Deep winter

Winter in the city is unlovely, all slush and grit. But even here in the country it's not always a picture postcard. Snow which was soft and fluffy when it fell has thawed and refrozen. Driveways are uneven hockey rinks of lumpy ice. Hillsides which had been white are scraped with grey and brown. The small river which runs through Williamstown is jumbled with ice. Cars are gritty and crusted with dirty slush and rock salt. On cloudy days, everything feels frozen and grey.

The twinkling lights of December are well behind us, and the first glimmers of the coming spring are too far ahead to anticipate. The new moon of the lunar month of Shvat has just begun to wax; we're almost two weeks away from the full moon which will herald Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. And besides, here in the Berkshires Tu BiShvat is still deep winter. The almond trees may be preparing to bloom in the Middle East, but God knows nothing is blooming here.

Winter's novelty has worn off, well before winter itself is even thinking about unclenching. For a lot of us, this can be a difficult season. I'm not talking about seasonal affective disorder per se, though I know plenty of people who struggle with that to one degree or another. But there's a general sense of malaise which can set in during late January and into February, especially in places like New England where the days are still short and our movements are circumscribed by ice and snow.

Over the years I've tried a lot of different remedies. Eating clementines by the box, as though warding off scurvy with their bright sweetness. Hot baths. Endless pots of tea. Making the effort to light a fire in the fireplace, because even though it takes some time to get it going, there's a kind of primal comfort in sitting beside a warm, bright blaze. These days I try to retrain my eye to see the beauty even in the low grey skies and the dirt-streaked ice. To notice subtle gradations of winter light.

 The work of hashpa'ah, spiritual direction, teaches me to ask the question "where is God in this?" So where can I find God in this wintery world leached of color? Where can I find God in my reaction to the low-ceilinged clouds and the early sundown? Where is God for me in ice and snow, dirt and road salt, the work of mitigating winter's isolation? Where is God for me in the work of maintaining my own even keel at this season? And where is God for you, in whatever your struggles may be?


Midwinter means

Midwinter means a world of white outside my window. Fine lines of white limn every branch and twig. The distant hills vanish beneath a scrim of snow.

Midwinter means fragrant clementines like tiny hand-held suns. When I puncture the peel with my thumbnail, the cat gives me a reproachful look and leaps off of my desk.

Midwinter means listening to Värttinä in the car. I don't speak a word of Finnish but their music comes from long nights and crisp snow.

Midwinter means the decadent pleasure of hand lotion and lip balm softening my thirsty skin.

Midwinter means the pleasure of watching juncos and chickadees flitting to and from the birdfeeder on the deck. From feeder to railing to roof and back again.

Midwinter means a dozen kinds of hot tea, usually with milk. Black tea with apricot. Earl Grey in all of its variations. Chai. But green tea with toasted rice, I drink plain.

Midwinter means the eye takes a keen pleasure in vivid colors against the white and brown and grey of snow and trunk and slush. Red boots, purple coat.

Midwinter means I scatter crumpled tissues like misshapen snowballs everywhere I go.

Midwinter means the repetitive rhythm of wrapping paper, fold and crease and tape in place.

Midwinter means last summer's wood burning bright, a stand-in for the sun which will always return.


The work

Post_black525This is the work: remembering reasons for gratitude before I even get out of bed. There is always something for which I could be saying thank You.

This is the work: balancing brisk ("c'mon, we've got to get out of the house, I'm going to be late") with gentle ("want me to help you with your sneakers?")

This is the work: laughing at the same jokes again and again, because no one has an appetite for repetition like a five-year-old who's just discovered the "interrupting cow."

Noticing where I've made progress in my inner life, and celebrating myself for that. Noticing where I'm bumping again into things I thought I'd figured out, and forgiving myself for that.

Fixing the same meals, singing the same songs, doing the same bedtime routine. Waking myself up to the sweetness cradled in that routine's familiar contours.

Finding blessings in whatever unfolds. Even when the day is boring or grey or I feel as though I'm walking on a treadmill without getting anywhere. Can I turn the treadmill into a meditation labyrinth, where what matters are my conscious foosteps, not the destination?

This is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. It only comes once. Tomorrow will be a new day, filled with new joys and new adventures. Or filled with new sorrows and new challenges. Or all of the above. But whatever it is, it won't be today. I don't want to miss today.

This is the work: setting boundaries even when our son doesn't like them, even when he tells me tearfully "if you say that one more time I won't be your friend!" Letting him know that it's okay to feel what he feels, and that I hear him, and that the rule still stands.

Letting myself know that it's okay to feel what I feel, and that God hears me, even when the world doesn't conform to my every wish any more than it conforms to our son's every wish. Remembering that even on my crankiest days, I am loved unconditionally.

Setting aside expectations so that I can embrace what is, whatever it is. Trying to grow radical acceptance and trust in the sometimes rocky soil of my heart. Watering that soil with prayer. Practicing the mantra of "I love what comes and I love what goes."

Parenthood is -- spiritual life is -- a parade of constant changes. Infancy gives way to toddlerhood, which gives way to childhood. The bitter passes away, and so does the sweet. Maybe for God, every instant of our lives coexists, but we're time-bound. This is the work: this moment, right now.

