Debbie's Psalm 3 - After Returning to Work

I pulled Flames to Heaven: New Psalms for Healing & Praise, by Debbie Perlman (may her memory be a blessing), off of my bookshelf recently. One of the poems I read there which really moves he is her psalm three, subtitled "After Returning to Work."

Reading her psalm, I remember my own journey of returning to work and returning to normalcy after my strokes. And I marvel at the extent to which this poem rings true for me even in the most ordinary of times: no recent illness, thank God; no hospital stay; and still this poem says something I need to hear. Maybe it's something you need to hear, too.



After Returning to Work
For E.L.L.

From the flurry of my life, I will praise You.

As I drive the child-circle errand-round,
Hurrying to meet allotted times,
I will stop for You,
To marvel at Your creation.

From the tasks that await me,
That tempt me to focus on minutia
Of hometasks, and homework, and jobwork,
I will pause for You,
To remember Your goodness.

From my perpetual self-reproof:
Is it enough, could it be better,
One more effort, a different preparation,
I will tarry for You
To praise Your Name.

In this fullness of my life, O God,
Calm my constant motion,
Quiet my pursuit,
That I may wait for You with a serene soul.


Prayers for two boys who are sick

I've been thinking a lot lately about children who are sick. Their names rise up in my morning prayer; their images float before me during meditation. In my extended online community, there are two children who are struggling with cancer. One is a not-quite-four-year-old boy, from whose brain a large and dangerous tumor was recently removed. The other is a six-year-old boy who is undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia. Their names are Gus and Sam.

I have never met either of these boys. If you want to be a stickler about it, I've never met their parents, either -- not in person, anyway; I've never shaken their hands or enfolded them in an embrace. But I read their parents' words, I look at the phtographs their parents share, I hold both the children and the parents in my heart and in my prayers. I know them in the ways which most matter.

It's among a parent's worst nightmares. I can't even really imagine our son being sick, not sick like that -- some self-preservation instinct in me keeps the idea at arms' length. When I was a student chaplain at the hospital in Albany, I ministered to families whose very young children were very sick. But there's a gap between knowing intellectually that my child is not magically protected, and actually getting the realization in my heart. Selfishly, I hope I never have to "get it." And my heart breaks for all of those who do.

A good friend of ours works as a Child Life Specialist. She tends to children who are in the hospital, helping them to understand the procedures they're facing. She uses role-playing and therapeutic play to help the kids process what's happening to them and to help them navigate the often-overwhelming world of the hospital with relative comfort. I think what she's doing is some of the hardest, and some of the most important, work there is.

I pride myself on my words, but when I think about these two boys fighting cancer, and about their families struggling to make sense of their diagnoses and to maintain hope -- when I remember that these two little boys are only two of the 12,500 children and adolescents in the United States who are diagnosed with cancer each year -- my words fail me. I fall back on the one-line prayer which Torah tells us Moshe prayed when his sister was stricken with disease: ana, el na, refa na la -- Please, please God, please heal her.

Please, please God, please heal them. Guide the hands of their doctors and nurses, give us the skill and the insight we need to cure this disease and every disease, guard these children safely until they are well.

October is national breast cancer awareness month here in the USA, and pink ribbons are everywhere. NFL players sport bright pink shoes during football games at this time of year, which is always vaguely comical. I have friends and family who have battled breast cancer. I'm glad people care. But I didn't know until this morning that September, now over, was national childhood cancer awareness month. How did I not know that?

I turn to Debbie Perlman's Flames to Heaven, New Psalms for Healing & Praise, and the book opens to her psalm two. I offer this, thinking of Sam and of Gus and of all the children who are ill, all of the families who fear and hope and grieve.


A Song for the Time of Treatment
For C.R.S., z"l

And I will praise You with clear sweet tones,
Singing Your gift as I gather my courage,
Hearing the music of my life
As, once again, I gird myself for battle.

And I will praise You with melodies
Remembered from my girlhood,
Songs that comfort me in night's darkness,
That relieve pain as I call forth their echoes.

And I will praise You with measures counted
In perfect stillness,
As machines whir and focus their healing beams,
As fluids rush through clear tubing.

And I will praise You, seeking harmony
In the discord of this illness,
Seeking to hear again the sounds of strength
Above the cacophony of this invader.

And I will continually praise You,
All the days of my life.


