The Confluence

fullsizerenderYou can spend so long away from the divine that you get hungry. It’s not like hunger in your stomach or thirst in your mouth, but an unnamable itch that gnaws at you until you have to go home. That’s why I went to the cabin each summer. Last summer I arrived there for a week of nothing. Nothing to do except meditate, breathe, walk, breathe deeper, then lie on the grass and watch birds float across the sky in slow colored streams. Nothing but sense the quiet rhythm of my cells. Nothing but cook whatever I want and eat it slowly, gazing at the creek, listening to the trees.

Each day I meditated longer, until I sensed a presence and calm that never surface in the city. Too many phones ringing, too much email to answer, too many people needing so much from me that I can’t keep my balance. At home I can hardly recognize my own voice or see my guides, let alone hear the hum of the sacred.

In the middle of the week I decided to hike to a place on the land where two creeks meet, at the confluence. I’d been there ten years years ago on an impromptu walkabout after one of the caretakers told me it was a “power spot” that I must visit. Since I’m directionally challenged (or was guided deliberately into a state of exhaustion, depending on how you look at it), I’d rambled for hours, stumbling through brush, scrambling over boulders, until I arrived at the spot where the creeks converge. I climbed onto a rock in the stream and inhaled the deep mineral-fish-water smell, let the soft heat of the rock travel up my body, until it felt as though the roaring water was surging through my veins. I leaned forward and found myself weeping, then stretched back and laughed, until I was tipping back and forth, laughing and crying, magnetized between two poles, swaying.

This year, in my week of divine nothing, I heard about a new trail to the confluence that allows you to walk straight there in fifteen minutes. No wandering. This made me a little wary. Wandering mixed with a good dose of suffering seems like a prerequisite for an experience with the Divine. Since my last trip to the spot had been so earthshaking, I decided to prepare before I tried the new trail. I meditated, easing into a couple of hours of quiet breathing, letting the soft calm radiate through my heart until I knew I was ready to begin the hike.

I set out on the trail with focused attention. In other words, I would not let my mind wander like it usually does. With each step, I inhaled the summer air and exhaled my thoughts. And the thoughts did come. Actually more than thoughts. If you’re like me and tend to be, let’s say, creative, then your thoughts can have whole personalities with complicated scenarios. Like the very important Queen Debra who was planning on reaching enlightenment at the confluence, and then becoming rich by writing a book and having appearances on Oprah that would necessitate new clothes and probably jewelry. I parked her, with a jeweled crown on her head, by a little waterfall. My own head had to stay clear.

Then came little Debbie who had a bad childhood and is therefore leery of new experiences, especially if they involve contact with true self, which could cause her to be abandoned. Yet again. She needs to be soothed regularly, but I gently seated her with her doll and blankie under a tree to play. Soothe you later. I would be fully present. No guests or alter egos invited. Breathe in, breathe out. One foot on the path after another.

A wooden entryway appeared in front of me—two tall poles planted in the ground with wire stretched across the top between them. I whispered a prayer as I walked through: Please God, allow me to be present. It was a short way down to the water from the gate, but now I didn’t have to walk. My body was propelled down the path, unaware of steps, only a dreamy awareness of entering the sacred.

I paused on the bank and stared. Two streams cascaded together into a waterfall, splashing over rocks, bursting into praise. The air felt so alive that every breath was like God’s breath. In and out, God breathed me. I waded into the stream and sat on the large flat rock that beckoned. The warmth of the stone and the sun were the same, pulsing through me. The sunlight poured through the veins of the brilliant green leaves into my veins and back again. I knew this was the same water as the rivers of Eden where God’s voice is in the wind, in the birds’ chatter, in all the insects humming God’s melodies.

It was something like my memory of an LSD trip in the 70’s where I viewed the microcosm of the universe in a tiny corner of my kitchen floor where ants crawled as I listened to the faint hum of their chatter. And I understood their chatter. I never took LSD again, since I had enough survival instinct to sense it was too risky. But I remember thinking that I’d like to experience that feeling again, just once before I die. And it wasn’t the feeling of understanding the language of ants. It was the vivid sense of everything being interconnected. It’s all God.

And here I was. Listening to the rush of water dissolving time, as leaves reeled like dizzy ships floating on air, the same as water falling, the same as light rising, like the breath in God’s throat, my throat, and every narrow passage that struggles to break into new form, every drop of water as large as the ocean, dancing water that holds the world, shapes boulders into pebbles, pushing everything effortlessly into its next way of being over centuries without a moment passing.

