Defining Moments in the Dark: Everyday Magic, Day 1075

I was fifteen years ago and miserable when I first went to a youth group Havdalah service one winter evening. I was living with my very difficult father in a big house, so much bigger now that my mother and siblings had moved out, and I was the loneliest I had or have ever been, having lost most of my extended family and living in the ‘burbs where even the neighbors stopped talking to us.

My deep sadness along with some suicidal thoughts had led my father to bring me to the rabbi of our synagogue, who promptly put me in the temple youth group. Now we were gathered for the short end-of-sabbath service (Sabbath begins at sundown Friday night and ends at sundown Saturday night). This eight minute or so service is all about the senses. Our bunch of awkward teens held each other in a circle and sang, first lighting the braided Havdalah candle, then passing around a spice box filled with clove and cinnamon, then taking sips from a cup of wine. At the end, someone aimed the wild twining flame of the candle into the leftover wine for a satisfying sizzle that signified the start of a new week.

I couldn’t know then it was the start of a new life for me. That youth group and especially Phil, a youth group advisor who took me under his wing, saved my life, giving me a sense of belonging, listening to what was broken in me, and believing in my ability to fix myself in time. After each Havdalah service, we sat in a circle sharing our thoughts on a topic, often writing first on a moment that changed our life, what we value most, or what was hardest for us. We cried, even and especially the guys. We hugged each other. We wrote fast and furiously in our journals. Some nights we have lock-ins, unfurling our sleeping bags on the bema (little stage where services are led from), and talking on and off long into the night. We spoke things aloud we couldn’t tell anyone else. Together, we made a kind of mosaic of all our broken pieces, then had donuts and orange juice for breakfast.

It’s no wonder that a lot of my workshops, sans sleeping together on a carpeted stage, involve the same. We write and read. We speak our truths. We learn to listen to each other, and from that, to ourselves more. We discover what we most have and need to say, and where those words and callings lead us in our work, art, service, and purpose.

How I got from sitting in the dark with my youth group to facilitating workshops, coaching people on writing and right livelihood, and collaborating with wonderful co-teachers on life-giving projects followed a long and meandering river of time, intentions, jobs, gigs, and listening to what signs and wonders pointed the way. I now make a living doing things I couldn’t have imagined as a teenager, from facilitating writing workshops for two dozen people living with serious illness over Zoom to planning an online and Zoom-based intensive class with Kathryn Lorenzen on Your Right Livelihood.

But I still write in my journal, sometimes sharing what comes with others, sometimes even crying at the release of what needs to be said and what difference saying it makes. I still love and treasure what can happen when humans put down, to paraphrase Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved, their sword and shield, and come into the courageous, vulnerable wisdom we make space for together.

These defining moments are sprinkled throughout our lives, sometimes in unlikely places or at surprisingly young or old ages. We turn a corner, see something out of the corner of our eye, wake up in the middle of a January night with a start, meet the eyes of a stranger in the produce aisle, and something clicks into place. We might not know where that something is leading us, but we know we need to follow. As W.S. Merwin writes in his poem, “The Gift”: “I must be led by what was given to me/ as streams are led by it/ and braiding flights of birds.”

This braided candle of community, creativity, and meaning was given to me when I was fifteen and its light still shines and leads me on.

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