 

Image: a poetry postcard featuring a quote from Sophie Cabot Black. I learned the phrase slightly differently from my mentor Jason Shinder z"l -- "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work."

 


Once the leaves fall

I always forget that once the leaves fall, the trees reveal their elegant bones. So do the mountains. With branches bare, the contours of every hillside come clear. I can see houses, hills, horizon through what used to be a solid wall of leaves.

The hills take on their late-fall garb. Now they're turning a faded purplish-brown with patches of evergreen -- starting from the tops of the mountains, where the leaves are all already down. These colors are comforting and gentle on the eyes.

The skies here have been overcast lately. I tell myself that they are pearlescent and dove-grey rather than gloomy. I think of how beautifully Dale writes about diffuse light, about light during rain, and resolve to savor these variegated clouds.

We're on the last week before the time change. Next Saturday night, while we are sleeping, our nation's clocks will shift backwards an hour. In early mornings, the time change is a mercy; our wakeup time won't be pitch-black anymore. (Not until midwinter, anyway.)

And early evenings...? That's the trade-off. We're heading toward the time of the year when it will be dark by the time we finish Hebrew school on Monday afternoons. Every summer I remember that fall and winter are like this, and I can't quite remember how it's bearable.

But this time of year has its beauty, too. There's one house on Route 7 which I pass on the way home from work every day which is already lighting an electric candle in every window at nightfall. Some mornings now when our son wakes me I get to see the sunrise.

And after twenty-odd years in New England I find that there's comfort in the turn of the seasons, the inevitable change in the mountains' everyday dress, the way that month leads on to month and the year unfolds exactly the way it always does, the way it should.

Sunrise


Cheshvan

Tonight at sundown, when we enter into Shabbat, we will also enter into a new lunar month. On the Jewish calendar, we're about to begin the month of Cheshvan.

Rosh-chodesh

Cheshvan is an empty month. A blank slate. An open expanse. It is the only month which contains no Jewish holidays (aside from Shabbat) and no special mitzvot. Some people have the custom of calling this month Mar-Cheshvan, "Bitter Cheshvan," because after so many weeks of feeling ourselves to be in God's presence, we enter into a whole month with no festival opportunities to feel that closeness.

Some rabbis (me included) joke that Mar-Cheshvan is short for "Marvelous Cheshvan," and that Cheshvan is our favorite month precisely because there is nothing in it. After the hard work and the emotional-spiritual rollercoaster of the Days of Awe and Sukkot, a month containing nothing but weekdays and Shabbat feels like a gift. A time to embrace emptiness and quiet. Thank God for Cheshvan; I can't keep up this work-pace anymore!

But I think there's a deeper truth hidden in the "I ♥ Cheshvan" jokes. Our festival cycle has a rhythm, a natural ebb and flow. Times of extroversion and times of introversion; times of intense spiritual work and times of quiet when the aftereffects of that work can reverberate in our hearts and souls. After the spring journey of Pesach and the Omer, we get a quiet period before the summer's fasts and Tisha b'Av and the ramp-up to the Days of Awe. After the fall journey of the Days of Awe and Sukkot, we get a quiet period before the small holidays which stud the wintertime lead us toward spring and Pesach.

(These are northern-hemisphere interpretations; if you live in the global South, the seasonal rhythm is inverted, but the holidays still lead one to the next, and the spiritually-fallow periods are still built-in.)

The quiet time matters too. It's like the silence after the chant, writ large. When a long-anticipated event is over, there can be a let-down. All that time preparing and getting excited, and now it's over; now what? But Cheshvan offers the opportunity to experience the quiet time after the feasts and festivals as a necessary part of the rhythm.

Reb Zalman (may his memory be a blessing) used to speak about the importance of "domesticating" the peak experience -- taking the spiritual highs we can experience on retreat, and using their energy to fuel spiritual practice when we're home again. Coming down from the big fall holiday season is a little bit like coming home from a retreat. We return our focus to all the details of ordinary life. But that doesn't mean that we're no longer in the radiant Presence. We just have to remember how to access that Presence through ordinary living. Avodah b'gashmiut, in Hasidic parlance.

We couldn't live at the intense pace of the Days of Awe and Sukkot all the time. From the practical work of preparing services and sermons and setting up chairs and building sukkahs, to the intellectual work of studying the holidays' texts and liturgies and themes, to the emotional work of noticing what arises in us during the holiday season, to the spiritual work of teshuvah and inner transformation -- there's no way to sustain that level of activity and experience all the time. And that's okay.

The downtime helps us integrate the experience we've just had. Try this metaphor on: the quiet month which comes after all of the festivals is like the morning after a grand and elaborate wedding. The planning and preparation all culminated in a beautiful ceremony and a fabulous party -- and now it's the next day; the first day of the rest of the couple's life; time to integrate the memories and carry them into whatever comes next. Tishri was the wedding. Now it's the morning-after.

The party is finally over. The last guests have gone home. Awaken to your quiet house, a sweet sunrise, coffee filling the room with fragrance. Cup your hands around your mug and look around you. Something new is beginning, right here in this quiet place. Welcome to Cheshvan.