I asked my friends whose children are sick what we can do to help. The first answer was "consider adding children's cancer research, and the foundations built to help pay for children's cancer treatment, to our charitable donations." Here are a few:

  • CureSearch: National Childhood Cancer Foundation. "CureSearch for Children’s Cancer funds the lifesaving, collaborative research of the Children's Oncology Group, the world’s largest, cooperative pediatric cancer research organization in the world."
  • Children's Cancer Association. "When seriously ill children and their families need more than medicine, the Children’s Cancer Association’s innovative programs create joy one moment at a time."
  • CURE Childhood Cancer. "CURE Childhood Cancer is dedicated to conquering childhood cancer through funding targeted research and through support of patients and their families."
  • Sam's parents also have a How You Can Help Us page on their Superman Sam blog.

On bodies, blood, and blessings

Here's a question I've been asked but have never known how to answer: is there a blessing for menstruation?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which American culture teaches women to have negative feelings about our bodies. One of the subtle ways in which this happens, I think, is in the shame we're taught to feel about even mentioning menstruation, much less experiencing it.

People generally don't talk about menses in polite company. And when we do, we use euphemisms. (When I was a teenager, people said "on the rag." I'm not wild about that term, though it's slightly better than the curse.)The point, though, is that it's not a curse. Each month when my uterus sheds its lining, that's a sign that new life isn't growing in my womb this time around, but that doesn't change the reality that my body can be a home for new life, and that's incredible.

There are times when menstruation can be a heartbreak. For women (and their partners) who struggle with infertility or experience miscarriage, who yearn for a pregnancy, the monthly return of bleeding can be a source of tremendous sorrow. I remember the first few periods after my miscarriage. The bleeding and the cramping reminded me of that awful morning in Colorado when I had woken to discover my pregnancy over. I don't want to gloss over that.

But that doesn't make the bleeding itself wrong, or gross, or something to be ashamed of. This is something which cis-gendered women -- half of the human population! -- experience every month from puberty until menopause, except when we're pregnant (and, for some women, during the early months of nursing). Our wombs grow the stuff they would need to support a fertilized egg, and then when no egg implants, our wombs naturally let that stuff go. This is a natural part of life, no more "gross" than birth or death -- both of which, granted, may be scary, but to my mind anything which connects us with birth and death is by definition holy.

Birth and death (and, by extension, blood) offer opportunities to connect with something deep and meaningful, something far greater than ourselves. This is, I think, one way to understand Torah's language around taharah and tum'ah. It's not a matter of being "pure" or "impure." When I am not in contact with birth, death, or blood, I am tahor: a spiritual blank slate. When I am in contact with these things, I become tamei, charged-up with a kind of holy energy, vibrating at a different frequency for a little while because I have touched something beyond. (This is not, by the way, a new idea; I've written about it before, drawing on a number of prominent theologians and interpreters who make this case.)

There's a lot of talk lately in the American public sphere about women's bodies and women's health. I recommend Emily L. Hauser's Dear GOP: You do know how pregnancy works, right? (and, for a bigger-picture look at how our culture speaks to/about women, her post Like a girl) and Jessica Winters'  recent essay Are Women People? (also Catherine MacKinnon's scathing Are Women Human?, written in 1999 but still powerful) as well as the excellent series of recent Doonesbury cartoons which some newspapers have published on the Op-Ed page instead of the cartoon page. (Here they are: Part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six.)

Watching these debates unfold, I find myself wondering whether the world might be a better place if we celebrated women's bodies instead of allowing ourselves to be made ashamed.

So is there a bracha for menstruation? Rabbi Elyse Goldstein asked that question (see her essay Reappropriating the Taboo at My Jewish Learning), and came up with an answer I think is pretty neat. When she bleeds each month, she recites the blessing

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֶלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁעָשַׂנִי אִשָּׁה / Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech haolam, she'asani ishah:
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has made me a woman.

In a traditional Orthodox prayerbook, as part of the series of morning blessings recited each day, men are instructed to thank God for not making them women, and women are instructed to thank God for making us according to His will. In most liberal siddurim, we find instead a single blessing -- intended to be recited by people of all genders -- which thanks God for making us in the divine image. But I love Rabbi Goldstein's idea of sanctifying menstruation by actively thanking God for making me a woman, using this twist on these very traditional words.

I make the asher yatzar blessing when I go to the bathroom. If I can aspire to sanctify even that act, surely I should aspire to sanctify my body's potential to nurture new life -- and my body's ability to let that potential go.


If you're interested in this subject, don't miss Kohenet director Taya Holly Shere's writing on sacralizing menstruation, which is excerpted in Jay Michaelson's book God In Your Body.  

