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Jetlag

When I come home from the cemetery --
tradition says put a pitcher and basin
outside, so when the mourners return

they can wash themselves clean. It's not
about the dirt. It's emotional, it's
spiritual, like washing that man

right out of your hair. When I came home
from burying you, those first hours were
like jetlag: what day is it? where am I

again? I remember the silver pitcher
we placed outside dad's front door (your
front door, but not yours any longer.)

But when I come home from the cemetery
not as a mourner but as the rabbi
I take the hottest shower I can stand.

I anoint myself with honey and lavender,
breathing deep. This is being alive, scent
and sensation. I let go everything

I've been carrying. It's still
a kind of jetlag: the soul catching up
with where the body has already been.

I wonder how long it took for your soul
to release from your body, that empty
shell we buried in the Texas earth.

When you wake in olam haba and finally
feel you've arrived, is it like
the first morning a new time zone is home?

 


Reminds me

2019: the year I did back to back funerals after we buried you.
How long will it be before those words stop feeling strange?

This time the day was wet and raw, like your funeral was.
This time there were two daughters grieving, but I wasn’t

one of them. Except I still am, sometimes. It depends
on what song comes on the radio, what phase the moon.

Today when we read psalm 23 aloud I remembered my sister
leaning over to whisper, "'my cup runneth over,' Mom used to

say that all the time!" It made me smile. You
make me smile, even at a funeral that reminds

me of yours, reminds me — everything reminds me —
of you.

 


New friend

Today I thought of you
as I listened to two women
tell stories about their mother,

a tiny woman
with a spine of steel
who was always "put-together."

I imagine the two of you
meeting at a mixer
for newly-arrived souls.

In my vision you're both
young again, glamorous,
coiffed and manicured.

You're both carrying copies
of the handbook to the afterlife
but you'd rather sip vodka tonic

and make a new friend
than read it. That's okay:
you'll both learn the ropes.

How to be "there" (it isn't
a place exactly) while also
keeping an eye on here.

How to visit our dreams
and tell us everything
you couldn't say in life

or maybe it was we
who couldn't hear, but
Mom, we're listening now.

 


Birthing

Four days before the end.
Morphine under your tongue.

You kept asking,
"When will it stop hurting?"

Reminded me of labor:
how the contractions kept coming.

I pleaded, "I can't do this."
When the epidural brought relief

I apologized to the nurses
for being boring.

How we learn to say sorry
for what's not ours to carry...

But Mom, I still carry this:
I'm sorry I said no

to your presence
when my son was born.

I wanted it to be intimate,
"just the two of us."

I understand now how it hurts
to be far away

when someone you love
this much is suffering.

You could have
witnessed the moment

when they placed him
wide-eyed on my chest.

Your pain is over now
but when I remember

shutting you out
I ache.

 


Challah, Take Two

It started during winter break.
A snowy day, with nightfall too soon

and no playdate in sight: I said
let's bake challah!

Can you make it round
like Rosh Hashanah? he asked.

Instead I tried a six-branched spiral
meant to evoke the returning sun

(though my son saw a star
of David there instead.)

When it emerged from the oven
golden and gleaming

he gasped, and after motzi
proclaimed it so much better

than what we buy at the store,
and that sealed it:

the next Friday I found a way
to start the dough

when I poured his cereal,
to knead it while he watched

YouTube before school, to pop
home at lunchtime to shape...

I would have told you this story
that last Shabbat of your life

but that morning was a fog
of morphine and anxiety

and when you emerged that evening
miraculous in your wheelchair

it wasn't the right time.
I should have known

there wouldn't be another.
But I can tell you now

that even in weeks when grief
is more than I can bear

there is comfort in kneading
this silky egg dough,

singing healing songs for all
who will eat, for all who ache.

 


From constriction to freedom: a d'varling looking toward Pesach

I studied a text recently that I wanted to bring to my shul on the Shabbat before Pesach. And then I remembered that this year on Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat right before Pesach, we'll be hosting noted culinary historian Michael Twitty! (All are welcome!) So I'm sharing a pre-Pesach teaching a week early.

 

Each of us has a still point within us, given to us by God. So says Yehudah Aryeh Lieb Alter of Ger, the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet (that's the name of his best-known book, and it's one of the Hasidic texts I'm studying regularly this year). He returns to this idea often. Each of us has a nekudat elohut, a spark of godliness. No matter who we are, this spark in us is eternal.

And sometimes that still point, that little spark of holiness, comes to feel constricted. This can happen when we're min ha-meitzar, in tight places. Maybe you can hear the aural connection between meitzar and Mitzrayim -- life's tight places, and the Mitzrayim / Egypt of our people's core story. Mitzrayim is constriction that makes our soul-sparks feel crushed and insignificant.

The Sfat Emet says that in those times, this still point, this spark, becomes our internal lechem oni -- "the bread of our affliction," our smallness, our poverty of spirit. That phrase comes from the haggadah, when we say of the matzah (in Aramaic, but it's the same phrase) ha-lachma anya, "this is the bread of our affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt..."

He's saying that the "bread of our affliction," that sense of impoverishment, isn't just the literal matzah that represents our ancient poverty food -- it's also our own souls. Our souls become afflicted, become crushed into smallness and flatness like a piece of matzah. The spark of our souls can become crushed into something dry and flat and tiny. That's bread of our affliction.

