Day 4: The Upside of Sorrow (Tammuz 21)

Morris Adler writes, in A Modern Treasury of Jewish Thought (ed. Sidney Greenberg):

Our sorrow can bring understanding as well as pain, breadth as well as the contradiction that comes with pain. Out of love and sorrow can come a compassion that endures. The needs of others hitherto unnoticed, the anxieties of neighbors never before realized, now come into the ken of our experience, for our sorrow has opened our life to the needs of others. A bereavement that brings us into the lives of our fellowmen writes a fitting epilogue to a love that had taught us kindliness, and forbearance and had given us so much joy.

Sorrow can enlarge the domain in our life, so that we may now understand the trivialty of the things many pursue. We havve had in our hands a noble and refined measure for judging the events and objects we daily see. What is important is not luxury but love; not wealth but wisdom; not gold but goodness . . .

Our sorrow may so clear our vision . . . [and] out of that vision will come a sense of obligation. A duty, solemn, sacred and significant, rests upon us. To spread the love we have known to others. To share the joy which has been ours. To ease the pains which man’s thoughtlessness or malice inflicts. We have a task to perform. There is work to be done and in work there is consolation.

Out of love may come sorrow. But out of sorrow can come light for others who dwell in darkness. And out of the light we bring to others will come light for ourselves – the light of solice, of strength, of transfiguring and consecrating purpose.

Sorrow is not always keenly felt. Sometimes it simply lies beneath the surface while we go about our daily lives. We can feel it, beneath, if we reach for it, but it is not crippling. We can get up in the morning and almost forget that it’s there. Almost.

Living with grief this way, for three weeks, for a month, for a year, for years… no one would say it was preferable. No one would wish it upon themselves. But there are upsides to sorrow – the ones Adler describes and more. I know the pain in my own life has made me better able to bear witness to the pain of others. I know grief has made me more empathetic.

There are clouds. There are silver-linings.

Some days we can’t see beyond the clouds.

Other days, the silver-linings shine bright.

Day 2: Resignation

Greif is (often but not always) preceded by either shock, or resignation.

When it’s a new grief, a new loss, shock is what paves the way – surprise over losing something precious. Then the implications of the loss begin to set in (and thus the grief).

But when we are mourning something anew, mourning it again, or mourning something similar to what we’ve mourned before, resignation is what announces that grief is on the way. A melancholy sets in. Oh this. Yes. I know this. I know what’s coming and it’s not going to be fun.

We feel a space open up inside us where once something else was. And at first, it’s just an awareness of the emptyness. Oh yes. I no longer have what I once had. I will soon feel something more sharp than emptiness. All the feels are heading my way.

We brace ourselves; resign ourselves; take a deep breath and sink a little deeper down.

Sometimes, if it’s not a new loss or a tragic loss, we can push through the resignation – maybe even delay the sharper sting of grief for a while. But on the 18th of Tammuz, day 2 of our 3 weeks of obligatory mourning, the resignation is as inevitable as the rest of it. Oh yes. These three weeks have begun. And they won’t be the best three weeks. They will be hard and sad and dark weeks. And then they will be over.

Deep breath. Another step down on the intentional spiral toward Sheol. We are not there yet. Not quite in the depths of The Pit. But we sense it on the horrizon. We feel its chill, its darkness, creeping towards us. And we hunch ourselves against the despair we know is soon to envelope us, and sigh. It’s coming. Soon it will be here. The titlewave of grief. And we will ride it and survive it as we have always done.

I feel the heaviness descending.

I can only pray that, like wightlifting, these burdens will bring me a renewed spiritual strength. As I take another step down.

The Intentional Downward Spiral

This weekend, America celebrates. And with good reason.

But tonight, I was reminded that in another calendar – OUR calendar – the Hebrew calendar – tomorrow night begins a day of fasting. Sunday is the 17th of Tammuz. Tzom Tammuz, or the Fast of Tammuz, recalls the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem before the 2nd Temple was destroyed. But more than that, Tzom Tammuz marks the beginning of an intentional period of collective and communal grieving. Between now and the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av), for three weeks, the Jewish people spiral downward into grief – on purpose! Though the world is sunny and bright around us, our liturgy and Haftarah portions and fasts and rituals take us deeper into darkness and despair; into Sheol, The Pit. And only as the 9th of Av comes to an end, do we begin to climb back out again.

For someone like me, who has struggled against grief and despair for much of her life (with a disproportionate amount in particular these last 7 years), this idea of an intentional descent into Sheol is both horrifying and facinating. Instead of fighting grief and fighting to overcome grief, we embrace it; we choose it; we immerse in it – knowing that it will not be unending; knowing that at the end of three weeks there will be respite and light and release.

For those of us who know grief well, we know that you never really get to choose when it rears its ugly head, or when it might leave again. Grief is not timebound. It comes when it comes and it leaves when it leaves and you are not in control. And yet, Jewish tradition responds to mourning with timebound structures. You have 7 days to fall apart, and then 30 days to ease back into the world, and then a year to live with one foot in the world of mourning and one foot in whatever else life brings your way. And then an annual day to mark the grief, and remember, before moving on again.

