Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Moment Everything Changed

B'reishit & Noach: Light, Cain, Abel, Babel

If you are looking for my Kinsey Sicks farewell essay, click here.

 There is so much for us to grieve now,
So much lost that we will never see again.
And yet so much still arising
That we have only begun to dream.

Larry Robinson

And then there was light.

It was sunrise on Highway 5, that long blaze of road stretching from Sacramento to LA. In the dark you are hypnotized; you are a rocket shot through the blackness of space, flying on instruments. But as the sun rises there is suddenly land stretching out, east to the horizon, west to the hills, south to the pinpoint where the road disappears. During this drought time, the color spectrum at dawn ranges from this brown to that brown, but with every possible shade of brown in between; and all washed in chilly blue that only later gives way to the yellow tones of day.

It was sunrise on Highway 5, and I was slapped across the kisser by the simple privilege of sight; the privilege of being privy to so much detail from such distance. I could see with complete casualness where it was rocky. Where there were orchards. Where the crop had been cleared and where it hadn't come in. A million bytes of data about things far beyond my physical reach, all taken in in an instant.

My mind wandered, as it only has permission to do on long road trips. I wondered how sight even came to be - evolutionarily speaking - since it does seem kind of miraculous. The advantage  and value of sight as we know it are obvious. But what about whatever came before sight, in earlier evolutionary stages? What was the advantage to those first "simple" organisms floating in the primordial soup of having a sensitivity to the light of the sun? You'd think it would be a distraction, even a danger. If you're feeling sunlight, don't you run the risk of drying out, immobile, on a rock? Could that in fact have been the advantage of evolving sensitivity to light? Enhanced ability to flee it? So how did it happen that some simple organisms - the ancestors of plant life - discovered they could use light to cook up their food? And at what point did our ancestors discovered that where there was light, there was also a good chance of finding those plant-y creatures to eat?

So somehow vision evolved. And then, somewhere along the way since, sight emerged (for us at least) as not just a means of scoring dinner, but as a way of appreciating the landscape ahead or a loved one at hand or a Leger on a museum wall. That interests me. The emergence of human qualities that no longer strictly serve an evolutionary purpose. Appreciation of beauty. Getting swept away by music. An involuntary laugh at a really good punch line. When did these things happen and why? What was the moment when we, somehow, became human? What was the moment that it all changed?

Fast forward half a billion years from the primordial pond, and we are in the car, zooming down Highway 5. The 17-year old and I end up talking in ways that only car trips permit, eventually turning to the things that interest us most when we're together, especially language. He is interested in obscure and dying languages, and some of them have been my bread and butter as well. We note the success of Indo-European languages, which cover all of Europe except for mountainous holdouts, and which reach east through India and Pakistan. We speculate about the migrations that carried language from place to place and the sequestrations that allowed them to differentiate from each other. In Genesis, the disunion of language is the punishment and cure for hubris. Progress on that tower we were building in our godlike ambition ground to a halt when the architects, contractors, bricklayers and lunch crew could no longer understand each other's babble. And in that moment, everything changed.

But in the non-biblical world, language differentiation has hardly curbed human ambition. We mistrust and misunderstand people whose language - including their symbolic language, their religious language - is different. Inter-lingual, inter-ethnic, inter-religious hostility rages on with a continuing force that no optimistic, universalizing Esperanto can assuage.

Languages do migrate with nomads who speak them into new vistas, while looking for better hunting and fishing. But language is also imposed. And the most successful Indo-European language groups, like Romance and Germanic and Indo-Iranian, dominate not because of their poetic genius and clever turns of phrase, but as the imprint of conquest.

In the car, at 70 mph, we wondered about conquest at such a large scale that continents could become uniform, for short periods, in their possession of a common language. Those moments in history when someone near what would become London and someone near what would be Bucharest could have had some meaningful chit-chat in Latin, if only they'd had phones with which to do so. Or this moment, when our continent and much of the world are dominated by the language we speak, even though that will inevitably gave way in time. But in any event, we decided, the birth of global conquest was the moment everything changed, from a linguistic point of view.

But then, we thought, thinking backward, what was it that triggered such conquest? It couldn't have happened without sophisticated weapons, we reasoned. So what would that be? Iron age? Bronze age? The time when we first fashioned WMDs: swords, spears, daggers. This development seemed to us to be an outgrowth of the techniques used for making housewares and farming implements. So from those items to weapons required a moment of beating plowshares into swords and pruning hooks into spears, and that moment turned us from farmers, miners and smiths into generals and foot soldiers. Human history changed in that moment.

