Yom Kippur: Memory, Love, Stones

Last night at Kol Nidre services, the eve of Yom Kippur, I sat next to a woman who was the pianist at services for many years.  She turned to me when I sat down.  “Hello, Grace, I’m Justine.”  I told her I knew her and was glad to see her again.  At the end of the service the Rabbi asked that we leave quietly, as the Yom Kippur service doesn’t officially end, but extends for 24 hours, with breaks for sleeping and resting.  Justine turned to me and said, “I know I’m not supposed to talk, but I just wanted to tell you how much I miss Eric, what a special man he was.  I wish I’d known him better.”  This is the seventh Yom Kippur since Eric died.

After my D’var Torah during Rosh Hashanah last week, a member of the Temple told me she’d gone to the Temple’s section of Blossom Hill Cemetery the day before.  Part of my D’var Torah talked about visiting Eric’s grave and leaving stones there.  He has a lot of rocks on his grave.  More than any other gravestone there.  “I had some young ones with me, and one boy wanted to know what the stones on the graves meant,” she told me.  “I explained that loved ones visit the graves and leave rocks as reminders of their visits.  Then he asked me how come some of the gravestones don’t have any rocks.  I explained the best I could, that maybe their family is far away, or gone.  Then the boy pointed to Eric’s grave and said, ‘Well look at all the rocks on that gravestone.  A lot of people must love him.'”


A New Year

Today is the fourth day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  This year I was given the honor of delivering the D’var Torah during the second day services; it’s a tradition at Temple Beth Jacob for a member of the congregation to be the guest speaker on the second day.  A D’var Torah is a talk related to a portion of the Torah (first five books of the Jewish Bible), usually that week’s portion to be read during services, often including life lessons and commentary.  A sermon, in other words.

Eric was deeply involved with Temple Beth Jacob, and had written five different D’var Torah commentaries over the years, for different occasions.  I read them all, trying to plan what to say.  It was wonderful to reconnect with Eric in that way, to remember his commitment to Judaism and to sustaining a strong Jewish community.  I didn’t end up with a plan about how to focus my D’var Torah, but I did end up talking about the Yiddish saying, “One plans, God laughs,” and how planning can be laughable, in both a discouraging, and encouraging way.  Because our plans often get interrupted by unfortunate events, but we also often end up in fortunate places without any planning on our parts.

My talk went well, and those at services on Tuesday were uniformly positive in responding to my talk (I talked a lot, also, about Eric, and David, and the twists and turns of life and death and moving on — I’d put the talk up here, but it’s too long for a blog post).

But best of all is the herons I’ve seen every day since the beginning of the New Year.  Great Blue Herons were Eric’s favorite bird, and I see him when I see a heron.  The last two mornings, out for my morning run, a heron has lifted out of the brook I was running past and slowly flapped its long wings to cruise along the course of the water.  “Hey, Eric, Shana Tova,” I thought and heard Eric saying back to me, “Good job.”

Coincidental Conversations

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Three times in the last week I’ve stumbled into wonderful conversations with people I didn’t know before we started talking, and found much to affirm the almost constant swirl in my own head about what I’m doing with my life right now, what I think I should be doing, what I could do better if I’m not doing things exactly right or according to some indiscernible grand plan, and how I might be doing something different if that’s what I want.  Or think?

Sound confusing?  It is, but the conversations helped.  The first was with a long ago friend of David’s, at a birthday party for another long ago friend.  A group of people who had either lived in or been connected to a large communal household in the Boston area 40 years ago had gathered for the celebration, and David and I had a long talk with Barbara, another artist, trying to understand what role art and painting plays in her life.  Right now she’s not interested in “having a show,” painting for the purpose of selling her work, or even painting for anyone else.  Instead, she’s interested in finding her voice as a painter, and trying to explore and understand the role of creating beauty as a primary purpose of art.

As she talked, I could feel her thoughts resonating with ideas of my own I hadn’t even articulated to myself.  Why do I want to write?  Why aren’t I writing more?  Who am I writing for?  Is it enough just to write when I want, however I want, for whatever reason?  Does ambition about getting published and read and recognized help in the writing process, or hinder it?  And do I even care about any of that?  Talking to Barbara helped all these questions come to the forefront, and I’m far from answering them, but I know this is a conversation I want to keep having, however I can fit that into my life.

On Tuesday, with clear days and clear calendars ahead of us, David and I went north to the White Mountains for a couple of days.  We hiked first up Mt. Madison and spent the night at the Madison Spring Hut, allowing us to stay above tree line on the grand Presidential ridge.   The Appalachian Mountain Club huts provide sleeping bunks and hearty meals to hikers at high elevation locations, making staying in the mountains a truly in-the-mountains experience.

The night at the hut gave David and me time to summit both Madison and Adams, two of the tallest mountains in New Hampshire, and the chance to share dinner and breakfast with two interesting people, extending our own dialogue, both internal and between us, about what we’re doing, what we want to do, what we should do and how do we fashion our lives in the absence of huge jobs and the presence of significant creative urges.

