Rounding the bend along a trail, a small hedgehog cactus in full bloom stopped me in my tracks. A petalled constellation of blossoms, concentric circles of crimson, orange and lemony yellow orbited a center of pink and green. In a flash of wonder, it hit me: five decades and then some old, and I had never seen such an unfolding. Until now. I watched the sun glimmer through and over the fleshy cups of color, snapped a few photos, and then headed down the trail. It’s not every day we round the bend and come upon cacti in full bloom. Not every day that we can be struck with first-time wonder. So what do we do when there are no blossoming cacti awaiting us around the bend, when there are no new sightings along our path? Insight number one arrived with piercing clarity: Strive to see everyday sights with new eyes.
On the way back, the cactus flowers still glowing in memory, I looked down and saw what I thought was a small egg-shaped piece of quartz. Or maybe it was a jellybean? Its surface had that opaque sugary glimmer, and Easter had been just a day or two before. I picked it up and rolled it in my palm. Too light for quartz. I pressed a thumbnail into its shell, fully expecting the surface to yield in a thin crescent. Instead, it exploded in my hand in a yellow gooey mess. Duh. Small white egg-shaped object? If only I had realized, I might have added this perfect specimen to my collection of half-shell findings. Insight number two: Take care and recognize the simple treasures you hold in the palm of your hand, lest you crush them into oblivion.
Today, composing this reflection as I hiked, Mother Nature graces me with a consolation:
The dorodango were not ceramic or kiln-fired orbs at all, but mud balls! That’s right plain old dirt and water taken to amazing heights by Bruce Gardner, the artist. I was utterly enchanted. Making hikaru dorodango, I read, is a traditional pastime of Japanese schoolchildren. Well if schoolchildren can make them, how hard could it be?
Not until last summer did I try my hand at it, and let me tell you, it’s not so easy. The mixture of dirt and water has to be perfect. Once you have shaped as perfect a sphere as you can, you can’t let it dry too quickly or condense from within too slowly. The finer dirt that creates the outer shell can’t be applied too early, else the inner core will shrink and pull away. The most finely sifted particulates of dirt that are applied last can’t be applied too soon or polished too vigorously. It took me about a dozen tries before I had something that held together. But instead of a high gloss, it had a dull matte finish that eroded no matter how gently I rubbed.
Out in red rock country, surrounded by glorious red dirt, I thought I’d try again. And again. And again. My respect for Bruce Gardner grew each time I mushed my mud back into my bucket to begin again. Finally I quit trying so hard, recalling that dorodango began as a child’s endeavor.
And wouldn’t you know, that’s when a seedling of success began to sprout. I waited for the dorodango to dry just enough to accept the sifted dirt that would form the outer shell. The technique on Gardner’s website was beyond me, but I found my own rhythm — sprinkling and rotating until a coating, smooth and suede-like, began to adhere and thicken. I was loathe to take the final step — applying the finest sifting of dust and then polishing. What if the shell began to disintegrate? What if I was left with dull and dry instead of glossy and gleaming? I recalled the cat-in-the-box experiment: the cat can be both dead and alive until one opens the box. As long as I didn’t begin the final step, my dorodango wasn’t a failure.
Once I made peace with the idea that it might just fail again, I began the last step. Bit by bit it began to gleam. In a couple of spots the outer shell eroded minutely. It’s not anywhere near as shiny as Bruce Gardner’s, nor as smooth. But it’s a bona fide dorodango. I can’t wait to make another one. And little silk pillow, to boot, for my first success.
There is a duality to Passover that I never realized until this year. In the weeks leading up to this holiday celebrating the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, we are clearing our cabinets, refrigerators and freezers of any form of bread, pasta, cereal as we make way for kosher for Passover fare. There is the mad scouring of crumbs from fridge gaskets, drawer runners, room corners and coat pockets. For some it’s an all out assault worthy of Patton; for others the custom is distilled to neither buying, cooking nor eating any kind of breadstuff or leavened food.
