I had hopes of working on a new poem during Shabbat, but my body had other plans. I spent most of Shabbat lying on a heating pad, remembering that when the sciatica flares up, poetry is hard to come by.
The world becomes very immediate. Past and future both recede. I'm firmly in the now of pressing into the heating pad in hopes that spasming muscles and pinched nerve will yield into release.
I remember an on-call shift when I was doing my chaplaincy training some fifteen years ago now. I was having an allergic reaction to a drug I didn't yet know I shouldn't take, and as a result I was unwell.
In those pre-parenthood days, sleep wasn't so precious. I used to stay awake on hospital overnights. They were my opportunity to tend to people, and I didn't want to miss anyone who might need me.
So when my pager buzzed, I would go where it called. And when no one had an emergency need, I would just make my rounds again. Visit the ED again, or one of the ICUs. Someone always needed an ear.
I remember how humbling it was to discover that I couldn't walk the hospital halls in search of people in crisis. Instead I held still on the twin bed in the chaplain's room, praying no one would need me.
I'm thankful that no one needed me yesterday. I'm working on being thankful that my body is reminding me that I need to make time to stretch. This Shabbat was for gentle yoga and for lying very still.
It's time to bring the potted plants indoors.
It's time to find the wooden crate of socks
and figure out which ones are pairs. To use
the bundt pan Mona handed down to me
for apple cake; to look up how I roasted
delicata squash last year. It's time
to pause the New York Times again, to frame
the tweet from Kelli Agodon that says,
"Write poetry instead of doomscrolling."
It's time to take the sukkah down, return
the decorations to their bin, and watch
crabapples reddening across the field.
It's time to place my trust in what endures,
seek sleepy comfort in the growing dark.
Apple cake. Apples and honey are a symbolic food at the Jewish new year. (I'm partial to Deb's mom's apple cake.)
The tweet from Kelli Agodon. See it here.
What endures. See my most recent blog post.
The day after Yom Kippur I always feel pleasantly wrung-out. If I was able to do my job right, I emptied myself out so that I could be an open channel -- so that music and presence and Presence could flow through me. A friend asked yesterday how I do it. "It's like you're running a marathon, with no food or drink, and with only half a lung!" (That last part is an overstatement, though I continue to navigate some pulmonary challenges this year.) I answered honestly that I don't know how I do it either, and maybe the answer is that "I" am not doing it -- that presence I name as God is doing it through me. I'm just the conduit.
The day after Yom Kippur I work from home. I am slowly tidying the chaos that accrued during these Days of Awe -- taking out the recycling, putting my holiday whites into the laundry -- in between answering congregant emails and scheduling pastoral meetings for next week. I'm grounding myself with physical actions: combining cumin and coriander and cardamom and cayenne and smoked paprika with olive oil and lemon juice to slather on the shawarma now in my slow cooker, carrying Yom Kippur materials back upstairs to my home office so they're no longer cluttering every surface in my living room.
The day after Yom Kippur I recognize that I am getting older. Last night I kept being awakened by foot and leg cramps, leftovers from the 25 hours without water. (Yes, Mom, I hydrated beforehand.) The white canvas shoes that I've worn on this day for years have no arch support, and I'm feeling that now. I think next year I'll need something different, or maybe inserts, I don't know. My voice held up beautifully yesterday, though by the end of the day my asthma was acting up, and today I'm noticing that my chest gets tight after even minor activity. That's okay. It's a good reminder to me to be gentle with myself today.
The day after Yom Kippur, Shabbat is coming. Last night after havdalah, I sang (to the tune of "Shavua Tov") "Tomorrow's Friday -- it's almost Shabbes -- what even is time," and everyone laughed. Yesterday was Shabbat Shabbaton, Shabbat squared, and now it's about to be Shabbes again? Time feels out of joint, somehow. And oh, I am so grateful for this Shabbes even so. I even cancelled a social commitment for tomorrow afternoon. I think that after all of those words and melodies and actions and outpouring-of-self, what I need is restorative quiet, and and a good book, and time to pet my cat, and maybe a nap.
In my son's final days of fifth grade, his class has been doing an ELA (English Language Arts) project writing "The Covid Chronicles." I don't know what anyone else's chronicle looks like, but my kid wrote some 5000 words in five chapters about what the last year has been for him, starting with the very first time he ever heard the word "coronavirus."
