Back to school

Seasonal lore tells us that March conjures the lion and the lamb, September those back-to-school rituals some of us loved, others not so much. The other night a mountain lion surfaced in a dream. I could give any number of reasons why this strong, sleek, beautiful creature paid a visit to my unconscious at this particular moment in time. More important, she (or he) got me thinking that the king of beasts has moved on to a different season, with a vengeance. With or without climate change to explain the ferocity of Harvey and Irma, hurricanes are a given in September.

Leaves have already begun to lose their vibrancy, which always brings on a touch of melancholy.  The Jewish New Year, with its message of repentance and renewal and all the memories evoked, is around the corner. Known as the Days of Awe but informally referred to as ‘the holidays’ in the solid, middle-class Jewish world I was raised in, they would either be early or late. That’s what you get when dates marked by a lunar calendar are measured in relation to the Gregorian (solar-based) calendar that rules our day-to-day secular lives. So be it. We live our lives according to the rituals that ground us. The calendar is a construct of convenience.

Even with the ache for all that’s gone from my life, I’m energized this time of year, revved up by the crispness of autumn. Ingrained patterns die hard. Those lazy, hazy days may have always been a welcome break from school days, but come September I’m headed (in my memory) to that windowless shop around the corner from my home, filled with the particular scent of fresh school supplies. Shopping for notebooks and briefcases (no backpacks back then), pencils and pencil cases meant a clean slate of things to learn.

As summers go, this one in the Northeast has had very few days, relative to summers past, of hot, sticky weather. We may still get a hurricane, hopefully not, but we’re bound to get a spell of summery days in late September, so often around ‘the holidays.’ If I can’t find a satisfactory answer to why we call it ‘Indian summer,’ I accept it as a Mother Nature’s reminder that shifting seasons are fluid.  This year brings a ‘late’ Jewish New Year, a day shy of the autumn equinox but always in sync with a full moon.

Memories are fluid, too, If you’re lucky, you get to soften with age and the hard memories that make the body contract with bitterness or anger loosen their grip. There’s no real wishing them away, there’s just the acceptance that the past may inform the present and future, but it doesn’t have to rule it. Maybe it’s true, you can’t go home again but you can pick and choose the memories that nourish the soul and soften the heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Several years back, I answered the back-to-school call by taking a graduate-level refresher course at Sarah Lawrence College on how to read a poem. We analyzed poems, delved into prosody, which brought new levels of insight into familiar and unfamiliar poems.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness . . .

The very first lines of Keats’s “To Autumn” forever have the ring of a tongue-twister, and I think that’s the point. Cold air mixed with warm brings on the mist and with it the smell and taste and crispness of those first apples of the season. Senses are heightened with great poems, whether or not things make sense. The more I read this ode, the more I can’t help see the mix of emotion this time of year as part of the fabric of autumn.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay,  where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music, too—

Leaves are dying, yes, but before they drop, the trees become bouquets that can only be classified as glorious.

 

 

 

 

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The road not taken

Last week I got lost on my way to synagogue.

If there’s a metaphor here, getting lost also speaks literally to my uncertainty (not to mention the spike in anxiety) when driving someplace unfamiliar. Call me a Wandering Jew (better yet, Goldilocks), but the past few years have found me trying out different options in search of the kind of comfort Jewish New Year services can bring. Changes at the Conservative synagogue I’d been affiliated with sparked a need for moving on. The Reform holiday services (even on the resplendent grounds of Caramoor) didn’t quite cut it. The Chabad variation (at the low-key local Holiday Inn) drew me back a few times. The rabbi is wonderful/warm/welcoming, with his stories and sense of humor. But the separation of men and women, with the implication of sexist exclusion, that goes with the Orthodox tradition doesn’t sit right.

So this year I would finally let my shul shopping take me in a new direction, not around the proverbial corner but close enough.

There was more than one Hallelujah; there was reflection, both communal and personal, and meditation. Almost everyone at the service had a chance to hold the Torah.

The service had the feel of coming home, and I told that to the rabbi, a woman.

I’m a spiritual seeker, yes, and a writer, which has me forever questioning the places our life choices take us. All writers, from the highly successful to those forever struggling for some notice, share common ground: we write because we can’t imagine life any other way; we complete draft after draft, send our work out, contend with rejection. Sometimes we feel a bit at sea, lost in a story that’s not quite finding its flow. More often than not, the effort to get published has us feeling tossed about in a stormy ocean. The metaphor really is no different for anyone working hard at any craft or job, hoping to catch a wave. Doesn’t have to be a big one, as long as it brings a little promise, some relief from treading water.

Comes a moment—call it hitting a wall, watery or otherwise—when we inevitably ask ourselves, is there anything we could have done differently, a proverbial road we missed or dismissed? We question whether to throw in the towel, find something else to occupy our spirits. We take stock of our successes, both on the career and personal fronts.

We pick up on cues, do our best not to misread signs. All of which makes it all the more interesting that I happen to be reading David Orr’s new, enlightening book, The Road Not Taken, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of an iconic poem. As Orr tells it, the popularity of Robert Frost’s poem “appears to exceed that of every other major twentieth-century poem.” In large part, its popularity seems premised on readers taking away a metaphoric message that a close reading of the poem appears to negate.   The very title of the poem is often mistaken as “The Road Less Traveled.”