Our job, he writes, is to make that crushed, tiny point become expansive -- to grow the point of holiness within our souls, to give it space. Take that in for a moment: our job in spiritual life is to notice when our soul-spark feels crushed and flattened, and to create the inner conditions in which that spark can rise and expand. Our job is to help our souls take up the space they deserve.

Pesach is a time of distilled memory. (I think this is true both as a people and as individuals -- we remember the Exodus from Egypt; we may also remember all of life's other Passovers.) Torah tells us to remember it and keep it. That's the same language Torah uses about Shabbat, which we also "keep" and "remember." It's the same language Torah uses about mitzvot, too.

(Here's a funny thing: the Hebrew letters that spell mitzvot can also spell matzot. We keep the mitzvot and we keep the matzot, and together those two keep us. As the saying goes, "more than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people" -- and far more Jews observe some kind of Pesach than observe Shabbes every week! But I digress.)

We're called to remember and keep Pesach as a nation and as individuals. As we retell the core story of our people's liberation, as we remember narrow straits and escape into expansiveness, we relive the Exodus not only on a national level but also on a soul-level. Our people went from constriction into freedom, and as individual souls we do too, not once but over and over again.

Pesach -- says the Sfat Emet -- is meant to be our springboard into expansiveness of soul. So that our lechem oni, the part of us that feels flattened like matzah by life's difficult circumstances, can become expansive. So our tight constricted places can open, like a risen loaf.  So our hearts and souls can expand so far from that flattened state that we can barely contain our joy.

In one of the psalms of Hallel (which we sing at festive times including the Passover seder) we sing, "min hameitzar karati Yah / anani bamerchav Yah" - from the tight straits I called to You, and You answered me with divine expansiveness. Our own tight places are meant to be answered with expansiveness: with divine expansiveness, and with our own. May it be so.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi congregational blog.) Offered with gratitude to my Torah study group of Bayit builders.


Goldfinch

Mom, I bought a new piece of art
I wish I could show you.
There's a goldfinch, encircled
by crocheted six-pointed stars.

It makes me think of home,
of nest, of tradition's weave
that comforts me. I wonder
if you'd note the bird's alone.

Yes, I feel alone in grieving.
Maybe we all do, in the end --
even when a crowd gathers
for a memorial like yours.

Surely as Pesach approaches
everyone in the family feels
your absence, like the empty space
surrounding this one little bird.

There's a lot of empty space
surrounding this one little bird.

 

with gratitude to Heather Robinson

 


Dirty laundry

When I'm chastised
for not focusing

on happy things
as you instructed

shame swamps me,
a sunken rowboat.

Failing you again:
airing in public

the dirty laundry
that is my heart.

Why persist in
feeling so many

feelings, especially all
the ugly ones --

grief that lasts
for hours, leaving

me gasping, spent
on a rocky shore?

Wouldn't everyone be
happier if I

stopped?

 


Kintsugi

Today a giant cardboard box arrived.
Ceramic plates that once were yours,
adorned with hand-drawn faces --

service for six, in theory.
But inside the bubble-wrap,
one plate's in pieces.

You'd shrug and throw it away, but
it's such an obvious metaphor.
I look on eBay but there's no replacement.

There's a space in my china cabinet
where a pair of women's faces should be
in conversation. I try to glue it

though my son rolls his eyes: "Mom, you know
there's no repairing a broken heart."
He's right. It can't be what it used to be.

What can I do but paint broken places
gold? I can't hide my cracks.
All I can do is make them gleam.


 

kintsugi is the Japanese art of adorning broken pottery with gold. I've written about it before. (See also Everything breaks. It's what we do with the pieces that matters at The Wisdom Daily.)


Beauty

At Olmos Beauty Parlor 
I made a dragon from foam curlers

(from big red to small purple)
while you tipped your head back

in the shampoo chair, relaxing
into the scalp massage.

You went platinum blonde
in the sixties. Hair like that

needs maintenance. Not to mention
your nails, which were never bare.

Even the week you died
they were sleek, cream-colored.

Mom, you'd be pleased: in my 40s
I've finally found a stylist.

You'd like her: she knows
everyone in town, she's got panache.

After your funeral, one of my brothers
gave up shaving for 30 days

(I'll bet you can guess which.)
And I went without a haircut

until the door of that first month
was closed behind me. Today

my stylist gave my hair shape
and trimmed my cuticles

and gave one nail a little sparkle
in memory of you. I emerged

with new hands, ready
to build something beautiful

in the world, ready
to hold my head up high.

 


Empty

My phone buzzes: a text
from a sibling, a photo
from the last Shabbat.

A wave of heat passes through,
blood rushing to my face
and hot tears

you were still there
you were alive
it's unbearable again.

How can I make dinner
when you died
when dad's going to die

when someday I will need
to bury all of my siblings
the way we buried you?

The agony passes
but I can feel the hole
where your presence used to be

alongside echoes
of all the empty places
that are to come.

 


Texts from the hearse

When you have a rabbi for a daughter
sometimes you get texts from the hearse.
You must have known what I was doing:
reminding myself that I still had a mother,
bracing against -- well, now: not being able
to reach you to talk about purses or friends
as the cemetery's energy slowly drained.

Dear Mom, I'm wearing the same black suit
I wore to your funeral. As for purses
I'm carrying the one you gave me last year,
bright yellow like the forsythia flowers
that are curled now in hidden potential,
waiting for the time to bloom.
I wish you still had time to bloom.