Friday Dispatch: Wrestling with Praise When the World Is Burning
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How can a person
hold onto hope?
How can a person
stand not to?
Last Sunday, my middle sister and I ran in a 10K. It was awesome. Truly. The last (and only other) time I ran in an official race, the kind with shirts and bibs and numbers and finish lines and music and food trucks, was 2009. During the height of Covid, when I turned to running to get me out of the house and preserve my sanity, I ran two half-marathons – alone. And as some of you know, a tweaked knee led to a long break from running at all. I was expecting (and would have been pleased with) something in the realm of an 11-minute mile, so imagine my surprise when I clocked in at an average of 10:30. (If you are not into running, stay with me here. Hopefully this is all going somewhere!)
Monday I didn’t do any exercise. Then, Tuesday morning, I decided to go for a run, just to get back in the saddle and return to my regularly scheduled programming, which is typically running 2-3 miles a few days a week, sometimes adding one longer run in the mix.
But the sun was weird. It reminded me of an eclipse and I felt a little disoriented as I headed east and saw the orangey-red circle in the grey sky. I knew it had to be the sun but it also looked more like a full moon. I felt heavy and draggy and slow and chalked it up to being tired from the race two days before. So I walked. I walked a slow two-mile loop on the Emily Dickinson trail near my house, the one that winds along the Fort River. (Note: it’s called that, but picture more like a brook.) I texted photos of the weird sky to my kids and Mani. Something was off.
It didn’t occur to me that what I was seeing was due to fire. Didn’t even cross my mind, as that is such an uncommon occurrence here. I remember just once, a few years ago, when smoke from fires out west made its way all the way east, and how strange and eerie the light was.
Then I looked at my weather app and saw the air quality warnings. I quickly got online and got caught up about the news, the Canadian wildfires, and the intense smoke that was blowing south, blanketing the skies of the northeast and turning the air an increasingly grey, then orange, and in some places like NYC, an alarming red. By Tuesday night, I could smell the smoke and my eyes stung a little when I took Chalupa out to pee before bed. Clearly I would not be running.
I flashed on those Covid days when leaving the house was my saving grace. I remember specifically thinking how thankful I was that the air itself wasn’t a threat as long as I wasn’t near any people. I remember thinking it could be otherwise. This week, it was otherwise. The airborne danger was not a virus, but rather fine particulate matter from more than 400 wildfires north of the border that have displaced at least 120,000 people. I checked in with friends in Canada. The words in their comments made for a wrenching kind of poem.
weight of grief, turmoil, destruction, sad, hazy, wheezy, freaky, heat extremes, stomach sick, pervasive smell, sputtering, hacking, campfire, barbecue, really awful, thank you for asking
This morning, the numbers locally had dropped into a safe range, and I laced up my sneakers. But my body was giving me a walk signal again, so walk I did, slowly, along the trail. It started raining, and I stopped to watch the water meet the water. The woods were dark and birdsong echoed all around me.
I thought about my friend, the one who asked me last weekend if I’d be interested in writing poems this week, one a day, and emailing them to each other with no expectations of greatness – a line, a haiku, anything really.
I thought about my kids FaceTiming a few nights ago, giving each other prompts and writing poems.
I thought about the poem I read for the first time yesterday, Praise What Comes by Jeanne Lohmann, and how it spoke to my heart with its closing line, “did I catch the smallest glimpse of the holy?”
I thought, what do we do with words like praise and holiness when the sky is filled with smoke?
I thought about Paul Simon’s most recent album, Seven Psalms, which I listened to on repeat several times through this week. I thought about the sense of urgency in this verse:
The Covid virus is the Lord
The Lord is the ocean rising
The Lord is a terrible swift sword
A simple truth surviving
I thought about how I find myself resisting those lines, wondering, wrestling, reaching to make peace with them. I’m not sure how I feel about equating some of the biggest threats to humanity and the planet with God. But I also find myself not wanting to turn away from these lyrics either. They challenge me to consider all the ways God might show up and the possibility that being at peace with these may not be the whole point.
“This whole piece is really an argument I’m having with myself about belief – or not.”
~ Paul Simon
Last night, I swallowed wrong and had a coughing fit over the kitchen sink. It was bad enough that Pearl yelled from his room to ask if I was ok. I was – ok, that is – but afterwards, my chest felt tight and my lungs ached. I stood there looking out at the dark yard and thought, so this is how that feels.
Praise the airways. Praise the air itself and the ways we survive. Praise breathing. Praise the rain, the relief. Praise poetry, that which gives us a repository for all of it – beauty, awe, fear, loss, tenderness, dreams dissipated and dreams discovered, friendship, lifelines, lullabies, alarms and landing places. Praise the way we can listen to the body and walk instead of running. Praise this poor, exacerbated planet heaving under the weight of us. Praise the parents who can’t believe they’re here again – I’m so sorry kids, can’t go outside, here’s your mask. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I love you. Yes, send me your poems. I don’t care if they’re any good, I don’t care about the gatekeepers and the prizes. Tell me about the sun where you are. Tell me about the river that’s really a brook, the things that frighten you. Tell me what brings you peace.
Shabbat Shalom and love,
The first six-week "Bagels" group just ended and yes, tears were shed. I'm awaiting feedback (and testimonials) and hope to share more in the coming days. For now, I will say that such beautiful learning and connection occurs when there is no formal curriculum but rather a space where questions and witnessing are paramount – and also that there are so many ways to be and do Jewish!
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Come explore your spiritual journey and Jewish (or Jew-curious) identity in a small group through writing and conversation. Each week we'll have a general theme to dive into and discuss. Also, there is no homework, a plus for those with a full dance card. You do NOT have to be Jewishly knowledgeable, or Jewish at all for that matter, to join.
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