Friday, August 31, 2007

518. Vessels

Elul. It's almost over, and I've barely said hello. I should be doing an accounting of my soul (heshbon hanefesh), figuring out where my arrow missed the mark (al chet), and other traditions with wonderfully metaphorical names. Instead I'm trying to navigate from one emotionally polar opposite lifecycle event to the next, and have had little time to think about me, me, me. Maybe that's the lesson of my accounting this year: pay more attention to everyone else, and I won't have to cram teshuva at the last minute.

At services last Friday, I was struck by the final paragraph of the Amidah, the "standing prayer," where we ask God to draw us closer:

Show me the path of life, the full joy of Your Presence, the bliss of being close to You forever.
(Siddur Sim Shalom, p.303)

What I think I and all of us really want and need, however, is for other people to draw us close, and vice versa. The two ideas aren't mutually exclusive--God is part of people. (And some people I'm lucky to know seem to be mostly God.) I believe our goal should be to connect fully not only with the holy and transcendent, but also with the vessels who carry these wonders. That's what I want God to help me do this Elul--see God in everyone else, and act accordingly.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

517. Entwining

I learned El Maleh Rahamim the day before my sister-in-law's funeral, and was astonished to discover it was only a minute and a half long. Like a transient, acute pain, it seemed to last forever whenever I heard it. Perhaps, between funerals, unveilings, and Yizkors, I've heard it two dozen times over my lifetime. But the melody felt like it was seared with a brand into my brain, familiar even after years away from services. We learn the entire Torah in the womb, goes the story, but once we're born an angel comes and erases it, leaving the indentation over our lips as a reminder. I think the angel forgot to take away this prayer, the saddest melody ever written.

I had never before sung at a funeral, let alone one for a member of my family. I walked up front not sure for whom I was about to try to offer comfort--myself, the people facing me? I began the prayer, and after a moment had a sense that all our arms, mine as well as everyone else's, were open and trying to draw each other in, a palpable warmth that spread across the room and up to the bima. The people in the pews weren't singing along, but I could hear them just the same.

A few weeks ago at Friday night services the rabbi quoted Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, who taught that everyone has a niggun, a melody belonging to their own soul. The job of the shaliah tzibur, the service leader, is to listen carefully for the niggunim of everyone in the room and gather them into a song. This is what I felt as I sang El Maleh Rahamin: all our melodies entwining like an embrace, reaching out to each other, reaching up.

Friday, August 24, 2007

516. Sleep well

(Written Thurs., 8/23)

We sit awkwardly on tan leather sofas in a small room adjoining the chapel, my nieces and nephew and their cousins and various partners (this generation isn’t big on marriage), and my brother and I. In the strange constellation of my family, I'm younger than all but one of these people. We've spent the past few years ping-ponging between the funerals and shivas of various parents, aunts, and uncles, although almost everyone else got together on happy occasions, too. With the exception of my dear niece, they've always been the relatives I see only after tragedy. When I was a child, my father decided his two sons from his first marriage were Amalek. So I blotted them out of my life as well, even though I had spent almost every Sunday until the age of 11 marveling at the close-up moon through the telescope my nephew set up in his back yard, or playing big sister games with my little niece.

Two decades later, my father lay dying in a nursing home. Every couple of weeks, not nearly often enough but I couldn’t stand to be around that smell, those old people, and a reminder of how freakish my family was and that I’d soon be an orphan, I got on the LIRR and prayed I wouldn’t run into my brother, sister-in-law and niece getting out of their car. But sometimes I did, and we spoke. To my surprise, they were not the devil. My brother said little, but my sister-in-law and niece, who was no longer three years old, always wanted to know what I was doing, how I was living my life.

One day my sister-in-law called, right before I was about to leave for Thanksgiving at a friend’s house. “He’s gone,” she said. We cried together on the phone, and a few weeks later I went over to their house for dinner. I felt a little like a traitor, like I was sneaking around behind my father’s back, but also sensed that he was looking down at us right that minute and musing, “Hmm, maybe my son is OK after all.”

