B+W

On Boundaries, Shabbat, and Not Neglecting the Soul

The soul, like the mat, never asks where the hell have you been? It just says, welcome home.

Shabbat saves my life. This is only slightly an exaggeration. I want to try to tell you why.

Let me start with a couple of rabbis (always a good idea).

In union with the divine we find release from the pain of the futile cycle of searching and disappointment. Shabbat is our refuge of acceptance, our shelter from cravings and strivings. ~ Sheila Peltz Weinberg

… our weekly struggle in the world of achievement and bustle is now at an end. We have repeated the struggles of creation and now we too are called upon to achieve the great inner quiet which is the secret of true rest. ~ Art Green

So we have been trying to go to Friday night services at our wonderful synagogue more regularly. Last night, it was so so cold out — unseasonably so for November. We went out into the dark at 6:00pm and when we arrived at the synagogue, at first we thought maybe services had been cancelled. The building was dark. The sanctuary was locked. Then we realized our mistake: Services were in the smaller space, attached to the social hall. There weren’t many people there, though more trickled in over the next 10 or so minutes.

Like many weeks, it had been a long one. I notice my impulse to qualify this, to say “mostly good stuff.” And the truth is, there was plenty of good. There were two new writing groups as well as three continuing ones, with check-ins and freewrites and stories and poems that reminded me of the magic and power of writing down and hearing each other’s stories. As one new-to-me writer remarked: “I am amazed by how the simplest of prompts and the smallest of moments can have such an enormous impact!”

My kids have both been growing in beautiful and brave ways, and so much of my purpose emanates from my role as their mama. Doing good in the world, knowing this happens from the inside out and isn’t about bravado or badges of honor but about integrity and presence and fierce protection when necessary and letting them find their own way, not influencing that beyond what is impossible to avoid completely, and let them be who they are.

Learning once again that not everyone will a) like me, b) get me, or c) be worth the time. I tend towards forgiving others and being hard on myself, and I’m seeing in profound ways that forgiving myself doesn’t mean the opposite — being hard on others — but it very well might translate into a boundary I didn’t used to know I could draw or didn’t have the confidence to keep. It feels good, to know who gets to be on the inside with me. It feels good to say here, I am entrusting you with something sacred. Or, in other cases, this sanctuary is locked.

It feels good to learn how to recognize my own voice in my head and heart and not second-guess its knowing.

Needless to say, the past week entailed a LOT of output on many levels, and by last night, I was tuckered out. Within moments of the first melody, I felt the tears wanting out. By the beginning of the second song, they were sliding down my cheeks and chin onto my neck. I closed my eyes and felt the relief of returning to myself, to my soul. I knew it had been there waiting, needing to be touched in a way that is physical, though I know logically that doesn’t make sense. But that is how it felt, like a greeting, like a landing, like a communing.

I left the room to go to the bathroom, to blow my nose and wipe my eyes. In the mirror, I saw a middle-aged woman with two dark braids and an oversized sweater. Her face was creased, like she must enjoy the sun or perhaps was once a smoker. Her eyes looked small and slightly red-rimmed from crying. I gazed at her and she looked back at me. I saw something like soul or kindness there in her eyes. I saw a mother who would go the lengths of the earth for her kids. I saw a wife who had found herself and said yes to what was required of her in order to be that person, and then had found love in a way that she swore felt like a reward, even though she didn’t believe karma works quite that neatly. She looked like someone who felt things deeply. She looked tired, yes, and also real, solid. I liked her. I gave her a tiny squint, like a signal that I saw her and we were ok, and then went back to my seat.

Whatever stresses and tension I’d brought with me into that building did not come home with me. I woke this morning to soft, warm skin that feels like home, like roots. We drank coffee in bed and lingered and talked about how love will wither if you don’t work on relationship, but when you are really in, when you choose this person, this partner, this life again and again, even though it can be work, the love is easy. The love is effortless. It thrives when we are doing our part, showing up, bringing our ideas and our silliness and our sorrows and our fears and our dorkiness and our dreams to the table. What a miracle.