Poem published in Qarrtsiluni

If you're interested in smart, thoughtful, creative literary work on the web you probably already know Qarrtsiluni, the literary journal whose name comes from an Inupiaq word meaning "sitting in the darkness waiting for something to burst." The current issue is focused on Health, and has featured some fantastic material -- I'm especially struck by the recent poem Sarcoma by Marilyn Taylor, and also Marjorie Saiser's poem Loving My Daughter in the Mountains.

I'm pleased to be able to say that I have a poem in the Health issue, too, which has just gone live. It was written a few years ago, after my second stroke, and was inspired by a series of five photographs at the Williams College Museum of Art (learn more here.) The poem is called "Body," and it begins:

Tradition calls
for parchment, stuff
capable of surviving
stitches made from
tendons and glue.

The body too
is a scroll, scribed
in circles...

Read it (or listen to it) here: Body. And then feel free to leave a comment, either there or here...

Test run

The late-night drive to the hospital sometime before one's child is born is a rite of passage. Almost every pair of expectant parents I know has done it. Maybe there's a preterm labor scare, or the mother starts having contractions which seem to be trending longer, stronger, and closer together and the parents-to-be dash to the hospital to see if this is "really it," bringing their already-packed labor suitcase and strange new carseat along for the ride just in case. In our case it was some blood pressure readings which led us to call the Mother-Baby Unit late at night; their instructions were to come in immediately, so we did, and we wound up staying for a while.

There's no cause for alarm; baby and I are fine, though the staff there kept us for observation (and to work on titration of blood pressure medication) for a few days. The first night at the hospital I dozed a scant few hours of sleep, interrupted by the sounds of laboring women down the hall and the sudden startling (and startled) cries of newborns. The second night, although nurses woke me every few hours to check my BP, I was so exhausted from that first night that I actually slept in between the checks. Being able to get reasonably satisfying sleep in short snatches seems like good preparation for the early weeks of parenthood.

There were things about this adventure which reminded me of my stroke hospitalization a few years ago. This is the same hospital where I was a patient then. (Indeed: the stroke center is right down the hall from the wing where laboring mothers and their babies stay.) And there are elements of the hospital experience which feel the same no matter what one's in for -- the sounds and scents, the beeping of monitors, the tactile experience of getting an IV port or feeling an automatic blood pressure cuff inflate. Since I just recorded a podcast of a stroke poem for Qarrtsiluni's upcoming health issue, it's been surreal to revisit those memories.

Of course, in other ways this experience is entirely different from that one. Where the strokes came out of the blue, these late-term pregnancy complications are not a big surprise. (My history of hypertension all but guaranteed that this, or something like it, would arise.) And there's the awareness that at the end of this journey, God willing, we'll come home with a tiny person: that changes everything.

Continue reading "Test run" »

The view from week 35

Pregnancy, 36 weeks. (I'm not quite there, but I'm close.)

I haven't written much at Velveteen Rabbi about being pregnant, aside from that initial announcement post this summer and a handful of offhand mentions this fall. Those of you who don't know me in person (which is most of you!) could be forgiven for imagining that perhaps the pregnancy hasn't loomed large in my consciousness. Maybe the reason I'm not writing about it is that it's just not a big deal?

That's an erroneous assumption, of course. If anything, pregnancy is such a big deal that I find it hard to write about, at least in prose. I've written half a dozen poems on the subject since I found out I was pregnant last Pesach, but they aren't ready for public consumption. Unlike the Torah poems I often share here, these poems don't feel ready for prime time. There's something intimate about them, about the whole experience. Which is funny, because it's also a very public experience; no one who sees me now can doubt that they know (at least some of) what's going on in my life.

I write here about Judaism, about God, about spiritual life -- a range of subjects which could easily encompass meditations on pregnancy and impending motherhood, if only I could find the way in. Part of the challenge is that the subject is at once so big and so small; it's an enormous life-change and a perennial miracle, and yet it's a perfectly ordinary thing that humanity has done since time immemorial. There's a balancing act here. This is incredibly important, and it's also incredibly mundane. Though I guess the same could be said of daily spiritual practice, too.

Continue reading "The view from week 35" »

Braced for surgery

As Ethan notes, he's about to go offline for a month -- maybe longer -- because tomorrow he's scheduled for his second vitrectomy. (For those who are curious, here's his explanation of the process, written last year.)

