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With both eyes open

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I said to my therapist recently (over FaceTime, of course; everything is mediated by screens now) that this moment in time reminds me a lot of the months right after my strokes. When I felt fine, and probably was fine, but we were investigating all kinds of horrific possibilities for what might have caused the strokes -- and might therefore cause them to recur.

I remember feeling as though I were looking at the world through stereoscopic glasses with one red lens and one blue one. (Those were a regular feature in my childhood ophthalmologist visits.) Through one eye, everything looked rosy and I was fine. Through the other eye, everything looked terrifying and maybe I would die at any moment. Red lens, blue lens. 

Ultimately the specialists concluded that the strokes were cryptogenic. (Of unknown origin.) They concluded that as long as I keep my blood pressure low, I should be okay. But there was an odd sense that my body might be lying to me. I might feel fine but have a ticking time bomb in me, some kind of disorder or brokenness or haywire tumor we hadn't yet discovered...

Over the weekend I woke to news about covid-19 causing strokes in asymptomatic people who didn't know they were sick. The more we learn about this virus, the scarier it becomes. According to that piece in the Washington Post (a media source I trust), the virus can attack almost every system in the body, even in someone asymptomatic. That shook me.

And then I thought back to the time right after my strokes. Now does feel a lot like then. The difference is that now, everyone who's paying attention to the world is navigating these anxieties. We're all living with the possibility that an invisible virus might unexpectedly destroy any organ system in our bodies. Even if we're doing all the right things. We might feel fine, and still...

There's a lot of cognitive dissonance. Between "I feel fine" and "I might be harboring a deadly virus and not know it." Between "I'm doing okay" and "the world is coming apart at the seams." (And I'm speaking as someone who has the luxury of feeling okay, having a home and a job, and enough food, electricity, internet...! I recognize how fortunate that makes me.)

The cognitive dissonance and uncertainty is exhausting. Trying to navigate ordinary life -- childcare, work responsibilities -- along with that cognitive dissonance is exhausting. But "whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work" (thank you Jason Shinder z"l), so sitting with the cognitive dissonance itself must be part of the spiritual work of this moment for me.

After I had my strokes in my early 30s, I did a lot of reading and thinking and praying and spiritual direction, trying to come to terms with the mortality they had shown me. I studied the Baal Shem Tov's writing on equanimity. I journaled endlessly. Eventually I reached the conclusion that yes, I could die at any time. But until that happens, my job is to live as best I can.

The strokes brought home my participation in our common human mortality. In truth, none of us know when our lives will end. I don't mean that to be depressing or paralyzing: on the contrary! I mean it as a reminder that the only time we have is now. The time to be the person we want to be is now. Because now is what we have. It's all anyone has. It's all anyone has ever had.

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?" wrote Mary Oliver. This, right now, is our wild and precious life. Even in quarantine or lockdown or shelter-in-place. Even in uncertainty. (Especially in uncertainty.) Life isn't on pause until a hoped-for return to normalcy comes. This is life, right here, right now. Our job is to live it as best we can.

Even with the possibility that we're already incubating the virus. Because so what if I am? What can I do about it, other than what I'm already doing: wearing a mask in public, keeping my distance to protect others in case I'm an asymptomatic carrier, and meanwhile doing what I can to care for my child, my congregation, my beloveds, in the ways that are open to me?

I've more or less made my peace with that. I have not made my peace with the possibility that someone I love could fall ill or die. It's easier for me to face the end of my story than to face the possibility of losing someone who matters to me. But that too is outside of my control. All I can do is be real with the people in my life, so important things don't go unspoken.

I've been thinking lately about how I want to be remembered, when I die, whenever that is. What acts, what words, what principles, what choices will add up to me being remembered in the ways I want to be? I hope not to die for a very long time. I trust I will emerge from the constrictions of this pandemic. And... if I don't, or if I do, how do I want to be remembered?

If our purpose is to be real, to help others, to build justice and love in the world however we can -- that purpose holds, pandemic or no. That purpose holds whether I die now or in forty years. If I knew I were going to die before morning... I've explored that question before. Those answers still hold true, even if some details would need to shift for social distancing reasons.

Right now, physical distancing and mask-wearing and doing rabbi work via Zoom are how I can help others and build greater justice and love in the world. (And comforting my kid, and feeding us, and making our home as safe as I can for him.) And accepting uncertainty and sitting with the dissonance are part of how I can be real -- and maybe help others through it, too.

One of the things I'm trying to teach my kid is that it's possible to feel gratitude and grief at the same time. Gratitude that we're okay (so far); grief at everything we've lost (and the world has lost). One doesn't cancel the other. They can coexist in us, in an ever-shifting balance, all the time. Like the red lens and the blue lens. The trick is to learn to use both eyes at once.