Looking back further, it seemed to us that we couldn't have had any mining of ore at all before we had people to spare to do the mining and learn the qualities of minerals and invent the forge and the tongs, the latter being an implement whose origin seemed so far fetched to our ancestors that Pirkei Avot, our earliest book of Talmud, speculated it was created by God, since how else could one forge tongs without having tongs with which to do so? In any event, we couldn't have had metallurgy without a human society in which some individuals could be spared from the task of gathering food. So that would be when? The neolithic revolution of maybe 12,000 years ago? In that revolutionary moment, many of our ancestors exchanged their nomadic life for a settled agricultural existence, as they learned that they could manipulate the environment around them. Not just find plants but grow them; create irrigation; domesticate animals for easy food. Invent pots so you could add soup to your kabob-and-berry menu. Settle into villages and then towns and then cities. In a city you could have a whole guild of people spending all their time thinking what to do next with a lump of copper.

This agricultural revolution - depicted in Daniel Quinn's mind-bending book Ishmael as being encoded in Torah through the story of Cain, the farmer, killing off Abel, the hunter - had not only the effect of enabling the growth of military power, but also providing a solid reason for it. Until there were human settlements in which resources (animal, mineral and vegetable!) could accumulate, there wasn't a reason for invasion. Why conquer people who have nothing to take? Agricultural life meant that a population could grow and, conversely, that in hard times, there would be more people suffering. So taking other people's stuff - homes, settlements, goods -  through conquest and tribute became insurance against the collapse of your kingdom, or at least of your kingdom's lifestyle.

So yes, that agricultural revolution in neolithic times. That was certainly the moment when everything changed. Humanity, civilization, the world; all became unrecognizable.

Sitting over 8:30 am pea soup ("breakfast of champions," cheered the waitress) at Pea Soup Andersen's in Santa Nella, I wondered how it came to this. From the bright idea of planting a seed or taming a wild sheep for its milk or digging for shiny rocks in the ground to a mock-Danish tourist stop with a fake windmill, serving travelers careening in cars from one end of a water-drained state to another. And how this came to pass in really a relatively short period of time - in the last 12,000 out of sorta-kinda 200,000 years of anatomically recognizable humans, and the merest blink of an eye since we were all swimming in the pond. What was the pivotal moment that sent us down this track? This long arrow of highway, this path of human history from which there are no easy, safe, peaceful, universally agreeable exit ramps.

It's easy to foresee doom ahead, and in this era of continued invention, we look for the thing that will save us. It will be technology. It will be renewable energy. It will be water desalinization. It will be the reintroduction of extinct species of animals. It will be something like we've had in the past, but bigger, or shinier, or cleverer. And that will be the moment, we let ourselves imagine, that everything will change.

Poet and environmental activist Larry Robinson gave me some hope the other day when I wasn't looking for it. We sit on a board of directors together for an organization committed to social change and paradigm shift, and we were doing a visioning exercise that involved speaking in a voice other than our own, whatever voice happened to come to us. Larry turned to the group and said something like, "People didn't always see the ripple effects of what you were doing." We asked who was speaking. He replied, "I am your grandchild. I'm speaking to you from the future." We all gasped; this was unexpected. And then he continued. "The efforts that you made in that time - and I won't tell you if they were successful in the short-run or not - were nonetheless important in and of themselves. They modeled how to negotiate a world that is in flux and transition."

And then there was light. The mood in the room changed - ten adults suddenly filled with hope and gratitude. Ten adults suddenly seeing, or re-seeing, that they are part of a flow of change, a flow to which everyone, every thinking, caring, intentional person, can contribute. Even if the solution is not instantaneous, the solving is ongoing.

We love the misleading clarity of milestones, we humans. How many books have been written about 10 (or 11 or 101) inventions that changed the world? But as appealing as it is to point to moments and to see them as discrete, identifiable points of change, aberrations against a backdrop of stability, things aren't that way. Every moment is the moment in which everything changed. This moment right now is. And this moment. And this. And this one too.

The tasks ahead are daunting. Hayom katzar v'ham'lachah m'rubah, says Pirkei Avot. The day is short, and the work is formidable. But don't panic, says the text. Lo aleycha ham'lachah ligmor. It is not your duty to see the work to completion. Still, lo atah ben chorin l'hibatel mimenah, the fact that the job is overwhelming does not mean you can opt out. You are not free to opt out, says the text. Which might be a comment about responsibility: you must step up to the plate. Or it might be a comment about inevitability: you are part of change, you are the change, whether you desire it or not.

And while this doesn't make the problems of our planet any simpler to solve, it at least makes breathing a little easier for me, because I'm breathing in some hope. We are not responsible for achieving the outcome, just setting the trajectory. I am reminded of once hearing Rabbi Marcia Prager translating the word torah as meaning "trajectory," from the Hebrew root yarah, to shoot. So this is our Torah, to keep setting and re-setting the trajectory in the time that is given us. We have no choice but to do so. And I, for one, am more reassured than I am anxious when I think, with each act that I carry out, with each choice that I make, with each turn on the highway, that this is the moment that everything changed.

