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My mother's daughter

Dear Mom,

When did you first start using your nebulizer? I think it was one of the first tools they provided when you were first diagnosed with bronchiectasis. Or maybe it was when you were diagnosed with the mycobacterial lung infections we didn't yet know would prove incurable. I can still hear the machine's whir and hum. "Come talk to me while I do my nebulizer," you said sometimes. The TV would be on. You'd remove the tube from your mouth to respond, gesturing with your perfectly manicured nails.

I'm pretty sure I remember you using it in the car on the way to the medical center. This was early on in your years of illness, too; you were still well enough to get up and get dressed and drive all the way up I-10 to the medical center complex. Your nebulizer had an adaptor so it could be powered by the cigarette lighter on your car. (Remember when cars all had cigarette lighters?) Somehow I suspect they intended patients to use it while someone else was driving, not while they themselves were at the wheel.

This morning I drove to Surgimed in North Adams, a place where I'd never been. Their display floor is full of walkers and machines and the kind of standing guardrails that go around a commode -- things that no one wants to need. People say that we should all care about disability rights, because if we live long enough, we all become disabled. You would have made a face at that. You never wanted to use that kind of language. Make hay while the sun shines, and don't talk about the puny days.

I left with a brand-new nebulizer in its box, and a little baggie containing its plastic tubing and mouthpiece. I remember your nebulizer pieces drying on a clean dishtowel beside the kitchen sink after every use. Like the pieces of the breast pump I used when I was pumping milk for the baby who's now a strapping adolescent of five foot six. With teal hair and his new favorite purple plaid hand-me-down shirt, he could be in a punk band. I can only imagine what you would say about that.

I can certainly imagine you saying tartly that you wanted me to take after you in other ways, not the lung problems. 

Yesterday I called to make an appointment for my first manicure since the pandemic started almost fifteen months ago. A few moments later I reached for my phone in my pocket. It was playing a number-out-of-service message, with your picture icon in the corner. Did I accidentally dial you after calling the Clip Shop? Or was that you, trying to call me? Well, here's the news: I have a pulmonologist and a nebulizer and a manicure appointment. I am your daughter in every measurable way.

There's a dazzling yellow goldfinch in the tree outside my window. It matches the dazzling yellow tulips behind the rock. There are tulips on my dining table, too, striated in yellow and red. You would like those. Like the ones we used to see on Fifth Avenue. I wish we could walk arm in arm down the city sidewalk. When I was a kid it seemed to me that those sidewalks sparkled, as though shot through with mica flakes, something that glinted and shone if you looked at it just right.

Love,

Rachel

 

This letter feels like a good time to mention Crossing the Sea, the collection of poems I wrote during the first year of mourning my mom. It was published in December by Phoenicia Publishing (thanks Beth!) and is available wherever books are sold. 


Questions

  1. Did we make it?
  2. What can I do about India?
  3. Will it get that bad here again?
  4. Are we safe?
  5. Can I trust new CDC guidance?
  6. If I see someone without a mask, can I assume they're vaccinated?
  7. (What if they're an anti-vaxxer?)
  8. And what about kids?
  9. Did you see the article about the family that got their shots and flew to Hawai'i and then their eleven year old died of COVID?
  10. Do you know how old my child is?
  11. How does this new guidance change what we're planning at our synagogue?
  12. Is it too soon to make decisions about the High Holidays?
  13. What are the spiritual impacts of spending a year unable to sing with others when singing in harmony is the best way I know to encounter God?
  14. When we start gathering in person again, will people come? 
  15. Has my kid adjusted to eating lunch on a towel on the floor six feet apart from his schoolmates?
  16. Will I see my father again?
  17. Did we make it?
  18. Are we really on the other side?
  19. If we're two weeks vaccinated, are we really safe?
  20. If we're safe, then why do I feel so exhausted?
  21. After the long, isolated winter why does spring make me want to cry?
  22. After fourteen months of feeding myself, why am I staring at a pantry full of ingredients unable to muster the creativity to cook tonight?
  23. What are the spiritual impacts of spending fourteen months guarded against grief, determined to keep going, sacrificing human contact in order to protect each other from an invisible virus we might or might not have been carrying?
  24. Did we make it?
  25. When will there be time to grieve? 