 

 


Pandemic pantoum

The good news is, my son and I aren't sick.
He's ten. He learned to sew to make a mask.
I bargain, "only keep my loved ones safe --"
A can of Clorox wipes: better than gold.

He's ten. He learned to sew to make a mask.
I look for lettuce, but the shelves are bare.
A can of Clorox wipes: better than gold.
What day is it now? I've lost track of time.

I look for lettuce, but the shelves are bare.
Forget oil futures: invest in TP.
What day is it now? I've lost track of time.
I think I'm on Zoom meetings in my dreams.

Forget oil futures: invest in TP.
Sometimes at night my kid is scared, can't sleep.
I think I'm on Zoom meetings in my dreams.
Count to twenty while I scrub each hand.

Sometimes at night my kid is scared, can't sleep
and loss piles up on loss like banks of snow.
Count to twenty while I scrub each hand.
Some days we laugh. This is the life we have.

Loss piles up on loss. The banks of snow...?
When I wasn't looking, spring arrived.
Some days we laugh. This is the life we have.
Outside, bright daffodils lift up their heads.

When I wasn't looking, spring arrived.
The good news is, my son and I aren't sick.
Outside, bright daffodils lift up their heads.
I bargain: "only keep my loved ones safe --"

 


Calling all clergy: come write psalms with me!

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In these first six weeks of the pandemic, I've been teaching a psalm-writing workshop for my shul and a friend's shul together, and a member of my community who's a rabbi has been taking the class. After the first week, she commented to me that the class feels like spiritual self-care, and that she hadn't realized how much she needed to read and write psalms, to connect with emotions and spirit in these incredibly difficult times. Then another rabbinic colleague called me from across the country and said, "I love that you're teaching a psalms class for your congregation. Would you teach something like that for rabbis?" 

Announcing: online learning at Bayit: Building Jewish! This will be our first class offering. It's designed for clergy. (Never fear, over time we're planning to balance learning for clergy with learning aimed at a broader audience. Also, I'm about to teach a version of a psalms class for My Jewish Learning which will not be for clergy, and I'll share info about that here soon too.) Here's a description of Bayit's first online offering:

The psalms give voice to a range of human emotions, from despair to exultation. In this class for clergy, we’ll study psalms (both classical / Biblical, and contemporary poems that function in similar ways) and then open our creative channels to write our own. Both the reading and the writing will enliven our relationship with text, tradition, ourselves, and our Source, and will give us tools for building a more robust relationship with the psalms and with our own creativity.

In each session, we’ll study select psalms and poems together, delve into writing exercises, and enter into a safe space for creativity as we write. We’ll share work (in dyads or as a whole group) and offer feedback. Throughout, we’ll seek to attune ourselves to the inner dynamics of heart and spirit, exploring how our continuing spiritual formation is being impacted by our spiritual service during this time of pandemic.

The class will meet over Zoom for five sessions of 90 minutes apiece. We will focus each week on a different facet of the psalms and our inner lives: gratitude, awareness, teshuvah, grief / anxiety, and wholeness.

Tuition: $180

Dates: Fridays May 15 and 22, June 5, 12, and 19; 3pm ET / 12pm PT

This class  for clergy will be limited to 12 participants. Once the first session fills, registrants will have the option of pre-registering for the next iteration of the class, which will take place after the first five-week session is complete.

Read all about it and sign up on Bayit's Online Learning page. All are welcome, with two caveats: 1) only the first 12 to sign up will get in to the first iteration of the class (though I will gladly teach it again if there's interest), and 2) if you're going to be studying the psalms with me at the Richmond Academy for Spiritual Formation in December, you might want to wait and do this learning with me in person, since what I'll be offering in this Zoom class will overlap a lot with the psalms work I do with the Academy. I look forward to learning with y'all!


A video teaching: the treasures hidden in quarantine

I recorded a short video teaching for my congregation, and thought I would share it here too. It begins with a check-in and then moves to a teaching from the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto for this week's parsha that feels especially meaningful to me this year. Here's a transcript if you'd rather read it than watch it.

Shavua tov, friends: a good week to you. I hope that your Shabbat was restorative. As we enter into week six of sheltering-in-place and social distancing, I wanted to check in. How are you holding up?

I miss you. All of you. It’s been a joy to see some of you via Zoom at my drop-in office hours on Mondays, at the Psalm-writing class I’ve been teaching on Fridays, at Friday morning meditation and at Shabbat services. I look forward to continuing to see you on Zoom, or hearing your voices by phone, or receiving your emails and texts, since right now those are the modalities available to us.

Here’s a funny thing that I’m starting to think maybe isn’t a coincidence. At the start of the new Jewish year, back in October, both of my hevruta partners / learning buddies -- Rabbi Megan Doherty, who’s the Jewish chaplain at Oberlin, and my colleagues on the board of Bayit: Building Jewish -- felt called to study a rabbi known as the Piazeczyner, also known as R’ Kalman Kalonymus Shapiro, also known as the Aish Kodesh, also known as the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Piazeczyner was writing from the Warsaw Ghetto. In a time of profound fear and anxiety, deprivation and illness. And yet he found ways to cultivate hope, even in those terrible times.

