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!

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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!


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.

 


To the Management

I would like to register a complaint
about grief. Whose stupid idea was this?

Whichever angel was in charge
of giving human beings capacity

to move through sadness and then
feel better -- they screwed up.

Even after four weeks, grief is a wave
that hits sometimes at chest height

and sends salt water up my nose.
To make matters worse, it's

an ocean wave that swamps me
at the grocery store -- I'm not even

at the goddamn beach. Grief is
a pane of glass two feet thick

that crushes me like a pressed flower.
Grief is the same menu over and over.

Grief is banal as a crayon drawing
by someone else's kindergartener.

I would like to exchange this grief
for something that fits me better,

in a more flattering color.
I would like to set it afire, kindled

on a bed of crumpled tissues
and return it to Sender.

 


By the numbers

Miles I moved
in order to define myself

not as anyone's daughter
but as the center

of my own story: two thousand,
more or less.

Years she lived
with a diagnosis: eight.

Weeks since she died: two.
Number of times

I've reached for my phone
to show her something

(look, Mom, I'm finishing
the needlepoint you started)

-- without limit.

 


Things I didn't know

That morphine is pale blue
sickly-sweet baby blue
like every cutesy sleeper
I didn't want for my infant son.

That I would feel
like a mother bird
tenderly tucking the drops
under her waiting tongue.

That the gasp and hiss
of the oxygen pump
would be both comforting
and terrible.

That when I closed my eyes
by her bedside, trying
to envision her
enrobed in light

the vision would morph
to a white Chanel suit
and I would see her
wearing her life's mitzvot

woven into a white pillbox hat
and a smart white suit
and white heels with open toes
and a cream-colored pedicure

vivacious and flirty
as a 1940s movie star
taking God's hand,
ready for the honeymoon to begin.

 


 

[W]earing her life's mitzvot. There's a teaching in the Zohar, that germinal work of Jewish mysticism, that says that in the world to come each soul will wear a garment of light, woven out of the mitzvot one fulfilled while living in this world.

 

Written after my mother entered hospice care. May her memory be a blessing. 


Gratitude for Mary Oliver

I watched as a wave of sadness passed through my online sphere last week with the news of Mary Oliver's death, and I felt that sadness, too. Sadness that the poems of hers we have are now the only poems of hers we will have. Sadness that such a luminous, attentive, real soul has left this life. 

In a list of the poets whose work most moves me, Mary Oliver ranks high. (So do Jane Kenyon and Naomi Shihab Nye, who have been among my literary lights for decades.) They have in common a certain plainness of speech, and I know that in the eyes of some in the poetry world that makes their work "lesser." But not for me.

As a reader, I yearn for poems that speak clearly, poems that open up some facet of the world whether external or interior (and the best poems do both at once.) And as a rabbi, I crave poems that can serve as prayer, or accompany prayer, or open up prayer, for those whom I serve. Mary Oliver's poems did all of these.

"I don't know exactly what a prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention..." I think part of what makes her poems so extraordinary is the way they manage to speak not only from her heart but from ours. And they wake me up. They remind me to notice, to pay attention, to feel, to live. They are a meditation bell in poetry form. 

"Every morning / the world /  is created..." It could be our daily liturgy. Indeed, I have used her "Morning Poem" as liturgy -- from time to time when I do a poetry service where each of the morning prayers is paired with an English-language poem, and also sometimes just on its own, reading the poem as prayer.

"Oh do you have time / to linger / for just a little while..." I can't read those words not without hearing them sung in haftarah trope.  (Click through to hear them that way.) I sing them each year on the second morning of Rosh Hashanah, when the world is poised on the brink of autumn, when we are poised on the cusp of a new year, and they resonate like a struck bell.

But today the poem of hers that is most speaking to me is "The Journey." "One day you finally knew / what you had to do..."  The journey is difficult. There are voices that demand all the wrong things. But with the hard work of striving for integrity and authenticity the path becomes clear, and there is a kind of luminous hope, and the soul is not alone.

May her memory be a blessing, and may her poems continue to shine.