This is the same surgery he had last year (this time, they'll be operating on the other eye.) The good news is that the first vitrectomy was successful, and this time we know what the recovery curve might look like. (Last time, they just didn't know how long he would be incapacitated by the surgery, and told him he might be able to drive again after a few days; this time, we know it will be at least month before he can read again, and that he won't be behind the wheel of a car anytime soon.)

Even though it's easier to face with some advance awareness of what we're in for, the prospect of surgery is never comfortable, and neither is the recovery. Thanks for understanding if I'm a bit slow to answer email or moderate blog comments over the next few days -- even though there's relatively little I can do to make this easier for him, my attention needs to be focused here at home for a while.

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Different Strokes

I posted last month that an essay of mine had been published in the February 2009 issue of The Women's Times. The story told in this essay will be familiar to longtime readers of this blog, but a few of y'all asked to see the piece, so I figured I'd share it here now that the March issue is on the stands. Thanks to the editors of TWT for soliciting and publishing the essay.

In June of 2006 I traveled to Montreal to meet friends. When I got off the train, I found that I couldn't speak French. I could hardly hold Ou est le metro? in my mind, and my English wasn't much better. I clung to a slip of paper with my hotel's address on it, and navigated my way via beseeching looks to strangers who kindly pointed me in the right direction.

I unloaded my luggage, met my friends for dinner, and said, "Something strange is going on." They embraced me and pressed Thai food and a beer into my hands. By the time I had eaten half a plate of dinner the mysterious inability to speak coherently had passed. I had a fleeting thought that perhaps I should see a doctor, but I was on vacation in a foreign city with farflung friends; I put it out of my mind. I was thirty-one.

Six months later, on Christmas Day, I lost vision in one eye. We were eating Chinese food and watching a movie when it happened. Half of my field of vision disappeared, as though a veil had descended.

I thought it was a floater. I feared a detached retina. But I didn't want to schlep to the emergency room on Christmas, so I didn't see a doctor until the following day, when the diminished vision didn't improve on its own. A visit to the opthalmologist led me to my first MRI, which showed that the visual problems were rooted in my brain.

Continue reading "Different Strokes" »

"Different Strokes" published in The Women's Times

If you live in the Berkshires or bordering regions in Vermont, Connecticut, or NY, pick up the February issue of The Women's Times and you'll find an essay by me in its pages. Every February TWT does an issue focusing on health; this year they asked me to write an essay about my strokes and their aftermath, seen from the vantage of two years out.

(I'm pretty sure the essay is also in the Pioneer Valley edition; PV readers, can you confirm/deny?)

Many of the observations in the essay may ring a bell to longtime readers of VR. Because the piece begins with the strokes and moves forward through time until now, I touch on several of the stages of my recovery (both physical and emotional) which I chronicled here.

Writing the essay gave me a good opportunity for reflection on the strokes and their lasting implications. Thanks, TWT. (And if any of y'all do read the essay, I'd love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to leave a comment below.)

March 2009 ETA: the essay is now online here.

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Taking care

What a week: anticipation, tension, relief, and aftermath.

Ethan's surgery seems to have been successful. When they let me back into the recovery room and I saw him sitting in a chair, upright and becoming alert again (right eye bandaged tightly), a fierce relief grabbed hold of me that didn't let go for hours. The unmitigated good news is that the surgeon believes they were successful in doing the work they wanted to do -- baruch Hashem and alhamdolillah! Deep thanks to all who left comments, sent emails, and have been saying prayers of all sorts on his, and our, behalf.

Since then, the week has been a bit of a roller-coaster. The surgery is over, but the recovery is just beginning, and the elation of making it through the surgery has given way to some frustration with the limitations of this post-surgical period. Slowly and surely we're finding our way. Yesterday afternoon while I was teaching Hebrew school, a friend came over to read to him for a while. He's planning and cooking elaborate menus; he can't work, exercise, or read, but at least he can cook. (As long as he stays clear of our very sharp knives...)

And I'm learning how unlike chaplaincy is the experience of watching a loved one undergo surgery. I've facilitated lifecycle events for "strangers" (folks I didn't know until they engaged me to work with them), for old friends, and for family, and those three categories feel entirely different to me. When a relationship already exists, the work can be both sweeter and more challenging. Of course, I'm not here to do the work of pastoral care! Though the chaplain part of my brain keeps pointing out how I might try to do things differently if I were.

The counsel I would offer to someone else in shoes like mine this week is this: being family to someone who's undergone trauma -- physical or emotional -- can be difficult. So be gentle with yourself. Cut yourself some slack. Do something nice for yourself. Remember that it's not your job to make things "all better" -- you can't. What you can do is be loving, and be present, and be responsive as best you can. That's all anyone could ask, and it's important work, so kol hakavod to you for doing it.