The rabbi walks into the room and we stand up from the awkward sofas. My brother goes into the chapel, where the casket is now open. My nieces and nephew follow, and then their cousins and partners. One of them walks over and puts a hand on my arm. “No,” I say to her. I didn’t look at either of my parents after they died. I knew they were gone; I didn't want any memories of wax faces and closed eyes with no soul hidden behind them.

My brother approaches. “Come on,” he says. “I’m afraid to look,” I answer, trying to smile and make a little joke of it. “Nah, you can do it,” he says again, and I suddenly feel like a fool. He steers me through the door and then, for the first time ever, takes my hand. In all my life we've barely even hugged, and exchanged only the faintest of kisses hello. No one has held my hand quite like this, so tenderly and gently, since I was a child and my father led me across the street. We walk over to my sister-in-law, who looks beautiful and as if she's just closed her eyes for a few minutes of rest. He doesn’t let go of my hand as I stand there and say goodbye on behalf of myself as well as my mother and father, whose presence I feel hovering in the heavy sunshine right outside. Then I let go and step back, and watch him give her a little wave.

“Sleep well,” says my brother.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

515. Threads

(Written Weds., 8/21)

It’s been a distracting few weeks, and writing has felt like plowing through mud. I write this on an airplane, just a few days after digging my toes in the sand of one joyous beach at a friend’s wedding, and now headed towards another beach whose ocean will mingle with tears. My sister-in-law passed away on Monday, accompanied by the whispers of her daughters telling her how much she was loved. Last weekend I packed somber clothing next to the flowery dress in my suitcase, in case I had to leave mid-celebration. But God listened to my selfish prayer and waited a day so I could go home, shift gears and (at the last minute) learn El Maleh Rahamim, which I will offer tomorrow morning if I can manage to sing though tears. (My iPod, repository of the the cantor’s God- channeling voice singing this prayer, froze on the plane. In the terminal between connecting flights, I went online to figure our how to un-freeze it. I did, and then discovered the battery had drained. So I ran into an airport Brookstone, gadget heaven, and bought a universal iPod charger. Now I can practice by singing along with the cantor. Thank you, miracle of technology.)

My sister-in-law’s death is unbearably sad, and a few days ago I could barely think. As I’ve posted, we weren’t very close; I mourn the loss of shared history even more than her presence. I guess this happens when you get older. People die, and eventually you’re the only repository of your memories. As the week progressed, however, and I joined my friends at their wedding in a declaration of hope and love, I was reminded that God is pretty efficient. God fills up the gaps: someone leaves, someone else returns. Our lives are about gathering threads both new and old, like the corners of a tzitzit, and drawing them close.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

514. Sugar

On Monday morning, I felt like a funnel.

Chanting Torah has made me feel scared, empowered, blown around in a gust of wind, burnt like a leaf in the sun under a magnifying glass, and many other sensations I can't identify. On Monday morning I had a cold, and none of those metaphors applied. All I could think about at the bima was not coughing; the logistics of having to put down the yad to cover my mouth and avert an explosion of germs all over the word of God were too scary to contemplate. I concentrated instead on measuring my breath so that just a little bit was allocated for each word, limiting the amount that remained to tickle my upper respiratory tract. I was so engrossed in this task that I completely forgot to be nervous. Once I realized this, somewhere around the fifth verse, I wondered what to do with the extra space in my brain now available in absence of the usual big brick of nerves. It was like I lost my shoes and had to run barefoot, free and unrestrained, but aware of the possibility of pebbles. Surely there must be some danger; nothing could be this good and sweet.

That's when I felt like a funnel--or one of those bags you use for icing, a conduit that delivers sugar to a plain surface. The Torah scroll in front of me was the cake, and the energy of the people listening the sweet part that seeped into the words I sang and then out through my yad as it touched the parchment. They combined to create a feast, at least for me. I get another taste in just a few hours, when I chant once more about memory, wholeness, and freedom.