I stretched out on the rock and shouted into the air, “I… LOVE….GOD! I don’t know if I actually screamed it aloud or if I murmured it silently. It was all the same. I can tell you I am not the kind of person who normally shouts out, “I love God!” or even says it matter-of-factly. I’m prone to doubt and debate and God-wrestling at every turn. But there I was. And I was there.

I have no idea how long I stayed. Eventually I walked back to the cabin, took a hot bath, and then fell into a dreamy nap. Later in the day I ran into one of the owners of the land. “I walked on the trail to the confluence today,” I told her, my body glowing just thinking about it.
“Oh yes,” she said, “Isn’t that a nice spot?”
I was stunned. Nice Spot? Is that all? I couldn’t think of what to say, so I just nodded and said,“ It was amazing.”

In my last few days at the cabin, those words kept ringing through my mind. “Nice Spot.” Could it be it was just a nice spot? Both times I’d been there it was so full of the divine presence that it felt like heaven on earth. I decided not to go back because I didn’t want to see it any other way.

A few days later I meandered through a meadow, thinking about going home the next day and mentally answering my future e-mail, when I heard the roaring. Even though I was walking on the other side, I knew it was the confluence. No other water on the land roars that loud. I realized I was walking along the opposite side of the trail I’d been on a few days before. All I’d have to do is walk down a few feet and take a peek. It was too tempting to resist.

I inched down carefully, taking it in from the other side of the trail, and the other side of my mind. I walked over a few boulders and stared. For a moment I thought it was a different place. I checked for the little rock piles, the cairns that had been placed to mark the spot. They were there. It was definitely the confluence. Two creeks coming together into a sweet little waterfall, surrounded by trees. Birds chirping, water gurgling.
It was . . . a nice spot.

I climbed out onto the flat rock in the stream, thinking maybe if I sat in the midst of everything I could feel it again, but it was just a warm rock. The sun was pleasant, flickering through the leaves, and the water was, well, kind of chilly. It was so ordinary I wondered if I was in a sci-fi movie where the pulse of the world had been stolen by aliens. What happened to the delirious song of the stream? Why wasn’t God whispering through the wind into my heart? Just where was God, anyway?

It didn’t take me long to realize that it was not God that was missing. God was still there. The difference was that I wasn’t there.

In the Bible, when Jacob woke from his dream, he said the famous words, God is in this place, and I knew it not. I understood that to mean that God is present in every place whether we are aware of it or not. Now, I had actually experienced it in the most vivid sense. Now you see it, now you don’t. What was the difference? My presence.

So how does one stay tuned to the presence of the divine? Must I trek through miles of wilderness or meditate for hours to wake up? These were the things that pulled me far enough from the chatter of my mind to propel me into a state of heightened awareness. Tuning in requires tuning out. But however you do it, all that’s really required is to pay attention to what’s calling you.

Unfortunately, I normally walk around so tightened into the shape of a productive human, that even though God might be whispering through the sunlight on the hills right into my veins, I’m too preoccupied to hear it. That’s not likely to change overnight. The best I can do is pause and recall the flow of the confluence, remember it’s always there, and try to stir it into the mix of my life.

On the ride home from the cabin, I stopped my car, pulled over and began to furiously scribble notes to myself– the crash how-to course on living with awareness of the sacred at home, lest I forget. The page is tattered now after a year of sitting next to my to-do list, but it seems to surface whenever I really need it.

Meditate and walk outside everyday. Even if it’s brief.
It doesn’t have to be a big epiphany every day.
Stop and notice the sensations of life in you and around you
Expect ups and downs.
Enjoy the ride
The soft breeze
The bird’s song
The body you have.
Remember to breathe, and keep your feet on the ground.
Be patient.
God is everywhere, but you have to show up.

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Snorkeling through the Worlds

Eight years ago in February, we visited Hawaii with Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi. Reb Zalman, who passed away a year and half ago, was my husband’s teacher and the beloved founder of the Jewish Renewal movement.
Please leave a comment and let me know if you enjoyed this piece.

