Friday, December 20, 2013

Holy Ground

For Congregation Ner Shalom, and dedicated to the nursing and therapy staff of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital ICU and Neurology Ward. 

I’ve begun to take off my shoes at the hospital, in Mom’s room. I’ve taken to wearing slip-ons for just this purpose. I’ve gotten comfortable here. It has been three weeks after all, and our departure for the new adventure of a skilled nursing facility is imminent. Here at Memorial, I know at least 40 nurses, doctors, therapists and respiratory techs by name. I know many more by face. I know the other most ardent bedside vigil family. We ask each other in passing about our loved ones’ progress; we answer with noncommittal mutterings about daily improvement – amejorándose cada día, gracias a Diós.
I know the long traverse from bedside to bathroom to lobby to cafeteria. I love the cafeteria food, even though it’s not really any good. I look at the beige, crusted over fettuccini with vegetables, and I think, “Oh, it’s a bad night for the vegetarians.” I think that until my eyes wander over to the tuna casserole and I realize that it’s a bad night for everybody. But the food here is cheap and made with sincerity, geared to feed hungry healers and anxious families, and I can taste that straightforward intention. Less than four bucks later, I’m back in Mom’s room, with a paper bowl of salty beans and rice and another of carrots and, fortified, I can feel the kitchen staff at my back in this great recovery campaign we’re waging.
Mom has by now ended up in a private room. Not really private, just roommate-less. The staff has been deflecting incoming patients to other rooms, because they’ve grown fond of Mom, and her smile, and her laugh, and her family and friends. They know we take up space, what with our books and our guitars and our food baskets and photos and Shabbat candles and smuggled Manischewitz.
This big, half-empty, soon-to-be-abandoned room has been imbued over this short time with a kind of holiness. You can feel the room awash in it. So many people have brought so much love into these four walls. And Mom absorbs it even when it wears her out. We have chanted and read stories and coaxed out of her real pitches and good stabs at pronouncing Gershwin lyrics with her limited inventory of 5 vowels and 3-or-so consonants.
There is a holiness in this room. The simple drama of life and death; the undeniable power of word as demonstrated by its absence; the play of kindness, of chesed, mitigating the otherwise unchecked tyranny of biology – all of this carries a force that feels epic and ancient – and holy. There is a sense of the divine in moments of peril. “No atheists in a foxhole,” they say. But I think what they mean is that you can’t stand on that precipice of life and death and not feel the mix of hope and dread that accompany danger. It may or may not be God, but perching on that threshold of such elevated awareness brings with it an undeniable swell of grandeur.
Mom’s condition indeed has an epic, ancient quality – a biblical resonance. My friends Dawn and Eitan Weiner-Kaplow pointed out to me this week that her left temporal impairment is even described in Psalm 137, the “waters of Babylon” psalm. The passage goes, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning; may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy.”
My mother has never forgotten Jerusalem nor, to my knowledge, taken any vow re same. Still, the context of the psalm – a song about grave loss – is apropos. She has, like the Israelite captives in Babylon, lost her home. She has lost use of the Temple that is her body. How can she sing her old songs in this admat nechar, this foreign soil, both the foreign soil of California and the new, still uncharted normal of her own body? First she must learn to sing again, period.
There is much to lament in her situation. But grief and hope and uncertainty are as holy as joy, and this room is palpably holy, so much so that I have begun to remove my shoes, like Moshe in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot. Moshe, escaped from Egypt and Pharaoh’s wrath, is now a shepherd in Midyan. An angel appears in or as a bush that burns but isn’t consumed. (At Hebrew school I asked the kids what that means. I asked who had a fireplace at home. Many hands went up. One small girl piped up proudly that her family has two fireplaces. I asked her, “So what happens to the wood that you burn in the fireplace?” She responded, “I don’t know. Neither of them works.”)
In the Moshe story, it’s unclear if the bush is meant to be a miracle, or just a mechanism for getting Moshe’s attention. In order to perceive the bush wasn’t turning to ash, he must have not only noticed it but stared at it for some period of time, perhaps hypnotically, perhaps meditatively, or maybe just full of scientific curiosity. In any event he slowed down, drawn into a different kind of time, that holy kind of time that can move very fast or very slow, like Alice getting big and getting small in the rabbit hole, but either way her attention getting drawn to the unusual details around her. Once Moshe slows down to this unusual shrinking and expanding pace, only then is the space around him declared to be admat kodesh, holy ground. And then, at that point, the shoes became superfluous.
