Death and Adolescence Don’t Mix

This week I did something I’ve been dreading for a long time: I buried a 17-year-old.

In this case, I didn’t perform the funeral (that was done by another rabbi in another state), but the family plot was here in Portland, and so they needed a rabbi for the interment. It meant I had less contact with the family than I usually do for a funeral, and was less clear on the relationships and the background. I thought that would make me feel less connected, but I don’t think it did.

As opposed to most people, I’m fairly familiar with the what it looks like when you bury a loved one. I know about how much crying there will usually be, or at least the range of crying to expect. I don’t mean to sound callous, and I certainly don’t feel immune to the sadness and grief that accompany a funeral, but having been to 30 or  so funerals, one develops a certain sense of what is regular. This wasn’t regular.

The entire family was crying. Not shedding a few tears, but really crying. Most of the other folks who were there to support the family had tears in their eyes. This was a pain that tore at the soul. This was a pain that tore at my soul.

I have written before about my views of God, and why bad things happen to good people. My view tends to boil down to the idea that God is not a controlling deity who can just “fix things.” but is rather that part of the universe that can cause us to do good. Or is the universe itself, but without a true volition. This is my intellectual, and often spiritual belief in God. Events like burying a 17-year-old challenge this.

At the graveside, I found myself asking God, “why?’ I found myself thinking that just as adolescents feel immortal, perhaps they should be immortal. That they should not die. I found myself asking the Holy for an explanation, and trying to hold the Divine responsible. These are not reactions born of intellectual reason. Even as I asked them, I knew they implied a theology which is not my own. Yet I couldn’t stop myself from asking them.

Sometimes, the pain of the day is too much, and I need God to be more than God is. And I cry out to  God, because even if God cannot act to change what is, at least God can hear my pain. And I, perhaps, can feel a little better.

If you have adolescents, hug them. Remind them to have fun, but that there are behaviors that are too risky, even if they feel immortal. Driving too fast can be deadly. There are drugs which can kill you. There are many risks which will turn out okay most of the time, but once in a while, will kill you. And even if your kids won’t change their behavior to protect their lives, ask them to do it to protect all those who love them from their death. Please. This is pain no one should suffer.

A Departed Friend

For someone who spends so much time at funerals, I’ve attended relatively few at which I wasn’t officiating. Today, I’m attending my first funeral for a friend. 

I first met Pam Webb 13 years ago, almost to the day that she died. We first met at Rosh Hashanah services at Havurah Shalom in 1995. I was just finding my way back to Judaism and was slowly exploring options. Pam informed me that I “should” take the adult education class being offered. In fact, I suspect she informed me that I “would” be taking the class. Pam was a force of nature, and tended to give very concrete and directive advice. 

During a bone marrow replacement, Pam wanted a project to keep her mind off of the chemo. It was at about this time that Eva and I were remodeling the house. Pam was an architect, and decided to take on our remodel as something to keep her occupied in the hospital. Pam spoke for the house. Eva and I would talk about what we wanted out of the remodel, and Pam would speak of what “the house wanted.” Mainly, this consisted of making sure we weren’t doing terrible damage to the feel of the house. She always brought a certainty to the discussion, however, giving me a feeling that the house had some sort of spirit with which she was communing. Needless to say, the final design was both functional and beautiful, incorporating elements that a less creative architect would have said were not possible within the space limitations.

When Eva and I went off to Philadelphia, Pam was there with words of wisdom about couples moving for one partner’s career. When we started CubeSpace, Pam was available with advice, referrals and reality checks. After we opened, she took part in a multi-artist exhibition, displaying her fused glass. 

Pam was always full of ideas and projects. She was always heading off in some new direction. She was never daunted by barriers, and always sought ways around them. She kept more balls in the air than I could imagine. 

I will miss Pam’s energy and her wisdom. I will miss her presence. Her memory will be a blessing to all of us who knew her.

Length of Days

I’ve been thinking about the length of days in a lot of contexts recently. Whether it’s the length of daylight, the amount I can get done in a day, or the number of days allotted us before death, I seem to be encountering the issues.