Snorkeling through the Worlds

reef copyA spiritual retreat on a tropical beach blends the best of all worlds, so in 2008 a weekend Shabbaton with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in Hawaii held a promise of Paradise. David and I arrived early, along with Reb Zalman and his wife, Eve Ilsen, to settle in to the Big Island. We walked on warm sand, inhaling the aroma of purple orchids, sampled fresh Ahi and papaya, and met with Hawaiian teachers who taught us about the smoldering volcano and island geography. We made offerings of palm leaves with an Island Kahuna who blessed us, as we whispered prayers into the warm winds.

On the third day, we arrived at the hotel for the Shabbaton. The Outrigger hotel sits on a plateau of volcanic rock next to the most popular snorkeling spot on the island. After sitting on the veranda and watching the snorkelers bobbing in the warm waves like little pods of fish, Reb Zalman announced that he wanted to try snorkeling. Since at eighty-two he’d never done it, this was one thing to cross off his bucket list. Though I had little snorkeling experience, apparently it was more than the rest of our group, so I was appointed to be his guide. I puffed up like a little balloon fish with the thought of escorting the Rebbe into the world under the sea.

After renting gear from the hotel kiosk, we set out to navigate the expanse of black, pitted volcanic rock that led to the snorkeling inlet. The surface was so sharp, jagged and hot you had to wear shoes to walk to the water. Reb Zalman was decked out with purple water sandals, neon blue swimming trunks pulled up almost to his chest, translucent red glasses, a bright patterned kippah, and his wooden cane. You could pick out his jaunty figure a mile away. David and I scrambled to keep up with him as he strode along the lava flow, slipping his cane along the pitted rock, grinning. We tried to flank him on either side in case he lost his balance, but he forged ahead on the wobbly rocks, eyes on the water. I’d been enamored with the idea of leading the Rebbe on an adventure, but now I sensed the weight of the responsibility. What if he slipped? What if we were dashed to pieces on these jagged rocks? What if there was no Shabbaton? Meanwhile Zalman trotted on.

Once we got to the sandy inlet, we helped Zalman into his fins, snorkel and mask. With the mask in place, snorkel in mouth, white beard, and huge fins jutting out from his legs, he looked like a bright blue giant alien against the moonscape of the black rocks. We waded slowly into the shallows to practice breathing through the tube. Crouching down, we dipped our faces in the warm water, bubbled air in and out, and peered below.

We ventured a little deeper out onto the reef to view the tropical life,swishing our fins, breathing air from above, and gazing beneath. I could see Zalman’s eyes widen behind his mask as the yellow, purple and red multicolored fishes swam under our noses. In Jewish Renewal we talk a lot about the four worlds, but this struck me as a distinct fifth world–just below the surface, elegant, mysterious, warm and swirling with bright creatures. Orange and blue striped Clownfishes darted through the clear water, in subtle rhythm with majestic sea turtles. Golden and black-masked butterfly fish chased turquoise and pink saddle wrasses, all part of a psychedelic underworld flowing by in silent chorus.

It was then I noticed Reb Zalman’s foot slip. We’d been floating above a ledge about chest deep, peering under, drifting out, feet tapping down again on the bottom. I saw one foot slide off the ledge, then the other, then both feet scrambled, searching for footing. His head was bobbing, arms swirling as I swam to him, grabbed his arm and guided him back to the ledge, all in an instant.

Reb Zalman was fine, signaled thumbs up to me, and went back to snorkeling happily, but the moment played in slo-mo in my head, repeating in an endless loop. I hadn’t thought to ask him how good a swimmer he was. If he slipped again, could I reach him? I glanced back to David watching us on the nearby shore. He waved, smiling.

I positioned myself between Reb Zalman and the edge of the ledge so I could make sure he stayed where his feet could reach the bottom. We snorkeled for another twenty minutes, but my mind was only half on the glorious underworld, the other half focused on the job of making sure the Rebbe stayed within reach, in this world.

When he’d had enough, we swam back to the rocks and waded onto the shore. Reb Zalman emerged, grinning, dripping, still looking like a glistening, bearded extraterrestrial. He peeled off his snorkel and mask, put on his glasses and kippah, and David handed him his cane.

“How was it?” David asked.

“Wonderful.”  Zalman glowed. His eyes were huge behind the red glasses. “Such diversity,” he said. “And they all get along.”

What I saw under the water was an exotic painting of surreal colors, a submerged swirling hub, with a faint undertone of death. What he saw was model of diversity. All the different fish—living together in a rainbow of harmony.