The first thing I noticed is what isn't in his chronicle. No one in his recounting gets sick or dies. I know how lucky that makes him (and me.) His experience of the pandemic hasn't been one of illness or death. No ventilators. No hospitals. He doesn't know about the refrigerator trucks that had to serve as mobile morgues in so many places.
He wrote instead about model rockets with his dad, and glow in the dark science projects with me. About the routines of Zoom school and Chromebook lag, and the excitement of shifting to hybrid and getting to be in the school building with friends again. About computer gaming camps, some of which weren't as fun as we had hoped they would be.
He didn't write about the books we read together, or the anime we watched, or what it was like for him last summer when we started allowing outdoor playdates (mostly in lakes and rivers!) with two friends again. I suspect all of those have receded into memory as simply normal life -- he's forgotten that those choices were pandemic-driven too.
I remember when we first got a couple of fabric masks last spring, thinking we might need to wear them for a week or two. Now dozens of them hang on the coat hooks in our hallway. My son is partial to the dark blue and teal ones made by a swimsuit company, and to an adjustable one adorned with colorful doughnuts with sprinkles on top.
I'm still getting accustomed to being able to go into some places without a mask, now that I'm vaccinated and not everyone requires them anymore. But I still tend to carry one in my purse, in case someone asks me to put it on. Every interaction now involves some negotiation: are we vaccinated? Are we comfortable taking masks off?
This feels like a liminal time. Things are shifting, but I don't feel like I know exactly what they're shifting to. I wonder how my kid and I will remember this transition. What will this summer's new normal be?
When I was a kid the tree was impossibly enormous. It was like the giant Christmas tree that rose out of the stage, dwarfing everyone, in the local ballet's performance of the Nutcracker. But mine wasn't a Christmas tree. My tree had a big smooth trunk and thick, sturdy branches. One branch protruded over the jasmine, and there was another one a bit higher and to one side. The lower one was perfect for sitting on, letting my legs dangle. The higher one was perfect for leaning on with a book. I always had a book, Laura Ingalls Wilder or EB White eventually giving way to Robert Heinlein and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Eventually I got brave enough to climb higher, onto the roof of the playhouse with its asphalt shingles. Sometimes I would read up there, instead. Once I carved my initials into the bark with my red pocket knife, alongside the initials of the kid I had a crush on. The magnolia's leaves were big and oval-shaped and glossy and they cast pockets of cool shade that kept the playhouse roof from overheating. The best time to climb my tree was late May -- right around my mother's birthday -- when the magnolia would open her great creamy blooms. Her flowers were as big as my head. The petals bruised easily. Later, when they dried up and fell off, they were like scraps of tan leather. I used to try to stitch them together with monkeygrass to make doll clothes. By then, they only had a shadow of their former fragrance, but they were still sweet. I can almost remember that fragrance, forty years later and two thousand miles away.
Only a fragment of the dream remains: a stranger yelling at me repeatedly, "But the science!" He meant, the pandemic is over, why aren't you over it. I don't think I was able to find the right words to respond.
The memory resurfaces midway through my morning cup of coffee. And then it occurs to me: maybe that's why the poems aren't flowing right now: my mind is tangled in knots. Even in my sleep I'm defending my choices.
And who is "over it"? The pandemic's mental wounds are wide open, as Ed Yong wrote in The Atlantic. "If you’ve been swimming furiously for a year, you don’t expect to finally reach dry land and feel like you’re drowning."
Social interactions require constant renegotiation: are you comfortable unmasked outdoors? May I give you a hug? Am I allowed inside your home again? My son isn't old enough to vaccinate: does that change your answers?
How was school, I asked my son yesterday. "We didn't have to wear masks at recess," he said. That must have been awesome, I offered. He scrunched up his face. "It was weird," he said. "Seeing everybody's whole faces was weird."
I know it will feel normal to him within a few days, but that doesn't change the reality that it feels weird to him now. Aren't we all in that place? The changes we've longed for might be upon us, and everything feels strange.
Herbs in the rain.
What replenishes you?
The term "self-care" has come to feel almost meaningless: it's so ubiquitous, and so often misused. (A quick google search for the term yields returns like "How To Make Shopping A Healthy Self-Care Practice." Hello, capitalism.) But we all need to replenish our inner reserves. That's true even when there isn't a global pandemic.
