It goes like this: If I write, maybe it means Mom is still alive.
My friend David, a moyel, said at Shiva, "When we lose the mother, we lose the מקור חיים, the 'source of life,' we are only left with Moshe Rabbenu!"
Among the words of comfort I can recall hearing during those days, I repeat those daily. Torah study, the Hebrew language, and learning in general have been one of the most remarkably sustaining experiences of mourning these past two months. The rootedness of the reality of the mind's translation of ideas onto a page is its own life source.
Billy Collins, Mark Twain and Christopher Hitchens have made me laugh from the depths; Tracy K. Smith, Natasha Trethewey, and Meghan O'Rourke have offered merciful light from a dark horizon, promises of another day.
I didn't know who I'd take with me on this journey. The Sages in Talmud Brachot; the Biblical author of Samuel whose genius never ceases to amaze me with his knotted literary branches of Man's Folly in Faith; and my teachers' voices, carrying me when it feels I really don't have the strength or the will to carry myself. I've told more stories about George Mosse, Irv Saposnik, Arthur Hertzberg and Stanley Dreyfus in the past two months than I have in the accumulation of years since they each died. The more wickedly cynical teaching the better.
"If I write, maybe it means Mom is still alive." It's odd to be a public figure, a leader, and to try to mourn privately. In fact, it's nearly impossible. I'd have to do that mid-life crisis thing--buy the MG with the money I don't have, drive across the country, recite Kaddish in every town, make a book of it. But there is a family to raise, a Synagogue to lead, a Community to support. Mom is alive in this tension between Sacrifice and Individual Will. She would take the loneliness of her own mournful soul and plow it into kindness, to volunteerism, to knitting, and books. And distance. Throughout much of the 80s, 90s and 00s, Mom was impossible to track down on the phone. She might return a written letter if you were lucky. But show up at her apartment and she'd talk to you as if you never left home at 18. In the last year I had grown to appreciate it.
Maybe it was like an extended training camp for loss.
Anyway, I don't have that luxury of distance; and in the last two months, I've begun to train myself to pack my loneliness into a small bundle, to carry it with me wherever I go. It's the size of a book. "But you've always never been without a book!" I say to myself.
But these days the book has two covers--one of which only I can see.
Writing to his students in the midst of the Second World War, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira describes a paradox: To relieve ourselves from being distraught and confused we seek wisdom and comfort in community; and yet "there are aspects of spiritual development that are private work, and they need to remain private. When a person stands revealed in order to cleanse his soul, it is simply appropriate that his privacy be preserved. This is a very important idea."
Meghan O'Rourke, writing of her mother's death, puts it like this:
And into my doubt
the bells rang--
mourning doves and,
later, voices in song.
The dim breath
that left my body, the sliding
away of love,
on the white sheets--
bodies are used
it is what
they are meant for.
But the door, the door
is in the mind....
You can step out of
violence and into