Last Things First

Yesterday was bittersweet for me. You see, it was the last day of the school year at Temple Beth Sholom, which means our little congregational school takes a breather until September, then revs up once more. There’s only one thing…I won’t be teaching any more.

And while it was my choice to step back from teaching—handing off my Judaics class in September, and now my Hebrew class and Benai Mitzvah tutoring duties—I will certainly have a lot of time on my hands.

What to do, what to do?

Well, you can count on one thing: I won’t stop learning.

It’s my way, I guess, learn to teach, teach to learn…

And so it was when I started teaching Hebrew in 2005. I felt pretty overwhelmed. I had just had my own Bat Mitzvah the previous year, and there I was, teaching a group of sixth graders how to prepare for theirs. I needed to know more.

I enrolled in on-line graduate studies at Siegal College in Cleveland, Ohio, and spent two years reveling in Hebrew, Talmud, Liturgy and Jewish history. Not only did I become proficient (not fluent, mind you) in Hebrew, but I tasted the many flavors of Jewish learning, and deepened my own appreciation of Jewish Education. Naturally, I couldn’t wait to share what I had learned with my students at TBS.

My own studies enabled me to deepen what they learned about the themes of Jewish prayer as well as the Hebrew they used to express it. I spent a couple of years exploring Torah, the Prophets and Psalms with fifth graders; and delighted all the more in training kids for their Benai Mitzvah.

Then I noticed a change in my energy. It’s not so much fatigue as focus. Maybe this is what being 60 is. Maybe at some level I’m bored with teaching the same subject over and over. Maybe it’s simply time to do, to learn something new.

So here I am, ready and poised to begin again.

Blessings!

Poetry

Only crumbs in the cookie jar.

And the ice cream carton rests

Limp and exhausted in the trash.

April is nearly finished,

But poetry endures forever.

My children have grown up and moved out,

Their shouts and play are mere echos

Until grandchildren come bounding in.

But poetry lines my shelves,

Plays hide-n-seek

In the corners of my emotions,

Swirls me about in rhythmic strands,

Delights me in solitude.

Sweet on my tongue,

Bitterly questioning,

Sacred irreverence.

Yes, April is fading.

Poetry endures forever.

Memory

You know how it goes: you’re attending to everyday matters—readying yourself for work, shooing kids off to school, or planning the week’s dinner menus—and suddenly something pulls you away from the moment’s task to another time, a different you even, pulls you into a space you can’t resist inhabiting, and you have to pause and marvel. Such was the source of this piece for me, dear readers.

***

Memory

There’s something in those little packets of candy corn, in the waxy white-capped arrowhead of sugar that dissolves like childhood on my tongue in the back seat of an old Plymouth on its way home,

something about childhood dreams being interrupted by the sounds of sobbing, pleas for death, pleas for life, parents crying together in the night when no one was listening except me,

Something about silken pajamas sent to me from Japan, and my paralyzed limbs being unable to carry me to Johnny’s seventh birthday party, my father trekking through snowdrifts to deliver me there,

something about seeing Johnny’s beard fifteen years later, his mother’s pride as she visited her dead son, his father’s troubling anger at the drunk driver who killed him,

something about sleeping sickness that made my mother tuck me in beneath resentment mid-day, while Johnny and the rest played in the pool and rode bikes laughing,

Something about my kindergarten class’s construction paper cards coaxing me back to wellness, especially the one from Larry Lux which I cherished like a ghoulish wound three years past his passing, his mother and my mother meeting at Wednesday evening Novenas to mingle prayers like ascending smoke,

something about paralysis and material existence, melting away, like candy corn, sweet glow upon my lips, syrup upon my tongue, without substance or permanence.

Something about the sunlight and warmth of what survives, beyond time and memory, beyond loss and sorrow, beyond childhood.

Cycles in Time

What better way to continue our journey through the Jewish festivals and also celebrate April as Poetry month than to share with you dear readers my poem about Jewish festivals!

***

Cycles in Time

Bring forth the barley which God does provide

For the oxen we work and the donkeys we ride.

We once were mere beasts to Pharoah the king;

And now on this Pesech, we sing!

Bring forth the wheat, for God does provide

Bread for our table, our young satisfied

In Torah’s Love-letter we learn life’s meaning;

And now on Shavuot, we sing.

Bring forth the fruit, for God does provide

The means for our progress, a shield and a guide.

Though frail we can know Him, despite wandering;

And now every Sukkot, we sing.

Through many and many years tragic and long

We Jews have been yearning to voice our own song.

Each new generation has something to bring–

So take a deep breath now, and sing!

At The Table

Every year, Jews around the world gather with family members and friends to celebrate liberation—liberation of the Jews from Egyptian slavery in days past, and liberation of all people in days to come. With the Hagada to guide us, we make our way through various texts, topics and discussions as we wrestle with the complexities of human nature. One section asks that we consider 4 types of children: the wise child who is eager to learn everything possible about our tradition; the so-called wicked or alienated child who challenges everything; the simple child whose questions are direct and perhaps one-dimensional; and the child who is too confused, or maybe to hesitant, to ask any questions at all. The Hagada also reminds us that at one time or another, we all embody each of these qualities, ourselves.