Anyway. Today is the third day after the surgery and so far, so good. Thanks to everyone who's been with us along the way.


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T-minus one day and counting

A few weeks ago Ethan blogged about eye trouble and forthcoming surgery, a pars plana vitrectomy on his right eye. That surgery is happening tomorrow, as per his latest post. We'll wake up at 5am and drive the three hours to Boston. After the surgery we'll spend a night there, and have a follow-up visit with the doctors on Wednesday morning. Assuming all goes according to plan, we'll get home by Wednesday evening.

I don't entirely know what to expect. We've read everything we can get our hands on, and Ethan's doctors have told us about how the procedure works and what its aftermath is likely to entail, but that kind of advance knowledge is only so helpful. Beyond the bare outlines -- surgery, recovery, an estimated three weeks abstaining from reading (!) -- we don't really know what's ahead.

I'm chagrined to discover the extent to which I'm more comfortable being the patient than the worried family member in the waiting room. I'm reminded, too, of something I learned from my supervisor during my year of CPE: ministering to one's family doesn't really work. In this situation I'm not the chaplain, I'm the wife. It's fascinating to be reminded how discrete those two roles are.

Anyway, we have high hopes that the surgery will be successful; that's something to, er, focus on. Meanwhile, if I'm somewhat slow to respond to emails and blog comments for a few days, I ask your understanding. And if you're so inclined, good thoughts and prayers are always welcome.

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The limitations of personal experience

When I was a student chaplain at Albany Medical Center I used to case the neonatal intensive care unit every time I was on call. I felt a connection with that ward because I was a NICU baby myself. My birth weight (three pounds, one ounce) halved by the time the ambulance got me from one hospital to another, and I spent weeks in an incubator overcoming hyaline membrane disease. Walking the halls of the neonatal intensive care unit at AMC, I used to make every step a prayer for the tiny babies in their little glass houses, that they might flourish as I have been blessed to do. I thought maybe my story made me a more effective chaplain there. Offered parents hope.

But I have no memory of those six weeks behind glass. Whereas I have plenty of memories of my recent strokes and their aftermath. So when I'm called to minister to someone who has suffered a stroke, it's a poignant and surreal experience for me in a whole new way.

Do my strokes make me a better chaplain? I'm certain that having been sick -- having faced, however imperfectly, my body's failings and my own mortality -- makes me a more empathetic listener. Telling about my experience, in a tiny nutshell, might offer comfort either to the patient or to the patient's family. I know what it's like to be on the inside of that experience, in a way most chaplains don't. In those ways maybe my experience does help me offer care.

But there's also the danger that I might overlay my own experiences atop the experiences of the person now suffering, which would make me not a very good caregiver at all. I know what it was like for me to open my mouth and not be able to make words come out the way I intended. I know what it was like for me to lose vision in one eye, to enter my first MRI machine, to wonder whether there was something seriously wrong with my body which we might or might not ever uncover. But I don't know what it's like for her. I don't know what it's like to be in her body, to experience it with the stretch of her experiences and memories. I have empathy, and I have sympathy, but I still can't presume I actually know what she's going through.

One can never presume one understands what someone else is going through. Even if the experiences have the same name, they're not the same. When I lay tefillin, that experience is necessarily different than I imagine it is for men who have the same practice. My experience surely differs from that of other women who take on the practice, too. If you were to wrap the leather retzuot around your arm, what would it evoke for you? How would you feel? Can you really express it in words? How much more true that is for embodied experiences like illness. So I'm a stroke survivor: that doesn't mean I truly know what it's like for someone else to suffer.

All I can do, in the end, is all I can do visiting anyone: be present to the reality of what's in front of me. Honor what I can understand of her story. Manifest the ear of the Holy Blessed One, Who listens in and through me. Admit that I can offer this sage's opinion or that sage's pithy quotation, but in the end, I can't answer the question of why we suffer, either. Offer the prayers of my heart, that she know a complete and speedy healing, a renewal of body and a renewal of spirit, now and swiftly. And, if she'll let me, take a long moment to clasp her hand.


