What Are the Chances?

It was just too gorgeous to go inside. Dinner had to be made. We’d been gone the whole day and there now were things to be done. But some wiser hand stayed my adult impulses. I grabbed a rake and began clearing the lawn. Once again. It was beautiful. Late afternoon sun shone through the maple leaves surrounding me in golden light.  A woman walked by.

“Isn’t it totally glorious?” I exclaimed.  She removed her earbuds and agreed.  We stood for a moment rapt with delight and wonder. The door to conversation magic swung softly open. We shared a spark of connection. A few more sentences and the Jewdar clicked in.  It’s like gaydar but Jewish.

She, let’s call her Z., told me the following story:

“I was at a community gathering.  The crowd was breaking up. The men in the group were bidding farewell to a man in the group who, by his dress, was an Orthodox Jew. ‘See you tomorrow,” each one said to the rabbi in parting.

“I approached the rabbi, curious about the references to the next day’s gathering. ‘Excuse me,Rabbi. I am not [particularly learned] but I know that tomorrow isn’t a holiday. What’s happening tomorrow?’

“He told me about a program called Partners in Torah, told me I would love it and that he had a partner [a woman] for me to study with.” Z, recalled her resistance to the whole idea. She was busy; she wasn’t sure she could make it the next day; please don’t have the person you have in mind for me to study with commit because she might not show up.  The rabbi listened and then, I imagine with a knowing smile, gave her his card.

When she got home, her older son was in the throes of a mild rebellion. “I’m not going back to Hebrew school!  It’s meaningless. I  have better things to do.  Besides. I had my Bar Mitzvah. The Jewish community already considers me a man. Men can decide for themselves what’s important.”

Z. began to entertain the thought that something larger was at work.  “It’s important to both Dad and me that you complete Hebrew school through your senior year. I’ll tell you what. You continue your schooling and I’ll let you pick a class for me to attend.”  I’ll give you one guess which class her son found for his mom to attend.  Z.’s study partner became a fast friend and teacher. Over the next few years, their weekly Torah study took them to places of deep intellectual and emotional engagement with the text and with one another.

One week, a challenge arose when Z.’s Torah partner said, ‘There are no superfluous words in Torah.’ The two had been studying Leviticus — lots of laws about sacrifices and other messy entanglements with bodily fluids, human and animal. “OK,” Z. said. “Let’s do an experiment.  I’m going to close your book [the copy of the copy of the Torah she was reading from.] Spin it and when it stops spinning, open it and point to any three words in the text. We’ll see if the three words you point to are necessary or not.”

The book opened to the Akeida, the story of the binding of Isaac. What are the chances it would have opened to this horrifying and eternally inexplicable scene?  They read the sentence, “A ram was caught in the thicket by its horns.”

“I said to her, ‘You see? Three unnecessary words. Why do we need to know the ram was caught by its horns? The text could have just as well told us the ram was caught in the thicket.  Period. Done. If there are no extra words in the Torah, why the words ‘by its horns?’ She didn’t have an answer for me. I gestured toward the shelves in her husband’s book-lined study.  ‘In which book does it say by its horns is a necessary description.’ “

Mind you, I am retelling this as well as I can. I was so caught up in Z.’s story, I know that I am missing some details. I don’t have Z.’s phone number nor her email. I am honoring her request to remain anonymous. Here’s what happened next:

“So we made a deal. We turn back to Leviticus. The deal was the first sentence we would come to would have to prove the necessity of the phrase we read in Genesis — ‘by its horns.’ ”  I began to get the shivers as Z, continued. “We flipped back to Leviticus and read ‘an unbelmished animal.’ Sacrificial animals had to have perfect bodily intergrity. No illness, no cuts or abrasions on skin that would have bled or left the animal actively bleeding.

As Z. spoke, I experienced the electricity of their moment of study and revelation.  What were the chances of these two texts being chosen at random — one a horrific enigma, the other an impeccable response. “The ram had to be caught by its horns,” she said.  “If the ram was to be a sacrifice in Isaac’s place, then by virtue of Leviticus, it had to be unblemished. Had it been caught in the thicket by anything but its horns, the ram’s hide would have been gouged. It would have bled, making it unfit for sacrifice.”