Impressions count for a lot and, let’s face it, don’t we take our messages as we see/need them? What I take away from first readings of a poem, like those first times listening to a new song, is what speaks to me. Closer reading/listening brings to light something not noticed at first glance, and with it, deeper meaning. David Orr’s insights re: the poet himself and the poem definitely have me rethinking what “The Road Not Taken” is ‘about.’ Taking apart the poem, line by line with Orr, I can readily see the speaker standing at a crossroad, projecting choice rather than actually making a decision. And that’s profound enough.
Paradise NZ

Then I think of the roads I’ve taken, the one that have led me to still other roads, the ones I wish I’d taken instead.

And I can’t help wondering if getting a little lost along the way brings an added dimension to choosing between two diverging paths.

 

 

The worlds of our (Jewish) mothers

Many years ago, as a single woman living in NYC, I would spend an occasional Saturday afternoon with my mother. A little shopping, a little eating, a little walking.  On one visit, we sat at the dining table that dominated my two-room studio on the Upper West Side and, with absolute nonchalance, she removed a diamond pendant from her neck and placed it on mine.  “I want to see you wear this while I’m still alive,” she said.  A hard-working woman, she coveted diamonds for reasons far beyond their beauty and preciousness. A diamond ring or a pendant was something, yes, to adorn herself with on a night out;  but something less tangible more than tripled its monetary worth, namely the recognition that valuable jewels would be passed on to her daughter and son, who would then pass them on to their own children.

On this particular day there was a subtext, unspoken. I’d been suffering, in the aftermath of an oral surgeon’s incompetence.  In one fell swoop, she turned the diamond into a talisman, hopefully with the power to protect me.

This past weekend the daughter of a cousin of mine became a Bat Mitzvah. She sparkled during the service, from her glittery shoes to her ballerina dress to a small pendant around her neck.  And her words, echoing the wisdom of a thirteen-year old (whose tongue barely missed a trope in her chanting), sparkled as well. It was a ceremony and celebration made all the more poignant by the presence of her grandmother (my aunt)  in a wheelchair, a shadow of her usually imposing self. Cancer does that to a person.  There was an added poignancy for me, the timing of it all one week before the Jewish New Year.  These holidays always seem to be the true marker of a mother – the cooking, enough food for an army, nothing subtle about the nudging weeks ahead: you’ll be here – right?  In families like mine, traditions diluted with each passing generation, observance would become an assumption, more cultural and sentimental than religious in nature. We do the best we can to keep traditions alive. To remember.

Which brings me to two books in which journeys and mothers play a central part.

Felice’s Worlds, recently published, is essentially Henry Massie’s homage to his mother, a Jewish woman born in Poland who, through circumstance and her father’s prodding, was one step ahead of where the Nazi regime would have placed her. The opening chapter finds Felice about to enter Palestine, 1935, a young woman in an arranged marriage,  still in love with the man she is forced to leave behind along with the life they had planned (he a doctor, she an oral surgeon).  She has a bit of leverage, too, beauty coupled with intelligence. As memoir, it gets off to a promising beginning but quickly falls into a chronologically driven framework with no real narrative voice to propel it along.  The story of a Jewish woman who escapes the ravages of World War II and the Holocaust, only to find herself guilt-ridden about being a survivor – while amassing an extraordinary art collection – is a potentially compelling one that ends up being told in a less-than-compelling way.

Sometimes it has the feel of a son who wanted to make sure he got every bit of his mother’s extraordinary life chronicled. Sometimes it reads like the case notes of a psychiatrist (Massie’s profession). Once in a while Massie touches a nerve in his effort to understand things about his mother that he didn’t understand as a boy. And he certainly brings Felice to life via the spirit that really moves her to find her place in a new world, and, ultimately the world of art.  Also, the questions Felice raises re: her own Judaism and assimilation vs. orthodoxy are important ones.  And the way she comes to love and collect Abstract Expressionist art says a great deal about her: “There was no nostalgia in abstract expressionist art because it had never existed before. . . . It became my way of making myself at home in my new country without just assimilating myself into the comfortable existence that I saw around me.”  It’s in the weaving of it all together that Massie falls short.

The heart and soul of David Grossman’s exquisitely poignant novel, To the End of the Land, is a mother who does what would seem counter-intuitive when her son, recently released from the Israeli army, voluntarily returns to the front for a major offensive. Rather than wait at home and risk that dreaded knock on the door from the “notifiers,” she embarks on a journey. It’s a simple premise, even if it takes a leap of logic and faith:  bad news can only come if you’re home to receive it. She enlists a former lover to take this hike in the Galilee with her, pulling him from the life of a hermit he slipped into following his brutal torture as a POW years earlier. In the course of the journey, the son she is terrified of losing is kept alive via the stories she shares, ultimately rendering To the End of the Land a tale of revelation and reconciliation.

We are a ‘storying’  species — we live through stories, we pass them down to our children, we tell them in order to remember.  Two stories, a novel rich and riddled with nuance, a memoir perhaps less than sparkling but no less profound in what it adds to the collective narrative told about mothers and the ways in which we glorify them, turn them into heroines, remember and reflect on them.

 Photo © Abe Frajndlich