But when we finally approach the shore of the purpose of the entire holiday — the retelling of Exodus story — we are free to do so in any manner we wish. Some families dress up as they imagine our ancestors might have; some tent their dining rooms and gather in a circle on the floor for the retelling. New Haggadot (plural of Haggadah, the book read at the Passover Seder containing the story of the Exodus and the Passover Seder rituals), spring up each year like early crocus — colorful, unique, enchanting. There are innovative twists on the traditional foods — savory, sweet and everything in between. Matzah — the simplest of bread, made from nothing but flour and water — becomes a culinary Zelig, appearing on the Seder table and throughout the week of Passover as a stuffing, a casserole, a dessert, ersatz pizza and even trail mix. The strictures of cleaning behind us, we are liberated to fulfill the commandment to retell the story as if we ourselves were the slaves freed from Egyptian bondage, in any way we wish.
This year, away from home but in a red-earth terrain that feels closer to home than many, I came up with a close-to-literal twist on fulfilling the instruction to place ourselves in the sandals of those fleeing Egypt. There was a dry creek bed nearby, so why not walk through it, pretending we were the Israelites crossing over the yabasha, the dry bed, revealed by the splitting seas? I gave each family member a role to interpret: Moses, Aaron (Moses brother, the High Priest and Moses’ spokesperson to Pharaoh), Miriam (Moses’ older sister), a young girl who’s just learned she and her family are up and leaving behind all she’s ever known, an old woman who doubts her strength to make this journey, an orphaned Egyptian slave who wants to come along, and Nachshon ben Aminidav, who the midrash teaches caused the waters to part by stepping boldly into the raging sea.
I also printed up the lyrics to Debbie Friedman’s classic “Miriam’s Song” hoping that everyone, after walking through this metaphorical Sea of Reeds, would join me and sing this beautiful, and now classic, song. I sent the lyrics to my daughter to print and she surprised us by creating seven different song sheets, one tailored for each of us. During the Seder, the middle of three reserved matzot (plural of matzoh) is broken. The larger half is hidden, later to be found by the children (of any age.) Following the lead of the rabbi I have studied with here, I drew a simple piece of matzah on card stock, cut it into pieces and invited each family member to write a time when they had helped to heal someone or mended a “broken” situation. My plan was to reassemble the pieces and at some point in the Seder, pass around this “matzoh of healing” for us all to read. I wasn’t sure how it all would go — river walk, role playing, sharing a time of healing. We were seven grown-ups after all. Would everyone step out of their comfort zones and get into the spirit?
Yes, yes and yes. On the walk toward the riverbed, we passed a corral where two horses were grazing. They cantered over to us and we spent a few minutes patting their noses, gazing into their huge brown eyes. In the Torah portion describing this Biblical crossing, the waters close over Pharaoh’s army and their horses, drowning every last one. This pair of horses made me think of all the innocents whom war overwhelms and destroys. As we walked slowly over the cobbled stones of the riverbed, evidence of the water’s power was everywhere: sizable tree limbs lay scattered nearby as we threaded our way through rocks that ran all the way from pebbles to boulders. Like the middle matzoh, what is hidden is actually revealed in its own absence. When we reached the other side, Emma distributed the beautiful song sheets she had made. As we sang, my sister-in-law got us all dancing and laughing, just as Miriam had led the women with her timbrel. The hour or so we took to cross the riverbed, mosey through the park and stroll beside the rushing water of Oak Creek were a perfect opportunity to release the day and gather our thoughts for the coming Seder.
Round and round the table we went, reading from the Haggadah, dipping twice, asking the Four Questions, drinking the four cups of wine, and of course eating, eating and eating. The role playing inspired some interesting insights. My daughter, in the role of the old woman, shared that initially she thought the woman would simply die early on. But then she reconsidered. She could just as well draw upon untapped inner strength, and the strength of those around her to make the journey. Laura, my sister-in-law’s partner, had drawn Moses and spoke about leadership and how often it is thrust upon us. “So often. we discover that when we step up, or into, a role we don’t feel we are ready for, everything we need to achieve the goal begins to appear,” she said. As fate would have it my son’s fiancee drew the card of the girl who would be leaving everything behind come morning. Elizabeth shared how it made her think of her own mother who, at eleven, was told that she and her mother were going on vacation from the Czech Republic. Only when they got to California did she learn the truth: America would be her new home. Everything had been left behind: clothes, friends, toys, language.
