Look for the Miriams: Everyday Magic, Day 956

The oneg (reception) afterwards with the delicious food Sue prepared

A few hours after the Tree of Life shooting, we clung to each other — singing, praying, crying — at the Beth Israel Center in Madison, WI. Family members, old and new friends, and synagogue goers — most of them elders, just like the people murdered in Pittsburgh while praying, gathered for a Miriam’s Well reading preceded by a Havdalah service, a 10-minute Saturday evening ritual to close the Sabbath and welcome the new week. But with the pain we carried from the worst anti-semitic attack in U.S. history, the braided Havdalah candle, the only light in the dark sanctuary, took on new, and unfortunately for us (a people targeted throughout history for annihilation) old meaning.

Later that night, my friend Mary Ellen, who was among us, wrote me, “I keep thinking about the Mr. Rogers quote about what can we do when bad things happen to feel better. He said ‘Look for the helpers”’ He might have meant the first responders, but I think it’s for all healers and folks who create. Maybe he should have said ‘Look for the Miriams.'” Given that the shooting happened in Fred Rogers’ neighborhood, this is all the more appropriate.

Miriam — storied in the Torah and ample midrash (interpretations in prose, poetry, and other arts) — leads us singing and dancing in the desert of our times no matter where we wander and for how long. She also carries a stone she can turn into a well to allow the refugee Jews to water their animals and grow food, which in turn, provides sustenance and survival. How this works, as Naomi in my novel tells Miriam, isn’t clear, “But healing is always a mystery, isn’t it?”

I see Miriam as one who feeds her people’s bodies and souls; all around me, I see many Miriams. Our long-time friend Sue not only hosted us and prepared a beautiful spread of desserts from the novel (rugalah, lemon bars, carrot cake and more), but as regularly as most people breathe,  she serves her community, from making food for mourners, to bravely heading off to Shabbat services just minutes after she heard of the shooting. Marty, our administrative director at our local Jewish synagogue, brings great presence, calm, and love to wherever task she does and room she enters. My sister-in-law Karen spends several weekends each month taking care of our mother-in-law, baking her favorite pie with her, making stews and inviting us to come eat too. Kelley sings for people across the country, lending her voice and being to many benefits, embodying one of the songs we co-wrote, “You Gotta Be the Vessel.” My daughter Natalie, who fiercely supports people under attack, whether because they’re of color, trans, or suffering from mental illness, posted this on Facebook after the attacks: “My heart aches with you. But even through my grief, I am HERE for you. May this horrific event unify us as a community and make us stronger!” I could go on for not just inches of text, but yards and even miles about all the Miriams in plain sight.

Sue and me

Our communities themselves can also enact Miriam or Mary or  Lakshmi or other symbol of Tikkun Olam — rebuilding the broken world — through coming together in vigil, action, witnessing, and change-making. Moving forward as a people, a nation, a world requires all of us to find our innate Miriams from whatever our traditions: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, spiritual, religious, or communal. WWJD is one light to follow, and there are many more beings of light, mythic and/or historic, long gone or right here among us.

People have an amazing capacity to come together in song, prayer, and tears, but also, afterwards, in keeping on keeping on. Within minutes of the Havdalah service ending, I started reading from Miriam’s Well, and we began laughing. The heightened moment and this audience’s visceral understanding of Miriam as well as the New York City subway system, the 1965 blackout, and other nuances of history, amplified everyone’s responses. Life calls on us to come together, make something greater than the sum of our seemingly separate selves, and together make our way toward the light: peace, justice, respect, homecoming. Healing may be mysterious, but it rarely happens by accident.

Look for the Miriams, whoever she is to or within you, and make of your life your own braided candle to light and hold high.

Special thanks to Elissa Pollack for arranging this event and to Beth Copelovitch for leading the Havdalah services

Holding Tight To Bliss Road in a Time of Climate Change: Everyday Magic, Day 955

One of the wonders of this world are mountains of maples at the peak of fall foliage, and I was lucky enough to dwell among recently at the Power of Words conference at Goddard College.  The big picture mind-blowing expanses are all around, from a distance golden variegated hazes that upon closer range become crazy quilts of red, rust, orange, yellow, and green. But what really grabbed my heart was the more narrow and up close light in action of the trees and sky, especially when driving up and down curvy and lilting country roads.

