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Motherhood, the bitter & the sweet, in Zeek


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



A Shabbat afternoon poem

Saturday Afternoon Request

Help me to silence
my mind's aggravation alarm,
to quiet the voice which says
the to-do list matters,
to temporarily eschew
continuous partial attention.

Open me to long slow conversations
on the sunlit grass, to the beat
of the hand-drummers who accompany
the singing of psalms, to a boat
lazily drifting on the glassy surface
of my heart's own pond.

You're waiting for me
like a lover, eager
to embrace me again.
Remind me: this is the way
back to Eden, the bloom
on the thirteen-petaled rose.




I wrote this poem remembering some of the sweetest Shabbatot I've spent on retreat with my Jewish Renewal community -- days when, following a week of Torah study and learning, I was able to fully and wholly immerse myself in the sweetness of Shabbat, in a time apart from ordinary time, in a remembrance of Eden and a foretaste of the world to come.

The last line is a reference to a classical metaphor from the Zohar -- see R' Adin Steinsaltz's book of the same title.

Shabbat shalom to all!

Praise for Waiting to Unfold - from Kristen of Motherese

Despite major life-happenings -- a cross-country move in just a few weeks! -- Kristen of the fabulous blog Motherese has taken a few moments to say kind things about Waiting to Unfold. She writes:

Rachel’s collection records her first year of new motherhood. Through her beautiful images, Rachel perfectly captures the anticipation, helplessness, and humor of those early months. Reading her work, it occurs to me that poetry is the perfect medium for describing infancy – that of a child and that of a parent. As Rachel demonstrates so capably through crystalline details that capture the “punctuation mark” of a sleeping child “on the blank page of [his] crib” or his “sly and sideways” glance of defiance, poetry’s precision and concision slice to the core of these unretrievable moments. And although it’s ostensibly a collection about blossoming into motherhood, Waiting to Unfold feels full of metaphors for the journey I am about to take with my family: learning how to walk, as it were, in a new town, into a brave new world.

You can read the whole post (and wish her all the best in the upcoming move) here: Homeward Bound. Thanks for the kind words, Kristen! I hope your move brings you every blessing.


Waiting to Unfold costs $13.95 (US, CAN) / £9.10 / €10.66 and is available at Phoenicia Publishing and on Amazon (and Amazon UK and Amazon Europe) -- though publisher and author earn more if you buy it directly from Phoenicia. Still: buy it wherever works for you.

Praise for Waiting to Unfold - from Kristin Berkey-Abbott

Poet Kristin Berkey-Abbott has published an incredibly gracious and glowing review of Waiting to Unfold at her blog. Here's a taste:

I'm not a mother, but I know a lot of mothers, and I imagine that this book reminds them of both the joys and the terrors of that first year of motherhood. But even if we haven't experienced those emotions first hand, the book can speak to us too.

I enjoyed it immensely, probably because it was honest in its exploration of that first year. Too many chronicles of the first year seem determined to refuse to admit that it's anything but glorious. Barenblat's poems are rooted in the every day, which includes the not-so-glorious, like a child who doesn't want to sleep, a child who explores the world in a terrifying, head-on, exhilarating way...

It's a collection that makes me return to my own life with a sense of wonder. After all, we've all been children, and most of us have been around children. I love poems like "Taste," poems that remind us of all the delights in store as we move from thin gruel to other, richer treats. The book is full of reminders of how much each day has to offer, if we can just slow down to savor them.

Read the whole review: A Great Book for Mother's Day -- or Any Day. Thank you, Kristin! I'm delighted that you enjoyed the collection so much (and that you caught the Psalms references!)


Waiting to Unfold costs $13.95 (US, CAN) / £9.10 / €10.66 and is available at Phoenicia Publishing and on Amazon (and Amazon UK and Amazon Europe) -- though publisher and author earn more if you buy it directly from Phoenicia. Still: buy it wherever works for you.

Distinctions: a poem for Havdalah


In the end we're like children:
we thrive on distinctions
between me and you, us and them.
Made in Your image
we separate light from darkness,
family from stranger, weekday
from that fleeting taste of Paradise.

Wax drips from the braided candle.
Cinnamon tingles the nose
to keep us from fainting
as the extra soul departs.
Stop now. Notice this hinge
between Shabbat
and what's next.

