Days of Awe in an Unusual Year: Everyday Magic, Day 1016

The Days of Awe — the 10 days between Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), it’s time to clean up our act. We reflect on our thoughts and deeds, words and actions over the last year which may have hurt others, then reach out to the injured party to apologize and make amends. Based on the premise that only we can fix our own human messes, this stretch of time calls us toward self-reflection and right action.

I speak of “we” here even if, dear reader, you’re not Jewish because I’m thinking that 1) we all could use all the new years we can observe at this point, and 2) in a year when so much is beyond our control (a pandemic, climate change, systemic racism, and escalating polarization between people), it’s helpful to consider what we can do. We can look at our own participation in and perpetuation of what hurts each other (humans and other species) and the earth, consider what small step or few words might help, and step up to do some good.

It also feels to me like we’ve been in the Days of Awe since about March 14th when the pandemic shut down life as we knew it and opened up big fears and spaces, possibilities and dangers about how we live. After all, the “awe” part of these days isn’t just what dazzles and pleases but also what shocks and scares. So often over these last six months, I realized how much less I understood than I thought about everything from the pacing of my day to assumptions I made about racism. There’s nothing like living with a mysterious global threat to wake a person up out of her long inscribed and sealed ideas about her life and the world.

But then again, the Days of Awe are also and always about asking to be inscribed (at Rosh Hashana), and then sealed for a good year (Yom Kippur) in the Book of Life. Traditionally, this is a book God reads to judge our actions, but I see it the life we’re writing ourselves into through all we are, do, and know as well as the life force at large. So why not read over the book of life we’ve drafted this last year to see how to make small repairs, big amends, and deep commitments to live boldly and act lovingly? Or as the Talmud says better: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

I wish for all of us to be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year, and I leave you with a poem I wrote about all this as you move through your own days and nights of awe and so much more.

Entering the Days of Awe

Let us walk unfettered into these days

unfurling in the sun, wide fields of old grasses

bracketed by sunflowers and pebbles.

Let us step into the lapis sky that fastens itself

to the driveway, the sidewalk, the worn leaves

of dying summer under new leaf fall.

Let us give up the wasteful thinking,

the 2 a.m. anxieties over what cannot be changed,

the waking with a gasp. Let us stand in the morning,

the new chill of the air clearing the disgards of time,

fear, reaching too hard or not enough.

Let the wrongs be made right. Let forgiveness

overtake the words we hear and pray, the stories

we’ve made and tilted. Let us remember this dreaming song

from all our beloveds long gone or just over the bend,

each note engraved with lost lands, singing

of how good it is when we dwell together.

Let the peripheral vision in the days of awe show us

the world, the first seeing of the heart, the last pulse

of those we love who travel with us. Let the wind shake

the trees, the tattered leaves shine, the last butterflies

flash their orange, the first dark blue of night

open into a panorama of past and present light

on its way to us all.

Let the next breath we take inscribe us in the book of life.

Let the next breath you give welcome us home.

~ Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

If God Didn’t Want Us to Pray at Home, She Wouldn’t Have Invented Zoom: Everyday Magic, Day 1003

Full seder on the deck via Zoom

Or Facebook Live. Or Youtube. Or any number of places to help us worship together while keeping physically apart and spiritually close. A church in Lawrence is doing by having people drive to their parking lot to watch a minister leading them while listening to the service on a radio station. The Kansas Zen Center leads meditation practice on Zoom. And if like me, you find the holy in the living earth, there’s plenty of opportunities for communion right now too with an explosion of blossoms to admire, gardens to plant, and trails to walk. The point is, we have options, people, so why is there any fuss whatsoever?

In the great state of Kansas, the state supreme court today will hear the case of Governor Laura Kelly suing a legislative committee that overturned her order that no more than 10 people meet in places of worship while we’re approaching the pandemic apex. A small committee decided the governor overstepped her authority in trying to keep Kansans safe on and beyond Easter Sunday. Petty politics aside, as Forrest Gump’s mother told him, “Stupid is what stupid does.”

