Too Much to Write, So I'm Blogging Instead

So far this morning I have written:

  • A wedding service, including my talk to the couple.
  • About 1/2 of  a eulogy.

The bad news is that the things I have not yet written this morning include:

  • about 1/2 of a eulogy.
  • A sermon for this evening.
  • A brief Torah discussion for tomorrow morning.

You may note, that nowhere on that list does there exist the entry, “A blog post.” Yet I seem to be writing a blog post.  I’m sure you are as curious as I am to know why.

I don’t tend to experience writer’s block in the classic sense. One of the good things about rabbinic writing in general is that there tends to be a fairly deadline by which you simply must have your piece written. You cannot simply ask for an extension on a funeral. Couples tend to be singularly displeased when you inform them you’d like to postpone the wedding because your talk isn’t written yet. And Shabbat will arrive this evening whether I’ve written a sermon or not.

The sermon for this evening is actually not a problem at all. I do trust myself to be able to improvise a sermon, especially if I give it a little thought while driving down to Salem this afternoon. One of the great things about the Jewish tradition is that there is a lot of literature associated with it, and I can always find something in that massive library of text I studied in rabbinical school which will resolve itself into a sermon.

The other two types of writing are harder. They require a structure. Often I know, more or less, everything I want to say, but figuring out a way to say everything without creating a disjointed narrative (using narrative in the loosest possible sense) is the challenge. Figuring out how to structure what I want to say in way that will make sense to my listeners can be difficult. I know what I want to say about the couple or about the deceased, but how to do I  say it in ways which don’t sound trite, and which manage to describe a cohesive whole?

Often, blog posts are much simpler, not least because I tend towards the stream of thought school of blogging. So I guess I’m hoping by setting all this down on paper (or screen, as the case may be), I will clear my mind enough to figure out how to tie everything together in the rest of writing which needs to happen.

This weekend will be a busy weekend. There are shabbat services, a wedding and a funeral. In between all that I am teaching Sunday school, putting up a memorial plaque, having a meeting with the ritual committee. And to do all of these pieces well, I need to bring all of myself to each event. These are not things which work well when I hold myself back.  I need to be fully present. And I will be. But Monday, I think I will be tired.

Oh, did I happen to mention that we have a friend from Australia moving into our house for the foreseeable future? She arrives today. I’m really excited that she’ll be here, but was kind of expecting to get to see a little more of her this weekend than it looks like I will.

Life: Never boring.


Spring is Springing

I really wanted to do a “spring” blog post with the help of some photos, and have been putting off doing it for the last week because I was convinced I would remember to grab the camera from the office and take some photos. However, that has not happened, and a “spring is here” post can wait no longer.

When the crocuses bloomed, I could wait, and not yet write about spring. When the daffodils came up, I was able to restrain myself. The camellias didn’t even really count as a sign of spring, because, really, they’re a late winter flower. The daffodils blooming in the yard yesterday did not quite (but came very close) to requiring a spring posting. Today, however, I saw something which required a spring posting.

The neighbor’s forsythia is beginning to flower. Eva claims I am unnaturally attached to forsythia, and makes the further claim that my attachment is on account of the name “forsythia”. I want to make clear, that my attachment to forsythia may or may not be unnatural, but I believe has very little to do with the name (which it took me years to learn how to spell). What I love about forsythia is the profusion of yellow flowers coming so early in the spring. This is not the crocus, where each plant puts forth a single bloom, or the daffodil or narcissus, where each plant might put out three blooms. It’s not even the camellia where there may be quite a lot of blooms per plant. No, forsythia goes all out and the branches become nothing more than a vehicle for flowers, as the entire leggy branches of the bush become covered from ground to the tip of the branch with bright yellow flowers.

Forsythia has an exuberance of flowering which goes beyond the other early flowering plants. When it flowers, it becomes nothing more than a giant collection of flowers. It is glorious and bright. And for me, it is the symbol that spring has indisputably arrived.

Rabbinic spirituality

A Whirlwind Tour Through Life

There are weeks when my attention is more on CubeSpace, and there are weeks when my attention is more on the congregation (there are also weeks when my focus is more on knitting, but we won’t talk about that now). This is very much a “rabbinic week.” I am simultaneously preparing for the death of a congregant, a bar mitzvah and a wedding (the wedding isn’t actually members of the congregation, but definitely falls into the category of rabbinic work).

