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.


‘Stay on the Trail': Words of courage from Chicken Point

don't bust the crustOften when you hike in the state and national parks out west, signs are posted at the trailheads cautioning hikers not to “bust the crust.” The crust, called cryptobiotic soil,  consists of soil cyanobacteria, lichens and mosses. The microscopic filaments of the cyanobacteria  help stabilize the soil’s surface, creating a scaffolding from which other plants can take root and grow. These bacteria are determined little things, yet  the life-sustaining crust they form is so fragile. One careless footstep can crush decades, if not centuries, of growth.

This morning we hiked the Little Horse Trail, which leads to the Chicken Point overlook. Over the centuries, the wind has scoured the surface of the formations into undulating waves of red rock.  Posted by the crest of the trail was this sign that read “Healing in Progress. IMG_1848Please stay on trail. Thank you.” If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know I’m always looking for metaphors in Nature, delicious bits of guidance that might be found in a heart- shaped cactus  or a forest reflected in a river.

When I read the words Healing in Progress, Please stay on Trail my mind immediately went to the realization that we are all specimens of healing in progress, whether physically, spiritually or emotionally. One of us is recovering from surgery, while another is still processing the death of a loved one, and another is struggling to surface from being unemployed. Many someones struggle maintain a connection with G’d and their faith.

It takes so little to “bust the crust” of our existence.  A crass comment by a teacher can silence a student for years.  We wake up feeling fine until the lab calls with the latest test results, blasting us into realms we never imagined. Our spiritual needs changes. Or we change and are at a loss for the peace and community that might have sustained us our entire lives.

So we have to stay on the trail, mindful that others are healing whether we see their bandages or not. We have to walk gently in one another’s lives, offering help, minding our mouths, bringing fun and joy, giving space when solitude is the only balm.  And what of ourselves? How do we keep ourselves on the trail so we do not undermine our own healing in progress? We know what to do, but how many times to we regress, slipping back into unhealthy habits? If it’s addiction we face, keeping ourselves on the trail is a day by day, moment by moment act of recovery. If we are pursuing a goal whether it’s running a marathon, pursuing a degree or career advancement, staying on the trail will get us there sooner and successfully. Staying on the trail means learning the signs of our own self-sabotage and placing our feet ever more consciously.

It takes decades for cryptobiotic soil to grow to a stage where it becomes hospitable for seeds and grasses. Centuries can pass before the grasses give way to small shrubs, cacti and even a tree or two. We humans operate on a different scale of time. We do not have centuries. Some of us no longer have decades. But like the plants that take root in this beautiful soil, we have no idea what tomorrow will bring.

Today is the only day we can grow. This can be a good thing.

Healing in Progress. Please Stay on the Trail. Thank you.

Chicken Point


His Lens/My Pen — Walking on Water

The luminosity of the water makes me shiver!

The luminosity of the water makes me shiver!

Martin came back from the Everglades mightily inspired.  I wasn’t with him, and so it wasn’t until I saw his photos that I was able to enjoy the birds he had told me so much about . One of his shots, of an anhinga in flight, inspired our card about mindfulness. Martin snapped this photograph of an egret touching down, or about to touch the sky, on that trip too.


I was attracted to this image immediately. The contrast of the egret’s white wings against the shimmery blue of the water made this a His Lens/My Pen possibility for sure. Martin had done his part; now I had to do mine. Was the bird taking off or landing? What message or meditation could I draw from either of those actions? Then I shifted my attention from the egret’s wings to its feet, just skimming the surface of the Florida Bay. It does indeed look like this beautiful bird is walking on water.  Bingo!  Now I had the concept, all I needed were the words.

What we strive for when creating a His Lens/My Pen card is to speak to the everyday moments in our lives when we connect deeply with others. If we are fortunate, we have friends or family members we can count on in moments of great need.  I created this card with that dynamic in mind, envisioning a special friend who came to the rescue at just the right moment. Who went above and beyond turbulent waters to steady a loved one through a chaotic time. We need cards for those kinds of moments. When someone saves us, from ourselves or from the random crazy of life, we need to express our gratitude in a meaningful way.