Francois is from outside Montreal, and was on a multi-day hike, peak-bagging, and staying in shape for his central goal, which is to climb the highest peak on each continent. He’s already done 4, including getting to the summit of Everest last May.  He’s driven by a singular goal, focused, direct and intent.  Talking to him about his adventures was wonderful, because he seems to live with very few questions about what he’s doing.  When we asked him why he’s climbing the highest mountains in the world his answer was simple.  He loves it, he loves mountains, he loves the process and opportunity for success.

We also spent a lot of time talking to Cathy, the mother of one of the hut crew members, there to visit and spend time with her daughter in the mountains. Cathy is between major projects at this point, her children grown and starting out in their own lives, her own career as a landscape architect on hold for now.  She’s interested in writing, community design, food security, urban garden planning, and her family.  Talking to her was, again, like talking to myself.  What is this later life I’m experiencing for?  What’s the best use of whatever time I have left, where should I put my focus?  What am I doing?

One thing I’m doing is finding interesting people who are happy to talk about what they’re doing, whether they have a clear answer to why they’re doing what they’re doing or what it means, or they don’t.  Because it’s really all the same, isn’t it?  We’re here and we’re doing the best we can.

Asking For Help

I’ve been traveling through cities a good bit lately, mostly because I’m working and that means travel and meetings in cities. Walking the streets of DC Friday morning I got asked for spare change by a man sitting on a stoop shaking a paper coffee cup.

I didn’t stop and give him anything, but I did remember my two trips through Boston’s South Station in the last two weeks. The first time I was sitting on a bench outside, eating lunch and enjoying the sunshine and city energy. A young woman approached me and said, “I’m not a scumbag, really. Really, I’m not.  But I’m stuck and need $7 for a ticket home to Vermont.  I never do this but if you could just help me out I’ll pay you back, I promise.” I gave her $20 and she hurried off towards the bus terminal.

Sunday night I was sitting inside the bus station waiting for the last bus to Concord when a young man came up to me. “Excuse me,” he said. “My mother would kill me if she knew I was doing this, but I lost my wallet on my last bus trip, and now I don’t have the $15 I need for a ticket back to New York City.  Could you help me out?”

“Why are you asking me?” I said.  “Because I was here a week ago and got basically the exact same story.  Why me?”  The young man shrugged and said, “You’re sitting near the ticket counter.  I just thought I’d ask you.”  I told him to ask some other people and come back to me if he didn’t have any luck.

In Manhattan two weeks ago, waiting on the sidewalk for the BoltBus, people kept coming up to me to ask, “Is this the line for the bus to Boston?”  There’s no sign, people just line up near the TicToc Diner on the corner of the block with the New Yorker hotel.  I’d asked if it was the right spot myself, and trusting the people who’d told me it was, I reassured person after person who asked that this was the place to wait (it was).  After the fourth or fifth person who came up to a long line of people and picked out me to ask, the young man standing behind me said, “People like to ask you, don’t they?”  I nodded.  “I guess so, must be something about my face.”

The young man at the South Station bus station came back about 15 minutes later.  “No luck,” he said and I gave him $20.  “Let me pay you back,” he said, taking out his phone.  “Give me your email and I swear, I’ll be in touch.  Really, I never do this.”

I just shook my head.  “No, it’s fine,” I said.  “Have a good trip home.”


I know a lot about grief.  Hey, I wrote a book called The Truth About Death.  When I was at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writers’ Conference two weeks ago, I ran into an old friend, another poet.  He bought my book and by the next morning he had read much of it. “Wow,” he said.  “The book is so tight, so powerful.  That poem ‘Hole’.”  He shook his head.

The next day we talked again and this time he’d finished the book.  “You know, I’m mad at you,” he said.  “I’m supposed to have the saddest poem in the country, and now you do.”  He smiled, I smiled.  I was happy he thought a poem of mine was the saddest in the country.

Now I’m sad because two people I care about have lost someone dear to them in the last week.  One lost a best friend, one lost a brother.  Grief has moved in to live with them for now, because grief doesn’t wait to be invited.  It shows up and sits next to you on the couch, sits across the table from you when you eat, rides in the shotgun seat of your car, slams you in the gut when you wake up in the morning.  Grief is a whole other beast than sadness, which you can be happy about.  Sadness is where you can get after grief starts letting you breathe again.

I don’t know which poem in my book my friend thought was the saddest, but here’s ‘Hole’ because it’s the one he mentioned.


Brief brilliant color at dawn and now low grey
as I leave for a tidal zone, before the floods, fly
through the storm. I’ve been flooded all along,
peeling each day, birch bark curls, iridescent
interior sheen, hatched with black on the outside.
There was an opening we both walked through.
My land is difficult, flinty rocks, a scrappy brook,
water moving every day, how simple, follow
the rules. I peeled oranges for you, I was happy
to do it. Stuffing your jacket into the overhead
bin I see the hole in center of the back.