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Spiritual life in the open

Empty-Hospital-BedAt my two most recent poetry readings, during the Q-and-A session, someone has asked me what it's like to live my life so publicly and to expose my heart in my poetry as I do. The truth is, writing poems of miscarriage and healing, or poems of postpartum depression, didn't feel "brave." It just felt ordinary. I make sense of my life through writing. I always have, ever since the adolescent days when I kept a diary in a series of cloth-bound notebooks which I kept proudly on my shelf. Sharing my writing with others who might be walking a similar path has become one of the ways I minister to people around me. I have learned that when I share my experiences (whether sweet or bitter) I feel less alone. And people who read what I write often tell me that they feel less alone when they read my words, too, and that feels like an added blessing.

But I do think a lot about how my openness, particularly my poems of early motherhood, may someday impact our son. I hope and pray that when he is old enough to read Waiting to Unfold, he sees the love which was always a throughline, always present, even when I was struggling to find myself amid the waves of postpartum depression which threatened to drag me down. But I know that as the child of a poet, and the child of a rabbi, he may come to resent the ways in which my openness about my life means that his life is sometimes visible to the outside world, too. Maybe you've noticed that I rarely use his name on the blog anymore -- not because it's a secret, not because it's difficult to unearth, but because I'm becoming conscious that I don't want my life story (in which he is certainly a star!) to overshadow his narrative about himself.

I know that many of you, like me, have been avid readers of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer and Rabbi Michael Sommer's Superman Sam blog. They began the blog when one of their four children was diagnosed with leukemia. They posted there religiously about the ups and downs of his treatment; the blog is where where so many of us, me included, got to know their beautiful family and their extraordinary son Sam, may his memory be a blessing. I admire them for that -- and I admire them even more the way they've continued writing about their journey of grief in the wake of their son's death. When I read their blog now, I see them modeling for all of us how to make our way through the murky waters of grief. They are showing us, by example, how to grieve out loud and how to let other people offer care and love in response. They are living their spiritual lives in the open, and they teach me more than I can say.

Stories are always interconnected. I can't tell the story of my life without at least touching on a lot of other people's stories: my parents, my grandparents, my teachers, my spouse and child, my friends. I'm tremendously grateful for that. I have a sense for how fortunate I am to have a life which is so rich in connections. And sometimes those connections mean I need to think about what I write and how I share. Not everyone favors the spiritual practice of living one's life in the wide-open. And not every story is mine to tell, even if it impacts my story in a profound way. Why am I thinking about this now? Someone in my family is ill, and had an emergency hospitalization recently. (Not my spouse or my child, thank God.) This person's journey with sickness and health is not my story to tell. And yet it feels dishonest to blog as though nothing were happening -- as though I weren't holding this loved one in prayer every day.

At Shabbat services recently, when I shared the names of those in need of healing in my synagogue community, my voice quivered and my composure wavered. It would feel like a lie of omission not to explain to my community why praying for healing right now sometimes brings me to tears. And if I were to wall part of myself off, and keep my emotions at bay, I wouldn't be an effective leader of davenen (prayer) or an effective pastoral counselor. I can only do my work as a rabbi when I'm willing to bring my authentic self to bear on whatever's in front of me. Besides, I don't want to fall into the easy fallacy of imagining that I always have to pretend that "nothing's wrong" -- that as a clergyperson it's my job to always be cheerful and always keep my own sorrows hidden from those whom I serve.

And yet I also don't want my community to feel that they need to bear me up -- and I don't want my loved one who is sick to feel that I have disclosed what wasn't mine to share. I strive to find the right balance between being honest, and being appropriately circumspect. In a sense it's no different from what I was already doing. This is life in the world, if one seeks to be connected and also to have decent boundaries. This is the writing life. This is the rabbinic life. But I'm aware that it feels heightened now.

No sooner did my loved one leave the hospital than I learned that my beloved teacher Reb Zalman had been hospitalized. (Here's a recording of one of the teachings he offered at Shavuot just a few days before he fell ill.) At the retreat for Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders earlier this week, I dedicated one session to him, in hopes that the merit of our learning would accrue toward his healing. A friend of mine offered a healing prayer on his behalf at our pre-dawn zhikr, as well. Of course, he has been reminding us for years that this "deployment" -- which is to say, this incarnation; this lifetime in which he has felt deployed by God to do holy work -- will not last forever. And God willing he will be fully healed from this illness and will return to good health! But it's one thing to know intellectually that someone I love will not live forever; it's another thing to try to face that truth in my heart, in my body, in my soul.

Loss (both immediate, and anticipated) is a part of life as we know it. Every soul which lives in this world eventually rejoins the great Mystery we name as God. Those who are left behind experience a range of emotion as we navigate loss. I know that this is how the world works. That doesn't mean I always have an easy time accepting it. I don't want to lose anyone I love. And I don't want anyone I love to suffer. And I know that eventually people I love will move beyond where I can reach, and I know that suffering is part of this embodied existence, try as we might to eradicate it or wish it away. All I can do is sit with these truths, and sit with my overflowing feelings of love and compassion, and try not to stifle any of what's arising.

With some dispassionate part of my brain I can't help noticing that it feels strange to walk through the ordinary world when someone I love is ill. There's a peculiar temptation to stop everyone I see, to shake them and demand: how can you be going about your day in such a mundane way? Don't you know that my loved one is ill? Don't you know that the world is tilting off its axis? Of course, the world was (and is) rotating just fine, even though I've been feeling personally off-kilter. But that metaphor is the best way I can describe the tumult of feelings which can come along with a loved one being ill. Everything is normal, except that it isn't. This isn't what normal used to be. There's no knowing when or whether that old normal will return.

As a rabbi, I've tended to many people and families who are in this position. But I don't know that that makes it any easier for me to navigate these waters gracefully myself. What else can it be besides another opportunity for practice. Another opportunity to try to bring kindness, mindfulness, connection-with-God to bear on whatever's unfolding. Another opportunity to write my way to understanding. (As E.M. Forster wrote, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?") And another opportunity to share my spiritual journey with y'all -- assuming that I can continue to find a way to write about it which doesn't explose my loved ones, but does open up what's happening in my heart.