Divine love is unconditional. It is available to every one of us when we fashion our lives into channels to receive and share it. ~ Art Green

What I think is important to add or emphasize is that what this fashioning looks like is so personal. Anyone who tells you they know the right way to do it or it must be done a certain way, that only certain channels contain divine love — whatever such a thing means for you — run the other way. Close the door. Block the account. Do whatever you have to do to preserve yourself. Nobody has the right to tell you what your life must be in order to be a channel for divine love.

Nobody gets to declare they know a better path for you or your children, or that you haven’t done your research or given major decisions enough thought. This is not a permission slip to act irresponsibly; it is a mirror for the fact that you are capable, thorough, intelligent, ethical, and committed not only to doing the work life asks you to do but recognizing that there will always be that which you do not and cannot see.

Being steady is not hubris, arrogance, or narcissism. In fact, it’s what makes it possible to be open to all you do not know. It’s evidence that you are a grown woman whose devotion to truth and wellbeing runs deeper than roots you watered out of obligation or fear.

It is practicing standing in your own two footprints, the only ones in the world that are perfectly your size, and knowing how to stay soft and strong at the same time. It is admitting when you don’t know what to do next. It is acknowledging that you are not the only player here, not the only voice, while not abdicating your own intuition, observations, and wisdom.

All of this relies on an ingredient both ever-present and easily neglected: The soul.

This morning in the shower, after our delicious few hours of slow waking and before the yoga class where I planned to meet my middle sister, I called to Mani, “My soul was kind of back-burnered all week. I so needed this day to tend to it.” I knew she’d know what I meant (she did).

Yoga — my first class since I can’t even remember — was a perfect continuation of this intentional touching into soul. Even though I ran and swam throughout the summer and walk an average of 2-3 miles most days just going around, I haven’t had a regular movement practice in way too long. My body soaked up the asanas like an unwatered plant, and I sank into the floor during savasana, a hint of a headache around my temples that alerted me to the need to eat.  I picked up an egg & cheese sandwich at the cafe downstairs, while my sister got a chai. We walked to the parking lot, chatted for a few minutes, and hugged goodbye. It was cold and sunny and felt more like January than November, but my body was warm from class and cozy in a sweater, coat, leggings, and warm hat.

Without this one day a week of listening to the body, not trying to keep up with anything, to responding to anyone unless I simply want to, and connecting with myself, I wonder if old patterns of discontent, restlessness, and martyrdom would flare up more than they do these days.

In his classic book, The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes about the soothing nature of Shabbat:

The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all. It is not a date but an atmosphere.

It is not a different state of consciousness but a different climate; it is as if the appearance of all things somehow changed. The primary awareness is one of our being within the Sabbath rather than the Sabbath being within us. 

That’s exactly it. Taking these 24 or so hours “off” is really a chance to get quiet, to go inward, to look in the mirror, to turn away from the output and towards what is closest. The circles of what’s sacred to me are all beautiful, and when I disregard my soul in the busy mix and the caring for and focusing on others, something gets lost.

It was such a relief in the last 25 hours, to realize that my soul is here and fully intact and so very receptive to the invitation to surface. I love her. I love this life.

 * * *

The is the song that undoes me and makes me whole again; it’s from the fourth verse of Yedid Nefesh, a collection of psalms typically sung on Kabbalat Shabbat. I hope you enjoy it, too.

Higali na ofrus havivi alay et sukkat shelomecha
הִגָלֵה נָא וּפְרשׂ, חָבִיב עָלַי אֶת סֻכַת שְלומָךְ
Please, my Beloved, reveal Yourself and spread upon me your canopy of peace

B+W

A Little Bling Goes a Long Way

It has been months since we slept in past 8:00am. Today, getting up two or three hours later than usual felt downright delicious. Still wrapped in dreams and clean sheets and each other’s softness, waking slowly in our time. “I’m glad we woke up today,” she said, her profile looking timeless in the morning light. “Me too,” I said, giving her a kiss before throwing on a nightgown and going to make the coffee. Mmmmmm. Coffee.

In the afternoon, we went out for a few hours and had fun at Luxe, a consignment store in Northampton, trying on all manner of dresses and jewelry and each finding a couple of things that fit us perfectly and felt good to wear. It’s no small thing, to choose to feel pretty and sexy — not for anyone but ourselves and each other and because we enjoy it and we want to.

This was not always the case for me; in fact, the very first weekend Mani ever came to visit me, not three weeks after our supposed one-night stand in January 2012, we went through every item in my closet and I realized I’d been hiding my body for years.