 

Related: The year as a spiritual practice, 2009


Letter from the sukkah

SukkahOn the festival's first night I carried a tray out to the sukkah bearing dinner, kiddush cups, wine and juice, a lighter for the candle I encased in a many-pointed glass star so that the wind wouldn't blow it out. Our son complained that he couldn't see the moon, but we came back outside later when it had just risen -- huge and yellow over the dark horizon of the hills -- and he jumped up and down with joy.

I spent much of the first day of Sukkot bundled up in the sukkah: jeans, socks, fuzzy slippers, a shirt, a sweater, a jacket, a knitted hat and scarf, and fingerless gloves. Above me the cornstalks rustled in the breeze. Occasionally yellow maple leaves drifted down from one of the trees overhead and made their way through the schach of the roof to land on my laptop. I was chilly, but I stayed out for a long time.

Being in a sukkah feels like being indoors and outdoors at the same time. The fresh air says "outdoors;" the feel of roof and walls says "indoors." But not too indoors. I can see sky through the roof. The usual views of our backyard and the valley are broken into squares by the sukkah's wooden lattice. All around me, decorations and our son's apple-themed art hang as though in midair.

Sukkot is so short, in the grand scheme of things. Seven days. I didn't want to miss it; I didn't want to waste it sitting indoors at the desk where I sit the whole rest of the year. The commandment is leishev ba-sukkah, "to dwell in the sukkah" -- literally, "to sit in the sukkah," which always makes me think of sitting zazen. The point of sitting in the sukkah is just sitting in the sukkah. Gloves and all.

PomegranateI try repeatedly to photograph our sukkah in a way which would show you what it looks like, what it feels like. But as with the panorama of the autumnal Berkshire hills, the pictures of the sukkah don't capture its reality. Autumn light streaming past golden tinsel garlands and shiny glitter pumpkins, the endless soft rustle of the roof, the little lights which gleam at nightfall. All I can capture are glimpses.

The sukkah has to be experienced in four dimensions, including time. The sukkah only exists for a short window of time. And yet the sukkah is also a portal in time, a door to every other year when I have sat in a sukkah. The ghosts of ten sukkot are imprinted on this back yard. Surely God, Who inhabits all of space and time simultaneously, can see next year's sukkah, and the next, and the next...

In the sukkah I can hear crickets chirping. Soon hard frosts will quiet the hillsides. Soon -- but not yet. On the first evening of the festival, as we ate dinner in the sukkah, we listened to an invisible neighbor playing "Auld Lang Syne" on clarinet. Our own private Sukkot serenade. The soundscape of the week also includes chipmunks rustling in the hillside's fallen leaves, and Canada geese calling overhead.

The sukkah, some say, represents the cloud of glory which followed the Israelites in their 40-year wilderness wandering. This is a house of divine presence. The walls and roof may be barely-there, but Shekhinah surrounds me with her embrace. I think of the angel song, that prayer for surrounding our son with wonder, strength, light, comfort, and the presence of Shekhinah all through the night.

Weather will blow in. Eventually the sukkah will come down. Temporariness is an inextricable part of the design. And yet this is where we're supposed to rejoice. Not despite the leaky roof, short lifespan, short-term design -- but with them, in them, through them. Go outside in order to go inside. Through this parody of a roof, recognize the sheltering Presence which curls protectively over us all.


Fall's beauty

At this time of year I want to take photographs all the time. Everywhere I look, fall colors blaze. The hillsides are a slowly-shifting tweed of late-summer green, orange, yellow, rust, and bright flares of pure red. Every day the color balance is different. Every day the color balance is beautiful.

Bailey

When light shines through the trees everything looks golden. Against the backdrop of dark clouds, the colors pop. And I know that at any moment the winds or the rain could knock the leaves off the trees and reveal bare branches beneath. Part of what makes it so gorgeous is that we know it can't last.

Noppet

Fall highlights the reality that everything in the world is always changing. I want to capture the beauty as though I could keep it, hold on to it, save it for another day. And I can -- to an extent. I can photograph it and write about it and remember it. But I can only inhabit the now right now.

Cemetery

This is one of the lessons of Sukkot for me each year. The beauty around me is always changing. We build the sukkah and it is beautiful. We decorate it, and it is beautiful. And as soon as it's built, it starts to come apart, and that's beautiful too. The trick is learning how to see the beauty in its changes.

Field

The challenge is finding the beauty in what is -- whatever is. Saying thank-you to God for the radiant splendor of a northern Berkshire autumn -- and for the muted colors which will follow it. This moment is all there is, and it is always passing. And it is always right now. And it is always beautiful.


Relearning how to slow down

Sometimes it's a little bit difficult for me to wind down after the holidays.

There's so much to do in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The most important parts for me are liturgical (practicing parts of the service with my hazzan, talking through transitions, trying out harmonies) and language-based (sermons, sermons, sermons), but there are preparations in other realms, too. From finding the white kippot at shul and putting them out for use during the holiday season, to making sure we have enough yizkor / memorial candles, to doing a sound-check with the microphones...the list is lengthy. (And did I mention the start of the Hebrew school year, conveniently timed?) My half-time job becomes fulltime. Since sometime this summer, the Days of Awe have been at the forefront of my consciousness all the time.

And suddenly they're over.

