Previous month:
March 2019
Next month:
May 2019

I don't mind

Today someone asked how I am
and I said fine and meant it.

Maybe I'm growing accustomed.
Maybe all those years of bracing

for your death paid off.
Maybe it's just the sunshine.

It's easier to be honest now
than it was when you were alive.

I don't have to worry
that I'm disappointing you.

And if I believe you hear me
then you're listening no matter what.

I know this ease won't last.
I'll see someone who looks

like you, or a mother
and daughter with heads close...

I can't even think about
the first Rosh Hashanah,

all the occasions to come.
But right this minute

with the trees leafing out
and birds chattering excitedly

I know you're dead
but I don't mind.

 


Field trip

You walked through my dream last night
as a crowd of family crossed a hotel lobby.
Your blonde hair blown-dry and styled,

full face of makeup, earrings gleaming.
"You look great," I said, and you beamed
as though you knew the secret: you're not

in this world anymore. Was it a field trip
to visit the living? I greeted your parents,
gone thirty years. And then I was alone.

I seized my phone to call a friend to tell
the tale. "Next time, ask her for a bracha,"
he suggested. Waking, I thought: what would

you say? In life you would have laughed, or
said you don't know how to give a blessing
but maybe in the afterlife you're less afraid.

Or maybe you'd repeat exactly what you said
in life: make hay while the sun shines. This
life is too short. Choose to find it sweet.


Stars

In your filing cabinet you left
notes for your obituary:

you played the doxology
on accordion

you earned
your junior lifesaving certificate

you wished you'd learned
to tapdance, or written a book.

You included for us a list
of loves: dad, of course

travel, a good party,
Judaism and your children

your nutritionist guru,
the Big Dipper, the moon.

On Nathan J. Pritikin
we part ways. I'm likelier

to emulate Samin Nosrat
scattering kosher salt

by the handful (sorry
Mom) but I love

that you loved the moon
enough to mention her, and

the other stars you steered by
still show me the way to shore.

 


Counting, listening, becoming - a d'varling for Acharei Mot and the Omer

OmerchartA few weeks ago I was talking about the Omer journey with my Journey Into Judaism class. Counting the Omer, you may remember, is this practice we do during the 7 weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation. Each week is linked with a different quality -- lovingkindness, boundaries and strength, harmony and balance, endurance, humble splendor, roots and generations, and the ineffable quality we call Shechinah: presence, in the sense of Divine Presence.

Each week, and each day within each week, is mapped to one of these qualities. This seven-week journey of counting gives us the opportunity to reflect on these qualities as they manifest in us. We get to ask ourselves: how do I express chesed, lovingkindness? How do I receive lovingkindness? What kind of repair do I need to do in my capacity to give or receive love?

And how do I express gevurah, boundaries and strength? Do I need stronger boundaries between myself and toxic people or institutions in my life? Or do I need more permeable boundaries so that my relationships have better give-and-take? What kind of repair work do I need to do in my boundaries and my strength? And so on.

In my class that day, someone noted that this sounds an awful lot like the inner work of teshuvah -- returning again, turning ourselves around, the work of discernment and repair in our relationship with self and God and others -- that we do in the weeks leading up to the Days of Awe. And I said: yes indeed! During the Omer, we're doing our inner work in order to prepare ourselves to be ready to receive Torah anew at Sinai on Shavuot. During the weeks leading up to the Days of Awe, we're doing our inner work in order to prepare ourselves to be ready to enter into a new year and to stand before God on Yom Kippur.

The two journeys are parallel. And this week's Torah portion offers a couple of connections between this journey in the spring and that journey in the fall. (This week, following Reform practice, we're reading from the first half of Acharei Mot.)

One piece of today's Torah portion tells the story of the scapegoat ritual, which is also read in many synagogues on Yom Kippur. Torah tells us to take two goats, draw lots and offer one goat up to God, and then symbolically confer the sins of the community onto the other goat and then send it into the wilderness. It was a way of cleansing the community of its missteps and misdeeds so they could have a clean slate and begin again.

