It’s Not Yet Time to Cross the Street

I‘ve sometimes shared posts by my friend Dr. Kelly Flanagan, on my FB page. I admire his take on life, child-rearing, and relationships.  This week I couldn’t agree with him as he wrote about ISIS  and their most recent attacks. Though we’ve never met, and have only corresponded via email over the past couple of years, we share a deep mutual respect. Which gave me the courage to write the following.

A long time ago I attended a pro-Israel rally. It was at the time of one of the incessant uprisings against Israel. When it was over,  a group of Palestinian supporters stood on the street opposite the synagogue holding up Israel’s state flag with a nazi swastika on it.  On the synagogue side of the street a friend of mine who had fought in Desert Storm 1 held up the Stars and the Stripes.  My kids and i went to stand silently beside him while those on the other side of the street continued their shouting.  What a metaphor.

I wanted to cross the street.  Wanted to go up to the man and say, I can see that you are a human being.  Can you not see that in me?  In my children? But I didn’t.  I was too afraid.

These terrorists are out of control children with weapons.  They are two-year olds, all ego, with murderous intentions. I do not hate them.  I do think they should be eliminated because they are a danger to all that is civilized in this world. And sometimes humans with that dark and destructive power have to be eliminated even if innocents will go down with them.

There is a story from Exodus.  When the Israelites had crossed the sea, Miriam and the women took up timbrels and began dancing, celebrating the fact that they were alive and that Pharaoh’s horsemen were drowned. God calls down to them and says, “Why are you rejoicing when some of My children have died?”  What we are taught to take from this is that number 1 this was part of the plan and yet God was still in mourning for His Children.  Two, we are not to exult at the tragedies that befall others. This is why at the Passover Seder each year, we remove ten drops of wine from our cups when reciting the Ten Plagues. This removal of the joy, which wine symbolizes in Jewish tradition, echoes back to God’s conversation with Miriam. It is our yearly reminder that all are God’s children, even those whose plans are destructive, and we are not to take joy in another’s suffering, no matter how they have harmed us.

I don’t have time to hate.  But I do wish we had leaders who understood what is at stake and would quit equivocating. Decades ago Arafat’s henchman threw an 80-year-old-man in a wheelchair off a cruise ship. The world did a few air strikes and tsk tsk’s at the “crazies.”  That is what has never been understood.  We look at the situation through our lens and say, OH they are crazy they will go away.  We’ve been doing that for decades b/c who but the crazy can be so uncivilized?  I won’t even write some of their acts here.

They are not crazy.  They are stone cold deliberate; they are absolutely logical and have followed through on every intention they have stated (no matter how insane it sounds to us.) This is why the Islamists are so dangerous.  Peace, as it is understood as the absence of strife war, and conflict, is not the answer.  Love of humanity’s survival is more important than love of these humans who have voided their place in civilized society with their blood lust and their intentions to conquer the world and create a Caliphate.

We have evolved from such an understanding of the world.  Cancer cells are nothing but unchecked cells. They have run amok, feeding upon the atmosphere of their  host.   Cancer has to be excised in whatever way possible to save the being within which it grows. The Islamists, Muslim extremists, whatever anyone wants to call them, they are destroyers. We have ignored them at our own peril. They too must be exorcised, by any means possible, no matter how many healthy “cells” go down with them.

And then, should we find ourselves on the far side of the Sea of Reeds, perhaps we will not take up timbrels and rejoice. Instead, and hopefully, we will extend our hands to those yearning to breathe free and walk forward together in peace and unafraid.

From Rainbows to Ruination?


Martin captured this after a rain shower in Sedona.

Each year, the cycle of reading the Torah (Hebrew Bible) begins anew. Across the world, in every synagogue the same parasha (section) is read, either specific selections for those synagogues on a triennial cycle of reading, or the entire section. Yesterday we read the section titled Noah. Again and again we do this, reading the same texts. And it is never the same experience, for we are different each year. Year after year, we come to the text from different places in our intellectual and emotional growth. Noah, animals, rainbow, and then in the same section the story of Babel, the building of a tower in an effort to reach the Divine. Same stories, different insights. Each and every year.