I Sing

I sing to God with my muchness
my much-too-much-ness
my awkward, oversized emotions
everything over the top

I sing to God
with my enormous tender heart
pouring out too many words
even if no one reads them

I sing to God
with my belly, my softness,
with every ounce of flesh
I was taught to hide

(the psalmist didn't say anything
about sucking in my tummy,
and holding my breath
is the opposite of singing)

I sing to God
even though my range is too small
even though my voice breaks
even though my heart breaks

anyone who wants me
to take up less space
doesn't deserve my music
but I sing anyway

 


This poem arises out of a creative (mis)reading of Psalm 46 verse 2 -- usually translated as "I will sing to God while I exist," or "I will sing to God with what is within me," it can be creatively translated as "I will sing to God with my much-ness."

On a semi-related note, my favorite setting of this verse is by Rabbi Jarah Greenfield, and is online here


Jesus never ate chocolate

Jesus never ate chocolate.
Or tomatoes. Or potatoes.
He never read the tabloids
standing in a checkout line
or listened to tinny muzak
at a dentist's office.

Jesus never watched YouTube
or used glitter glue.
He didn't dance the foxtrot
or even the hora.
He never rode a school bus
or sharpened a No. 2 pencil.

If he were here, he might marvel
at tweets from Lin-Manuel,
at the array of snack foods
in even the most basic 7-11.
But I think he'd be too busy
tenderly cradling the body

of the latest migrant child
to die in government custody,
overturning tables
in the halls of Congress,
searing the earth
with his tears.

 


 

With thanks to the friends who supplied these first two lines, not knowing they were sparking a new poem.


Comfort

In the familiar weight of the cat
who turns in a circle on my lap, then
curls to gnaw on my belt loops.

In the smoke and salt of almonds
steeped in wasabi and soy, satisfying
and sharp on my tongue.

In the weave of my winter tallit, even
when it slips off my narrow shoulders.
In knotted fringes between my knuckles.

In the words that fly from my fingers
hanging like protective sigils
over your head, around your heart.

 


Bricolage

32102382268_8605a8377a_zSometimes online conversation spaces feel like an overcrowded room. A vast arena, people jostling to be heard. The floor of the New York Stock Exchange, complete with yelling. A stockyard full of lowing cattle, hooves pounding the ground beneath into a churning mass of mud. 

The proliferation of words stoppers my tongue. I don't want to argue about whether it's good to find common cause with those with whom we also sometimes disagree. I don't want to bluster my opponents into submission. The arguments don't feel to me like they're for the sake of heaven.

I dream of silence and niggun. I dream of the long fade after a Tibetan singing bowl is gently struck. I dream of dismantling old texts and gluing them back together. I dream of erasure poems, working in white fire. I dream of blanketing the constant stream of argument with a duvet of snow. 

Sometimes things need to break before they can be repaired. Are we broken enough to begin our own repairing? Wake me when it's time to take up tools and start building. Wake me when it's time to stitch pieces together, to add gold dust to glue and make our cracked and broken places gleam. 


Eden Speaks

I understand now why you had to leave.
Your souls are honed, refined, the more you search
for meaning and connection. Here with me
humanity's the only thing that couldn't

grow. But did God ever stop to think
how much I'd miss your sweetness once you left?
How lonely I would feel, remembering
your laughter and your song? It's true, sometimes

you visit on Shabbat a little while.
But mostly you forget my roses' scent.
No one comes to taste my flowing spring.

Still, a drop of hope moistens my earth
and nurtures blossoms waiting to burst free
the moment when you knock upon my gates.

 


 

I'm not sure what sparked the idea of writing a poem in the voice of the Garden of Eden.

This poem draws on Zoharic images of Shechinah (the immanent / indwelling / feminine Presence of God) -- the rose garden, the flowing spring in the middle of Eden. Also on the idea that Shabbat is a "foretaste of the world to come," a taste of Eden, when we allow it to be.

One way of understanding our exile from Eden is that it is a necessary component to the birth of human consciousness -- that when we ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we became capable of growth and change. Still, I'm struck by the idea of Eden missing our presence and our touch, which had not occurred to me until I started working on this poem.