I was driving home from Salem on Friday night last week, watching the last light disappear from the sky. It finally became dark enough that I couldn’t really tell that the sky was at all illumined by the sun at 10:10 PM. I came out of CubeSpace yesterday after closing, at 9:05 PM, and it was still really light. I haven’t opened CubeSpace in the dark in over a month. There is just tons more light in the day than there used to be. Yay, Light!
Somehow, the longer days aren’t resulting in me being able to achieve radically more. The number of hours in a day, and more importantly, the number of hours in a days when I can work effectively, seems to be about the same. Which is frustrating. I am getting a little more knitting done (I just finished the second sock of a pair that I’ve made for myself–pictures to follow), but in terms of real work, not as much is getting done as I would really like. So I’m going to try to step up the pace a little over the course of June, because over July and August, I suspect it will be more difficult to get work done, what with people being on vacation and all.

Finally, I’ve been doing a lot of funeral-type work this week. A funeral yesterday, memorial prayers tomorrow. Death has this way of focusing one on what really matters. Is it the day-to-day, or the big picture issues that matter more. Does it really matter if I get that phone call made, or should I spend a little more time with family? Unfortunately, in the longer-term, making the phone call may enable more time to be spent with family. Somehow, the simple comparisons never are.

I am increasingly aware of the fact that I am again. I was keeping track of a baseball game via the internet the other day, and I realized that the only player on the field who was my age or older was one of the pitcher…and that he was a knuckleballer (you can throw a knuckleball into your 50s–it’s a pitch that takes much more skill than athletic strength or stamina). Yet one more marker of my aging.

Yet as I age, I also feel myself becoming more competent and comfortable in who I am. My body may not be what it was when I was 25, but I’m happier with who I am.

Funeral for a Good Man

After last week’s sadness over the death of someone about to be 22, it’s almost a relief to be doing a funeral today for a 53 year old man. Most of the time, 53 seems very young. This week, a little less so.

I often find that I am doing funerals for someone I didn’t know. Most of the time, I have a little sadness of never having gotten to know this person who is being described to me so lovingly. Occasionally, I’m relieved never to have met a person who sounds like they were particularly difficult. And sometimes, I truly feel a loss of not having know the deceased. Today’s funeral is one of those. He would a truly good man, who made a difference in the world. He used a position as general manager to give people chances, to help them make good lives for themselves. He was a man almost out of another era, who believed in loyalty and integrity.

At times like this, I feel the loss a little more viscerally. A little more painfully, and a little more personally.

The eulogy is easier to write, because there is so much that is wonderful to say, but harder to deliver, because the sense of loss to the world is so palpable. Right now, I am between the writing and the delivery.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Funerals are among the most meaningful work I do. Usually not the easiest. Definitely not the most fun. But deeply meaningful and fulfilling. I always feel privileged to be let into a families feelings for there beloved who has departed. I am humbled to be allowed to speak the depth of their feelings for someone so important, though I did not know him. And I pray that I may be adequate to their trust.

Driving Through Life

Recently, I passed a significant milestone:

This imaged then morphed into:

Yep, 100,000 miles on the car. When we got the car, in October 2001, there were roughly 20,000 miles on it. A lot has changed since then.

That was the car I used to drive to my student congregation, Beth Abraham, in Bridgeton, NJ. I served them for two years, but the congregation no longer exists. It closed up shop about a year ago due to declining membership (which was mainly the result of the changing demographics of the community).

This is the car we drove to Blacksburg, VA to meet my first niece, and in which we again traveled to Blacksburg with my grandparents so they could meet their great-granddaughter.

I drove this car for the last three years of rabbinical school, as I progressed from a frustrated and often angry student into a much calmer and more spiritually centered rabbi. This was the car I used to get to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College for three years, and which my wife used to ferry my grandparents to my graduation (I think…I could be wrong about that). In this car I had many conversations with classmates as we drove to and from school, about hopes, about dreams and about disappointments.