This year, something new struck me as I read the story of Babel. The floodwaters have receded; we have read the groupings of Noah’s descendants; we are told that from these groupings, nations were formed and branched out across the earth. And all of these nations speak the same language.  Driven by hubris and ego, they set out to build a city and a tower whose top would reach into the sky “to make a name for ourselves” the text tells us, “else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

Well God wasn’t too keen on human beings using the commonality of their language to build a tower to the heavens in an effort to be known far and wide. “If as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose will be out of their reach.  Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” 

And that’s where this year’s reading stopped me in my tracks. So that they shall not understand one another’s speech.  Coming off a week where Jews in Israel are being stabbed and murdered willy nilly and the world pretty much stays silent, or in the case of one reporter reality is completely distorted, where the phrase I just can’t understand you echoes between spouses, siblings, friends and more, I wondered at this Divine intervention. Don’t think me blasphemous for questioning God’s motivations in this chapter. It is the Jew’s birthright. We are called the People Israel because yisroel means “to struggle with God.”

What a legacy for us all not to be able to understand one another’s speech! The people of Babel were punished for using their commonality of speech to go where they weren’t supposed to go and think thoughts of grandeur and ego they weren’t supposed to think. I sat there pondering this as the Bar Mitzvah boy continued his fluid and confident chanting of the rest of the section. What if we all still spoke the same language? Would we continue to conspire in the wrong direction? Would we have found a way toward understanding one another’s hearts and plights?

We use the phrase “we speak the same language” as short hand for “this person and I, we are in tune with one another. We understand one another.”  Sometimes when we “speak the same language” with someone, words are unnecessary. We know what the other is trying to express; we know what the other needs without their having to ask; we know what to do because by saying “we speak the same language,” we are saying the other isn’t really other, but us.

I have no resolution for this column. Nothing as pretty and breathtaking as a rainbow.  I wonder at this week’s juxtaposition: in the section that forever joins the rainbow’s glory to God’s Promise that He will never again destroy the world, we seem to be on that path nevertheless because, our speech Divinely confounded, we no longer understand one another and cannot seem to find the way to do so.

His Lens/My Pen + Great Harvest = Synergy

Great Harvest's Honey Whole Wheat

Great Harvest’s Honey Whole Wheat

“My first question to you,” Tina Yancey said, “is why you think your His Lens/My Pen greeting cards are a fit for our store?”  A fair enough question.

Tina and her husband took over the local Great Harvest Bread Company some time ago. It’s been part of my routine on tiling days at Song and Spirit to bring a loaf of bread to the lunch table for my fellow volunteer tilers to enjoy. In the past year I’d noticed a big change in the store.  The atmosphere felt warmer.  There was new cute merchandise for sale — sweet aprons and kitchen towels — and an inviting kiddy table by the window, scattered with crayons and drawing paper. These touches made me wonder if there might be some synergy there, no matter how far-flung it might seem at first glance, to offer our His Lens/My Pen greeting cards in a bread shop.

I told Tina that I had no idea if bread and greeting cards would make a good match. But I did know that she had brought a feeling to her store that inspired warmth and connection, and that’s what our cards did, too. Would she give us a chance?

She offered us a four-hour time slot to create a pop-up shop — a one-time event during which we Let Beauty Comfort You Cardcould make our cards available to customers coming in for their great breads, scones and cookies. Marketing research in real time. If we were successful, she would give strong consideration to carrying His Lens/My Pen at Great Harvest. As an initial vote of confidence, Tina  purchased our Difficult Times card to offer in her sympathy baskets.

Right or wrong, selling can take on a negative squirmy-vibe strong-arming connotation. I’ve tried to surround our His Lens/My Pen adventure in a spirit of sharing and connecting — sharing with others what we are doing, engaging with people and offering a way for them to connect, through our images and words, with their friends and loved ones.