Martin Luther, a notable changemaker, spoke about the ongoing process of change that is the nature of this existence. I am grateful to Rachel Naomi Remen for introducing me to this wonderful passage:
This life, therefore, is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness;
not health but healing,
not being but becoming,
not rest but exercise.
We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it;
the process is not yet finished, but it is going on.
This is not the end, but it is the road;
all does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified."
(Defense and Explanation of All the Articles, 1521)
Satisfied, we paid for our soup and pocketed the change. Still in the promising light of morning, we climbed into the car and pulled out onto the road, taking the southbound entrance into the future.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Reflections of a Retiring Drag Queen

The Affair of a Lifetime
It was Kahlil Gibran who first famously said, if you love someone, let them go.
Which has got to be the stupidest advice I’ve ever heard. I mean, yes, if they don’t come back, they were never yours, blah blah blah. But who wants to find that out? And then you’re just left full of high-fallutin’ principle, surrounded by people you don’t particularly care for. No. If you love someone, hang on tight.
And that’s what Winnie and I have done. We’ve stuck together for 21 years now. She’s seen me through a lot: legal practice, new love, marriage, children, the boomeranging of a long cast-off rabbinic calling, and the loss of both my parents. And she’s no picnic either. I’ve seen her through meltdowns, relationships, hairdos, artificial insemination, Republicanism, cleaning obsessions, and even prison (trafficking in Julia Child pornography, if you don’t recall).
But sometimes it is time to say goodbye, and you may be surprised (or relieved, or sad, or indifferent) that Winnie and I are, at long last, bidding each other farewell. No scandal. No drama. No cheating. No vicious fight over the labradoodle. It’s just that we want different things. She might nod towards domesticity, but she loves her life on the stage. I love life on the stage too, but after 21 years, I want to be home.
And so I offer this tribute to my time as a member of the Kinsey Sicks, to my colleagues therein, to my hopes for the future, and to Winnie, the second greatest love of my life.

The Old Gray Mare, She Ain’t What She Used to Be
By now the story of the founding of the Kinsey Sicks is well known. There was a Bette Midler concert. There were friends. There was a crazy idea. There was an enthusiastic ovation from an audience full of people not there to see us.
That was in December of 1993. Seven months later we were on an iconic street corner, Castro and Market, at Harvey Milk Plaza, performing our first show. Luckily we thought to shoot video of it. There we were, the Kinsey Sicks sprung fully formed out of the pounding heads of Ben Schatz, Jerry Friedman, Maurice Kelly, Abatto Avilez, and me.
Well, maybe not fully formed, but well on our way. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Rachel was already obnoxious, Trixie already a slut, Vaselina already a dipshit. Winnie was the one waiting to begin a long journey of self-discovery. At the beginning she emulated her mother – me – far too much. She was Irwin in a dress. I wasn’t an actor; I didn’t know how to create a character. I look at the videos and see myself in those years: bearded, wooden, Irwin-in-a-wig, engaging in some side task like finding props or adjusting someone’s microphone, thinking that no one would notice. As if by sheer force of will, I could make my on-stage multitasking invisible.
But luckily, Winnie began asserting herself. I confess that I liked her well enough, but didn’t start falling in love with her until maybe 7 years later. That’s when I began loving her for her faults. I began to realize that while my own insecurity on stage and determination that nothing go wrong were an impediment to my performance, they were the stuff of sublime comedy for Winnie. Slowly I learned that she’s far more entertaining in her foibles than her triumphs, unless the triumph is obviously illusory. Winnie standing center-stage in nervous, wide-eyed silence, searching for a way to cover up the awful thing that the other girls undoubtedly just did is Winnie at her funniest and her most lovable. Not just to the audience, but to me.
Like all of our characters, Winnie grew to embody the traits that make me bad dinner company. Winnie would come to blurt out esoteric trivia (which the other girls, at the instigation of Maurice Kelly, came to refer to as unnecessaria, as in "Well thank you, Winnie, for that little bit of unnecessaria."). Often it would have to do with grammar, or subtle points about Proto-Semitic lateral fricatives. She would, with great enthusiasm, try to amuse an overdrinking Puerto Vallarta audience with a bizarre tale about Jewish-American writer Grace Paley who, according to Winnie, once visited the nearby fishing village of Yelapa, met the love of her life, married him and changed her name, causing her to utter the now-famous palindrome, “A Paley Was I Ere I Saw Yelapa.” And Winnie would stand on stage in the silent, puzzled room, and laugh at her own joke, unaware that no one else was amused.
Over time, her belief in her correctness and infallibility, a belief not shared by all, became her stock and trade. She would brag about the cute little pet names her sweetheart called her, such as “Ouch” and “Don’t.” Or in a beautifully cutting Ben Schatz-written moment, Winnie would turn to the girls with authority, and begin, “Girls, is it just me?” And Trixie would quickly interrupt, “Usually,” before another word could be uttered.
Winnie has been good medicine for me, good medicine for my tricky ego and my belief in my own infallibility. She has proven to be iconic for many people, myself included, who think particularly well of themselves, sometimes out of fear that they’re not actually good enough. She demonstrates that insecurity and overconfidence can still be lovable. She has saved me thousands on therapy and has, as any good partner should, made me a better person in the process. She’s made me ready to go on without her.

