Saturday, September 30, 2006

383. Tablecloth

Last week I took my two tallitot to be cleaned, as I do every year at this time. The dry cleaner across the street is owned by a Korean family, but they're probably more familiar with the religious and cultural garb worn by residents of this ethnic stew of a neighborhood than most members of the groups in question. "Oh, a prayer shawl!" said the boss in past years as I unfolded it on the counter.

But this year someone new was up front. I explained what it was; she looked dubious. "It's a tablecloth," she decided, and checked the price on her chart. "A beautiful tablecloth," she added, admiring the embroidery and fringes.

She wasn't wrong. A tallit adorns and guards the worn surfaces of ourselves while we're being nourished with prayer. Life is hard; gentle, graceful armor is always needed. As the rabbis reminded us again this morning, today was "the jacuzzi Shabbat"--a time of extra rest and compassion for souls overtaxed by a week of self-reflection. I think that our existence is God's feast, a bounty on God's table. And tomorrow evening at Kol Nidre, the only time of year when we wrap ourselves in tallitot at night, the soft folds of silk and linen will be ready to catch all our crumbs, our spilled glasses of wine, our tears.

Friday, September 29, 2006

382. Rosh Hashanah 5767, part 2


I'm not usually superstitious (I figure God retired from the business of signs and portents after the burning bush, because Who could top that?), but changed my mind last Saturday evening following services. As I walked down Broadway musing about my lack of a second challah, a woman I knew just vaguely from my synagogue ran out of a store, a bakery. I watched her peer up and down the block as if searching for someone. She saw me, rushed over, and held out a bag. "I just bought a challah, and they had a two-for-one sale--but I only need one. Here! It's yours!" And before I could protest, she turned around and ran in the other direction.

I stood there for a moment as Broadway bustled, wondering if a flash of lightning would follow, sure no one would believe this story, and certain it indicated that services would go well. And they did.

I was utterly exhausted after Sunday; my brain didn't begin to work again until yesterday. I've been trying to take it easy in preparation for Yom Kippur (my body decided to sleep about ten hours every night this week, giving me little choice in the matter), when I'll be leading both Shaharit and Minha. The cantor, like every cantor in the world, will be singing at all five services on Yom Kippur, beginning with Kol Nidre on Sunday night and continuing with four or five hours of Shaharit and Musaf the next morning, and another three of Minha and Ne'ila in the afternoon. It doesn't seem humanly possible that one person can store enough emotional energy to last that long without collapsing like a wrung-out rag, as I did after only one service.

But I was also energized by the luck of the draw--I got to lead both mornings at the synagogue, more intimate and beautiful than the other two locations and filled with my friends. The cantor himself sat off to the side on Sunday (his one morning off), making me a little nervous. A few small moments of drama also upped my adrenaline level: the musicians skipped a song by mistake; I was asked to gabbai the Torah reading at the last minute and couldn't find the page in my machzor, so just stood dumbly off to the side for an aliyah and prayed the reader wouldn't make a mistake; the rabbi, during the moment of silence preceding the Shema, indicated that I should lead the prayer. The rabbi always leads the Shema. In the .25 second that followed, I cycled very rapidly through something like the seven stages--of incredulity: shock; denial ("That cue can't possibly be for me..."); bargaining ("It's OK if I don't come in..."); guilt ("...but I'll let everyone down if I don't..."); anger ("I'm not supposed to do this!"); depression ("...but I'll hate myself if I don't...); acceptance and hope ("There's nothing cooler than leading the Shema. OK, take a deep breath..."). And I did, and sang the line without revealing any hint of the high-level negotiations that preceded it.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

381. Rosh Hashanah 5767, part 1

At tashlikh last Sunday, I squeezed between people leaning against the railing at the edge of the Hudson River and prepared to offer my crumbs. Wide-angled shafts of grey rain punctuated the sky beneath dark clouds on the opposite shore. In past years I made sure to throw my bread with all the force I could muster, as if the strength and distance of my arm could convince God I had the qualities to deserve another year in the Book of Life. I think I was taking a little dig at God at those moments, too, a show of impatience: I prayed, now it's Your turn.