Your name

The syllables of your name
light me like a chanukiyah

I spill over, a brimming cup.
It's more than I can say:

more than all the prayers
and songs, poems and letters

posts and status updates
than are made in the world.

I want to say your name
pleading and marveling

cherishing and rejoicing
in every tone and every key.

It is honey on my tongue,
music for all my days.

 


 

Another poem in the Texts to the Holy mode: a love poem that could be spoken to a human beloved or to the Beloved we name as God. These notes arise out of the latter reading.

 

Your name - Jewish tradition sometimes speaks of God as "The Name" (Hashem, one of our names for God, literally means "The Name"), and the kaddish in all its forms refers to God's "Great Name," as well. 

[A] brimming cup - see Psalm 23, "my cup overflows." 

[M]ore than I can say... more than all the prayers / and songs - see the words of the kaddish. (Also of interest, though not directly related, is this terrific piece by Cantor Andrew Bernard about the sounds of the kaddish.)

[Honey] on my tongue - Torah, which is sometimes understood as one long name of God, is compared to honey.  

 

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate! 


Psalm for Ginko's Back Room

 

For a cascade of kittens
making improbable leaps.

For tiny feet
ascending my shoulders.

For their language of mews
and rumbly purrs.

For paws opening and closing.
kneading invisible dough.

For short pointy tails
and radar-dish ears.

For all of these, God of fluff
and pounce, I give thanks.

 


 

Earlier this week I visited Oberlin College, where I did a lunch-and-learn with students, and offered a poetry reading, and taught a one-shot psalm-writing workshop. 

During the psalm workshop, we did a generative writing exercise focusing on something immediate for which we could feel gratitude, and then did another writing exercise geared toward reshaping what we'd written into a psalm. 

That morning I had visited Ginko's Gallery, which has a back room where kittens are fostered and socialized and prepared for adoption. (It's affiliated with CATSS, Community Action To Save Strays.) When I did my own writing exercise, this is what emerged. 

It is not great literature, but I quite like the epithet for God in the final couplet, so I figured I'd share.

Thanks again to Cleveland Hillel and to Rabbi Megan Doherty for inviting me to town, and to Ginko's for the opportunity to cuddle some tiny felines!


Seven songs

1.

Such abundance! Sunlight streaming
golden as chicken soup, rain
that comes in its season, profusion
of produce at the farmer's market,
the way our hearts spill over
when we see someone we love, the way
Your heart flows to each of us.

 

2.

Bless boundaries. Bless the chutes
that control the flood, the walls
that protect from harm. Bless
integrity holding firm.
Bless the strength to stand tall
even in the face of storms:
to bend, and not to break.

 

3.

Balance us, God, like angels
dancing on the head of a pin.
Sing with us in harmony
and let our voices become more
than the sum of their parts.
When we match kindness with justice
the beauty takes my breath away.

 

4.

Because we wake every morning
and start again. Because in
putting one foot in front of the next
we learn and relearn how to walk
in Your ways. Because nothing
worth doing comes easy. Because
when we keep going, we aim toward You.

 

5.

No more than our place, no less
than our space: when we manage that,
we shine with the sun's own splendor.
Remind us that we are cloaked in skin
but made of light. Remind us
that through our best actions
Your glory shines, Majestic One.

 

6.

Our roots stretching deep.
Our foundations. Our generations.
Our teachers. Our drive to create.
Our students. Our readiness to open
our hands and let Torah through.
Our lives the foundries where we shape
our tradition into something new.

 

7.

Where heaven meets earth, where I
meet you, where reality meets redemption
we dance like the psalmist, exulting.
Our eyes well up with a mother's joy:
look, all of our exiled parts
ingathered beneath this leafy roof,
safe beneath the wings of Shechinah.

 


These poems were commissioned by Temple Beth-El of City Island, and were first heard aloud there last night at their Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah celebration.

Written to accompany the seven hakafot (circle dances with the Torah), they map to the seven "lower" sefirot: chesed (lovingkindness), gevurah (boundaries and strength), tiferet (balance and harmony), netzach (endurance), hod (humble splendor), yesod (roots and foundation) and malchut (Shechinah.)