And what comes next -- starting tomorrow night -- is a week-long festival where I'm supposed to just sit. It's a bit of a shock to the system.

15276824938_b368d34fb4_nOkay, building the sukkah takes work. But that's Ethan's job; he's the carpenter in our family, and on Sunday he built us a beautiful new sukkah with latticed walls. Decorating the sukkah is the task which falls to me and to our son, but that's not work by any stretch of the imagination -- it's play. We festoon the structure with autumn-colored tinsel, tiny lights, gourds and pumpkins, giant leaves and acorns made out of felt, and a pair of shiny red pomegranates which our son calls "jewels." (They do look rather like jewels.) Over the course of the week he'll make more decorations. By the end of the holiday I expect the walls will be entirely covered in his handiwork.

And yes, there are mitzvot (connective-commandments) associated with this festival. I'll take up my Four Species and wave them in all directions, beckoning blessing. I'll sing the psalms of Hallel. I'll have friends over to rejoice in the sukkah with me. But that's it. None of this holds a candle to the work -- both practical and spiritual -- of the High Holidays! The mitzvah of Sukkot is mostly just being. Being in the sukkah. Sitting in the sukkah. "Dwelling" in the sukkah (or at least eating meals there, weather permitting) and feeling joy in the sukkah.

This feels like a real gift to me, this year. Just when I am at my most tightly-wound, the tradition gives me this built-in opportunity to shift gears. It is time to transition from the overwhelming and slightly frantic season of the Days of Awe to the slower, gentler pace of Sukkot. Sukkot is called chag ha-asif, the festival of ingathering. If I were an ancient Israelite farmer, this would be my season of gathering my crops and bringing some to give to God at the Temple in Jerusalem. Today most of us are ingathering memories, impressions, emotions. Ingathering the scattered pieces of ourselves and integrating into a renewed whole.

It's time to bring in the harvest. What have these recent weeks brought forth in me? What feelings, ideas, insights from the Days of Awe can I carry with me into this simple sketch of a house, exposed to the elements, sometimes buffeted by the winds and the rain?

When I sit still and imagine entering the sukkah tomorrow night for the beginning of chag, I notice the clamor of my mind. What's next? Am I forgetting something? What am I supposed to be doing right now? The rapid-fire multitasking which seems so integral to congregational leadership at this time of year has become a habit. And I'm grateful for it, because it allows me to be fairly high-functioning during my busiest time of year. But it comes with the price of continuous partial attention: no matter what I'm doing, some part of my brain is already thinking about the next thing. I'm a little bit chagrined to discover how difficult it is for my mind and heart to st still. I need to re-learn the practice of slowing down.

I'm reminded of lines from Mary Oliver which I learned from Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg many years ago on the day after Yom Kippur: "so this is how you swim inward, / so this is how you flow outward, / so this is how you pray." Yom Kippur is a time of swimming inward, sometimes battling the mighty currents which seek to keep me distracted from and ignorant of what's really happening in my heart. It's a time of inner work, seeking to make myself a channel so that I can help blessing flow into the world. But our holiday cycle is all about balance. Rosh Hashanah was outward-focused; Yom Kippur was inward-focused; and Sukkot is a time of flowing outward once again. Relax: the hard work is done. The current will carry me where I need to be.


Memories of McQueeney

Card00528_frIt's funny how memories come back at unexpected moments. The feeling of bobbing in the warm waters of the Guadalupe, lifejacket and waterskis keeping me afloat, with the bright woven ski rope threading through my hands as the boat idled forward. The big plants at the waterside, which we called elephants' ears; how green pecans stained the water and our hands; how we used to chase cottonwood fluff when the wind blew it across the wide-bladed St. Augustine grass.

Packing up the Suburban for two weeks at the lake house: coolers full of groceries, suitcases, our Siamese cat in his carrier yowling until I inevitably set him free and he marched across the dashboard (much to my father's chagrin.) The old songs Mom taught me -- "The Ladies in the Harem of the Court of King Correcticus" and "As I was walking down the street a billboard caught my eye..." The convenience store (was it in Seguin?) where we used to stop to get whorls of the hard spicy sausage which hung behind the counter.

The scavenger hunts my mom used to organize for my friends and me; I remember holding a sheet of paper marked in her neat curving handwriting, wandering around together in search of -- what, I can't recall, but I know we were successful. Climbing down the aluminum framed ladder into the river in front of our house. How my toes shied away from slimy lilypad stems. Making homemade raspberry ice cream, turning the hand crank; how the end result was brilliant pink with the berries' separated druples. Growing a small garden one year -- I couldn't resist picking an ear of corn before it was ripe, and hiding in my secret wilderness place in the unsold lot next door where no one would see me nibbling its sugar-sweet kernels. The thwock of tennis balls against rackets as Mom and Dad played doubles, resplendent in all white, on the court at the Ski Lodge.