After the hidden matzoh had been found, we passed around the matzoh puzzle. The only instruction I gave was that we were each to read a moment of healing that was not our own. “I give confidence through tutoring,” read one. “I listen to people’s stories,” read another. It was quite moving to hear the many ways we seven have sought to heal and bring solace to others. This “matzoh of healing” is now in our Passover archive, dated and tucked into the folder with Emma’s beautiful song sheets to be used for another year. And so we entered this week of Passover far from home, yet sweetly closer one another and a few steps closer to our roots and foundational Story.
While hiking one day, I came across three hearts, a trio of metaphorical messages courtesy of Mother Nature. The first, above, belongs to a prickly pear cactus. As I walked the dusty red trail, I thought of all the ways we keep our hearts prickly, guarding our inner sweetness with spikes of indifference, fear, resentment. “Stay away!” they warn. “Don’t come too close!” These spiny maneuvers not only keep others from getting too close, but even worse, alienate us from our own heart. Keeping at arm’s length our innermost dreams, feelings, truths and even anxieties robs us of discovering who we really are, what we actually need, what and whom we might devote our lives to. Stay open, this cacti reminded me. Risk your beautiful heart for that is the only way to live fully, richly, gloriously.
Mother Nature wasn’t done with me yet. Next heart along the path was a spider web, woven into a stump of a tree. Unbelievable, right? This gossamer messenger got me thinking about folks who snare us – hearts, schedules, family time — with agendas of their own. Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly, began the parable cautioning us to guard against two-legged arachnids who use flattery, persuasion, and unsettling kindness to bend us to their needs. Before we know it, we are bound with silken threads, drained of energy and feeling like little more than a husk. Tread wisely, cautioned this fragile heart. Advance carefully. Hold your ground.
Three’s the charm, goes the old saying. The day wasn’t done with me before offering up one last message, courtesy of some lichen on a tree. I remembered from grammar school about the symbiotic relationship lichen shares with its host tree. Look closely for two types of lichen: the pale green heart and the rusty yellow above and below the heart. Lichen can be found in all climates from desert to ice lands to forests. Fragile, ancient, pervasive, they are also environmental bell weathers, the plant world’s equivalent to the canary in the coal mine. Pristine air, lots of lichen; lots of pollution, no lichen. So as I reached the end of the trail, what was this pale green lichen heart trying to tell me? Plant yourself where breathing comes easily, it whispered. Engage in healthy, mutually beneficial relationships. Be as ready to give as you are to receive. If you’re feeling choked, take flight, and return to instruction number one.
So how’s your heart beating today? Cactus? Web? Lichen? Who knows why those three hearts were put upon my path, but I love the magic that brought them my way. Hope you do too.
Today is my brother’s thirty-sixth birthday. Despite the three-plus decades of siblinghood, the phrase “my brother” still sounds novel in my mouth. Or maybe what feels novel is the brother-sister relationship we are now, finally, blessed to share as adults. Given the twenty-one year difference in our ages, you can imagine why it’s taken us a while to get to this point. Three at my wedding, Daniel was young enough to be my son, and was assumed to be whenever were were out in public and I was the adult in charge.
But time has a way of erasing even cavernous age differences, and Daniel and I have been delighted to discover in one another so very many commonalities. We have different mothers, but are both our father’s firstborns. We have a knack for foreign languages (French and Hebrew) although he has bested me by adding Arabic and some of Russian and Chinese to his palate, all three infinitely more complex than the Spanish I also majored in. We share a similar level of Jewish observance, passion for text study, and have been delighted to discover in one another a leaning toward the metaphysical and “woo-woo” side of life. He is as horrible a punner as I am, a dubious paternal legacy.
Daniel and I recently discovered another paternal-ish bond: the bittersweet admission of mirror-image jealousies. I knew our father as a young man, while he was the older guy in the bleachers at Daniel’s Little League games. Although my father threw a football with me many weekend afternoons, Daniel is the firstborn son. He has carried on the family name. That we could bare our hearts with such honesty, brings me to tears.