Why Now?
There are lots of reasons why now is the time. In a world with seven-year professional cycles, Winnie represents three careers' worth. But that’s not an answer. I know I could play Winnie all the way to the grave, with the help of the fictitious heavy-duty concealer whose name was coined by Maurice Kelly: Spackle-tacular!
Dad on sax.
But other things have grown in importance. I have a family, including a husband (Oren is hugely supportive but nonetheless a long-suffering Kinsey widow), co-parents and fellow householders who matter deeply to me, a kid finishing middle school and one finishing high school. I’ve spent a lot of years missing birthdays and Chanukah and school plays and concerts. My own father was a bandleader. He worked nights and weekends. I never felt his absence – he was very present when he was home; plus I was secretly thrilled that the kids on the block always saw him going to and from work in a tuxedo. But I know that missing much of our childhood was his great regret, and that is something I intend to fix in my own life, for his sake and for mine. Now is the time to be home.
Another element informing my decision is the death last winter of my mother. I hate to say it, but after she died, performing Winnie became a little less fun. Fun itself became less fun.
With Mom, 2013
The performer in me is to a large degree born of the child who would caper and make rhymes and songs and dances to get laughs out of Mom and Dad. And Mom was, for 20 years, the Kinsey Sicks’ biggest fan, even courteously waiting a day until our sold-out 20th Anniversary show last year was done, before closing her eyes for the last time. In some cultures, mourners tear their clothes or shave their heads. I am shedding Winnie.
The third reason has to do with making space for my deepening engagement in Jewish life, in my rabbinical post in the Sonoma County outback. Wait, I guess I should back up and explain the rabbi/drag queen thing.

All is Foreseen, Yet Permission is Given (Pirkei Avot)
In some ways the trajectory of my life was fixed and foreseeable by the time I was in third grade. A couple pivotal things happened around that time. First, I read a story about the boy who would become Rabbi Hillel, the Talmudic sage of antiquity. The story involved his nearly freezing to death on a rooftop where he’d spent the night eavesdropping on a group of rabbis discussing Torah. It was that story that made me think that learning itself could be a value, and not just a means. I wanted to be like Hillel; I wanted to learn and learn. I decided right then that I would be a rabbi, even though I knew that in some circles it might not be so very cool to say so.
The other formative thing that happened around then was discovering how easy it was for me to walk gracefully in my mother’s pumps. 
My fate was sealed.
And yet, things didn’t play out in expected ways. Years later, when my peers were applying to rabbinical school, I had just been one year out of the closet. I was in a relationship. At that point, no Jewish denomination would ordain openly gay rabbis or accept them into their seminaries. I’d have to purposely lie in order to make good on this calling, and that seemed an unworkable contradiction. So I didn’t apply, I didn’t go. I meandered through some graduate work and into law. My activism in Chicago in the 1980s was intense and exhausting, and I finally let myself be wooed into a law job in San Francisco, just so I could be around lots of queer people, who had become the substitute for Jews in my life. I found my way into a great job at the helm of the AIDS Legal Referral Panel of the San Francisco Bay Area. I found my way into a great family. And when we finally moved to Sonoma County together I found my way to a funky little synagogue.
Ner Shalom of Cotati was a plucky congregation in a building that a century ago was a Ladies' Improvement Club, and seventy years later a hard-drinking rock-and-roll venue. When I stumbled in the door, the place was at a turning point. The rabbi was leaving, and a certain dispiritedness pervaded, as is often the case at such moments. And as is often the case, the next guy became a flashpoint for underlying conflicts in the community. I walked in fresh. I liked the place, I wanted the synagogue to survive, so I rolled up my sleeves to help. I began to cover some ritual leadership, just to fill in, and because I had the literacy to do it. And then I discovered that a decade-plus on stage with the Kinseys had netted me some good chops for this kind of thing. It was easy to bring humor and irreverence and music into what I did. This congregation that included many marginalized folk seemed to value the outsider outlook I brought to the bimah. In 2008 they decided to cancel their rabbinic search and ask me to come on staff part time as the rabbi for the community. I was not ordained by any seminary, by any denomination. I was invited by this congregation. This congregation of lovely, creative, interesting people for whom having a rabbi who was also a drag queen, a rabbi who sometimes even showed up in a skirt, made the place safe, made Judaism safe.
That was the crazy turn. Just when I thought it would never happen, the life of a rabbi ricocheted back and hit me in the face. Maybe it was bashert, predestined, that I shouldn’t go to rabbinical school. Maybe I was meant to be an outsider, and being an outsider was meant to be a deep part of what I bring.
As Rabbi Akiva, a generation after Hillel, might have seen it, life as a rabbi and life as a drag queen were both foreseen. And yet permission was given: for me to do it in my own idiosyncratic, meandering, backdoor way.
This is, I hope, the life ahead. Studying, blogging (subscribe or follow by email in the column up and to the right!), rabbying, and seeing what else grows in the garden now that I’m home to tend it.