Back then, I considered it an indulgence to buy things for myself and getting a new article of clothing was a big deal, an exciting event. I’m still not a huge shopper, but there is a certain joy in playing dress-up and occasionally coming across something I love. It doesn’t hurt when said something costs $11 or $16 or $23 and looks brand new. Mostly, though, it’s her company I enjoy.

“Happy Mother’s Day,” I said as she slipped on an unbelievable bracelet shaped like Ganesh and covered with pink rhinestones. I chose a bling-y ring that sparkled irresistibly. We drove home listening to Leonard Cohen and Laura Marling and the “American Honey” soundtrack.

I’m sitting in the quiet of the living room now. It’s 5:15pm. This morning, I shook out the little rug we bought at TJ Maxx to go under the coffee table, and it was so dusty we both started sneezing. Plus, it’s white and shaggy, the kind of thing that looks great when it’s new and clean but is irrecoverable a year or two later, not to mention impossible to vacuum. I cringed a little before tossing it, then swept and tidied up a bit. Now the space feels relatively peacefulas I look out at the rain. The sun never did make it out today.

When I woke up this morning, before I checked the time and saw how late it was, my mind was like a ransacked consignment store — articles of discarded thoughts, strands of song lyrics, and remnants of dreams like mismatched shoes strewn all over, not even remotely organized by size or color or style. After breakfast, we each chose a card from my Vintage Wisdom Oracle deck. Hers was “Centering.” Mine was “Protection.” Driving home from Northampton, I looked at the ring and thought, that’ll do.

Now I want to write something smart about protection, but truthfully I’m just feeling my way into what it means for me right now and have no wisdom whatsoever to impart. That’s how I feel most of the time about everything, come to think of it. We take for granted the things we know the most about; they seem obvious to us. We think, I have no special knowledge to share or story to tell. But the fact is, your whole day is special — the nature of your mind and the rhythm of your day are unlike any other and I, for one, want to hear about it.

Mani is on the phone in the other room and I hear the washing machine in the pantry. The books on the bookshelf are beckoning me and suddenly I want to take them all onto the floor along with magazines and glue and posterboard and markers, to dive deep into what wants to be found. There’s so much wrong with the world, and I am finding that a big part of how I’m dealing with that is to stay close to what is right here — my family, the spring flowers, poetry, and a little bling that goes a long way.

B+W

The Blessing of a Bruised Right Buttock

My whole body is a bit tweaked from the fall I took two nights ago. The rather magnificent bruise on my right buttock (which turned into quite a fun #rightbuttock joke on Facebook) has deepened into a shocking and marvelous set of purples, and I thought that was that.

But yesterday, my neck started feeling achy and I was nauseous, to boot, enough so that I rescheduled an afternoon client so that I could take an Epsom salt bath and a rest rather than pushing through and pretending to be present. There are few worse and more disrespectful things than pretending to be anything, especially present. I was fine the day after the fall; amazing how these things can both take time to become apparent and creep up on you.

Earlier in the day, I’d listened as a different beloved client 3,000 miles away told me about a moment of sitting in her own tangled places — emotional, personal, professional. The entire call, I’d been watching a huge sheet of ice and snow melt in slow, steady drips just outside the south-facing kitchen windows. I told her about it, as it seemed symbolically fitting somehow, then sent her a photo after our call.

This morning, she reciprocated with a texted picture of a Buddha outside in the rain, pointing out that the face was half wet and half dry. It reminded me of the both/and of things; how we can be ok, be calm, be, period, even when we are exposed to the elements.

Sometimes I feel like I’m just recycling the same thoughts and ideas over and over again. I commit to things and then find myself unprepared, literally scrawling noted on the back on an envelope minutes before it’s my turn to speak. I judge myself harshly for being out of my league, but not unkindly for showing up in the first place. Ego is apparent here in many ways: Ego says, you suck. Ego says, you’re amazing. I’m wary of both messages.

My bruised right buttock slowed me down this weekend. After a shower, coffee, and breakfast, Mani went to work on a puzzle in the front hallway. I was debating between reading a book and taking a nap when I heard a crash.