Gratitude, peace, being there at the perfect moment. Martin’s photograph captured it all. Next time someone gets you through, consider sending them this card from HIs Lens/My Pen.

Spread the word. Please share this column FB or your other media sites. Many thanks.


Lighten Up With His Lens My Pen

Lighten Up Card Watermarked

Click on the image to view it in a larger format.

Who doesn’t feel like this every now and then? Maybe the other monkeys aren’t playing fair, or refuse to play with you at all. Maybe you woke up on the wrong side of the branch or a tourist in your corner of Costa Rica won’t stop taking pictures of you. Or maybe you climbed up the wrong tree. Whatever the reason, sometimes the best solution is simply to lift the corners of your mouth. Every time I look at this grumpy monkey I can’t help but smile.

For those of you new to His Lens/My Pen, here’s our M.O. (fancy Latin for the approach we take.) My husband, a fabulous photographer, is the Lens half of our endeavor. I am the Pen. Our mission is to create cards that reflect universal relationships and experiences by merging stunning Nature photography with spot-on inspirational messages.

Put another way  Martin’s photos are the inkwell that I dip my pen into. When I look at one of his shots, I ask myself, “What is this image saying? What is its comment about a truth of life or relationships? And can I say it in 20 words or fewer?”  When we hit the sweet spot where image and words connect, the whole becomes greater than the parts. A new His Lens/My Pen comes into being.

You can find this card and many others at our Etsy shop. Or if you live in the Birmingham/Bloomfield area here in Michigan head to the BBAC, ArtLoft Gallery, or Karma Yoga. And this week, a great new little shop has joined the family of His Lens/My Pen champions — other Fun Stuff! in Adams Square.

Go out on a limb. Send this card to a cranky monkey you might know and lighten them up. Better yet, prevent crankiness altogether. Keep this card nearby. You won’t be able to look at it without smiling.

A Year of Kaddish Draws to a Close

Mom playing Broadway tunes.

Mom playing Broadway tunes.

Today is the last day of my year of saying Kaddish for my mother.

In Jewish tradition, Kaddish, a prayer whose Aramaic text mentions nothing of death but instead offers words of praise to God, is recited for eleven months by the adult child who has lost a parent or other close relative. One of the purposes of reciting Kaddish is to elevate to God’s side the soul of the deceased.  A Kaddish year actually only lasts eleven months, the philosophy being no one is so lacking that his or her soul needs intervention for a full year.

Viewed from the outside, reciting Kaddish can seem like an enormous burden. The mourner is commanded to attend synagogue twice daily, morning and evening. In the course of these two daily services (three actually, unless the afternoon and evening services are folded into one another as is done in my community), the mourner rises to recite the Kaddish prayer. Those present echo their responses and amens at the proper time. The presence of ten Jewish adults is a requirement for the Mourner’s Kaddish to be said. No ten, no Kaddish.

When my rabbi asked me, before my mother died, if I planned on reciting Kaddish for her, I recoiled. Mine had been a Jekyll-Hyde mother for so much of my life, the last four years being especially searing. Was she entitled to another year of my life and my psyche? Why not just cut my losses and move on? Did I really need to hang on?

In my heart of hearts, I knew that the rabbis who created our Jewish mourning rituals were a hell of a lot wiser than I was. I would participate to the best of my ability, maybe not daily but surely several times a week. As I have done with other Jewish rituals that are now a part of my life, I gave myself over to reciting Kaddish and found comfort and wisdom in its practices. The Children of Israel accepted the Torah with the phrase We will do and [thus] we will hear [understand.] (Exodus 19:8) So, too with Kaddish.

Mom and me, Miami, 1957

Mom and me, Miami, 1957

There is no word in the English for what transpired between my mother and me the last years of her life. Illness, unemployment, poor decisions, age, lifelong mentally fragility, and more came together, unraveling her life as she had lived it. I found an independent-living apartment situation that was ideal. She was grateful for my research and moved in with the help of one of my sisters. She made a good life for herself there, more active and socially engaged than she had been for years.