The aptly named Bliss Road, near Montpelier, Vermont, is one of those, but so is John Fowler Road, just east of Plainfield, and several other roads that led me up mountain sides and across stretches of brilliance near Marshfield. I followed color and light through dizzying beauty that kept eclipsing itself after days of rain and clouds that showed a more color-saturated side of fall. Heading up one mountain and turning down a long road, supposedly a dead end although I didn’t reach the end of it, I lost the road to the leaves. It was Bliss Road no matter where I went, particularly on paths I walked throughout central Vermont. 

Coming home, I encountered this urgent and heart-breaking update of what many of us knew already but now see in stark contrast: “U.N. Says Climate Genocide is Coming. It’s Worse Than That.” It makes my jaunt through the ancient glories of maple tree nirvana seem like pure escapism, which, to some extent, it was. Also reading the New York Times article “Major Climate Describes a Strong Risk of Crisis as Early as 2040,” brought me back to how endangered they and we are as well as how illuminated everything is.

There’s plenty to do on a personal, local, national, and global scale, and while the articles I cited share some of the big-picture needs and dangers, back home on the small scale, I’m realizing how I can no longer be silent when I encounter climate change deniers, figuring — as I did in the past — that eventually they’ll “get it,” because while they and all of us will, in horrendous ways that multiple human and more-than-human species suffering beyond what many of us imagine, it’s clearly past time to speak out.

My friend Lise on a blissful path at Goddard College

So I’m saying here that if you also love traversing blissful paths or roads — wherever that is for you — and want to keep marveling and moving through this beautiful life; if you love your or others’ kids and grandkids; if you believe in the sanctity of life, then let’s have these hard conversations, draw on real science and deep love of each other and life. Whatever we can do  for the big picture (writing congress people, joining and contributing to groups, supporting initiatives such as carbon taxes and other ways to make sure cooler heads and temps prevails) and for the intimate picture of our daily lives (reducing our carbon footprint, conserving water, diving into the hard dialogues with family or friends who deny what’s happening), we need to do for our endangered and illuminated lives.

Long live Bliss Road, and may we be wise and strong enough to keep walking it.

I’m Heartbroken for Our Country: Everyday Magic, Day 954

Yesterday, a woman spoke with great poise, integrity, and courage about how she was terrified that the supreme court nominee would accidentally kill her when he put his hand over her mouth while sexually assaulting her. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford told a room full of career politicians and also our nation and world about the attack and trauma that derailed her life when she was only 16 years old, a moment when two men’s laughter — with all its scorn and privilege — landed in her psyche in a way she could never forget. Recounting how a combination of Kavanaugh being drunk and her wearing a one-piece bathing suit under her clothes was all that saved her from being raped, she spoke of her survival and its cost. This she shared with a room of old white men and some women who were determined, no matter what she said, to confirm Kavanaugh, possibly right now as I’m writing this. “I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified,” she told all of us.

I cannot fathom how anyone hearing her testimony and Kavanaugh’s smug and angry testimony (not to mention his tone and demeanor that’s not what any us, despite our political views, want in a supreme court judge) could not be moved, could not think about the women, men, and others they know who have carried the burning weight of similar trauma. I cannot imagine how any senators or representatives from Lindsey Graham to Kansas’ own Pat Roberts can vote to confirm Kavanaugh given what happened yesterday. What must it take to have siloed your own conscience in such a way that you could go the party line at the price of your own humanity?

But I can fathom what it is to carry — as I titled my book about the Holocaust — a needle in the bone — the remnant (that can’t be removed and we make a protective shield around) of being tortured, yes, truly tortured, by another human. I’ve listened to many people share their stories of sexual assault and near misses: a woman whose brother regularly raped her, a man who was date-raped, a friend who just barely made it to her car in time after a date, another who didn’t. I hear my daughter telling me how she’s cat-called almost daily in Minneapolis. I drive by frat houses where I see gaggles of young women tipsy in their high heels heading into a party. I read stories of trans people beaten close to death or murdered. I’ve heard many testimonies of middle-aged men, still ripped apart when they trip in their wounds of being sexually abused decades earlier by their priests.

