Just like always

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.

 

 


Dissonance

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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. 


Almost normalcy

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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.

 


Four weeks in

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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.

 


Bread and balm

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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.


The gift of bread

Challah

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.

 


Where I needed to go

45748150845_e476c36bff_zEvery 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.

 


Fresh air

N31766772985_1412396_6955In 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. 


Evening sky

Skiesherecould go outside and watch the sky change in the wintertime, but I rarely do.

Sunset is early in winter, and the air is too cold for my comfort most of the time, and my mirpesset fills up with snow and I can't open the door until that snow melts in the spring.

But in summer my balcony is one of my favorite places to be, and one of my favorite ways to spend evening time: gazing at the always-perfect and always-changing sky.

On the one hand sky-gazing can feel frivolous. There's so much that needs doing. On the micro scale there are household chores; on the macro scale there's the badly broken world.

But it's exactly because the work is endless that taking a pause from that work is so important. It's the same principle as taking a Shabbat: ideally it restores me for the week.

And even when I don't daven a full ma'ariv service I can pause to notice, and bless the One Who evens the evenings, mixing the changing colors of the evening sky.


A blessing for blowing the candle out

41enBytTguL._SY355_I love sitting with my son on the mirpesset in the evenings. He doesn't have a ton of patience for just sitting and watching the sky change colors, but I can usually entice him out for at least a little while.

Last night we sat on the mirpesset and I lit the citronella candle on his request. When it came time to go inside for his bath, he wanted to blow it out, but then he paused.

"We should say a blessing," he suggested. 

Generally speaking we make blessings when we light candles, not when we extinguish them, but I didn't say that. (I don't ever want to quash his spiritual impulses.) I said, "Okay, go for it."

"Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam," he began ("Blessed are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of creation" -- the opening words to many Jewish blessings), and then paused. "Wait. I don't know the rest of the words."

"You get to use your own words," I told him.

He thought for a moment.

"Thank You God for the light of the candle. When I blow it out, may Your strength flow through me," he intoned.

"Beautiful," I murmured.

And then he blew out the candle. (Which took a few tries; they're designed to be resistant to breezes!) When the flame went out, a plume of smoke rose and curled and danced up and around, revealing hidden currents. "Look, Mom," he said, "there's God's strength, flowing through the air!" 

Talk about sanctifying the ordinary.

Thank You, God, for the privilege of nurturing this extraordinary soul.


Ordinary days

41753113654_88f5c5d3af_zWhere we live, school won't end until late June, but the end is beginning to be in sight. My kid is starting to talk about becoming a "rising third grader," which boggles my mind. I'm finalizing plans for his day camp adventures this summer,: there will be scavenger hunts and arts & crafts and swimming in ponds surrounded by rolling green hills. The first distribution week at our beloved CSA is coming up soon, and I'm eager to return to the profoundly holy spaces of its fields and gardens and barn.

All of these are sweet -- and none of them is particularly noteworthy. But they are part of spiritual life even so. Ordinary days are part of spiritual life too: not just the highs and the lows, but the stretches in between. These days offer the challenge of sanctifying the ordinary: walks on the dirt roads behind my condo, making supper for my child, unpacking groceries, watering the plants on my small mirpesset where last fall and the fall before I set up a sukkah festooned with tinsel and sparkling lights.  

From the morning's modah ani and m'chayei ha-meitim to the evening's ma'ariv aravim, every day offers countless opportunities to wake up and offer blessing -- and countless opportunities to get bogged down (in scheduling, laundry, the frequently grief-inducing daily news) and forget. It can be easy (or easier) to offer words of blessing at high times. And at low times, the heart may demand to cry out and be heard (mine often does). But much of life is in between those two extremes. 

And that in turn means that much of the work of spiritual life is in that in-between place. It's the work of staying mindful, cultivating gratitude, doing what I can to make the world a better place, reminding myself to rest. It's the work of the everyday, the ordinary, the weekly rhythm of Shabbat and chol. It's the work that happens in traffic (even though where I live "traffic" is likelier to mean a slow tractor on route 43 than a surfeit of cars on the road) and waiting to check out at the grocery store. 

