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Off we go!

Having enjoyed Ghana's victory in the World Cup yesterday (sorry, US fans), we're off to Pearlstone for my final rabbinic school residency. Think kindly of us today; the seven-hour drive with the baby is likely to be challenging! And, of course, once we get to where we're going, I've got two intense weeks of school ahead of me, which will be challenging in a different way.

I'll blog if, and as, I am able...but I will almost certainly not be able to keep up with my blog aggregator, so my apologies in advance for failing to read your posts over the next few weeks. Be well, all!

Another mother poem: in the water


gulls and pelicans wheeled and cried
below the balcony

morning and evening the cloth umbrellas
unfurled and furled like hibiscus

and daily I walked onto the beach
in my maternity tankini

and entered the water gratefully
imagining you afloat in my small sea

oh, baby, when you are grown
will we reminisce about the old days

when a pregnant woman could still swim
off the soft rippled edge of Texas?

This week's prompt at Big Tent Poetry invites us to try to write about the oil spill -- or anything else that we might want to write about but might feel that we don't know how.

Thinking about the oil spill in the context of this series of mother poems, I found myself thinking about swimming in the Gulf of Mexico a year ago when I was pregnant with Drew. So I went looking for information on how the oil spill might be impacting the state where I grew up, and came across 1979 Gulf oil spill: Heads were buried in sand, a recent Houston Chronicle article by Lisa Gray about the Ixtoc I oil spill which happened when I was four.

The thing that hit me hardest, in the Chronicle article, was this:

[W]hen I asked Port Aransas' old-timers about Ixtoc, most shrugged and struggled to remember something...

Only one question reliably made people light up. I learned to ask what they had used to remove the black, carpet-wrecking tar balls from their feet and shoes.

Baby wipes, they'd say, laughing. Or baby oil.

There's something especially dreadful, for me, about the conjunction of cleaning up the residue of an oil spill and the familiar, comforting scent of baby oil.The baby oil detail was in an earlier draft of the poem, but it felt preachy, so I'm including it here in prose instead. (Same goes for the couplet which asked whether we'd forget this spill just as we seem to have have forgotten Ixtoc. Despite growing up in south Texas, I'd never heard of the Ixtoc disaster at all.)

My browsing also led me to The Worst Oil Spills in History, an infographic by Gavin Potenza which helps me contextualize the magnitude of both the Ixtoc spill and the BP one happening now. And, of course, don't forget the slow and devastating leakage of oil in Nigeria, which isn't even on that map because it's not a single dramatic spill. (For more on that, here's the Guardian: Nigeria's agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill. US and Europe ignore it.)

To see what others wrote in response to the prompt, you can check out this week's come one, come all post. Meanwhile, don't miss Poets for Living Waters, which is collecting poems in response to the BP oil spill.


My last rabbinic school residency

In a few days, I'll be heading south for a two-week rabbinic school residency at the Pearlstone conference and retreat center, and I'm taking Drew and Ethan with me. Over the first few days of the retreat, Ethan will look after Drew while I'm in class, and during the second week while Ethan's on the road my mother will tag in and watch Drew during my class hours. The days will be pretty packed: early morning prayer, class all day, afternoon prayer, study hall in the evenings, evening prayer before bed. I'll be spending my time with the hundred or so students in the ALEPH ordination programs, plus a handful of prospective students who are in the application process. I can't wait.

The two weeks are made up of two different retreats, Smicha Students' Week and Ruach ha'Aretz. I'll be taking three classes. During week one, I'll be in a class on Sefer Iyov (The Book of Job) taught by Reb Leila Gal Berner and a class on Interfaith Issues in Hashpa'ah (Spiritual Direction) taught by Reb Nadya Gross and Reb Shohama Wiener. During week two, I'm taking an all-day intensive in Lifecycle rituals taught by Reb Marcia Prager (which I've been referring to, among my role-playing friends, as a chance for me to "level up" in lifecycle -- I've been doing lifecycle events for years, but I know I'm going to learn a lot from Reb Marcia, Rabbinic Pastor Shulamit Fagan, and the other teachers who will be dropping in to lend their expertise.)

As I anticipate the retreat, I'm realizing that I have some complicated feelings. I'm eager to be there, and to see my amazing community of teachers and friends, most of whom I haven't seen since last summer. I'm looking forward to hugging them, talking with them, praying with them. Last time most of them saw me in person, I was pregnant, so I can't wait to introduce them to Drew. I'm looking forward to introducing Ethan and my mom to my community, too. It will be amazing to have the chance to share a community that I love with three of the most important people in my life.