Of course, getting along in diversity was so much of what Reb Zalman taught. It was a part of his mission in this world, to find common footing in the differences between people, faiths, and ideas. To him, this underwater world was just another glorious metaphor of possibility for our species.

Reb Zalman always forged ahead, trusting others to have his back (Eve and G-d, mainly). He was relentlessly positive in finding images of peace and harmony in diversity. Where others saw murkiness or chaos, he looked deeper, allowing a vision of clarity to emerge. He strode toward adventure, inward and outward, peering past the thin veils, in and out of other worlds.

Many of us long now to pull him back through the veil, back into this world to keep leading us with his fearless spiritual bravery. It’s hard for us to know how to navigate this world without him. When I’m afraid, which is much of the time, I try to summon the image of the Rebbe trotting ahead onto the jagged rocks to inspire me to forge on.

What can we take away from this?

Wear bright clothes

Be as big as you are

Peer through your goggles into other worlds

When your goggles are off, use rose colored glasses to see good in everything

Work for peace and understanding

Do not fear

 

 

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A Path Through Snow

The whole thing was Bonnie’s idea. At three in the afternoon on December 24, time forChugim activities at camp Hashomer Hatzair winter camp, my best friend Bonnie turned to me and said, “Let’s ditch.”

“What for” I asked.

“I have an idea.” Bonnie leaned in close so I could see her hazel eyes were bright, which made me wary. This wasn’t the first time she had lured me into an adventure, many of which did not end well. Also, unlike Bonnie, I looked forward to Chugim, or club, time. In the drama chug we were putting on a play where I played a character named Zilla. I got to wear a white turban, glare at my husband, and declare, “I denounce you and everything you betoken!” I relished those words, more intently with every rehearsal, and for years to come whenever I was irritated with a boyfriend I would fight the urge to stare into his eyes and hiss, “I denounce you and everything you betoken!” That bit of dialogue held the seeds of my future as a Jewish storyteller and a woman who speaks her mind, but all I knew then was I liked how my skin looked dark and smooth in the white turban, and I sensed a hint of power that I wouldn’t fully own for many years.

Bonnie could never find a chug she liked. She was bored with arts and crafts, hated singing, and said she’d rather die than do Israeli folk dancing. She only liked sports. Bonnie was even more disconnected from Judaism than I was, if that was possible. We were misfits at Hashomer Hatzair winter camp. The other campers were Zionist Jews who identified deeply with Judaism and with Israel. Bonnie and I had never heard of Zionism. We knew we were Jewish, but in the 1960’s in the San Fernando Valley, our parents’ goal was to blend in with all the families in our tract development, Storybook Lane, where the floor patterns repeated every fourth house.
We’d stumbled on to Hashomer camp the previous summer because a cousin of a friend was going. We loved the summer camp because the counselors gave us so much freedom we could make out with boys behind the cabins and not get into trouble for it. We figured at winter camp we could make out with boys in the snow.

Bonnie hunkered in closer and said in a loud whisper, “Let’s go cut down a Christmas tree!”
I stared at her. “Why?”
“We’ll bring it into the mess hall tonight. It’s Christmas Eve!
“Are you nuts? This is Jewish Camp, Bonnie!”
“I know. That’s why it will be so funny!”

In my house, although our Jewish practice was limited to Hanukkah and a yearly Seder with my grandparents, Christmas trees were taboo. My sisters and I each had our own miniature brass menorahs, just big enough to squeeze birthday-sized candles in. These came from a synagogue gift shop, but to me, the tarnished brass gave them an ancient mysterious aura. Across the street at Bonnie’s house, though, there was just one menorah, and their enthusiasm for it was tepid.

I shook my head at Bonnie. “Even if we wanted to, how on earth could we cut down a tree and carry it down the hill?
Bonnie had thought this out. “Brian’s going to help us.”

Brian was the boy who followed us around because he had a crush on Bonnie. If we were out of place at Jewish camp, Brian was in a different class altogether, a total misfit in life. His gawky frame reminded me of the skinny cedar tree that leaned against our cabin window, scratching in the wind every night, asking to come in. I usually found some excuse to ditch him, because he made me feel uneasy. I see now that the pleading in his eyes touched something soft and scary inside me, but then was I was just glad he had a crush on Bonnie and not me. She usually shrugged him off too, but now he was part of the plan.