Plunge the candle into the wine
but don't cry: even without a flame
our light still shines. This
is our inheritance, better than rubies.
And now it's Saturday night, the cusp
of a new beginning, another day.
This week, may our hearts be whole.



This poem was written to accompany havdalah, the ceremony which ends Shabbat and begins the new week. (Though if you don't have the custom of making havdalah regularly, I suppose you could read this poem in place of havdalah; it's not the same as actually doing the ritual, of course, but it's a way of marking the transition with mindfulness.)

I'm experimenting with seven-line stanzas, meant to evoke the seven days of the week. "[T]o keep us from fainting
as the extra soul departs" is a reference to the teaching that an extra or second soul descends and enlivens us during Shabbat. We smell sweet spices at the end of Shabbat in order to revive ourselves despite the departure of that extra soul.

"[E]ven without a flame / our light still shines" is a reference both to the practice of extinguishing the havdalah candle in the sanctified wine, and to a line from the prayer we read as we begin havdalah: layehudim haita ora v'simcha v'sasson v'ikar, ken tihiyeh lanu, "and for the Jewish people there was light and joy, gladness and honor; so may it be for us."

Lessons in gratitude from a three year old

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

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

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

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

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

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


A poem from Waiting to Unfold reprinted at Hugo Schwyzer's blog

Deep thanks to Hugo Schwyzer for sharing one of the poems from my new collection, Waiting to Unfold, on his blog. Hugo writes:

I don’t often put up poetry any more, but I want to make an exception this week to promote the new book from my friend Rachel Barenblat (also known as the Velveteen Rabbi.) I had a few of her lovely offerings up on my old Thursday Short Poem series, and I’m excited to announce her new poetry collection Waiting to Unfold. Rachel wrote one poem a week during the first year of her son’s life — and she beautifully captures the wonder, the fear, the exhaustion, and the surges of stupendous love of new parenthood. “Waiting to Unfold” would make a most excellent Mother’s Day Gift.

And then he shares one of the poems from late in the collection -- which hasn't been excerpted or shared anywhere else, to my knowledge. Here's his post: Tuesday Short Poem: Barenblat’s “And Then There Are Days”. Thanks, Hugo!


Waiting to Unfold costs $13.95 (US, CAN) / £9.10 / €10.66 and is available at Phoenicia Publishing and on Amazon (and Amazon UK and Amazon Europe) -- though publisher and author earn more if you buy it directly from Phoenicia. Still: buy it wherever works for you.

Interview about Waiting to Unfold at Love, InshAllah


My thanks are due to the editors at Love, InshAllah who have published an interview with me along with some very kind words about Waiting to Unfold!

Love, InshAllah is the blog associated with the book by the same name, Love, InshAllah: the Secret Love Lives of Muslim Women, an excellent collection of essays which I am delighted to have on my bookshelf. Here's an excerpt from the interview, which just went live:

LA: In Waiting To Unfold, you write about pregnancy, the birth of your son, and parenting during that first year. One day, he will go back and read this. Do you envision this moment and his response?

RB: It’s strange and wonderful to think of our son someday being old enough to read these poems. I hope that when he reads them, he sees them as a labor of love — and I hope he sees that even when I was struggling with postpartum depression, my love for him was always present and always real.

The title comes from one of the poems in the book — “Belief,” which speaks about my belief in redemption: belief that spring would comes after that long winter, and that the antidepressants would restore to me the laughter and the sense of self I remembered from my life before. That phrase, waiting to unfold, felt to me like a metaphor for so many things: the embryo curled inside the uterus, a plant curled inside a seed, my heart...

You can read the whole piece here: The Poetry of Motherhood: Waiting to Unfold. Thank you, Love, InshAllah editors!


Waiting to Unfold costs $13.95 (US, CAN) / £9.10 / €10.66 and is available at Phoenicia Publishing and on Amazon (and Amazon UK and Amazon Europe) -- though publisher and author earn more if you buy it directly from Phoenicia. Still: buy it wherever works for you.

At an unveiling, a moment of grace

First I was distracted because I didn't have a cemetery map.

