Sunday, February 13, 2011

970. 'Neath the elms

I'm still here! Spending much of my free time these days immersed in another project I hope will one day become part of my design business. It's starting slowly—but it's starting, the most important part. Alas, I have only so much extra creative energy to go around once the work day is over. I'm not taking my usual, wonderful writing class this winter, and haven't been blogging very much, either, both to make more time and space in my brain for the other venture. But "on chanting" and I haven't disappeared, and I hope to be back in full(er) force one day soon.

Meanwhile, a great deal of chanting going on. My casual remark to the cantor resulted in six weeks of aliyot of various lengths over the last eight, some sort of personal record. My nerves, still present, seem to have reached a peaceful if tentative detente with the rest of myself. One of my rabbis is teaching a wonderful class on prayer as seen through the writings of Heschel and Hassidic masters, and last week we studied these words of the Maggid of Mezeritch:

"... As the breath leaves you, it ascends to God and then it returns to you from above.
Thus that part of God which is within you is reunited with its source."

So, added the rabbi, sometimes it's good to just stop and breathe, and remind ourselves that we're constantly being recharged with (in the author's words) "that breath of heaven that is always flowing into you from above." We exhale and send the air in our lungs to God, who gives it right back. I remembered this as I chanted on Shabbat, when I placed my yad on the first word and took a deep breath. Please add a little more confidence to the mix when You return it, I thought.

I was too focused on trying to pronounce strange words for the names of jewels I could barely even recognize in English to notice if my prayer had been answered (but perhaps my concentration proved that it was). The section concluded with a description of the "Urim v'tummim," mysterious words on the high priest's breastplate meaning, maybe, "Light and perfection," although there are many other possible translations and mystical explanations. Coincidentally—or not—I had to rush out of services get to my college choir's 150th anniversary celebration, held on an enormous stage in front of a massive pipe organ crowned, at the very top, with the Yale seal emblazoned with those very words. I've written here before about the deep influence on my life of the Yale Glee Club, and especially its conductor. One of my first blog posts, almost exactly six years ago, was about my first time back on the campus in a decade. Back then, as yesterday, the place was alive with ghosts of my youth, of my mother, and of loss, joy, love.

(To be continued.)

Sunday, January 30, 2011

969. Pluck

Serves me right (in an entirely good way) to have asked about more opportunities to chant. Yesterday I read haftarah, and have lots o'aliyot coming up next week and the week after. Yikes (in a good way). I've also discovered I have no idea how long it takes me to learn a section. I'm faster than I think, mostly. But I always dwell on the exceptions, and so say no when it comes to adding an aliyah or two. I need to be a little more brave.

As I walked over to the bima, the rabbi leaned over and said, sotto voce, "Go for it!" Exactly what I needed to hear. (I wonder if he noticed my big, nervous intake of breath a minute earlier before chanting the blessing.) So I threw caution to the winds, and tried to sing with everything I had. Not that I hold back, especially during the High Holy Days, but am at times more decorous than others. The rabbi's words in mind, I let more of myself through than nerves had allowed me in awhile. It was fun. Much easier to do this for haftarah, when I can clutch my own piece of paper, complete with notes and vowels, rather than when maneuvering the sea of letters that float above the dizzying cliff of memory required to read Torah--but perhaps some of my pluck will last until next Shabbat.

(I learned to chant exactly nine years ago! Why am I still nervous? But I am. And I think it's a good thing; those nerves make me look beyond the obvious, with respect to myself as well to the act of singing and reading. The answers, like Torah, change over time and are sometimes inscrutable.)

Friday, January 14, 2011

968. Finally: chanting!

Yes, believe it or not—and right before Shabbat, to boot—a post about chanting. (Not that I don't have more to say about the stem cell donation. I finally got my act together last week and answered my recipient's note, accompanied by extensive musing about how she is now a part of me as much as I am of her. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, which happens more often than I'd like, I just imagine her life, struggles, strength. They trump mine many times over; acknowledging that, I shrug and pick myself off the floor. I'm beginning to think the donation worked both ways, a little bit of her spirit flowing into me in exchange for the cells.)

But back to chanting. I did so last week, just one short aliyah, for the first time in two and a half months—my longest leining-less gap in years. No particular reason for the silence, although I did get paranoid for awhile there (and successfully talked myself out of it). The current crop of b'nai mitzvah are more amazing than ever before, and generally cover the entire reading each Shabbat between the two of them. In some instances one child reads the whole thing his/herself, as will my brilliant student in September. The relatively few chances for adults to read went to people who asked, or (it seemed to me) hadn't read much in the recent past, so it was their turn.

My short section was to fill in for someone at the last minute, and I took the occasion to ask the cantor, hmm, it's been awhile, any more opportunities coming up? So I'm reading again next week, which feels very good. I mean that literally, physically: singing, breathing for singing, is more refreshing first thing in the morning than jumping into the ocean on a hot day. (Or inhaling a mug of soup on one of these recent freezing days.) Learning an aliyah becomes an aliyah in the truest sense—my soul feels lifted up with every word. I ran into one of my b'not Torah students at services last week, who acknowledged that it was really depressing to have stopped singing after that intense event. And I realized these past 2 1/2 months took the same toll on my spirits, as well. The break was good, in many regards; I re-channeled that creative energy to a bunch of new and previously neglected projects. But I'm very happy to redirect it back home, especially since those other ventures are starting to take flight.