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This week's portion: Clean



Depression whispering poison
anxiety's frantic wakefulness
cancer teeming beneath the skin:
the afflictions we truly fear

are chronic and invisible.
Even doctors look for ways
to blame the victim -- you smoked
too much, your cholesterol

is poor, you shouldn't have been
on birth control -- because
we can't stand that life isn't
a meritocracy, the way disease

sometimes just happens.
It must have been easier
when what distanced us from God
was a visible patch of skin

turning white or red, a spot
on the body to show to the priest,
the binary of tahor or tamei.
When what erupted in us

was on the surface, when we
like cloth could be sterilized
the damaged parts cut away
and consumed in fire

leaving behind only
what could be washed
and washed again, what could
become wholly (blessedly) clean.

Tazria: not, historically, the easiest parsha for me to connect with! Though over the last few years I've been finding various pathways in, ways of understanding the conditions of taharah ("ritual purity") and tumah ("ritual impurity") that make sense to me. Part of my problem tends to be how those words are rendered in English; longtime readers know I find those words both inadequate and wrongly freighted...

Here, again, I'm finding that when I let myself relate to this section of Torah through the prism of poetry, new insights emerge. (If you're interested in how I've engaged with this portion through prose in years past, you can always check out the Velveteen Rabbi's Torah Commentary, the page where I keep links to all of my divrei Torah.)

Though the arcana of taharah and tumah may feel distant for modern readers, the sense that sickness can keep us feeling distant from God resonates strongly for me. Behind this portion and its rules, I see a sense of longing for the kind of wholeness that would make holy connection possible.

As usual, you're welcome to download Clean.mp3 if you can't see the audio player at the top of the post or if you'd like a recording of the poem.

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One year stroke-free

We were eating cheap takeout Chinese food and watching a dvd when the vision in my left eye became occluded. At first I thought it was a floater. Then we thought it might be a detached retina. I convinced myself it would be better in the morning, but when I woke up on Boxing Day it had not improved. Finally, despite the sleet, I dragged myself to the emergency room for an adventure that took me all over Pittsfield, into my first MRI machine, and -- by nightfall -- into an inpatient stay at BMC...

My last stroke happened on Christmas Day of 2006. As of today, I have gone a year stroke-free.

We still don't know what caused the strokes, and it seems likely now that we never will. They are not only idiopathic (of unknown origin) but cryptogenic (though their origin seems like it ought to be discernible, it is not.) We know that hypertension is correlated, so I take a beta blocker and a calcium channel blocker daily to keep my blood pressure low. And we know that clots are correlated -- though my blood doesn't show a tendency to clot in lab studies, and I don't test positive for any genetic clotting factors -- so I take a mild blood thinner daily. We trust that these three small pills each morning will keep my body in working order.

Miraculously, there has been no lasting damage to my body. My language skills seem to be as good as they ever were (so if I have trouble with Hebrew and Aramaic, I can blame only my study habits), and I am no longer conscious of diminished vision in my left eye (though field-of-vision tests show there is still some impairment, it's imperceptible to me now.)

The strokes did some emotional and spiritual damage which I think we are still working to repair. They shook my sense of my body's integrity, and they scared the people I love. We spent many months of 2007 working with specialists here and in Boston, searching for the elusive syndrome that would explain everything -- three strokes, two abscesses, and a partridge in a pear tree! -- and although every negative test result brought some relief, every new possible diagnosis left us tense and shaken again. Though in theory we've accepted the reality that the strokes are cryptogenic, in practice it isn't always easy to live with not-knowing.

The strokes also brought some blessings. I have a new sense of my body as a complicated miracle, which I've tried to hold on to as the immediate sense-memory of the strokes and the testing has faded. Over the year I've received unbelievable outpourings of love and prayer -- from family, from friends, from colleagues, from teachers, from readers, from strangers --which I appreciate more than I can say. And the strokes brought me a lot of new poems, work I might never have created otherwise. (I've worked hard at finding the silver lining in this experience.)

I'd like to be able to say that the strokes taught me something about embodiment, about this existential and theological state of unknowing. Sometimes I feel like they did. Other times their lessons, or gifts, seem pretty distant. I suspect being a multiple stroke survivor will make me a more compassionate pastoral caregiver, though I like to think I was fairly compassionate to begin with.

In the end, the strokes can only be what I make them. I try to make them a reminder not to take my life or my body for granted, and a chance to marvel at how it's possible to feel connected with God even "min ha-meitzar," from narrow straits like these. One way or another, I'm pretty sure Christmas Day will never feel quite the same...and we'll be celebrating Boxing Day tonight with a couple of bottles of fancy microbrewed beers (a Unibroue Terrible, and a Lindemans pomme lambic) toasting my health.