What’s Not to Miss?
People in the know ask me constantly, “Won’t you miss the Kinsey Sicks?”
What’s not to miss? I’ve had the chance to sing with brilliant musicians of the caliber of Chris Dilley and Jeffrey Manabat. I’ve gotten to share the footlights with people who are so funny on their feet that I can barely be around them without laughing, like Maurice Kelly, the late Jerry Friedman and the ridiculously delightful and hilarious Spencer Brown. I’ve gotten to watch talents like Kevin Smith Kirkwood dazzle audiences and me, and then go on to make good on Broadway. I’ve enjoyed and will miss untold hours of late-night and pre-dawn car conversation with Jeff Manabat, while the other Kinseys slept in the back seat.
And what can I say about my friend Ben Schatz? The brother I never had, he and I have been friends since I brought him to speak at University of Chicago Law School in 1987. We are often at each other’s throats and we always have each other’s backs. I’ve often felt called to temper the extremity of his imagination, and thankfully, I have succeeded less than half the time. His work is clever – brilliant really. Cutting and shocking and subtle and subversive and politically meaningful and simply appalling. Having Winnie as the vehicle for delivering some of Ben’s best lines and lyrics has been one of the great honors of my life. What a delicious treat for Republican Winnie to turn and say, “But Trixie, we don’t think of you as Asian! We think of you as not black.”  And “Tranny Boy,” written largely to please me, was a gift.
I am prouder of this group than I could ever imagine being proud of anything. I have business partners who are thorough and dedicated and principled and funny. I have traveling buddies whose eating and sleeping habits I know much better than I’d like to. Together we’ve played everywhere from Montreal to Mykonos, Sydney to St. Petersburg (Florida and Russia), not to mention every major US city and a million minor ones that I might never have had the unexpected pleasure to set foot in, from Idaho Falls to Salina, Kansas, to Greenville, SC. We've been Off Broadway, we've done Vegas, we've been on the silver [plate] screen. It’s been a privilege to work with some of the loveliest people to ever inadvertently land in the theater and music worlds, including ShellyWeiss, Ed Decker, Paul Reder, the late Ron Lanza, Ken Bielenberg, Alonzo Ruvalcaba, Danny Scheie, Maurice Molyneaux, Maria DiDia and Glenn Casale. It’s been a delight watching the Kinseys grow from an idea to an act to a phenomenon to a staple, a slow, casual unfolding, like a flower. Or a pox. Of course I’ll miss it.

La Winnie est morte. Vive la Winnie!
But I have no worries about The Kinsey Sicks. This group has a life of its own. The Gestalt of it is bigger than any individual player. Every change we’ve made has made the group richer, more interesting, more relevant to the moment. The Kinsey Sicks will not just survive but thrive. The next era is going to be brilliant, with new ideas and songs and twists and character flaws.
I know this for several reasons. First of all, last winter, in the emergency that followed my mother’s stroke, my three fellow performers did a multi-week run of “Oy Vey in a Manger” as a trio (as they will for several performances this December too – a rarity not to be missed!). Last year’s 3-person run was a huge success. To my colleagues’ credit (and, I admit, to my disappointment), people who had not previously seen the Kinsey Sicks had no clue that someone was missing.
Nathan & I: The Bilateral Winnie Brain Trust
I also know this because the next person to take up residence in Winnie is himself a wonder. Nathan Marken. How did we find him? We went onto a matchmaking website, looking for skinny, 5’11”, baritone, bespectacled, Jewish, vegetarian, native Illinoisan drag queens. We couldn’t take the time to audition all of them, but Nathan was enough. His sense of humor was so good, his singing so precise, his Winnie-ness so apparent, that we all knew immediately that this was a match. Truth is he quietly began making some Winnie appearances already last month, to rave reviews. And he makes me laugh. In rehearsal he began doing some things with Winnie – gestures, faces, improvisations - that made me smile through clenched teeth while thinking, “Why the fuck didn’t I ever think of that?” I suspect Winnie might be a little darker in her next regeneration. But she will be brilliant.
Nathan is an accomplished actor, and holds a Masters Degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The true story is that we prospected him at San Francisco’s New Conservatory Theatre Center, the same fertile ground whence we landed Chris Dilley (Trampolina) and Jeff Manabat (Trixie). Nathan, talented young man that he is, will undoubtedly introduce into Winnie a DSM’s worth of new neuroses that I couldn’t have imagined, each one a pearl.
Will Winnie and I meet again? I can’t imagine we won’t have the periodic reunion. Or the occasional appearance of two Winnies in the same place, like some temporal anomaly. Mostly I will enjoy her in Nathan’s capable and tastefully gloved hands.
Winnie has been a loving friend. Loyal, lanky, always a-dither. I will miss her.