“Brian has a pocketknife.”
I stared at her. None of the Jewish boys or men we knew carried pocketknives. My father was a CPA and Bonnie’s dad was a Personnel Manager. They sat at desks, growing paunches, with no use for pocketknives or any other tools as far as I knew.
“He does not,” I said.

As if on cue, Brian appeared from behind the cabin, pocketknife in hand. He had a way of slipping in and out of shadows that made me shudder.

“Well, how does one cut down a pine tree with a pocket knife? “ I used words like “How does one ” to sound superior to Bonnie when I was nervous about her schemes, but I was already going along with this one as we walked up the trail, Bonnie drawing me in with her chatter.

“It’s easy,” she snapped back at me, as if she cut down trees every day. “You pick a small tree.” Like Kent’s.”

Bonnie’s older brother Kent had begged for a Christmas tree so long that their mother caved in and let him have one this year, as long as he kept it out of sight. It sat it on a little table in his bedroom, decked with miniature globes and sparkly tinsel. My sisters and I went across the street to their house regularly, so we could tiptoe down the hall to Kent’s room to peek at it, like a shameful, glittering secret.

Bonnie was bounding ahead on the trail, giggling, with Brian trailing her like a gaunt shadow. I looked down through the trees to see if anybody noticed that we were sneaking off. But we had chosen the camp because it lacked supervision, and clearly nobody missed us.

We climbed higher, crisscrossing between paths, tromping across the snow until the faux-leather boots I’d bought at Orbachs discount store began to get soggy. Coming from Southern California, we had no concept of what a week in the snow would be. I wore a new orange and purple quilted Jacket with matching orange stirrup stretch pants that I had seen in the pages of Seventeen Magazine. I had fantasies of snow that didn’t include slippery icy paths, gray piles of hard dirty snow, or toes that could get numb.

When I peered down the mountain, I could no longer see the camp cabins or lights. Finally Bonnie stopped.
“Aha!” she pointed to a spindly little tree, about three feet high that stood alone in a clearing. “That’s our baby!

Brian knelt and began to saw away at the trunk with his puny knife, while I hopped up and down to warm my feet as Bonnie crooned, “We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas!”

In the ten minutes or so before the tree gave way, my mind raced. What if they thought we were lost in the snow? Would someone send out a search party? Would they call our parents? Would we be sent home when they found us? I was halfway through a rescue scenario that involved a Saint Bernard with a keg of brandy and musical accompaniment when I heard the trunk snap.

Bonnie let out a war whoop as she snatched the tree and swung it over her head, prancing around singing. Dashing through the snow… she hollered, and Brian chimed in, In a one horse open sleigh, as they passed the tree back and forth like a trophy. Bonnie tossed it over to me and I yodeled, Oer the fields we go! Laughing all the way!

Bonnie pulled out some tin foil she’d stolen from the camp kitchen the night before. We shredded it into strips that we coiled around the scraggly branches, but the tree still looked forlorn and lopsided. Bonnie stood back and surveyed our work. “Very Christmasy,” she declared.

Brian shouldered the tree as we slogged down the mountain. “When we walk in to the mess hall, all three of us carry the tree.” Bonnie outlined our detailed orders. “Brian in the middle, you and me on either side. We’ll march in together, singing, ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas, We wish you a Merry Christmas!’ Got it?” I nodded. Got it.

In the twilight, we could see the soft light glowing from the windows of the dining hall. We should have realized that the glow was candlelight. We might have known that meant Shabbat but we never lit Shabbat candles at home. I’d seen my Grandmother do it once or twice on a Friday night, taking two white stubby candles from a blue box and lighting them at her kitchen table before we ate in the dining room. She swirled her hands in waves as she drew in the light, then said the prayer in her thick European accent,Boruch Ataw Adonoy, Elohenu Melech Ha Oylum…. I imagined it was a quaint custom she’d brought from Russia, something our family didn’t need anymore, like the treadle sewing machine or the ringer washer she still kept in her garage.

We stood for a moment in front of the dining hall, in formation, clutching the tree. I was so close to Brian I could smell his sweat. When Bonnie hollered “Now!” we burst through the double doors of the hall nearly tripping over each other’s feet as we fumbled to grasp the tree and sing. “We wish you a Merry Christmas, We wish you a Merry Christmas!”

It’s hard to fathom now that we expected laughter, but I believe we really did. Instead everyone turned and gaped. There was a dead quiet as if the whole room had sucked in its breath and didn’t dare exhale.