This time I looked down at the water and saw chains of crumbs floating directly below, long, unsteady lines like drunken flocks of birds drifting back and forth on currents tiny as the rock of a cradle. Further beyond the river wall there were no crumbs at all; the waves, in preparation for the storm, had swept them under. I decided I didn't want my crumbs to to fend for themselves in the scary part of the water, even though my arm could get them there just fine. I dropped them straight down instead, and after a slow push or two by the wind they joined all the others and began to wobble upstream.

I think in many ways I've been holding my breath since the day I lost my voice last Rosh Hashanah. And without air, unsteady, I could neither join the chain closest to me nor swim further out. Sometimes I thought I did both but was just caught in the current, afraid to go left or right even when I had the chance.

As I sang last Saturday and Sunday--with a voice free of congestion or fever, with my voice--I tried to speak to and for the congregation, but at the start of the service just wanted a witness to my demands. I felt very selfish. I didn't know what I was asking, but knew I needed an answer: You listen! Maybe You just couldn't hear me last year. It seemed very chutzpadik, but the rabbis at my synagogue teach the value of this approach, and I agree. Judaism is about action. So part of me was constantly vigilant about pitch, cues, tempi, a thousand other details, while the rest of me focused on pounding at the door in hopes that the sweeter my sound, the closer I might get to finding the key and opening the lock. It was a strange sensation, being completely there and yet somewhere else entirely. By the end of the service we were all massed on the stoop, waking up the neighbors; I was still the loudest, but now fueled by the strength of everyone in the room rather than just my own stubbornness. We were the chain of crumbs that reached deep water.

We didn't have many rehearsals this year, didn't need to. I missed those weeks of euphoric anticipation, but now see that my preparation simply took a different pace, eddies instead of waves. Some of it happened months ago when I visited Israel and stopped feeling like an imposter when praying on behalf of my community. The rest happened as I listened to the music while I practiced, remembering the tunes and knowing they would always return like a tide to mark the start of another year, another chance, no matter how I sang.


Friday, September 22, 2006

380. Shanah Tovah!

Too many words, too little time. I had grand plans to write about teshuvah, and how preparing for these holidays seemed to be a breeze, so different from the past two years--and then, in rapid succession, there were two deaths, a funeral, rehearsals, overdue work, exhaustion. But (knock wood, spit, and I'm almost afraid to type the words) no cold. I still have a voice. This is no assurance that I'll sound good tomorrow, but at least I'll... sound. Whew.

Although one can never really be ready, I'm incrementally more so than I was at this time last year. Meal invitations: set. (Because of the time involved with leading services, I can't spent time preparing holiday dinners like I used to. An equitable tradeoff.) House: clean. Clothing: two traditionally new outfits ready to go. Challah: just one, not round (I waited too long to go to the store, but a bagel will stand in just fine for the second). Friends and family: magnificent. I'm very lucky.

I went to a meditation retreat right before Passover, and one of our assignments was to write a letter to ourselves that they'd mail to us right before Rosh Hashanah. It arrived last week, but I only read it this afternoon. I was surprised at what I wrote; I didn't remember thinking those things. The final paragraph was a blessing my April self gave my September self, and I in turn send it out to everyone else:

"My blessing for me [and all of you] on Rosh Hashanah:

-- that I learn to trust more in myself and others;
-- that I see all the joy around me;
-- the I find the courage to seek what I want and need;
-- that this world, this New Year, be full of God and people to help me do these things, both for myself and to fulfill my responsibility in this world."

Shanah Tovah, and may the coming year bring peace, health and happiness for us all.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

378. Baruch dayan emet

Yes, I used that same title a few days ago. It's the traditional phrase to speak upon hearing of a death and, sadly, my dear friend R.'s father passed away this morning after a long illness. I was privileged to spend time with he and R. last night and say goodbye.