Moving between these three lifecycle events is a bit of a challenge. They, needless to say (and yet I’m going to say it anyway), have three very different moods, and the rabbinic role is different in all three. For a family awaiting a death, the rabbi is present to offer solace and comfort. For boys becoming bar mitzvah (it would also be true for girls, but in this case it happens to be boys), my role is more that of coach and teacher. For a couple about to be married, I serve as counselor and master of ceremonies, helping ensure that the wedding comes off as they want it to and that they are able to be focused on what matters when the day arrives.

Each of these three events are enormously important occasions in the history of their respective families. These are, literally, once in a lifetime events. It is vital that I bring an awareness of that to my conversations with families. At the same time, part of my role is to be able to say, “what you are feeling is normal,” based on the fact that I am in close contact with each of these events several times a year. I attend 5 – 10 weddings a year. Perhaps half as many funerals, and a far more variable number of bar or bat mitzvah celebrations. My role at these events is not that of the mourner, or the bride or groom, nor the young adult entering the Jewish community, but to be deeply empathetic with those people, and to lead them through it.

Which brings me back to this week. Trying to shift gears so quickly between joy and sadness is confusing. The one constant between events is that they are stressful. But I feel like I’m beginning to experience some emotional disjuntion. Not necessarily in a bad way, but in a way that highlights the emotions of each events.

Being present at lifecyle events is one of the reasons I became a rabbi. It is one of the most rewarding parts of what I do. When multiple events coincide, as they have this week, the rewards are highlighted, but I’m also much more aware of the potential for becoming emotionally drained. I am not yet running on empty. I cannot imagine officiating at a funeral without grieving with the family, or a wedding without celebrating. The real question is, what do I look like the day after. I guess we’ll find out next week.


Planning a Wedding

I’m going to spend a couple of hours this afternoon planning a wedding. Not mine. I’m happily married, and fully done with the details of our wedding, thank you very much.

No, this is a wedding I will be performing. And this afternoon I will be having the final meeting with the bride and groom.  We will iron out the details (which are basically all in place) and make any last minute changes. In part, the real purpose of this final meeting with the couple is very  often simply to reassure them that all the pieces are in place and that everything will be fine, and all they really have to do now is show up and they will be married.

I love performing weddings. As a rabbi, I’m invited into a couple’s relationship in an intimate way: I’m given a chance to talk with them about how they feel about each other, and how they wish to express those feelings in front of family and friends. Under the chuppah (the Jewish wedding canopy) there are three people: the bride, the groom and the rabbi. It’s a privilege to be trusted to help a couple begin a marriage, and a joy to be a part of their excitement.

Which means, even when I’m a bit tired (as I am this afternoon), even if I have a few other issues worrying me (which I do this afternoon), I know that the energy and excitement of the impending wedding will buoy me up, and I’ll be swept along as we make the final plans.

The last thing I do at a final wedding meeting is to take a few moments, and ask the couple to remember why we’re doing this: that is to say, to focus on their love and the reason for the marriage. It’s an opportunity to let any odd family dynamics fade into the background (and there are always some odd family dynamics around weddings–it’s the nature of either families or weddings, I haven’t, yet, figured out which). This is the opportunity for the bride and the groom to take a deep breath and acknowledge that regardless of whatever details of planning remain, the important thing is that in less than a week, they will be married. Everything else is just window dressing.

Jewish Spirituality

One Shabbat, Coming Up

This week, Shabbat will be a day of rest. I am not leading services this week, which is lovely. While I normally love to lead services, at the moment, I just want to collapse in a heap of relaxation. And the wonderful thing is, I will get to. Shortly.

It’s been, I believe, 2 weeks since I had a day off. I’m kind of looking forward to it. I won’t get much done, which is okay (at least mainly okay, or at least the way things are going to be whether it’s okay or not). But regardless of the household chores that need doing, they’re not happening in the next 24 hours. Nope. It’s Shabbat.