Taking Shabbat off from working -- and from the to-do lists, the news headlines, workday consciousness -- replenishes me. My son and I were watching Adam Ruins Everything recently, and in the episode about work, Adam proposes that we have "labor unions and the Jewish people" to thank for the fact of Saturdays off. Indeed we do.
As the weather warms, signs of spring replenish me. The chives in the window-box on my mirpesset winter over each year, and they are one of the first things to green up when spring arrives. I just added a little sage plant and a little rosemary plant to that box. Their scent grounds and delights me, and they're delicious, too.
On a good day, turning ingredients into food replenishes me. (And on days when that doesn't sound appealing, that's a sign to me that I really need to refill my well.) This weekend that meant turning a handful of aging clementines into a gluten-free and dairy-free citrus and almond cake, and turning a lamb shoulder into shawarma.
Getting a mani-pedi was one of my mom's favorite forms of -- I'm not sure she would have called it self-care, but it was a way of treating herself to something special. I remember doing that together with her throughout my childhood and adolescence, and on trips home, until she was too sick to go to the beauty shop anymore.
Some of my deepest forms of replenishment have been in scarce supply over the last long while. Hugging people I love. Singing in harmony with someone else who's right there in the room, the way our voices become more than the sum of their parts. Losing myself in live music performed in the moment. Traveling to visit an ocean.
I wonder how long it will be before live music and hugs and pedicures and harmony become part of our regular lives again.
"The grim realities of covid19 are settling in, and with them, no shortage of anxiety," I wrote in my journal a year ago. I read those words now, and I wonder: what in particular was happening, just then? I remember some of the anxiety I felt. My son's school had just closed down, and I knew that I didn't / couldn't know what was coming. But of what "grim realities" was I really aware, a year ago? The horror stories from the NYC ICUs hadn't happened yet, then. So much hadn't happened yet, then.
A year ago at this season some people were beginning to predict that 100,000 Americans might die from the virus. I'm pretty sure that prospect seemed horrifying. I don't know how to process the fact that after a year, the reality is half a million souls here so far, and 2.64 million worldwide. I also couldn't have imagined, last spring, that some people would call the virus a hoax, or cry "personal freedom" and refuse masks -- that so many would shrug off our human responsibility to protect others.
I know how fortunate I am: I haven't gotten sick, and neither has anyone in my close sphere. I have a job, and a roof over my head. I'm not food-insecure. For that matter, I like to cook, so the fact that I've made almost all of the meals I've eaten over the last year is not a hardship. My fifth grader has weathered the challenges of Zoom school and hybrid school and being apart from his friends and family as well as any child I can imagine. We're fine...and we're also not fine; no one is really fine.
It's been a year of a lot of pastoral listening: sometimes trying to offer comfort, and sometimes just sitting with people in the low or frightened or anxious or despairing place where we are. It's been a year of learning how to lead services on Zoom, how to facilitate spiritual experience from afar. It's been a year of contactless grocery pickup and staying apart and washing masks. It's been a year of loneliness and solitude and grief and losses -- so many losses, even for those of us who've made it through.
I think it will likely take years for the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic to be known. How will this year have shaped us: the loneliness, the loss, the grief -- the science denialism and politicization of masks -- and also the unexpected moments of connection or kindness against the backdrop of so much trauma? Those of us who have made it through will be changed by what this last year has held. I want to believe that we can harness those changes for the good of each other, but I don't know how.
Things I cannot fix,
an incomplete list:
The grief of staying apart
and unbearable yearning.
Rage at insurrectionists
Things I can fix:
lunch for my child.
This winter stew, meat
from the freezer
and dried mushrooms
plumping in hot broth.
Warm speckled rye dough
pliant beneath my hands.
My appointment was at 3pm at a church in North Adams. I've driven by it a million times but wasn't sure how to get in or which door would be open, so I arrived early. A masked volunteer from the local Community Coalition was standing outside on the steps with a clipboard and a bright blue uniform-type vest. On the back of her vest was a sign that said "Emotional support person" with a smiley-face.
"Rabbi Rachel!" she greeted me. "You can't go in until five minutes before your appointment." She sounded apologetic. I told her not to worry. I tucked my hands into my the pockets of my bright purple coat. It's 26 F here today: cold enough to see our breath if we weren't all wearing masks. I was wearing two, a KN95 with a pretty cloth one over the top, because I wasn't sure how crowded it would be.