And those of us who know grief, know it’s not that simple. Grief doesn’t follow the Jewish calendar. It doesn’t dissipate just because your 7 or 30 or 365 days are up. And yet, Jewish tradition tells us we have to move forward; choose life; find a way.

Except for these three weeks, from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, where we choose grief; choose dispear; choose to spiral intentionally down into Sheol together. And this too, is Judaism structuring our grief – saying yes, the loss of The Temple, or the horrors that our people have endured throughout history – we could mourn them for eternity; we could lose ourselves in the grief of it all. But we won’t. We don’t get to. We get three weeks a year to fall apart and tear our clothes and sit in sackcloth and ashes, and then we have to pull ourselves back together, and pull ourselves out of The Pit. Slowly. Slowly. With comforting liturgy and Haftarot to accompany us along the way as we reeeeeach toward a new year, toward new life.

I’m a fighter. When grief pops up, I want to fight back. Even when it gets the best of me and I’m weeping, weeping in the shower or in the car or in bed, there is always a point where I take a breath and choose to fight and start to dry my tears. I reach for healing Psalms. I call a friend, or my mom. I turn on loud music and force myself to dance. But this period in the Jewish calendar forces me to wonder: what would it look like to embrace grief; to welcome it, for a set amount of time? To allow the Jewish calendar to carve out three weeks where we can weep, unabashedly, about whatever heartbreaks have befallen us along with our people. What if, for three weeks, we just let it all come; let it all come out; let ourselves take up residence in Sheol and just be. For a while. Be with our grief. Accept it. What would that look like?

I think I’m going to try it this year. I’d like to find out.

Not that you’ll find me tearing my clothes. You may not even notice it. Or perhaps you’ll find me a little quieter than usual, a little subdued. Then again, it could be that I will seem more peaceful, more resolved. I’m not sure, I’ve never quite allowed grief to take up residence before and have free reign. But I’m giving it a three-week sublet. We’ll see how it goes.

Three weeks to not appologize for grief. To not hide from it or hide it from view. Three weeks to hold it and know, that all throughout the Jewish world, we are grieving together. Three weeks to not be alone in our grief.

Tomorrow night I will go and watch the night sky light up in celebration. I will marvel with childlike glee at the fireworks, and, I will also start to take steps downward; to let myself sink; to permit a little more despair to take up residence.

It is a little frightening and yet, it is almost a relief.

So I’m giving it a three-week sublet, and we’ll see how it goes.

A Eulogy for Today

This day makes me sad

Friends mourn children

who never came to be while

others

turn their children into monsters

such that we celebrate their death sentences.

How can I mourn

for murderers

while Jewish potential died on train tracks

this week?

The world is filled with those who hate

(and those who love, surely)

while the innocent are

buried

under rubble

so much human waste

and I know which side I’m on

but I fear

I fear

that when I tell my teenage sister

“sometimes love just isn’t

enough”

I’m not merely speaking about her latest boyfriend drama

it’s the human drama I fear

Hate is in the lead today

I don’t believe in vengeance and yet

I sometimes wonder what it would take to get the world

(humanity)

the clean slate we so desperately

need

 

If I could immerse us all in a mikvah…

dress us all in pure priestly white and make us

observe

the Yom Kippur fast…

 

Ah, but I can’t even fill my own pews.

 

We all fall. We all fail.

I know with morning there will be joy

(the Psalmist tells me so)

and hope

and new children

But today makes me sad

 

I know You’re out there

but I feel You not.

Come back to us.

Help me make it through this day

through the darkness and back into the light

Help me have the strength to lead others even when I know not where we’re going

Help me to find my way back to hope and faith in humanity

(faith in You is so much easier than faith in Us).

 

Help me to remember that today, too, has been given a death sentence

So that tomorrow might be better.


-EKG’15

He Maketh Me Lie Down in Green Pastures

I only ever read Psalm 23 during funerals and shiva minyanim, and sometimes on a hospital visit or at a deathbed. When I am experiencing my own moments of turmoil, there are other Psalms that I reach for – those who sew in tears will reap in joy, joy comes in the morning, my mourning will be turned to dancing – basically anything Debbie Friedman ever set to music. But the 23rd Psalm is one that I only reach for as a Rabbi. It’s for others. It’s for the masses. It’s comforting because it’s familiar.

But I wonder how many of us ever really think about the words themselves. We murmur it. Relaxing into it like an old friend. And we wait for the line – yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death – and we emphasize it. That’s what it’s all about, right? God, is with us in our darkest moments. God is walking next to us through whatever terrible valley we find ourselves wandering. It implies that God will help us out of the valley as well.
But what about the rest of it?

Lately, I’ve been paying more attention to the earlier lines. God makes me lie down in green pastures. God leads me beside still waters. God restores my soul.

What’s that all about?

Aren’t green pastures and still waters places we’d want to be voluntarily? Why must we be made to walk there? Why must we be led?