It's not glamorous. It's not the stuff of soul-stirring sermons. But it is the stuff of daily life. It's like parenting: my kid's childhood is made up of mornings and bedtimes and school days and play dates. It's easy to focus on the big milestone moments: starting school, or going on a big vacation, or becoming b'nei mitzvah... but childhood is more than those, and the work of being a parent is more than those. Parenting is in the little everyday things that make up the backdrop against which the big milestones unfold. 

And spiritual practice is in the little everyday things that make up the backdrop against which the big milestones unfold. Now that we've made it through Shavuot, the celebration of covenant that is the culmination of the journey of freedom we began at Pesach, the Jewish calendar quiets down for a while. Just in time for northern-hemisphere summer, a season of long days and splashing in the pool and doing all of the quiet ordinary things that make up a life. Here's to sanctifying ordinary time.

 

Image: the beginnings of summer where I live.


The week before spring

40132104624_1bf0a393cd_zThis is the time of year when I am most eager for the coming spring.

This year has felt scrambled. We had unseasonable warmth in February, and now that it's March we've gotten socked by a few nor'easters in a row. It feels like winter has settled in for the long haul, precisely now that we're all starting to crave the coming spring (or at least I am.)

But there's beauty in this snow-covered March landscape, if I have eyes to see. The snow reveals the passage of animals of whom I would otherwise be unaware -- little rabbit footprints outside the synagogue and outside my front door, bird footprints beneath my kitchen window feeder.

The icicles gleam when they catch the light.  At shul (seen here) the melting effects of the sun have caused icicles to form at surprising angles: not pointing downward like they do at my house, but curving inward, a thicket of clear points that look like spun glass, eaves decorated by Chihuly.

Though the world is still mostly monochrome -- the white of snow, the grey of clouds, the grey-brown of bare branches -- color is beginning to return to the palette. Every now and then there is a glimpse of blue sky. The willow branches have a pale gold quality to them that makes them look sunlit even on a cloudy day.

And friends who live just a few hours south report that they've started seeing robins, harbingers of spring, scattered across their lawns. I'm glad the robins haven't made it here yet -- everything is so covered in snow, where would they go for worms? -- but I expect to see them soon. 

The coming week will bring the spring equinox. The northern hemisphere is tilting toward summer, toward green, toward light. In another few months these snowbanks and icicles will be an improbable memory. For now my challenge is to see the beauty in them, even when I'm eager for what's next.


February: turning toward the light

26092538528_aee38fbf44_zFebruary can be a tough month. The Jewish spiritual calendar says we've taken our first steps toward the rising sap of spring, but the rising sap -- both literal and metaphorical -- is invisible to the human eye.

In New England where I make my home, we're entrenched in snow and rain and ice. The days are growing longer, but the world is still cold. My windshield is still obscured with its seasonal scrim of road salt. Winter won't unclench for a while yet. 

I've been taking comfort from the pair of hyacinth bulbs in my bedroom window. They were a gift from a friend a few weeks ago, and when I received them they were plain bulbs with root fronds below and only the tiniest nubs of green on top.

But within days they shot up, green leaves yearning toward the sun. And then they bloomed. Oh, their blooms! I've been under the weather for a few weeks now, but even so I can smell their fragrance, and it awes me.

Reb Zalman z"l used to say that as plants are heliotropic -- they naturally turn toward the sun -- we human beings are theotropic. It's in our nature to "grow toward God," to turn toward the source of light that enlivens us.

As plants draw sustenance from (soil and water and) the rays of the sun, we draw sustenance from a more metaphorical kind of light. We draw sustenance from the "light" of love and hope and connection.

What do you need to turn toward, as we move deeper into this season? What enlivens you and lifts your heart? What gives you a sense of hope? What would it feel like to turn toward those things, and ride that updraft all the way into spring?