There's a custom in Jewish tradition of having an unveiling of the matzevah, the grave marker / headstone, usually a year after burial. I was privileged to do an unveiling this weekend -- my first, actually, so I'd spent some time in recent weeks reading up on the ceremony and how it evolved. I felt certain that I had put together good materials (including R' Brant Rosen's beautiful interpretation of Psalm 23). But I realized, when I woke this morning, that I wasn't exactly certain where in our cemetery I would find this headstone. I should have thought of it sooner, but I was so focused on the ritual that I forgot to think about the physical place in which the ritual would unfold. Grumbling at myself, I went to shul early to look for a cemetery map.

I thought I knew where such a map would be. I was wrong. And I had just finished my search for the map when my cellphone rang. It was my husband, calling to ask where his carseat was. I clapped my hand to my mouth, realizing all in a flash: oh, no, it was in my car, with me. I had driven away with both carseats. I'd had the spare one in the back of the car in case it was needed for our son's most recent playdate, and I'd forgotten to remove it. And by the time he called, I needed to dash to the cemetery to stroll the aisles in search of the headstone which needed to be dedicated. There was nothing I could do; he and our son would be stuck at home until I was done. I grumbled at myself some more.

When I arrived at the cemetery my distraction took a partial backseat to beauty. We're having a spectacular May weekend. All the trees are bursting into unbelievable chartreuse leaf. The grass at our cemetery is carpeted with tiny violets. I could hear a rooster crowing nearby. The horses stabled across the street whinnied and snorted. And, thank God, I found the headstone right away, and was able to drape it with a white linen cloth before the family arrived. Once people started arriving, I was able to focus on them; the morning's distractions and my exasperation with myself receded into a dull buzz at the back of my consciousness.

But what really shook me out of my distraction and brought me square into the present moment was the music. The daughter of the deceased stood before his stone and sang L'dor vador. "From generation to generation we shall tell of Your greatness..." Her voice was pure and quavered slightly. Time slowed down, and I could feel that moment as a pause, a pearl, strung in a string of moments stretching back to time immemorial and forward forever. The whole world seemed hushed and still, listening. The words come from the daily amidah prayer, and the song evokes our generations -- what connects us to our ancestors, and to our children -- the melodies, the heritage, the love which bind us to each other and to our tradition. By the time she had finished singing, my day was transformed.

It's those little moments of grace which make everything worthwhile. They can't be planned or presumed-upon; they come when they come. I don't know if she knew she was giving me such a gift, but she did. I am endlessly grateful.

The daughter who sang so gloriously was Gloria Lenhoff. She's the subject of the PBS documentary Bravo Gloria; you can hear her on YouTube, though not singing "L'dor Vador." For more: For woman with Williams Syndrome, music was the key.

Things I love about b'nei mitzvah

I love the excited buzz in the synagogue before Shabbat morning services when one of our kids is going to be called to the Torah as b'nei mitzvah.

I love the eager, nervous energy I feel emanating from the family. The parents, caught between the mundane organizational details they were worrying about yesterday and the growing awareness that today is something different, a different kind of time. The younger sibling, if there is one, rolling their eyes but also realizing that this is going to be them someday.

I love standing outside in the field behind our sanctuary, listening to the wild tapestry of birdsong, while the photographer adjusts: you put your arm around her, there, okay, turn a little bit this way, look at me, smile! The family always makes such a beautiful tableau, and I know they'll look at these photographs for the rest of their lives.

I love running through the Torah portion with the bat mitzvah girl one last time before services begin. Her voice is a little bit higher, her pace faster, today than ever before. By now I've practiced chanting this Torah portion with her so many times that I know it by heart, too.

I love the feeling of standing before the assembled community -- members of our congregation; our small core of Shabbat morning regulars; visiting family and friends -- and welcoming them into this place and this moment, this celebration of Shabbat and this celebration of a young person taking their place in our community.

I love inviting anyone who's never seen the inside of a Torah scroll up to the bimah, and unrolling it. Asking them to say, aloud, what makes it different from the books they usually read. It's in Hebrew; it's on parchment; it's a scroll; it's handwritten. Then I point out things they might not have noticed: there's no punctuation. There are no vowels. There are no musical notations.

I love seeing one of our kids shine. Hearing them read from Torah, and offer blessings, and teach something of what they've learned to the entire congregation.

I love hearing the blessing the parent(s) offer. Without fail, hearing the earnest words of love and pride they offer to their child is one of the most moving moments of my day, and reminds me of my own place in the chain of generations, between my parents and my son.