This week’s Torah portion is Tazria-Metzora, which offers teachings about how to handle a particular kind of sickness that was observable both in people, and in their dwellings. Both human beings, and their homes, could become “contagious” and needed to be quarantined for a time.

Whoa, that resonates in a whole new way this year.

The scholar Rashi, who lived around the year 1000, says this teaching is really about treasure hidden in the walls of the houses of the Emorites, whom our ancient ancestors conquered when we moved into the promised land. The houses would be marked as having tzara’at, and then they would be demolished, and we would find treasure in them.

The Piazeczyner asks: if the point is that there’s treasure in the walls, why wait seven days? Why not just knock them down? His answer is this: because the waiting helps us cultivate faith that good things will come.

Even in a difficult time, he writes -- “when there is no school for our children, no synagogue in which to pray in community with a minyan, no mikvah (ritual bath)” -- even in a time like that (a time like this!), we need to trust that God can help us turn even the most difficult of circumstances into blessings. We never know, when something difficult is happening, what blessing we might be able to find in it later when we look back on it.

So as we stay quarantined, sheltering in place, socially distancing to protect the vulnerable from the spread of this awful disease: may we follow the advice of the Piazeczyner, and try to cultivate trust that there may be treasure in these difficult days.

Maybe it’s the treasure of knowing that we are protecting each other from illness. Maybe it’s the treasure of coming to recognize what really matters to us -- even if what really matters to us is something that right now we can’t have.

May we live to emerge from this narrow place, and may we connect in person again: speedily and soon, with God’s help.

Thinking of you and sending blessings to all.

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog. With special thanks to R' David Markus for learning this with me on Shabbes. For those who want the original teaching, it's the Aish Kodesh on M'tzora 1940 / 5700.


In the wilderness

A d'varling for the end of week five of covid-19 sheltering-in-place.

As we leave Pesach behind we set out into the wilderness, trusting that somehow we're moving toward Sinai, toward revelation, toward connection. The spiritual practice of counting the Omer is tradition's way of helping us link Pesach with Shavuot, liberation with revelation, the constriction we're leaving behind with the expansiveness and covenant we're heading toward.

This year it may be hard to focus on that count because we are doing another kind of counting: how many days we've been quarantined / sheltering-in-place / socially distancing / staying home. How many days and weeks it's been since life felt "normal." And how many weeks it might be before we can return to seeing each other again, being with each other again.

The first thing I want to do is give all of us blanket rabbinic permission to "mess up" the Omer count. It's okay if we forget. It's okay if we miss a day. It's okay if we can't focus on the kabbalistic meanings of the seven qualities we're called to cultivate. A lot of our brainspace is dedicated right now to the news, the pandemic, what we're going to eat, who's sick and who's well.

That's normal. And it's okay. And... that's exactly the wilderness in which we're wandering this year -- as a people, as a nation, as a planet. Which means we're right where our core ancestral story says we should be. In the wilderness. Not totally sure where we're going or how we're going to get there or what losses we'll incur along the way. Maybe uncertain. Almost certainly afraid.

The Hebrew word bamidbar, "in the wilderness," shares a root with the verb l'daber, "to speak." The wilderness can be a place of fear, a place of not-knowing, a place that feels dangerous. And that's exactly the place where we hear God's voice. The place where holiness speaks to us. The revelation at Sinai takes place in a place that no one owns, in the wilderness, in not-knowing.

As I watch the pandemic play out at hospitals around the world, I've been thinking a lot about the time I spent as a student chaplain at Albany Medical Center almost 15 years ago. I remember that hospitals are profoundly holy places -- not despite our fear and not-knowing, but precisely because of it. When our hearts are cracked open, they also open to connection.

It's like Jacob said when he woke from the dream of the ladder with angels moving up and down: "God was in this place, and I -- I did not know!" God is always in the place where we are, when we are there fully. A crisis like this one can focus us. It can make us really present, which may be uncomfortable. And it can open us to God's presence, which may be uncomfortable, too.

The whole world is wandering in the wilderness of this pandemic. We don't know how we'll get to the other side, or how long it will take, or what losses we'll incur along the way. We're not alone in this. We may be alone in our homes, but we're not existentially alone. We're all in this together. The spread of the virus reminds us that we're more connected than we ever knew.

Last Shabbat, in the Torah reading for the Shabbat during Pesach, we heard God say to Moses, "I will go in the lead and will lighten your burden." That verse is bringing me comfort this week: the idea that God is here with us in the wilderness. God is walking with us. God is keeping us company. And our souls are keeping each other company, too, even when we are alone.