I asked the students why they thought there would be a “no shoes” rule in a holy place, since it seems to be somewhat of a universal, whether the holy place is a mosque or my German grandmother’s apartment. Some students were concerned that shoes would mess up the site, leaving unsightly and disrespectful Nike prints. Someone else suggested humility – that in the presence of God we are like paupers before a great monarch; our shoelessness symbolizes that.
But there’s also something else about how our feet, so seldom permitted nakedness, feel. Our hands touch and manipulate the world all the time; they are for fiddling as much as for feeling; their sensitivity is tempered and they are not to be trusted when testing the bathwater. But our feet, so often sheathed in leather and canvas and rubber are, when unleashed, open and guileless. Our feet feel for real; they transmit sensation purely.
Which makes our feet sensational organs for perceiving holiness. Whether the ground is soft or hard, dry or moist, carpeted or tiled, when we slow our tempo, like Moshe did studying the flame, we can feel so much from our feet. We can divine energy emanating from the earth’s core, pouring up through our bodies, northward like the Nile, and overflowing like the proverbial cup of Psalm 23. From earth into body into spirit, with our feet as key synapses. This is the energetic conduit that runs from sole to soul.
I was listening to “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” on NPR the other night. It was an episode called “Religion in a Secular Age.” They played comments from callers about religion and one caller said, “Every day when my feet hit the floor I experience the divine.” By which he seemed to mean that he felt the divine from the moment he got up in the morning. But the metaphor, in which his feet closed the circuit, really struck me.
I think how my own favorite moments of the High Holy Days have come during ne’ilah, the closing of Yom Kippur, when I give up any pretense of keeping shoes on, and stand before the closing gates in my white Hanes athletic socks, trying to suck the holiness of the moment right out of the ground.
Being without shoes also allows me to climb into Mom’s hospital bed once in a while to comfort her through a bad dream or some troubled breathing. My stocking feet let me make the move from chair to bed smoothly, without it having to be a conscious decision about care management or propriety. My feet simply lead, and I follow.
We have a long road ahead. My sister and I are hunkering down. Mom is improving, and the doctors have retracted their direst speculations about the cause of her hemorrhage. If she continues this way, God willing, we will at some point step off this elevated threshold, step back from the precipice. Will our feet feel the holiness even then?
In the Torah portion, after Moshe’s shoes are off, after he and the bush have some important chitchat about slavery and freedom etc., Moshe asks the name of the holiness that surrounds him. God does not reply, “I am El Shadai, the God of the Mountain.” Nor “I am Haborei, the Creator of the World.” Not even “I am Hamakom, the World Itself.” But instead something much vaguer, at once both a brilliant circularity and an outrageous copout: Ehyeh asher ehyeh. “I am what I am.”
Which I choose to take as an invitation to notice the divine at any time in any circumstance. “I am what I am,” “I am where I am,” “I am when I am.” Holy ground is not a specified place to which one must make pilgrimage. And with all due respect to Shabbat, holy ground is not limited to one day a week. Yes, you might feel it extra on Shabbat, or in Jerusalem or Mecca or Rome or at the lighthouse at Point Reyes. You might feel it extra in times of great danger, in life-changing times. But it is also there in the ehyeh asher ehyeh experience – in the “whatever” moments.
As we move off this precipice and on to the next phase of Mom’s recovery, I am going to look for holy ground in the skilled nursing facility, in the rehab gym, in the first swallows, in the words of slowly increasing intelligibility and even in the frustration and tears when they don’t come. I look forward to Mom’s – and all of our – admat nechar, foreign soil, becoming admat kodesh, holy ground.
To do this I will try to remember to take off my shoes. Not my literal ones. But to remove whatever barriers stand between me and the holiness of this existence. Whether the barrier is leather or crepe; whether the barrier is work or worry. I will do my best to remove the barriers that sheath my soul, so that I can feel the holy ground beneath my feet. Whether that holy ground is a hospital room or a cafeteria or a  sidewalk or workplace or hiking trail. Or sitting in the car with an unexpectedly dead battery on an inconvenient day or some other stupid predicament.
