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I talk to you all the time --
there's a portal in my bedroom,
that glassy silvered frame:
us on a boat in the harbor
on the Fourth of July. Plus
another one upstairs (you
and dad beside an autumnal tree)
and the one from your eightieth,
where you're wearing off-white
and we're all arrayed around you
like lilies in a bouquet.
But walking into a cemetery
feels like plugging in, the
internet of souls humming
all around me. And this
exposed rectangle of earth
is just like the one where
two thousand miles away we buried
you. While I sang El Maleh today
one of my hands was twined
in this scarf you gave me,
its silky burgundy tassels
tucked tastefully into the neck
of my sober black suit. I hear
your voice every morning
when I enter my son's room.
As I murmur to him and flip on
the light, you're belting
"Good Morning To You" with
young Debbie Reynolds flair.
Today in this gold autumn sun
you're almost here, singing to me.

 

 

If this poem speaks to you, you might enjoy Crossing the Sea, published by Phoenicia. It's my collection that moves through the first year of mourning my mom. 


Third Pesach Without You

You never removed leaven.
(Salt, sugar, and oil: sure,
but that was different.)

This year the work of
finding every last crumb
is daunting. I take respite

in the seder prep I know
you used to do, polishing
the silver until it gleamed.

Okay, let's be real, you
assigned it to the housekeeper,
but your table shone.

Humming seder psalms,
I rub silver polish into
the pitcher we used for

pouring water on our hands
when we returned from
your funeral. I'll fill it

with ice water, and
your small silver creamer
with our salt water tears.


Removed leaven. Many Jews remove all leaven (or leaven-able material) from our homes during the seven days of Pesach.

Pouring water on our hands. There's a tradition of placing a pitcher outside a shiva home so that when mourners return from the burial, so that we can ritually wash our hands before entering.

Salt water tears. One of the ritual items on the seder table is salt water, representing the tears of our ancestors during slavery. 

This poem is (yet) another in the vein of 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. 


Interview at On Sophia Street

Banner-4-largerI met Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan when I was in rabbinical school, where she was one of my professors. These days I am honored to call her a colleague and friend. She recently visited my shul (via Zoom, of course) to share about her latest book, The Infinity Inside, a beautiful collection of essays and spiritual practices. 

She's also a blogger, and has been sharing her words at On Sophia Street for ten years. In celebration of her tenth blogiversary, she recently interviewed me for her blog (and will be interviewing two other spiritual bloggers -- subscribe to her blog to read those interviews too!) We talked about poetry, liturgy, spiritual practice, grief work, Crossing the Sea, and more. Here's a taste of our conversation:

Laura: You’re a life-long writer and a long-time blogger. Can you tell us a little bit about why you write? Do you see it as a spiritual practice?

Rachel: Writing is my most enduring spiritual practice. I’ve been writing my way through the world for as long as I can remember. Sometimes writing is a gratitude practice, a way of articulating to myself the things in my life for which I can honestly say modah ani, “I am thankful.” Sometimes writing offers a lens onto a tangled knot of thinking and feeling. Sometimes I look back at what I wrote and that gives me perspective on what’s constant and what changes.

EM Forster is reported to have said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” I love that. Writing, like prayer, is how I come to know myself... 

Read the whole interview here: Rachel Barenblat: poetry, liturgy, spiritual practice


On the far shore

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I heard that President Obama's memoir had to be printed in Germany because there is a paper shortage in the United States. The paper shortage is because we've been using so much cardboard to make so many more shipping boxes since the pandemic obligated us to stay home. I don't know if any of that is true, though it seems plausible. A parable about unintended consequences. I thought of it often in the days after Crossing the Sea launched, because I didn't yet have a copy in my hands.

Then I started getting photos from friends and family who had pre-ordered the book from Amazon or from the publisher. I was starting to wonder whether my copies were uniquely held up somewhere when the box landed on my doorstep. It's a cliché to say that my heart rate quickened as I cut the packing tape and lifted the first copies out of the wrapping, but it's also true. I'd seen the manuscript in PDF form many times, but there's something fundamentally different about a paper book.

The poems have a realness now that they exist in the tangible world. The collection is no longer the proverbial tree falling with no one to hear it.  The journey it chronicles feels so far away now -- evidence that "doing the grief work" actually does work, I guess. I remember what it was like in those early days and weeks, but I remember it at a remove. Through a glass darkly. Like rereading my poems from my son's infancy. I know that was me, but I can't inhabit that space anymore. 

A few of Mom's friends have written to say that they see her in this book, and a few people who are grieving now have written to say that their own journey feels mirrored here. There's no higher praise. I hope that Mom would be honored by the existence of this book. (I hope that, "wherever" she is, she approves.) And I hope other mourners will find comfort and consolation here. That's why I write. It's always why I write: not for solipsism's sake, but to shine a light for others in the darkness.

 

Available at Phoenicia, on Amazon, or wherever books are sold. 

 


Crossing the Sea

My mother and I had a complicated relationship. Over the first 43 years of my life we adored each other; we argued with each other; we delighted each other; we disappointed each other. Just now I had to look at a calendar to remind myself how old I was when Mom died: sometimes it feels like she's been gone for a long time, and sometimes it feels like she's still here. 