I ran to the other end of our apartment to see if she was ok; she was fine, but her puzzle table had gone down the front steps (what’s up with us and the stairs in our place this week?!), and pieces had gone flying everywhere.

It was while picking them up that I came across  a folder filled with short bits of writing, report cards, awards, and recommendations ranging from 1982 to 1991. I didn’t realize it was in that wooden peach crate with all the photos we’ve been meaning to hang in the front hallway for the last two and half years.

Once she got back to her puzzle, I sat down in the bathroom doorway and started reading through the contents of the folder.

“The most intellectual member of her class,” wrote my guidance counselor in 1990. “Jena is a warm, empathetic, articulate, and spirited individual with a twinkle of humor in her eyes. She is a good listener, and her peers actively seek and value her opinions. Jena is comfortable with herself, and she has a gift for making others feel relaxed whenever they are around her. It is difficult to describe Jena in a few words as there is much depth to this strong-willed, generous and engaging young woman.”

Now, it’s evening. I sit here with that folder at my side, the folder with newspaper clippings announcing national prizes I won for poems and essays about the Holocaust, short stories I started and never finished, a drawing from fifth grade of African-American anti-slavery activist and poet Charlotte Forten Grimké, and the one that really cracked me up, from a P.E. teacher who said I had “weak abdominals” (some things really never change).

There’s an uncomfortable sensation but I can’t fully put my finger on it. And then it hits me: I am wondering if I have lived up to this girl’s promise. And then something even bigger hits me: She wondered the same thing.

Suddenly, here we are, the two of us, my 43-year-old self and my 10- and 15- and 17- year-old selves. And I want to sit and look her in the eyes. I want to say: Hey you, in there. You don’t have to be amazing, you know.

As I sit here, another wave of thought comes rushing up to me. It goes something like this:

See? This is why it’s best to close the doors and leave them closed. What purpose is there in revisiting this old stuff? You can either use it as evidence of how totally YOU you were back then, or of how totally NOT you you were then. You can make it a badge or a weapon. You can spin any story you want, and they will all be true and none of them will be true. 

I find a collection of ten poems I put together in 1998, after my first year of grad school. One is called “After an Absence,” by Linda Pastan. It begins:

After an absence that was no one’s fault
we are shy with each other,
and our words seem younger than we are,
as if we must return to the time we met
and work ourselves back to the present,
the way you never read a story
from the place you stopped
but always start each book all over again.

Sometimes life is like this. We start the same book all over again. And again, and again. We forget who we were, carrying only memory ghost imprints of our younger selves. The once who were bursting with ideas. “Enthusiasm and delight” is how my Amherst College professor described my relationship to the Spanish language; I was 15, a junior in high school.

And then there is “Kannon” by Sam Hamill. How bizarre; he doesn’t know me from Eve but we are Facebook friends now 20 years later, and I watch from afar as his health dwindles. As a woman in my early 20s, his poetry spoke to some deeply human and impossible part of me.

I adore you. I love you
completely. Nothing to ask in return.

Each act of affection a lesson:
I fail, but with each failure, learn.

Like studying
under Te-shan:

thirty blows if I can’t answer,
thirty blows if I can.

And William Stafford’s “Awareness,” yet another hint of what I knew I didn’t yet know. Here are the final two stanzas:

Of hiding important things because
they don’t belong in the world.

Of now. Of maybe. Of something
different being true.

And Mary Oliver’s “March,” which ends:

“Something touched me, lightly, like a knife blade. Somewhere I felt I was bleeding, though just a little, a hint. Inside, I flared hot, then cold. I thought of you. Whom I love, madly.”

The girl I was, the teenager, the young woman, the young wife, the new mother — all of these matryoshka dolls stacked one inside another. I sit here this evening as the light fades. Much of the snow on our neighbor’s roof has melted from the storm a few days ago, and soon soon soon, spring will come for real. I feel like a grown up, even though I question what that actually means.

Oh, life. You have such a way about you.

I think it has to do with a bruised buttock — a fleshy one, too, not like the underweight ass of my youth. It has to do with mad love and evenings in, with poems as portents, with potential unfolding and dying in every single moment, rather than as something to bottle up and stash for emergencies. It has to do with being the mama now, who is strong enough to sit still, to say, “you are safe.” To mother and live in such a way that my kids can find their way to being truly themselves. And it definitely has to do with what happens when I stop trying to be good enough and instead, just love the person I’ve always been.