We read the Akeidah each Rosh Hashanah as well as in its rotation of weekly Torah portions. Z.’s story had shone a new light upon an eternallly troubling text. There are those who say Abraham failed God’s test, that the intention was never for Isaac to be sacrificed. Others say this teaches we are to have faith in God no matter what. I’ve always gone with the explanation that God was teaching Abraham that child sacrifice, though a common practice at the time, was henceforth never to be done by Abraham and his descendents. Child sacrifice was simply wrong.

Writing these words, a new thought comes to me. Was Isaac blemished in some way? He is portrayed in Torah as a pretty passive kind of guy. Perhaps his blemish was a scarred soul. He may have physically survived the experience; we can only imagine what it did to his spirit, not to mention his relationship with his father. The text can be interpreted to tell us that father and son never spoke again.

Z’s story ended on a bittersweet note. Cancer claimed her study partner not even a decade after they met. But she  lives on in my friend’s heart.  Their learning and discovery forever erected a three-word bridge spanning from the Akeidah to the book of Leviticus. Every year when this Torah portion is read, Z. remembers that day of learning in the book-lined study. And now, though I was only present in the retelling of it, I shall remember it too.  I’m so glad I listened to that little voice urging me to stay outside in the golden glow of the afternoon sun. What are the chances?

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How Was Your Trip?

Fabulous. Amazing. Wonderful. I’m not given to sports analogies, but Martin knocked it out of the park. And then some. I won’t give you a day by day description, but will offer somewhat ordered stream-of-conscious impressions and memories. In the Bookshelf, Martin mentioned Firebird Tours who provided the tour.  They get huge shouts out from me as well. This was our third attempt to take a trip that had been in the planning since early 2019.  They went above and beyond; every staff member responded to our concerns patiently and with good information. I cannot recommend Firebird highly enough.

Traveling during a pandemic
What was planned for a spring 2020 40th anniversary celebration finally happened in the fall of 2021.  There was a lull in Covid cases. Italy’s vax stats were much better than those in the U.S. We set off with some trepidation and yet once we arrived we felt more at ease than in the States. Entry into the country required proof of two vaccinations and negative Covid test results no more than 72 hours before arrival. Proof of vaccinations were requested in restaurants, shops, and museums. In addition to verifying our vax status, the hotels also took a quick temp check before we could register. Mask compliance inside any building  was universal.

The Vibe
Everywhere we went, we were thanked for coming to Italy. The country was hit hard, fast, and early in the pandemic. Tourism evaporated. During our three weeks, we encountered no other Americans save for those on our trip and two couples in Como.  As I write today, the overseas travel situation has changed. We hit a sweet spot for which we are eternally grateful.

Language was no barrier. Everyone spoke English and with my French and Spanish I was able to decode what was written.  I could understand directions, order in restaurants and even make out bits and pieces of conversations. My attempts at speaking Italian were appreciated even when I guessed at a cognate from French or Spanish. One of our guides complemented my Italian accent, saying that most Americans she encountered couldn’t manage it. Made me feel like a million Euros.

The Weather
All I can say is that is was flawless. Sunny nearly every day. Two hours of rain one day. Warm to cool needing only a sweater. Perfetto!

The People
Italians are delightful. When they speak it sounds like champagne bubbles. They are warm, welcoming, and their  joie de vivre is contagious. We clicked nearly immediately with one couple on the tour. Randy and Katrina, who were close to our ages, were on their honeymoon. They were as enthusiastic about walking and exploring as we were. Enjoyment is always multiplied when shared with others and the two of them added so very much to our experience.

The Trains
Like the hotels, the trains were first class. Never crowded, complimentary treats (sweet, savory, and wine if you like), and fast! My ears popped a time or two. If only we could do this in America.


Quiet time on the train.

What a delightful way to travel!


Read on — How Was the Food?

Photos courtesy of Martin Darvick



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How Do You Wrap Up Your Day?

Since Covid’s first spring, a group of women and I have been meeting for study, meditation and conversation. Last week, one of our members said something about wrapping up her day and how she tries to pay attention to how she does it.

I thought it was such a wonderful phrase: “wrapping up one’s day.” Do I have a practice of doing this? Not really. Before Martin and I say goodnight, we sometimes review the day. Or go over the next day’s plans. Some families go around the dinner table and offer up a rose and a thorn, ie something good and something less than stellar that happened during the day. But that’s not exactly the same as wrapping the day up, sifting through one’s day to review its entire contents. And then after the sifting there is the considering, the measuring, the assigning of gratitude and regret, perhaps remembering a close call or even a spirit-lifting surprise.