 


Stick season

37922047004_3e8e84a50d_kI used to own a long, soft, narrow-wale corduroy dress that always seemed to call to me around this time of year. Its colors were muted: taupe and pale purple and deep fir-green. One day I realized that it matched the Berkshire hills in their November colors: the taupe brown of bare trees seen from a distance, the muted purple of distant hillsides at early twilight, the deep green of conifers on the highest parts of the hills. 

I rejoice when springtime paints the hills chartreuse. I relish the boldness of their summer green coats. I thrill to their yellow and orange autumn garb, though that beauty feels bittersweet because it presages the cold season to come. And now we're in the season I don't look forward to: "stick season," when the hills are bare and the nights are growing longer and plant life begins to go dormant because of the cold. 

The challenge is finding the beauty in this spare, sere landscape -- because it is still beautiful. The hills reveal their contours in a different way. Other neighborhood houses, once hidden by stands of trees, become visible again. The grass gives up on being green and begins to turn pale wintery gold. Hints of red pop against this muted backdrop: old apples still left on the trees, berries nestled among the thickets of sticks. 

In my mind I anthropomorphize our local plants and trees and bushes, imagining that they heave a sigh of relief when their performative season ends and they can rest. Okay, that's a stretch, but I know that the plants and trees that live here need to have a dormant season. It's as though the earth herself is taking a Shabbes: some downtime, some time when she doesn't have to produce (whether food or fruit or blossoms), some time when she can just rest and just be. Can I better learn that practice by paying attention to the world around me? 

Instead of being (too) attached to any particular season's gifts, I want to learn how to seek the beauty in whatever the world around me presents. Right now my task is retraining my eye to notice the gifts of New England November: the subtle gradations of color, the delicate traceries of bare branches, the sweetness to be found in this gentle, muted visual palette. Mother Nature isn't always showy, but there's always something worth noticing, if I can maintain the practice of being willing to see.

 


On stillness after the holidays

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...This is our time to rest, like bulbs cradled in the embrace of the earth. It’s time to slow our breathing, like the shavasana pose that ends many yoga classes. We’ve been pouring out our hearts: now it’s time to wait and see what flows in to replenish us. Like the trees, like the bulbs, our souls need to lie fallow....

 

That's from my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily.

Read the whole thing: Why the stillness after the wave of Jewish holidays is so important


the skies here

All through the long winter, I wait with eager anticipation for the long days of June. I have this in common with my mom, who also loves summertime's long days -- though at her latitude the winter days aren't as short, nor the summer days as long, as those I experience here. One of the things I anticipate most about summer is sitting outside in the late evening, listening to birdsong, watching the sky change color.

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The house where I used to live was on a mountaintop, and it had absolutely spectacular views. When we first went to see it eighteen years ago, the real estate agent who was showing it to us laughed at the look on my face when I got out of the car and looked out at the view and the sky. Leaving that view was one of the hardest things about leaving that house.

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But I am blessed that the place where I live now has a little mirpesset, a little balcony overlooking an expanse of green. (That's where I built my sukkah in the fall.) And here too, there is a patch of horizon and trees and sky. It may not have the over-the-top splendor of the view from the old place, but it has afforded me some beautiful glimpses of the changing sky.

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The sky's transition from afternoon to evening, sunset to nightfall, is predictable. It happens every day (unless there is rain.) It is the very definition of mundane: ordinary, worldly, banal. And yet sometimes it opens my heart to connection with transcendence. In this, it is like other ordinary and banal things: rainbows, or the way my heart dances when I see my child joyful, or what I feel when I marinate in love. 

 

Related:

Who rolls back light before dark and dark before light, 2016

Summer gratitudes, 2015

Looking at the prayer for evening in a new light, 2013 

 

This post borrows its title from the name of my first collection of poems, published by Pecan Grove Press in 1995.


Winter prayer among the trees

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"This is where I like to explore," my son tells me. To an adult eye, this is the smallish band of trees and underbrush between our condo development and the condo development down the road, but to him these are The Woods.