Catch one of my Farewell Performances this December!
Santa Cruz, California – December 11
Winthrop, Washington – December 12
San Francisco – December 13
Sonoma County – December 14 (a fundraiser for Congregation Ner Shalom)
Cedar Rapids, IA – December 19
Chicago – December 20 (there is an early show and a late show)
Kansas City, MO – December 21

Or find out details about all of these at

Kinsey Sicks circa 1996: Ben Schatz, Jerry Friedman, Maurice Kelly, Irwin Keller

Kinsey Sicks circa 2012: Spencer Brown, Irwin Keller, Jeff Manabat, Ben Schatz

Friday, October 3, 2014

Treasures, Release & Bucket Lists

Yom Kippur Drash for Congregation Ner Shalom, 5775

הודיעני ה' קצי ומדת ימי מה–היא

Hodieni Yah kitzi umidat yamay mah hi.

"Yah," Psalm 39 says, "make my end known to me and the measure of my days."

The measure of our days - if only we could know such a thing! How we might be different, for good and for ill. How the entire emotional landscape of our lives would be altered. What would be our ambition? What would be the source of our calm? What are the things we would rush to do because there's no time to waste? What are the things we'd put off because there is?

But such knowledge is withheld from us. You'd think our cells could figure it out. That our DNA could speak it to our brains. Or that an angel might whisper in our ears who by fire and who by water, and when. But instead we live in this greatest of mysteries with this greatest of anxieties.  The measure of our days. Sometimes it gets us moving in meaningful ways. And sometimes it stops us in our tracks.

I made the mistake of picking up a National Geographic that was sitting in our house the other day. Between the manatees and the mammoth tusks, I found a report on changing average life expectancies in America. And of course, average just means average. As much above as below. But still, the ages colorfully printed on the US map looked like prognoses. No, worse. They looked like destiny.

I tried to make sense of the numbers and I noticed that my mother had outlived the average female life expectancy by four years. "Oh, good for her," I thought, as a parent might kvell over a child bringing home an A on their report card. Then after a moment I melted into bitter resentment that she only outlived the average by four years.

My eyes then, nebech, drifted over to the average life expectancy for men, and I didn't like that very much either. My remaining allotment, for so it felt to me, was far too short to accomplish the things I still want. I'll probably never get to master another new language. My days for rough travel are probably over, certainly if my achey back has anything to say about it. Doubtful I'll ever go to rabbinical school. Oh, and hadn't I intended to work out and get into shape some day? So many things I figured I'd get around to. Now I don't even know if I'll get through my old papers in the shed.

This mortality and this uncertainty about time. They are always the elephant in the room, especially on Yom Kippur. Looking over our shoulders into the prayerbook, pressuring us to make amends, egging us on toward a renewed future, or, frankly, just scaring the shit out of us.

How do we make our lives what we want them to be? Now that we're old enough to feel the finiteness, how do we make our unknown number of days count? In this year of loss, in what felt like the premature loss of my mother - and what loss doesn't feel premature? - my wandering mind wondered whether she got to the things that she wanted to get to in her time. And I've concluded that she did.

One explicit piece of evidence had to do with her bucket list. Now as a disclaimer, I think that this whole bucket list concept that has evolved over these last years is a mixed blessing. It might be good as a values clarification exercise; if it causes you to do something very beautiful or meaningful that you might otherwise not have thought to do, then it's a good thing. If it just dangles before you beautiful and meaningful things that you don't actually have the means to do, then it's just a final, eleventh-hour taunt. If you really want to be Julia Roberts in "Eat, Pray, Love," then you probably needed to have started earlier and to have been, well, Julia Roberts.

But on the subject of my mother's bucket list. Last summer, in 2013, I was back home and Mom and I had shabbos dinner with our friends Dawn and Eitan in Skokie. I don't remember how the topic came up, but my mother announced that she needed to have a bucket list. I had never heard her talk like this; she never acknowledged her mortality. We all leaned closer and asked her what would be on her bucket list. She thought for a moment, and then announced, "Well, I'm not jumping out of a plane." Everyone around the table was agreeable to this. So I asked her again what would be on her bucket list. She thought some more. "Well, I'm certainly not going bungie jumping," she said with a somewhat accusatory tone, as if we were just waiting to slap bungies on her ankles and knock her off a bridge. We sat for a while in silence. After a while I pressed further. "Mom, instead of telling us what's not on your bucket list, why don't you tell us what is." She drew a blank. She couldn't think of anything. In the moment it felt a little bit like failure of imagination: there must be things she wants to do or experience that she hasn't. Then she asked us for suggestions. Exotic travel and going back to school she dismissed out of hand. The suggestions that most appealed to her included hearing music, seeing theatre, and visiting her children in California. All things that she was already doing.

It wasn't failure of imagination. My mother had achieved her ambitions. She was doing just what she wanted to be doing. Her bucket list was actually a description of her life. It seemed the only thing missing was her being able to tell her friends that she had a bucket list. But otherwise, there wasn't really anything significant that she had put off, no loose ends sitting around obviously untied.

I don't know if this kind of outcome is rare. Or as we continue to get older, do our desires scale down to match what is already working well in our lives? Either way, this is something I shamelessly wish for myself and for everyone I know. That our desires should be simple and manageable, and that we should grow into a time, if we haven't already, when we are fulfilling our desires over and over.