The soul-stealing damage of sexual assault, whether full-on rape or almost, isn’t the kind of thing that fixes itself with ease like a minor break in young bones. It surely lands on our deepest vulnerability, registering as a threat not just to our bodies but to our lives. Other kinds of trauma born of bullies bullying also can leave life-long wounds to continually mitigate and navigate. As the daughter of a physically abusive father, I have some practice in decades of revisiting the violence done to my young body and soul, and I know that healing is, at best, a spiral path leading to resilience, not a door out of the house of our being where loose boards and broken stairs abide.

It’s a clear walk from what is happening today, this week, this time in our world to the damage that patriarchal power has wrought on women and trans people, and for that matter, men too. The notion that one gender innately has more power than another, and the reality that our culture is set up in many ways to reinforce men, and more precisely, straight white middle- or upper-class men, makes for a difficult, at times impossible, way out. If Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony wasn’t a way into the hearts of those now ignoring her words and presence (some even while believing her), what does this say about who gets to make the rules for whom? A whole lot when it comes to the privilege some claim to cover the mouths and maybe even accidentally (or purposely) suffocate others.

So I’m heartbroken, America. I can’t believe we’re here with so many people poised to put someone on the court who clearly doesn’t see women (and perhaps others) as worthy enough to sit at the table. I’m especially thinking of all of you who have your own needles in the bone activated today, and I wish you all manner of comfort, and ways through to find your strength, tenderness, and peace.

At the same time, I know our outrage and pain isn’t going to go underground or vanish into the winds of political power. I think of a wonderful post Meghan Heriford, the owner of Lawrence’s Ladybird Diner, recently shared about a woman she was talking to after having Meg had the woman’s abusive boyfriend removed from the diner. Meg was concerned that the woman wouldn’t believe she was worthy enough to leave this man, and she reminded us us that standing together, holding those who need support, and saying no to the bullies among us is at the core of our work now.  “Poke a sister and you’re likely to get the whole swarm,” Meg wrote.

My heart is buzzing. Yours too?

Hope on the Last Day of the Old Year: Everyday Magic, Day 912

I’m perched on this lovely porch on the last day of the year, at least the last day according to the Jewish year, which ends at sundown. The wind and crickets thread sound through the Osage Orange tree, leaning over the driveway with its heavy hedge apples (think lime green brains the size of grapefruit). A few hummingbirds dive-bomb each other on the aerial path to the feeder. I’m comfortable in a hideous chartreuse recliner with iced coffee within reach. It’s just another beautiful edge-of-summer day in Kansas for me, but for many it’s far more heartbreaking and threatening.

I think of people in central Mexico, working frantically to unearth possible survivors from collapsed buildings from the 7.1 earthquake yesterday. I’ve watched videos of people coming together in the streets, crying in each other’s arms, or staring at buildings that have sloughed off into big piles of concrete and steel.

I think of thousands in Puerto Rico, right now, enduring Hurricane Maria, which hit the island as a category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 155 mph. I imagine the terror so many must feel right now as the winds batter their homes or shelters, bending palm trees horizontal and tossing cars across flooding parking lots. At the very least, they might be worried about having enough water and food, knowing how likely it is that they could face weeks or longer without electricity; at the most, their lives might be danger because of storm surges, crumbling buildings, and mud slides.

I think of millions in South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Guam, and many other places living with the searing threat of nuclear attack due to two immature and reckless leaders, one in North Korea and one in America, talking trash about the other and escalating a historic conflict. With rhetoric about destroying these countries and many more, those within easy reach of missiles bearing nuclear warheads must be living with overwhelming fear as the war of words builds.

Meanwhile, the fires in the west burn millions of acres of forest and change the faces of many a gorge, valley, and mountain. Ethnic cleansing in Myanmar has led to hundreds of villages being burned to the ground. People throughout various chains of islands and many on our mainland are still without electricity, or are busy with the sad work of stripping out of their homes all the water-logged furniture and family treasures.

