It’s autumn. It’s the autumn of my life, and that cliché is falling upon me like a ton of dead leaves.
On the yearly calendar, it’s the very beginning of autumn. The trees are overwhelmingly green. As I type this, sitting on the deck, I’m wishing I wore shorts instead of jeans. But time moves fast: When I began writing this, our autumn sedum was light pink. Just two days later, it is approaching the deep red it will soon become.
On the calendar of my life, I am deep into the third season. That doesn’t sound right, but I can’t dispute the numbers.
I’m searching for the origins of my great-grandfather Bernard Akerman.
I’m searching for the origins of my Jewish DNA.
Increasingly, I’m convinced those two searches will lead me to the same destination.
Family history has become my passion in recent years. I have solved a few mysteries, connected with a few previously unknown cousins, and identified many more new-to-me relatives—and quite a few new mysteries.
My Great-Grandpa Akerman has been one of those mysteries from the get-go.
Mom’s second yahrzeit — the anniversary of her death on the Hebrew calendar — just passed. It’s almost seven years since Dad died.
We gathered in November 2017 to eulogize Mom, mix her ashes with Dad’s, and scatter them in a Florida river. My aunt and cousin sang “On Eagle’s Wings.” I heard another cousin say, as he scattered his cupful of ashes: “Goodbye, good people.”
But I wasn’t done with those good people, so I brought a ziplock bag of ashes home with me. (Pro tip: when traveling with cremains, give TSA a heads-up.) That winter, we scattered a small amount in our neighborhood park. My plan was do it twice more: that spring at Brandywine Creek, one of my favorite childhood spots, and in the summer after planting trees in memory of my parents. Four seasons of commemoration and tribute, marking out the year in places that are important to me. Continue reading →
Commenting on a previous post, a friend remarked that I am using Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” as a “field guide.”
I love how that image captures the uncharted nature of this psychological and spiritual journey that I call the Mary Oliver Challenge. Although the opening and closing lines of “Wild Geese” point to where I want to go, the poem is not exactly a map. It’s a field guide, an aid in identifying features of the terrain through which I’m traveling.
This post — and Mary Oliver’s recent passing — bring me to a pivotal line, a sudden shift in the terrain, from inner to outer:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
When I first read the poem, that line bristled with cold indifference, even reproach: You think your despair is the center of the universe, but the universe couldn’t care less.
With time and rereading, my view changed. There is indifference, for sure. But it’s not cold or warm, hostile or embracing. Continue reading →
The Jewish calendar packs what seems like a year’s worth of holidays into less than a month. Beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the new year, and ending with a celebration of the Torah — the five biblical books that we read from start to finish every year — it’s the completion of a cycle. The birth of a new one. The season of t’shuva, of return, again and again.
And then comes Heshvan, a month without holidays. The rabbis of tradition named it “Mar Heshvan,” bitter Heshvan: a barren time to be endured until Hanukkah, the next celebration.
That has never completely rung true for me. After the hectic fall holiday season, Heshvan comes as something of a relief — a return to normalcy.
But this year is different. My feeling this Heshvan is not of moving away from the holidays, but of moving toward, moving into.
I’m trying to get to bed earlier. It’s a continual challenge. But it was going well this week — until last night, when I stayed up doing family history research until 3 (!!!!) a.m.
Then I went to bed and dreamed that I was driving along a ridge, across the grass and dirt and rocks, at high speed. I wanted to be on the highway that ran parallel on my right. But I was having a very hard time getting there.
Gee, I wonder what that was about?
I have written frequently about my ongoing efforts to get on track, stay on track, get back on track. I think about it even more frequently — like, pretty much every day.
B’orcha yireh or: By your light, we will see light.
I love it when a blog post starts writing itself in my head. I’ll interrupt what I’m doing—sometimes even my morning prayers—to scribble some notes. Once I dictated most of a draft on my phone while walking in the park.
But sometimes I have only a phrase or an image, with no clear notion of what I want to say and, crucially, no idea how to start the post. Having a good opening (the “lede,” as we call it in journalism) is like kicking off from the swimming pool wall: it feels smooth and powerful, and the momentum can carry me a long way.
This post started without a lede. The phrase above from Psalm 36—B’orcha yireh or: by your light, we will see light—struck me months ago during my morning prayers. What does it mean? It seems redundant, circular, absorbing the light of inquiry rather than revealing itself.