Hodieni Yah kitzi, what are the number of our days? The question of how we handle this particular kind of not-knowing is articulated all too clearly on Yom Kippur. The possibility that this year could be our last year, tfu tfu tfu, is mentioned more than once in our liturgy. We sing it, we declaim it, we beat our breasts with it. Yom Kippur intends this face-off with mortality to be a motivator. To impel our cheshbon hanefesh, our accounting for ourselves in the face of God and this world. And it is meant to grease the wheels of resolution in our bumpy relationships, if not making real apology easier, then at least making it pressing enough for us to do it anyway.

But it also leaves us unsettled too, vulnerable in a way that might be good, but is nonetheless alarming. By the end of the Ne'ilah service, I often feel incredible pathos, I hear myself pleading, not fully knowing who I'm pleading with. With God? Let me live, God! Let me get another crack at this! Write me in that Book! Or am I pleading with the Universe? Let me live! Universe, let these cells of mine thrive and fight off disease for a while longer! Or am I pleading with myself? Irwin! Be careful! Be safe! Don't text and drive! Or maybe I'm not pleading with myself for my life but for a change in my life. Change, already, Irwin, change! Be the person you want to be! Embody the values that you insist are important!

Yom Kippur is a hugely important check-in for us, for our people. It's hard not to be affected by it. It's hard not to emerge from it without feeling some kind of bitul hayesh, a breakdown of the ego. (No worries, we'll rebuild our egos in a jiffy.) But for this day, to feel such openness, such vulnerability, is really quite something.

I find that on this holy day there's a lot that bubbles up. Stuff that I've stored away in my cells somewhere, stuff I don't look at even though upon reflection I imagine it's always somewhere in my peripheral vision. Old stuff. Disappointments. Longings. Grudges. Shame. Desires. Experiences. Emotional memorabilia. On Yom Kippur I get a chance to look at these things directly, to turn them over in my hand like rocks from a river - examining their shapes and heft and markings, and then putting them back down again.
I do this every year. But this year, in this shmitah year, this fallow year of the Hebrew calendar, I've determined to look at what I've stored away a little bit differently. I'm going to use a shmitah lens, or two shmitah lenses actually - sort of shmitah bifocals, if you will -  and I'll tell you what I mean by that.

First, just the quickest of refreshers. Shmitah is the sabbatical year - the seventh year in which Torah commands us to give the land a rest, not just a rest but a shabbos. As of 10 days ago, we are now resident in a real live shmitah year. Last week we talked about shmitah as being a kind of being-not-doing boot camp, teaching us to live in the not-knowing, to let go - for some period of time, maybe one seventh of the time - of our need to find out about and tinker with everything in sight.

BTW, anyone make any headway with that this week?

But there are two other elements of shmitah, two lenses that I think are worth using as we look at all of these things we've stored up over time, especially the painful things. The first shmitah lens has to do with looking for sustenance. In the shmitah laws laid out in Torah, God anticipates the people's concern that they will not have enough to eat to make it through the fallow period, the time of not-knowing. So God promises abundance in the 6th year that can carry the people through.

So the first lens that I want to use this year is that. What, of the things that I've sacked away in my spirit actually has the ability to offer me some sustenance? What of my old interests, friendships, skills, delights and longings are still in there somewhere? What are the elements of me that at some point I abandoned, perhaps because they didn't seem useful enough, or they were too time consuming, or they came to feel childish, or maybe other people told me not to value those things and I believed them. What are the things I felt shame about still because I was taught that those things are shameful, that now could offer me some real joy, some new energy, some delight, some strength, some wholeness? These life experiences, even the difficult ones, can be a source, a stockpile, of nourishment during times of uncertainty. Times of uncertainty like the Biblical shmitah year, like Yom Kippur, like, well, always. So with this first lens maybe I can identify what there is to haul out of mothballs. Even what we rejected in our younger years can still become a cornerstone of our future lives. Consider it an inheritance, a gift, a time capsule, from an earlier you.

The second shmitah lens also involves that collection of stuff stored in our psyches. And it connects to another element of the Biblical sabbatical year, and that is the release of debts. Not only do the fields stop being thrall to our will, so do our debtors. Obligations are let go.

So I think there's something here for us to consider on Yom Kippur about release of obligations. It closely parallels much of our Yom Kippur liturgy, including the Kol Nidre prayer, where we ask to be released from vows we made. But I'd like to propose we look at the obligations that we've carried internally, which might now be ready to be let go.

I've been learning a lot this year about letting go. My sister and I have spent weeks already going through our childhood home. It has a basement that has become legendary, carrying 56 years of family history: it is the repository of all the remaining treasures and undiscardables of grandparents, great grandparents, beloved great aunts, and relatives who moved away. It contains wedding cards and condolence cards and even a note from Jackie Kennedy thanking my Grandma Sade for her kind expression of sympathy. It also holds boxes full of my sister's and my childhood report cards, photos, compositions and, especially, art projects, many of which are living proof of the surprising longevity of Elmer's library paste.

