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Reading about Pawpaws

            A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to read one of my essays out loud to a Mutual Support Zoom for my synagogue. We’ve been doing these all year, as a way to keep each other company and to get to know our fellow congregants during Covid. We’re winding up the series now, since most of the regulars have been vaccinated and are returning, slowly, to in-person events, and this was my last chance to take a risk and add my voice to the mix.

“When do I get to talk?”

The theme of this particular Zoom was trees, probably the third or fourth on that theme, because with all of the time we’ve been spending at home for the past year nature has caught everyone’s attention more fully than before. People have been presenting photographs and quilts and poems on trees, and experts have been called in to speak about the science of trees and the care and feeding of trees. When I was asked if I had anything to contribute on the subject, I thought about my pawpaw trees. They have grown with me, and surprised me, and devastated me for a long time now, and I realized that this was something I wanted to share. It didn’t hurt that I had an essay ready to go, freshly rejected from various literary magazines.

“Harrumph.”

            I haven’t done a public reading of my work in a long time, and in the past, I have found them overwhelming. At the graduate reading for my MFA in Fiction I was so anxious that I started crying at the podium, which made it much harder to see the papers in front of me, though I made it through, eventually.

            This reading went a lot better than that one; maybe because it was a small group of familiar faces, or because in the intervening years I’ve had a lot of practice reading other people’s work out loud and teaching in front of a class. I don’t know. It was certainly helpful to have my pawpaw friends there to keep me company, in spirit. Whatever made the difference, this time I actually enjoyed reading my work to an audience. And I think I even did a good job of it (which, given my propensity to self-criticism is saying a lot).

            I don’t know where this leads me, but it felt like a big step forward, because it’s a sign that, maybe, despite all of my fears, I’m getting better at pursuing the things I love. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

“Yes!”

            So here’s the essay I read to those fifteen kind people. I hope you like it.

A Pawpaw Story

            Almost fourteen years ago now, I ordered a box of Pawpaws at a friend’s suggestion. They arrived in September, each fruit wrapped in newspaper because they are so fragile and easily bruised. Pawpaws are custardy sweet, and the flesh has to be eaten with a spoon, not peeled like an orange, or sliced like an apple, or bitten straight into like a strawberry. They are filled with a row of almond shaped seeds that you have to dig out, or suck on, to get the flesh that clings stubbornly to them. It’s work.  The Pawpaw season is very short and the fruit rots within days, so if you order a box (usually from Ohio) you need to eat them, or freeze them, fast.

             Some say pawpaws are too sweet, or too funny looking, or too smelly, but, I discovered, pawpaws are just right for me.

Pawpaw fruit (not my picture)

            We saved the seeds in the freezer, like the instructions said to do (pawpaw growers are, by their very nature, proselytizers), and at the end of the winter, Mom and I planted the seeds in big ceramic pots in the kitchen, next to the window sill, with the pots wrapped in scarves because there was still a bit of a chill left in the air. And then, like the Talmudic sages said the angels do for every blade of grass, I stood over the pots and whispered, “Grow, Grow.”

            And they did grow. The seedlings were tall, and full of personality, and five or six of them even survived long enough to be planted outdoors once the weather was warm enough. We kept them in their pots at first, though, so that they could come back inside if they needed to.

            Three, maybe four, survived the first year and grew into saplings, gradually growing taller, as their leaves extended out like shiny green fans. For years, their leaves paled to yellow in the fall, disappeared for the winter, and reappeared in the spring.

            We had to dig the three surviving trees up and replant them five years later, when we moved. And one suffered a horrible gardening accident when the maintenance men were working higher up on the retaining wall and tossing small trees downhill. But the other two Pawpaw trees survived, now carefully marked, and settled into their new surroundings. They continued to grow, year after year, getting taller, and healthier, but there was no fruit yet, not even a flower.

            We got impatient and ordered two new baby trees, because a Pawpaw expert told us we needed to have at least two trees in close proximity in order for fertilization to occur, and the two we had were too far apart. But the baby trees were crushed in the shipping process and never really recovered, though we watched over them hopefully for a season.