Then again, there's something bittersweet about knowing that this will be my last summer residency. As excited as I am about approaching the end of my formal rabbinic training, and about moving on to what's next, I know I'm going to miss this program tremendously. This will also be my first time attempting to balance this kind of academic immersion with parenting. I know what it's like to spend two weeks in intensive prayer and study, and I know what it's like to spend two weeks engaging with Drew. I don't have any idea what it's going to feel like to try to do both at once. Even with substantive help from my sweetie and my mom, I can imagine that I might feel pulled in two directions at once.

So the residency's going to be an adventure. And this week, I'm doing my best to get ready: reading a few books (Archibald MacLeish's play J. B., Norvene Vest's Tending the Holy: Spiritual Direction Across Traditions), writing a paper about the last six months of spiritual direction work, digging up an article to teach to my Job classmates. Making lists of what I need to pack in the car: tallit and tefillin, Tanakh and rabbi's manual, diapers and baby food, the bouncy seat and its batteries... Preparing for the trip feels like a microcosm of the work I'm doing now in my life writ large -- figuring out how to balance rabbinic work and poetry with motherhood, the needs of my community and my vocation with the needs of my spouse and son.

I don't know whether I'll manage to write weekly mother poems while I'm away, or whether I'll manage to blog about the learning I'm doing. I hope that I will, but it's hard to be sure! There's a lot that's not known to me; I'm just going to have to play things by ear. Despite my small anxiety about how the two weeks are going to play out, I'm also really looking forward to them. My last big rabbinic school trip. In general, I try to enjoy every moment as it unfolds -- that's pretty much my modus operandi, right there -- but this trip is something I want to try to particularly savor.

Another mother poem: psalm 5


Trying to sit up is hungry work.
I praise your abs for doing their part,
I settle you on the pillow in my lap
and as you draw shefa down from its source
your eyes flutter shut, your breathing slows.
Nothing else I know can match this comfort:
the steady flow of warm milk, my hand
stroking the curve of your head, your belly
pressed to my ribcage, the gentle rhythm
as each of us inhales and then lets go.
Daily I expand how much I can love
your toes, your cough, your raised eyebrow.
It feels dangerous, prying my chest open
to make room for everything that's new
and you're in the world now, the risks
as numerous as the stars in the sky,
but with fear come delights, too --
your face smeared with prunes
almost too luminous for me to bear.
Each day your glee polishes my dull edges
and I shine. As I grew your body
you changed mine. My heart stretches.
I think I might resent these silvery scars
if you weren't grabbing for my hair,
my glasses, reminding me how much there is
to reach for, to marvel at, everywhere.

This week's prompt at Big Tent Poetry is a wordle word cloud, from which I drew the words resent, praise, comfort, milk, cough, part, hungry, stars, dangerous, dull. The words were drawn from a widely-published poet's work; the identity of that poet and the poem in question are revealed in this week's come one, come all post, which you can visit if you want to see what this prompt inspired other people to write. (Turns out the poem in question is by Sherman Alexie -- and, intriguingly enough, it's about parenthood too!)

Needless to say, this is the latest addition to my ongoing series of mother poems. Speaking of which, two of those poems were published alongside an adaptation of a recent blog post over at Zeek -- "Night Feeding" and "Walking and Falling at the Same Time" are both published alongside The Spirituality of Parenting at Zeek.

The Hebrew word shefa, which appears in this poem, means divine abundance. Within my mother poems cycle, there have been four poems which I've titled "Anticipatory Psalms" -- this one feels to me like it's part of the same grouping of poems, but instead of celebrating something I anticipate, this poem celebrates what already is. So for now I've titled it simply "Psalm 5."


Another mother poem: full day



refuse to let go
grip my finger tight
bang your feet on the floor
blow raspberries at the sky

grip my finger tight
pop off the breast and beam
blow raspberries at the sky
toe off a small red sock

pop off the breast and beam
lie on your back and babble
toe off a small red sock
crinkle a book made of cloth

lie on your back and babble
open mouth, insert world
crinkle a book made of cloth
rub your reddening eyes

open mouth, insert world
insist you are not sleepy
rub your reddening eyes
cling to your giraffe

insist you are not sleepy
grip my finger tight
cling to your giraffe
refuse to let go

This week's big tent poetry prompt was twofold: to write a poem about anger, and to make it a pantoum. I didn't take on the suggested subject matter, but decided to adopt this form in writing this week's mother poem.

I've written pantoums before -- most notably the Torah poem Tzav Pantoum, which was later published in Frostwriting. The same thing that made the form a good fit for that section of the book of Leviticus makes the form a good fit for describing this moment in parenthood: there's an awful lot of repetition!

I wanted to evoke, with this poem, the full sweep of a day with Drew: from his excitement when he first sees me in the morning (grabbing for my finger, kicking his feet) to the eye-rubbing which tells me it's time for bed at day's end, with all of the baby-babbling and toy-rattling which comes in between.