Praying at home also protects those who protect us: the nurses, doctors, technicians, and others working so hard and putting their own lives at risk to take care of people with Covid-19. These people, who often can’t hug their spouses or children and have to tend the ill while wearing protective gear and putting in long hours, are put at far greater risk by people congregating in large groups where they’re much more likely to spread the virus widely. Listen to the wise words of my friend George Thompson, a doctor who is leading the call for us to worship safely.

I’ve been praying via Zoom with our Jewish congregation for over a month: attendance at our Friday evening Shabbat services is up, and these weekly services life us up. The first time we did this, close to 40 people (instead of the usual 10-15) showed up, families and singles lighting candles and showing off challah (if they made some) in their Brady Brunch-esque Zoom windows. A week ago, when our service ended, hardly anyone would leave the call, all of us staring at our screens with hunger to connect and love in our hearts.

Earlier this week, we held our first Zoom seder, Ken, Daniel and I set on the back deck instead of the laptop while Forest, who works at a grocery store and lives with 20 people, sat six feet behind. Within minutes, we had friends and family from Tucson, Winnipeg, Orlando, Brooklyn, and other locales taking turns telling our story of Exodus, singing prayers together, and during the meal, divided into break-out rooms where we could catch up in earnest. Two and half hours after we started, we ended the call with joy and renewal. Of course, it would have been more ideal to have been together in the flesh, but what we were living brought home the lessons of Passover in powerful ways.

Zoom Shabbat services

As a Jew, I’m well-acquainted with the narrative of plagues from Passover and history of efforts to annihilate us (so goes the old joke that sums up every Jewish holiday, “they tried to kill us, we lived, let’s eat”), and in all those stories — especially Passover — there’s the core refrain of stepping up and taking action to protect the community and survive as a people.

Action is key here: it’s not like Moses just shrugged and went back to his habitual patterns and old life after the Pharoah refused to free us. Instead, he and other brave leaders packed up and headed out of Egypt, crossing the parting Red Sea to wander the desert for 40 years. They didn’t know how long they would wander before finding some semblance of home, and they had to adapt, making new definitions of community and home along the way.

We’ll likely just have weeks or months to wander through Netflix offerings and pace in our backyards before we can resume meeting friends for dinner in restaurants, going back to school and work, and even meeting in person at synagogues, churches, mosques, temples and the like. But the thing is, that like the wandering Jews, we’ll have moments of making do, doing without, and praying fiercely for our loved ones and beloved communities.

Protecting the herd, ensuring the survival of our most vulnerable, requires us to put our faith in staying put and our butts on our couches. Just like with so many other aspects of our lives, we are called to pray in new ways as if our lives depend on it because they do.

Where I Live: A New Year’s Moment: Everyday Magic, Day 986

I live down a winding and dipping gravel road, lately wet or puddled in its low parts because of underground springs and an abundantly rainy summer. Coming down this drive today after the long catapult from 4 a.m. in Paradise Valley, Arizona, to my son Forest’s car at the Kansas City airport, homecoming filled my lungs, eyes, and heart as we turned toward this house, supported and supporting this porch where I live. It’s a place of sudden sideways rain when the wind and humidity soar. I live here in this weather: changeable, dramatic, boring, shining, then surprising all in an afternoon.

I’ve always lived in the wind and sky. From my Brooklyn bedroom, upstairs in a narrow triplex somewhere in East Flatbush, I would lean out the window especially during storms, even remnants of hurricanes, just to feel that rush of air and rain on my face. In Arizona, where I had the delight to experience a bit of what they call monsoon season (and what call here an ordinary afternoon), I walked across the retreat center’s rock gardens in the big speed of wind and water until I arrived at a revelation there, for me at least, blossoming jasmine. That’s because I also live in the vivid scent of flowers: lilac, lavender, asiatic lilies, daffodils, hyacinth, wild roses and tumbles of domesticated roses, and particularly my favorite that brings me to my knees because they live close to the ground: lily-of-the-valley.