I remember exploring the woods across the street from my house with my friends who lived down the block, when I was a kid, and I am grateful that he has a place like this where his imagination can soar.

"Thank you for showing this to me," I reply, as I follow him.

 

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"This is a place where we can talk to God," he offers.

"Thank You God for the beautiful snow," I say, feeling tickled that this is still something he and I can do. I know that someday he will outgrow the desire to let me overhear his conversations with God, but that hasn't happened yet.

"This is the special place where I feel God's spirit," he tells me. "When you cross through here, you put your hands like this." He brings his hands together in prayer. I'm not sure where he learned that posture, but I am not about to argue with him. Here in his special place, he is the guide and I am the student.

 

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"Thank You God for the woods that you made and for the snow on the trees and for this place where we can talk to You," he says, and then emerges from the sacred grove. "You try," he tells me.

I cross into the place where he was standing and I emulate his posture. "Thank You God for this beautiful snow, and for the trees, and for my wise son who teaches me things every day. Amen."

He beams at me. "Thanks, Mom," he says. "Let's go explore some more."

So we do.


New in The Wisdom Daily: Everything Breaks. It's What We Do With The Pieces That Matters.

31967190051_a22ff3cf91_z...On my scraps of paper, I jotted down phrases like “the sorrow of my divorce” and “tendency to diminish my own needs” and “feeling silenced.” I felt both humbled and hopeful: humbled by the recognition that there’s much I need to shed, and hopeful at the prospect of truly letting those things go.

When we were done writing, we went around the table and took turns reading each scrap of paper aloud and then holding it in the fire until it began to burn. We dropped the flaming bits of paper into the dish that held the tealight. We burned old griefs and bad habits.

When we were done, one of my friends suggested a variation. We each wrote blessings for each of the others,  read those aloud, and lit them on fire too — not because we wanted the blessings to burn up, but because the act of setting them aflame felt like a way of offering the intentions up to God.

As we finished reading and burning our hopes and blessings for each other, we heard a loud crack. We promptly blew out the flame, but it was too late — the ceramic dish holding the tealight had broken in two....

That's from my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily.

Read the whole thing: Everything Breaks. It's What We Do With The Pieces That Matters

 

 


As the year draws toward its close

End-of-the-yearAt the end of the Jewish year, there are practices of introspection designed to help us re-align ourselves. The work of teshuvah (repentance / return / returning to our deepest and truest selves) calls us to look seriously at who we've been and who we want to become. The end of the secular year isn't as much a time of inner work for me as the end of the Jewish year, but it's still a natural time to pause and take stock of who I am and where I'm going.

It's a truism to say that no year is quite like any other, but 2016 was particularly unusual for me because it was the year during which my eighteen year marriage came to its end. Midway through 2016 I moved out of the home I'd lived in since 1999, the home in which I had once thought I might live out the rest of my days. And I began to live on my own for the first time. Not "alone" -- thanks to my seven-year-old -- but on my own.

That's a big transition, and it's one I'm still navigating. Those of you who have lived on your own for a long time may take those rhythms for granted. Those of you who have lived with a partner, or with other family members, for a long time may not realize in how many subtle ways one comes to rely on the patterns that evolve between people who share a household and a life. I knew this would be a big change, and it has been as momentous as I expected.

Spiritually speaking, the latter half of this year has been an exercise in drawing on what sustains me. Sometimes that means meditation and prayer, sometimes singing in harmony with friends, sometimes hot tea and solitude.  It's also been a time of navigating grief. It's also been an exercise in finding small pleasures to savor: the chickadees discovering the bird feeder I hung outside the kitchen window, or my mastering a new recipe in the slow cooker I bought at a tag sale over the summer.

As I look ahead to 2017, I know that I will need to continue being attentive to what nourishes my heart and spirit. I will need to continue learning how to rely on myself and trust my own strength -- and also to lean on community, family, and friends sometimes, and not to isolate myself from the communities of which I am a part. I'll keep working at making a home for myself and my son, brightened by Shabbat candles and by the presence of friends.