A long post will follow eventually; I tried to write, but it didn't work. The short version: When I learned a few years ago about hakhnasat orhim, the mitzvah of welcoming strangers just like Abraham did with the angels, I immediately thought of Mr. S. (I could never bring myself to call him by a first name, as if I was still 14. I guess part of me always will be.) His home was open to me after a long journey when I most needed a friend, and a family. He and R. have been a blessing in my life beyond any words I can think of right now.

Last night was Selihot, the opening of the gates of heaven in preparation for the New Year. But I think they opened just for Mr. S., whose soul deserved the grandest possible welcome.

Friday, September 15, 2006

377. Less serious

It occurred to me that I haven't written anything in awhile that wasn't awfully serious. Last year at this time I was learning new music, reminiscing about the events of the previous High Holy Days, and having a great time cracking myself up. This year--well, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, I'm leading Minha for the first time but already know the tunes, and today learned of the doctor, clearly lacking a full complement of human genes, who said to my dear friend about her father, "Maybe today, maybe tomorrow, who knows." And then shrugged and walked out of the hospital room.

But I'm pretty sure grim events have always taken place. The difference this year, I think, is that I can see them--as well as their flip side, really magnificent things--much better than before. When you choose to open the window, who knows what might drift in: old newspapers, errant butterflies caught in a gust of wind. Blink and you might miss the flash of color; keep your eyes open and gasp in astonishment.

Meanwhile, this did make me laugh (and, on behalf of my cats, who are of course vastly superior to all others but will never match the achievement shown below, feel the sting of intellectual inferiority):

Funny YouTube cat video

Thursday, September 14, 2006

376. This Is Real

I've just started to read This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared by Rabbi Alan Lew, subtitled "The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation." In the first few pages he lays out the entire conundrum and struggle with beautiful clarity:

Every soul needs to express itself. Every heart needs to crack itself open. Every one of us needs to move from anger to healing, from denial to consciousness, from boredom to renewal. These needs did not arrive yesterday. They are among the most ancient of human yearnings, and they are fully expressed in the pageantry and ritual of the Days of Awe, in the great journey we make between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

He talks in the first chapter about the idea of home, and our search for a place that makes us feel whole. The High Holy Days, he notes, when we dress in white as if in a shroud and plead over and over again for mercy, are a rehearsal for no less than the moment of death, the ultimate expression of this need. I'm making the book sound grim. It's not at all--it really does live up to its jacket copy ("passionate, intimate, funny"). Rabbi Lew's observations are universal, and can also apply to holy days in other religions that share the concepts we focus on at this time of year--redemption, rebirth, forgiveness.

But that home idea struck a nerve, maybe because there's an undercurrent of loss in my life right now, with more to come. It's just a low hum, for which I'm grateful; sadness, but not much pain. Still, these past weeks have made me acutely sensitive to the fact that life continues to happen even though I Am Completely Unprepared. I don't want to reach home and feel like I never got out of the rehearsal. I need to listen more carefully, find a new melody that's louder than this hum or any other that's been hiding the song I'm supposed to hear.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

375. Place

My topic for Elul this year seems to be the challenge of change--within myself, my path in life, and even my physical surroundings.

Over the two days of Rosh Hashanah and one of Yom Kippur, I'll be helping lead services at three different locations (ornate synagogue, massive stone church, modern windowless theater). When I think of High Holy Days prior to three years ago, my first association is place: 2003, the stuffy basement at that other snooty congregation. 2000, front-row balcony with the choir, trying not to laugh as we faced east to pray to a stained glass window of Jesus and Mary. And 1990, waking up at services for the first time ever, even though I was in a folding chair in row ZZ behind a large woman with blue hair, as the cantor from Israel sang Hatzi Kaddish.

So when I discovered that leading at my synagogue was truly egalitarian--there's no "main location," and all the rabbis and hazzanim, in a series of combinations that must require advanced algorithms to achieve, rotate equally between them all--I panicked. I wanted to be in just one of those places, where I could look out and see the same people day after day. And when I finished singing, sit in a seat reserved just for me. (All seating is first come, first served.) After I left the bimah, exhausted, ecstatic, I didn't want to feel like I was walking into the junior high cafeteria just to discover there was no room at the table with my friends, and the cool kids didn't want me at theirs, either. I wanted to pray in an environment--and chair--that felt like home.