Like most of us, I live in my senses, and particularly this summer, sound made by the weaving, rising, falling, encompassing, and diminishing songs of cicadas, katydids, tree frogs, birds of many barks and trills. Right now, I lean into the sound of crickets. I live for a great meal when the lettuce from the farmer’s market meets the cucumbers from the garden beside a perfectly roasted sweet potato, grilled corn on the cob, and lemon-mustard-maple chicken. I live in the touch of my husband’s hand on the small of my back and how my daughter melts into me when we hug as well as the feel of the breeze at this moment on my forearms mixing with the air the ceiling fan spirals down. I find life in the vibrant purples of the morning glories and the deep gray-blues of the thunderhead’s edge, especially when the sun shines on or through either.

I live in this moment, then the next one. Yet sometimes a dozen tabs spring open in my mind of what I plan or imagine or what I think happened an hour or decade ago. I live in too much planning and not always enough remembering, a propensity to overly rely on what’s possible rather than what’s likely, and a whole lot of iced water to love sipping along the way. Encompassing so much of my life and work, I also live in writing, where I find my way free from all the biting critters in my mind and angular news inching or powering through the radio or what someones says to me in a parking lot. On the page and screen, I make things, and just doing that makes me feel as alive as I actually am.

I live here, right on the cusp of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, when we go from 5779 to 5780 at sunset. On the other side of sunset, I will be sitting, standing, davening, maybe even dancing a little, and afterwards, eating cookies with my tribe here. I will arrive at the start of a new and very old space to live, time and place always meeting at a precise, and if I remember to take in the miracle of life, luminous home. That’s where I live.

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There But for Grace: Everyday Magic, Day 963

Forest a few months ago with his Aunt Linda

Eighteen years ago, we almost lost our youngest son Forest in a car accident involving black ice, three kids and me in a van, and the only spot on the road that led to a deep ditch. Our van plunged, flipped and spun around, ejecting five-year-old Forest through the broken window to land about ten feet away. He was unconscious, his jaw  broken in multiple place, and his brain bleeding in three spots. But through superb and swift medical care (including being life-flighted to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City), the love and prayers of an immense community, the healing work of our friend Ursula, and pure luck or grace (depending on how you see it), he made it through with only the need for a new permanent front tooth. Forest’s survival was the greatest miracle of my life.

While I’ve written about the accident in this blog post (you can click on), today I’m drawn toward the number 18, anniversaries, and grace.  In Judaism, C’hai means 18, the letter C’hai, luck, and life. I’ve worn a C’hai around my neck since my mother gave it to me 17 years ago during my cancer treatment (another “there but for grace” experience), reminding me to remember how much I love this life. Anniversaries can be similar talismans, circling us back to the same position of the sun however many years have passed. All these talismans can fortify us for the moments that feel like the opposite of miraculous, tapping us on the shoulder to tell us how little we know about what is possible, even against all odds.

Which leads me back to grace and the end of a poem by Wislawa Szymborska, “There But For the Grace,” in which she writes:

So you’re here? Straight from a moment still ajar?

The net had one eyehole, and you got through it?

There’s no end to my wonder, my silence.

Listen

how fast your heart beats in me.

Whatever eyehole we get through, whatever accident disease or heartbreak, can surely feel like a moment of grace, a shining and shaky moment as if we were just spit out by the whale (like Jonah in that biblical story) on the shore, our hearts beating as fast as the life force. There’s no rhyme or reason for why some survive such close calls and others don’t. Being in pediatric I.C.U. with Forest 18 years ago put us in the middle of families rejoicing and families grieving — I will always remember how the teenage parents of a toddler who died were suddenly wrapped in the arms of two dozen teenage friends, plus ample family members, all holding each other and crying in the waiting room. I’m eternally grateful that a week after we arrived at the hospital, we got to pull a red wagon out of the hospital, packed with gifts, balloons, and our laughing five-year-old, ready to go home.  Yet I know there’s something I can never explain about why grace lands one place and not another.

What remains, 18 lucky years of life later, is a funny, compassionate, smart, and very happy 23-year-old man quick with his phone to show me quirky cat videos when I’m down and to call us regularly just to ask how we are. I think of him and all the grace that continues to unfold because he’s here, and there’ s no end to my wonder.

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