Your house

But I, through Your abundant love, enter Your house... (Ps. 5:8)

 

I enter your house
before sleep,
lying among sheets
not yet tangled

in the anteroom
I wonder whether
I'll hear your voice
right away

feel the blush 
rise in my face,
the jackhammer beat
of my shy heart

down to the floor
not in abasement 
but exultation
letting you in

 


 

Last week my congregational psalm group delved into psalm 5. In verse 8, the psalmist says, "But I, through Your abundant love, enter Your house; I bow down in awe at Your holy temple." (It's a line that's familiar to many of us from liturgy.)

From that line emerged a writing prompt: what does it mean to envision entering God's house during this time of pandemic when we are all sheltering-in-place at home? What is God's house, where is God's house, how do we enter it, what does it feel like to enter it now? 

 


Words set to music: what joy

One of the most extraordinary things in the world, for me as a writer who is also a singer, is hearing my own words set to music. The music transforms and uplifts the words, and the end result is a work of art that is rooted in but also different from the one I put out into the world. It is humbling and amazing and awe-inspiring for me. 

I've been blessed to have that experience a few times. In 2010, composer Michael Veloso (who is a dear friend) set two of my motherhood poems from Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, 2013) to music -- Letters to Little Bean (listen here at SoundCloud.)

In 2014, Michael Scherperel set four poems from 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011) to music in a series called "שבעים / Shiv'eem" ("Seventy") (listen here at SoundCloud.)

And this week I heard my words set to music once more: conductor and composer Sarah Riskind (a longtime friend and fellow alumna of the Williams College Elizabethans) set my "Psalm of the Sky" (which appears in Open My Lips, Ben Yehuda 2016) to music (embedded below, or if the embed doesn't work, you can listen here at SoundCloud.)

 

It's particularly poignant to hear this setting of these words now. During this time of pandemic, I resonate with the words of this "psalm of uncertainty" in a new way. And because singing together in person is not currently possible (and may be contraindicated even when we are able to gather again, at least until there is a vaccine), and singing in harmony on Zoom is not possible (because sounds waves clash and collide), hearing voices in harmony is especially moving to me in this moment.

I'm grateful to Sarah for this beautiful setting of my poem, and I hope it speaks to you, too.


Pandemic Psalm 2

Newspapers overflow with empty words
     from men who value money more than lives
while bodies stack up faster than we can bury
    and doctors and nurses reuse protective gear
and each solitary death, lungs filling with water
     in a negative pressure room, is a world destroyed.

I wish I believed that God hurls lightning bolts
     like Zeus on his mountain striking evil down.
I want to smash what keeps us in thrall
     to petty kings who feel no empathy
who set their children one against another
     fighting for supplies in a zero-sum game.

My child asks why God doesn't answer our prayers.
     Grief stoppers my throat. What can I say?


 

This is the second poem in an occasional series. (The first is Pandemic Psalm 1.) I'm teaching three different classes right now on psalms (reading them, praying them, engaging with them devotionally, writing our own) and as a result the psalms are very much with me in this moment. 

These poems are not translations or renderings of the classical psalms -- they are the outpouring of my own heart. That said, this second psalm in my pandemic psalms series takes some inspiration from psalm 2 which speaks of people "murmur[ing] vain things" (in Robert Alter's translation), and of earthly kings, and uses the language of smashing or shattering. That language feels apt in this time when the world's brokenness is so palpable and so painfully clear.

 


Pandemic Psalm 1

Happy is the one
who sifts the detritus of the crisper
and from a third of a cabbage, a wilted carrot
and half a cup of sourdough discard
assembles okonomiyaki,
who grows new scallions from the stumps of the old
and sings to angels while kneading challah.

This one will find a thimble of chili crisp
at the back of the refrigerator,
a bag of dried beans when shelves are bare.
Her spice cabinet blooms at all seasons
with bright sumac and turmeric
and the striated crescents of cumin seeds.

If she can feed a hungry heart
she will always be content.

 


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!

Bayit-logo-fullcolor

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!


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.

 


The far shore

This is how the year ends.
We've carried your memory, and now 
we dedicate this stone
on the far side of the sea.

We've carried your memory.
Now we look back
from the far side of the sea,
our footsteps washed away.

Now we look back
and blink, disoriented,
our footsteps washed away.
The waves are gentler now.

We blink, disoriented.
I still talk to you.
The waves are gentler now
when I greet your photos.

I still talk to you
in every room
when I greet your photos
as though you were here.

In every room
questions I wish I'd asked
(as though you were here.)
I remember your voice.