After all, Moshe found holy ground on the roadside himself, chasing a lamb that got away from him. Inconvenient. Unexpected. He probably felt stupid. And even so, he ended up on holy ground. He just slowed to the flow, staring at that bizarrely intact bush defying the laws of thermodynamics. And I too will try to see through those inconvenient, unexpected, stupid moments to spy what lies beyond them. And maybe I’ll keep wearing slip-ons too, just in case.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Parashat Vayechi - Bedside Pearls

For Congregation Ner Shalom. (And for me.) 
I wondered what I would talk about tonight; what of the immense experience of this last dozen days would bubble up as the take-away for a Shabbat drash. What of the surprise and sadness of my mother’s stroke? What of our agonizingly sluggish high-speed drive to the Memorial Hospital emergency room, during which my Mom, becoming aware of how bad this might go, looked at me and said, “Shit, shit, shit.” What of the fact that the last thing she had been doing before the stroke was learning! With me and the other members of Yiddish Tish, a poem by Kadya Molodovsky, in which the poet asks God to help her give up this pained world and to invite her to His house instead; asking God to prepare a meal and a footstool; asking God to send His most beautiful angel for her so that her last gaze would be extinguished with a smile? 

And what of our subsequent and continuing bedside vigil?  Or the tremendous show of support from this community, including the likes of Shari Brenner who dispensed with all her week’s plans in order to care for us and coordinate for us. Or the outpouring from Mom’s home synagogue and PFLAG communities and her large and loving family? What of any of this would float to the surface as the nugget that illuminates or is illuminated by this week’s Torah portion?
For obvious reasons I found myself drawn not to this week’s parashah, Vayigash, in which Joseph and his brothers are tearfully reunited, but instead next week’s, Vayechi, in which we see Joseph in vigil at his father’s bedside, his 147-year old father, from whom he had long been separated, but who, unforeseen, or perhaps completely foreseen by Joseph the interpreter of dreams, had ended up coming to him, and was now resettled in the green Egyptian exurb of Goshen. Joseph’s father was now nearby, literally embedded in a place where Joseph could keep company and give care.
All the obvious parallels jumped out at me. Like Joseph, I ended up far away from my birthplace; taking up a new life in what is, for all intents and purposes, another country. Like Joseph, I’ve lived with constant anxiety about a distant parent. And like Joseph, I found, beyond all reasonable expectation, that parent on my own doorstep at a moment of great need. I imagine that Joseph’s mind wandered to the question of bashertness, however that was said in Egyptian. That it was all meant to be: Pharaoh’s dreams, the rationing plan, the famine itself. So that Jacob would end up not in Hebron, near his parents’ graves, but in Egypt, on Joseph’s turf, where Joseph could rally the best healers and magicians and musicians. So that Jacob could be comfortable in his last days, in a safe and cozy bed, with his children and grandchildren in attendance.
So were we similarly fortunate. For decades I’ve lived with the anxiety: what if Mom’s life-changing event (because we will all have one, whether disease or disaster or death) happens while she’s alone in her house in Niles, Illinois? This decades-old anxiety was resolved overnight with no special effort on my part. The cards of chesed were dealt, and my mother ended up close by, in my car when it happened, and for this last fortnight just a few miles from my house. We too have been able to marshal remarkable resources for her – healers, magicians, musicians. Including my sister, who by coincidence was at a moment where she could make herself free to simply be here. What were the odds?
All of this bashertness is not necessarily destiny – I am not a strong believer in destiny. But it is blessing nonetheless. I am deeply aware of that at every moment. Every member of this community who comes into the room to read Mom a story or hold her hand or lay healing hands on her makes my own sense of blessing and gratitude well up and overflow. Yes, we would have made sure she got plenty of fine care and loving company in Chicago. But here it is happening without our having to engineer it. I have felt firmly supported, as have my sister and my husband and the rest our family. The doctors have been good, the nurses fabulous. The healers of this Ner Shalom community have helped us talk through our decision tree – the what-ifs that will make us more prepared in the coming days and weeks and months to make decisions based on what Mom would want for herself.