While I waited, I greeted a phalanx of men in long black coats: one of the families that runs the local funeral home. After they went in, I heard one of the volunteers ask, "Did they get dressed up for this?" (I offered that in my experience, they're always dressed up. It's just the uniform, in the funeral business.) I thought again about how what they do, balancing logistics with pastoral care, is a form of ministry.
At 2:55 they let me in. Inside the church building someone took my temperature and sanitized my hands. I saw volunteers in bright yellow vests, and in bright blue vests, and in EMT uniforms. Everyone seemed happy. I filled out paperwork, I answered questions, I sat down at a freshly-sanitized table and rolled up one sleeve. A friendly EMT said "a little pinprick in three, two, one." I said a silent shehecheyanu.
I sat for fifteen minutes, dutifully, to make sure I didn't have a bad reaction. I imagine the arm will ache, later, like it did when I got vaccinated for typhoid and yellow fever before my first trip to Ghana. I'm startled to realize that that was more than 20 years ago. I remember that we needed to find a doctor who specialized in travel medicine. I wonder what became of the fold-out yellow card I carried in my passport then.
So now I'm halfway vaccinated against covid-19. This isn't going to change my behavior. We don't know yet whether or not the vaccines protect against asymptomatic spread. And besides, I won't begin developing immunity until two weeks after the second shot. But it feels to me like one more reason to hope. Every person who gets vaccinated brings us one step closer. Someday we'll embrace again.
I glance at the headlines. The pandemic is worsening, as everyone said it would do come wintertime, and yet air travel hit a record high for the winter holidays. I can't make sense of that juxtaposition. I mean, I can; I understand that people are traveling to be with each other, even though the pandemic is worsening and Dr. Fauci says the worst is yet to come. I just don't want to believe it. I don't want to think about the suffering that is coming. I close the browser tab, but the imprint of the news lingers.
I don't go into the grocery store anymore. I place orders online, and a friendly masked employee brings paper bags of food to my parked car and places them in the hatchback. Sometimes I don't get exactly what I expected. Once I ordered some white American cheese for my son and then laughed out loud when I saw the size of the box -- 72 slices is a lot, it turns out! (He ate all of it, though. We make a lot of quesadillas, these days.) Ingredient unpredictability is strange, but I'm getting used to it.
I remember shopping at Farm to Market on the Austin Highway with my mother when I was a teenager. How she would ask the man who worked in produce to help her find a really good melon, the sweetest cantaloupe or honeydew. Something about tapping the shell and listening to its sound. Or maybe it was that he knew the subtle scent of a melon that's just right. These days I trust someone else to choose my produce for me. I tell myself that this new trend has created jobs for those who fill our bags.
This week I'm reading recipes for black eyed peas. I grew up in the South; we always ate black-eyed peas on New Year's Day, for good luck. Michael Twitty writes beautifully about that custom. I like the idea that they symbolize the eye of God, always watching over us. Black-eyed peas and greens: I learned them as a kind of kitchen magic, a symbol of prosperity, calling abundance into the coming year. We always ate tamales on New Year's Day, too. I don't have the capacity to make those.
I daydream briefly about making redred (Ghanaian black-eyed pea stew) with kelewele (fried plantains) on New Year's Day, though I'm not sure I trust the produce shopper to choose suitably overripe plantains for frying up gingery and sweet. Evidently that's the place where my mother's produce section pickiness shines through in me. Pick me a head of lettuce, sure. Choose a cucumber or a box of strawberries or a bunch of broccolini, no big deal. But when it comes to plantains, I'm dubious.
I will stay home and fill my kitchen with whatever spices' fragrance I can, this New Year's Day which will darken into the first Shabbat of 2021. It is going to be a long, solitary, quiet winter. Quiet is good: hospitals are not quiet, ventilators are not quiet. Boredom and loneliness are better than the alternative. I will curl up with a bowl of black eyed peas in my little nest on New Year's Day, and dream about how good it will be when, vaccinated, we can embrace in the gentle breeze of longed-for spring.
Every year I write an extra high holiday sermon. Not on purpose! It just happens. Every year, it seems, I write my three sermons... and then realize that one of them is predictable, or trite, or doesn't say anything new, or doesn't speak to the unique needs of this moment. I could publish a book of the sermons I never gave. (I won't. But I'm amused that I could.)
