A Drive, a Dog, and a Question

Maybe I’m avoiding politics, or maybe it’s the restlessness that sometimes accompanies my cycle, even as it grows shorter and less reliable. Maybe it’s the fall air, warm for September yet still hinting at change. Maybe it’s being home with a puppy and Mani not feeling well, that sudden need to get out of the house.

I piled her into the backseat, on top of the seat cover we got so as not to destroy the car with fur. Pulled up a podcast I’ve been wanting to listen to, hit play, and started driving. As soon as we got on the highway, I felt like I’d made a mistake. Somehow, Chalupa had gotten herself underneath the seat cover, so now it was above her. Like a toddler in a fort, she panted and paced, and I regretted not harnessing her. I regretting getting in the car at all.

A wave of anxiety came over me.

With the dog panting, her head between the two front seats, eyes on the road — no joke — I kept my hands on the wheel. The internet cut out, and with it, the podcast, so it was just me, dog, traffic, and the question of why I had thought this would be a good idea. She was shedding all over the seats of Mani’s car. I imagined telling Mani about the whole outing when we got home. How it had seemed like a good idea at the time.

You may be wondering: What is she even talking about? Why is this a big deal? And rationally speaking, it wasn’t. An impulsive outing to a town 30 minutes north of here with my puppy in the backseat — maybe not the most relaxing choice, but certainly nothing to beat myself up about. And yet, that’s exactly what I found myself doing as I drove, trying to soothe her, vividly reliving the days of having a baby and needing to do anything but stay home and driving, but instead of falling asleep, the baby just cries and your stress levels go up instead of down.

I pulled over at a Dunkin’ Donuts and walked around the side, then the back. Chalupa peed. She sniffed an abandoned stroller and I wondered what had happened there. Then Chalupa pooped and sniffed some more, before we walked back around to the front of the store. I opened the entrance door wide enough to ask the woman at the counter if we could have a cup of water, and she kindly brought one outside. Chalupa lapped it up, leaving a small puddle by her front paws, and I heaved her back into the backseat (she’s not quite tall enough to leap up herself).

It was not a relaxing outing.

I didn’t listen to the podcast. I didn’t even listen to music. Driving with doggles did not make Kavanaugh go away, nor the cold that has hit my family, one of us at a time over the past week. It didn’t alleviate my unfounded anxiety or give me any great ideas. I was just glad to get home. Apparently, Chalupa was, too; she is crashed out under the kitchen table now.

Some days, I feel this tug I can’t name. It’s part sad, part dull, part blank, part tired. It’s the parts of me I think of as less appealing. I am quiet, introverted. I don’t have much to say. I don’t have sparkles or glitter or pizzazz. I am just here. I am breathing. I am alive. It is a day.

When my kids were little, there were days when their dad would get home and I would be so done. Crazed to “get out” for a while. I would go bring my notebook to the lake, but didn’t always have much to write. I think it was more of an accompaniment, a gesture to myself, as if to say: I am still a writer, even though I have nothing to say.

Having nothing to say is scary for a writer.

And sometimes, it’s true. The words don’t form. The thoughts don’t click. The impetus misses its cue and leaves you alone on stage with no lines. The audience, though? There is no audience. Just a floor. a raised curtain, and row after row of red velvet seating.

In moments like these, the temptation is to make something of it. Like Daniel, Fudge’s little friend in the Judy Blume series, who always puts up his fists: “Wanna make something of it?”Always ready for battle, for struggle, for meaning, for implications — none of them good. But maybe that is one of the things I’ve learned in the intervening years since my babies were babies: There is no need to create a big story around a low-energy day, or a bout of restlessness, or a spike of anxiety. The world gives us plenty reason for all of these.

Still, I want to know why.

Why do I feel sad? Why do I feel blue? Why do I get myself into circumstances that exacerbate rather than alleviate stress?

It’s quiet now. Quiet outside — just Chalupa’s little breathing noises — and quiet inside. Thoughts of not being enough flit through my head, and I try to observe them the way you can at Magic Wings, the place on Route 5 where you can sit on a bench amidst hundreds of fluttering butterflies. They land, they alight. They hover, they lift. They feed, they rest.

The state of our country is weighing on me heavily today, like watching a train wreck in slow motion, car after car after car. Grief wells up in me, and I want to dive inward to find its source even as I know its source may be older and deeper than memory. Moments from my own childhood bubble up — moments when one of my parents was fearful or angry, moments when I froze or retreated. Consciousness feels like a strong current some days, and I worry about getting swept down the river.

On the way back this afternoon from the drive I might as well not have taken, I crossed the blue bridge over the Connecticut River. The water looked impenetrable from above, and I found myself imagining swimming across from one shore to the other. Would the water be warm or cold? Would there be a current? Would I make it?