But before she moved in, she turned on me. She had played this dynamic before, not infrequently, and for much less reason. Whether it was buyer’s remorse, the impending loss of certain freedoms, the inevitability of her illness, or maybe just the irrational need to blame someone for the upheaval, I became the target for her atomic fury. She would have nothing to do with me, threatened me with a restraining order if I called or wrote, and with one volley that I doubt even Faulkner could have penned, told me she couldn’t wait to die so she didn’t have to know I was on this earth. I ceased and desisted.

Abandoned. Exiled. Threw me out. None of those words described my mother’s refusal to acknowledge me during those final years. A friend suggested amputated. That fit perfectly, for amputation’s intimation of violence, for its truth of irrevocable loss, for its reality of phantom pain—feeling and mourning the severed limb of my mother’s love and delight, her presence and our deep connection despite all the rest.

No one gets out of life unscathed; this was simply my refining fire. We grow the most from the experiences that devastate us, that force us to go deep within to face our truths, challenging us to emerge stronger, wiser, more resilient. Teachers come in many guises. My mother was a magnificent teacher and I mean it when I say that I am grateful for the lessons learned. Ultimately we found our way back to one another. The anger never left her, but her volleys became less frequent and vicious. Better still, I ceased to allow them to land. When her final day came, my sister held the phone to her ear so I could say my goodbyes. I expressed my love for her and my gratitude. “Go, Mommy, be at peace with God.” My sister said a shadow of a smile crossed her lips when I began to speak.

I waver sharing even this much, lest I be judged as petulant, unforgiving, an unrepentant daughter determined to sully the memory of a loved one who can no longer defend herself. None of that is my truth. Those of us raised by Jekyll-Hyde parenting belong to a singular club. If you’re not a member, it’s hard to fathom. A fellow member told me that when someone would say to her I can’t believe this she would simply reply Be thankful you cannot.

*                  *                  *

Today is the last day of my year of saying Kaddish for my mother. In these last forty days, I have moved from several times a week to daily attendance. Like Noah I have ridden out this storm of grief and will soon walk upon new land. By nightfall my identity as a mourner will be nullified. When the minyan leader calls, “all those in mourning or observing a yahrzeit please rise” I will remain seated. My presence will now enable others to stand.

I am grateful for this wise and healing ritual. In Jewish tradition, another name for God is HaMakom, The Place. Minyan became where I placed my grief within God’s care. In place of the love and presence I so wanted give my mother during her final years, I have offered daily respect for her memory, reawakened appreciation for all she gave me, and attained a wiser love for her and the good times we shared. Rest well, Mom. Rest and be comforted that you are remembered.




The text of the Kaddish prayer:

May the great Name of God be exalted and sanctified, throughout the world, which he has created according to his will. May his Kingship be established in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the entire household of Israel, swiftly and in the near future; and say, Amen.

May his great name be blessed, forever and ever.

Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, honored elevated and lauded be the Name of the holy one, Blessed is he — above and beyond any blessings and hymns, Praises and consolations which are uttered in the world; and say Amen. May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, upon us and upon all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who makes peace in his high holy places, may he bring peace upon us, and upon all Israel; and say Amen.

Time for some snow fun!

The cold doesn't seem to affect this little guy in the least!

The cold doesn’t seem to affect this little guy in the least!

Although the custom has been to post a His Lens/My Pen the last Monday of the month, I figure this image is pertinent now. Who knows? We might have a spring thaw next week rendering this image irrelevant.  Yeah, right. The phrase a snowball’s chance in hell comes to mind. So with snowballs and snowmen on my mind, I thought I’d share this shot of a snowman I built last winter.

When I was a child, a snowstorm hit Atlanta. Real snow — white, freezing, six-pointed flakes — the whole megillah. I scooped and gathered ecstatically, piling handfuls of snow atop one another.  After a couple of hours, my first and only snowman measured about three inches high. Proud and chilled, I went in. He was gone by afternoon.