I look out the window at the dark, then turn to myself and say:

Keep reading for hints and watching for clues. Keep scribbling notes and paying attention to which poems grab you by the heart. Keep sharing delight and enthusiasm — for language, for learning, for stories and poems. Keep showing up, whether you feel prepared or not. Keep diving in where things are tangled and keep coming up for air where the sun shines and melts away what seems impossible and permanent. Let the seasons change. Listen to the body. It knows how to heal. Healing is possible. 

B+W

We Have to Learn the Whole Script, Not Just Our Own Lines

Photo: Allef Vinicius

Saturday, 4:30pm

The indoor soccer stadium is teeming with movement and noise. Boys’ and girls’ teams of various ages on multiple fields — from fifth grade on up through high school. On my right, two girls climb on the underside of the stands, their dreads flying beneath them as they dangle from the crooked slats. My youngest, Pearl, has a game at 5:00. It’s the first time I’ve ever brought my computer here to write while her team — the Amherst Hurricanes — practices.

Today, she yielded to my suggestion of wearing long underwear beneath her soccer shorts; after all, the wind chill is well below zero. But the moment we got here, she bee-lined to go change. Since Pearl presents as male and prefers to use the men’s bathroom, I stood sentry near the door, far enough away not to crowd her but close enough to sate my inner mama bear.

I love watching these kids play; they’ve got the teamwork thing down — their pats on the back and fist bumps after near misses, successful blocks, and, of course, goals all make me melt a little.

She’d probably die that I wrote that, and full disclosure, hormones make me even mushier than usual, which is already on the high side. But I really am a sucker for the friendship thing.

This weekend, Aviva took the train with her cousin — they are three months apart and we’ve called them the Bobsy Twins for the entirety of their 14+ years on the planet together — to NYC to visit a posse of summer camp friends. They planned meticulously; in addition to saving money for the trip, part of the “yes” on behalf of all of the parental units was that they take charge of the logistics (rules for unaccompanied minors and a detailed plan for the weekend itself, from phone numbers to sleeping arrangements).

Needless to say, I got a little teary at the photo of them standing on the Amtrak platform, on their way not only to the City but clearly to the Rest of Their Lives, too.

Pearl and I attempted to brave the cold this morning with a new frisbee, but the wind forced us to toss it back and forth under some bleachers at the Amherst College lacrosse fields — not ideal. We threw in the towel after 10 minutes or so, opting instead of hot chocolate at home. The fact that she wants to spend time with me feels like this thing that could go *poof* at any minute. And since there’s no way for me to know when that will be, I’m inclined to say sure, let’s play frisbee even though it’s colder than a witch’s tit out there (OMG don’t you love that expression?).

I did glance ever so briefly at Facebook this morning. I saw headlines and stories that made my blood run cold: A rally in Maricopa County — Phoenix — where pro-Trump folks called for “liberal genocide” and the deportation of Jews. A move that can only be called a purge of the Justice Department. An interview with Nigerian feminist author and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in which she states that experiences of trans women shouldn’t be conflated with those of [cis] “women.”

Then I closed the computer and said to Mani, “Who do we think is going to save us from this?”

This is why I take one day a week “off” — mostly, somewhat — from interacting online. This is why we do Shabbat.

Shabbat saves me.

Sunday, 7:30am

The birdsong conceals these temperatures; you’d think it was a balmy 60-degree morning by their exuberant greetings. Daylight Savings Time means moving slowly this morning. With Aviva still in New York and Pearl having had a sleepover, the house is otherwise quiet.

This weekend was Purim. It falls among the nine-word Jewish holidays and festivals: They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.

In this case, it was Haman, leader of Persia, who plotted to destroy the Jewish People. The hero in this story is in fact a heroine, Esther. And interestingly, Purim takes place during the month of Adar, a fortuitous month when joy is said to increase, ushering in a season of miracles that culminate with Passover, the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.

One Purim tradition is to dress up and wear masks, making all kinds of loud boo-ing noises every time Haman’s name is mentioned in the story (we read Esther’s scroll, aka “the whole megillah”). One thing I love about Hebrew is that words all have roots that reveal more layers of meaning: in this case, Adar has its origins in Adir, suggesting strength and power.