Bonnie signaled to us, Louder! We bounced the tree up and down and doubled our volume. The prickly branches and tin-foil tinsel rubbed against my cheek. “We wish you a Merry Christmas, We wish you a Merry Christmas!”
Glaring silence. Glowing candles.

I’d been to a Shabbat dinner at Hashomer summer camp, but only once, so I’d forgotten. Forgotten how everyone dressed up for Shabbat dinner. Forgotten how everyone looked washed clean in the soft flames, how their faces reminded me of my grandmother, how the b’racha made me feel old and young at the same time, how time paused and stood still.

It was very still in the room now and suddenly my cheeks felt hot, and my feet very cold. Bonnie laughed, much too loud, and shouted, “It’s Christmas Eve! She waved the tree in the air. “Merry Christmas to all!” I nudged her to stop.
“It’s funny.” Bonny said. “Get it?”

If I could go back now, I might get it. I might see the faces in the glow of the candles and feel how much I ached to be in that light. I would see that even though nobody had sent a rescue, party, we were lost.

I don’t remember if we officially got into trouble or not, but we were escorted out of the dining hall, and the spindly Christmas tree ended up in a trash can. We were even more set apart from the other campers for the rest of the week. I redeemed myself a little by being an especially proud and fierce Hebrew woman, Zilla in the play that Sunday. I’m pretty sure Bonnie got some secret admiration from a few rebels, too.

It has taken me a few decades to find my way back home. After a first marriage to a Lutheran who carried a pocketknife and knew how to fix anything, I eventually ended up with a Jew who was as estranged from his roots as I was. We didn’t light the menorahs in our respective closets until our first daughter was born, but from there on, the path drew us like quicksand. He’s a rabbi now, and I’m a storytelling rebbitzen.

Bonnie and I stay in touch, talking now and then on the phone. Her path was the opposite, marrying a Jewish man first, and then marrying a non-Jew. She never practiced Judaism with either of them. Her brother Kent became a Catholic. When I told her, twenty years ago, that my husband was becoming a rabbi, she said, “Are you Jewish?”
“One hundred percent,” I answered.
“Do you light candles on Friday and everything?”
“Every week.”

Last year, when I lit our Shabbat candles on what happened to be Christmas Eve, I looked into the flames and saw a glimmer of us atHashomer Hatzair camp fifty years ago. I saw the glint in Bonnie’s eye when she said, “I have a plan,” and remembered the shining faces mirrored in the candlelight in that dining hall in the snow.

Death Takes a Holiday

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On my walk through nearby woods yesterday I paused in a stand of trees when something caught my eye. It wasn’t one of the Cedar Waxwings or Dark-eyed Juncos that I’d been watching flit through the greenery. A gauzy grey ghost hung from a mailbox, swinging ominously in the morning breeze. Of course, it’s Halloween.

Although our lives are undeniably impermanent, in our culture we keep reminders of our inevitable death hidden, unless it’s Halloween.

In Mexico at this time of year, The “Dios de los Muertes,” or “Days of the Dead” festival lasts for four days and involves building altars to ancestors, visiting cemeteries, and parading with symbols of death: ghosts, and skeleton dolls. All are indications of how death is viewed as a natural part of the life cycle. Halloween is similar to Dios de las Muertes, but lasts only one day, and is more like a carnival—dressing up as anything we want. Skeletons and ghosts are part of cast of characters, but not the sole focus.

Since Bringing Bubbe Home came out, I’ve been talking a lot about the “world of death.” When I cared for my grandmother in the last months of her life, our whole family was pulled into a different world. It’s similar to the first months with a new baby when there’s so much attention and adjusting to the infant that you barely get sleep, and hardly get out. With a new baby, though, people love to visit and coo over the new being. They’re not as eager to visit a dying person, which makes the world of death all the more isolating. I was surprised by some friends who didn’t show up for the entire five months Bubbe was with us. It was as if we had something scary and contagious in our basement.

That was eighteen years ago, and I think our culture’s acknowledgement of death has evolved. As baby boomers age we’re beginning to face our impending death the same way we’ve looked at everything–with an attempt to be conscious and awake. We’re noticing that embracing death can snap the transitory nature of life into sharp focus, offering fertile ground for growth. When death is in our face, other matters fade, so we can zero in on completing our life, whether by loving, forgiving, or simply appreciating this temporary realm.

A famous Rabbi, known as the Chofetz Hayim, was once visited by a traveler. The guest was surprised to see that the Rabbi’s house was very bare.