This issue, two years ago, cause me a great deal of stress, and I arranged with friends to save me a seat. Last year I learned I could get a "reserved" sign from the ushers and put it wherever I wanted, but was so verklempt from my vocal woes that I forgot. My friends again came through, even before I asked. But they were in a part of the room I wasn't used to, way on the left where you couldn't really see. I was a little disappointed when I sat down, and annoyed at my greedy reaction--dayenu, isn't anywhere good enough as long as I'm with my loving community? God doesn't care about geography, so why should I?

As the day went on, I didn't. Instead, I got to watch the percussionist from up close as he spread an array of bells and finger cymbals on a velvet cloth and then coaxed a ting or gong out of each at the proper moment. At the Aleinu Malhuyot I summoned the courage to prostrate myself for the first time ever--because I was near a dark corner where I could hide from in the crowd. I mumbled alongside people whose mumbling I never heard before, yet we stood shoulder to shoulder with complete ease.

I still love going home--still want to sit in that same row every Shabbat, and again with my friends these coming holy days--but I know I'll be able to pray just as deeply if I can't, and maybe more so. As in the rest of my life, I need to remember that the view can get better if you just move even a little bit to one side or the other.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

374. St. Paul's

It's no longer 9/11, but I wanted to post--to have it here, to remind myself of the day, every once in awhile--parts of an email I sent to friends after volunteering one night, two months after the attacks, at St. Paul's Chapel. St. Paul's, just a few blocks from Ground Zero, was where the workers at "the pile" came for food and rest.

November 12, 2001

On Sunday night I volunteered at St. Paul's Chapel. It was slow; not many people were working at the site (or "the pile," another euphemism; no one called it "ground zero") because of Bush's visit earlier in the day, and all the union workers were off on Monday because of Veteran's Day. So the usual steady stream of police and firemen was just a trickle. But there was still plenty to do, and the twelve-hour shift went by quickly.

St. Paul's is small, dark, and beautiful. Not a scratch on the inside; every pane of stained glass and every bit of crystal in the chandeliers is intact. The walls and columns are painted pink and blue, which makes it feel cozy and comfortable. Every possible surface--the backs of pews, the walls, the windowsills, "George Washington's pew" (now a foot massage station by day), even the water bottles on ice at the back of the sanctuary--are covered with letters and drawings sent from all over the world. Sheet-sized banners hang from the balcony: "Oklahoma loves you!," signed by half of Oklahoma. A folded blanket lovingly topped with a teddy bear or piece of candy waits at the head of each pew. There are cots in the balcony and choir loft, but I didn't see anyone up there except we volunteers; the pews were like a sacred zone, a place for the rescue workers to be alone.

In truth, my initial enthusiasm about volunteering had waned as the date grew closer. The need that seemed immediate a few weeks ago no longer felt as urgent. My experience of this tragedy was like so many other New Yorkers': I was horrified and terrified beyond belief but knew no one, personally, who had died, and so was able to turn my fear and distraction to other issues: Afghanistan, anthrax. It hurt too much to look at the skyline, so I began to believe that by not thinking about it, I would feel better over time. At St. Paul's, however, I realized that we--and I--hadn't moved on. The pain has become routine, and so maybe a little less painful on a daily basis. But as long as men are working 18 hours a day digging out bodies, I can't really move on. Nor should I.

There were two other support operations nearby, explained Diane from St. John the Divine, but this one was different; it was in a holy place. People came here to eat, sleep, and be with others who understood what it was like. Those of us helping serve food were given a whirlwind tour by a volunteer who had been in the restaurant business for 20 years and now worked in advertising. He'd been at St. Paul's three or four nights a week since 9/13. He looked like he hadn't slept in days. He always wanted to come back whenever he went home, he said, like a drug. We were instructed to keep the Sterno cans under the chafing dishes lit at all times, or else the Health Dept. might shut down the whole operation. Someone had to drive to Bouley Bakery at 4AM to pick up breakfast, and we'd have to set it all up by 4:30. Dinner (from the Waldorf Astoria) was Cajun pasta, tortellini, lasagna, peas and carrots. Breakfast: eggs, oatmeal, waffles, sausage, bacon, hash, sweet potatoes. Another table contained massive amounts of candy; a third, rolls, bread, bagels; and a fourth, soda (including Red Bull, the thousand-proof caffeine drink of choice. A few cops came in at 3AM and asked for it: "I need some of that energy drink.")

