Jewish Grandmother Story

I’m reading Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City, loving every moment of it. Every paragraph is a prose poem, a hymn to life in his particular world in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn in the prewar 20th century.

He describes his early religious instruction and it reminds me of the story I grew up hearing from my Jewish grandmother. She was the daughter of a rabbi, who tried to raise his family to be observant and kosher. As she tells the story, she was told that if she or her sister ever broke the Sabbath, God would strike them dead. One Friday evening when she was twelve or thirteen, she was out playing with friends and late getting home. She missed the Shabbat Kiddush and incurred the wrath of her father. She shed a few tears and then went to her room and waited patiently for God to strike her dead. It didn’t happen and she lost her faith.

And this is how my grandmother explained to me that she became an atheist. I’ve told this story a bunch of times, and often someone will say “I grew up with my Jewish grandmother telling me the same story!”

Do you have a Jewish grandmother story? Or your own story of losing your childhood faith? Let’s hear it.

The Shorter Norton

I recently rediscovered an old love. I’ve been doing some reminiscing and writing about my first few years of college, imagining I’ll publish a zine called “Memoirs from a Sodden Adolescence.” (Would anyone read it? Who knows!) The old love I rediscovered was my textbook from “Major British Writers, Part II,” which I took at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 1978. (Yawn. Was anyone else in college that long ago??)

What your favorite college textbook? Your favorite poetry anthology?

Mine was, is, and ever more shall be the shorter, revised edition of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, which academic types called simply “the shorter Norton,” a single volume only an inch thick, as opposed to the heftier two-volume Norton Anthology other introductory English classes required. We read mostly poetry, from Samuel Johnson to T.S. Eliot. I carried my book with me everywhere, scribbling wherever I was: in class, in the library, in coffee shops. It became dog-eared and soft around the edges. The cover art was a painting by J.M.W. Turner, “Rain, Steam and Speed.” I’d never heard of Turner but fell madly in love based on that one painting.

During the heat of summer, while working on a piece about the professor of that course, I frantically culled through the boxes in my attic looking for the book itself, and, after some moments of horror that I’d misguidedly sold it to Powell’s, found it. Powell’s would never have taken it, of course, full of my notes, doodles, and turned-down pages.

The book’s flyleaf holds scrawled assignments and quotes from my professor:

“Neo-classical, pre-Romantic, Romantic…better to be able to shift—a category is just one person’s device, not truth.”

“When doing comparisons, do not fall back on verse form; like grammar, it’s useless.”

“Write one page on the differences between Keats’ poems” or “Look at ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ as the poet attempting to deal with change”

“One page on God as nature in Tintern Abbey.”

I was just grateful to be able to distinguish between Keats and Yeats.

After unearthing the book from the attic, I started carrying it around with me, the way some people carry a bible. I’ve gotten into the habit of reading it for a few minutes on my way to doing whatever work is set before me that day. Part of my daily devotion. All of that poetry was so long ago, and I’ve never been gifted with the ability to memorize, that I am able to read many of the well-marked works as if for the first time. But even more exciting in an old love is discovering works that we never got to in that class I took a hundred years ago, and spending as much time as I want with a poem before moving on. Reading the same poem over mid-morning coffee for ten days in a row, a daily routine like putting on lotion. I don’t think much about who made the lotion or what makes it smell so good or what makes it do whatever it’s doing for my skin. I just like the way it smells and feels. Same thing with poetry, these days.

My friend Melissa has a wonderful post about “Getting Poetry.” You should read it. She asks great questions about our poetry habits; mine are as varied as my knitting habits. Some weeks I tear through knitting projects like they’re going out of style and I’ve got nothing but time. Other weeks add up to months and sometimes even years when I don’t touch needles or yarn. Sometimes I’ll stumble on a poet and take everything she’s written out of the library (most recently, Mary Karr, after reading Lit). A few years ago, on another foray into my attic, I found a box of poetry collections, mostly individual poets, that I’d stored away when I decided I really wasn’t ever going to be a poet myself. I rearranged all of my bookshelves to make room for the contents of that box, not because I’d changed my mind about becoming a poet, but because I just wanted the books around. Some of those poets were a lot younger then, and a lot less famous than they are now. It’s fun to see how they’ve grown up.

Rattlesnakes: a story and a question

On a recent family camping trip my fourteen-year-old reverted to an endearing habit I associate with a much younger age, of saying “tell me a story” at odd and inopportune times, often begging at a time when he’s supposed to be focused on a task like folding up his bed or helping with dinner. One of these times I promised, using delayed-gratification techniques I also associate with a younger child: “I’ve got a great rattlesnake story which I’ll tell you when you’ve finished doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”

So here’s the short version of the story:

Some years after my one and only live encounter with a rattlesnake, I was camping along the Deschutes River in the high desert of Oregon with my husband and some friends. One of our friends was so scared of snakes in the area, she refused to leave our campsite. She and her partner and my husband were happy to sit around the picnic table reading, painting, and talking. I was eager for a walk, and so set out along the rocky sagebrush trail along the river. “Watch out for snakes!” were my husband’s parting words. Thanks a lot.