And if that weren't enough of a link between this season and the fall holidays, then the Torah actually mentions Yom Kippur:

וְהָיְתָ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם לְחֻקַּ֣ת עוֹלָ֑ם בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַ֠שְּׁבִיעִי בֶּֽעָשׂ֨וֹר לַחֹ֜דֶשׁ תְּעַנּ֣וּ אֶת־נַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶ֗ם וְכָל־מְלָאכָה֙ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ הָֽאֶזְרָ֔ח וְהַגֵּ֖ר הַגָּ֥ר בְּתוֹכְכֶֽם׃

And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.

כִּֽי־בַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֛ה יְכַפֵּ֥ר עֲלֵיכֶ֖ם לְטַהֵ֣ר אֶתְכֶ֑ם מִכֹּל֙ חַטֹּ֣אתֵיכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָ֖ה תִּטְהָֽרוּ׃

For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the LORD.

Sefaria translates it as, on the tenth day of the seventh month which is Tishri, we practice self-denial (many translations say "afflict our souls"), and abstain from work, and atonement is made for us. But my friend and hevruta Rabbi David Markus notes that a different reading can be offered here: t'anu et nafshoteichem can be read either as "afflict your souls," or as "answer with your souls." (The only difference in the two words is in the vowels, which are not written in the Torah scroll.)

How different that verse feels to me when it's an instruction not to afflict our souls, but to answer for them -- to take a reckoning of who we are and who we want to be; to seek to reconnect ourselves with what matters most; to cultivate and strengthen our good qualities and seek to shed our bad ones, so that we can live out the fullest expression of who we're meant to be in the world! (Rabbi David has written a beautiful d'var Torah exploring this teaching for AJR; it's now online here.)

Answering for our souls is the work of Yom Kippur. And it's the work of the Omer count too. Each day is an invitation to pause and notice where we are in time, and an invitation to pause and notice who we are and how we are and what spiritual muscles we need to strengthen.

Because taking a good hard look at my relationship with love and boundaries and my own strength and my sense of balance and my perseverance and my humility and my willingness to shine and my willingness to really be present -- that is not a onetime task. And taking a good hard look at my habits and my practices and my excuses and the places where I let myself off the hook but shouldn't -- and the places where I don't let myself off the hook but should! -- that's not a onetime task either.

This is the work of spiritual life. Discerning who we aspire to be. Answering for our souls, answering to our souls. And then living out our intentions of becoming the people we're called to become. I think our tradition gives us these two seven-week windows during the year to focus on this stuff because our ancestors were human too. They knew that inner work isn't one-and-done.

Some of us just went seven days without leaven. And that can feel like an affliction of our souls, or at least an affliction of our bodies! But it doesn't have to be an affliction, it can be an opportunity. To realign our relationship with food. To realign our relationship with sustenance. To think about the metaphysical hametz of old stories and old hurts that we need to shed in order to be free.

Counting the Omer could feel like an obligation, just one more item to cross off the to-do list every day (or another place to fall short when we inevitably forget.) But it doesn't have to be. It can be an opportunity.

What would happen if we made space during these seven weeks of the Omer to listen to our souls? I mean -- sit still, sit in silence, or sit in prayer, or walk the labyrinth, go running, do yoga, shut off the distractions and the devices -- whatever it takes to help us listen to that still small voice, the spark of divinity within?

What spiritual muscles do we need to strengthen in order to do that listening -- and what spiritual muscles might our souls ask us to strengthen so that we can receive Torah anew at Sinai this Shavuot as the best versions of ourselves that we can become? 

 

Deep thanks to R' David Markus for his teaching on תְּעַנּ֣וּ אֶת־נַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶ֗ם. This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning, cross-posted to CBI's From the Rabbi blog.

 


Dishes

Your Pesachdik dishes lived
in cartons on a high shelf,
strictly for the Dallas cousins.

When you hosted seder
the "help" covered the kitchen
with foil, brought the boxes down.

Yours were plain white.
Some of mine are red,
gleaming like polished apples.

Others are hand-me-downs
in melon and aqua and blue,
a gift from another mother.

Does it comfort you to know
mothers reached out as I joined
this motherless daughter club?