Up here in the Klondike, snowmen are part of the landscape. I try and build one every season. Those who know me know I’m not, I repeat not, partial to the cold. I’m not one of those who eagerly awaits the brisk turn of fall to break out all my sweaters. But I do love making snowmen.

There’s a wild abandon that comes with making my snowman. Not only do I feel like a child, but I connect to the particular experience of being a Southern child caught up in the utter magic of once-in-a-lifetime winter wonder. Delight bubbles up. I laugh. I drop all curmudgeonly complaints about frigid temps, shoveling, and developing those awful skin cuts around my thumbnails.

For however long it takes, or however long I can stay out there, I am a child once again — happily patting handfuls of snow into place, stopping every now and then to sweep a snow angel or two into existence. Reconnecting with that inner child puts everything else into perspective. I am totally present, at complete attention full and exuberant. Time may wait for no man, march on and leave crow’s feet behind. When I am making a snowman, or having fun in any way, time vanishes and a regenerating life force fills the space.

So go have some fun — whether of the snow kind or another. And if you know someone who needs to remove his or her grownup mask and rediscover that inner child, send them a link to this column. Or send them this card from our Etsy shop. It’s going to be a long winter. Best to season it with some fun.


The Year in Review

Dear Friends,

Some of you have written wondering where I have been, why the silence and lack of posts. As many of you know it’s been an overwhelming year. My mother died in March, sealing a relationship of many complex, loving, and fractious decades. There is much to process, what remains within the chambers of my heart and my journals. I have been reciting Kaddish and that period of mourning will soon draw to a close. In and of itself, this tradition merits reams of reflection.

©Cotton Love Studios

You may kiss the bride

As you also know, our son’s wedding followed soon after Mom’s death, and we officially welcomed our wonderful daughter-in-law Elizabeth into our family. The words “a weekend filled with love and celebration” do not even come close to capturing all that we felt and experienced as so many friends and relatives came from all corners to join us in celebrating Elliot and Elizabeth’s marriage. My sister Abby and her husband Brian gave birth to a son (Brian, you were  a mighty coach!) and so a new nephew was born on the cusp of these other family milestones. Life in the first half of the year was rich, bestowing the full arc of human experience.

We strove for calm in the summer. Martin and I moseyed around Saugatuck and went “up north” to Michigan’s beautiful spots of Petoskey and Harbor Springs. When we first moved here three decades ago, the locals kept raving about “up north,” how Lake Michigan was so beautiful and the sand dunes were so amazing. As Easterners who grew up bouncing in the waves of the Atlantic (and I who had also built sand castles out of the Gulf Coast’s sugary powder) we couldn’t really imagine how a lake could evoke such enthusiasm. We begin going with our kids and realized, yup, “up north” is pretty amazing.

It still is. Martin and I  hadn’t visited in years, and it was deeply nourishing to immerse ourselves in the land of Petoskey stones, sailboats, Kilwin’s ice cream and long walks along the shores of quietly lapping water. PekoskeyThe colors remain heart-catching shades of turquoise, emerald and midnight blue. There was a lot of nostalgia in those walks. New dreams surfaced along the water’s edge, dreams of taking our kids back there one day soon and maybe some years in the future, grandchildren.

She was amazing!

She was amazing!

Elizabeth’s father and step-mother invited us to visit them in South Lake Tahoe, where Elizabeth grew up. More beautiful water and good times. We went hiking, touring about and got a taste of wake surfing. Since my bout with water ski-ing didn’t end too well a few years back, I stayed on the boat. Elizabeth is a regular pro and Elliot managed to stay aloft for a few triumphant moments. Where our son gets his athletic genes I have no idea, but I love this shot of him just after he returned to the boat post ride.

Does this say joy or what?

Does this say joy or what?