In that sense, preparing for the Days of Awe this year has been just like every other year. I make an outline for every service, trying to balance Hebrew with English, song with spoken-word, familiar with new. I thrill to cherished ancient melodies. I practice singing, and I jot musical motifs on Post-it notes so I don't lose track of which melodic mode we're in. Just like always.
And who am I kidding: preparing for the holidays this year has been unlike any other, ever. I translated my machzor into a slide deck, adding images and artwork and embedded video, adding new readings and prayers for this pandemic moment. I made it much longer! and then I cut, ruthlessly, because services need to be a manageable length for Zoom, and they need to flow.
I'm trying to help my kid get ready for school. He's growing like mint, like a sunflower. There is a stack of new notebooks and pencils on his desk. There's also a school-issued Chromebook. The year will begin with two weeks of remote learning before we enter a "hybrid model" phase. The juxtaposition of normal and unprecedented is itself becoming our new normal.
My kitchen counter is heaped with beautiful lush heirloom tomatoes from the CSA where I've been a member since 1995. I eat them sliced, on toast with cream cheese; cubed, with peaches, topped with burratini and a splash of balsamic vinegar; plain, like impossibly juicy apples. Any minute now their season will end, and I will miss this late-summer abundance fiercely.
There's a gentle melancholy to this season for me, every year. The changing light; the first branches turning red and gold; the knowledge that the season will turn and there's nothing I can do to stop it... I sit on my mirpesset, arms and legs bared to the warm breeze, listening to late-summer cricketsong. I know their song isn't forever. That, at least, really is just like always.
Herbs on my mirpesset on a cloudy summer morning.
Sometimes I sit outside on my mirpesset on a Shabbat morning and drink iced coffee and listen to the birds. My mirpesset is just the right size to hold a 4' x 6' sukkah in the fall. In summer, it holds two chairs, a little table, a barbecue grill. Pots of herbs -- rosemary, mint, chives, parsley, thyme. A hanging basket of brightly-colored petunias. It overlooks an expanse of green lawn, a stretch of trees (including a couple of wild apples that bloom in late May), and off to one side the road. It's quiet here. The birds have the most to say in the morning and at twilight, but someone is singing or calling out to its fellows almost all the time. I've put up a couple of strings of solar-powered lights, so at nightfall my mirpesset is ringed with little globes of gleaming light.
It's peaceful, and green, and lovely. Just as it was last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. At moments, I can almost forget that nothing is normal this year. That my son has no summer camps, because it's not safe for children to gather. That we need to mask up before leaving the house. That the pandemic is raging like wildfire now across the South and the West. That there are people screaming for the right to go mask-less because they somehow think the masks are an attempt at sinister governmental control rather than the best tool we have to combat viral transmission. That every day we learn about another instance of police brutality against Black people. That racism flourishes, and we need to stamp it out. That the world is on fire.
I'm fiercely grateful for this little oasis where I can escape the sounds of the television and the Minecrafting and my child's video playdates with friends. (I'm grateful for the tv and the Minecraft and the video playdates, too, but their constancy is wearying.) I'm grateful to be able to sit outside and listen to birdsong. And I feel guilty that I can sit outside and listen to birdsong while the world is on fire. While hospitals are filling up, prisons and meatpacking plants rage with infection, polling places are being closed and voters of color are being disenfranchised, Black people still aren't safe. I feel grateful and guilty. No, not guilty: what I feel is responsible. "In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible," Heschel wrote. Repairing the world is our responsibility.
And yet it's Shabbes. Shabbes is the day to set down the burdens of constant labor. To be a human being instead of a human doing. To live in the as-if -- as-if the world were already redeemed. As-if we had already repaired all of those broken places, disease and racism and systemic inequality. This is my tradition's deepest tool for spiritual nourishment, and in these times of pandemic I need that nourishment more than ever. So I sit with the cognitive dissonance on my mirpesset on Shabbes morning. So much is broken. And yet in this little place with my herb plants and the birdsong -- in this oasis in time, the one day each week when I don't read the Times or the Post -- I can seek for a moment to be at peace. It's okay to seek for a moment to be at peace.
Scallion-ends growing new shoots.
Some days feel almost normal. Especially Sundays when I'm doing laundry, or planning what to cook, or sitting on my mirpesset watching the sky.