Finally, after eleven years, my two Pawpaw trees started to flower. The flowers were small, and a deep burgundy brown color, but pretty quickly they dried up and flew away, and the leaves turned yellow again and the trees went to sleep again for another winter.

            The following year, the flowers came back bigger and brighter, and there were more of them, and they were filled with enough powdery, sticky pollen that we were able to transfer it from the flowers of one tree to the flowers of the other, by Q-tip, and hope for fruit. A tiny cluster of baby fruit showed up a while later, and even though it only survived for a week, we were hopeful that maybe in another year, after another season of flowering, the trees would be ready to fruit for real.

A pawpaw flower

            Twelve years may seem too long to wait for a piece of fruit, but to me the wait was sort of the point.

            And then, about a month later, disaster struck, of the human kind. I was napping during the day, as I often do, and Mom was in the living room working on a quilt. Somehow she heard a sound over the thumping of the old sewing machine, maybe the crying out of a dying tree had a particular power. I heard a scream, and a door slam, and then my dogs came to get me, but they couldn’t tell me what was wrong. I waited, worried about that scream and the horror it foretold. I could only imagine the death and destruction, the multiple apocalyptic events held in that scream. When Mom finally returned, ringing the doorbell, because she’d forgotten her key, she told me that the new gardeners had killed one of the pawpaw trees, and she’d reached them just in time to save the second one.

I didn’t understand. The pawpaw trees were over fifteen feet tall by then, and no longer wearing the blue tape they’d worn years earlier to mark them as special, because after seven years on the property they didn’t seem at risk anymore. Mom said she’d had to drag the murdered Pawpaw tree into the woods herself, for burial. But, why? The gardeners told her that they’d had to cut everything back in order to mow the lawn in straight lines. But not a tree, she’d screamed at them, you could have trimmed some of the branches if they were in your way, but who cuts down a tree in order to mow a lawn?

            The violence of it felt real to me, not metaphorical. When I finally went outside, the stump of the dead tree stuck up out of the retaining wall, looking wet, almost bloody. Obscene.

            Within minutes, Mom was googling for advice. She wondered if we could re-plant the amputated branches, or order pollen from another pawpaw tree to be sent to us each year, in order to fertilize our lone tree and maybe, finally, produce fruit.

            But I sat still, undone, convinced that you can’t un-chop a tree.

            Weeks passed. We dressed the lone pawpaw tree in a colorful bowtie, to protect it from future gardeners, and I whispered to it daily, to keep it from dying of loneliness.

            And then Mom called me to look at something in the retaining wall, in the area of the dead tree stump. I thought maybe she would show me more of her re-growth experiments, expecting me to be excited and invested, when all I could feel was the deadness of everything. Instead, she showed me pawpaw leaves, living and breathing on two long stalks, half green and half brown, and wobbly from very recent growth, growing out of the dirt two feet from the dead stump. We had not planted new Pawpaw seeds, or even noticed any random Pawpaw trees planting themselves under the mass of other trees and bushes in the retaining wall, but there they were. It just seemed so unlikely, to me, that Pawpaw trees could have created themselves, without any help, just when we needed them most.

            I picked one of the leaves to bring over to the big Pawpaw tree to compare. But I still felt skeptical, because that’s my automatic response to most things. It can’t be true, especially if I want it to be true. Mom pointed out the unique quilting design on the leaves, unlike any other leaves nearby, and the shine on the baby leaves, which I’d seen many times myself when our Pawpaws came back to life each spring.

            A few days later, Mom went back to the same spot, to make sure the Pawpaw stalks were still there, and not just a mirage made out of grief, and she found another, much smaller, Pawpaw sapling, maybe just a few weeks old. And she kept going back, and searching more carefully, and finding more Pawpaws, sprouting everywhere like a tiny village growing from the roots of the seemingly, but not really, dead tree.

            And I had to accept that my skepticism, my pessimism, was wrong. Sometimes the things we want most really do happen; sometimes trees can re-create themselves. From the beginning, I thought that Mom and I would put in endless years of effort for no real reward, because that’s just the way of things. But there they were, a forest of pawpaws coming to life all around me, trying to tell me that trees are living things, and deep in their roots they are desperate to survive, just like us. And sometimes, despite everything, we grow.