I hope you'll raise your cup or mug or glass too to the miracle of embodiment, and the miracle of health, and the miracle that my loved ones and I -- and you, my blog-readers and friends -- have made it through the first year of this post-stroke journey together.

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Through a stereoscope, darkly

As a kid, I had what we called a lazy eye: one eye wandered, without volition. Eventually a pair of surgeries were required to correct it. As a result, I spent a lot of time at opthamologists' offices with an opaque plastic circle over first one eye, then the other, trying to explain and understand what I saw. My eyes offer different pictures of the world even now -- color tones vary slightly from one eye to the next. (When I'm using both eyes in concert, the dominant eye chooses the color palette.)

That turns out to be a good metaphor for how I'm relating to the ongoing investigation of my health. Through one eye, I see a reality in which the strokes suggest something sinister, and merit continuing exploration with every tool at our disposal. Through the other eye, I see a reality in which the strokes arose out of a combination of hormones, hypertension, and medication, which means they were a one-time thing (okay, a three-time thing), and now that we've addressed those factors they suggest no reason for continuing concern.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it's difficult to reconcile those two views of the world. It's like looking through a stereoscope at two pictures that don't actually match. Trying to focus my eyes on both at once gives me a metaphorical headache. Among other things, this has a fascinating effect on my prayer life. Sometimes it's difficult for me to pray with kavanah because I'm not sure where I'm praying from. (Maybe that's why I resonated so strongly with the Hasidic teachings about equanimity that I blogged about a few months ago.)

We'll be visiting a new specialist in a few weeks, but as the days of the Omer stack up I'm beginning to grapple with the likelihood that these strokes may always be cryptogenic. That answers simply may not exist to be found. In theory I came to terms with that kind of uncertainty last year while working as a hospital chaplain. But learning it internally, applied to my own body and my own life, proves to be its own challenge.

Counting the Omer takes on particular poignancy this year because my appointment with the new specialist falls on the 7th of Sivan. (Following Reform practice I don't observe a second day of Shavuot, but the timing still strikes me.) As we commemorate the ongoing revelation of Torah at Sinai, I'll be hoping for a different kind of revelation -- even as I remind myself that I can't guarantee the revelation that I seek. And neither could our ancestors; who knows what the Israelites thought they were going to get from the Holy Blessed One at Sinai? My task is to be open to revelation in whatever form it takes.

And isn't that always true? On some level we want concrete answers and instructions, simple ones we can understand. Real revelation is messier than that. That's something I value about our holy texts -- that they speak in a variety of voices, that they offer new insights when seen through different lenses. I need to learn to see my body in the same way, to become at least a little bit more comfortable with mystery.

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Message in a bottle

I have many metaphors for the months since my December stroke. At times I've felt like a sailor in a tiny craft, skating across the surface of the unfathomed deep. I'm content, even singing a sea chanty or two -- until I realize how vast the waters below me are, and how a storm would swamp me. At times I've felt I'm on a rollercoaster, wheels ticking slowly as the cart ascends so gradually I forget I'm even moving -- until with a whoosh and a plummet I'm in freefall.

Here we are on the cusp of Pesach, and the cause of the strokes is still unknown. "Emboli of unknown origin," the specialist says. We're still investigating. This could take a while.

Yesterday my spiritual director and I talked about the challenges of hishtavut/equanimity (which I blogged about earlier this year.) About the Baal Shem Tov's teachings on yirah/fear, and how fear can be a path to God as surely as ahavah/love can be. About oscillating between feeling good and feeling afraid, and how to find God in that oscillation. (Apparently even the Baal Shem Tov knew that oscillation well. It's nice to be in such august company.)

The rabbinic school plan for this spring had been to take four courses. Instead I have taken three, and joked that my fourth class was Embodiment 101. I've learned more about the inner workings of brain and heart and arteries than I ever expected to know. And, beyond the intellectual learning, I've been reminded of how having a body is itself a spiritual practice. There's always something complicated or delicious or uncomfortable about embodiment.

My challenge, I think, is awakening to the presence of God even in this experience -- even in the times when I feel disconnected and overwhelmed. Not despite the discomfort, not despite my fear, but in them. Through them. There's a lot about the human body we don't understand, and that too is an opportunity for practice. For being the person I want to be.

I haven't written about this much here. It's not my usual subject matter; I'm no expert; I don't want to alienate or bore you. Blogging about my studies, about Torah, about the books I read -- these things are good places to focus my energy! But when I look back over the words I've generated during these months, it feels dishonest somehow not to acknowledge this part of my narrative too.