Much of that stuff had a quality of being put away in anticipation. Socked away for later. But for what? My sister at last put words to this as she was looking through the umpteenth construction paper masterpiece of her grade school career. She said, "It was like all of this was put away so that it could be looked at and appreciated again. And now that's what we are doing."

And once she said that, it was as if something had been released. Our obligation to these things melted away even while our love for them didn't. They stopped being there for us to store for yet another generation. They were there for us to appreciate and let go of. And that's what we were able to start doing. Appreciate, maybe talk about, maybe even photograph in special cases, and then let go.
Now this happened to be lovely stuff, nostalgic stuff, but I think the same holds true about anything from our pasts that obligates us, that binds us: old disappointments, regrets, grudges, shame. Those things might be deserving of some appreciation too. We can appreciate them for what they say about who we were once; what we longed for, what we dreamed of, even if it didn't come true. We can appreciate them as souvenirs of what we suffered and what we survived. We can offer our appreciation and some forgiveness to those artifacts of difficult times. And we can also consider letting them go.

I know it's easy to just get up and say, "let go of the things that hold you back." It's not like that hasn't occurred to any of us before. It's not like we haven't spent good time and possibly lots of money on therapy trying to do just that. It might not even be doable. But still, on this Yom Kippur, the one that falls during the shmitah year, when we are released from obligations, it might be a good time to revisit this project. To adopt this shmitah view: that this year we are not under any obligation to our old grudges. We are not under any obligation to our hurt feelings. We are not under any obligation to old shame that continues to bully us even at this advanced age. So even though it's difficult, perhaps we can at least make the effort to imagine what it would be like to let go.

Imagining. After all, we're talking about the state of our spirits. It is something in that spiritual world that we wish to shift. And so using our imaginations is a legitimate tool. The Slonimer Rebbe gave the view that a way to enter Shabbat with a true feeling of Shabbat peace, is to imagine that all your work is done. Such an imagining is completely ineffective if your goal is to finish your work. But if your goal is to feel Shabbat, then it's the right prescription. Similarly, imagination can work here, I think. Of course it's difficult to let go of things we've held onto, even destructive things that for whatever reason have become in some way precious to us. But a reasonable first step might be to imagine. Imagine how it would feel if we were released from this bond. What lightness would enter us? What light - what Holy Spark - might we see reflecting in that now emptier mirrored chamber of our soul? Imagine feeling that way right now, as if the work were already done, the hard thing released. Feel it now, and perhaps that in itself will be a big enough step.

Hodieni Yah kitzi. Our time is uncertain, our future is uncertain. We come here for Yom Kippur, year after year, because the future is uncertain. We are ignorant of the measure of our days. We don't know if we will hit the National Geographic averages or, God willing, 30 years beyond them. We don't know whether we will meet sickness or sorrow or have a year in which we are blessedly, blissfully spared. But let us consider carrying these three shmitah lessons with us through this Holy Day and into the year beyond. And they are these:

(1) You have what you need to get through. Your abundant soul has stored away resources for you, resources that can sustain you. Look and see what's there! There might be some lovely stuff that you long ago shelved that could still become the cornerstone of your future self.

(2) You can let go of your obligation to what harms you. If it hobbles you, if it haunts you, if it's not helping you see your Holy Spark, maybe you don't owe it anything anymore. Appreciate what it's meant to you, offer it some love and forgiveness. And then let it go. Or, if that's too much to ask, at least begin imagining how letting go might feel. And finally,

(3) Your bucket list is now. There is no future that is certain. You can only be sure of what you are doing at this moment. So whatever you dream of inviting into your life so you can have greater richness later, you have to begin inviting now. There is a legend you probably know about the two angels that follow you home on Erev Shabbat. One is your defender, one your adversary. If your house is aglow and ready for Shabbat, your defender says, "So may it be next week," and the adversary is obliged to say, "Amen." But if your house is cold and unready for Shabbat, the adversary says, "So may it be next week," and your defender is obliged to say, "Amen." And although it is told in this folkloric way, there is an underlying real-life truth here. What you do now is in fact your practice. If you want Shabbat, you need to be doing Shabbat, not waiting for a time that is better suited, or Shabbat will never be your practice. The same can be said of anything on your bucket list. If you want it in your life, now is the time to invite it in. Resolving to invite it in later is no guarantee of anything. All it means is that today you have a practice of making resolutions about the future.

So that's it. The shmitah lessons. Activate your hidden resources. Release your obligation to what doesn't serve you. And live your bucket list now. Because we don't know how long we have to put it off. And when your angel sees that you are in fact living the life you want, the life you value, it will say, "So be it," and the adversary will be obliged to say, "Amen."

Here is a poetic treatment of these themes by Ner Shalom's Poet Laureate, Sally Churgel: Shmita Year for the Heart.

Some thoughts here were impelled by two chant settings by Rabbi Shefa Gold: "Inviting Our Future Selves" and "The Cornerstone."  Gratitude to Ellen Atzilah Solot for always making me think.