The pawpaw tree in autumn.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

The New Year of the Trees

            On the evening of January 27th, 2021, and through the next day, Jews around the world will celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees. Historically, this was an agricultural festival celebrating the emergence of spring in the land of Israel. Here in the Unites States, where we’re still in the deep freeze, Jewish children will celebrate the holiday by eating fruits and nuts that grow in Israel (like olives, dates, grapes or raisins, figs, pomegranates, Etrogim (citrons), apples, walnuts, almonds, carob, and pears.)

“We’re Jewish children too!”

            When I was a kid in Jewish Day School, a platter of dried fruit and nuts was brought to each classroom, and it was the only time during the year that I would see actual carob, rather than carob chips masquerading as chocolate chips. The idea that we were brought food in our classrooms was meant to show us the specialness of the day (and it did! It really did!), because after Kindergarten the whole idea of snack time had disappeared as completely as nap time, and food in the classroom was verboten.

(a picture of a Tu Bishvat platter I found online)

This year, because of Covid, we won’t be able to share food in our synagogue school classrooms, or have our usual Tu Bishvat Seder in the synagogue, where we tend to celebrate by dipping dried fruit into a rapidly diminishing bowl of melted chocolate. Instead, this weekend, the kids at my synagogue will have a Zoom chocolate chip cookie baking lesson, and the adults will sing Tu Bishvat songs on mute and learn about the history of Jews and chocolate.

We won’t have synagogue school classes again before Tu Bishvat, so this past week I sent my students home with a list of fruit and nuts to choose from, and a copy of the two blessings they may want to say. The first blessing is a simple blessing over the fruit itself:

            Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree.

The second blessing is the shehechiyanu, a blessing we say whenever we experience something new, or newish. We say this blessing on Tu Bishvat if the fruit or nuts we choose to eat is something we’ve never had before, or haven’t had for a while. As a kid, this blessing was always said over the weird Carob thingy on the platter, which looked nothing like the carob chips in my trail mix.

(I found this online too, but I can’t remember how to eat it.)

But over time I’ve come to realize that the shehechiyanu blessing is much more interesting than it sounds, because it doesn’t just say thanks for this new thing. Instead, it says:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

So, it’s not just about celebrating the new thing; it’s about celebrating the fact that we survived long enough to experience this new thing. It allows us to acknowledge all of the work and suffering and fear and luck it has taken for us to get to this moment, and to bless all of it.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

We inaugurated a new president here in the United States this week, and even though the celebration was muted by Covid, and the threat of violence, the feeling of renewal and relief was palpable, and we could say a shehechiyanu for that too. We have so much recovering to do in the United States, and around the world, and most of us have had a hard time seeing anything to be thankful for lately. But the shehechiyanu blessing reminds me that everything we’ve been through to get here is part of the blessing of this moment.

It’s easy to celebrate new plants and trees and fruit when they come up in the spring, but what if we can also bless the planting of those seeds, and the turning of the soil, and the worry that nothing will grow, that comes before the spring?

I’m not a gardener, but my mother is, and this is the time of year when she starts looking through seed catalogs and sometimes starts new seedlings in biodegradable containers, so that they can begin to grow and build strength before the ground is warm enough to support them. This trust that spring will come, and the awareness that we have a role to play in planting the seeds, is part of the process of getting to spring.

One of Mom’s indoor seedlings

So, maybe this is exactly the right time for Tu Bishvat and the New Year of the Trees, here and in Israel and everywhere else. Maybe we can say the Shehechiyanu and bless the fact that we are planting our seeds, even in the winter, even with our fear and doubt still in place, because we choose to believe that, in time, something beautiful will grow.