Those are all things I routinely did before the pandemic. Baking challah on Fridays is another. Lighting Shabbat candles. Reading with my kid at bedtime.
Anything that connects me with old rhythms of time can bring comfort. It can remind me that life unfolded before the pandemic, and will unfold again after.
Some days feel painful all the way through. I wake up grieving for the world, I struggle with the news of deaths and protests, I wrestle with despair.
And some days I feel mostly okay. Sunshine, and the chartreuse of new spring leaves, lift my spirits and my heart. So do the voices of friends from afar.
Of course, even when I'm feeling sanguine, I'm aware of the pandemic. There are terrible losses everywhere. I can't forget that thousands are dying.
The news that by June 1, the government expects the daily death rate to rise to 3,000... it's so terrible I can't hold on to it. My mind shies away.
When I can be in the moment -- breathing in "right here," out "right now," as Lorianne taught me so many years ago -- I feel more present, and more okay.
When I get caught up in thinking about the future (the likelihood of more waves of infection, the countless awful lonely deaths to come) I falter.
When I think of all the things my son is losing this year, I grieve. I tell myself that he'll be okay, that he's resilient, that he is learning good tools.
Time becomes fluid. The two months (so far) of sheltering in place and social distancing feel simultaneously shorter and longer than they measurably are.
And of course this is a journey of unknown duration. It's easier if we know when a thing will end. There is absolutely no knowing when this will end.
And yet life goes on. I make coffee. I cook meals. My son does math problems, plays Minecraft, re-reads a favorite book. It's like normalcy... almost.
I know how fortunate we are to have something like normalcy. I try not to think about how precarious that is. How easily these comforts could fall away.
The tree outside my front door, on a blue-sky day earlier this week.
It's been four weeks since life stopped feeling normal. On good-weather days, I leave the house to take walks with my kid. Every so often I leave the house to replenish groceries (wearing a cloth mask and gloves). Otherwise we're home. We see friends via Zoom, which is better than nothing but still frustratingly intangible, especially for my kid. This new normal is not normal.
My kid is grappling with big questions. The other night he asked me why, if God heard the cries of the children of Israel in Mitzrayim and freed us from slavery (e.g. the Exodus), why isn't God freeing us from the pandemic? That sparked a big conversation about what it might mean if God doesn't reach into the world to "fix" things, even if we really want God to.
We talked about how we can find God's presence in the helpers, in the people working toward a vaccine, in acts of kindness. We talked about the idea that God accompanies us and feels our fears with us. And I thought: this is a heck of a way for him to begin to move beyond the little-kid theology that imagines that God will fix everything if we just ask hard enough.
I read the news every day and my heart aches. So many deaths, so much suffering -- it's almost more than I can process. And then I set the news aside and I teach an online class for my synagogue, or I sit with my kid to work on a social studies worksheet, and I am grateful both for my work and for the ways in which homeschooling requires me to focus on what's in front of me.
And even in the midst of this unthinkable tragedy and trauma, there are moments of connection. I led a shiva minyan on Zoom the other day for a friend who had lost a family member (not to covid19.) The screen filled up with friends and family, people from all parts of her life, people of many religious traditions, people in many time zones -- including one in Australia.
And I thought: before the pandemic, most of us wouldn't have held a Zoom shiva minyan so that friends in far-flung places could take part. I still wish we could have gathered in person to comfort this mourner. I hold tight to the faith that someday we will be able to gather in person again, and hug each other. I ache for that. And... I'm grateful for what connection is possible.
Lately I've been gazing at the big tree in front of my condo. Its twigs have sprouted little red tufts. Soon they will unfurl into leaves. I take comfort in that. Spring will come and we don't have to do anything to make it come, or to make its beauty exist. We don't know how long the pandemic will last, or when we will be able to touch each other again, but the seasons remain.
The first thing I do when I wake up on Friday mornings is feed the cat. The second is mix bread flour, yeast, and water. Meanwhile I make my son's breakfast and pack his lunch. By the time I've done those things, it's time to add eggs and oil and sugar and salt, and then more flour, and then I turn it out and run hot water into the bowl while I knead the dough.