Walking with Mom to pick Indian Paintbrush and cornflowers to bring home and put in a jar on the table. Pyrex casserole trays of King Ranch Chicken. Evening boat rides, my father's hair windblown, sitting on the back of the boat and watching the houses and boathouses and limestone cliffs along the river rush by. Early morning boat rides, the river and lake still as glass, perfect for cutting slalom paths in and out of our boat's wake. Venturing down our street with a friend, aiming for patches of shade because the asphalt was hot beneath our bare feet, and then down the boat ramp at the end of the block to float down the river in lifejackets back to our own pier. Playing games of rummikub with mom and friends on the square formica table, pieces clicking and clacking beneath our hands. The taste of the "special" nachos at the Ski Lodge, made with spicy queso. The orange blossoms my parents ordered there sometimes at the bar.

Catching fireflies on hot summer evenings, putting them in jars with perforated tinfoil on top, then letting them go. The pale yellow moths, redolent with dust the color of hardboiled egg yolk, which beat their wings helplessly against screen doors. The zzzzt of the bug zapper at work. Swinging in the hammock, endlessly. The two flavors of Bluebell we used to get at that Pic-n-Pac (Cookies & Cream, and Pralines & Cream), and the treat of scooping curls into beige melamine bowls and enjoying them at night before bed. Watching the Ski Bees show at the Ski Lodge on Thursday nights, pyramids of women on each others' shoulders, followed by brave and crazy barefooters like my brother. On the Fourth of July, after the ski show, lying back to watch the fireworks exploding brilliant against the Texas sky.

 

Photo: an old postcard of the swimming pools at the Lake Breeze Ski Lodge in McQueeney, Texas, sometime before they put up the diving board and high board I remember.


Moments

640px-Omega_pocket_watchThere is only one of me; I can only be in one place at one time. And yet my job calls me to inhabit several moments in time simultaneously. This is the nature of rabbinic work.

On the one hand:  today. This is the day that God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it! I offer a morning prayer for gratitude, I open up my calendar, I scan to see with whom I am meeting today and what is on my to-do list.

On the other hand: Shabbat. I study this week's Torah portion, I prepare verses to read from the scroll, I think about songs and prayers. I pick up my guitar and my fingers automatically go to the chords for our Shabbat melodies.

On yet another hand: the Days of Awe. Now the machzor is released into the world, and I'm having weekly Skype dates with our student cantor. Every time he sings a line of high holiday nusach, the holidays come rushing in around me like waves.

On another hand still: a funeral which took place many months ago, and the ritual unveiling of the headstone which will take place some months hence. A "then" which is past, and a "then" which hasn't happened yet.

I remember preparing the eulogy for that funeral. I remember standing on the cold winter earth. I imagine what it will feel like to return to that spot with the family to dedicate the stone which marks that spot, which memorializes that life.

One of the names for God which we most frequently use is מלך העולם, melech ha'olam, usually translated as "king of the world" or "sovereign of the universe." But the word olam can mean both space and time (as in l'olam va'ed, "for ever and ever.")

My son sometimes asks me at bedtime where God is, and I tell him that God is everywhere. ("But invisible," my son prompts, and I confirm that yes, he's got that right.) God is also everywhen -- present in every moment. Past, present, and future all at once.

It's my job to be in this moment -- if I am sitting with a congregant for a pastoral conversation, they deserve my full presence. And also to be in that moment, and that other moment -- remembering what has come before; anticipating what's yet to come.


A day in the sun

An afternoon at a friend's house. The scent of sunscreen, the feel of water lapping against my body, the excited squeals of several little boys wearing floaties and splashing around the pool clutching pool noodles and kickboards emblazoned with superheroes.

In between swishing our kids through the water in giggly circles, the adults talk about books we've been reading, about the local college (from which many in this circle of friends graduated, and where others among us now teach), about summer memories.

I remember chlorinated swimming pools, and fingers wrinkled pruny from spending all day there. The rub of the diving board beneath my tender toes. Sunwarmed bricks at the edge of the pool. Night swimming, lit by one underwater light.

I remember the warm waters of Lake McQueeney and the gentle Guadalupe which feeds into it. I remember floating in an inner tube down the river, or leaping from the back of a boat in a lifevest and skis, letting rough woven rope play through my hands.

And I remember basking like a contented lizard in the south Texas sun, lying on a woven chaise and listening to Ottmar Liebert or k.d. lang as sweat dripped down my nose, holding out as long as I could before diving into the pool and exulting in the cool splash.

In between swimming this afternoon we pause to eat cold crisp cubes of watermelon and fresh local strawberries warm from the sun. I wonder what this group of little boys will remember about this ordinary, extraordinary summer day when they are grown.

 


How Caretaker takes care of me

A recent post at the Cassandra Pages -- Bonjour, summer -- moved and delighted me. Those photographs of berries, mushrooms, radishes -- holy wow! Summer's abundance in living color. I've walked through some of Montréal's markets, though not at this time of year. Last fall when I went north to promote 70 faces and Waiting to Unfold, I saw piles of pumpkins, gourds of all sizes and shapes, arrangements of dried grasses: some of autumn's late bounty. But Beth's post reminded me of some of the reasons I so adore summertime. Extravagant greenery, blossoms of every variety, fruits and vegetables grown in one's own local soil.