Last week, I spent a lot of time thinking about the merits of being forced to pray in moments when prayer is uncomfortable – maybe even infuriating. It felt like Prayer was the green pasture, and the still water – a peaceful place where I wasn’t sure I deserved to be. Or maybe I didn’t feel God deserved it. But when God led me to prayer and made me participate, I found that I was grateful. That the place I was avoiding, thinking it would be a painful place, turned out to be a welcome respite. A green pasture. Still waters.

He maketh me lie down

Sometimes we don’t know what’s best for us. We are over-tired children whose parents must force them: Go to bed!. We fight it. We cry. We scream. And in the end, a good night’s sleep was just what we needed, and even if we don’t know how to express it – even if we don’t recognize it – we are grateful.

He maketh me lie down

Is it even a good translation? I look it up. The Hebrew used in the verse –yarbitzeini – is from the verb l’harbitz, which means “to hit” or “to strike”. But wait a minute. That can’t be right? He strikes me in green pastures? He strikes me down in green pastures? Surely that can’t be it! Even if I’m a cranky baby who needs to go to bed, my parental diety certainly wouldn’t slam me down into my crib!

A quick call to a respected friend and colleague reminds me that there is parallelism in the Psalms. The Lord is my shepherd.  Shepherd. Shepherds use sticks to guide their flocks. They hit them (gently) to direct them where they need to go – to the green pastures; to the still waters. The Lord is my shepherd. I am a sheep. In my darkest moments, I don’t know how to take care of myself. I can’t see through the pain of the moment to know where I need to be. I can’t find the green pastures. I can’t find the still waters. So God shepherds me there – to the pastures and waters, so that my soul can be restored.

In the Vally of the Shadow of Death – or in any of the spiritual valleys we find ourselves in during our lives (opposite the spiritual peaks) – in those places we have no control. We are at the mercy of fate and grief and anger and fear and loss and hope. And so we cry out for a shepherd to guide us through it – even to prod us along if necessary – until we’re feeling more in control; back on our feet. Until we can smell the fresh water for ourselves and find our own way out of the valley and into the pasture.

The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for He is with me. His rod and his staff they comfort me.

They comfort me.

Some days we are the shepherd. We reach for the words that will comfort another. We offer outstretched arms and advice and a friendly listening ear. We bring food. We give hugs. Some days we are the Shepard.

And some days we are the sheep.

And when we are, a little prayer that some shepherd will come along to guide us through makes absolute, perfect sense.

I think I’ll read Psalm 23 more often.

My Friend Grief

In 2011 I did a lot of writing about “My Friend Grief” who kept rearing Her ugly head and interrupting my regularly-scheduled-life.

I created a blog about it called “My Friend Grief” but when Grief went back underground, I stopped writing and the blog was neglected and then set aside for this one.

Fast forward 3 years…Grief has visited from time to time but I haven’t done much writing about it…

And then last week She popped back up again. Her sense of time passing, and my sense of time passing are so different.

So I’ve been writing again and I figured I’d import my old musings from 2011 as well. You can find them in the side-bar.

Here are the latest inspirations from the muse I’d rather not have:

I had almost forgotten
how exhausting Grief is;
How my body can be taken over
by a zombie who is slow and
dumb
Like every thought and movement
has to make its way through
a world that has suddenly
turned
to
molasses.

I had almost forgotten
that my body could be in one place
and my heart could be in another.
I had almost forgotten
that I could fake normalcy so convincingly;
That I could juggle
all the balls
with my eyes closed
(in molasses no less).

I had almost forgotten
how Grief brings on words that won’t be
silenced
and tears that won’t be
ignored.

Almost.

I had almost convinced myself
that grieving you would stay in the background
now,
but to no avail.
You’re still there:
tragically loving me,
tragically broken,
and demanding answer that are nothing less than
tragic
themselves.

Grief is an old friend I’d rather not welcome home,
but there you are,
and there She follows,
and I’m no less a slave to the both of you than I ever was.
Five years
and all I can attest to
is that I’m so familiar with
molasses
that I can find my way blind
without so much as stumbling;
without drowning;
without chocking on it when I silently scream.

So how’s that for progress?

– EKG’14
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Hi Hon!” he chirps
when I answer the phone.
As if last night wasn’t the first time we’d spoken in two years;
As if HIS brain
hadn’t broken MY heart
in a million different ways.
Turns out it was a butt-dial.
The cosmos laughing in my face.

– EKG’14

The Suddenness

it doesn’t matter if it’s happened to you before

you never get used to it,

the suddenness of loss

 

you fall asleep next to someone you love

and wake up next to a stranger;

you say “see you next week”

but next week never comes

 

they’re just suddenly gone

and with such finality

 

it is what differentiates sad from tragic

it is what differentiates losing someone and having them

torn from you

 

the suddenness of loss

 

I barely knew you but you mattered much to me

there is so much I should have said

I should have thanked you more

all the cliches hold true

 

and no official titles

or degree of closeness to God protects us from it

 

God catches us, surely but

not from the suddenness it seems

 

not from the breathlessness and the shock

not from the not-knowing what to say

 

I know that God is in the friends that call

in the communities that come together

in one person holding another up

 

but the suddenness is something we each face alone

that first moment of absence and awareness

 

the suddenness of loss