“Rebbe,” he asked, “Where is your furniture?”

The Rebbe replied, “And, where is Your furniture?

The traveler said, “Mine? I’m just passing through.’

“Ah”, said the Rebbe, “Me, too.”

We’re all just passing through, whether we try to deny it or not. Sometimes when I see a leering Jack-o-lantern or a wispy swaying ghost, I shudder, as if I see my death grinning at me from around the corner. If we confronted those reminders of our temporary status more often, perhaps we could not only handle our own deaths more gracefully, but we’d live our lives with more presence and gusto.

 

Demographics of the Heart

For sixteen years my readers were mainly imaginary.

In order to write a book proposal, though, you have to answer the question –What’s your demographic? Who are your readers?

So, I imagined:  they’re female, Jewish, Baby Boomers. In other words: me. I’ve been sitting at my desk on and off for sixteen years, thinking about my life, and writing about me, with me, and for me. The ultimate Baby Boomer navel gazing self-consumption.

Naturally, all the people I sent it to for endorsements are women. They’re accomplished women, rabbis, teachers, authors – but right in line with my demographic: Baby Boomer women.

Now that the book is out of the closet, it’s different. As Winnie the Pooh put it, “When  you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”

At first, just as I imagined, the responses were from people just like me. Women. Women who feel things and relate to my voice and my angst, and know what I’m talking about. But, I began to notice some responses from women who aren’t Jewish, and not just women my age.

And wait, now it’s men. Men? Even though I’ve targeted women, men seem to joining my demographic.

First, a few men surprised me by telling how much the book meant to them. Ok, these were friends. Then my son texted to tell me he was reading the first chapter, in tears. But he’s my son. He’s in it. He’s part of the story, part of me, even.

But, last week when I called my cousin, her husband answered the phone. He, who usually gets off the phone so fast I think I have the plague, deliberately took the time to say how moved he was by my book. He’s a financial advisor–definitely not my imagined demographic.

Then I got a phone call from a man I’ve never met. He’s an acquaintance of my husband who said he was in tears after reading the memoir. I was stunned. I asked my husband who he was, and he said, he’s the authority on Jewish death and dying.

This week I’m adding some endorsements from men. The first is from the surprise caller, Dr. Simcha Raphael, the author of Jewish Views of the Afterlife and the founder of DA’AT INSTITUTE for Death Awareness, Advocacy and Training.

“In Bringing Bubbe Home, a Memoir of Letting Go Through Love and Death, Debra Gordon Zaslow tells of the intense and profound experience of caring for her 103 year old grandmother in the last months of her life. This memoir is a richly-textured, powerful and poignant tale of love and death, and a family’s brokenness and healing.  Debra Zaslow holds a candle of light to anyone dealing with the reality of the human encounter with aging, sickness and death. The book reads beautifully, and will undoubtedly open your heart and bring tears to your eyes.”

The next is from Rabbi Rami Shapiro who interviewed me for his “Holy Rascals” Radio program last week. He’s the author of Embracing the Divine Feminine: The Song of Songs.

“Debra Zaslow brought her bubbe home to die. You need to bring Bringing Bubbe Home into your home in order to live. This is a deeply honest memoir of love of and death; nothing sugar-coated, nothing left out. If you or someone you love is dealing with a loved one in the final stage of life, or if you or someone you love realizes that we will all be in that stage someday, this book can be a real treasure.”

After this change of events I’m going to to rewrite my book proposal. Who are my readers? My demographic is people. The kind of people who are moved by books. The kind with hearts.

The Signing

 

I don’t buy pens very often. The serious pens that were once a requisite for a writer’s life have been overshadowed by the computer. This is all the better, since small objects are hard for me to keep track of. Pens and reading-glasses slip willy-nilly out of my purse, getting plopped in odd places whenever I’m distracted, which is most of the time. They vanish, then show up unexpectedly in my glove compartment or on edge of the washing machine.

This occasion called for a real pen, just the right one. I grazed the pen aisle at Rite Aid, peering at nib size, ink type, grip girth. Gel or ink, blue or black, thick or thin? I fingered several, feeling their weight, imagining their flow. I finally chose a silver pen with a blue floral design that was slightly embarrassing in its floridity, but had a cushioned grip with a slim but substantial tip.