Sunset Plovers watermarkedIn addition to our cards, I’ve also enlarged and matted some of Martin’s photographs that we’ll offer as well. If you’re on his list, you know his gift of capturing images that drop your jaw and lift your heart. So if you’re local, drop by Great Harvest Bread Company on Adams Road (at Lincoln) in Birmingham, MI. October 15th from 10:00 am – 2:00 pm. We’ll be there. A portion of all sales will be donated to Gleaners Community Food Bank.

Pregnancy in Reverse — short-short fiction

I am cleaning my office, going thru old files and found this piece of writing.  It isn’t dated but I figure it’s from at least a decade ago if not more.  So here goes, a piece of fiction from the past.

caramel-applePregnancy in Reverse

I always thought that there was no greater grief than to watch a child die. I still do. But let’s face it.  Who better to be at the child’s deathbed? To hold the hand, sponge the brow. Who better to answer the groans of pain with shushes of comfort?  Seems like yesterday I was steadying Madeleine’s head over the toilet as she retched up four blocks’ worth of Halloween loot.  Triangles of candy corn. Pyramids of Hershey’s kisses. An entire rainbow of Now or Laters. Now it’s later. Three decades later. It’s chemo now, not caramel apples. But still, who better than a mother?

Watching my child die is more painful than a thousand births. Ten thousand births. There’s no episiotomy in the world that’ll close this tear in my flesh. But this is how the dice were thrown. I’m glad I was at the table.

Having kids is a gamble anyway. Biggest gamble there is. You never know the hand you’re going to be dealt. But you have to play it and play it round after round even if you keep drawing black queens and suicide jacks.

Madeleine was a nipple biter from the minute she grew teeth and she’s stayed that way her whole life. Being mean just because she could. Vindictive for the sport of it. Seeing injury where none was intended. Going for the jugular when all someone lobbed her way was a cat scratch.

Maybe cancer’s her payback for living like she owed nothing to no one. I gotta tell you, the day she called and told me, I couldn’t help it. First thought that came to me was small enough to drown in a teaspoon, but it was there just the same: serves you right for causing so much spite to so many. Not very loving of me but there you go.

You learn fast how to deal with a nipple biter. You remove the breast. You give her room. You get outta the way. I had one moment thinking Madeleine was getting her comeuppance. But it was only a moment. God forgive me it was only a moment, a wretched thought plastered over by everything that should have come first: shock, grief, desperation. And anger. Anger that this has befallen my beautiful spiteful daughter. Anger at Maddy for refusing to go for mammograms. “What do I need with those? I’m not mashing my boobs in some vise just so some doctor can tell me, “All’s well; come back next year.” So now she won’t be coming back next year.

Ironical, no? The one thing I took from her at her life’s beginning is now the source of its ending. She can’t remember me slapping her face that morning she bit me. Damn girl drew blood. The signal shorted out my brain and went from my breast to the flat of my palm. She was just such a little thing. I cried for days over what I’d done. I iced her cheek good to be sure nothing showed before Ramie got home. As soon as the imprint of my fingers left her cheek, I packed her up in the stroller and set out for Walgreen’s to fetch more bottles and formula.

“Jessamyn, what a sweet little doll,” April Lanier said when she saw us. Hollywood hadn’t yet dreamed up Chuckie. If they had, I might have said something about Maddy that I would have regretted. April’s eyes flickered over the elastic waistband of my slacks. Her right hand brushed against her flat stomach and she volleyed a small smile in my direction.

“Yes, she is,” I agreed. “Maddy’s a true joy.  Off to get diapers and some formula. You know, the drudgery of motherhood.” I tried to sound aggrieved. Which wasn’t too hard considering my left tit was still smarting to bead the band. But not smarting so much that I didn’t volley April a farewell of my own.

“I swan, April, that waist of yours is so slender. I bet my wedding ring would go ’round it with room to spare.”  I made sure she saw my eyes skimming her naked left hand. Who knows. Maybe by the time Madeleine bit me she’d also drunk in my tendency to spite as well. Maybe she’d had her fill and just couldn’t take any more.