Daniel, Stella, and Tammy in Pittaburgh

Daniel, Stella, and Tammy in Pittaburgh

Fall was a blur of the Jewish holidays. We marked them with so many of the beloved friends with whom we celebrate the turning of the Jewish wheel of time. We hosted what was I think our 26th or 27th Yom Kippur break the fast. I marked my first Yizkor (memorial service) standing this time in memory of my mother. We made a spur of the moment trip to Pittsburgh to visit with my brother Daniel, his wife Tammy and our niece Stella. We were there for Sukkot. Daniel and Tammy live in Squirrel Hill, a predominantly Jewish enclave within the city. As Shabbat dinner drew to a close, we could hear all the families up and down the street sitting in their sukkahs like we were, singing and enjoying the cool fall night and the blessing of the holiday.

Come November we did something we’ve never done — rented an apartment in  Brooklyn and played like we were New Yorkers again. We spent Thanksgiving with my sister-in-law Helene, she of the coolest job on earth and then trundled back to Park Slope where Helene once lived and where the kids became New Yorkers in their own right.

Our little garden apartment (an efficient 700 square feet) was blocks from Helene’s old building. It was a hoot shopping at the market we used to, surfacing from the same subway line, settling into the same corners we once called home. It was a fortnight filled with memories and non-stop visiting with a lifetime of friends and family.  We saw four shows between us, and more art exhibits than I could enumerate here.  We ate more than we should have, a fact that we can enumerate on the scale, alas.

New York magic

New York magic

The energy was electric, the buildings climbing ever higher, the Christmas windows at Saks were witty and wonderful. Watching the skaters at Rockefeller Center was like being in a movie strip that spans decades. Across the street, Martin got his umbrella stolen at St. Patrick’s cathedral; he also went to a special taping of the Meredith Vieira show.

The Statue of Liberty and the Freedom Tower in the background

The Statue of Liberty and the Freedom Tower in the background

We spent an entire day at the Statue of Liberty and at Ellis Island. Quite moving to imagine the thousands and thousands of immigrants who came through those great halls, their fear and confusion, their hopes and the dreams. Could I have summoned the courage and fortitude to do what my grandfather did? Martin’s mother sailed to America on the Ile de France, the same ship Lindbergh booked for passage after making his historic trans-Atlantic flight. She told the story of their ship steaming into the harbor to fireboats shooting water into the air. A young teen at the time she thought, “Boy America sure does welcome immigrants with a lot of fanfare!”

We used tokens; she has a Metro Card!

We used tokens; she has a Metro Card!

Best of all we spent glorious amounts of time with Emma, easing into a rhythm of seeing one another that made us all rue the miles that separate us. She took us on a wonderful tour of Williamsburg where she lives. It’s hip, it’s gritty, there are pockets of charming quiet and scores of funky shops and bistros. Her corner grocery store looks like a typical New York City bodega from the outside. Once you enter, it just keeps going and going and going. Whole Foods meets Alice’s rabbit hole.

To top all of this off, Elliot made a surprise visit! He had a conference we hadn’t heard about. He and Emma cooked up the surprise, keeping a lid on it for weeks and weeks. One Sunday evening Emma insisted that we stay in and order out Chinese. There was a lot of flurrying on the phone as she spoke with the take-out place.

Best take-out order ever!

Best take-out order ever!

The bell rings, Emma goes to the door and says our food has arrived. In walks Elliot. It took us quite a few moments for our minds to believe what our eyes were seeing.

And now it’s December 31st. The secular wheel of time will tick into a new year in a few hours. It’s been the best of times and it’s been the worst of times. Those of you familiar with Bob Mankoff’s classic New Yorker cartoon will hear the editor’s challenge to Charles Dickens: ‘I wish you would make up your mind, Mr. Dickens. Was it the best of times or the worst of times? It could scarecely have been both.’

We all know that in life the best of times and the worst of times often ride upon one another heels, if not sit in one another’s laps. It was a wonderful year and it was a challenging year. I am glad to have moved through it in one piece, hopefully with grace and spirit. I am grateful for this past year of life and look forward to 2015. Hopefully it will be less dramatic yet one of good health, spent with those whom I love, and new adventures for body and soul.

Wishing all my loyal readers the same and more. Not sure what the new year will bring where these missives are concerned, but at an estate sale I found the most delightful book that I cannot wait to share with you.  So I will probably start there one day soon.