And I love chatting with people after the service, finding out what moved them and what spoke to them. It can be hard for me to gauge, when a lot of people have assembled who maybe aren't necessarily singing along, whether the service is reaching them. But every time, I hear from someone who didn't expect to be moved, or who didn't expect the service to be accessible, and was pleasantly surprised.

Mostly I love knowing that we've co-created a beautiful memory for the new young adult and for their family, and that our community is now one adult Jew richer.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being, who has kept us alive, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment.

Staying awake: Rabbi Ira Stone on Mussar

Why is it so difficult to do what is good? What is the relationship between living a religious life and an ethical one? How can religion fortify an ethical life? To these questions we will add one more: In a cultural milieu in which personal satisfaction and spiritual satisfaction are deemed synonymous, can we hope to attain an alternate spirituality that promises to take us beyond ourselves not through intoxication, but through profound concern for the other people among whom we live?

...The ultimate threat to the soul is sleep. Once the other has called us, once we have fallen in love, we are enjoined to a life of never-ending responsibility...Learning to stay awake is central to Mussar practice.

The quotation above comes from Rabbi Ira Stone, in his book A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar. Mussar is a system of Jewish ethics and practice aimed at helping us live righteously.

He begins by outlining the basic philosophy and theology of Mussar practice. Mussar assumes that we are conscious beings, each endowed with a yetzer ha-tov (the good impulse, or impulse toward goodness) and yetzer ha-ra (the evil impulse, or impulse toward wickedness.) Both are a necessary part of our humanity. Mussar practice is intended to help us cultivate our best qualities, in order that we might resist the yetzer ha-ra's inclinations to become "forgetful" (or, in Stone's words, to fall asleep -- to ignore our obligations to one another and to God) and instead strengthen the yetzer ha-tov in being "awake."

And how do we do this? Through cultivating middot, character traits or qualities, which align us with ethics and holiness. Working on our middot allows us to develop the twin spiritual faculties of awe of God (yirat Hashem) and love of God (ahavat Hashem.) As we develop those strengths, that in turn helps us orient ourselves toward our better impulses. With greater awe and love, we can more easily make ethical choices.

The ultimate goal is the transformation and healing of all of qualities and our impulses, from negative to positive. It's a tall order, but one that I find tremendously resonant with my sense of spiritual practice. The student of Mussar, writes Rabbi Stone, may feel as though the texts at hand tell them something they already knew. The point isn't merely taking in new information: it's studying the things which we know to be true and right, but which something in us perhaps resists.

This isn't merely dry academic study. Rabbi Stone cites Rav Yisrael Salanter, one of the great lights of Mussar, in his insistence that Mussar texts be studied "with lips aflame" -- in other words, aloud and with passion.

Rabbi Stone offers a fairly standard list of middot, qualities. As I read through them, some leap out at me because they are qualities I have tried to cultivate; others leap out at me because they are qualities which still challenge me. Here are a few:

Equanimity. Rise above events that are inconsequential -- both bad and good -- for they are not worth disturbing your equanimity.

Order. All of your actions and possessions should be orderly -- each and every one having a set place and a set time. Let your thoughts always be free to deal with that which lies ahead of you.

Diligence. Always find something to do -- for yourself or for a friend -- and do not allow a moment of your life to be wasted.

Silence. Before you open your mouth, be silent and reflect: "What benefit will my speech bring to me or to others?"

I've spent a lot of time, these last years, working on equanimity. And I know that I am happiest and most productive when my life is reasonably well-ordered. But I struggle sometimes with diligence and with silence. Sometimes I think I should be cultivating greater diligence, keeping busier, not wasting an instant of my precious life -- and other times I think: no, I'm only human, I've got a three-year-old, I need some downtime! Sometimes I think I should strive for greater silence, especially online where there's such a constant brouhaha of people gabbling -- and other times I think: no, today's world demands not that I remain silent but precisely that I speak.

And then I wonder: am I resisting a practice of improving my diligence because it's honestly healthy for me as a woman and a mother in 2013 to cut myself some slack? (Yes, almost certainly.) Or am I resisting it because I'm looking for an excuse to lose a few hours watching mediocre television and wittering around on the internet? (Yes to that too, I suspect.) Am I resisting a practice of silence because I genuinely have valuable Torah to offer to the world? (Yes, I think so.) Or am I resisting it because I'm not sufficiently spiritually-advanced to be able to sustain a practice of only speaking when my speech is really necessary? (Surely the answer to that question too is yes.)