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time at all, you know that I'm an external processor. I "write my way through the hurricane." (Thanks, Lin-Manuel.) In rabbinical school I wrote Torah poems week after week. When I miscarried, I wrote poems as I sought healing. During my son's first year of life I wrote weekly poems chronicling his changes... and mine.

How else could I possibly respond to my mother's death? I keened and grieved and wept -- and wrote. When I was in my MFA program in my early 20s, she didn't like some of my poems; they felt too revelatory. Would she find these poems too intimate to be shared? I shared early drafts here anyway, because I needed to send the words out: into the world, if not to her.

Many of you wrote to me saying that the poems spoke to you and mirrored your experiences of loss. Over the course of the eleven months between her death and her unveiling, I wrote my way through how grief was changing me, and changing in me, until I reached the far shore of that particular sea. I will never cross it in that same way again, because one's mother only dies once.

And then, after the year was over, I sat down with a trusted friend and editor and asked: are these poems worth publishing in a less ephemeral form? Beth helped me see how the poems could be improved, and what was missing from the collection, and how to make the book more than the sum of its parts. This book is far better for her editorial hand, and I am grateful.

I am fiercely proud of this book of poems. It is a tribute to Mom, and a testament to how much she shaped me (and continues to shape me). It's a reminder that relationships can continue after death, and that time's alchemy brings subtle shifts. It's personal, because our relationship was only ours... and I think it's universal, too, because we all have mothers, and we all know loss.

If you knew Liana Barenblat, I hope you'll find her here. And if you didn't know my mom, I hope you'll find in these poems echoes of your own relationships, and maybe a roadmap for the mourner's path, that complex journey of grief and love, loss and healing. I'm so thankful to Beth Adams at Phoenicia for bringing this book to press, and for her cover art, which I love.

Introducing...

Crossing-500px_orig

Crossing the Sea - Phoenicia Publishing 2020

Special pre-order price $14.50 (US)
Regular price after Nov 30, $15.95

 

Heart-full, love-rich, rapt with intricate attention and memory, but never shirking the hard parts, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat shares a sequence of stunning poems  for her late mother. Her voice is honest as a tree.  This is an extremely moving book for anyone who has known grief,  and feels captivated by how the conversation goes on. 

–Naomi Shihab Nye, author of The Tiny Journalist and Transfer, among others

I knew Rachel’s mother. We came from the same small Texas town, ate the same mango mousse served in a fluted ring mold. Rachel captures the complexity of their relationship through similar telling descriptions and snippets of dialogue, then a miracle happens. My mother is there, too. Crossing the Sea moves past the personal as women readers identify and remember, laying these pebble poems on their own mothers’ stones.

— Nan Cuba, author of Body and Bread, winner of the PEN Southwest Award in Fiction

Rachel Barenblat’s poems open us to the heart of mourning: grappling with the loss of a parent, with whom our relationship was so close yet so complicated. She captures the tension between love and discord, the thrust and tug of distancing and reconciliation. She takes us with her on a winding path of grieving over the seasons of a year. Through that prism she refracts two lifetimes and three generations, rendering them with emotional honesty and insight. I was moved, I was brought back to my own loss, and I was brought a little closer to healing.

— Mark Nazimova, Jewish liturgist, New York City

Pre-order Crossing the Sea for $14.50 US now.

 


And everything in between

A rabbinic friend of mine just had a baby, so I am sending her a copy of Waiting to Unfold, the volume of poems I wrote during my son's first year of life, published in 2013 by Phoenicia Publishing. I had a few quiet minutes before an appointment, so after I inscribed the book to my friend, I started reading it, and I read the whole thing. 

Reading it felt like opening a time capsule: inhabiting a reality that is no longer mine, a strange world I had almost forgotten. Pregnancy and nursing and colic and postpartum depression and emerging into hope again... I'm not sure how clearly I would remember any of those things, if I hadn't written these poems while they were happening. 

It's not just that the poems open a window to then. They temporarily cloak me in then, like a shimmering holographic overlay. Rereading them, I feel grief and joy and most of all compassion and tenderness. For myself, back then. For everyone who's experiencing those realities now. For all of us, fragile and breakable and strong.

It makes me wonder what it will be like in ten years to reread Crossing the Sea, forthcoming from Phoenicia. Those poems were written as I walked the mourner's path between my mother's death and her unveiling. It wasn't written as systematically as Waiting to Unfold, but both volumes chronicle a kind of metamorphosis.

I think -- I hope -- that both volumes inhabit that sweet spot between my particular experiences (of new motherhood, of grief) and a kind of universality. Every parent of a newborn has some of the experiences I wrote about in Waiting to Unfold. Every person walks the mourner's path someday, for someone, because human life comes with loss.

It feels right to turn to poetry to distill and find meaning in birth and death. I mean those words as a merism: not only the beginning and endpoint of every human life but also everything that comes between. I wanted to quote Anne Sexton, "There is holiness in all." Though what she actually wrote was "there is joy in all."

So I'm thinking today about what kind of joy really is in all things, even the painful ones. For me that kind of joy is integral to authentic spiritual life. There's joy in being real, with myself and with others and with my Source, even when the path I'm walking takes me into the shadows. Writing is part of how I find my way back to life.