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.
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.
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.
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
This pre-Rosh Hashana afternoon, as I watch a dive-bombing hummingbird and a dozen others just trying to get a drink from our feeder, my mind is on community. How we can make and keep community. What community is at its best, and how it enacts love as a verb. Why breaking bread, breaking through barriers, and breaking new ground together matters, especially in a time of rough-edged divides, political name-calling, and one-size-fits-all labels that diminish us all.
I’m also thinking of awe: that sense of wonder at the shining edges and in-depth centers of the life force. From the vantage point of the porch I get to witness this regularly in the parade of clouds behind the translucent lines of spider webs where unfortunate moths meet their maker (and the spider). The good dog, realizing I’m not getting up to let him in, lies down gingerly, then collapses to sleep on his side. A hummingbird suspends itself in buzz on the other side of the screen, and the air is brilliantly bright and cool.
At sundown, I’ll be at the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation, singing, davening (bowing back and forth in prayer), and even dancing at our Rosh Hashana service before the annual cookie orgy that follows, all of which opens the Day of Awe — the 10 days between the new year celebration and Yom Kippur, the day of fasting, prayer and atonement. During this time, we are called to fix anything we screwed up (particularly with other human) this year, based on the premise that while prayer can right us with God, only action can right us with each other. Of course this also entails looking at how we’ve messed things up with ourselves: times we may have acted not from our values and deepest goodness but from our anxieties and fearful badness.
Which gets me back to community and awe: we can’t sustain positive change in our lives without the help of one another. By opening our eyes to the wonder of how we can show up for each other and ourselves, we may just find the right steps, words, breathes, and stillnesses to arrive right where we are, in the promised land of this beautiful life even while trudging through the desert of brokenness, injustice, heartbreak, and grief. Whether you’re Jewish or not, a new year is here for the taking (and I believe in jumping onboard for every new start that rolls on through). Let us walk together, and to all, L’Shanah Tovah (have a good and sweet year).
Here is a poem I wrote about this time:
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.
In this modern day retelling of the Exodus, Miriam wanders the political and spiritual desert of a changing America, torn between her roots as the Jewish daughter of a Black father and white mother, her yearning for home, and her brothers Aaron and Moses. Beginning in the middle of the 1965 New York City blackout, when stuck in the pitch-black subway somewhere in the East River, Miriam's family encounters a mysterious rabbi, who persuades the family to go to Israel where the family is caught in the 6-Day War. The losses from the war break apart the family, scattering Moses to western Kansas to live with evangelical Christians, Aaron to New York City to practice corporate law, and Miriam all over America. An astonishing cook and singer, Miriam has a knack for showing up to feed and help people at at landmark events, including People's Park during the Summer of Love, the Wounded Knee encampment in South Dakota, the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, the Oklahoma City terrorist attack, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. As she seeks the promised land, she shows her people, and eventually herself, how to turn the chaos and despair of our times into music, meals, and miracles.
The novel also includes over 35 pages of real recipes from the fictional cooking and baking Miriam does throughout the book, including delicious dishes from Nancy O'Connor's The Rolling Prairie Cookbook, Jayni and Frank Carey's The New Kansas Cookbook, Janet Majure's Recipes Worth Sharing, and Meg Heriford of the Ladybird Cafe.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg's retelling of Exodus is a sprawling tapestry, woven of all the threads of a modern-day Miriam's ancestors, and her own present and future. From the Badagry Point of No Return and a sukkah in the Sinai Desert to a series of camps, communes, and cafes all across America, Miriam's Well delves into the mystery of how we find our place in the world, within our families, even within ourselves. ~ Bryn Greenwood, New York Times bestselling author of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things
I fell in love with Miriam’s wisdom and her sweet engagements with the people she meets along her lush and vibrant travels. I was plunged to the depths of her nightmares, soared with her song, and emerged blessed to have made the journey with her. Miriam’s Well is the latest terrific book by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg. ~ Jocelyn Cullity, author of Amah & the Silk-Winged Pigeons