Part of what moves me, in Rabbi Stone's writing, is the assertion that we need to remain awake and alert to our obligations because it is in these obligations to one another that we meet God. Mussar practice is a practice of self-refinement. As we refine our qualities, we become better-attuned to our love and our awe. Through love and awe, we become better able to perform mitzvot, to act with awareness that we are obligated to and for God and to and for each other. And that's how we cultivate true joy in our lives: not fleeting enjoyment, but real, deep joy. We cultivate joy through acting with mindfulness of the other, both the other beings with whom we share creation, and the ultimate Other who we understand as the source of all things.



More on this: Middot through text and practice, 2007.

Waiting to Unfold is part of the Ask Moxie Summer Readalong

I've been reading Ask Moxie for years -- certainly since our son was a newborn, if not before. I can't tell you how many times I turned to Moxie for calm, understanding wisdom and perspective when I was struggling during that first year. (Thank God for her archived posts about infants and sleep!) So I'm thoroughly chuffed to be able to announce that Waiting to Unfold is one of her picks for her summer readalong!

Here's what she says about the book:

May: Waiting To Unfold by Rachel Barenblat. This book is two cycles, one of pregnancy, and one of the first year after her child's birth. The poems have that same "Oh! I'd forgotten about how beautiful/hard/sad/quiet/fierce that was" quality that all true stories about the first year of parenthood do, and made me laugh and tear up a little and feel nostalgic and sad for new mothers everywhere. Rachel blogs at Velveteen Rabbi. Discussion post will go up May 29.

The other books she's chosen for the summer look fabulous too: Tulips, Water, Ash by Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet; American Sublime by Elizabeth Alexander; and Far From Luck by Charles O'Hay. I've just picked up all three, and look forward to discussing them with other Ask Moxie readers.

You can find her post about it here: Ask Moxie: Summer Readalong.

Thank you so much, Magda! For your fabulous parenting blog, and your work in the world, and for introducing your readers to my new book of motherhood poems.


Waiting to Unfold costs $13.95 (US, CAN) / £9.10 / €10.66 and is available at Phoenicia Publishing and on Amazon (and Amazon UK and Amazon Europe) -- though publisher and author earn more if you buy it directly from Phoenicia. Still: buy it wherever works for you, I'm just happy that people want to read it!

April Daily: a chapbook of 30 poems

As of April 30 2014: this title is currently unavailable - a revised second edition will be out soon, containing daily poems from 2013 and 2014 (though no commentaries alongside -- the poems stand alone.) Stay tuned!


As of May 2014: that second edition is now available! Read all about it: April Dailies.


AprilDailyCoverNational Poetry (Writing) Month was fun this year. Over the course of April I wrote 30 poems: about parenthood, morning prayer, a rooftop New York city bar, a walk to the beaver dam, Iron Man and the golem of Prague, and more. The vast majority are poems I never would have written if I hadn't been doing the NaPoWriMo experiment this year.

Earlyish in the month, my mother emailed me and asked if I could make all of the poems available to her in one file, easy to read, with the commentaries alongside -- maybe even in hard copy, something easy for her to thumb through? I said sure, I'd be happy to do that.

And then I realized that as long as I was making a single file with all 30 poems and all 30 commentaries, I might as well make it look pretty and make it available to anyone else who wants it, too. So I asked Twitter for help coming up with a chapbook title, and, well, here you go.

I feel a little bit silly sharing a new chapbook when I've just announced the release of a new book. Let me be clear: April Daily is the result of a month's worth of play; Waiting to Unfold is a real book, the product of years of work and hours of editorial back-and-forth!

So, y'know -- if you're just going to buy one, get the real book. Seriously. But if you're into daily poems, or if you participated in NaPoWriMo and you're curious to see what I did with the product of the month's work, or if you're just a completist, here it is. (And Mom, don't bother ordering a copy -- one's already on its way to you, just as I promised.)

With deep thanks to 30/30 poetry and NaPoWriMo for the prompts. Here's to National Poetry Month!