Here where I live we don't have markets quite like the ones in Montreal, but we do have a handful of community-supported farms. There's a new one right in our neighborhood, actually! But we still go to the one about fifteen minutes away, where we've been members for some twenty years. Longtime readers may remember hearing about this place before -- it's called Caretaker Farm. Every summer when we reach the first distribution week, the first time when members are invited to come to the farm and gather a share of the seasonal bounty, as I walk onto the grounds I say a fervent shehecheyanu (the blessing which thanks God for keeping me alive, sustaining me, and enabling me to reach this moment.) I am always grateful to be able to return.

The barn and farmhouse, seen from the fields.

Every year the first salad from the farm is a revelation. Tender Boston lettuce, a riot of tiny arugula and komatsuna and yukina greens, wedges of sweet bright white baby turnips and coins of spicy radish: it always amazes me how different these things taste from the boxed mixed greens and commercially-grown cucumbers we pick up at the supermarket all winter long. Even if I were to try to replicate Caretaker's bounty at the grocery store, it wouldn't taste the same. Once I sliced into a Caretaker carrot and a commercially-grown carrot at the same time and I was awed by by the local one's color and flavor. It's one thing to read about the difference between local agriculture and commercial farming; it's another thing entirely to see and feel and taste that difference.

There are few places in the world which are more beautiful to me than Caretaker Farm. I think it's probably objectively a gorgeous place -- fields of bright plants gleaming in the sunshine, cupped by the gentle curves of the Berkshire mountains; it's pretty as a postcard -- but for me the beauty is as much emotional as it is physical. This is a piece of land which has for decades been lovingly stewarded by farmers who we admire for their commitment to community and commitment to the land. It's a real community gathering place. Every week when I arrive with my canvas bag slung over my arm, I see people I know. We greet each other in the distribution barn, in the herb garden, in the fields where we're picking beans or berries or basil leaves.

Looking out the lower-level barn door.

I started coming to Caretaker when I was a college student, the summer before my senior year when I was hard at work on my senior thesis in religion. I came to Caretaker through the years I spent in grad school. I came to Caretaker the summer I was pregnant, and with my hand on my growing belly watched other people's children playing in the sandbox and picking raspberries -- and I wondered what it would be like to bring our child there someday. I came to Caretaker with our infant son strapped to my chest in a sling. The year he was newly-walking he ran around the grounds. The first tree he ever tried to climb is a little one next to the distribution barn, where he has seen bigger kids in the branches.

Longtime readers have heard me tell the story about running into my friend Rev. Rick Spalding in the cherry tomato rows, and his remark that the farm "is some of the holiest ground I know." That story keeps resonating for me. On Shabbat mornings in summer when I'm not leading davenen at my shul, the farm is usually where I can be found -- hanging out with our son near the sandbox or the frog pond, or walking down to see the chickens in their movable coop, calling "Shabbat shalom!" to congregants who I see across the fields. The farm is holy not because it's a consecrated structure with stained glass windows or a lofty dome, but because of the years of loving attention and intention which have been devoted to creating community in this place.

Caretaker Farm takes care of me. No matter what's on my mind or what's difficult in my life or in the world, stepping onto that piece of land uncoils my tension. It's a place which feels to me like Shabbat, whether I'm there on a Saturday morning or a Tuesday afternoon. There's something about this farm -- from the herb garden and the cupboard of fresh bread on distribution days, to the far pumpkin and raspberry fields across two wooden bridges and a stream -- which evokes some of that same feeling for me: the feeling of entering into Shabbat, of leaving my to-do lists and my workday consciousness behind.


The scent of memory

Lilac+bushI'd never encountered lilacs until the end of my first year of college. That was my first year living in New England, and my first Berkshire spring. Suddenly, as exams approached and the end of the year loomed, the tall bushes alongside the President's house and all around town sprouted flowers, and their fragrance was unbelievably beautiful. I remember my then-boyfriend picking sprays of lilac and bringing them to me in my dorm room. (That boyfriend has now been my spouse for almost sixteen years.)

I loved the lilacs' color palette of white and pale lavendar and deep purple. I loved the way they transformed otherwise ordinary greenery into a profusion of color. The color of lilacs reminded me of mountain laurels, which bloomed all around my childhood house in San Antonio in the spring; the scent reminded me of wisteria. But lilacs aren't quite either of those things. They are deeply, unmistakeably, themselves. I will always associate them with spring in the Berkshires when/where they and I first met.

(Alas, no one has developed a way to share scent through the internet. So unless you know the scent of lilacs and can hyperlink yourself to that memory, I can't share it with you, though I wish I could.)

This morning as I exited my car and made my way to Tunnel City Coffee for Torah study with the local Jewish clergy, the scent of lilacs caught me by surprise and quite literally stopped me in my tracks. I looked over and saw that the tall lilac bushes alongside the parking lot have, since last week, exploded like fireworks into a wild riot of lilac blossoms. I stood there and just breathed for a few moments, drawing their scent deep into my lungs, reawakening the neurons which called forth all of my lilac memories.

Now that I've lived here for many years, the season of lilacs carries other associations -- not so much the end of the school year (though the coffee shop this morning was packed with students frantically preparing for exams) as the long-awaited coming of green to our hillsides, the counting of the Omer and eager anticipation of Shavuot, the time when the forsythia bushes are shedding their yellow blossoms in favor of new leaves, the cusp of what will become summertime but isn't quite there yet.