Will we make it?

This is the question I’m carrying. At the beginning of the day when all is once again new, in the middle when hunger soars or energy dips, at the end when it is time to surrender all that remains undone, I wonder if we will make it. As a country. As a species. As humans with such deep capacity to love and also such terrifying ability to destroy.

I take refuge under a prayer shawl, in a pew, in a people. I seek shelter in ancient prayers and everyday tasks that give life meaning. And I hope it is enough. Yom Kippur is coming, and the stakes feel higher than ever.

Atonement and Action


I just ate a bowl of chicken noodle soup.

In Puerto Rico, millions of people are facing not only devastating conditions, but genocide.

Our president is an evil man. Worse than evil. Less than a man.

The rabbi’s sermon this morning stirred my soul. He spoke to our “rich and haunted” history as a people, and the need to watch for Jewish “erasure.” He also paired this with a powerful and much-needed message to our congregation, in the context of white supremacy and who is its target today: He noted that there is a big difference between bring triggered and being threatened.

As Jews in America, we are not under threat, not in the way that African-Americans are every day. Our great-grandparents came to this country to escape pogroms and worse. They came and built better lives — on land “soaked with the blood of Africans.” Of slaves. Of native people obliterated to make room for our future. These are sins for which we need to be atoning through action for the rest of our lives — whether it was “our” people or not who committed these acts. As people who have benefited in this country, we are — in the words of the rabbi — also perpetrators of oppression.

I’m so thankful for this kind of leadership and eloquence on a subject the Jewish community must grapple with and act on. And while today we prayed, while today we atoned for our inevitable shortcomings as individuals and as a community, tomorrow, he said pointedly, “we march.” It is not an either/or but a both/and; our activism is borne of both a deep identification with oppression, as well as an acute awareness that we are not, currently, an oppressed people. Nobody every pulled over a Jew, saw the name Schwartz or Rosenberg on their license, and shot them dead. It’s crass but it bears saying.

I was grateful for his strong stance. There was nothing neutral about his sermon; he acknowledged both the complexity and simplicity of our role as Jews in white supremacist culture. And later, woven seamlessly into the end of the morning service, came unflinching words about the humanitarian crisis that’s growing by the day in Puerto Rico, where millions of fellow U.S. citizens are facing life-and-death conditions.

Fasting, the rabbi pointed out, does not help us concentrate on our prayers. On the contrary, it heightens our embodied awareness that to be hungry makes it difficult to concentrate on just about anything other than the hunger. This is the texture of Yom Kippur.

There are two equally potent aspects to Jewish tradition. One is to cultivate ritual and sacred refuge, sources of prayer and peace where we can turn for solace during challenging times. Thank goodness for this, for without spaces in which we can restore our inner equilibrium, we risk burnout, self-righteousness, and a loss of connection to the source of our actions. But the other aspect of who we are as a people is also crucial: To pray with our feet, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel. To take to the proverbial and literal streets to work tirelessly for social justice — for racial justice, for an end to poverty and hunger, for environmental repair.

There were opportunities to stand on the bimah during the Torah and Haftarah readings, one for those who wished for a blessing, to shore up practices that support inner scaffolding, the second for those seeking fortification for action. An important point here is that according to this rabbi, when faced with the question of which of these branches defines our tradition, the answer is “yes.”

Isaiah’s lesson is that fasting alone is not enough, unless there is a moral and ethical foundation to the ritual behavior. {Source: My Jewish Learning}

As Jews, we hold the epigenetic memory of genocide, expulsion, and trauma. It’s what first woke me to my own Jewish identity as a teenager; dreams of being ripped apart from family, of running through the forest, of hidden identity and of being led into gas chambers haunted my dreams as a senior in high school when I dove into the beginnings of learning my own history for the first time.

Some people will always hate Jews. This is irrefutable.  But as Jews, we are also no longer victims. In fact, we have thrived in this country in ways that are disproportionate to our numbers — a source of both pride and shame. Without forgetting who we are, it’s critical that we also recognize that our whiteness is not separate from the relative prosperity and privileges we’ve come to enjoy, even as there are still plenty who will hold our success up as reason for more hatred.

After services, Mani and I came home and took a rest. I slept for three hours, dreams informed by hunger and the kind of clarity borne of sustained prayer. As the Book of Life closes and the year 5778 commences, I pray that my work in this world be driven by the desire for all people to be free. I pray for humility and inspiration that allow me to be of continued service, holding spaces for others to dive into their own histories and roles as fellow humans to each other on this beautiful, broken planet. I pray that my fellow Jews grapple with the complexity of our moral obligation, while not getting theoretical about things that are urgently tangible.