Back to the dishes: I know
you never kept the Pesach.
Did you wonder

why I've reclaimed
traditions you and Dad
were glad to discard —

did you shake your head
at this pendulum swing
of generations? Still

you'd like my table this week,
bright as your nail polish,
vivid as a Fiesta parade.

 


Crossing the Sea

As you
lay dying
you gasped
"help me."
How terrifying
to let
your lungs
stop breathing
to trust
that you
would continue
even after
your body
had ceased.
To step
into waves
that crested
so high
and know
the waters
would part.
To feel
deep in
weary bones
that from
narrow straits
expansiveness beckoned,
that redemption
was waiting
on the
far shore.

 


Today is the seventh day of Pesach, the day on which tradition says we crossed the sea into freedom.


April dailies

The last time
I wrote daily poems
during April

you printed them
and paperclipped them
in a sheaf.

I was so grateful
that you saw me
even a little.

When I spotted them
on your bedside table
my cup overflowed.

What would you say
to these
April dailies?

Maybe you'd be
mortified: too
confessional, too

exposing. Or maybe
you'd be glad
to be remembered.

Truth is, Mom,
I'm writing them
for me. The words

help me breathe,
help the channels
of my heart open

so that love
can pour through.
Dare I hope

that wherever you are
however you are
you understand?

 


Songbird

In the open window
as we began seder.

Between the readings
a fountain of birdsong.

That’s your mother,
someone said, hushed.

I called us to silence.
Can everyone hear —

I think even the skeptics
felt you there.

What was it like
to visit us in that tiny body

gilding the room with song
we could almost understand?

 


Your earrings

For first seder I'm wearing
your earrings, turquoise and onyx.

Will they act as microphones
transmitting wirelessly to olam ha-ba

every compliment on your jewelry,
the sound of your youngest grandson

singing the questions high and clear?
In return maybe they'll whisper to me

a request to nudge my father on this night
of all nights not to wear bluejeans.

Maybe they'll let my hear an echo
of your fingers at a piano on high.

 


One Mom gone

Twelve's a reminder
Mom was a Gemini.

Eleven, for the dreams
she told at breakfast.

Ten for her nails
gleaming bright.

Nine, the months
of pregnancy...

Five, her children.
Four, cups and questions.

Three for the siblings
gathered for seder.

Two for our parents ,
the duo now broken.

One is for Mom
who's still gone.

 


14 Nisan

How many times
will I reach
for the phone
to send you
a photo today?

My sister, cooking.
Your wedding silver
on the tables.
My son burning
last night's chametz...

And when time
comes for the
four questions, I'll
ache to make
a video that

I can't send.
Can I trust
that you're watching
from the place
where you are?

 


No answer

Dad says he visits you
at the cemetery
every day, except
Saturdays when the gates
are closed. (Has

grass begun to grow?
I don't ask.) We agree
you wouldn't care
about the words of kaddish
but it's what we know

to do. He says he's
mad at you for dying
asks again and again why
an incurable lung condition.
I have no answer.

 


Four questions

Will you and your parents sit down to seder on high
on the night when we sit down to seder below?

Who sings the Four Questions, the person in the family
most newly-arrived to the afterlife?

Will you thank the Holy One, Blessed Be God
for lifting you with mighty hand and outstretched arm

out of the Mitzrayim of your bodies,
your illnesses, cancer or dementia or broken-down lungs?

Will you dip parsley in salt water, or are the tears
you cried in this world enough to last you for eternity?

 


Before Pesach

The year your mother died
just before Pesach

I remember my grandfather
at the seder.

He had aged, inexplicably.
He looked lost.

But I don't remember you
that year: were you

grieving, did you struggle?
I was a teenager

and we didn't communicate
much, you and I.

I hope someone asked you
how you were.

I hope someone told you
it was okay

to grieve your father's
diminishment,

to feel her absence like
a missing limb.

I hope there was comfort
in the words, the wine

the songs, the soup --
how though the ground

of your being had shifted,
the seder hadn't changed.

 


My third bicycle

My first bicycle was hot pink.
When I was eight and skipped PE
for weeks on end you hired coach
to tutor me. She taught me

how to catch a frisbee,
not flinch from a softball,
ride a bike without training wheels.
My second was electric blue

and I rode it barefoot around
the curves of Contour Drive
past magnolia and honeysuckle
with wind in my hair.