Miriam’s Well is truly a hearty feast, and a song of life’s bounty, of its “fragile miracle,” of its sorrows and its cycling, its joy, its mystery, its sorrows, its journeying. The vibrantly moving and compelling storytelling is immediate, intimate, and resounding; bringing us into a complex weaving of tales, told and untold, from the Biblical epic to the painful legacy of United States, which frame the story of one brave woman with an inexhaustible well of caring. Daughter, sister, lover, neighbor, friend, mother, Miriam is one extraordinary ordinary woman whose life is emblematic of our absolutely interdependent web of relationships, physical and metaphysical, over the seasons of a lifetime and the histories of our own time. In Mirriam-Goldberg’s rendering of the web of story that is Miriam’s, Aaron’s, Joseph’s, Moses’, and our own, we are brought into the gift of tenderness and compassion in heartening human response to our historical conundrums. The work is big hearted, embracing, and wonderfully embodies love’s plenty and the power and the beauty of the story, the song, the telling, to remember and transform us. ~ Gale Jackson, author of Put Your Hands on Your Hips and Act Like a Woman: Song, Dance, Black History and Poetics in Performance
Miriam’s Well is a page-turner that gently pulls the reader into the heroine’s quest while also chronicling the country’s cultural revolutions, gastronomic recipes, political causes, women’s communes, spirituality, the AIDS crisis, Oklahoma and Twin Tower terrorist attacks. A compelling writer, Mirriam-Goldberg’s Miriam’s Well captures a quintessential American story, its multitude of nations, of immigrants and indigenes, in the quest towards a meaningful national identity. ~ Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka, Professor of Theatre, and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, University of Kansas
This startlingly insightful and quietly confrontational novel by poet Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg courageously inserts the biblical prophet Miriam into many of the most daunting and provocative ethical conflicts since the early 60's civil rights revolution, as though we are Israel after the Exodus from slavery and before the Promised Land. Mirriam-Goldberg’s story calls on readers to consider "Have I done enough?" and "What is it that the Lord requires of you?" A surprising page turner featuring multiple plot twists and turns, the moral challenges and clarity deserve more than attention, they demand debate. Do yourself a favor and share it with friends. ~ Rabbi Mark H. Levin, author of Praying the Bible
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg brings back the charged days of the 1970's revolutions and their aftermath in the decades to come in her novel Miriam's Well. For those of us who lived through those times, the book is a reminder of their importance.” ~ Thomas Pecore Weso, author of Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir.
With this novel, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg has extended her considerable poetic talents to the narrative form, giving us sustenance for the body (her character's recipes) as well as inspiration for the spirit and the mind. A masterful adaptation of Biblical wisdom to the challenges of the modern age, entertaining while informing all along the way. And the storyline provides a marvelous overview of the cultural inflection points in 20th century American history along with an unforgettable character experiencing them. This is one not to be missed! ~ Mark Scheel, author of A Backward View: Stories and Poems
Would your book club like to read Miriam's Well? If so, just have your club buy six or more books (free shipping!), and Caryn will visit your club via video or phone conferencing or, if you're near where she is, in person. contact Caryn here.
Book Tour: Here is where I've given readings of this book. I'm happy to come to your community too.
Lawrence, Kansas -- Book Launch sponsored by the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation, Lawrence Public Library, The Merc, and the Raven Bookstore.
Topeka, Kansas - Writing the Tree of Life: Midrash & Personal Mythology to Revision our Lives: Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, A writing workshop based on Miriam's Well to unearth, explore, and revise our life's myths.
Topeka, Kansas - Miriam's Well Book Launch & Havdalah Service.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma - Writing the Tree of Life: Midrash & Personal Mythology to Revision Our Lives and Miriam's Well Reading, Temple B'Nai Israel. Workshop and reading followed by lunch featuring recipes from Miriam's Well.
Wichita, Kansas - Miriam's Well Reading: Watermark Bookstore.
Prairie Village, Kansas - Miriam's Well Reading & Brunch, Cafe Ohev at Temple Ohev Shalom.
Minneapolis, Minnesota - Miriam's Well Reading and Party, Mojo Coffee Gallery. Reading with delectable treats made from the novel.
Lincoln, Nebraska - Miriam's Well Reading and Reception: Burkholder Project, part of First Fridays.
Lincoln, Nebraska - Miriam's Well Reading & Reception: Francie & Finch Bookstore, featuring q & a, and a reception with recipes from the novel to try out.
Overland Park, Kansas - Writing the Tree of Life workshop: Jewish Community Center's Day of Discovery.
Pittsburg, Kansas - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Pittsburg State University.
Topeka, Kansas - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Washburn University.
Kansas City - Miriam's Well KC Launch at Function Junction: short readings from the novel featuring Susan Hancock singing some of the songs Miriam sings, plus treats prepared from recipes in the novel.
Montpelier, Vermont - Miriam's Well Reading, sponsored by the library, Temple Beth Jacob, and Bear Pond Books.