Just take a quick minute to let that sink in: Joy has its roots in strength and power.

OK. So we wear masks on Purim, and recall the story of this greedy king, Ahashverosh, who has one primary policy: Himself (read more). I tend to agree with this interpretation by Jay Michaelson, presciently written a year ago, before nominee Trump was so-called elected to be President Trump. Bannon is the real Haman here.

Will the women save us? Will we throw off our masks or don them in mockery of demagoguery and evil?

There is, of course, more to the story. But in the night, it was the masks I kept returning to the tradition of dressing up on Purim, trying on different aspects of ourselves even as we condemn evil and celebrate victory.

“It is our practice to cross-dress on Purim – find the other in yourself. Dress up and try on Esther’s role, be Haman the villain, the king and the assassin. The Scroll of Esther invites you onto the stage of history. For what cause would you risk giving up your privilege, position, and lifestyle? For what would you risk your life? For what principles or causes ought a person to risk life? Is the King of unawareness and apathy, Ahashverosh there inside too? Better to discover these qualities in play than to act them out and destroy what it means to be a Jew.” ~ Rabbi Goldie Milgram :: read more

I think often of blind spots: What don’t I know I don’t know? How do I remember what I’ve forgotten and further pull back the opaque curtains of my own ignorance? How do I save my people and where am I unknowingly contributing to my cousins’ peril?

We have to put ourselves in the shoes of all the players. We have to learn the whole script — not just our own lines — in order to fully grok the show. And a show it is — a comic-tragedy of epic, real-life proportions.

Against this backdrop, right on this stage, my kids are coming of age. They are learning how to play fair in a landscape that’s anything but. They come with many advantages — not the least of which are fair skin and good looks. This alone is so many kinds of wrong my head wants to explode, but rather than wringing my hands, I must keep helping them see what everyday experiences they undertake that would not be imaginable for an undocumented kid, for example.

Also in Jewish tradition, I seek out more questions rather than claiming to have answers:

What does my white privilege have to do with agreeing to allow my teenager to travel unaccompanied by train? What does class privilege have to do with allowing my biologically female child to use the men’s room in a public arena? What does being Jewish have to do with our role in this unraveling world, where in our tradition, we are commanded to ditch all of the commandments if it means saving one life — Jewish or not?

Time for another splash of coffee. Time to kiss my wife good morning (again). Time to shower, get dressed, and look in the mirror, directly into my own eyes, to make sure I’m all the way here. No masks. No deceit. May I move into the day awake. No one is coming to save us.

“That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — [and now] go study.” ~ Rabbi Hillel :: read more 

B+W

For My Wife Who Keeps it Simple

Sky
Sometimes you want to read just the right poem for the end of the week but you look and look and none of the poems are that poem so you realize you have to go and write your own end-of-week poem.

When I am cranky and hormonal
your vacation photos make me jealous
and then I feel like a shmuck
because I’m sitting here
in my comfortable home
while the washer and dryer spin.

When I am fried and spent
your politics make me spout off
reminding me of people I don’t like
being around who never stop talking
and make you wonder when on earth
the evening will be late enough
to make a graceful exit home.

When I am dripping wet with pond water
and the sun hasn’t yet gone down
but the day is still sticky
with the unconsummated threat of rain
and I see you on the beach
I focus on my blue towel
and rub the sand from between my toes
so as not to have to say hello.

When I admit things that make me human
that seem ugly and even despicable
and then I finally have that cry
the quaking one I waited all week for
she still loves me and I am amazed.

“Thank you for carrying me,”
she says, and I look at her
all of my disbelief melting
into the relief of the reception
so clear between us,
like a radio station
with DJs whose voices
make me want to turn it up
and drive all night,
one hand on the wheel
and the other on her thigh
till we get to some all-night dive and in this part
of the fantasy that has taken over the poem
she can order anything she wants
from that giant trifold menu.

We get margaritas and cheese fries
then lie on the warm hood of the car,
fingers interlocked and stars falling
over our heads like the rain we needed
that never came
and I forget why I was such a martyr
and I forget why I ever felt like crying
and we turn our heads
knowing it’s a movie moment
crack a smile
lips touching
and decide to stay like this — wait for it —
forever.