You could tell if people wanted to talk by their faces and body language, the food service guy said. He'd held firefighters as they cried while describing what they'd just seen. He'd been to The Site at least 30 times himself. What was it like, we asked? "I can't tell you," he said, and that was that.

I took a nap at in the choir loft at about 2AM. I awoke to the sight of the altar below. I was momentarily disoriented, but heard the bustle of people and immediately felt safe.

Above all, I was struck by how thankful everyone was for our help. The firemen covered in dust, the policeman who looked more exhausted than anyone I've ever seen in my life, all said thank you and talked to us as we served. "How's it going?" "Cold out there." "How's the oatmeal?" (I'm just dishing out scrambled eggs for a night, I wanted to yell each time they thanked me, and you've been digging for bodies for eight weeks...and you're grateful to me?) They smiled and came back for seconds. They mostly heaped their plates with food and sat alone in the pews to eat. A few took out rosary beads. Some went behind the curtain up front to the massage therapist, who stayed busy all night long. Some put down their plates and sat head in hand for many, many minutes. Some stood while eating and talked to us, like the cop who was about to start a 15-hour shift. On the morning of 9/11, at about 7AM, his van broke down on the FDR Drive and he and a bunch of colleagues were stranded. A UPS truck pushed them to a gas station, where they argued with the woman in front who was taking up the mechanic's time. Finally, over an hour late, they headed to their destination: the World Trade Center. The attacks had just begun. The delay had saved their lives. He spent the next three nights digging in the rubble.

What was that like, someone asked?

"Very sad," he answered, and stopped talking, and walked off into a pew.

In a world that's now unreal, the night felt like a dream. The "permanent volunteers"-- clergy, food service workers--walked around all night long, checking supplies, keeping an eye on the rest of us. It's a well-oiled operation. I tried to imagine what it had been like a few weeks ago, when chaos reigned and they were serving food outside to twice as many people and making coffee runs to The Site. Now it seemed almost routine, a world within a world within a world where the stained glass never cracked and there was always a warm blanket waiting. It was an experience of the end of something larger--the tail of a comet, a small moment of kindness frozen at the conclusion of a time of infinite sadness.

Monday, September 11, 2006

373. Five years

It took two years for me to be able walk to the end of my block and not feel a visceral shock each time I looked down University Place and saw that the World Trade Center towers weren't there. Eventually, I got used to the fact that I wasn't going to see them, though from time to time I'd look south down University, as if it had all been a mistake or a dream--and the buildings might have come back.

Even now, I think about the towers, but in a more abstract way. 9/11 happened. They used to be there; now they're not. But I no longer feel that lurch of pure panic you get when you see a gap where something is missing--a lost tooth, a car that's been towed.

--Places of the Heart, Francine Prose, The New York Times, 9/10/06


I shivered when I read this, because I feel exactly the same. Although I witnessed every second of 9/11, for quite awhile I didn't believe it--because it was impossible. I kept expecting to wake up and discover it was just a nightmare.

The towers and I had a history. For reasons I never understood, my mother, not an architecture buff by any means, was very excited when they were built. Like tourists, we took trips downtown to see them, and even managed to sneak upstairs on July 4, 1976 (before New York City had any security) to watch the Tall Ships sail into the harbor for the Bicentennial. From a mile above they looked like Really Tiny Ships. But it was still cool to be there with the VIPs and my favorite radio DJ, who was not the suave gentleman I had conjured up from his silken voice, but just a short guy with a big nose.