Unanswered

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I've had this kitchen tool for as long as I've had my own kitchen. I don't remember how it came to be mine. It belonged to my grandparents -- the only set of them that I knew, my mother's parents, who lived in San Antonio throughout my childhood. Eppie was Russian, and Lali was Czech. All through my childhood they lived in a condo not unlike this one.

I know that he loved to cook. He's the one who taught me to make matzah balls. He used to make little knotted rolls, too, and knedliky (Czech bread dumplings, made with stale white bread). When I would spend the night with them, sometimes they would treat me to the sugary cereals my mother didn't allow, and sometimes he would make salami and eggs.

This tool has a smooth handle, satisfying to the hand. There's a burn mark from some long-ago scorching-hot stove. The iron twists and curls. It's beautiful; I think in one of my early apartments I hung it on the kitchen wall as an ornament. Today it was the perfect tool for flipping pumpernickel bagels in their simmering bath before putting them in the oven to bake. 

Learning to make bagels was one of the projects I planned for myself, imagining the long isolated pandemic winter. I baked loaf after loaf of rye bread, and soft golden challah almost every week. I kept putting off the bagel project. Maybe on a subconscious level I wanted to keep a treat for myself, something to look forward to in this year of solitude and grief. 

But the winter is past. The snows are over and gone. Every day more people here become vaccinated. (Though in India, the pandemic is raging worse than ever...) Baking bagels today felt like an act of hope. I don't need to defer the tiny sweetness of trying a new recipe lest I need that sweetness to get me through some other, worse, day than this.

I'm pretty certain my grandparents never made bagels. I grew to love chewy pumpernickel bagels because my parents brought them back from New York City. They used to take an extra duffel bag when they traveled there, and on the day of their departure they'd fill the duffel with paper bags of New York bagels and freeze them as soon as they got back to south Texas.

A cursory internet search suggests that this is a Danish dough whisk. How did my grandparents come to have a Danish baking tool in their kitchen? Did they pick it up as a souvenir on their travels, or from a fancy kitchen store, or someplace secondhand? I wonder whether my mother would've known. There's a quiet melancholy in questions there's no one left to ask.

 


Hidden treasure and what comes next

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Last year at the start of the pandemic, my hevruta partners and I studied a text from the Piaceczyner (the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto) about this week's Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora. His jumping-off point is a verse about houses contracting tzara'at -- some kind of contagion -- and the need to quarantine such a house for a period of time.

The commentator Rashi explains that there's treasure hidden in the walls of the afflicted house, and when we knock down the walls, we'll find the treasure. But the Piaceczyner is puzzled: if there's treasure, then why does Torah tell us to wait for seven days before we can knock down the walls and find the treasures hidden therein?

His first answer makes me laugh: well, we can't exactly know why Torah says what it says!

But then he says, if we look deeply we can recognize that in everything that happens to us, there's a spark of God's intention for goodness. Even if the situation we're in is a difficult one, God intends goodness for us in it somehow.

"There may be times when we can't access schooling for our children, or praying together in community, or going to the mikvah," he writes. A year ago, my first thought was: that's us, right now! Our kids are home from school. The shul building is closed. Everything is closed: to protect us from each other, from the virus we might not know we're carrying.

The Piaceczyner said there would be treasures to be found in quarantine. I couldn't yet imagine what they would be.

This year, these lines land entirely differently with me.

It's still true that we still don't have access to our former infrastructure for Jewish life. Synagogues aren't meeting in person, Hebrew school isn't meeting in person... And yet -- look at everything we've learned over the last year.

Our synagogues are open, even though our buildings are not -- because the synagogue isn't the building, it's the people and the connections among and between us, and our traditions, and our Source. We've learned how to pray together over Zoom, and how to make our home spaces into sacred spaces. We've learned how to build community and connectivity online when we can't safely be in person.

We've learned how to educate our children online. Hebrew school is happening: online. Services are happening: online. We've learned how to share funerals, b-mitzvah celebrations, shiva minyanim, even batei din (conversions) online.

We've learned to find sweetness in glimpsing each others' households -- our dogs and our cats, the children and elders who share our homes -- when we gather for learning or prayer. As a member of our Board said to me after Rosh Hashanah services, "Seeing people at their tables and on their couches and with their coffee cups made it feel like we were all in each others' homes -- I felt like I was getting to know people in a different way because I got to see them where they live." Who could have imagined that, before the pandemic?