We have had magnificent moments in the hospital room. An Erev Shabbat in the ICU more intense and magical than any I could hope to achieve here. And then this week: moments of recovery. The first half-smile. An attempt to form a word. The squeeze of a hand. A reaction to a song or story or voice or face. A soft moaning that shifts in pitch until it matches a niggun being sung around the bedside. Each of these is a treasure. I feel like a diver discovering an oyster bed and finding pearl after pearl. Not in every oyster, not by far, but in enough to make me not give up the dive. This could have been my teaching tonight – something about the magnificent miracle of each moment. How spending Chanukah in the ICU and the neurology ward reawakens you to the miracles that are encoded in our very bodies – in our abilities to heal, or to recognize each other, or to make each other laugh. These are miracles no less significant than the Maccabbees expelling the Greeks back in the day. And all we have to do is notice.
This teaching is not new or revolutionary. Mindfulness. Easy. Just not always easy to do in our day-to-day lives. Mindfulness comes naturally at life’s biggest moments: births, deaths, grave illnesses. Moments when our usual yardsticks of success and failure drop away, when our field of vision narrows and we sidle into a more primitive relationship with the stuff of life. Where a smile or a squeeze of the hand or a clear, unimpeded breath matter and mean more than anything.
Joseph must have felt such extraordinary mindfulness at his father’s bedside. Torah tells the story as a series of events, but it hints at the heightened emotion and awareness behind the action. The events: Jacob makes Joseph swear to bury him in the family plot in Hebron. Later, in his final illness, Jacob blesses Joseph’s two sons, giving the firstborn blessing to the second-born, much as he, a second son, connived the firstborn blessing from his aged father, Isaac. Jacob offers prophecies about each of his sons’ descendants. Then he gathers his feet back into the bed and is gathered in turn by his ancestors, as the story beautifully reads.
But the emotion behind it. The text tells of Joseph prostrating himself at the bedside, but in our mind’s eye we see Joseph collapsing from grief. After all, he’d been without his father for so many years; how sad and bitter to anticipate losing him now a second time.
Torah doesn’t tell us how much time passed between Jacob’s exacting Joseph’s promise to bury him in the Old Country and his actual death. But no matter how long, we must imagine that there was enough time for Joseph to sit by his father’s bedside and tell him stories of Egypt and stroke his hand. Torah doesn’t tell us how many pearls of closeness and love Joseph and Jacob harvested together in those days or weeks or months until Jacob died so peacefully. But surely there were many. And the obvious teaching would have been: those pearls are always waiting for us; we can dive and fetch them at any time. An obvious teaching, and no less true for being obvious.
Or there might be here a teaching about making sure that nothing is left unsaid. That words of love must be uttered with frequency and sincerity, because you never know when your words might be taken away from you. If they are, you need to know that there are no “I love you’s” missing. I’m guessing that between Jacob and Joseph nothing was left unsaid, just as in our case as well. My mother was and is an insistent articulator of her love, through her words and her actions. She loves freely and extravagantly, taking people under her wing with ease. As I told a young ICU nurse, if she were awake she would ask you how you came to be a nurse and would then tell you how proud your parents must be of you. No, speaking words of love and encouragement is simply her way. And between us, nothing is unsaid, no endearments are missing. Offering this reminder, perhaps more from her than from me, would also an obvious teaching, and no less true for being obvious.
But this will not, I think, be what I ultimately offer here tonight. Yes, it was that kind of week when time slows and you notice every precious moment. But I was also misled by my heightened mindfulness; I was lulled by the strength and beauty of the support we were offered. I was being mindful; I was grateful; I was glad that I had no loose ends with my mother, no “I love you” left unsaid. I was feeling pretty on top of things from a metaphysical perspective - and from a practical perspective as well. I was reasonably in control of a difficult situation. Friends back in Chicago were checking on the house; mail was already being forwarded; doctors were being consulted; a Facebook group was channeling updates on Mom’s condition to well over 200 loved ones and admirers, like a town crier, or like the shames in the Chelm story, who would rap on everyone’s shutters to announce the coming of Shabbos, until he was too old and frail to do the walk, and so everyone in the town unhinged their shutters and brought them to the synagogue so the shames could rap on them all in one place. Facebook is nothing if it is not that. In any event, I had things under control.