Fire, flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, Maria), and war rage on, sporadically or worse, and much of it (excluding the earthquakes) due to the worst of human behavior: ignoring or denying the effects of climate change, and escalating the conflicts between tribes or nations to the point of no return.

It’s the end of the world as they know it for so many, human and otherwise. It’s also, as seems to have been the human habit, a time for the best of our beings to come forth. People in Texas made human chain to transfer elderly people out of flooded homes, thousands (or tens of thousands) of people driving to Texas or Florida to help with feeding, clothing, rebuilding, and reconnecting electricity for those in need. People in Mexico worked in the hot sun for hours, then all night, and still continue today lifting shards of concrete, digging with their bare hands, and listening carefully for one trapped beneath. I think of my brother-in-law in Florida, an electrician, who has worked long hours in the heat along with countless others to restore power for many communities. I marvel at the photos of humans throughout the Caribbean and Bahamas who lost everything, but also gave every ounce of their energy to rescuing others. A cruise ship ended its trip early, giving passengers the option of staying on to help evacuate islands in the path of Hurricane Irma, and over 70 vacationers did just that along with many cruise lines that sent ships and cash to the islands. Firefighters in Montana, Oregon, Washington, and other states worked themselves to exhaustion doing dangerous work to save lives and places.

At sunset, we cross over into the new year, but millions around the world have been forced to do this already, leaving behind all that was lost in the old year. For them, and for the blessings we can be when we reach out to help those facing the end of their worlds, my deepest wish is that we find hope in action that shows us what we’re capable of. Let us mend what’s broken, lift who and what is fallen, and act always on a love for life, and all that being and staying alive entails. L’shanah Tovah — a good and sweet new year — for everyone.

"What It Takes": 63rd Anniversary of Brown Vs. Board of Education: Everyday Magic, Day 899

This weekend, I had the honor of being part of the Voices of Freedom Festival, celebrating the Brown vs. Board of Education supreme court decision that ended “separate but equal” policies in public schools and beyond. It was a joy to hear the music of Kelley Hunt, Isaac Cates and the Ordained, Maria the Mexican, and Injunuity, and to read with fellow poets David Baumgardner, Tava Miller, and Ashanti Spears. Here’s the poem I wrote for the occasion, held in downtown Topeka, Kansas.

What It Takes

It takes years of waiting on polished wooden benches

outside trembling courtrooms. Thousands of meetings

in church basements or someone’s living room,

sipping lukewarm coffee on folding chairs.

Centuries of nights up late worrying, or puzzling out

how to change what’s unjust and breaking us all,

then early mornings to make the oatmeal, pour the

orange juice, and remind the children to take their homework.

It takes 16 blocks to get to the black school instead of

the white one on the corner, and hundreds of new signs

for another march, hours on the phone, and dressing up

to meet with the senator who sends his aide instead

and says, don’t push, change takes time

as if that’s not obvious as daylight after decades

of waiting in chains, standing in the back of the bus

and swimming in the smaller mildewed pool

surrounded by weeds and broken beer bottles.

It takes gumption and guts, grief churned into anger

that makes a tired man head to the newspaper office

to tell a reporter, it’s past time for justice, and just in time

to turn supposed equality into walkaday freedom.

It takes all those lawsuits before judges blinded by habit

and their own inadequate stories, and all those potlucks

to break bread with people who don’t look like you,

and tell them what it’s like for mothers to count the minutes

between the school bell and the front door,

and fathers whose hearts fall when hear

their beautiful daughters say, it’s nothing, I’m okay,

when she’s not okay. It takes piles of briefs that sway

the sidewalk leading up to the school where

a little girl walks, hand in hand in a federal agent,

ready to cross the threshold into the world we should have

inhabited all along, each step a way to sing, “Stand Up.”

Even then, it’s not over, and it’ll take all this and more

to make it safe to drive, or cross the street, or ask

for help without the risk of seeing eye bullets and

all the secret lashes that separate us into a lesser people.

It takes the patience of water to turn mountains into rivers,

then find the courage to sing while the healing waters flow.