Over the years I would sing Christmas carols with choirs at the Wintergarden in the World Financial Center, the towers peering down at us through the leaves of indoor palm trees; make out with my high school boyfriend on the 103rd floor Observation Deck; and work at a temp job on the 77th floor, where you could feel the building sway back and forth in the wind. Five years ago in August, I took the Circle Line with friends visiting from Florida and, for the first time ever, saw the WTC from the waters of the Hudson. I was astonished at their size, enormous polar bears lumbering at the very end of the island.

Exactly one month later, I woke up early to email a potential employer. The sky that morning was bluer than ever before, so I was sure I'd get the job. I went for a run in Riverside Park, and then to the gym.

In the middle of lifting weights, I noticed the disco music had stopped blaring and someone was talking who sounded just like Bush. But the aerobics teacher was still shouting instructions, and I caught only random snatches of words. What a horrible accident, I thought when I finally heard what happened. Poor, confused pilot must have had a heart attack and lost control. Then, suddenly, the gym began to empty. "We were attacked. Terrorists." I had no idea what was going on. I grabbed my stuff and went out into the street, where people pointed at the sky and walked in circles like they were lost. A crowd huddled around a TV in a barber shop just like in old movies. My heart began to pound. I ran down the block to my apartment, locked the door securely behind me as if to ward off evil, and crawled onto the couch with my two cats. For a few moments I was paralyzed. This was a wholly unfamiliar kind of fear--for everyone, for all life as I knew it. I fully expected the world to end. I thought that maybe if I didn't move, didn't blink an eye, everything would be OK. But if I took a breath, we could all be gone.

Then I gathered my wits and turned on CNN, which also made no sense, but snapped me back to reality.

I remember the rest of the day in fuzzy snapshots. A friend came by, walking two miles from midtown because she had nowhere else to go. We went to the supermarket, just in case Manhattan never re-opened and we needed enough food to last forever, and stood on line at the checkout behind a guy with a cart filled with fifty bottles of Diet Coke. (It was the first time all morning that I laughed.) At some point I logged on to my online community, and joined a conversation that continued for days and kept me sane. I always re-read it on this anniversary and cry. One of our members, a writer for New York Magazine, got our permission this year to publish the discussion; I'm glad to be able to share it with the rest of the world.

Later that day I learned my synagogue was delivering food to the firefighters at Ground Zero, so I decided to make peanut-butter sandwiches. I must have slathered jelly on a hundred pieces of bread, which also helped me stay calm. That evening I went to an interfaith service; I remember thinking all the prayers were nonsense. (As I would for many more weeks.) The smoke began to reach us that night, eight miles uptown. By the next morning I could barely stand to go outside for more than a few minutes.

At services the following Shabbat, the music seemed too beautiful to bear. Each note was like a dagger; such perfect sounds didn't belong in a world this ugly. We got to my favorite part, Psalm 150, all about joyful noises, and I thought: if we're asked to sing this, I'll scream. But the rabbi just chanted the last line--Let every breath of life praise the Lord, Hallelujah--and said, "One day, in the future, we'll be able to sing praises again with all our breath." For the first time that week I felt some hope. My family and friends were alive, and at least one person believed in a future. So maybe I did, as well.

372. Baruch dayan emet

V., aka Mouse, passed away this morning at about 3AM. She was home, not in any pain, and in the company of her son, some old, dear friends, and a health aide. Wrote the friend who gave me this news, "...She made a very peaceful transition and knew that her friends and family were nearby and loving her."

Baruch dayan emet. Blessed is the one true Judge. May her memory be a blessing for us all.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

371. Angel

The angels of Shabbat were working overtime yesterday.

I came home from services to a message on my answering machine from Tom, V.'s son. "Alto," he said, "today would be a good day to visit. Come by anytime." Just a handful of people call me "alto" in real life; it was strange to hear that name from someone I didn't know. I met V. in the mid-90s on an online bulletin board, a group of random people once numbering in the thousands but now down to about a hundred die-hards. We're like regulars at the corner bar, reliable, crotchety, and--although we tend to recycle the same arguments over and over again--never boring, even after all these years. Most of us check in a few times a day, more than we speak to our own families (except for those who married each other, with a combined total of about a dozen kids). We meet occasionally at the real corner bar, an old-fashioned kind of community created from a very new medium.