Besides, I think it's important for rabbis (and rabbinic students) to be transparent about who and where we are. And right now, for me, that means admitting that it's hard to live with uncertainty. In my best moments, I can see all of this as part of the blessing of my life as it continues to unfold. In my tough moments, I recede into fear and overwhelm. The two are as close together as the sides of a single coin.

I'm not sure how to end this post. There's no moral to this story. Consider this, instead, a letter from me to you. A message in a bottle.

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Ram Dass, still here

Last week no fewer than three people recommended that I read a book by Ram Dass, called Still Here. I found it for sale at a used-books store, so I picked it up. It's a quick read, and a fascinating one.

Ram Dass (the name means "servant of God") was born Richard Alpert, a nice Jewish boy from Newton. Educated at Tufts and Wesleyan, he became a professor at Harvard, alongside his buddy Timothy Leary. Both he and Leary were ousted from the university for their experimentation with psilocybin. Eventually Dass spent some time in India, at which point he became a disciple of the guru Maharajji and an ardent practitioner of meditation and yoga. (His Wikipedia entry is pretty comprehensive, especially in conjunction with some of the interviews linked at the bottom of the page.) He's probably best known for Be Here Now, to which Still Here is a kind of sequel. Still Here seeks to transform the process of aging "with the fears, losses, and uncertainties that come with it from a necessary evil into an opportunity for spiritual and emotional growth."

"The images our culture generates are designed to make you feel that aging is a kind of failure; that somehow God made a big mistake," he notes wryly. "In a culture where information is prized over wisdom, old people become obsolete, like yesterday's computers. " Still Here explores questions of physicality, aging, and death. For me, the most relevant and interesting part of the book is section eight, which is titled "Stroke Yoga."

Dass was in the process of writing this book when he had a severe stroke. He had a massive cerebral hemorrhage, with only a ten percent chance of survival. Afterwards, he began his "new post-stroke life" in a wheelchair, partially paralyzed, requiring round-the-clock care.

After any major physical "insult," as they call it, it's all to easy to see yourself as a collection of symptoms rather than as a total human being, including your spirit -- and thus to become your illness. Fear is powerful and contagious, and at first I allowed myself to catch it, worried that if I didn't do what the doctors ordered, I'd be sorry. But now I'm learning to take my healing into my own hands. Healing is not the same as curing, after all; healing does not mean going back to the way things were before, but rather allowing what is now to move us closer to God.

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There were blog posts I wanted to write during this interim week between Christmas and New Year's. Unfortunately, my plans were short-circuited by an unexpected hospital stay.

I had a stroke on Christmas night. Even writing the words feels strange; I hardly believe them. Even stranger is the discovery that this was my second stroke. (Suddenly the most surreal part of my visit to Montreal in June -- the hour immediately after arrival, when I couldn't form a cogent sentence in either English or French -- makes a new, and frightening, kind of sense.)

The early part of the week blurs in memory already. I noticed the compromised vision while watching Little Miss Sunshine on Monday night. Tuesday morning I called my opthamologist. There were waiting-room time and dilated eyes and boredom. Then the startling news that the problem was neurological; then the first MRI; then admission to the hospital. Bright lights and nurses and the inevitable search for veins on my small hands.

Hospitals don't unnerve me like they used to, thanks to my year of chaplaincy work. I'm grateful for that. Still, it's one thing to be in a hospital in a caregiving capacity, and another thing entirely to be there as a patient, navigating the exhausting waters of uncertainty.

In the last few days I've been injected with rare earth metals twice. I've listened to the thudding techno beat of a giant magnet and to the magnified sound of blood pumping in my arteries. I've swallowed a small camera and allowed doctors a clean view of the back of my heart. (No defects, only a mild murmur.)

Vials of dark red blood have been sent off to the appropriate labs, to test for clotting factors and genetic predispositions. We've changed my usual line-up of meds: a few subtractions (risk factors for stroke) and a few additions to balance them out. I have a team of doctors who I respect and trust, dedicated to helping me figure all of this out in the coming weeks.

I am profoundly grateful to the nurses, doctors, specialists, and orderlies at Berkshire Medical Center. Also to my friends, family, and especially my husband, for taking such good care of me. What a week it has been.

At some point I hope to write more about this: what it felt like, what fears it awoke in me, and what certainties. But everything's still a little jumbled, and I'm not sure I've really processed what went on and what it means. I hope you'll bear with me as I begin to make sense of all this craziness. Meanwhile, as my rabbi noted on Wednesday morning, it gives me an excellent new perspective on the work of pastoral care...

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