“I’m ready to help. Again.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Nature Poetry

My rabbi adds poetry to Friday night services. Scratch that, he adds poetry to every service he leads, but the services we go to every week are on Friday nights. I am not really a poetry person. I wrote poetry and songs as a teenager, but I felt like I didn’t belong with the other poets. I wrote poems just to get the glitchy thoughts out of the corners of my mind, not to be profound. I just wanted to say what I meant without having to think about rhythm or rhyme, or “the right word,” or what was going to impress people. So much of the poetry I was told to admire was incomprehensible. I love Mark Doty’s prose, but we spent two hours in a graduate class trying to diagram one of his poems, and I still did not understand what he was getting at.

So it was a surprise to me when I realized that I looked forward to the poetry every Friday night. That’s not to say I love all of it, I don’t. But sometimes it says exactly what I needed to hear, that I didn’t know I needed to hear.

“Mmm poetry.”

The other night there was a poem from Yehuda Amichai, an Israeli poet, with the Hebrew version and the English translation both printed on the page. My Hebrew is clumsy, and if I’d tried to just read the poem in the original, it would have been a struggle. It was pretty and melancholy in the English, about the conflicted feeling of being in Jerusalem in 1967, where you expect joy and transcendence, and instead get grief and complication.

In the English the words were bland, plain, clear and practical, but in the Hebrew, the words themselves were onomatopoetic, they bounced. The Hebrew words were playful and full and carried some of those sprouts of joy that were missing from the plain meaning of the poem.

It wasn’t even one of the nature poems, intentionally. It was one of the “Israel is complicated” poems that we get every once in a while, because our rabbi does not believe in making everything nice and simple; he believes in seeing things as they are and still trying to have hope anyway. This is why he is my rabbi.

There was also a poem by Mary Oliver, called “What Gorgeous Thing,” about the beautiful, and incomprehensible, song of the bluebird in the morning. She describes it as “the only thing in the world that is without dark thoughts,” or at least seems so.

“Really?”

I keep thinking that I’ll go to the library and pick up a stack of poetry books and find poems that speak to me, but I never do. I often have to re-read a poem to really get it, even on a basic level (forget about depth, or historical references, or coded language, then I’m clueless). If I like the sound of the poem, or the image it leaves in my mind, or the feeling it creates in me, then I’m in.

It helps that someone else is reading the poem out loud and I’m not just stuck with how the words appear to me on the page. We have some very good readers at my synagogue who can bring out the rhythm or pacing of the language in a way that doesn’t occur to me on my own.

For sentimental reasons, I always like when a dog shows up in a poem, but most dogs make more sense as storytellers than as poets. Cats could be poets. Cats are terse, with a well-chosen gesture or expression saying everything that needs to be said.

A genius at work.

A poet at work.

Actually, I think Butterfly might be writing nature poetry all the time, but her medium is pee, and I am too human to understand it. She is a nature poem all by herself when she stands out in the yard listening to the birds and contemplating the world around her, and then she becomes two poems intertwined, when her sister jumps over her still, contemplating body, to catch a falling leaf before it hits the ground.

My nature poem!

A nature poem!

Cricket, a poem in process.

Searching for a poem…

There it is!

and there it is!

The Pop Up Camper

 

We used to go camping when I was a kid, instead of flying to Europe, or wherever the upper middle class kids I grew up with tended to go. At first we had a tent, a big blue tent that could have held a dozen people, but then my father got a deal on a pop up camper and that became our home away from home.

We stayed at campgrounds, with hundreds of other tents and pop ups and Recreational Vehicles. I’m sure there are people who go camping with no water or electricity hookup, alone in the wilderness, but that was never the kind of camping we did.

Parking the camper in our designated camp site was the kind of torture I wouldn’t wish on anyone. First my father had to back the camper in, with Mom standing outside the car to direct him more to the left or right, so the camper wouldn’t hit a tree. Then the camper had to be stopped in place with wooden blocks, and the car detached from the hitch and parked at a distance. Then we had to make sure the camper was level, with jacks at each wheel well to make up for the varying levels of the ground underneath.

I remember my father screaming at my mother, “The level isn’t straight!” even though I could see the little bubble was right in the middle where it was supposed to be.

Then we had to pop up the camper and snap in the door and attach the water and electricity and lift out the two wings for beds.

By the time we were done all my brother and I wanted to do was go home, but instead we all went out for dinner and then stumbled back to the camper to go to sleep.