Maybe I’ll read a little. Or knit. If I get really inspired I might even read something non-fiction, but let’s not set expectations too high. The only reason I know that I plan to wake up in the morning tomorrow, rather than sleeping until mid-afternoon, is I’m pretty sure my coffee addiction won’t allow me to sleep that late.

A day off. A wonderful thing. Brought to you by the Torah (available in fine synagogues everywhere).


Work is Cutting into My Knitting Time

I hate it when this happens. I had two hours blocked out for knitting last night. In fact, I was going to work on the socks I had started yesterday. In order to create these two hours for knitting, I’ve gone so far to create a Knitting Night at CubeSpace on a weekly basis. And I’m about to begin knitting, when Eva says to me, “Can you finish writing this proposal for me?”

Now, the real answer to that question happened to be “no.” Not that I wouldn’t, rather that I was not capable of doing so at that time. Nonetheless, I did give it my best shot. I spent about two hours trying to reorganize the text, write transitions, answer questions and the like, all about something I know very little about. To make it worse, my brain was already a touch on the toasty side by 6:30 last night when I began.

On the bright side, Eva tells me what I did was useful, and got her to the next step. On the brighter side, this could result in money coming. I am fond of money, or at least of its uses. We approve of money coming in. Anything I can do to facilitate money coming in is a good thing. Yet trying to kick start my brain into gear last night was extremely painful. I tended to have 15 productive minutes followed by 15 minutes of staring at the screen trying to figure out what those little marks on it represented.

All of this is to say, that I didn’t get to knitting last night.

Today I am down in Salem at the congregation. Some days in Salem are slower than others, and today is not a slow one. I walked through the door planning on spending half an hour writing a different proposal for CubeSpace (which I felt guilty about, until I remembered that I spend at least 4 or 5 hours at CubeSpace a week working on congregational business, so turnabout seems like fair play). But the phone was ringing from the moment I walked through the door. In fact, pretty much as soon as I put down the receiver from the first call, there came a second call (which was great, because it was the necessary follow-up to the first call, completely coincidentally) but between the two calls it was pretty much an hour before I got to the proposal. And all of a sudden, the day is beginning to get a little squeezed with meetings.

On the bright side, tonight is a Temple Board Meeting. And one of the functions of Temple Board Meetings is to provide an opportunity for the rabbi to knit on the congregation’s time (I’m pretty sure that must be one of the functions of Temple Board Meetings, even though it never gets explicitly stated, I think it goes without saying). So tonight, I’ll get a chance to get some knitting done. Which will be a good thing.

When I go too long without knitting, I begin to notice a certain tension in my life, a certain trembling of the hands. Withdrawal doesn’t begin particularly painfully, no deep headaches like caffeine withdrawal, but over time it builds. Eventually, I start noticing everything that’s longer than it is wide and thinking, “I could use that as a knitting needle.” Anything that is vaguely fibrous begins to look like yarn. Pens, chopsticks, scotch tape. . .

And that’s when you know you have a problem. Addicted to the yarn. But I could quit any time I wanted. Really.

knitting spirituality

Yarnia Part II

I’m beginning work on a new project: Eva’s Birthday socks. Here’s how they look so far:


This is the project I alluded to earlier when talking about the yarn I “might” have bought when visiting Yarnia. And this is when I will do a little more talking about the yarn I purchased.

What I bought is 4 strands of wool: 2 green, 2 purple. They are not plied together, but are simply combined. I brought it home on a cone, straight from the machine:


I’ve now divided this into 2 evenly sized amounts of yarn (1 ball, and the rest still on the cone). And I’ve started knitting with it.

The yarn knits very easily. The multiple plies are easy to work with and don’t separate much more than a plied yarn. It feels great to work with, even if it is a little less elastic until it is worked into the fabric.

Regardless of the yarn being used, there is always something exciting about starting a new project. I know there is a lot of knitting ahead of me (which is a good thing), but I don’t really know how it will turn out, yet. I have a plan, and a sense of what I’m aiming for, but I know that the reality may look different from my expectations. Often, the reality is way cooler than my expectations. Almost certainly, it will be better than it looked while it was in process. Starting a new project starts this process.