As I walked along, I thought about how terrified I’d always been of snakes. I grew up hearing stories from my grandmother, who didn’t have indoor plumbing until she came to America at the age of twenty-five, about snakes in outhouses. When I slept in a strange bed, it was always snakes I feared coming out from underneath to bite me in the ankles or worse. When I was eight, a common garter snake sighted from twenty feet away made me run so far and fast I thought my heart would stop. I wasn’t scared of snakes in books, movies, pet stores, or zoos; it was the idea of snakes in the wild that got to me.

So as I walked along the Deschutes that day, I could feel my heart pounding with each beat the temptation to turn back to the campsite. What am I doing? I wondered. Why am I out here all alone? I began to wonder what it would be like not to be afraid any more. I knew what rattlesnakes looked like and I knew how to avoid them. I taught myself, there on that trail, to keep my eyes sweeping from right to left about four or five feet ahead of time, covering a swath three or four feet wide on either side. (Later, when my son was about six, I explained this technique to him, calling it “snake eyes.”) I managed to enjoy the hike while keeping my eyes open for snakes. I’ve never been afraid of snakes since, and the experience has been a parable for me of dealing with certain kinds of fear.

The end.

That’s not a rattlesnake story! That’s a facing-your-fears story. I want my money back.

So spake my teenager. I’m not sure what the difference is, I replied.

A rattlesnake story would actually have a rattlesnake in it.

Okay, I get it. Sorry. To me it’s a still a good story.

That’s ’cause it’s you.

So here’s the question:

Do you have a rattlesnake story? Or a facing-your-fears story? Let’s hear it.

What’s your daily cup?

I’ve got two favorite daily cups: the one I have first thing in the morning, usually between 5 and 6 am. That would be tea, steeped strong, with a little one-percent milk. I’ve got fairly strong needs around this cup of tea: the kind of tea (Peets’ Scottish Breakfast), the strainer, the water temperature, the time it steeps in its Deruta mug, the peace and quiet during which I drink it….When I travel, I bring all of these things with me, including an electric kettle for boiling water. I like to think that into the making of this one cup of tea I pour all of my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, leaving me free the rest of the day to act like a relatively normal person in almost every respect.

My second daily cup happens two or three hours later, just before going into my office. After making the day’s lunches, going to the gym, taking my son to school, and any other domestic errands, I’ll go to one of several regular spots for a latte (12 oz, half-decaf, two-percent milk), and write in my journal, answer email, balance my checkbook, or spend time on a big clunky work-project that is easier done away from the interruptions of the office. I often schedule meetings with friends – new and old – during this second daily cup.

An old friend used to say “Ah, breakfast, one of my three very favorite meals!” or “Do you know that lunch is one of my three most favorite meals?” or “Food, my favorite!” I’m that way about times of the day. My favorite time of the day is that first cup of tea in the dark before anyone is awake. And it’s also that time when I sit down and treat myself to a latte before heading into the office. (Is it still a treat if you do it every day? I think so, although some would disagree.) Or it’s when I finally sit down to the piles on my desk after the morning’s meetings and phone calls, with a clean glass and a fresh pitcher of water, ready to get back to that clunky project I began hours earlier. Or it’s when I fall into bed at night to read a page or two before falling asleep.

What’s your daily cup?

Ceremony….it’s a good thing

 The other day, the seminarian intern who has been at our church for the past year handed over her keys to our new summer intern. We tried to determine whether she was doing this ceremonially or ceremoniously. Our quandary turned into a good learning experience for all involved. Turns out they mean almost the same thing.Ceremonially pertains to a particular ceremony, for example, my son’s graduation from eighth grade. Ceremoniously pertains to the quality of pomp and circumstance attached to any event, for example, to a graduation ceremony where people dress up, line up, and listen to special processional music. (Especially but not limited to music titled “Pomp & Circumstance.”)

There was lots of conversation this week, among forty- and fifty-somethings, about eighth grade graduation, as most of us reflected on the contrast between the elaborate rite of passage this is for our children, and the non-event it was for us as eighth-graders becoming ninth-graders thirty or forty years ago.

But what’s wrong with a little ceremony? Nothing, especially if it is a rite of passage. Being a person of ritual myself (“got ritual?”) I wonder if perhaps most of us don’t have enough ritual and ceremony in our lives, and if perhaps the hoopla that eighth-grade graduation has evolved into (complete with processions, testimonials, ties, formal dresses, tickets, and dinner at a fancy restaurant) reflects the longing we all have to mark important moments, and to mark them in the communities that matter to us.

Perhaps every day is a rite of passage and deserves its ceremony. It’s a good thing.