us walk out of the shul together into the afternoon dark.

Last night as we approached the car, he looked up at the sky and crowed, "I see the moon!" And then, a moment later, he added -- with wonderment -- "it's a crescent, but I can see the rest of it, look, it's dark grey!" I told him that this is a waxing crescent moon; we are four days into the lunar month of Kislev, so the moon is growing bigger.

The waxing crescent moon is beautiful, of course... and so is the more muted light which my son admired on the remainder of the satellite, the dim but perceptible silhouette of the rest of the moon. That pale glow, it turns out, is earthshine -- light reflected from the earth onto the moon. When the moon is a crescent, if we could stand on its surface we would see a full earth hanging in space. Earthshine is the glow from the full earth, reflected back onto the night side of the moon.

Earthshine isn't visible all night long -- only for a short while after sunset, and a short while before sunrise. But if you catch the crescent moon at those liminal times, you can glimpse the rest of the moon, too. That the moon illuminates the earth is no surprise to me. The full moon is a thing of beauty, and shines so brightly! But that our earth illumines the moon in turn -- I never knew that. I'd seen it before, but didn't know what it was.

In Jewish tradition the moon can represent Shekhinah, divine Presence: sometimes hidden and sometimes revealed, but always with us. If the moon represents divine Presence, then maybe earthshine represents how our yearning for God makes God more present, more "visible," to us. As we gaze upward and yearn for the One, the light of our souls shines forth -- and even though our individual lights are tiny, collectively we shine enough light to illuminate God from afar.

As earthshine illuminates the moon which in turn beams more light upon us, so our souls -- thirsty for connection -- shed light on God Who pours light down on us in turn. Earthshine only manifests when the moon isn't full -- or in Jewish mystical language, it's precisely when God seems most hidden that we are called to yearn and to seek. (The Zohar has a phrase for this: אתערותא דלתתא, "arousal from below." Sometimes connection between us and God comes from "on high;" other times it's sparked by our yearning "from below.")

There are times when God's light is brilliant -- full moon, as it were. And there are times when God's light is scant... and it's precisely at those times when our yearning can most fully call divine light forth, just as earthshine is only possible when the moon is mostly hidden from view. God's hiddenness is an invitation to us to seek and to yearn. And the very act of our seeking makes God more findable -- just as the light of our faraway planet helps the moon herself to shine.

 


Brought to you by diner coffee

I think of myself as pretty good at working with people remotely. I was a relatively early adopter, internet-wise. I've been online for well more than 20 years. I spent three years on the board of directors of a nonprofit organization with no physical address, working with colleagues all over the globe day after day via purely internet-based tools. And yet I can't deny that there is a different energy, a special spark, which arises when I can sit down with someone face to face. Maybe especially if our brainstorming is fueled by a neverending stream of surprisingly decent diner coffee.

Everready

This is a photograph of my current favorite diner. This diner is on a relatively nondescript Main Street sort of highway in a smallish upstate New York town. We happened on it purely because the town in which it is planted is roughly midway between where I live and where my ALEPH co-chair lives. And besides, its chrome and mirrors gleam so appealingly on a sunny day! (And when you walk inside, you're greeted by a giant statue of a guy holding a gargantuan coffee mug.) Every so often, when we can swing it, we get in our cars and we each drive a couple of hours, and this is where we meet up.

It's enormous, and although there's frequently a healthy crowd, I've never seen it full. Maybe that's why they don't seem to mind when we show up, order breakfast, and then spend hours with laptops thanking the waitstaff when they come to top off our cups. It was at this diner, some months ago, that we first dreamed up a list of hopes for ALEPH six months, a year, three years hence. It was at this diner recently that we opened up that plan again and marveled at how many of those hopes and dreams are (with help from Board, staff, teachers, and the Holy One of Blessing) coming to pass.

Lately we've been joking that when we issue that State of Jewish Renewal report next summer at the ALEPH Kallah, we should indicate on the flyleaf that it is brought to you by this diner's neverending stream of coffee. Most recently it's where we met with Rabbi Andrew Hahn, "the Kirtan Rabbi" (about whose work I have posted before), to talk about next summer's Kallah, innovation space and the integration of serious text study with heart-centered Renewal spiritual technologies, and more. We only make it there every few months, but it's already becoming my diner-office-away-from-home.

I don't mind working remotely. On the contrary: I love the fact that when the ALEPH Board meets, I see friendly faces (on my computer screen) who are in a variety of locations and time zones. I love the fact that I get to work with terrific colleagues around North America and around the world. But there really is no substitute for facing a friend across a formica diner table, warming one's hands on a cup of joe in a satisfyingly chunky diner mug, making to-do lists and riffing off of each other's ideas, and then together -- dual laptops open, shared document cursor blinking -- diving in and getting to work.

 


The specialness of the ordinary

Venus37moon_young

Those who pay close attention to the Jewish calendar, or who pay close attention to the night sky, may have noticed that the moon has started waxing again -- which means we've entered a new lunar month. After the intense constancy of the month of Tishri -- which contains Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah -- comes the month which contains no holidays other than Shabbat, that holiest day of the year which recurs every seventh day.

Some call this lunar month חשון / Cheshvan. Some call it by the name מרחשון / Marcheshvan, and interpret that name as "bitter Cheshvan" -- mar means bitter -- because there are no holidays this month besides Shabbat. Though Rabba Emily Aviva Kapor-Mater noted recently that "The name of the month derives from the Akkadian waraḥ-šamnu meaning 'eighth month' (think cognate to ירח שמיני). Remember, last month Tishri, though first, is actually seventh, and so Marḥeshvan is eighth."

(What does she mean about Tishri being both first and seventh? Well, it depends on which new year you're counting from. The Talmud lists four different new years. If the new year is at Pesach, then Tishri is the seventh month; if the new year is at Rosh Hashanah, it's the first month. Her point is that Marcheshvan can't mean "bitter Cheshvan" because its etymology clearly implies "eighth month." Still, far be it from me to object to a poetic interpretation, as long as we know that it's poetry.)

Still others call this month רמחשון / Ram-cheshvan, "High Cheshvan," suggesting that this month is high and holy precisely because its holiness is hidden, or suggesting that this month's true holiness will make itself known in a time to come. (I believe that teaching originally came from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z"l.) I like the inversion. The fact that this month has no overt holidays doesn't make it lesser-than. Quite the opposite, in fact. What appears to be most ordinary is in fact most special.

It makes me think of one of my favorite teachings from the Slonimer rebbe about the holiness of the white space. (This is a Shemini Atzeret teaching; I've posted about it here before.) He talks about how the letters of the Torah are holy, and so is the parchment on which they are written. The black fire is holy, and so is the white fire within which it is contained. The days of our festivals are holy -- and so is the context of chol, of ordinary time, within which our days of kedusha, holiness, are cradled.

I like the idea that this month's specialness is hidden. Like a secret language which only those who care will learn to speak. Like secret music which most people don't bother to make the effort to hear. Who knows what opportunities for connection might lurk beneath this month's overtly ordinary exterior? No festivals, no shindigs, no fancy observances -- just a month during which we can reconnect ourselves with the rhythms of weekday and Shabbat, and rediscover the holy opportunities of ordinary time.

 

Related:

The year as spiritual practice, 2009

The empty month, 2010

Seasonal, 2013

Cheshvan, 2014