I don’t know how much more I’m going to be able to take. Watching her slip away. It’s like being pregnant in reverse. My belly growing month by month big as the moon. Her slipping away to a skinny crescent. Feeling her poke my insides, all elbows and knees and now seeing her spindly limbs push at the sheets in jerks and fits. Me vomiting every morning; and now it’s her turn. Soon, the only place she’ll be is in my mind and my heart; same as she was before the apple left my eye for my womb.

I’m glad Ramie isn’t here to see this. He loved her so much. Blind to her spite. But then, she never showed him any. No, spite was our special sauce. What I wouldn’t give for one last caramel apple.   Just one     more     bite.                                                                                                                                                      .

It was called the Spanish house

A neighborhood icon bites the dust.

A neighborhood icon bites the dust.

Anyone who walks this neighborhood knew which one you were talking about when you mentioned the Spanish house. It was one of the town’s oldest. The one with the red tile roof. The one whose charming arched front door had been treated like a fine painting: matted first with a beautiful arch of stone, then a filet of pale plaster, and then framed with a carved wood surround. It was the one sitting way back on a large swath of land, shaded by maples dating back close to a century. Anyone and everyone knew which one you meant when you sighed over the beauty of the Spanish house. Martin and I dreaded what we knew was coming the day we saw a construction company’s sign on the front lawn and an orange portapotty toward the back.

When we walked by today, the sound of the backhoe’s bucket shattering those beautiful terra-cotta tiles shattered something within me too. I know that I’ve crossed well into middle age because I now ask in the face this change and supposed progress, “Is nothing sacred?”

I guess it’s a sign of a recovering economy that may trickle down to those manufacturing the timber and the wiring, the insulation and the fittings. Another McMansion is about to go up. I can’t help but think it’s also a sign of an appalling lack of appreciation for what once was. I know, I know, this diatribe is a precious lamenting of one era’s manse being replaced by another. There are bigger things to protest. A home demolished in a Michigan neighborhood is nothing in light of the massacre in South Carolina or the deaths from the heat wave in Karachi.

Martin and I walked over to the police officer who was watching the demolition from his patrol car. Perhaps he was required to be there, (un)building codes and all.  Or perhaps he was there as we were, another gray-haired and saddened bystander.  “I hope they leave the Moose House alone,” he said. “The owner died last month.”  I knew instantly the one he meant. The sweet yellow shingled house a few blocks down from here. The one with the kelly green shutters and the huge antlered moose head that hung to the left of the home’s front door. The moose whose antlers were strung with lights at Christmas time. The moose that a friend’s daughter visited on their daily walks, bringing him a handful of Hershey’s kisses. Sometimes, she would even tell the moose stories before leaving her foil-wrapped gifts on the bench beneath her antlered friend.

We’ve been living in this neighborhood for three decades and then some. When we arrived, I was nine months pregnant with my first. Over the years, I’ve watched the block’s nearly two dozen kids take flight. I guess that now qualifies me for geezer status. I hope it also qualifies me for bard or chronicler or storyteller. That way, if a young one overhears the elders talking one day and asks, “What’s the Spanish house?” or “What’s the Moose house?” I’ll be able to answer.

Hopefully saner heads, and a moose head, will prevail.

Hopefully saner heads, and a moose head, will prevail.

Time to Fill Those Holes!

51RoDqmE+oL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_I love Ruth Kraus’ book A Hole is to Dig. It was one of the early ones I read to Elliot and Emma when they were little. In this sweet and simply illustrated book, holes are for digging, looking through, stepping into and hiding things in. Between the covers of A Hole is to Dig, life is complete and everything fits: doors are for shutting and opening, the world is so you have something to stand on.

I thought of this book recently after a conversation with an elderly woman who has a hole in her life that has yet to be filled. We were talking birthdays and bonded over the fact that we were both  April babies. If you’re a Jewish baby boomer, born on the cusp, belly or tail of spring, you got cheated every few birthdays. Instead of a nicely leavened high rising layer cake, swirled with mounds of frosting, you got a kosher for Passover sponge cake, dry as desert sand.