I realize the above sounds like selecting a love object, but I was simply choosing the right implement to sign my new book, Bringing Bubbe Home, A Memoir of Letting go Through Love and Death. After sixteen years of working on it at the computer, I’d hardly taken pen to paper, but now I would be celebrating its publication at a book launch party. In retrospect the phallic resemblance was perfect since the event turned out to be serious lovemaking.

At the party my friends, who’ve listened to me talk ad nauseam about my book project for sixteen years, arrived to help me make it official.I’d envisioned eating, schmoozing and drinking wine, a reading, then signing afterward. But right away people were buying books and before I knew it I was standing at a table with a glass of wine (ok, whiskey with soda and lemon) holding the flowered pen with the slim ink tip.

I looked up at the first person, my dear friend Sylvia who has walked through the woods with me for sixteen years, and offers me emergency advice wherever I am in the world at any hour of the night. I couldn’t just sign my name. I found myself writing a blessing, a mini love letter. Next, my old friend Elisa, whose life has been mysteriously intertwined with mine for forty years… another blessing. I had to focus (slightly difficult with whiskey) reach into my heart (somewhat easier with whisky), find the right words for each person, and then move on.

It reminded me of the ritual at an orthodox Jewish wedding when the bride and groom dole out blessings to their friends who stand in a long line. At an occasion when they are so full of joy and life, their blessings flow forth with special power. For me, it was an unexpected love fest of gratitude.

I’ve had a few more signings in the weeks since then, albeit none quite so moving as the first. Keeping track of my special pen hasn’t been easy. Like all small things, it slips in and out of my grasp, but so far it has appeared when I really need it, the ink flowing along with the blessings.

Just like lovemaking, waiting a long time for the book to be done has made the celebrating all the more delicious.

 

 

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A Mixed Marriage

This is an article I wrote ten years about having a “bi-coastal” marriage. Still true, I think. Let me know what you think!

A Mixed Marriage

(For “My Turn” column in Havurah Shir Hadash Newsletter, 2004 )

My husband, the famous Rabbi of Havurah Shir Hadash, does not think I am Jewish. This is not because I sometimes skip Friday night services, or that I steal crumbs of bread during Pesach, or even that I regularly buy things at retail.   It is because I do not come from New York.  Worse yet, I actually come from Los Angeles, a city famous mainly for stealing the Brooklyn Dodgers from their true home, and where you cannot get anything resembling a real bagel, and just forget about getting a bialy. People in Los Angeles don’t even know what a bialy is. I tried to elevate my status once by identifying a bialy, but apparently it was a knish.

I explained to David that I grew up as a card-carrying Jew, belonging to Temple Beth Hillel in North Hollywood.  David shook his head sadly. “Reform,” was all he said. It might as well have been Protestant. In Sea Gate, the community in Coney Island where he grew up, the only synagogues were Orthodox.  Never mind that his family ate bacon sandwiches and shrimp cocktail and never went to any of these shuls.  The synagogues were there, complete with pious, long-locked men whose davvening rang out morning and afternoon, lending an aura of authentic Judaism to the very air that David breathed. Read more

Maintaining Emotional Balance While Searching for Emotional Truth

This is an article based on my graduating lecture from my MFA program in 2004.   Please leave a comment and let me know if this was helpful to you.

Maintaining Emotional Balance While Searching for Emotional Truth

Nine years ago I began an MFA in writing program with a clear vision.  I planned to transform the journal I’d written about caring for my grandmother into a publishable memoir. I’d rewrite each section with the incisive feedback of my instructors, fill in the back-story of the narrative with family scenes, learn all about craft, finish the memoir, and go on Oprah.

Oprah changing her book club format to the classics wasn’t the only wrinkle in my plan.  I was completely unprepared for the barrage of emotions that assaulted me when I began writing about my family. My past had been mentally sorted into a box of familiar, used goods; all I’d have to do would be open the box, rearrange for dramatic effect, and close the lid. The plan was not to feel it all again, just write about it. My instructors, however, would send back my work with the notation: “Go deeper.”  But where to go?  Memoirist Kim Barnes told me that her mentor, author Bill Kittredge advised her, “If you push it and it hurts, you go there.”  If the path to true writing is to follow those sore spots to wherever they lead, then writing becomes an uncharted, queasy journey.  Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write, asked one of his students, “Why are you afraid to write what you feel?” The student replied, “I’m not afraid to write what I feel. I’m afraid to feel what I feel.” Read more