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

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?