In fact, I felt so in charge of things that, determined to demonstrate the self-care people encouraged me to engage in, I scheduled myself a haircut yesterday, followed by a bodywork session with Sally Churgel to take care of my lower back and left thigh, which had been in spasm for weeks, now substantially exacerbated by the stress of Mom’s stroke, not to mention the initial nights of sleeping in the La-Z-Boy in the Memorial Hospital ICU. I was proud that I was taking care of myself. Glad that Mom was safe at the hospital with my sister. The terrific nurses had their eye on her. Shoshana Fershtman was coming to give Mom reiki. Atzilah Solot would be coming later to chant. And Mac McCaffry the next day to read Mom some more Kipling. Yes, all things considered, this was going well, and I was feeling very in charge of an otherwise dire situation.
But yesterday it was explained to me that I was not in charge of it all. That you cannot be in charge of it all. It was explained to me not in words, and not by any person. It was conveyed to me by the Universe, in the form of a large dog, a Catahoula Hound, who was frustrated perhaps at not having a shared language, or aggravated at the lack of opposable thumbs that would otherwise enable it to grab its masters and shake them and complain about the miserable life they were providing it. This dog, an unfamiliar familiar, carried the message to me that we cannot count on staying in control, that we cannot count on only one thing going wrong at a time. It did so using a traditional canine non-verbal method, involving sinking its teeth into flesh, into my hamstring. My mindfulness soared for moment, as fear and pain gave way to a moment of mindful grace in which I thought, “Aha, so this is what it feels like to be bitten by a large dog.”
I did not catch this dog’s name, although Demon Spawn comes to mind. But maybe it was Angel. My thigh was swelling like Jacob’s after his famed wrestling match, so maybe this dog was an angel too, delivering to me a message: a message that it was time for me to humble the fuck up. And sure enough, instead of on Sally’s very peaceful and healing table, I found myself back at the Memorial Hospital ER where they looked at me, puzzled, still remembering my colorful arrival with Mom last week. My sister came down from Mom’s room to meet me at registration, and wondered aloud whether she ought to just fill out her own emergency admission paperwork now, just in case.
I got good care, antibiotics and Percocet. I got, unexpectedly, an afternoon of relief from the muscle spasm I’d been experiencing in that very thigh, not unlike a bee sting relieving arthritis.
And I got a lesson, a thankfully non-fatal lesson, that anything can happen. That this life unfolds in messy ways, even if we’re blessed that some of it unfolds well. That staying on top of things is not possible and really not desirable either. Staying on top of things won’t keep the pain away, or make the catastrophe un-happen.
Instead, maybe, we are condemned – or privileged – to struggle. To slog through the messes and the sadnesses and to rejoice at the simches that don’t always quite make up for the pain but which deserve all our love anyway. To learn to roll with the unexpected without regard to how you will handle it or what you will do about it. To be, as Berrine often reminds me, a human being, not a human doing. And yes, to be mindful of the pearls that you find as you move in this current. And yes, to say all your “I love you’s” well in advance of dire need, because you never know when a large dog’s denim-piercing teeth will keep you away from a bedside at a critical moment.
I learned all this from the Universe, from an Angel, whose teeth and slobber I can still feel. It could have been worse. Oh wait, it was worse, just a week before, when I arrived at the ER with my mother, who was busy losing her motion and her words. And oh wait, that could have been worse too.
We all live through hard times. And these times are ultimately bigger than our optimism or our pessimism or our managerial skills. Instead, I guess, the trick is just to be open. Enlist help. Be brave enough to be vulnerable. Be brave enough to hurt and to heal.
A lovely Kinsey Sicks fan and seminary student, Charles May, caught wind of what was going on this week and sent me this unattributed prayer-poem:
God, make me brave for life: oh, braver than this.
Let me straighten after pain, as a tree straightens after the rain,
Shining and lovely again.
God, make me brave for life; much braver than this.
As the blown grass lifts, let me rise
From sorrow with quiet eyes,
Knowing Thy way is wise.
God, make me brave, life brings
Such blinding things.
Help me to keep my sight;
Help me to see aright
That out of dark comes light.
My life is filled with blessing without measure, baruch Hashem. I am blessed that because this time is uncontrollable, unmanageable, the pearls – a smile, the squeeze of a hand, the arching of an eyebrow – are all the more precious.