When I grew hips I put the bike away.
I felt like a galumphing goose
next to you, perfect petite
size zero sparrow.

By college when my boyfriend
invited me to bike across Nantucket
I demurred, sure he wouldn't
want me if he saw me huff and puff.

But I remember your red Schwinn
with a tiny seat bolted to the back
for me. I remember the freedom
of skimming along Contour

once I was old enough to go
further than you could see.
Mom, today I bought a bicycle.
It's black and sturdy, German,

a bike for a middle-aged woman.
When I go riding with my son
I'll say a shehecheyanu. Maybe
I'll feel you perched behind me.

They say the body never forgets
these old motions. I wouldn't mind
forgetting how to resent
every ounce and inch

that made me not like you.
From where you are now
can you teach me how to thank
this clunky, sturdy frame?


This earth our home

When the house lights went down
I started to cry. It's just
a third grade concert -- songs

about "this earth our home"
with canned accompaniment
and four third-grade classes

fidgeting on the risers -- but
you'd have loved it. Of course
his whole life you were too sick

to travel to see him shine.
It wouldn't have occurred to him
to expect you there, but

I would have texted you a video
the minute I got to the car.
You'd have watched it later

when you woke up, when you felt
up to checking your phone.
You would have sent a string

of celebratory emojis. You'd have
laughed that he knows already
how to make a mike stand taller,

praised his stage presence...
I wiped my eyes furiously, hoping
no one noticed the ridiculous mom

in the second row who was moved
to tears by songs about recycling.
This is how I send you video now,

Mom: these poems I don't know
if you can hear from where you are,
this earth no longer your home.


Bedtime

Tonight at bedtime
a distraught boy.

A stuffed animal
left at grandma's.

He keeps searching,
saying "Sealie? Sealie?"

The thing is,
Mom, he says,

you don't know
what it's like

to have loveys
who really matter.

My brown bear
and red dog

are both gone,
but I know

how it feels
to love helplessly

from afar. When
we invoke angels

surrounding, we ask:
look after Sealie?

The same way
that last night

I asked them
to accompany you.

 


Dance class

Parent observation night
at the dance school.

I caught my son with my camera
in an idle moment

running his hands through his hair.
He looked like a teenager.

When I was nine
I still threw my arms

around your neck, but by fourteen
I kept my distance.

We no longer spoke
the same language. Maybe

I'll be spared that: we're not
mother and daughter, he and I.

(As far as I know. Yes, Mom,
his gender expression is up to him.

Don't roll your eyes. Like God
he's becoming who he's becoming.)

But if he grows
to mistrust me, I hope

I live long enough
to make it to the other side

as you and I made it
to the other side

even though I know
you'd be relieved to know

he's not the only boy
in his dance class this year.

 


Trivia

The envelopes would arrive at random:
filled with clippings, sometimes

highlighted in yellow, with a Post-It
reading "Trivia From Mom." Dear Mom:

here's some trivia from the living.
I refilled a prescription today, and

picked up the dry cleaning. I've been
wearing your cashmere shawl

on cold days -- believe it or not
we still have those. My son

practices the Four Questions nightly
before bed, earnest and sweet.

Do you remember typing them
on your IBM Selectric for me,

transliterated -- one of my brothers
must have sung them to you --

so I could sing them before I knew
Hebrew? You'd be proud of him.

For a while I was afraid
we'd left one of his dress shoes

in Texas at your funeral, but
it turned up at his father's house.

I can go hours at a time, forgetting
that it hurts that you're gone.


Request

There's a lot of death
in those poems, you say to me.
How about something
a little brighter?

Isn't it spring yet where you live?
Talk to me about tulips
like the ones that nod
in bright even rows down Fifth Avenue.

Talk to me about
department store windows,
or that lime-green bag
you took from my closet.

Your friend who's divorcing:
what's her new house like?
Tell me about the red buds
on the tips of the maple

or my grandson's new haircut
that makes him look thirteen.
Tell me something about the world
that will make me miss being alive.