Also, I plan to ask Rabbi Weiner for a written copy of his Yom Kippur sermon, to read again, to study, and to share.

G’mar chatima tova. May you be sealed in the Book of LIfe. 

PLACES TO GIVE :: EVERY $1 COUNTS

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American Black Cross Disaster Relief Effort

A List of Trusted Organizations Offering Aid :: Help Puerto Rico

10 Ways to Show Puerto Ricans Love

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Unidos por Puerto Rico

The Days of Awe: Time to Return

Image: Mark Hearld

It’s the last day of the Jewish year. This is the time of year when Jews practice what’s called t’shuvah (Hebrew: תשובה‎‎), which literally means return. It’s usually translated as repentance, but honestly that never resonates with me. The idea of returning, however — turning back towards what’s important, what’s true, even what some of us may consider sacred — this is a beautiful practice.

Take some time today to write about returning.

It may be something specific in yourself or your life that you’re ready to return to, or a more general reorientaton on your writing + life path. Whatever comes to mind, trust that. Don’t overthink it — just start and keep going and let it be a kind of meditation, knowing the words will lead you exactly in the right direction.

Surely there have been times in the past year when I fell down on my intentions, got sideswiped by the two-sided sword of self-doubt and self-importance, and otherwise distracted from what was right in front of me. I dreamed last night that I had a hurtful fight with someone I love; I wonder if it was my subconscious reminding me these the Days of Awe are for making amends, for saying, I’m sorry. For sitting fully with the fullness of our experience and honest evaluation of what needs to fall away.

I made mistakes knowingly and unknowingly. I stumbled, tripped, and got back up again. I caused pain without meaning to, and for this, too, I must hold myself accountable. And in the coming months, in the new year, I know I will be imperfect as I continue to feel my way on this path of right livelihood, of marriage and mothering, of sisterhood and friendship, and of resistance and communal responsibility.

I come here today not only with a writing prompt, but to ask your forgiveness for ways in which I have let you down, or may disappoint in the future.

If my life is a prayer, I hope it’s one that aspires to the mountaintop but loves the overgrown trail, too. I hope it’s as clear and present on the difficult terrain as the parts that are well-tended. Whether weary or energized, may I remain aware that my thoughts, words, choices, and actions all affect others, as well as to remember that I am but a speck of stardust in the unfathomable grasp of creation.

I don’t know if I’ll make it to services tonight, as I’m working in bed with what has turned into a nasty cold and I sure wouldn’t want to sit next to me at the moment. I realized yesterday that I often come down with something in September; it’s as if my body knows it’s time to slow all the way down, to nourish and take stock in ways that require a degree of stillness. Stillness feels like a luxury item in this season of my life — which is all the more reason to make room for it.

There are knots in my shoulders and knots in my heart; some will loosen easily while I may work to undo others for the rest of my life. As it’s written in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers): “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Every year, every day, every moment is an opportunity to return. During the Days of Awe — between the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when it’s believed that the Book of Life lies open — this work is more densely concentrated.

These ten days always carry for me a quality of intense exposure. I do my best not to hide, not to mask, not to dodge and duck what’s true. Instead, to sit and say, Hineni — I am here. To take my seat in the sanctuary and reflect on what it means to live a life of authenticity, integrity, and meaning.

The birds are going particularly crazy right now; I hear them out the window behind me and see them through the windows across the room, darting in and out of the still-green branches. I am, in a very literal sense, surrounded by the song of returning. And there’s an urgency to their movements and sounds, starlings like jet-black barometers of the changing season, as if they, too, are congregating.

Whether you’re Jewish or not, in the spirit of the holiday that begins tonight at sundown: May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. May your days be filled with sweetness, health, and creative juices. May justice prevail and may we dismantle oppressive systems that rely on greed, ignorance, racism, and a disdain for the poorest among us. May we have the wisdom to turn inward to face our own limitations rather than lashing out in accusation or judgment. May we be fierce in our self-love as a force for loving others, and may we place our respect for life, for the planet, and for humanity above our own material wants and desires. May we be part of repairing what’s rent and healing what’s broken.

L’shana tova. 

Finding Refuge in Ourselves and Each Other

sundownI know better than to say anything external can make my life a living hell, but when Mani was very, very sick, I thought just that: Maybe her being very, very sick was making my life a living hell. In some ways, this was true. It was also making her life a living hell.