I sing "Shalom Aleichem" quietly while I knead, every single time. Usually I sing a melody that's in major. It helps me remember that I'm preparing myself to welcome the angels of Shabbat, not just baking for the sake of tasty treats. And by the time I've sung it through at a pace that suits my hands, the dough is glossy and kneaded, ready to rest in the warm bowl and begin its first rise.
When I take the loaves out of the oven (usually on my lunch break), the house smells rich and sweet -- the scent of Shabbat on her way. At dinnertime when we make motzi and tear into them, the loaves are fragrant and soft and delicious. In the summer, we often make motzi before nightfall. In the winter, sundown is early, and we might not eat until it's well and truly dark out.
Over the last year of baking challah almost every week, the recipe has engraved itself in me. I know it by heart. I made challah with this recipe in Texas last February, on the Shabbat that turned out to be the last one before my mother died. I made challah with this recipe in the Catskills in August, when my Bayit hevre and I gathered for our board retreat / learning week.
Some weeks, like this one, the world feels sharp and painful. The news is difficult to bear. Missing my mom is a sharp ache. Injustice of many kinds is rampant. Fear and grief seem to be life's constant companions. In a week like this, the practice of making challah is a balm to my heart. It says: even with everything that's broken, Shabbes will come with her shelter of peace.
Image: one of this week's loaves of challah, beneath my mother's challah cover. Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.
On the Friday of my son's winter vacation, I was home with him doing the things we did during winter break (board games, gingerbread house, youtube videos.) I was home and I had time on my hands, so I made challah. I hadn't baked challah since Rosh Hashanah. I'm a working mother, primary custodial parent to a third grader: most weeks I buy challah at the co-op, or in a pinch we make motzi over whatever other kind of bread we have in the house, an English muffin or a croissant or two. But during winter break I had the spaciousness, so I got out my Bennington pottery bread bowl and I made a batch of challah.
My son wanted round challah, because he likes it better than the braid that's traditional among Ashkenazi households during the year. I didn't feel quite right about making the spiral-shaped round challah that I make for Rosh Hashanah: that's a special shape for that one time of year! But we compromised: I found a new shape in my challah book (A Blessing of Bread, Maggie Glezer) that takes its inspiration from the sun. It came out beautifully. My son devoured it, declaring it the best challah ever. "You bake way better challah than they have at the store," he told me, and I beamed. "I wish you made challah every week."
This week I am trying a new rhythm to my Friday. This morning while getting my son fed and dressed and packed up for school, I started a batch of challah dough. By the time we left for school and work, it was sitting in the newly-washed bread bowl, covered and rising. After a few hours of work, I'll drop by the condo again (it's a mere five minutes from the shul) and shape the loaves. At the end of my lunch break, I'll put them in the oven. At the end of my work day, I'll take one of them on a pastoral visit to someone who is ill -- I kneaded prayers for healing and comfort into the dough. The other challah will be for my son and me.
If this works, I want to make it a practice. I miss baking challah. My first job after college was working at the bookstore here in town, and I organized my schedule so that I could have Fridays off to bake challah each week. (That was 1996, and that's when my now-ex-husband -- at the time, my boyfriend -- gave me the enormous Bennington pottery bowl I use for bread dough even now.) But in the decades since then, life has expanded to fill the space I give it, and I haven't made time for regular baking in years. Baking challah feels good. I love the way the dough feels in my hands. I love praying, sometimes singing, while I knead.
There's an alchemy to baking bread. Flour and water, salt and yeast -- and, okay, in this case also oil and eggs and a little bit of sugar -- transmute into something beautiful. Baking challah is a comfort to my neshamah, my soul. And it's something beautiful to place on my Shabbes table tonight, alongside the candlesticks that were an ordination gift, alongside the blue kiddush cup I bought myself when I moved a few years ago, alongside the blue-and-silver handwashing bowl I received from a friend who is a Jewish Buddhist nun. May our hopes rise like challah dough, and be met. May all be nourished, may all be fed, may all be loved.
Every January there is a day when I first return to my desk after the hectic rush of December. My son is back in school. I've discharged my responsibilities to the community I serve, and today is a home-day. I resist the temptation to fritter it away on laundry and unloading the dishwasher -- the little endless maintenance tasks of daily life.
The first thing is to clear the desk of extraneous things that have landed there during the annual hiatus from writing. I need a clear physical space to call forth the clear internal space within which poems can arise. Maybe classical music is called-for. Kronos Quartet's Early Music has a spareness that matches my heart, matches the season.