V. is a retired teacher in her 70s. Her husband died of a long illness whose every battle we followed online. I never really got to know know V. much beyond the facts--European-born and bred, speaker of many languages, lover of literature, brilliant player of Trivial Pursuit, direct, funny, honest--although I could have; the door was always open. But I didn't know how to be friends with someone so much older than I, and who maybe reminded me a little of my own mother. V. had no such issues. She called to check up when I was sick, was a tireless cheerleader for my adventures in chanting, and once gave me the kindest, most generous gift I've ever received in my entire life. She demurred when I tried to return it: "It's a mitzvah to give, so you can't deny me that opportunity."

V. was diagnosed with ovarian cancer a few years ago. She fought back with the tenacity of a lioness protecting her young, enduring experimental treatments, pain and exhaustion in order to remain on earth for as long as possible. But eventually there were no more avenues to pursue. She resigned herself to round-the-clock nurses--"But I'm not going anywhere any time soon," she announced when I visited earlier this summer. It was starting to rain when I left; she insisted I borrow her favorite umbrella, bright green and emblazoned with the name of her alma mater. "Now you have to come back, in order to return it," she added.

I kept meaning to call. But I was afraid, because I didn't want to see what would surely come next. The umbrella sat on a shelf by my front door, chastising me whenever I went in or out. Next week, I promised myself at the end of each day.

Now I imagine that V. understood my silence and, ever the friend and teacher, again offered a generous gift. She must have given Tom a list of people who would want to say goodbye when the time was right. Yesterday afternoon V. lie in a fitful sleep, her breathing labored, but didn't seem to be in pain. I wanted my thoughts to be full of love and warmth, in case she could sense their presence, but felt instead like I was shouting across a chasm that couldn't be navigated, in a language I didn't speak. I thought of Moses on the mountain, unable to look at the face of God, and was grateful I couldn't see more of this awesome place. I thanked V. for giving me a glimpse, and for the gift her of herself all these years, and carefully placed the green umbrella on the table by the door before I left.

Friday, September 08, 2006

370. Shofar

I'm back from an unplanned but much needed blogging break, necessary not because I couldn't write, but because I had to take care of all the stuff I put off this summer in order to find time to write--paying bills, cleaning my apartment, fixing holes both physical and virtual. I seem to always want to do one more thing than there are hours in the day, or space in my brain.

I can scarcely believe Rosh Hashanah is in two weeks. (I've yet to have any rehearsals; presumably I'll be contacted soon. So different from the past two years, when I didn't know what I was doing and clearly needed all the practice I could get. Either the folks in charge have confidence in my abilities, or someone forgot to send an email.) The other day I went to a class all about the shofar, blown every morning during the month of Elul and at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. In Biblical sources, its sound is associated with triumph and the heralding of great events; in rabbinic commentary, that same piercing blast is compared to wailing and groaning. The Talmud recounts debates about what sort of horn--straight or twisted--is most appropriate to each different way of hearing the shofar.

We all agreed that a curved shofar--circuitous as life itself, requiring great effort to make a sound--fits this holiday perfectly. We're not just announcing the new year, but screaming to heaven and earth that we promise to expend the effort to change. The shofar's sound is, at times, as messy as that change; the blower's face turns red, he gasps for breath, his struggles are apparent for all to see and hear. As are ours during the Yamim Nora'im while we pray, cry and, in full sight of our community and of God, promise to do better. At the end of Yom Kippur, cleansed and exhausted, we take a new, deep breath and are ready to make another year of imperfect, occasionally beautiful sounds.

It occurred to me after this class that my vocal struggles last Rosh Hashanah, although miserable, were not inappropriate. I did, at the end of the day, sing rather than go back home and crawl into bed, and am here again to make more sounds. I hope they'll be a little more pleasant to hear, but the cycle of new years will continue even if they're not--and with it, infinite chances for me to try again.