When I graduated from rabbinical school, and we decided to move from Philadelphia to Portland, I drove the car cross-country. A 7 day reflective period of driving, watching the landscape (it may be the only cross-country drive I’ve done that didn’t include a stop at Wall Drug).

This is the car we used as we were setting up CubeSpace. Driving around town to look at potential locations, seeking out vendors for everything from phones to furniture to coffee.

Finally, this is the car I’ve used this year, going back and forth to Salem, where I’ve been serving a congregation.

Over the past 6.5 years, this car has driven me to more weddings than I can count, more funerals than I can clearly remember. I’ve sat in the car in the rain waiting for families to show up at the graveside. And I’ve hung out in car waiting for a couple to show up for a wedding rehearsal.

In the last few years, I’ve of course done some knitting in the car as well (not while driving). While Eva’s been driving, or while waiting in the car for something to happen; waiting to pick up someone.

As the car turned over to 100,000 miles, I was excited about the milestone. Now, thinking back two weeks to when it happened, I’m remembering all the miles it took to get there.

Talking about People

 Three times in the last week I’ve had the occasion to speak about people. During a wedding, I described the relationship between the couple: what made them special as a couple, and unique as individuals. During a funeral, I gave a eulogy, describing the life of the deceased and what gave meaning to his life. During a bar mitzvah, I described the special gifts of the young men, focusing on how those gifts may serve them and others in the future. In each case, at least one person came up afterwards and informed me that I’d gotten that description just perfect.

When someone tells me I’ve gotten that right, it feels great. I work hard to try to find the heart of the people I’m working with, and sometimes I’m not sure how well I’m succeeding. I see what I think is the important parts, but do others see them as important? Is it even a side of them that they show to people other than the rabbi? Almost always the answer is, “yes,” but I am nervous enough about it that I find it wonderful to be told I got it right.

What I love most about the process is the ability to reflect  back at people a vision of their loved ones. This is a vision which they recognize, but which highlights people’s best, and hopefully, most central qualities. I help all involved see the person or people I’m describing in a way that is both true and meaningful. I’ve captured the essence of the person, and put it into a context which makes that essence good and important. When I get it right, it is a powerful experience for all involved, especially including me.

What I’ve realized in the last week is that all three of these lifecycle events, wedding, funeral, bar mitzvah, are  fundamentally about love. Wedding is obviously about love of the couple for each other, but it is also about the love of those gathered for the couple. And that is the part of love that is present in all the events. A funeral is largely about the love of the survivors for the deceased (and of the deceased for the survivors). A bar mitzvah is about a family’s love for the young adult. Love tends to be the central aspect of lifecycle events, and part of why they are so much fun, so rewarding and so stressful.

On another topic entirely: Daylight Savings.
I feel like I’m really getting the first morning of daylight savings time experience. I got up this morning at 7 and it was still dark. A beautiful drive down to Salem. Pretty much clear skies, with an occasionally stunning view of Mount Hood in the distance. Very nice sunrise. As I got closer to Salem, there was some scattered low fog (really more like a ground hugging mist), until I was in Salem, and then hit some true fog. A very pretty morning.

I’m getting ready for a full day, teaching Sunday school, teaching adult Hebrew, meeting with some folks about a wedding. I definitely feel like there’s a little less pressure on my schedule now that the Bar Mitzvah is done.

I’m Toast

I’ve been running too hard the last week. Over the course of the weekend I led 2 shabbat services for the congregation, performed a marriage, taught Sunday school, had a ritual practices committee meeting, tutored folks for a bar mitzvah next week, conducted a funeral, led a shiva minyan and drove about 400 miles in the process. I’m tired.

On the other hand, I feel very fulfilled as a rabbi. This isn’t a pace I can keep up, but I feel like I’m really making a difference in people’s lives, which is why I became a rabbi.

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A photo of the driving this weekend, which for the most part was pretty bad. Lots of rain, some incredibly thick fog, lots of darkness. Have I mentioned I’m tired?