Questions I wish I'd asked:
how do we live without you?
I remember your voice.
I don't want to let go.

How we live without you:
we dedicate this stone.
I don't want to let go..
This is how the year ends.

 


Tether

These letters, kite-string
or umbilicus: do they
tether you? When I
stop writing will you
dissolve, a water droplet
rejoining the flowing stream?
Maybe I'm the one
tied to what was,
not willing to disentangle.
When I wasn't looking
this year changed me.
Still homesick sometimes, but
I've learned to sleep
in this strange bed
where sometimes, I know,
I will see you
in dreams. Gone but
still here. Almost enough.


The weather

Things I can't know,
a partial list: how cold
the cemetery will be this time

how bruised my heart will feel
-- or not -- and most of all
would you wear sandals?

I don't think the dead
pull climate strings, but
if it were up to you

you'd want Texas to put on
her prettiest face
when we remember you.

You'd want our grief
to melt like thin ice
in morning Texas sun.

 


Pebbles

I know I must have talked with you
after unveilings for relatives

or friends, but I don't remember
what you had to say. Probably

we talked about shopping or haircuts
or Shabbes dinner, what Marie Howe

called "what the living do."
When you drove out of a cemetery

you moved on, but part of me still
hasn't left where we buried you.

Soon we'll gather to bless the slab
that marks the spot. Did you know

the tradition that says we stop
saying kaddish after eleven months

because only wicked souls require
a full year of kaddish to ascend

and we wouldn't want to imply
you weren't righteous? I think

you'd laugh and say whatever works
for us is fine by you, then ask

where we're going for lunch after
and what kind of shoes I'm planning.

Almost eleven months now I've been
writing to you, each line a monument

to memory. These poems,
the pebbles I leave on your stone.

 


A year ago

A year ago you kept falling. Bloodied from landing,
bruised as though beaten. Dad couldn't lift you, so one
night you slept on the carpet until morning. Did you know
your children were scheduling frantic conference calls?
There was no knowing how much worse it might get.
When you consented to hospice, you texted us, "if my decline
troubles you, have your doctor prescribe a happy pill."
I laughed until I cried. A year ago you were still alive.
This month I keep saying that, like a mantra.
Soon I'll never be able to say it again.


Chanukah gift

The closet in my study
holds picture frames, half-empty
boxes of stationery, old books,

pillows and blankets
for the guest bed. And tucked in
amid all of these, a small box

emblazoned Priority Mail,
addressed in your handwriting,
postmarked two years ago.

It slipped behind the quilts
and the crates of journals,
unseen and forgotten.

As I slice open the packing tape
I can scarcely breathe.
A letter you wrote to my son

for the last night of Chanukah
and some old coins -- a poem
and gelt, though I know

what in this box is truly gold.
Your words, your memory --
the oil that keeps on burning.

 


In this place

You're sick, but
still offering opinions
on which cut of trousers

best suits me. You promise
a pair of new boots, stylish
as yours, before you go.

Then you're dead, and
I roam your closet
(Narnia-sized, infinite)

with empty hands. But look:
on a countertop, the boots
you promised, in my size.

I wake laughing.
You're nine months buried
and still giving to me.

 


Recipe

The year your mother died
I was in college, living
off-campus for the first time.

As Rosh Hashanah approached
I called you for recipes.
I didn't know how to cook, but

I roasted cornish hens
and honeyed carrot coins
and assembled my housemates

around a table covered
with a bedsheet because
I didn't own a white tablecloth.

As this first Thanksgiving
without you draws near,
I'm emailing my sister

and scouring the internet
for a recipe that looks
like the mango mousse

you always made. It's a relic
of the 1950s when your marriage
was new. I don't think

I've ever bought Jell-O
or canned mango before, and
I don't own a fluted ring mold

but when my spoon slices
through creamy sun-gold yellow
it will taste for an instant

like you were in my kitchen,
like you're at my table,
like you're still here.

 


First day of fall

Mom, I'm on my mirpesset
on the first day of fall.
You loved that word --
a little taste of Jerusalem

or Tel Aviv. Two of the zinnias
my son planted last spring
have sent up new buds, like
dancers reaching toward heaven

with palms outspread.
They're trying to bloom
once more before first frost.
I don't think there's time,

but who am I to say I know
when death will come?
All morning I've been practicing
Torah in the golden melody

of the season. Last year
you watched holiday services
from your bed, Facebook Live
on the iPad propped on your lap.

From olam ha-ba I expect
you'll have better picture
and clearer sound. I wish
I could feed you honeycake.

I wish I could sing for you
and know that you hear me.
I don't want to be starting
a year that never had you in it.