12 December 2010

Prayer + change

I've got a post in progress -- current contemplations can be found in the comments on Velveteen Rabbi's latest blogpost: http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2010/12/prayer-life-changes.html#comments

What I said:

Wow -- a lot going on here, and thanks for saying it.
After becoming more traditionally observant & engaged in Jewish life in my mid-twenties, davening with the traditional liturgy on Shabbat + holidays has been the backbone of my prayer practice, with daily prayer more an aspiration more than a reality. When I took up a job downtown a few years ago, I made a choice to try to turn my weekday early-morning commuter walk into prayer time. Cue the joke about asking whether you can smoke while praying vs. whether you can pray while smoking: for me, it wasn't a choice between praying at home vs. on-the-go, but between praying en route & not praying this part of the liturgy at all. (There's a version of the joke at http://snipurl.com/1mrli6 if you haven't heard it before...)
I could usually manage a greatest-hits version of the Birkot Ha-Shachar/morning blessings through the Shema between my house and the nearest metro stop: if I timed it right, I'd emerge from a pedestrian path to glimpse other walkers streaming down Connecticut Ave. right as I reached the mention of bringing us in peace from the four corners of the earth, which seemed entirely appropriate -- from our individual homes, lives, backgrounds into the community of city life. Although I'd sometimes pray part of the liturgy on the subway (particularly if there were something special/longer to add, like Hallel), it seemed wrongly cut off from the rest of the natural world to do so -- I would usually wait until I was at least walking up the escalator to emerge into the light, and then pick up where I had left off, to cover the Amidah + at least Aleinu, maybe the psalm of the day or another bit here & there before I reached the office door. I might manage the full weekday Amidah text if I consulted my bitty black pocket siddur (picked up at a used bookstore in Prague or Budapest a dozen years ago); if not, my mental or mumbled version would settle for highlights (bookends of start & ending are easy, familiar from the Shabbat/holiday liturgy) and half-remembered sections or personal meditations/supplications on the weekday themes. The prayers for the sick always made it in: a different formulation from the communal mi-shebeirach on Shabbat but the same names I recited week after week -- until suddenly they weren't. You want for names to disappear from the list because the person has recovered. That's not always what happens -- the shock of the rhythm disrupted when a 39-year-old professor, friend, father of young boys succumbs to cancer and his name falls from my morning list, replaced by thoughts of those he's left behind.
Something about the morning commute worked well for me--starting the day right, fresh, focused on thanks and tasks, who I am (made in Your image) and what my role should be (loving peace and pursuing peace). Sure, every now & again I'd manage to daven mincha or ma'ariv, the afternoon or evening prayers, on my way home (depending on time of year, my return journey might be before or after sunset) -- mostly if I found myself without another distraction (reading or iPod) and realized I could launch into Ashrei rather than just stare at the subway walls. But mainly morning. And that was something new. And that was a start; that was enough.
And then -- things changed. One July morning, no commute -- my in-laws sleeping in the living room hear a stirring and ask if it's time for me to head to work: no, but it is time for labor. When I come home from the hospital with baby two days later, morning and evening have already given way to the blur of smaller cycles: feed baby, soothe baby, try to catch some sleep; lather, rinse, repeat. I am exhausted; our sleepy baby is not regaining her birth weight. Prayer is internal and instinctive, barely verbal, certainly not liturgical. Please let her be all right. Please let me get through this. (But perhaps not so far from the tradition, either: Moses's terseness in praying for his sister Miriam -- El na, r'fah na lah/Please, God, heal her.) When the pediatrician prescribes a nighttime break so that I can get more than 2 hours of continuous sleep, morning regains meaning: it's the time when I come downstairs and my husband, who has fed baby her bottle and settled her back to sleep in the Amby hammock in the living room, can sleep upstairs on a bed instead of the sofa where he's sacked out post-feeding. When the sun rises and I carry baby back and forth to soothe her, or wear her on a sling against my body. I sing: sometimes the words are from the liturgy or the psalms, sometimes children's rhymes, sometimes lyrics from music that won't make sense until she's much much older (Elvis Costello, anyone?). I cry, overwhelmed by emotion and sleep deprivation: she is so tiny and precious, so helpless yet demanding, such a source of joy and of fatigue. The singing and the crying are not: one happy, the other sad -- either one can be either, or both, or something in a space beyond either. In the stifling heat of a DC summer, I watch the day wax and wane through the windows of the air-conditioned living room: the thermometer hovers around one hundred as I realize I have not been outside in three days. I remember now stepping out onto the flagstone porch in my white silk tallit, outside for the first time that day even though it is no longer morning. I cannot tell you for certain whether it was Shabbat or a weekday, whether baby was one week old, or two, or four -- or whether she was not even born yet, this memory an afterimage mapped onto the right space from a different time, where davening outside on that porch by myself didn't mean keeping an ear open for a cry from just inside the French doors that would call me back to her.
We move to a new house. She is six weeks old. I go back to work. She is eight weeks old. I work from home two days a week, commute in two days... then two-and-a-half...then three. Davening on the morning commute doesn't so much happen -- but the pattern of snatching weekday prayer time from the midst of some other activity persists. In the early morning when baby wakes me, I bring her downstairs for changing, feeding, playing -- and sometimes, I drape my tallit over my pajamas and clip my kippah to my unwashed new-mommy hair and daven. I sing all the parts of the liturgy that have good tunes, to keep baby entertained; I carry her in my arms and bounce her around and dance. I balance a siddur on the top of the TV set so I can catch some of the text I've forgotten but keep it out of baby's reach. She fusses, and I sit down to curl her up in my lap, the silk of the tallit forming a curtain as she nurses. Mah tovu ohalecha -- how goodly are your tents...
(There's more I have in mind to say, particularly about Shabbat/holiday/communal prayer at this stage in my life, but as the better is the enemy of the good, I'm going to post this now. Shavua tov!)

[Comment 2/18/14 - just read this post by Ilana Kurshan, "Confessions of the Tehillim Lady: Further Reflections on Learning How to Pray"- which certainly resonates w/ my experiences, both re: davening on-the-go as described above pre-baby, and also re: davening-on-the-go e.g. with stroller post-baby, either walking around the neighborhood in early mornings when she was little so as not to just be stuck in the house as the only ones awake for several hours, or say walking to shul on Tired Parents' Schedule = might be getting there later on, so do some Greatest Hits of the part you'll be missing before you get there. Her baby brother is due within the next three days [Fri 2/21] so we'll see where things go from here!]

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