We chuckled over this additional deprivation, but then the conversation took a turn into a different corner of the past. “My mother never made me a good birthday party,” the woman said. “Even when it wasn’t Passover, there was never soda, never candy, never the right kind of cake.” I made some sort of clucking noises of sympathy and we turned to other things.

I haven’t been able to shake the sense of this woman’s loss, her palpable disappointment, a hole from childhood that has yet to be filled.  It occurred to me that she needs to throw herself a big birthday party replete with a gooey cake, candles, soda, candy and whatever else her inner child pines for. She should invite her best friends and play games and celebrate having lived as long as she has.

When we’re children, if we’re fortunate children, holes are to dig, look through, step in and hide things in. Only as we age do the holes of our childhood experiences leave voids that pockmark our inner terrain like a slice of Swiss cheese. No one can fill these holes but us. And we must. Or we should. Whether it’s throwing a birthday party for yourself or taking that art class your mom couldn’t afford or learning to sing despite your second grade choir teacher’s pronouncement that you sing off key, when you get to a certain age, holes are no longer to dig.  Holes are to fill.


Continuing Passover’s Thread

i-hM8DHW4-X3Passover Seder ranks as every Jew’s number one most favorite, most highly attended, most fondly remembered, most eagerly anticipated of any holiday dinner of the year.  OK, you’ll hear good-natured kvetching from the women who spend the weeks cleaning the house for Passover, days to weeks preparing the food, a day or two setting the table(s). But all of that fades away the minute the friends and family arrive, with more food, with other friends, sometimes with a newborn or two about to celebrate their first Seder. It is the most joyously AdobeOLS-X3celebrated Jewish ritual of the calendar, the most open to creativity, the one with the huge mix of pathos, humor, memory, innovation, tradition and more. If Pesach were a magnet, Jews would be the iron filings.

Two years ago I described a special Seder we hosted out here in Sedona. Our kids came in from both coasts. My sister-in-law and her partner joined us. Martin and I created a biblio-drama that included a walk through an actual dry bed replete with horses (living, not drowned) standing at the shoreline, and meaningful and memorable discussions the whole night through. But this year, this year can be summed up with Passover’s defining question: Why is this night different from all other nights?

AdobeOLSBecause this year we will be with neither beloved friends nor family. This year we will celebrate with fellow Jews most of whom we know only by name and nod; a handful of whom we can call friends, newly minted. This year, at Sedona’s wonderful synagogue in the desert, we will retell Passover’s epic story of liberation with people we will have just met and sing Dayenu by joining our voices to voices we’ve never heard. And we will be and feel perfectly at home. This is the magic of Passover, the magic of Judaism. This is the true staying power of Judaism. We Jews are turtles, carrying our religion, our learning, our memories and our connections on our backs. All we have to do is connect with even one fellow Jew and we are home.

There is a lot to be said for being home for the holidays, for having one’s children fly in, drive in, come and add another thread to the cloth of family traditions. Schedules didn’t permit our kids to be with us for Passover this year. They left yesterday after a wonderful week’s visit. This Friday and Saturday they will be celebrating in their own homes, leading their own Seders, and joining other families at theirs. Will we miss them? Absolutely. But not to distraction.

I want my children to create their own traditions. I want them to weave their own threads into their own fabric of Jewish life. I want them to take the Seder experience into their hearts by making it theirs, coming to know the satisfaction of innovating, of sharing their knowledge with others and putting their own twist on what they loved best from home. I want them to retell the story of liberation with a Hagaddah of their choosing (there are literally hundreds to choose from!) and lead their own discussions on the four children wise, wicked, simple, and the one who didn’t know enough to ask. Through liberation comes return.

And so my children — Elliot, Emma, and now Elizabeth — I bless you in Passover’s spirit. May you come through the high waters of fear and uncertainty unto the shores of safety and triumph. May you come to know your heritage in a new and joyous way. May you make new friends and deepen bonds to old. May you carry your shell wherever you go, find fellow Jews, and be home.