I recited the blessing over blooming trees with our son some time ago. (Well -- we said the blessing after a fashion, in our own way.) But this morning as I scented the lilacs on the breeze, I said a shehecheyanu, the blessing sanctifying time. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who has kept me alive, sustained me, and enabled me to reach this moment! And then I went on my way... but I will carry the scent of lilacs with me through my day, with gratitude and with a smile.


Daily April poem - inspired by what's outside the window

SUNDAY AFTERNOON


Bare branches splay across egshell sky
inviting the tiny caress of squirrel feet,
the sharp peck of a bird, seeking.

Parked cars rest, awaiting orders.
Electricity races invisibly
through unmoving power lines.

Rooftops have shed their winter coats.
Skylights blink owlishly at the sun,
unaccustomed to exposure.

And at the horizon, hills
the muted purple of sugared gumdrops
waiting to be popped into my mouth.


Today's NaPoWriMo prompt invites us to look outside the window, record nouns and verbs and colors, and then weave them into a poem. This is my result -- both a description of what I see outside the window, and an encapsulation of the kind of quiet stillness which can come over a residential neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon.

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Words for snow

12640726084_14f7c4fa30_nCarved cornices
perch at
roof's edge.

Plows heap
mountains in
every driveway.

Finger drifts
skitter across
cracked asphalt.

Penitents, thin
snow spikes
reach skyward

marking off
these hills,
feather beds

for giants
drowsing beneath
cold eiderdown.

Warm days:
icicles crash
and shatter.

Sun cups
cradle spindly
tree trunks.

Next storm
always on
its way.


This poem was sparked by that old chestnut about the Inuit having 100 words for snow. Thinking of that led me to researching different English words for snow. I was particularly charmed by cornices (those wind-carved glaciers on rooftops), finger drifts (like tiny snow dust devils), penitents (spikes of hardened snow), and sun cups (the places around trees where the darkness of the bark creates just enough warmth to melt the snow.)

Photo source: my flickr photostream. This was taken last week, before a few days of rain tamped down these fluffy drifts, but the world outside my window is still almost entirely white. Now it's just ice-hard instead of cloud-soft. This may be the shortest month on the calendar, but the wait for March can feel eternal! Of course, March up here means snow, too. But at least it will mean that the snow is on its way toward eventually ending.


How Shabbat is like a snowstorm

DrivewayThis morning I met again with my usual cohort of Jewish clergy who study sacred texts together each week in the coffee shop. This week, one of our conversations about Heschel's Heavenly Torah went in a direction I didn't expect. We were talking about a passage which contrasts two different ways of approaching Shabbat. In one paradigm (which Heschel links with Rabbi Akiva's school), Shabbat is envisioned as the bride of Israel, our holy mate with whom we experience a supernal connection. In the other (which Heschel connects to Rabbi Ishmael and his disciples), Shabbat is compared to a wolf who causes disturbance both before and after his arrival. The Akivan image of Shabbat as our bride was familiar to all of us, but when it came to the Ishmaelian simile, we kind of scratched our heads: Shabbat, a wolf? What an odd comparison!

And then my friend and colleague Rabbi David Weiner shifted the metaphor in a way that made it clear. Shabbat, he said, is like a winter storm.

Before a storm, we scurry around procuring things we'll need -- batteries, flashlights, water, food, what-have-you. We're consumed with anticipation. We batten down the hatches and get ready. And then the storm arrives, and suddenly there's nothing we can do. We stay home. We relax. We have family time. Maybe we play in the snow with our kids. Maybe we read books. Maybe we sit by the fire. Maybe we make time to daven or learn some Torah. All of our usual making and doing and planning is suspended during the time-out-of-time which is the duration of the storm. And then the storm ends, and afterwards we scurry around again, shoveling our walkways, digging out our cars, preparing to dive back into ordinary life.

ShabbatJust so, Shabbat. Before Shabbat, we scurry around getting everything ready: the challah, the candles, the juice or wine, the festive meal. All of the weekday and workday to-do items have to be completed before sundown on Friday, because once the sun goes down, we enter into holy time. We stop making and doing and focus instead on just be-ing. We have family time. Maybe we play in the snow with our kids, read books, sit by the fire. Ideally, of course, we daven and learn some Torah -- in community, if circumstances permit. Shabbat, like the snowstorm, gives us permission to set aside the to-do list and to just be for a while. And then Shabbat ends and we scurry around again, thinking about work again, preparing to dive back into ordinary life.

Both a snowstorm and Shabbat offer a break from ordinary workday realities. A time to cease the mechanisms of production and to relax, secure in the knowledge that there's nothing we're supposed to be doing, so we can just be for a change. Of course, snowstorms come and go according to weather patterns most of us don't understand; Shabbat comes every seventh day without fail, if we are awake and alert enough to notice and experience her visit. (Also snowstorms can be dangerous, which is where the comparison breaks down a bit -- I can't really think of any way that Shabbat might pose a danger to anyone.)

It was hard for me to understand Shabbat being like the wolf who causes a stir both before and after his arrival, but Shabbat being like the winter snowstorm which forces us to slow down, stop working, enjoy family time -- that's a metaphor which immediately resonates for me.