Lawrence, Kansas - Writing Jewish Symposium: Sponsored by Jewish Studies at the University of Kansas, Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation, day-long symposium featuring Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Renee Perelmutter, and Rena Rossner, and recipes from Miriam's Well.
Atchison, Kansas - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Benedictine College.
Hutchinson, KS - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Hutchinson Community College.
Emporia, KS - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Emporia State University.
Springfield, N.J. - Reading at Sha'arey Shalom: talk and reading.
Madison, Wisconsin - Miriam's Well Reading & Havdalah Service: short Havdalah service (to welcome in the new week) and reception.
Lawrence, Kansas - Special Event: Osher Institute, University of Kansas: reading, discussion, and reception featuring recipes from the book.
Kansas City, MO - Read Local at the Plaza Library: reading and discussion of Miriam's Well.
We sat at a small table in La Prima Tassa on a spring day filtering sunshine across our table, sipping tea and updating each other on our children. “Hey Pal, the thing is,” Neil said, “I want them to be happy. My job is simply to love them. That’s what we do as parents: we love them and want them to be happy.” I had just been inventorying my long list of anxieties about my kids when Neil’s words stopped me in my tracks. Yes, he was right, and I remembered his words a thousand and one times, reminding me how simple, and also at times, difficult it can be to love our children without any expectation but for their happiness.
I met Neil I-don’t-know-when through the Jewish center, probably in ’83 or so, and we immediately connected. We were both from Jersey, and the tone of his voice and his sense of humor felt like home to me. I looked for him during services and the annual Blintz Brunch, happy to simply be in his good humored company, laughing about whatever we could laugh about, which was almost everything, and occasionally sneaking in short in-depth talks about what matters in life, and what doesn’t. Neil wasn’t one for gossip, and instead directed his big energy toward what he loved: his work, his community, and especially his wife and children.
Neil was over the moon and past this solar system in love with Leni, his wife of over 49 years. They were the most affectionate couple I saw, whether sitting side by side for High Holidays, holding hands, leaning in to share a thought or memory, or around their home where Neil specialized in amazing cooking and baking (oh, his challah!). He adored Leni – her style, her stories, her art, her way of being in the world, and through his adoration he modeled for us a way to always show gratitude and wonder toward our beloveds. He also was enthralled with his kids Micah (and Micah’s husband) and Sara, and he reveled in their adventures, friendships, and accomplishments.
I also knew another angle of Neil: he was my literary agent before he retired from the grind, hustle, and thrill of making deals. He got Needle in the Bone, my non-fiction book about Lou Frydman and Jarek Piekalkiewicz, published by the University of Nebraska Press, and he also tried valiantly to find Stephen Locke and me a publisher for Chasing Weather, our storm poetry and photography book. In the years we worked together in the book biz, he was consistently cheerful, supportive, and upbeat. We would do what we could, and he would bring great enthusiasm to the literary agenting, which he did.
He brought such enthusiasm to all aspects of his life, from setting out (with two other families) a huge spread for an annual Rosh Hashana community gathering held for years in his home to swimming competitively and in friendship with a long-time group of friends.
Then there’s Neil, the printer. Neil bought some old presses Ken’s dad, also a printer, collected, and he printed gorgeous letter-press broadsides with hand-set type. Recently, he did an beautiful and limited editing printing of a poem by Beth Schultz about the Jewish cemetery in Eudora. He printed my poem “Entering the Days of Awe” to sell as a fundraiser for the Jewish center as well as my poem “In Gratitude” as a fundraiser for the Transformative Language Arts Network.
Thinking of his work in printing “In Gratitude,” I’m struck by how Neil embodied a grateful life: he truly relished his connections with his friends, his community, his work (which was vast and off-the-charts successful as a professor, writer, literary agent, and many other roles), and especially his dearest beloveds. I’m grateful for what he showed me about living a grateful life, and for each conversation over coffee, lunch, or in the back of the synagogue, each hug, each time he called me “pal.” Here’s the poem he set and printed, which speaks of Neil’s legacy:
The wind thanks you, unfurling over the worn
horizon so it can billow into night. The stars too,
whether talismans of light dying or just being born,
behind the small birds arriving or staying behind,
who balance gratefully on thin branches of coming winter.
The squirrel in the field, the hidden fox, the mammals
under and overground. The world is composed,
is composing itself anew even in a narrow time:
just before the red-winged blackbird folds
back in silhouette. Whatever act of kindness flies