May we feel each others' presence in this time of separation. May we feel God's presence in this time of separation. May we hear the voice of holiness speaking to us in this wilderness. May we open ourselves to the voice of love, the voice of justice, the voice of hope. And may we build a world of greater justice and love -- for everyone -- when we make it to the other side.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services via zoom for my synagogue this week (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 

 


For me

At the start of the dream
I float down the Guadalupe
but the current goes backwards.
I emerge into a house
from 1985, and inside

there you are: hair pulled back
into a casual ponytail,
white terrycloth coverup
as though you've just come
from a tennis game or a swim.

You've made dinner. I tell you
about my divorce, but
don't mention the pandemic:
why intrude on your afterlife
with something so terrible?

I wake to more headlines
(the world is dust and ashes) but
for a moment I almost felt
that loss isn't forever, that
the world was created for me.


 

A story tells of Rabbi Simcha Bunim who held two slips of paper in his pockets at all time, to remind him to balance two fundamental truths. In one pocket the paper said "I am dust and ashes," and in the other pocket the paper said "the world was created for me."

On the last day of Pesach we recite Yizkor / memorial prayers. Last year's Pesach Yizkor was the first time I said those prayers since Mom died. She had been gone for only a couple of months and the loss was raw. This year I am grateful for how the passage of time has smoothed over those rough places.

May comfort come to all who mourn.


A part

Furled tufts of red pop
at the tip of every maple branch
bright against a clouded sky.

I know there's blue
stretching above that white ceiling
even when I can't see it,

I know beyond our thin atmosphere
we're cradled in the vastness of space.
Even when I feel stuck in my skin

in the seclusion of social distancing
cloaked in mask and gloves
unable to touch

the maple and I are breathing together
(you and I are breathing together)
even when I feel apart.

 


Four weeks in

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The tree outside my front door, on a blue-sky day earlier this week.

It's been four weeks since life stopped feeling normal. On good-weather days, I leave the house to take walks with my kid. Every so often I leave the house to replenish groceries (wearing a cloth mask and gloves). Otherwise we're home. We see friends via Zoom, which is better than nothing but still frustratingly intangible, especially for my kid. This new normal is not normal.

My kid is grappling with big questions. The other night he asked me why, if God heard the cries of the children of Israel in Mitzrayim and freed us from slavery (e.g. the Exodus), why isn't God freeing us from the pandemic? That sparked a big conversation about what it might mean if God doesn't reach into the world to "fix" things, even if we really want God to.

We talked about how we can find God's presence in the helpers, in the people working toward a vaccine, in acts of kindness. We talked about the idea that God accompanies us and feels our fears with us. And I thought: this is a heck of a way for him to begin to move beyond the little-kid theology that imagines that God will fix everything if we just ask hard enough.

I read the news every day and my heart aches. So many deaths, so much suffering -- it's almost more than I can process. And then I set the news aside and I teach an online class for my synagogue, or I sit with my kid to work on a social studies worksheet, and I am grateful both for my work and for the ways in which homeschooling requires me to focus on what's in front of me.

And even in the midst of this unthinkable tragedy and trauma, there are moments of connection. I led a shiva minyan on Zoom the other day for a friend who had lost a family member (not to covid19.) The screen filled up with friends and family, people from all parts of her life, people of many religious traditions, people in many time zones -- including one in Australia.

And I thought: before the pandemic, most of us wouldn't have held a Zoom shiva minyan so that friends in far-flung places could take part. I still wish we could have gathered in person to comfort this mourner. I hold tight to the faith that someday we will be able to gather in person again, and hug each other. I ache for that. And... I'm grateful for what connection is possible.

Lately I've been gazing at the big tree in front of my condo. Its twigs have sprouted little red tufts. Soon they will unfurl into leaves. I take comfort in that. Spring will come and we don't have to do anything to make it come, or to make its beauty exist. We don't know how long the pandemic will last, or when we will be able to touch each other again, but the seasons remain.

 


New questions

New questions

 

For those who can't read images, or who want to copy-and-paste- a transcription:

How is this night the same as other Passovers in the past or in the imagined future?

What does it mean to experience an Exodus from the Narrow Place when our lives may feel more constricted (by illness, quarantine, economic hardship, or grief) than ever before?

How can the rituals of seder connect us across the chasm between what we're experiencing now and what was "normal" before?

We can't physically invite all who are hungry to come and eat. (Then again, we probably didn't do that last year before the pandemic either.) How can we reimagine that call in this time? What will we do to nourish those in need this year?

Hiding the afikoman reminds us that spiritual life means searching. For what are we searching this year? What hope or healing do we yearn for... and what will we do, during the coming wilderness wandering, to bring our yearnings to pass?

 

Cross-posted from Builders Blog, a project of Bayit: Building Jewish.