Feel free to check out this week's "come one, come all" post so you can see what poems others have written this week.


The spirituality of parenting

Shortly after Drew was born, one of my rabbinic school friends lent me a copy of Parenting as a Spiritual Journey: Deepening Ordinary and Extraordinary Events into Sacred Occasions by Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, who co-created and co-led the Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Leaders which I attended last summer. Perhaps not surprisingly, six months went by before I managed to even crack the book. But once I did, I found some really great stuff there.

The first place I whipped out my pen to underline (before remembering that the book doesn't actually belong to me!) was in the prologue, where Fuchs-Kreimer writes:

During those 4:00 A.M. feedings I gradually figured out one thing. All the theology I'd studied would not help me raise my children. But it might work the other way. Raising children might help me learn something about God. Theologians spend most of their time in their studies. But the best ones, I noticed, had done some fieldwork in living. I would do mine in play groups.

I've written here before about how the other chaplains in my CPE cohort used to assure me that rearing a child would offer me the best theological education I could imagine. So far they've turned out to be right, and Fuchs-Kreimer is, too: rearing children can help us learn something about God.

Continue reading "The spirituality of parenting" »

5 things about the Gaza flotilla

Among my reasons for not posting again about the Gaza flotilla situation: I'm not sure I have anything new or fresh to add to the conversation; my computer time is quite limited these days and I'm not sure I want to spend it writing about this; often when I post about Israel, I get comments which depress me deeply.

Among my reasons for posting again about it even so: if I want to see more thoughtful blogging from progressive Jews on this subject, I need to speak up too.

Imagine me with two little cartoon figures hovering over my shoulders. One whispers into one ear, "Let it go! Writing about things which make you angry and sad is not good for your equanimity!" The other whispers into my other ear, "Don't take advantage of the luxury of being able to set this aside. Highlight the voices you want to see highlighted."

Guess which little cartoon angel won out.

Here are five things I think need to be said:

1. So much depends

...on who's telling the story, and which sources they choose to cite. A few days ago, Gershom Gorenberg posted A Brief History of the Gaza Folly, noting:

Activists who were on board say the Israeli commandos fired before being attacked; the Israeli military says the soldiers were defending themselves from a mob. Both sides present film clips of the nighttime struggle to back up their case.

I appreciate Gorenberg's careful unraveling of the decisions which led to this situation -- and his pointed observation that both sides present film clips to support their claims. In recent days CNN has reported that eyewitness accounts of what happened on the Mavi Marmara differ. Which is to say: the story looks different depending on who's telling it. It seems to me that a lot of people are overlooking that, and we shouldn't.

Continue reading "5 things about the Gaza flotilla" »

Another mother poem: first day


We'll cross the asphalt holding hands:
a flying leap
toward a moving trapeze

or maybe your backpack
will rest at my feet
until the bus arrives

then the empty house

will my chest echo like a drum
as I bend to pick up toys,
the flotsam of our life together?

through the long quiet
I'll startle at every cry
from the cat, from the birds

waiting for someone
to need me

This week's mother poem arises out of a new development in our life: Drew has started part-time daycare so that I can finish rabbinic school, and that's given me a new perspective on our time together as well as our time apart.

The first day he was in daycare, I went to town to meet a friend for lunch, and was amazed and humbled by how strange it felt to be walking up Spring Street without the stroller. Only six months ago, having a baby with me would have seemed surreal; now it's the other way around. I'm starting to recognize the ways in which, with Drew in my life, I am irrevocably changed.

Anyway, as I began working on the poem, the first image which rose up for me was myself and Drew walking across a school parking lot some years from now, carrying a lunchbox and a tiny backpack full of school supplies. Maybe when he actually starts school I'll find myself writing about these early days in daycare...

This week's prompt at Big Tent Poetry invites us to imagine something we've never done before. I didn't exactly respond to the prompt -- though taking Drew to his first day at elementary school is something I haven't done, because it's years in the future, I'm not sure that quite counts as writing to prompt! But here's a link to the "come one, come all" post so you can read the poems written this week by Big Tent Poetry folks.

Speaking of which: my online time is still quite limited compared with what it used to be, and I'm not always able to respond to comments here (though I try!) or to leave comments on other people's poems at the moment. Thanks for understanding, y'all.


Returning to coffee & the Sfat Emet

There's a group of Jewish clergy who meet on Wednesday mornings to study Torah at one of the local coffee shops. It began as a hevruta of two; then I was invited to join; and over time the circle continued to expand until it reached its current configuration. The last time I attended the group was sometime shortly before Thanksgiving and before Drew was born. This week, for the first time in more than six months, I made it back.