There was this one time, when I was writing about looking at that situation from someone else’s perspective, standing in someone else’s proverbial shoes, that I finally stepped into hers. Mind you, this was at a time when even a feather touch to her feet could send her through the roof with pain. No doctor could say what the source was of this peripheral neuropathy, but it definitely fell into the “living hell” category. I wrote and wrote. I got out of my own head. I got over myself for ten minutes, and then read her what I’d written. And it was one of those moments, a turning point — she felt heard and seen in a new way, and I felt less imprisoned by my own selfishness.

I spent the morning in synagogue. Not everyone, but many people were wearing all white, as is customary on Yom Kippur. I remembered for once to bring a tallit, or prayer shawl; when Mani and I got married two years ago, we ordered a two-person one from Israel, and they accidentally sent us two. So I brought the one that is all white and linen-colored. When we arrived (Pearl came with me and we sat in a row with my middle sister’s family; Aviva slept in as she attempted to fast), I lifted the tallit over my head as I’ve seen many others do. I did not say the actual blessing for wearing a tallit (Jews have a blessing for pretty much everything), but I did hover underneath it for a good long minute alone. And you know? It was a kind of paradise in there. It really was.

Under the tallit, I felt sheltered. I remembered that that space is always available to me, and asked myself in that silent place why I don’t take refuge there more often.

Same reason I don’t take refuge more often in general, comes the likely answer. On the yoga mat. In the woods or a bathtub. On a chair under a blanket with a book. Even in the kitchen, making a slow-cooked meal rather than a quick and easy one. So many places to find that readily available sensation of peace, and yet — I take detour after detour and then wonder, as if it’s some great mystery, why I am (fill in the blank — exhausted, headachy, grouchy, overwhelmed, etc).

The next hours were spend singing. Alternately sitting and standing. We got there when the sanctuary was pretty much filled up, so I did not have a machzor, or prayer book. And this was ok. It was paradise, too. Nothing to follow along with, no page numbers to keep track of. Just my voice joining with the ones beside, before, and behind me, following some ancient rhythms of collective responsibility and second chances.

This afternoon, Mani had a doctor’s appointment with her immunologist; he was blown away by how well she is doing — no wheelchair, no cane even, no epipen for over a year, and she has weaned herself off of some of the most hardcore opiates out there. (Can I get an amen?) He also brought up politics, and told us he’s been asking all of his patients for the past month or so who they’re voting for. We joked that seeing as we Jewish gay women who would very much like to stay legally married, he could probably guess.

While we were in the waiting room, I saw a post from writer Lesléa Newman in my Facebook feed. It was a photo of Matthew Shepard — his young, beautiful face accompanied by her words:

“In Judaism, the number 18 stands for life. Today is the 18th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death. It is also Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This feels very significant to me. Matthew Shepard believed passionately in social justice. Let us carry on his legacy today and every day by working hard to make the world a more peaceful and kinder place for all.”

matthew-shepard
Seeing this the day after National Coming Out Day after spending the morning in communal prayer ushered me home to everything I hold dear: Being free to live one’s truth — and our collective responsibility to make sure doing so is safe and — better yet — embraced.

In fact, something Rabbi Weiner said this morning, while offering a blessing for those who rose with an intention to stand up and speak out for social justice in the new year, spoke to me so personally: Sometimes a thing has to be broken in order to be repaired.

Sometimes a thing has to be broken in order to be repaired. This was certainly true for me of coming out. And I can’t help but wonder — with a cautious tinge of optimism — if it could be true for our country, too.

And yet, for many people, coming out is not safe. There is no place of refuge for this emergence, one that so often requires breaking with one’s own past in profound ways. There may not be a welcome committee imagining life in your shoes, or waiting with warm cookies and a toaster oven. For many people, to come out — be it along the LGBTQ spectrum or in other ways, as artists, as activists, as women with stories we’ve never shared, as speaking in fierce opposition to power, as spiritual — is not only scary but unfathomable.

And that is truly a living hell: To have to wear a mask inside of your own life.

As Yom Kippur came to a close and I heated up a bowl of homemade chicken soup to break my fast, as the light began to go down over the blaze of October leaves, I considered the ways in which I want to seal the year behind us and welcome the one just now beginning. As an individual, yes, one who takes responsibility for my words and actions and their impact on others. And as a member of a community — the Jewish people, the American people — who is also responsibility for doing my part to ensure that ALL of us have safe spaces.

If my wife is in pain, I must step outside of myself to imagine her experience. If my fellow human must hide who she is, may my words and presence contribute some small dose of safety to her emergence. Refuge should not fall into the category of privilege or luxury. It can’t be bought, sold, or traded, nor are some of us more deserving than others.

May 5777 — and November 8 — bring evidence that we will uphold this truth not only as self-evident, but as sacred and civic duty, individually and collectively.