2016 has been a difficult year, but has contained gifts that counterbalance its sorrows (on a personal level, at least; I'm not looking in this moment at the traumas of the globe, which have been substantial.) I'm grateful for the old year's gifts, and I know that the secular new year will contain gifts too. Whatever your 2016 has been, I hope that you can find blessings to uplift as the secular year begins to wind down -- and may we all release the sorrows of the old year, and let them float away.

 


A crack in everything

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I was walking with my son at MASS MoCA on a recent rainy day. He was collecting Pokémon on my phone, and I was letting my mind wander with our footsteps. The asphalt of the pavement beneath my feet was cracked in several places. As in many places, the cracks had been filled in and repaired.

But then I noticed that these repaired cracks weren't quite like the ones I see everywhere else. They gleamed. They were golden. And then I noticed the small plate on the side of building 11 indicating that this is an art piece by Rachel Sussman, part of an exhibition called The Space Between. Here's how the artist herself describes the piece:

Fracture is investigated by Rachel Sussman, who restores cracks in pavement in the museum parking lot by adapting the Japanese art of kintsukuroi. On the ground in the interior courtyard behind the museum’s main building, resin and gold powder fill the cracks on the ground caused by cars and weather. The tiny streams of gold create fractal patterns recalling aerial topographical photographs. The philosophy of kintsukuroi treats cracks as fundamental parts of an object, noting that value lies in accepting change and underscoring the aesthetic qualities of imperfection and use rather than disguising flaws.

I learned the name of the art as kintsugi, and I've written about it before (see From trauma to healing, a d'var Torah I shared for Shemini a couple of years ago.) I learned about it from a blog reader, who told me about it after I posted the poem Find in April 0f 2015. The art, as I understand it, inheres in repairing broken things with gold so that their brokenness becomes a focal point and a locus of beauty, rather than being a cause for shame. 

We all have broken places. Our bodies break -- I became aware of that in a new way when I had my strokes. And even absent something dramatic like a stroke, our bodies all have flaws, and the older we get, the less our bodies match the supposed ideals of youthful slimness that our current culture so prizes. Our hearts break -- we experience love lost or unrequited, seasons of loneliness and invisibility, the personal griefs that we all come to carry. Our minds break -- over time they lose their elasticity, and remembering things becomes more difficult. And our spirits break -- the world is unfair, children fall ill and do not recover, world news can be horrifying and disheartening. We are all broken, sometimes.

It can be tempting to try to hide the brokenness. To put a bandaid on it, or cover it over with makeup, or put on the proverbial happy face and pretend it away. And there are times when pretending at gratitude can help us actually get there. But there are also times when pretending away our brokenness and our grief is a form of spiritual bypass. I think that often authentic spiritual life demands something different: that we feel what we feel, and that we call it what it is, honestly and openly. Sometimes we feel broken. (Sometimes we are broken.) And that's okay. Granted, it doesn't feel good. Nobody wants to be broken. But pretending that we are otherwise doesn't actually change anything. The art of kintsugi offers a different path: paint our broken places gold.

Paint our broken places gold, and embrace them. Recognize that the more life we have lived, the more scars we are likely to have -- visible or invisible -- and that our scars are not a flaw in us, but an intrinsic part of what makes us human. Beyond that: our broken places can paradoxically be a source of our wholeness. The sages of the Talmud taught that if an earthen vessel becomes tamei ("impure," charged-up with spiritual energy in a dangerous way) the way to make it tahor (pure) is to break it and glue it back together. Torah teaches that we are beings of the earth: we too can become pure and whole not despite our brokenness, but in and through it. Or as the Leonard Cohen z"l wrote, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

I'm grateful to Rachel Sussman for adding a little bit of beauty and sparkle to the rain-drenched pavement outside of MASS MoCA, and for reminding me to find the beauty in my own broken places.