We've learned how to embrace video, and how to enliven our davenen with art and images. This doesn't make up for the fact that we can't embrace, and we can't sing together in harmony, but it brings a different kind of hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the mitzvah) to our spiritual lives.

And we've learned how digital offerings can more easily include those who are immunocompromised, or hospitalized, or disabled, or homebound. We've learned how having our digital doors open makes our synagogues more accessible than they ever were before.

The Piaceczyner insists that even when something appears to us to be a plague, God intends goodness in it. We might just need a while to find the hidden treasure in whatever's unfolding. As we prepare, in time, to return to our former Jewish infrastructure, I want to ensure that we do so in a way that doesn't lose the new treasure we've found. Here are some of the big questions my colleagues and I are asking:

  • How can we create hybrid offerings so that as some of us feel safely able to gather in person, others can be full participants digitally?
  • How can we continue to embrace the gifts of multimedia and visual art once we're back in the building again?
  • How can we welcome and include people joining us digitally, without creating a future in which no one bothers to "come to shul" because it's easier to just stay home?
  • How can we use what we've learned this year to help us become more accessible, more equitable, and more inclusive?
  • How can we use what we've learned this year to help us build and sustain community across distance, whether it's the distance between the shul and a hospital bed, or the distance between here and someplace further away?
  • How might our sense of community expand and adapt if people keep participating in services and learning and festival observances online -- if you don't have to be in Northern Berkshire to become a part of CBI?
  • And how can we honor the treasures of this pandemic learning while also honoring the very real losses of this incredibly difficult year?

We don't know the answers yet: we're figuring them out as we go. The crisis of COVID-19 offers us an opportunity to dream big and think creatively about what it means to do Jewish together now.I hope you'll grapple with these questions too, and let me know your answers.

This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Spring

When twigs swell
and begin to bud

and leaves emerge
chartreuse and tender

I'm proclaiming
what I nurtured

in secret silence
through the long winter

and sleep's cold blur.
Golden light,

I missed you so much
it hurt. I answer

your beauty
with my own,

vulnerable
and shivering.

My yearning for you
is prayer.


 

I originally titled this draft "The tree speaks," but that felt pretentious. Who am I to imagine I know what a tree is thinking?

When I sit at my desk in my study, there are several trees in view of my window. One, some kind of maple, has begun to leaf in deep red. Two others have begun to leaf in the implausible chartreuse that I think of as the truest sign of northern spring.

New leaves seem so fragile and tender to me, especially knowing that there's a forecast of snow here tomorrow. 

The end of this poem bears the imprint of this week's Baal Shem Tov text study with my Bayit hevre. We studied a beautiful text from the Besht arising out of parashat Tazria, which culminated in the idea that the deepest yearnings of our hearts are themselves prayer. 


Back to school

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This morning the alarm went off at seven. I made breakfast for my sleepy kid, finished packing his lunchbox, reminded him to put things in his backpack. A few minutes after eight I drove him to school. All of this used to be our ordinary routine. Today everything about it felt surreal. It's been more than a year since our school mornings followed this pattern. 

A few things are different than they were last time he was going to all-day, every-day, in-person school. Masks, of course. The Chromebook and charger that he now carries to and from school, lent to him by the school at the remote start of this school year. Today each kid brought a large towel, because lunch will be picnic-style, seated on their towels six feet apart. 

This is the fifth paradigm shift in his fifth grade year so far. (Two weeks of remote school to begin the year; then some weeks of hybrid learning; then all-remote for a while in the winter; then back to hybrid; and now this.) Will this "stick," or will rising cases change things yet again? It's hard to trust that he'll really be in school every day. I don't believe it yet. 

It feels strange to be working from home without him in the next room. It feels strange that I can't overhear his schooling anymore. I won't know what book his teacher is using for read-aloud now, or listen to his bass lesson, or hear him grumbling about group projects. Now all I'll know about his days will be whatever little he tells me when I pick him up.

A year ago when school closed for (what we thought would be) two weeks, being with my kid all the time felt overwhelming. Now that he's back in full-time in-person school, being apart is what's overwhelming. It's like when he first went to preschool at not-quite-three and suddenly my days opened up. The condo feels like an empty nest this morning.