We had some catching up to do, and of course I enjoyed introducing Drew to the members of the group who hadn't met him or hadn't seen him since he was tiny. We talked for a while about the flotilla incident and how to approach it pastorally in our communities. And then we moved into studying our text -- the first couple of commentaries on this week's Torah portion in The Language of Truth, R' Art Green's compilation of teachings by the Sfat Emet.

The first teaching talks about how the mitzvot (commandments) shine light into everything we do. "There is no deed that does not contain some mitsvah," writes the Sfat Emet (in Green's translation.) "But before doing anything, you have to offer up your soul as an emissary, gathering together all of your own desires in order to negate them, so that you can fulfill only the will of God." That sparked a great conversation about bittul ha-yesh (the annihilation of self or ego) in the service of others.

I talked a little bit about how parenting an infant is a perennial practice in bittul ha-yesh. As parents of a baby, we're called to put our own needs and desires aside in order to tend to the needs of another; surely that is a rich and deep spiritual practice, or at least it can be. It's one way of understanding what it might mean to set my own will aside in order to serve God -- or, to frame it differently, to attempt to align my will with the will of another, finding value in the practice of service.

It also strikes me that historically women have been expected to set aside their own desires in order to serve their children, and men (in this religious paradigm) have been expected to set aside their own desires in order to serve God. But in a world where women too want to serve God, and men too want to be present to their families, we need new ways of thinking about all of this. And yes, of course working in the world to make the money to keep a roof over one's head is a way of serving the family -- and changing diapers and doing laundry can be a way of serving God -- but too often, I think, we buy into a binarism which suggests that these two modes of service are separate, and that one partner (or one gender) inevitably has to be locked in to one or the other.

Anyway. It felt fantastic to return to the coffee shop and to the Wednesday morning learning, now with Drew on my lap. I love that he's going to grow up thinking that learning Torah is a perfectly ordinary thing for his mama to do with her time -- and that it needn't be rarefied, but can happen anywhere, even in a busy coffee shop on a weekday morning.

On Israel and the Gaza Freedom Flotilla

I don't have much to add to the conversation about the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. Too often, I find, online conversations about Israel and Gaza / the West Bank generate a great deal of heat and not very much light. Of the posts I've read, the ones I most recommend are these:

  • From Global Voices Online - Israel: Flotilla Clashes are a “Serious PR Disaster”: In the following post I hope to provide context and highlight a diverse set of perspectives from Israeli local media and the Hebrew blogosphere. I hope that you will learn that the outcomes are certainly not black and white; that a day like this actually tears Israeli society apart.

  • From Haim Watzman - Commandoes Against Demonstrators: Israel Shoots Itself in the Leg Again: Why send a crack naval commando unit to quell a political demonstration? We don’t know all the facts yet, but on the face of it Israel has again overreacted.

  • From Jeffrey Goldberg - On the Disappearance of Jewish Wisdom, Far Out at Sea: I'm trying to figure out this story for myself. But I will say this: What I know already makes me worried for the future of Israel, a worry I feel in a deeper way than I think I have ever felt before.

  • From Ta'anit Tzedek / Jewish Fast for Gaza - Open the Gates: A Rabbinical Response to the Gaza Freedom Flotilla Tragedy: As rabbis, we believe all human beings are our kin. We cannot abide the suffering inflicted upon the people of Gaza.

  • From Peter Beinart - Israel's Indefensible Behavior: It is not the Israeli naval commandos who should be judged guilty. Upon dismounting their helicopter onto the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, they found themselves, unexpectedly, in the belly of an armed mob... [T]he guilt lies with the Israeli leaders who oversee the Gaza embargo, and with Israel’s American supporters, who have averted their eyes.

  • From David Grossman - The Gaza flotilla attack shows how far Israel has declined: Israel's actions are but the natural continuation of the shameful, ongoing closure of Gaza, which in turn is the perpetuation of the heavy-handed and condescending approach of the Israeli government, which is prepared to embitter the lives of a million and a half innocent people in the Gaza Strip, in order to obtain the release of one imprisoned soldier, precious and beloved though he may be; and this closure is the all-too-natural consequence of a clumsy and calcified policy, which again and again resorts by default to the use of massive and exaggerated force, at every decisive juncture, where wisdom and sensitivity and creative thinking are called for instead.

(It's interesting to me that these are all posts written by men. Is this just a reflection of the idiosyncrasies of my blog aggregator? Can anyone reading this point me to good commentary on this situation written by women?)

Mostly what this has hammered home for me, again, is how difficult it is to be informed enough to hold a nuanced position on such a messy and painful situation -- especially from afar, and most especially now that my online time is limited by the happy obligation of caring for my infant son.

It is hard to see a path out of the endless mire of fury and recrimination, but the people of Israel and of Gaza remain in my thoughts and in my prayers.