For all who are experiencing major winter weather this week, may your snowbound time be safe and comfortable and as restorative as a midweek dip into Shabbat. And for all of us, no matter where we are, may the coming Shabbat bring us the relaxation, surrender, and whimsy which at our best we're capable of finding when the world around us slows down because of snow.


Thanks to the Union for Reform Judaism for reprinting this post at the Reform Judaism blog!


Readiness

The first creative act of the new year: I find an empty manila folder, uncap a blue pen with a thick nib, and inscribe the tab with "POEMS 2014."

It's the first poetry-related creative act, anyway. I wrote a d'var Torah last week, beginning 2014 not with poetry but with prose.

That's not surprising. I can't remember a year when I began writing new poems as soon as the calendar page had turned. Poetry doesn't require the kind of temporal spaciousness needed for writing a novel; it's something I can work on in fits and starts, an hour here, an afternoon there. But it does require emotional and spiritual spaciousness. And that's usually in short supply around the start of January.

Since late November, I've juggled Thanksgiving, our son's birthday, Chanukah, a family simcha on the other side of the state, a visit to my family in Texas, Christmas, school break, winter storms, New Year's, and more houseguests than I can count. Also synagogue work in all of its usual forms. There's been a lot of wonderful! But precious little normalcy: the usual flow of weekdays and Shabbat, workdays and childcare, meditation and prayer.

Poetry -- my poetry, anyway -- requires emotional and spiritual breathing room.

January seventh. The old year is really and truly behind us. 2014 stretches ahead. And now my POEMS 2014 folder waits to receive the first slim draft.

I won't write a poem today. I probably won't write a poem this week. But my desk is tidied. The holiday wrapping paper which had taken up temporary residence on the floor has been cleared away. I've re-hung the poems and my Bennington diploma on the newly-repainted wall of my study. When I stop typing, all I can hear is quiet. These are first steps.

Many years ago, when I worked for the artist Jenny Holzer, I typed up the following quote on a piece of brown paper and hung it over my desk:

I do not write every day, I read every day, think every day, work in the garden every day, and recognize in nature the same slow complicity. The same inevitability. The moment will arrive, always it does, it can be predicted but it cannot be demanded. I do not think of this as inspiration. I think of it as readiness. A writer lives in a constant state of readiness. (-- Jeanette Winterson)

Readiness. One breath after the next. Breathing in; breathing out. Right here; right now. The manila folder of my year is open. Receptive. Ready.


Two versions of a short winter poem

11421455995_92fa9d96ce_bEIGHT LINES OF WINTER, I

Snow drops a scrim over the lake,
softens every outline.
The roads become sepia-tone
caked with dirt and salt.
Behind glass, a small white cat
watches flutters of grey and black
juncos and chickadees
at their perennial cocktail party.

 

EIGHT LINES OF WINTER, II

Snow drops a clouded scrim,
softens every outline.
The roads become sepia-tone.
Snow drops a clouded scrim
on flutters of grey and black
at their perennial cocktail party.
Snow drops. A clouded scrim
softens every outline.


I haven't posted a new poem here in a while. As part of an ongoing effort to be better at self-care (not always the easiest thing for mothers or for clergy), I'm trying to take Tuesdays as self-care days -- which for me often means poetry-writing days.

I have two versions of this one on my desk right now. I can't decide which I prefer. The first has more specifics ("caked with dirt and salt," "juncos and chickadees.") The second works with a known poetic form (the triolet, though mine has neither rhyme nor meter.) Do you like one better than the other?

 

Image source: my flickr stream.


Prayer/poem for autumn nightfall

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Autumn Nightfall

 

You mix the watercolors of the evening
like my son, swishing his brush
until the waters are black with paint.
The sky is streaked and dimming.

The sun wheels over the horizon
like a glowing penny falling into its slot.
Day is spent, and in its place: the changing moon,
the spatterdash of stars across the sky's expanse.

Every evening we tell ourselves the old story:
You cover over our sins, forgiveness
like a fleece blanket tucked around our ears.
When we cry out, You will hear.

Soothe my fear of life without enough light.
Rock me to sleep in the deepening dark.


This coming Friday I'll be teaching the first of a series of monthly classes on the poetry of Jewish liturgical prayer at the coffee shop in my town. (The class is free and open to all.) We'll begin by looking at one of my favorite Hebrew prayers which is also a poem: the ma'ariv aravim blessing for God Who brings on (or "evens") the evenings. Once we've spent some time with the poetry of the prayer itself, we'll also look at some adaptations and some other poems on similar themes, ranging from Rabbi Rayzel Raphael's "Evening the Evenings" to Jane Kenyon's "Let Evening Come" to this new poem of my own.

The final lines are a reference to the prelude to evening prayer, v'hu rachum, a pair of lines from Psalm 78 and from psalm 20. As Elliott Dorff notes (in My People's Prayer Book Vol. 9: Welcoming the Night), "The evening liturgy begins by acknowledging human vulnerability occasioned by nighttime darkness. God, we are assured, will save us from potential dangers. God will protect us from what we fear." As the parent of a young child who is afraid of the dark, I find these lines particularly resonant now. And, of course, many adults who no longer fear the dark still fear the onset of winter's long darkness.

Photo source: my flickr stream.