Thirty-six holds special significance in the Jewish number system called gematria , which assigns a numerical value to each Hebrew word. The numerical value of the Hebrew word for life is 18. Thus, 36 is double chai, double life. We two, firstborns of opposite sexes but singular in so many other ways, are two lives inextricably bound. Happy Birthday, Bro’, biz a hundert un tzvansik. *
*Yiddish birthday blessing : to a hundred and twenty, the age to which Moses is said to have lived.
According to many in the fields of holistic and integrative medicine, our experiences –physical, mental, and emotional — leave their imprint upon our cells. The term, cellular memory has been coined to describe this phenomenon. There are massage and other techniques of physical manipulation designed to release past hurt and trauma stored on a cellular level. Once released, the trauma can be transformed. That’s the idea, anyway.
I hadn’t given it much thought until a yoga class some weeks back. We were to hold our arms straight up and above our heads. As you might imagine, after a minute or two holding the posture grew challenging. Usually I’d lower my arms, rub out the kinks and resume the posture. But on this morning, I decided to see how far I could push it. How long could I actually hold the pose?
A funny thing happened on the way to finding out. As I reached that I-can’t-take-it-any-more threshold, I remembered this was our third grade teacher’s punishment of choice. Talk out of turn or pass notes and off to the corner with you, spindly arms held aloft for what felt like hours. Couldn’t have been more than a minute but all it took was once to bring you into line.
As I held the posture that morning in yoga class, third grade came rushing back: where my desk was (Jimmy Brantley behind me, Cindy Wright in front); the wide uneven wooden floor boards; the multi-paned window that spanned nearly the entire back wall of the classroom overlooking two enormous oaks in the front of the school yard; the heavy green plastic window shade blocking the afternoon sun. I hadn’t thought of the cloakroom in years, nor the covered brick archway that led into the building, nor the water fountain right outside the girls’ bathroom. The bathroom with the windows that looked down upon a courtyard and the windowed breezeway that connected the older part of the school with the newer. It was all right there. I could have held my arms up all morning. All discomfort vanished, replaced by a delightful rush of memory.
So that’s what it meant to release cellular memory. What it means to reconnect and transform it. Who knew all of those third grade memories were still there? Like microscopic Las Vegases, what goes on in the cells stays in the cells. Except for those random moments of transformation when you move through the discomfort and hit the jackpot instead.
I am thrilled to share with you that my first book, This Jewish Life: Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy, has just been rereleased by a new house – Read the Spirit Books, the publishing arm of ReadtheSpirit.com. As with weddings, there is something old (original favorites), something new (wonderful additions), something borrowed (joyful images dancing across a cover beautifully designed by illustrator Rick Nease) and something blue (my name at the bottom, although that leans a bit toward teal.)
David Crumm, former Religion Editor of the Detroit Free Press and the brainchild behind ReadtheSpirit.com, has been a devoted friend and supporter of the book since he reviewed the first edition. I am grateful that his long-intentioned goal to breathe new life into This Jewish Life, sharing it with non-Jewish readers nationwide, has now come to fruition.
For those of you unfamiliar with the book, I interviewed Jews from across the country about their most transforming Jewish experiences, casting wide the net to include stories from all ages, both sexes, as well as a broad range of Jewish practice and non-practice. At the time the book-fairy tapped me on the shoulder and planted the idea in my head, I was raising my kids, creating a Jewish home into which I was constantly bring new traditions, customs and experiences. I thought it would be cool to read about other Jews’ positive Jewish encounters and found there was no such book around. Enter that book fairy mentioned above. At the time I had never written anything more than a 1700-word article, and quaked at the thought of what could be involved. Book fairies, I learned, are an insistent bunch, for which I am ultimately grateful. The writing of This Jewish Life, and now its republication, continues to bring wonderful people my way, Jews and non-Jews alike eager to learn about Jewish life and customs.
This Jewish Life now contains fifty-four stories organized around what I call the twin timelines of the Jewish calendar — life cycle events and holidays. Each section begins with an explanation of the holiday or life cycle event so that readers have some context for the stories that follow. You can read excerpts on my author’s page at ReadtheSpirit.com as well as learn more about many aspects of Jewish life and culture. The book is available in e-versions on Amazon; paperback available any day now. Send me a message via my FB Reading Room if you’d like to have, or give, an autographed copy.
Many thanks to Joe Lewis for reviewing the book so swiftly, candidly and praisefully.