In the land of the living

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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.

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Back on track

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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.

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The light in the middle of the tunnel

B’orcha yireh or: By your light, we will see light.
—Psalm 36

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.

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“House in Fog,” Francisca Verdoner Kan, 2007

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.

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The raveled sleeve of care

Two months ago, my mother drew her last, labored breath. I woke up this morning from a brutal, punishing dream with a brutal, punishing headache that hasn’t let up.

And yet, I am writing: scribbling in my journal, typing on my laptop. Writing poems, or bits of them — a dangerous pastime, given that I really don’t know how to write poetry. Everything I’ve written today is about loss, and grief, and fear — mostly fear of loss and grief.

I also fear failure. But in a fit of recklessness — or, let’s call it, freeing myself from perfectionism — I’ve decided to post this one.

What We Wanted
An alma mater sweatshirt,
ash and rust, scarcely worn: Carnegie Tech detail
Dad made his own warmth.

After he died
I took a year to claim it, gingerly,
from the closet of leftovers
nobody wanted.

I wanted.

Once redeemed
it hugged me through four long, bitter
New England winters. Then:
an elbow hole. This spring the hole
blossomed and grew,
leaving more hole
than sleeve.

Sorely worn. But still I wear it.

Now the closets are empty.
We took what we wanted,
gave away the rest.

A painting, some muu muus.
A raveled sleeve.

Who will redeem this hole?

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.

Though my father and mother forsake me

Though my father and my mother forsake me,
The Lord will gather me in.

These plaintive lines help usher in Elul, the last month of the Hebrew year. As we prepare for the new year through reflection and self-examination, we recite Psalm 27 daily. It’s a masterpiece of hope and yearning and soul-rattling fear, bravely masquerading as faith.

Five years ago, Elul arrived just two weeks after my father’s sudden death. Those lines evoked my pain, my feeling of abandonment.

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My parents, Rita and Ray Smith, in 1958. May their memories be for a blessing.

In the past couple of years the bereftitude receded, and I could focus on other parts of the psalm. But I knew that eventually, my mother would also have to leave the land of the living.

That time came this summer.

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Blebruary

Four weeks ago I started a new course of treatment for my Lyme/Bartonella/Babesia/whatever the heck I’m battling. These new drugs are kicking my tuchus. It’s the strongest reaction I’ve had since the very first round of treatment, last … February.

I knew, I know. February is a tough month for everybody. That’s why some kids at Yale started Feb Club way back when, throwing a party every night of the month. But I’ve never been much of a carouser, and anyway I’m sick. I can’t party like it’s 1983.

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The arrows point out blebs. Photo: Journal of Neuroinflammation

So I thought of something just as fun: I can celebrate February by learning some science — and then imparting it to you, dear readers.

Our topics today are Herxheimers and blebs.

Yes, these are actual words. I would love to claim I made them up, but that would be a lie. And science is serious stuff — no lying allowed.

I chose these topics because Herxheimers and blebs are not only fun to say, but also interesting and important. To me, anyhow: they are making me miserable.

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Invisible woman

I’m afraid of disappearing.

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I fear that like the Lyme bacteria inside my body, which change their shapes to hide from my immune system and my antibiotics, I’m becoming a tiny round ball: curled in on myself, invisible to the rest of the world.

This illness saps my energy and keeps me from working, from volunteering, from circulating in my community. And so I’m afraid that people will forget about me. I’m afraid they already are.

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