So, tonight, I am beginning this process: evas-sock2.jpg

And I suspect that I will be continuing on this project for the next few months. Mainly joyously, occasionally dragging myself through it, always waiting to see what the socks will be.


Knitting the Same Thing Twice

I was getting ready to knit a scarf for a friend, and I had a great skein of yarn to use, and a pattern that I’ve used with that yarn before. I was all set to go, until I realized, I’d given away that first scarf as a present also. All of a sudden, it felt wrong to be doing the same pattern for someone else in the same yarn…like I was giving away something that was inadequately unique.


I don’t quite know what this is about. I don’t think it’s just about the fact that I was giving the same item to two people, because I think it fits both of them quite well, and if I were buying it, I don’t think I would have that problem. I think somehow, the fact that I am making the scarf means that I need it to be more unique. Somehow, repeating the pattern and the yarn makes it feel like it is repeating the sentiment behind the gift.  As though I’m not uniquely considering each individual to whom the gift is being given.

In years past, I would have held myself to a higher level of rationality, and if I couldn’t make sense of why this was a problem for me, would have gone ahead and knit the same gift twice. Now, being more willing to accept that human beings are not entirely rational creatures and that we should not aspire to be entirely rational creatures, I’m willing to accept that, for whatever reason, it feels wrong, and therefore I need to find another pattern for this yarn.

And the opportunity to find another pattern is also a good thing, pushing myself to become a more adventurous knitter.


Too Sedentary

I wish that I were one of those people for whom exercise is greatly satisfying. There are people who come back from a workout, and say, “wow, that was a great workout, I feel great.” I come back from a workout and say, “wow, in about 10 minutes I bet I’ll be able to breathe without feeling like I’m about to heave up a lung, that’ll feel great.” It’s just not the same thing, and doesn’t positively reinforce exercise.

I’ve tried walking and running. I’ve played squash and ridden exercise bikes. I’ve tried biking. I just don’t get excited by exercise. But I also recognize that exercise is absolutely vital to keeping myself healthy as I age. It’s not one of those things that is easily added into one’s life when one hits 50 or 60. Rather, it will have the most benefit if one continuously exercises from a young age. Or in my case, from middle age. So I’m working on trying to get into an exercise routine.

At this point, “working on trying to get into an exercise routine” seems to consist on publicly declaring my intention to exercise regularly (which is  what this blog post is).  The vaguely spring-like weather we’ve been experiencing this week is a bit of an encouragement to me to try to get out more. Maybe to think about walking to work one day a week (probably shouldn’t be a day I’m working in Salem). Slowly, slowly I will reform my behavior.

Hopefully, as you continue to watch this space, new and exciting news about exercise will pop up from time to time.


Walking Through Peace

I just spent about an hour and half wandering through the Japanese Garden in Portland. It’s a spectacular garden no matter what time of year you visit. In the summer it is verdant and green, with bright colors of flowers bursting out. In the fall the palette tends towards reds and oranges. The spring is a lighter green color, with the pastels of the spring flowers. The winter is when the garden is at its least colorful. Today there were a variety of greens, from the boughs of cedars and firs, the forest green of camellias, the sage green of most of the mosses. There were a few pale pink flowers bursting off what might have been dwarf cherry trees, and some camellia flowers.

What I love about the Japanese Gardens is the way in which they encourage you to stop and contemplate what you are seeing. The goal is not to walk through quickly, but to stop and see as much as you can in what is there. To look at the patterns in the rock gardens, to see how the moss curves around the rocks, and how the rocks are placed amid the grasses. To appreciate how sparsely the bamboo is growing, and admire the work which must be required to keep the bamboo from taking over the entire area. To appreciate the twisted branches of the trees, which have been carefully trimmed and trained into a specific form.

The Japanese Garden is designed to encourage a sort of observation and mindfulness which is too often absent from our lives. We do not take the time in everyday life to notice the feel of different surfaces under our shoes…the transition from a slab of stone to gravel to packed dirt. The garden encourages you to notice these transitions, to be aware of how each feels differently as you plant your feet upon it.

The Japanese Garden is a highly artificial natural environment. It is constructed oh so carefully by humans to create an experience, but is build entirely out of natural growing features, as well as stone and water. It is a place of contemplation and peace, and among my favorite places in Portland.