***

At The Table

We raise our glasses,

wash our hands ceremoniously,

dipp our greens and boiled eggs in salt water.

We read,

and remember,

and sing songs of praise.

In the middle of it all,

we eat—

matzah ball soup and fish loaf for tradition,

pomegranate chicken and parsley potatos for today.

And this morning

you are the wicked child,

the son who asks, “What does this mean to you?”

“You are not unredeemable,” I assure,

“There is always a place at the table for you.”

And you hug me tight,

my “bad” boy,

who never stops questioning the world,

the reason for pain and war and strife,

who never stops loving me.

Grains of Sand

Who said each man is an island,

shouting lies across a sea of misunderstanding?

And who said no man is an island?

We are simply grains of sand

flung upon a rocky shore.

Somedays we come together—

pave the way for children at play,

or spin ourselves into frozen prisms of light.

Most days we lay side by side in silent isolation,

unaware of tidal waves beyond our reach.

Only the wind shows us what we’ve missed– swirling

dust clouds, fitful frenzies that jar our previous notions

as we collide into one another,

finding common ground only when the Unseen

Hand once more scatters us like seeds.

Old Dog, New Tricks

Just so you know, Ari may be a retired GuideDog now, but that doesn’t mean he simply lays around all day, watching TV and eating peanut-butter snacks.

*Isn’t that the dream of every working dog?*

In fact, he’s back in school, learning new things every day. And so is his teacher.

It was a natural progression. Ari and I worked together for nine years, and as expected, I fed and cared for him exclusively. But once he neared retirement, my husband J asked to be mor involved. So little by little, we have come to share various tasks, including playtime.

Here’s how it goes:

As always, I feed Ari breakfast.

J accompanies him outside.

J and I eat breakfast.

I hide Ari’s favorite toy, Chaver, a few times, and he searches and retrieves.

Then J and Ari play a rollicking game of toss and skid as Chaver is thrown down the hall and Ari runs, pounces, slides, and retrieves.

At last, class begins.

Ari grabs his pal, joins J in the living room, heels and sits. A few kibbles are placed on the kitchen floor, Chaver is tossed past the “bait” and Ari is asked, “Ayfo Chaver?” (meaning, where is friend?) Ari trots past temptation, snatches Chaver and brings him to J.

Chaver is placed closer to the “bait” and the command is given, “Ayfo Chaver?” Ari approaches, grabs his friend, returns.

Finally, Chaver is in the midst of the “bait”. J says, “Ayfo Chaver,” and Ari retrieves.

Or so it should go. A pile of kibbles on the floor is a mighty powerful temptation for a Lab, you know, even a GuideDog, who thinks with his mouth. So Ari had to learn step by step to think beyond the “bait”.

He already knew how to retrieve Chaver. He needed to be literally walked past temptation several times over several sessions to succeed at the new task. And once he succeeded, , the command “Okay, go get ‘em,” released him to follow his instincts.

But one slip of the tongue, one “okay” out of place, one erroneous pointing of the finger…

Obviously, Ari is not the only one who’s learning!

Spontaneity

Spontaneity

has always been hard for me.

I love creative types,

envy them, really.

Their quippy words and phrases–

Creatives just shake them off

so easily,

naturally,

like my dog shakes off rain—

unconcerned

for bystanders,

for carpets or walls.

Predictability

is a good thing too, right?

I mean, we need patterns sometimes.

A kind of checkerboard

to guide our steps.

Back , two, three.

Left, two three—

we really should waltz

more often, Darling.

Today

You know how it is—

today is out there,

and you can’t wait to be

a part of everything in it.

Never mind slamming doors,

freshness abounds out there—

in twitching grass,

push-pull breezes,

and all your winged comrades.

Your bike is sniffing the air,

straining at its tether–

daring you to resist.

 

 

Book Review: The Seeing Glass

The Seeing Glass: A Memoir

by Jacquelin Gorman

copyright 1997, Penguin Putnam Inc., New York

375 Braille pages

Disability, Memoir

Robin was not like the rest of the family. He had a special way of viewing the world—and it wasn’t just because of his seeing glass. But as Jacquelin Gorman interweaves sweet and bitter childhood memories of her autistic brother Robin with her devastating experience of blindness, readers are left groping to find any insights she may have gained.

The Seeing Glass chronicles Gorman’s sudden vision loss and her terrified self-imposed isolation in excruciating detail. A gray wall of blindness separates her from everything known to her, but it is she who refuses to move beyond it. She reaches back to her childhood, basks in the vivid colors of dreams and memories, and looks to Robin for answers.

Written in present tense, Gorman’s tale is immediate and emotionally charged. But, as a person who experienced sudden, permanent blindness at the age of twelve, I found Gorman’s self-absorbed attitude both irritating and disturbing. She continuously stumbles and falls, bitterly ignores the pleas of her four-year-old daughter, and only reclaims hope and the love of her family when her sight shows signs of returning.

In my opinion, The Seeing Glass is worth reading–not because of Gorman’s encounter with blindness. By telling Robin’s story, she presents a brief but fascinating glimpse into the life of an autistic boy before Autism was readily diagnosed.