Mom says that Delilah, our dog, slept on the floor of the camper at night, but I’m not sure she’s right about that. There were three beds set up, one for me, one for my brother and one for my parents, and it seems strange that Delilah would have been inside the camper with us and yet not sleeping on my bed, where she often slept at home, at my feet.

"We're going where?"

“We’re going where?”

"I'd rather drive than pull, just saying."

“I’d rather drive than pull, just saying.”

During the day, we hung a rope between two trees to attach Delilah’s leash to, so she could swoop along the length of that rope, with an extra six feet of leeway. She wasn’t much of a barker, but she looked intimidating to strangers, which was what my father was going for. She was a statuesque black and brown Doberman Pinscher, with the forced ears and snipped tail of a dog meant to fight. But she was a scaredy cat. If someone came to our house, she would bark, as required, but slowly back her way up the stairs and out of sight.

For the most part, there is a dog-shaped hole in my memories of camping.

I don’t think Delilah could have enjoyed camping. She was a home body by nature. She liked sleeping at the foot of my bed, exploring her backyard, and resting in a ray of sun for a nice long nap in the afternoon. She was also a fan of dinner time, when table scraps magically fell to the floor, where she was waiting.

"I'd like my dinner, and a pillow, and a couch of my own."

“I’d like my dinner, and a pillow, and a glass of Chardonay.”

She wasn’t used to being on a long lead, or even a leash for that matter, because we rarely took her for walks at home. We’d just let her out in the back yard, either in her private run, to poop and pee, or with us in the rest of the fenced in yard, to play.

Maybe Delilah came with us on the nature walks we took at the campground. Mom would take me and my brother out while our father grumbled to himself in the air conditioned camper. Sometimes we’d find wild strawberries or raspberries, sometimes we got lost in the woods, sometimes we saw mushrooms and met very old trees. The idea was to leave the people-world for a while and smell and hear and see different things. The air was cooler and the birds had more to say when they weren’t drowned out by the sounds of humans and cars.

"Time to smell the... what are these exactly?"

“Time to smell the… leaves?”

Delilah and my brother, waiting for snacks.

“My brother loves me, and he smells like peanut butter.”

The smells of the campground itself depended on the time of day. In the morning there was often the pervasive smell of bacon. In the heat of the day the air smelled of plastic, and freshly cut grass, and chlorine from the swimming pool nearby. Towards evening there were campfires, with baking potatoes and hot dogs and marshmallows on sticks.

I liked the sound of rain on the canvas of the camper more than the sound of the rain on the hard plastic roof; splotch was more comforting than plink. And I loved the wet dirt smell of the rain hitting the trees around us.

I’ve tried to imagine taking Cricket and Butterfly camping. We could never use a tent, because no tent would hold Cricket. She’d be busting out of the sides and digging through the fabric of the tent to freedom (you should see what she’s done to my sheets). It would also be a good idea to have more sound baffling than a tent could provide.

I could also never leave them tied to a rope outdoors, the way we left Delilah. I would be very worried about someone coming by to steal my babies, or at least trying to steal them, and suing me when Cricket ripped off a few fingers during the attempt.

And I could never leave the girls alone in the camper. Butterfly would pee on the bed, and Cricket would scratch the door down, or chew through the canvas walls.

The girls wouldn’t mind a campfire, though. And bacon for breakfast would be their idea of heaven.

I wonder what Delilah would have thought of Cricket and Butterfly. I think she would have been protective of them, the way she was with her own puppies. Maybe she could have kept Cricket in line, with a look, or a growl, to get her to quiet down.

Cricket, in need of much training.

Cricket, in need of much training.

And she and Butterfly would have snuggled together for warmth, with Cricket harrumphing from a safe distance.

I could have found room for all three dogs on my bed in the camper, and maybe that’s what would have made me feel safe. I was usually so lonely on those trips, with no idea what to do on my own, and my brother only reluctantly spending time with me.

Maybe if I could fill all of the beds in the camper with dogs, instead of people…I’d be willing to go camping again. But probably not.

The campers!

The campers!