Next I reread all of last year's poems. It's an annual ritual. Some of them are familiar to me: I remember writing them, revising them, I recognize them in all of their incarnations. Inevitably I find one I had forgotten altogether. I read the scraps and partial poems, too. I don't know the shape of my next book of poems, but I get glimpses.
Then I open a blank file and let the words come. The first poem of this new year surprises me. When I started out I thought I knew where it might go, but it takes a turn midway through. When I reach the end I realize the poem was always intending to go there. I just had to open myself to surprise, letting it take me where I didn't know I needed to go.
In 1877, The Fresh Air Fund, an independent not-for-profit organization, was created with one simple mission – to allow children living in low-income communities to enjoy free summer experiences in the country. [Source]
Back when the Fresh Air Fund was started, tuberculosis was a serious danger, and fresh air was understood to be restorative. We have other ways of treating TB now, but the Fresh Air Fund is still sending low-income city kids to the country. Their mission -- "getting children out of the city and into fresh air where they [can] play freely and not worry about the grinding pressures of hunger, crime, and poverty – remains unchanged." [Source]
Some months ago, the local Fresh Air Fund representative contacted me to see if I would share a flyer with the synagogue community. The place where I live is part of their Friendly Towns Program, and I have congregants who have hosted Fresh Air Fund kids in years past. Of course I agreed to share their materials with my shul community. And I thought, "Wow: wouldn't it be great for my kid if we served as a host family?"
I ran the idea by my kid, and he agreed enthusiastically to the idea of hosting. My ex and his partner and I filled out the paperwork, underwent the requisite background check, and waited. Finally we learned that we'd been matched with a boy a year younger than ours. And this week we are a Fresh Air Fund host family, in our two households, introducing a city kid to life in northern Berkshire (and southern Vermont, where he is joining my son at day camp for the week.)
When I ran the idea by my kid all those months ago, I think he was mostly excited about the prospect of having a playmate. We talked about how it's a mitzvah (a commandment, a core part of Jewish life and practice) to be generous and hospitable, and to share what we have with those who have less, but I'm not sure how much that really penetrated his consciousness.
I don't think my son realizes how fortunate we are. He has not one but two homes: his father's house and mine. He has summer camp opportunities, and a condo pool, and pretty much all the LEGOs a kid could want, and great expanses of back yard and woods to run around in. I want him to learn that it's our job to share our abundance. One way we try to do that is that half of his allowance each week goes to tzedakah. Another way we're trying to do that is inviting someone who doesn't have all of those opportunities to share for a week in the bounty we enjoy.
And... while I know I just said we're sharing our abundance, we also can't position ourselves as the generous hosts who "have" and are sharing with those who "have not." These boys both have things to teach each other and to learn from each other. In a way, this is a cultural exchange program both for the city kid who comes here, and for the country kid who hosts him.
As our first Fresh Air Fund week unfolds, I think both boys are learning a lot. Our visitor speaks Chinese on the phone home with his parents, while my son's vocabulary is sprinkled with Hebrew words. My son marvels that his new buddy walks to school and to the grocery store and takes the subway all the time -- those are city norms that are unfamiliar to my small-town kid. Meanwhile, his new friend had never swum in a pond or a stream before, and finds it strange that we have to drive to get anywhere other than our mailbox and the condo pool.
Welcoming an unfamiliar kid into the household is a learning experience for all of us. It's an opportunity for my son to learn how to be a gracious host, which is an important mitzvah though not always an easy one. Sharing one's stuff with another kid is hard, especially when that other kid is a stranger, especially when you may not easily be able to find common ground. I'm learning how to moderate the two boys' needs, taking into account the fact that one of them is a visitor far from home and the other is my own kid whose wants and needs I know well.
I'm grateful that we're doing this -- and I'm grateful not despite the challenges, but in part precisely because of them. I think my son is growing a lot this week, and I suspect that as I grapple with the challenges of parenting (or serving in loco parentis for) two very different kids, I'm growing too. And I'm happy that we're able to give this city kid a week's worth of country adventures: frog ponds and campfires, swim dates and streams, evening popsicles on our mirpesset under the wide open small-town sky.
Deep gratitude to Camp Sarsaparilla in Pownal, VT, which offers scholarships each week for Fresh Air Fund kids.