Do you have a ritual to wrap up your day? What is it?  How did it come about?  I’m thinking maybe I could wrap up my day while I am brushing my teeth, linking a new intention to a lifelong habit.  I’ll let you know how it goes.


photo courtesy of Martin Darvick



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A Conversation With My Younger Self

I was nine or so when this photo was taken. The girl that was me looks into the camera a bit peevishly. I’d likely readied myself for bed and was reading before lights out.  My mom had bathed and put my sisters to bed. Seeing me in my room as she left theirs, she probably went for her camera. She would have asked me to look up, wanting to capture the sweetness of of the moment and her bookish daughter’s face in the lamplight. The moment I saw this photo I remembered the nightgown. It was made of a cotton that was not too soft nor too starchy. For some reasons the apples were pale blue, not red.

What would this girl think if we were to meet? Would she want to play a game of Scrabble for old times’ sake? I’d gladly share my great new set of Crayolas with her. She’d want to trade me periwinkle for cerulean. I’d trade her magenta for red violet.  She’d probably thank me for still liking licorice, dancing in the rain and jumping in leaf piles. She loved to do that when her father raked fallen oak leaves each fall. What would she think about having become an author?

She might well envy me that my hair is long enough to braid.  Back then it was the pageboy or a pixie; she settled for the pageboy and wouldn’t get to grow her hair out for another few years. “Thank you for taking me to Paris,” she might say.  “But I didn’t care much for the running of the bulls. The bullfights were gory and oddly mesmerizing.” Yep, she knew words like that back then. “I loved hiking in the red rocks and I love those red cowboy boots; you should wear them more often. Be sure I get to have some pretty dresses, OK?” Our mother bought her wonderful dresses. I wish I had pictures of some of them. Around this age Mom bought her two dresses for a wedding in Florida. One was a long-sleeved A-line in a white taffeta strewn with flowers, akin to a Gucci print. The other dress was cut like a smock, long sleeves gathered at the wrist and shoulders. It was made of moss-green sateen printed with rose and blush colored peonies. I bet she’d be surprised that I still have Godfrey, the little plush monkey our parents bought her when she was four. Maybe she’s glad she got frozen here in time, a book in hand with several years to go before her family fell apart.

I’m glad I found this photo. I keep it on my desk where I can look at her, smile and take in her expression of indulgence and patience. “I love you,” I tell her. Sometimes, in the quiet, if I wait long enough I hear her reply, “I love you, too.”

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But Isn’t Today Beautiful?

How many times have you heard someone say, “Well, tomorrow is supposed to be beautiful.”?  Maybe the sky’s grey. Or it’s raining buckets. Or the mercury plunged unexpectedly. I heard that phrase last week felt sad on behalf of the day at hand for having been summarily dismissed because it wasn’t living up to someone’s idea of a beautiful day. And what if tomorrow isn’t “beautiful”? Will it get dismissed too?

There are plenty of days that are truly ugly, horrific and filled with terror, grief and fury. I’m not denying life here. I’m merely suggesting that when those oh-so-easy words of dismissal begin to form, we take a moment and find beauty. Today.  On this day. If we’ve been given the gift of breath today, surely we can discover something beautiful and proclaim it.


And now something else to share.

I had a poignant upsetting experience yesterday that has stayed with me.

Martin and I were out for a walk when we came upon a baby robin that had fallen from its next. But it wasn’t a robin yet. It was a bird-to-be: wet, cupped in its turquoise halfshell, eyes sealed behind dark grey lids, bony wings plastered to its side. Its beak was a good half an inch long.

I stood rooted in place and began searching for something to scoop it to the grass edging the sidewalk. And then I saw its tiny chest pulsing.  The birdling was alive. What was I supposed to do now? Surely its mother wasn’t coming for it and even if she did, for what? Other than mourning?

I couldn’t bury it. It was alive. I didn’t want it to be stepped on, either. I grabbed a couple of sticks for a makeshift travois and scooped it onto the grass. Its beak opened in silent protest or perhaps pain. The life of this pitiful near-bird was ebbing before my eyes. Maneuvering  it onto the grass I placed a curved piece of bark over it hoping it would stay undiscovered. I placed a small stone upon the bark. “You held God’s breath for such a short time, little bird.” We resumed our walk but it felt terrible to leave it dying alone. 

Don’t ask me why I went through such motions . I just had to do something to mark the bird’s brief time on a sun-baked sidewalk in a random midwest neighborhood on this third rock from the sun.


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